Minor Details: Rethinking the Farm System**
This past off season, the Atlanta Braves announced plans to terminate their 42-year relationship with the city of Richmond, Virginia. The plan is to relocate the Richmond affiliate 469 miles to the south making the distance to watching the Braves most major league ready prospects just a 45-minute drive away from Turner Field in Gwinnett County, Georgia starting in the 2009 season. The Braves, who already have a class-A affiliate in Rome, Georgia, roughly 70 miles northwest of Atlanta, will have two of their farm clubs within a two-hour drive of their fan base. Another National League East team, the Philadelphia Phillies, took the opportunity to shuffle the locale of their top affiliate prior to the 2007 season, moving the Ottawa Lynx from the neighbors to the north to a city that was immortalized on Billy Joel's The Nylon Curtain: Allentown, Pennsylvania. Named after the region, Lehigh Valley, the team assumed the moniker IronPigs and situated themselves in a cozy new 8,100-seat Coca-Cola Park, an hour and a half drive away from the parent club. This was a nice compliment to the existing Reading, Pennsylvania AA affiliate located an hour and fifteen minute drive southeast of Philadelphia. In theory, a Phillies Phanatic can spend a weekend and just two hours and forty-five minutes in the car and watch three levels of Phillie talent. On the opposite side of the Manifest Destiny, the Seattle Mariners have nursed a pair of 13-year relationships with both the AAA Tacoma Rainiers (33 miles south of Safeco Field) and the class-A Everett AquaSox (30.7 miles north of Safeco Field). This proximity has encouraged local blog communities such as USSMariner and Lookout Landing to organize outings to get a first-hand inspection of the developing Mariner talent.
It is hard not to be envious of the aforementioned clubs for diehard baseball fans living in Twins Territory. In comparison to a Braves fan who will be able to see prospects perform in Atlanta's northern suburbs starting next year, an ambitious Twins fan in Minneapolis or Saint Paul would have to drive nearly 17 hours to catch a glimpse of the team's future in Rochester, New York. Notable Braves blogger (Sabernomics.com) and associate professor at Kennesaw State University, J.C. Bradbury, cited several economically positives regarding the geographical convenience of these farm clubs. First, travel time for scouts and coaches to analyze a potential call-up is greatly reduced. Secondly, once a player is needed due to injury or general promotion getting that player from point A to point B is cut down significantly. In the case of the Braves, Phillies and Mariners, each have two of their clubs within an easy drive reducing the cost of shuffling players around. Finally, but possibly the most important reason for the clustering of the ball clubs is that it would create a commitment to players by the fans region-wide.
Not long ago, hometown fans recieved brief snippets of information and reports on players down on the farm once a week through updates in the local paper, since the proliferation of the internet, however, minor league statistics have been readily available to every rube with a modem. Now it appears that major league organizations are discovering the added benefit of allowing the average fan to visually see who were once just numbers flash the leather or bring out the whooping stick before their very eyes. If every Twins draft pick spent a season in St. Cloud, Fargo or Mankato before ascending to the other levels, an investment of sorts would be made between the spectator and the organization and that spectator may be enticed to visit the new Twins stadium when the player was eventually promoted. A relationship is created.
There are several barriers that would impede the Twins from easily replicating this system. Unlike the Atlanta Braves who own the Richmond Braves franchise, the Twins are only in a partnership with the majority of their farm teams (they own Elizabethton outright). The Braves were able to move their club on a whim while the Twins in order to adjust their alignment, they would have to wait for one of the Player Development Contracts to expire and simultaneously find a community that would be accommodating to the immigrant club. Secondly, the sparsely populated Midwest region limits the encroachment of almost all of the leagues (minus the Midwest League, of course) which are situated on the dense coasts. The AA Eastern League's closest team to Minnesota is the Akron, Ohio Aeros, a 12-hour drive from the Twin Cities (but a 45-minute drive for Cleveland Indians fans to see their second highest farm club). Therefore, relocating the New Britain Rock Cats to the similarly sized Duluth-Superior area would greatly increase the travel budget, completely negating the entire purpose of saving money if every road trip takes a minimum 12-hour bus ride. Likewise, the International League, home of the Twins current AAA affiliate Rochester Red Wings, has a minimum 9 hour drive from Minnesota to the nearest competitor (Indianapolis Indians). Obviously Des Moines would be a great city to host a Twins affiliate after all, it is just 3 hours and 40 minutes south on Interstate 35 and they have drawn 14,000 people to one game. The problem, however, is that the Player Development Contract between the Iowa Cubs and the Chicago Cubs is signed through 2012.
The Twins do have one affiliate that would benefit from relocation. In August 2007, the Twins and the Beloit Professional Baseball Association (BPBA), purveyors of the Snappers, agreed to a 2-year extension on their P.D.C. ensuring the partnership would last through the 2010 season. The Snappers home ballpark, Harry Pohlman Field, seats just 3,501 in a league where most of the facilities have around 1,500 more seats per stadium, the 1981 constructed ballpark seems antiquated. The Beloit ballpark has been renovated several times - adding box seats and other amenities - but lacks the revenue generators that flashier, newer ballparks have. Recent attempts to get a new stadium built in nearby Janesville, Wisconsin have been thwarted. Since the Beloit Snappers are community-owned (like the Green Bay Packers) the group selling their team appears to be an unlikely outcome so in order for a franchise to come to Minnesota an entrepreneur who have to purchase an existing team (the most recent Midwest League team sold for $6.2 million in 2006) and wait until the Twins' P.D.C. with the Beloit organization expired and then relocate that team to a community closer to the Twin Cities. One location that seems appealing is the recently proposed stadium to be constructed in Burnsville, Minnesota (25 minutes south of the Metrodome). Two private financiers, Tony Pettit and Terry Deroche, have submitted preliminary designs of a 7,300-seat ballpark to the city of Burnsville that would be constructed without government assistance and potentially be ready to hold independent Northern League games on its grounds by the 2009 season. Dakota County, Minnesota's third most populous county, has over 380,000 residences and, like Gwinnett County in Georgia, a strong economic base to support a minor league franchise.
Bringing a low-A Midwest League team into the Twin Cities would be a good reward to local Twins fans, providing them with a low-cost alternative to what is sure to be an increasingly expensive ticket at the taxpayer-funded stadium. The team would reap dividends from the residual marketing effect of having future Major League players develop just south of the Minnesota River while saving on travel costs for scouts and coaches. And when the Twins can finally wrestle Des Moines away from the Cubs in 2013 I-35 will be a solid corridor of Twins baseball.
**A version of this article appears in the September issue of GameDay. Nick Nelson, the guest editor for the month, pieced it together to and more cohesion (I tend to ramble, I realize this), so any help wrangling the story in was greatly appreciated. To read that version along with all the other insightful articles, pick one up from the vendors across the street from the Dome during the Twins' next homestand.