Sunday, February 17, 2013

To Be a Fan of a Minor League Team Is To Constantly Say Goodbye

So long, farewell, it's time to bid adieu...

To root for a minor league baseball team is to be constantly saying goodbye.

The whole point of minor league baseball, after all, is not to win. OK, sure, teams prefer it when their affiliates do well, but the point of minor league baseball is to prepare players for major league baseball, and to support the parent team. As a result, players get their usage patterns changed suddenly. They get promoted or demoted due to injuries and recoveries on the major league level. They get shoved aside for rehabbing major leaguers, or converted to new positions. And sometimes they get traded, or designated for assignment, or just flat-out released.

Really, you shouldn’t be rooting for your favorite players to stick around at the minor league level. Ideally, they’re good enough that they’ll advance up the ladder until they’re in the big leagues. The guys who stick around at one level, they’re not going anywhere - literally or otherwise. To be pleased that they’re sticking around is to be pleased that their professional development has stalled out, that they’re reached their professional limits, that their dreams are dying on the vine right in front of you.

But as a fan, you can’t help having favorites. There are always guys you want to see succeed, or, failing that, you just want to see. And if they do stick around for a year, or two, or three, well, you grow fond of them regardless. Jonny Gomes, in my first couple of years in the Triangle, was that guy. Playing with reckless abandon, sliding into bases with a vial of nitroglycerin in his back pocket, coming up with big hits or big plays or at least exciting ones. And yet the Rays took forever to give him a shot, and once they did, they eventually let him go. Now he’s a journeyman, saddled with a part-time player rep and getting to the age where one-dimensional sluggers are more and more replaceable. 

There have been a lot of those guys over the years. For every guy you watch and tell yourself “I’ll be able to say I saw him when” - every David Price and B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria and Jeremy Hellickson - there are the Russ Canzlers and the Juan Salases and the Reid Brignacs. There are the guys you know are going to be at the DBAP year after, putting up the same numbers. The guys you hate yourself for getting attached to - even if they play hard and play well, even if they seem like nice guys - because one way or another, they’re going to move on. Nobody Tony Gwynns it in a minor league uniform, it’s move up or move on or move out. 

Reid Brignac moved out the other day. Technically, he was moved - the Rays traded him to Colorado for a PTBNL, after designating him for assignment - but the end result is the same. An excellent defensive shortstop with a noodle bat, he’s got a decent chance at winning a spot on the Rockies’ opening day roster and sticking in the big leagues. Which is great, because the Rays clearly had decided they’d seen all they were going to see of him, and he’s still just 27 years old and has plenty of time for a decent career ahead of him, and hey, maybe he’ll figure out how to hit again one of these days and Colorado’s a great place to do that, and all that good stuff. Any fan who’s a decent human being is glad for him to get this shot.

And yet, it’s another reminder that when you root in the minor leagues, you root for the team and not the players. Brignac was as close to a fixture around these parts as you were ever likely to get, a shuttle player between Tampa and Durham whose glove earned him shots while his bat earned him bench time. Originally a hot-shot shortstop prospect whom the mavens figured would outgrow the position - he was too big, they thought, and his stick was ahead of his glove - he transformed himself into a stellar defensive player who suddenly couldn’t hit a lick. A heralded prospect when he arrived after some kickass time in Visalia and Montgomery, he instead became a mainstay, and then a regular, and then a veteran. When he got promoted, we knew he’d be back. When he got sent down, we figured he’d be getting another 15-day callup soon. 

Mostly, though, he was a Bull. He’d run out there at short or occasionally second, he’d bat seventh, and he’d make a few great plays while going maybe 1-4 with a stolen base and a couple of strikeouts. And then he’d be back the next game, and the next, and the next, and if he ended the year hitting .240 with single digit homers, well, it was OK because he could still pick it. Four of the last five years (2010 being the exception), he was there. And by the end, as much fun as it was having a familiar face to root for, you felt bad for the guy, because four years out of five in Durham’s only great professionally if you’re in the tech sector, or or play basketball for Duke, or maybe are into locovore restauranteuring*. 

Now he’s gone. And Elliot Johnson, another Durham semi-regular, is gone. And there will be new faces at old positions, and old faces in new uniforms half a continent away, and I’ll still go out to the ballpark because, what the hell, the beer’s still cold and the ballpark’s still great and Wool E. Bull’s still the same. There will be new guys to root for and maybe some of them will stick around a while, too.

At least for now.

*I just know someone's going to read this as a slam on Durham *sigh*
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