The End Is Near
We’re approaching the end of the minor league baseball regular season. Almost all minor leagues wrap up their regular season on Labor Day, followed by roughly two weeks of playoffs. The Tides won’t be making the International League playoffs, so September 5 marks the last day I’ll be working a game in 2011.
I was reflecting on this season, and realized that a minor-league season has several phases. Probably each minor league has its own set of phases; the rhythms of the Class A, eight-team Carolina League can’t be the same as the rhythms of the Class AAA, sixteen-team, Nashville-Tacoma Pacific Coast League. For me, the Norfolk Tides’ season, and perhaps the seasons of all International League teams, fell into five parts:
- The Beginning — Opening Day through April
This is a period of optimism and uncertainty. A third to a half of the team is new, and we’re eager to see what the team will be. Some of the players will be young guys just up from AA, and there’s the possibility of sudden improvement. Usually, the April games are against our IL South Division rivals Durham, Charlotte, and Gwinnett, and there’s a certain recognition. On the other hand, it can be cold and miserable and the crowds are usually small because school is still in session.
- Ordinary Time, Part I — May and June
The season begins its regular patterns after about three weeks. We’re getting a sense of which players will have good seasons and which ones will disappoint. Players begin to come and go. A core pitching rotation and the bullpen roles are established. We’re playing teams from outside the IL South, so it’s a constant ride of four-game series, meaning eight-game road trips and (usually) eight-game homestands. We’re into the routine.
- Mid-Season Refreshment – July 1st through the All-Star Break
The Fourth of July and the All-Star Break dominate July, changing the routine. For attendance reasons, every team gets a home game on either July 3rd or July 4th. Some teams, like Norfolk, want its home game on July 3rd to avoid conflicting with other nearby fireworks shows. However, because July 3/4 is a travel day needing short travel, the schedule reverts to intradivisional play. And because the Fourth falls on a different day each season, there’s no guarantee that four-game series are possible between it and the all-star break, so the intradivisional play usually continues. It’s a good chance to see our old rivals from the first week, to see how they’ve evolved. The crowds are usually pretty good, with post-game fireworks shows and the kids out of school. In a way, this period represents summer — a vacation from the routine and a chance to get together with familiar faces.
- Ordinary Time — Part Two — Mid-July through Early August
We return to the routine for three or four weeks after the All-Star Break, but the vibe is different. We’re seeing the last teams from outside the division, but whereas it’s exciting to see different teams early in the season, now the routine has become drudgery. Most of the best prospects from early in the season have now been called up, and the roster is filled with second-tier prospects and retreads. By now, we’ve identified the good teams and the bad teams. We’re not excited by the players any more; they’re old news. The crowds are still pretty good, but it’s a different crowd — early in the season, the sparse crowd contains baseball fans, but now the crowd is more families with children, who don’t follow the game as closely.
- The Conclusion — Mid-August through Labor Day
Back to the IL South to wrap up the season. And in a strange sort of way, most of the players and the teams seem to be more in it (the exceptions are those teams which started out hot, then fell back to the pack when all the good players got called up or traded.) Everyone wants to finish on a high note, so there’s more intensity. We want to the joy of the baseball season to linger on as long as it can, so we try harder to savor every moment. And, then, on September 1, some players are called up to the majors, replaced by whoever happens to be available. Sometimes it’s a loyal organization man getting a promotion from A-Ball or AA for the few days; sometimes, especially if Bowie’s out of the playoff hunt and heading on the road, it’s a good prospect from there. And the fans come out of the woodwork, as they realize that they won’t have another chance to see a game this year.
Eventually, Labor Day comes and the season ends. It’s another seven months to the Opening Day — but that’s the subject of another article.