It’s been over 19 months since the last official minor league baseball game – when the Sacramento RiverCats beat the Columbus Clippers 4-0 to win the National Triple-A Championship.
That void finally ends this week when a completely overhauled version of minor league baseball makes its debut.
However, opening day 2021 will come without much of the pageantry and promotion that has made the minor leagues such a family-friendly way to enjoy the national pastime.
“There’s no question there’s pent-up demand, and you can multiply that number by 100 when you realize most of the teams in the country are going to open under permanent restrictions of some sort,” Derek Sharrer, Executive vice president and general manager of the St. Paul Saints, tells USA TODAY Sports.
While there are changes on the pitch, including new experimental rules, the biggest difference between now and 19 months ago will be in the way the leagues are structured.
After the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the entire 2020 minor league season, Major League Baseball ended the professional baseball deal that had governed the relationship between majors and minors since 1901. Over the winter, The MLB completed its takeover of minors, eliminating 43 mostly less level franchises and reorganizing the various classes into a more standardized structure.
The 30 major league teams now have four full-season minor league branches, one or two fewer than before. Two formerly independent clubs, the Saints and SugarLand Skeeters, will join the miners as official MLB affiliates.
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One of the goals of the reshuffle was to bring minor league teams closer to their parent clubs to make travel more efficient.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Saints becoming the Minnesota Twins’ class AAA team.
“We certainly have a unique situation here as we make the transition,” Sharrer says. “There have been minor league affiliates close to their parent major league club in the past, but Triple-A for the major leagues operating so closely has never been done this way before. It’s really exciting. “
Neighbors in Twin Cities have enjoyed a healthy relationship in the past, with the Twins using CHS Field in St. Paul – less than 11 miles from Target Field in Minneapolis – as an alternative training center during the pandemic.
“I don’t think any of us, whether on the twins side or the Saints side of the equation, ever really dreamed that this is where it would end,” Sharrer says.
In contrast, 43 franchises lost their affiliations with major league clubs. Several others who remained were demoted to lower levels. In Fresno, Calif., The Grizzles were left out, going from Class AAA with the Washington Nationals in 2019 to a low-A with the Colorado Rockies.
“When you have something that has worked the same way for a long time, people may want to stick to the same program. For us, we understand that the game is evolving and that Major League Baseball needed to take a different approach in how they develop players. And we respect that, ”said Grizzlies president Derek Franks.
“We had a great round in the Triple-A team and we are going to start a great round in the Single-A team. We are just proud to be part of the new system. “
Other changes Minors will see this season will be with several new experimental rules that MLB wants to see tested.
– Class AAA parks will have larger bases, ranging from 15 inch to 18 inch squares, to see if that translates to more stolen base attempts. MLB teams have averaged less than 0.5 steals per game each of the past two seasons, the lowest rate in nearly 50 years.
– In class AA, teams will have limits on their ability to change defense. The Infielders will need to keep both feet on inside ground before the ball is put into play. A requirement to have two championships on either side of second base could also be implemented later in the season.
– In High-A, the throwers will have to step off the rubber before performing a pick-up throw. Otherwise, they are accused of balking.
– And in Low-A, all pitchers will be limited to two catch shots per batter with one runner on base. Some leagues will also impose delays between throws and innings. Others will experiment with an automated strike zone.
Despite the subtle changes on and off the pitch, minor league officials remain confident fans will return to the pitch as soon as they can.
“You don’t realize how awesome something is until you have it. And I think that’s the feeling we got from our fans, ”Franks says.
Each of the minor league levels opens their regular season on Tuesday, most with limited spots for fans. However, officials hope to be able to gradually increase capacity from the summer until the end of the season in mid-September.
“What minor league baseball is known for is the fan experience, sometimes even beyond the experience between the white lines,” said St. Paul’s Sharrer. “Now having a year under their belt of not being able to play in front of the fans, not being able to open their doors and entertain the fans like they have for years – I think you will see minor league teams escalate the situation. . , therefore, to say.
“I think you’re going to see teams doing whatever they can to entertain fans like they’ve never done before.”
Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner
Minor league memberships, 2021
Columbus (Ohio) Clippers (Cleveland)
Indianapolis Indians (Pirates)
Iowa Cubs (Cubs)
Louisville (Ky.) Bats (red)
Omaha (Neb.) Storm Chasers (Royals)
Saint Paul (Minn.) Saints (twins)
Toledo (Ohio) Mud Hens (Tigers)
Buffalo Bison (NY) (Blue Jays)
Lehigh Valley (PA) IronPigs (Phillies)
Rochester (NY) Red Wings (Nationals)
Scranton / Wilkes-Barre (PA) RailRiders (Yankees)
Syracuse (NY) Mets (Mets)
Worcester (Mass.) Red Sox (Red Sox)
Charlotte (North Carolina) Knights (White Sox)
Durham Bulls (NC) (spokes)
Stripers Gwinnett (Ga.) (Braves)
Jacksonville (Florida) Jumbo Shrimps (Marlins)
Memphis (Tenn.) Redbirds (Cardinals)
Nashville (Tenn.) Sons (Brewers)
Tides for Norfolk (Va.) (Orioles)
Albuquerque (NM) Isotopes (Rockies)
El Paso (Texas) Chihuahuas (Padres)
Oklahoma City Dodgers (Dodgers)
Round Rock (Texas) Express (Rangers)
Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters (Astros)
Las Vegas Airmen (A)
Reno Aces (D-backs)
Sacramento River Cats (Giants)
Salt Lake City bees (angels)
Tacoma Rainiers (navigators)
Arkansas Travelers (Navigators)
Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Royals)
Springfield (Mo.) Cardinals
Tulsa (Okla.) Drillers (Dodgers)
Wichita (Kan.) Wind wave (twins)
Sod Poodles Amarillo (Texas) (D-backs)
Corpus Christi (Texas) Hooks (Astros)
Frisco (Texas) RoughRiders (Rangers)
Midland (Texas) RockHounds (A)
San Antonio Missions (Padres)
Binghamton (NY) Rumble Ponies (Mets)
Hartford, Connecticut Yard Goats (Rockies)
New Hampshire Fisher Cats (Blue Jays)
Portland Sea Dogs (Maine) (Red Sox)
Reading (Pa.) Fightin ‘Phils (Phillies)
Somerset Patriots (NJ) (Yankees)
Akron (Ohio) RubberDucks (Cleveland)
Altoona curve (Pa.) (Pirates)
Bowie (Md.) Baysox (Orioles)
Erie (Pa.) SeaWolves (Tigers)
Harrisburg Senators (Pa.) (National)
Richmond, Virginia Flying squirrels (giant)
Barons of Birmingham (NY) (White Sox)
Chattanooga (Tenn.) Viewpoints (Red)
Rocket City (Madison, Ala.) Trash Pandas (Angels)
Tennessee Smokies (Cubs)
Biloxi (Miss.) Shuckers (Brewers)
Montgomery Cookies (Ala.) (Rays)
Pensacola (Florida) Blue Wahoos (Marlins)
Aberdeen (Md.) IronBirds (Orioles)
Brooklyn Cyclones (NY) (Mets)
Hudson Valley (NY) Renegades (Yankees)
Jersey Shore BlueClaws (Phillies)
Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks (Nats)
Asheville, North Carolina tourists (Astros)
Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods (Rays)
Greensboro (NC) Grasshoppers (Pirates)
Greenville Promenade (SC) (Red Sox)
Hickory (NC) Crawdads (Rangers)
Rome (Ga.) Braves (Braves)
Winston-Salem (NC) Dash (White Sox)
Dayton (Ohio) Dragons (red)
Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps (Padres)
Great Lakes Divers (Midland, Michigan) (Dodgers)
Lake County Captains (Eastlake, Ohio) (Cleveland)
Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts (A’s)
West Michigan Whitecaps (Tigers)
Beloit (Wis.) Snappers (Marlins)
Cedar Rapids (Iowa) cores (twins)
Chiefs Peoria (Ill.) (Cardinals)
Quad Cities (Davenport, Iowa) River Bandits (Royals)
South Bend (Ind.) Cubs (Cubs)
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Brewers)
Eugene (Ore.) Emeralds (Giants)
Everett (est.) AquaSox (Mariners)
Hillsboro (Ore.) Hops (D-backs)
Spokane Indians (Rockies)
Tri-City (Pasco, Washington) Dust Devils (Angels)
Vancouver, British Columbia Canadians (Blue Jays) *
* Home games will be played in Hillsboro, Ore.
Carolina (Zebulon, North Carolina) Mudcats (Brewers)
Down East (Kinston, NC) Wood Ducks (Rangers)
Peaks of Fayetteville (North Carolina) (Astros)
Kannapolis (NC) Cannon Ballers (White Sox)
Delmarva (Salisbury, Maryland) Shorebirds (Orioles)
Fredericksburg (Va.) Nationals (Nationals)
Lynchburg (Virginia) Hillcats (Cleveland)
Salem (Virginia) Red Sox (Red Sox)
Augusta (Georgia) GreenJackets (Braves)
Charleston (SC) RiverDogs (Rays)
Columbia (SC) Fireflies (Royals)
Myrtle Beach (SC) Pelicans (Cubs)
Lower A south-east
Daytona (Florida) Tortugas (red)
Jupiter (Florida) Hammerheads (Marlins)
Palm Beach (Jupiter, Florida) Cardinals (Cardinals)
Saint Lucia (Port Saint Lucie, Florida) Mets (Mets)
Bradenton (Florida) Marauders (Pirates)
Clearwater (Florida) Combine (Phillies)
Dunedin (Florida) Blue Jays (Blue Jays)
Fort Myers, Florida Mighty Mussels (Twins)
Lakeland (Florida) Flying Tigers (Tigers)
Tampa (Florida) Tarpons (Yankees)
Fresno, CA Grizzlies (Rockies)
Modesto Walnuts (California) (Mariners)
San Jose (California) Giants (Giants)
Stockton (California) Ports (A)
Inland Empire (San Bernardino, California) 66ers (Angels)
Lake Elsinore (California) Storm (Padres)
Rancho Cucamonga (California) Tremors (Dodgers)
Visalia (California) Rawhide (D-backs)