As you all likely know, the Rocket is back. Roger Clemens, last seen escaping government perjury charges, will be lacing them up for a start with the Atlantic League’s Sugar Land Skeeters. However, you see some news articles saying this means he is going to have a “Minor League” start.
This, in a way, is true, as it is in a league that isn’t a Major League. However, it isn’t really true, because the Atlantic League is not a Minor League (the Minor Leagues are all under the umbrella of the organization Minor League Baseball), it is an independent league. Let me explain:
Way back when, every minor league was an independent league. Teams weren’t tied up with affiliations, as there were no farm systems. Instead, they signed their own players and, if those players were good, they’d sell those players to a big club for a profit. For example, Babe Ruth was a member of the International League’s Baltimore Orioles, and was sold to the Boston Red Sox. Occasionally a team might have a deal with a big league team that they’d give them the first crack at signing a minor league star, but it was more of a case of the owners or managers being buddies, not anything official.
This all changed once Branch Rickey instituted the first farm systems. As the Cardinals began to rack up pennants won by players who had gotten seasoning in Rochester, Houston, Springfield and elsewhere, it became standard practice, with some farm systems having teams in as low as D (which, of course, no longer exists). The last large minor league to remain independent was the Pacific Coast League, although even it had plenty of teams that were affiliates of MLB clubs. In it’s post-WWII glory days, the PCL was for all intent and purposes a third Major League, holding an “Open” designation that basically meant it was higher than the affiliated AAA but lower than the American and National League, and was a possible candidate for being added to the Major League Baseball umbrella. Of course, this never happened, and once MLB teams started to arrive out west the PCL was doomed to becoming just another farm league.
And so it was for years, as the structure of the minor leagues as we know them took shape. While there still have been some independent and unaffiliated teams here and there- often operated by a league that wanted to keep a team going during a year where they didn’t have an official parent club- it’s now a rule, I believe, that every team in the official Minor League Baseball organization needs to be affiliated with a parent club. Interestingly, this is really only the case because of MLB’s anti-trust exemption and the fact it allows the reserve clause to keep players under contract. If it didn’t exist, it’s probable that you’d instead see something more similar to the NHL’s minor leagues, where the minor league clubs still have some autonomy as far as personnel decisions.
There are some disadvantages with being affiliated, however, and not just because of the fact that the team basically has no say in who is playing for them. You see, organized baseball has rules governing how many teams can be in a specific area. This is why, for example, there isn’t a AA or AAA team in Newark, NJ: too close to the Yankees, Mets and their NYC-based affiliates in Staten Island and Brooklyn.
So what is a large-but-too-close-to-a-metropolis city to do? Well, the answer is to have independent league teams. While they existed as “outlaw leagues” before, the independent leagues as they exist now started up in the early 1990s with the founding of the Northern League (now defunct) and Frontier League (still around). Independent baseball is like minor league baseball, only the players are paid less (in the most low-rent of the Indys, pay can be as small as $50 a week), less known (primarily either undrafted players or washed-up prospects, although there is the occasional major league veteran who is trying to make one last comeback or is trying to stay sharp during a particularly nasty contract dispute) and often overshadowed by promotions and publicity stunts crazy even by the standards of minor league sports.
How crazy? Well, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of August and September’s promotional schedule for the Sugar Land Skeeters, the new home of Roger Clemens:
- On Aug. 10, they were visited by Breakin BBoy McCoy, a bat boy who break-dances.
- On Aug. 12, they had Engineering Night, where the first 2,000 fans got free pocket protectors.
- This coming Saturday, the 25th, they will have Ted Batchelor, AKA “The Human Fireball”. Ted will light himself on fire and run the bases after the game. By the way, Clemens will be pitching this Saturday, perhaps because having a man on fire isn’t enough to get people through the turnstiles.
- Sept. 9: There will be a wedding for “Wedding Night.”
These are pretty tame, however. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that even some of the most respected teams in the minors would be willing to do some of these promotions. They don’t hold a candle to such classic indy-ball stunts as Ted Williams Night (with free popsicles), or the St. Paul Saints becoming the “Mr. Paul Aints” on Atheist Night. And of course, there were the times that fans picked the line-ups and the time Mike Veeck paid homage to his family’s past by holding “VHS Demolition Night”.
I’m getting distracted, so I’ll get back to my point: the Independent Leagues are minor leagues by definition that they are not major leagues, but not minor leagues by the official definition that they are not member of Minor League Baseball. They are not affiliates of Major League clubs, and are made up primarily of players who either have never had a shot at or who who have been discarded the traditional baseball systems. To make up for the fact that fewer of the players are going to the majors, Indy teams have crazy promotions.
Y’know, like a man setting himself on fire.
But it isn’t the Minor Leagues. At least, not really. So maybe this is more of a Great Baseball Semi-Lie.