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A Fan's Guide to the Midwest League

Introduction

The Midwest League (MWL) plays professional baseball in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and (beginning in 2010) Kentucky. It has sixteen teams, each of which has a player development contract (PDC) with a major league team. The players are young (typically about 21), are paid (only barely) by the big league club which owns their contract, are usually in their second or third professional season, and aspire to play big league baseball. Most of them won't make it, but it's too early to tell which ones will fail.


Don't ask: "Do you expect to make it to the pros?" They're already professionals, and may take exception to the question. Better to ask when they expect to make The Show.


Prospects

Every player in the league is a prospect. He's under contract to a major league team. Some scout spotted him, and the scout convinced a major league general manager that the kid has a shot at the big team. One way to watch this league is to watch the players, trying to see what the scout saw. Sometimes it's really obvious. Sometimes I can't see it. Usually I figure it out, but it might take the whole series to discover.


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MWL Fan's Guide

They're really young. For many, it's their first full year as a professional; they're away from home, learning who they are and what they can do. They look terrible sometimes, all of them. They look terrific sometimes. All of them.

They're really young. They're playing in Geneva, or Dayton, or Cedar Rapids, because the Athletics, or the Reds, or the Angels, think there's a chance they'll learn to play ball at the major league level. Sometimes you'll think so too. Other times you'll wonder why they don't fix obvious flaws in their swings, why they can't throw strikes with the game on the line, why the defense never adjusts when batters change, why they throw to the wrong base, why they miss the coach's clear signals.

They're really young. Nearly every game, each team will have an inning where some player's forgotten every skill he possesses and every grace the Lord bestowed upon him. Then the second baseman will convert a sure double into a double play. Baseball's a mystery. The players can do astonishing things. The crowd cheers, and takes memories home.

They're really young. If you attend several games over the season, you'll see that the teams get better as the season passes. They're here to learn. It's an early stop in their career. Next year they'll be in Dunedin, or Modesto, or Memphis. Next year will bring a new team to your park, and fresh mysteries, and daily joys.


The Midwest League

The Midwest League consists of 16 teams, divided into two divisions. The season is 140 games and each team plays about three quarters of those games within its division.


The league plays a split season; each division's half-season winners and the runners-up contest a post-season championship playoff. The season begins in early April, shortly after the big league openers, and the regular season ends on Labor Day weekend. Many of the teams average more than 2,000 spectators per game, which is excellent attendance by minor league standards; Dayton and Kane County (Geneva, Illinois) routinely draw better than many Triple-A teams.

One purpose of the Midwest League is to teach players how to play baseball daily, for a whole summer, at a professional level. Winning matters, but player development matters more. This sometimes shows in big ways: Players get promoted to better leagues, for instance, often weakening the team they leave (but sometimes their replacements develop into stars). It also shows in small ways: Game strategies are often tuned to establishing good habits, rather than winning. This can be exasperating, but it's not really "fixable". The folks making the decisions have a different perspective from mere fans. I can't say they're wrong--but we don't have to like it.

Winning does matter. The teams are playing for real championships and the players for the season's glories. If they win, that's good. If they lose, they've still gotten a year's baseball education. Perhaps it will pay off next year.

Ten of the League's teams are in towns which didn't have professional baseball in 1987, and most play in ballparks built or substantially rebuilt since then. Although MWL teams have moved from its beginning, franchise shifts were unusually common in the first half of the nineties. This was largely driven by new rules about facilities, which were imposed upon the National Association teams by the major leagues. While the players and some owners have profited from the facility changes, and those who patronize the new teams have obviously gained, the new rules were intended to benefit the major league player development system. Most of the stadium adjustments have been made, and since 2000 we've seen only two League teams move.

Don't imagine this was accomplished without cost. Communities like Wausau, Wisconsin and Waterloo, Iowa have lost long-time community institutions to bigger cities with fancier ballparks. There's a fine book about how the Diamonds left Waterloo: Waterloo Diamonds, by Richard Panek (New York: St. Martin's, 1995). If you want to understand the changes which have occurred in this league, Panek's book is a good beginning.


Who runs the teams?

In many ways, a minor league team is two businesses; one is on-field (the baseball team proper), and the other sells the tickets (the folks who host the team). The two have the same name, work in the same facilities, and are intimately related. Their objectives may differ significantly: the first business is player development, while the second is some mix of entertainment and profit and community service. There's often a third organization involved in the operation and in the budget, since many minor league teams play in ballparks which are owned by the team's host city.

The players are under contract to major league teams, and player assignments are outside the responsibility and control of the MWL affiliate. This portion of the business is staffed and paid by the major league team and is under the control of the field manager, his coaches, and his bosses--all of whom work for the big league team, and whose first concern is player development for that organization.

The business end is usually run by a general manager. Team GMs can't be simply classified, although in most cases professional sports promotion is their chosen career. Some of them have been doing this for years, or even decades; others are just out of college. Some Midwest League teams hire a large permanent staff, while others get by almost entirely with seasonal and volunteer help. Regardless of the GM's age or experience, the assistants tend to be really young. There's a nearly endless supply of new applicants, often college graduates who aspire to staff the front offices of big league teams.

Ownership and owners' involvement is quite variable. Some of the teams are parts of small holding companies, whose owners only show their faces to the fans on special events. About half the teams are locally owned, although that means something quite different in Beloit than West Michigan. Some owners are always in sight; like the kids staffing the front office, this is what they always wanted to do.

Team nicknames deserve a comment. It is the style to give the local team a catchy moniker. Everyone noticed that the Carolina Mudcats were selling thousands of caps, and hoped to cash in on a good thing. (It's worked for Beloit's Snappers, for Lansing's Lugnuts, and for Cedar Rapids' Kernels.) This is fashion, and may turn. As recently as 1991, eleven of the league's (then) fourteen teams bore the name of their big league affiliate and wore a version of the affiliate's uniform.


Who plays in our league?

Roughly one in seven players who plays in the MWL this year will eventually spend some time in the majors.


The typical MWL player is about 22 years of age, has played some college ball, and was drafted in June either the year before he arrived in the league or the year before that. Often he was the best athlete, regardless of sport, in his high school graduating class, was one of the best in his high school athletic conference, and may have been the best ballplayer on his college team (this mainly depends on the college). A second common group comes from Caribbean countries, and are typically a bit younger.

The youngest players in the league are about 18; the oldest (ignoring rehabilitation assignments) are in their mid-twenties. You'll occasionally see a major league player on a rehab assignment after an illness or injury; these assignments are usually short. Every team has a handful of players who were in the league last year.

The big league team pays the players--most make just over $1,000 a month, for the five month season. (This hasn't changed in years.) Players also get a small meal allowance when they're on the road, and most get some sort of housing assistance when the team's home.

Who manages here? Who coaches?

Jim Leyland managed at Clinton for several years. Cal Ripken, Sr., was skipper of the Appleton Foxes in 1962. Terry Francona was South Bend's field boss in 1992.

The managers and coaching staffs for most teams change every year or two; these are not normally permanent jobs.

Some Midwest League managers and coaches aspire to be major league managers or coaches, and, except that they're a baseball generation older, much the same can be said about these folks as about the players. These guys are relatively young. Many (but hardly all) have at least some big league playing experience. Other managers have found a career teaching minor leaguers to play baseball. Again, many have major league experience. Most Midwest League managers, whether young or old, are career baseball people. Their post-MWL career paths will prove quite variable: Some will become major league managers or coaches, others will spend their lives mainly as roving instructors, a handful will scout, and still others will spend careers coaching or managing minor league teams. A handful go on to front office jobs.

Some names: Ken Griffey, Sr, is coaching at Dayton next summer. Ryne Sandberg managed at Peoria in 2007 and 2008. More typical former big leaguers are Randy Ready, Steve Dillard, and Tom Lawless, who have managed or coached MWL teams in recent years. You occasionally see a former star, on the bench (Dave Stewart?) or in the stands (Sarge Matthews?), serving as a roving instructor.

During the game, most MWL managers coach at third base. The first base coach is often a player.


And what about the umpires?

The Midwest League uses two umpires: One is stationed behind home plate to call balls and strikes, while the other is stationed in the infield.

The umps are professionals. They're paid to be in Appleton for today's series, then to drive to Cedar Rapids for the next four days. Like the players, they aspire to the major leagues, and the general system is "up or out." They are scouted and evaluated and sometimes get mid-season promotions.

Like most participants in this league, many of the umpires are still adjusting to full-season minor league life. While some umpires have taken up the job after realizing they weren't physically qualified to play baseball professionally, others umpire because the job is, itself, an interesting and challenging profession. Whatever the reason, they're entitled to our respect; they perform a necessary role in the game.

A certain level of disagreement is inevitable. Most do their best to be impartial, but they're human and make mistakes. If the strike zone disagrees with my idea of a strike, it only matters if the teams find the calls confusing. But if he lets a player argue at length about strikes or permits a manager to control the game, the ump's not doing his job well. The worst situations are games where the ump's lost his objectivity, not ones where he's blown a call.

This can be an awful job. The fans and players and especially managers give them a hard time (sometimes with justice), and the chance they'll make it to the bigs is incredibly low--much lower than that of the players. They must be doing it for love; there's no glory here, and not much money. Do what you can to encourage the good ones.


In the stands

Some snapshots:

  • A young couple, holding hands in the aisle, then cuddling in the grandstand.
  • An elderly fan, with a new baseball cap and a big grin.
  • A "serious" fan scoring the game and evaluating the prospects.
  • A father amusing his young son by acting out YMCA with the rest of the crowd.
  • A pair of businessmen, entertaining colleagues.
  • Two teens embarrassed by their kid sister, who takes all this stuff too seriously.

Mostly there are fans and families. This is entertainment. Parents bring their kids, have a good time at a reasonable price, and come again a few weeks later. Church groups cheer when their name shows on the scoreboard. Season-ticket holders chat with their neighbors, scan the crowd for friends, heckle the sales staff.

Most teams have a recognizable "wives and girlfriends" section in the stands. When the school year ends and/or the weather improves, these folks come to support their mates. Visiting parents and other guests generally sit with the wives.

A related issue: I haven't encountered Bull Durham's Annie Savoy, but there are clearly women who are very interested in getting to know young professional baseball players.

There are often scouts in the stands. They're really quite easy to recognize: They carry radar guns, they carry clipboards, they carry stopwatches, they write notes when things happen. Some of them move around a lot; others seem anchored to their seat. They don't seem to look for the same things the rest of us do. Some chat with the fans; others refuse to talk. Watching ballgames is their job, and it shows. I think I could like that job.

The young guys with the radar guns and scorecards who sit behind home plate are players, usually either yesterday's or tomorrow's pitchers. They're often willing to talk, or sign a scorecard, but they're trying to record the game and chart the pitches. The managers use this assignment partly to force them to pay attention to the game when someone else throws; I trust some of them learn things. I enjoy sitting with them. Some of them chatter about what they see on the field, which can be fascinating.


Non-Baseball entertainment

The action doesn't stop between innings. Prizes are awarded. Some tiny tot races the team mascot around the bases (the mascot always loses). Larger fans try to hit a baseball over a specific outfield sign, or toss a ball at a target. Birthdays are celebrated. There are "Dizzy Bat Races" and "Dugout Bowling" and "Newspaper Tosses." South Bend used to have cheerleaders dancing on the dugouts. Some of this is silly, and much of it's embarrassing. All in good fun.

Most teams book touring acts: The San Diego Chicken is famous, while some of the others are less so. Myron Noodleman's claimed Max Patkin's clown role. Some of the acts are quite strange.

Few pleasures beat postgame fireworks from a reserved seat.


Take me out to the ballpark

Unless the view's obstructed, there are no bad seats in this league.

Most MWL ballparks are new since 1987; the others are recently upgraded. The parks often belong to the local city. Lease agreements typically make the team responsible for field maintenance, with the rest of the arrangement highly variable. It is common for teams and towns to bicker about the stadium.

Ballparks have character, and add character to the game. The folks at West Michigan's Fifth Third Ballpark are wonderful. Clinton's ballyard is a classic old-fashioned place. Midland's Dow Diamond is nearly perfect.


The structure of minor league baseball

Disclaimer: This section is true, but not gospel. Minor league ball is too complex to be summarized in a few paragraphs, so some distortion results from necessary simplification. Skip to the next section if you want. This part explains some of the things you'll notice if you pay attention to what happens on the field or in the news. You don't need to know this stuff to enjoy the game, but some folks need to understand.


Nowadays there are two kinds of "minor league." Most leagues are members of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, and can be considered "official" minor leagues. One purpose of the National Association leagues is player development; the players for nearly all teams in these leagues are under contract to major league teams. Other professional leagues are outside "organized baseball"; these are "Independents." The Indies, with no official player-development role, recruit and pay their players themselves. A number of leagues, some quite important, don't fit into this scheme in any way. They are seasonal, or in other countries, or otherwise obviously different.

The MWL is a National Association league. The National Association has tiers: The Triple-A leagues have the best players and are in the biggest towns, Double-A leagues have promising players in smaller towns, and Single-A leagues have new (i.e., not fully trained and/or tested) players. There's also a level called "Rookie", which can be thought of as a special case of Single-A.

Single-A baseball is also tiered, though the tiers are less meaningful. The California, Carolina, and Florida State Leagues are called "High A" (or "A-Advanced"); the Midwest and South Atlantic ("Sally") Leagues are "Low A" (or just "A"); while the New York-Pennsylvania and Northwest Leagues are called "Short Season A" because they start their season in June, rather than April. The Rookie Leagues are also short season leagues; the players in these are typically younger than the Single-A short season leagues.

The typical new player spends his first professional summer in a short season league. Rookies are typically high school signees, while Class A short season players have often attended college. The main objects during the first year are to teach or reinforce basic skills and just to get the player accustomed to playing daily and professionally. His second pro year, if he has one, is usually on a "Low A" team where there may be more efforts at real training and where he first experiences every-day, summer-long baseball. A second summer in short season is also common. "High A" players get watched more carefully and evaluated more severely; after three or four summers their organization believes it knows which players are truly prospects and releases those it no longer has hopes for.

There are lots of exceptions to this pattern. Players stick at a level to learn a new position or because there's no room for them in the next tier or because they spent most of the season on the disabled list or simply because the team needs someone--anyone--to cover their position on the field. Players get promoted because they've earned it or because someone got hurt or because the farm director thinks they might learn more from a different coach. Players get sent down, of course, but it's uncommon. Pitchers are more volatile, because their learning curves are different and they have different injury patterns. But the pattern I've described is common, and the MWL's set role in baseball's development system reflects these assumptions.


The Player Development Contract

Each MWL team is an affiliate of a major league team, and the relationship between the teams is defined by a standard player development contract. PDCs are agreements that the major league team will provide players to the minor league team, and that the minor league team will provide facilities and other services for the players. It's easy to say what each side gains from these arrangements: The big teams are spared the need to provide facilities for training the players, and the farm teams are spared the need to recruit and pay players. PDCs expire, are extended, are moved, or even traded; this occurs in September, in even-numbered years. Team affiliations change. Sometimes the whole culture of the team changes with them.

This general arrangement dates from the 1960s, and has roots in the 1920s. To many fans it seems only normal, but others take exception to it. Both parties to the arrangement often seem to think the other gets the best of the deal. The majors occasionally threaten to stop providing players and the minors complain about their lack of control over their "product."


Is he a prospect?

Since one purpose of the Midwest League is to sort out the prospects, identifying prospects can become an obsession. It's certainly a common question in my E-mail.


Many folks sort minor league players into two categories. Some players are "Prospects," who are desirable commodities. Everyone else is an "Organization Player"--a role-player in a drama mainly about the major leagues. This view of the world has some value, but it's not a good lens for watching the contest on the field because it devalues the everyday game.

Ask a better question: What makes this player a prospect? Nearly every player who takes the field in the Midwest League has the physical ability to play big-league baseball. That's one reason they're here. Their employer understands that physical skills are not enough; that's another reason they're here. The best players in this league are hardly finished products. They're playing as much to learn as to win, and our league provides a daily education. Game situations supply opportunities and examples, and coaches drive the lessons home. Each player learns what he can.

What makes this player a prospect? Baseball's often about failure--missing a key hit, offering the wrong pitch to a good hitter, finishing four games off the pace. Only a handful from each League team will play in the majors, but all are trying to find answers to life in professional baseball. They're playing in our town this summer, and they deserve our attention (or devotion) not because they might play in Tampa Bay next September but because they're trying to make putouts, trying to put the ball in play, trying to throw strikes. You can appreciate what they do on the field without wondering what they might become. The best games are joyful, at any level.

What makes this player a prospect? Some scout saw potential in the youngster. Some general manager gambled part of his team's future on the kid's arm, or his bat, or his eye. That youth's summering here because there's still potential; otherwise he'd be in a higher league, or sent home. Cherish the possibility that scout spotted, and encourage the young man to nurture it.

What makes this player a prospect? It's a rare soul whose fate is closely tied to his baseball fate; it's enough to try, and a privilege even to fail.


Last Words

Sometimes, in the ninth, in a close game, everyone in the park's watching the duel between the foul lines. It's us against them, manager against manager, heart against hope, will against talent. Always, in the end, batter against pitcher and pitcher against batter. Win or lose, it's a great evening.

I spend my summers in these parks, and I love them. I drink hot chocolate in Davenport, and frozen lemonade in South Bend; in Lansing I eat cinnamon pretzels. And it's baseball--Baseball!--out there on the lawn. What more could I want? Even the best seats are cheap.


Notes

My sincere thanks to Brian Komprood, then trainer with the Beloit Snappers (& later with Fort Wayne), for pointing out a dumb editing error in early versions of this page.

Ria Cortesio, who aspired to be a big-league umpire, convinced me to better explain what I understand about the abilities and shortcomings of MWL umpires. Ria became the MWL's second female umpire during the 2001 season.

Minor league umpire Luther Stueland was kind enough to offer a thoughtful response to this page after the 1996 season ended. I made some slight changes which reflect his comments.


The Midwest League plays Single-A, professional baseball in America's agricultural and industrial heartland. 16 teams play a 140 game schedule which begins in early April and ends Labor Day weekend.

Disclaimers:
This website is a private project and has no official relation with or sanction from the Midwest League or Minor League Baseball.
The opinions expressed on this page are mine, and are worth about that.


Copyright © 1996-2010 Joel Dinda
Some Rights Reserved.