The count was 2-2, no runners on, two outs in the ninth. Sacramento left-handed reliever Steven Okert twirled a breaking ball toward the outside corner against Columbus right-handed batter Mark Mathias, who swung through the pitch. Sacramento River Cats 4, Columbus Clippers 0. The crowd at Memphis’ AutoZone Park cheered as Giants farmhands gathered around the mound to celebrate winning the Triple-A National Championship. The date was Sept. 17, 2019.
Since then, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Minor League stadiums have served as alternate training sites, outdoor restaurants, movie theaters, socially distanced office spaces, Airbnbs and any other creative ideas under the sun other than their original intents as hosts of Minor League games.
That changes today.
May 4, 2021 is Minor League Opening Day. It feels as good to type as it does to read. Minor League Baseball has finally returned, and if all goes according to plan, won’t be gone from us again until late September.
Following Minor League Baseball is much like riding a bike. You know exactly what to do when the moment comes. But to make things a little easier -- and with so much change afoot since that last Okert strikeout -- two of our experts have combined to present fans with a guide to the first day of Minor League Baseball from coast to coast.
12 p.m. ET -- Take the morning to yourself. Eat a hearty breakfast. (Do hot dogs count as breakfast?) Get caffeinated. There's a lot to do today. We'll start here at noon with getting your technology right.
First things first, make sure you have MiLB.TV. With stadiums still at limited capacity, it's a great way to watch your favorite Minor League teams, and the service has never been better. By subscribing, you'll get access to more than 5,000 games this season, and you can catch up on any games you missed on-demand. (Perfect for the armchair scout.) Ninety percent of the streams will be available in high definition, making it feel like you're in the ballpark even when you're not. Also, be sure to download the First Pitch app to watch games on your Apple or Android device. You can also follow scores and news for all 120 full-season teams from that app, so it'll be handy all season long.
Speaking of downloading, head over to The Show Before the Show podcast and grab this year's edition of the Opening Day Megacast. Hosts Tyler Maun, Sam Dykstra and Benjamin Hill detail what the return of Minor League Baseball means, and they're joined by Josh Jackson and Kelsie Heneghan to predict what will come for some of the game's best prospects.
As you listen, make sure you follow Minor League Baseball on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok to keep up with the latest happenings on social media. Twitter will be especially important to enter the Stouffer's #MiLBisHAPPYFUL sweepstakes:
2 p.m. -- Phew, that was a lot of tech. Time to get some reading in.
The Minor League Baseball landscape has always been characterized by change, but the modifications that took place prior to the start of the 2021 season were truly seismic. There are now 120 teams, down from 160, competing in 11 newly named leagues comprised of four levels of play. If you need to get up to speed -- and, let’s face it, you probably do -- we’ve got you covered.
MLB Pipeline’s Jonathan Mayo provides a helpful overview of the new Minors’ structure, featuring a list of each Major League team’s affiliates as well as information on complex leagues and the four independent partner leagues. From the Triple-A East to the Low-A West, detailed league breakdowns can be found via MiLB.com’s Get to Know... series. Similarly, Ben’s league-by-league Fun Facts series provides unique and often strange facts about every Minor League team. Also, be sure to recall the unique rule changes coming to each level this summer.
Amid all these alterations, the 2021 season features six ballpark openings, seven new team identities and three previously independent teams now in the affiliated mix. A recap of these key changes can be found here, which might get you thinking about planning your own ballpark road trip. Visit the MiLB.com tickets map to plot your journey, and check out Ben’s accounts of his many Minor League road trips for further inspiration and information.
And before we forget, check out the details of this year's Copa de la Diversión, which has been relaunched with new teams and identities. Find your favorites, whether it be your hometown team or a fun logo from a club across the country.
4 p.m. ET -- The hour is drawing near! Time for some final preparations.
The Minor League Opening Day landing page is a one-stop shop just for the occasion. See which Minor League team is closest to your county on our new nationwide map. Dive into the schedule to prepare yourself beyond today. Catch a closer view of the newest stadiums of the Minor League landscape. Study up on the new affiliations. There will be a quiz later, and that quiz is the entire Minor League regular season.
Which just so happens to start at...
6 p.m. ET -- And we're off! The first of the evening's 55 games are scheduled to begin now, and we're starting with a few doozies. The Blue Jays put Top 100 prospects Austin Martin and Jordan Groshans with Double-A New Hampshire, and the Fisher Cats just happen to be playing one of the early games at Portland.
The even bigger draw may come at Altoona, where 2019 first overall pick Adley Rutschman will make his Double-A debut with Bowie. The switch-hitting catcher earns plus grades for his hit, power, glove and arm tools and should be a must-watch on MiLB.TV, as he will be at this time Tuesday.
Five minutes after Rutschman takes the field, it's time for a premiere of a different sort. Fort Myers kicks off its season on the road vs. the Bradenton Marauders, marking the debut of their Mighty Mussels identity. The Low-A Minnesota affiliate, formerly known as the Fort Myers Miracle, adopted this alliterative moniker as a tribute to healthy lifestyles and local aquaculture.
7 p.m. ET -- Six new Minor League ballparks are slated to debut this season. Only one of them opens tonight: Atrium Health Ballpark, home of the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers. The Cannon Ballers -- formerly known as the Intimidators -- are hosting the Down East Wood Ducks in the first game at this downtown Kannapolis facility.
The Worcester Red Sox -- WooSox, for short -- will also be playing in a new ballpark this season (their first in Worcester after relocating from Pawtucket). The WooSox begin their on-field existence on the road in Trenton, taking on a Thunder team that is, in actually, the Buffalo Bisons. In a nutshell: The Bisons are unable to play in Buffalo this season, as their home of Sahlen Field is being utilized by the parent Toronto Blue Jays. The Bisons will play their home games in Trenton, where they will use the Thunder moniker. On the road, they'll suit up as the Bisons.
The Trenton Thunder were formerly the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. That role now belongs to the Somerset Patriots, who previously operated in the independent Atlantic League. The Patriots play their first game as members of the Yankees family at 7:05, hosting the Harrisburg Senators.
For more information regarding these exciting (and often confusing scenarios), check out The Show Before the Show once more. Recent guests have included Kannapolis Cannon Ballers general manager Matt Millward and Trenton Thunder general manager and COO Jeff Hurley.
7:35 p.m. ET -- The St. Paul Saints make their debut as Minnesota's Triple-A affiliate on the road vs. the Omaha Storm Chasers. The Saints, originally established as an irreverent alternative to the nearby Twins, now offer the shortest distance between affiliate and parent club in all of Minor League Baseball.
Moving down one rung on Minnesota's Minor League ladder, we find the Double-A Wichita Wind Surge. The Wind Surge, the only Minor League club based in the state of Kansas, will play at brand-new Riverfront Stadium this season. The team, which relocated from New Orleans following the 2019 season, opens up its debut campaign on the road against the Springfield Cardinals.
7:45 p.m. ET -- Keep that mouse button moving over to Durham-Memphis. Sure, it's a rematch of the 2017 and 2018 Triple-A National Championship Games. But that contest will be even more notable because it will include the Triple-A debut of top overall prospect Wander Franco. The Rays shortstop has an 80-grade hit tool as a switch-hitter and can impact any game with his bat, no matter the level. Even though he's only 20 years old, Franco might not be with the Bulls long, so catch him while you can at the Minors' top level.
8:05 p.m. ET -- Fans attending the Tulsa Drillers' home opener at ONEOK Field will be treated to a stunning new backdrop: a massive mural of Jackie Robinson painted on a building overlooking left field. This mural is tied in with a much larger city-wide effort to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which took place in the Greenwood District neighborhood that the Drillers now call home. During tonight's game against Amarillo, and continuing through every home game in May, the Drillers will wear Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial uniform patches.
Five minutes after Tulsa gets going, No. 7 overall prospect Bobby Witt Jr. will make his full-season debut with Double-A Northwest Arkansas at Arkansas on MiLB.TV. The Royals shortstop has never technically played above the Rookie-level Arizona League in the regular season, but he showed true five-tool potential at last year's alternate training site and this year's Major League Spring Training camp. His first hacks at Double-A will be worth seeing for yourself.
9:35 p.m. ET -- MLB Pipeline named Mariners High-A affiliate Everett as the second-most loaded Minor League roster coming into the 2021 season -- Franco's Durham took the top spot -- and that depth of prospect talent will be on display around now on MiLB.TV as the AquaSox visit Hillsboro. No. 5 overall prospect Julio Rodríguez is the main draw here, thanks to his easy plus power and impressive hit tool from the right side. Rodríguez ended 2019 at the same level and could be in position to destroy High-A pitching in his return to full-season ball. Watch out for the tape-measure shots.
10:05 p.m. ET -- Two final options in Low-A West to close out your day. Might we suggest one last Mariners prospect before the night is out? No. 94 overall prospect Noelvi Marte is scheduled to make his full-season debut with Low-A Modesto on MiLB.TV. The 19-year-old shortstop can run, hit for power and showcase an above-average arm from the infield. He could shoot up the rankings with more experience in 2021, so this is the best opportunity to catch him early.
Wednesday, 1 a.m. ET -- Right about now, the final Opening Day contests should just about be coming to a close. Fifty-five games (weather pending) all in a single day.
Have you had your fill yet? Of course not. This is just the beginning. Let's do this every day until late September, and never, ever, ever go this long without Minor League Baseball again.