Is Minor League Baseball Still Interesting?
During last month’s Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla, I got the chance to interview Bull Durham director Ron Shelton regarding the adaptation of that film into a musical. My article on that can be read HERE, but in today’s post I’d like to focus on one of the interview “outtakes.”
As my final question, I asked Shelton the following:
Considering the success of Bull Durham, have you ever considered re-visiting Minor League Baseball in the 21st century? Are there any new stories to tell?
It’s gone so corporate that it’s sort of become uninteresting. It’s great still for the players; it’s as unromantic and shaggy dog if you’re living in that world now. But the front offices of the Minor Leagues used to be as shaggy as the game on the field, but now that’s very different. It’s here [the Baseball Winter Meetings]. You can see it.
I remember a team that was owned by a guy who owned a local bread company in Stockton. That was the year we did 10,000 [fans] for the season. He only invested a few grand and lost every nickel of it, and was looking for someone to bail him out. That was the way it used to be.
Now it’s part of a big thing, but if you go to the games, it’s the same. Players, they don’t make any money, the dreams, trying to get dates with the local girls and not get in trouble if the local girl’s dad was the cop. That is exactly the same. And the fear factor, you know – you’re a star and you sign out of high school or [junior college] or college, then get to the Minor Leagues and realize it’s a nasty, brutal, tough world. An injury, or one bad season, and the number one pick, even if he’s just as good as you, he’s going to be given five years to fail while you’ve got one.
All that has not changed and never will, which is glorious.
I think that Shelton’s take on the current state of the industry is indicative of a larger issue, in that success is generally not very interesting from a story-telling perspective. And to a large extent, I share that perspective when it comes to my own writing. (For example, exploring the ramshackle absurdity of Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Stadium is far more interesting to me than wandering around the gleaming concourse of Birmingham’s $64 million downtown ballpark amid long lines of screaming kids).
But Shelton is also romanticizing a failed business model, as well as his own memories of competing in the Minor Leagues (he played in the Orioles farm system from 1967-71, including several seasons with the bread company-backed Stockton team referenced in the interview). I believe that the Minor Leagues’ gradual rise from 1960’s obsolescence is a story worth telling, and even within today’s more “corporate” front office environs there are “shaggy dog” stories aplenty. The aforementioned Bakersfield Blaze, sure, but also everything from volunteer-run Appy League teams to down-on-their-luck Triple-A franchises to lame duck Southern League entities. Not to mention the irreverent promotional strategies that are still employed at all levels of the Minors, with various levels of enthusiasm and results.
Shelton could very well be right that the Minor League front offices of today aren’t as compelling or quirky as those that could be found some 40 or 50 years ago. But if that’s the price you’ve gotta pay for success, then so be it. If teams were still run by a motley collection of in-debt-to-their-eyeballs local merchants, then I wouldn’t have a job. And, if you work in baseball, chances are that you wouldn’t either. As many a team exec has told me: “If we only marketed to the purists, then we’d be out of business.”
One thing that Shelton made clear is that, regardless of shifts in industry operating methods, there will always be worthwhile Minor League stories to tell. At its core it always has been and always will be a brutally competitive world. Most of its participants will fall short of their goals, and the constant threat of failure makes for a compelling story.
What are your thoughts on this apropos of nothing mid-January discussion topic? Feel free to contact me via Twitter or through my corporate email address.