Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 09/04/2009

In Praise of Minor League Baseball

Two nights ago, I took my son and older daughter to see a AAA game at Coca-Cola Park here in Allentown. The local team, the tragically named Iron Pigs, lost to the Syracuse Chiefs, 3-2. But I didn’t care about the outcome. It was a beautiful night in a beautiful park, and we got to see a mostly well-played game. 

The kids at first were disappointed that we weren’t going to get to see real major-leaguers; they’d heard that the Iron Pigs are affiliated with the Phillies, and somehow got the impression the Phillies were coming up here to the Lehigh Valley to play a game. 

So I had to explain the difference between major- and minor-league ball, which is surprisingly difficult to do. I started out with some simple math: If we estimate that there are 900 major leaguers (30 teams times 30 players, which includes the 25 guys on the active roster and maybe five guys on the disabled list), and that those 900 are the best baseball players on the planet, then the guys in AAA are the next-best 900. Or at least they’re in the top 2,000 baseball players in the world, based on present ability, as opposed to projection or past performance. 

But as soon as I said it I realized how unimpressive it sounds. 

What’s a better way to describe just how difficult it is to make it to AAA as a pro baseball player?

Maybe we could start with the Little League World Series. It’s a big deal, right? In theory, these are the best 12-year-old players in the U.S. (In fact, many of the best American players skip Little League to play on elite travel teams. One parent familiar with both levels of play told me that the best travel teams would absolutely crush the winners of the LLWS.) So you’d think that the pro baseball ranks would be filled with LLWS vets. Nope. Wikipedia lists a couple dozen professional athletes who played in the LLWS, including just a handful of well-known baseball stars.

Put another way, the kids who’re good enough to play baseball on ESPN at age 12 rarely make it to the major leagues. I’d guess a lot of them make their high school teams, and a substantial minority go on to play college ball, but there’s still a half-dozen hurdles to get over before the best of those players get a shot at the majors: two levels of short-season rookie leagues, two levels of class-A ball, AA, and AAA. And that’s assuming they’re good enough to get drafted or signed by a major-league organization in the first place.

So by the time an athlete gets to play in front of me and my kids at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown, he has to:

1. Be one of the best youth players in his region, either in Little League or on an elite travel team

2. Be a star on his high school team, and probably in summer leagues as well

3. If he’s not one of the stars who gets drafted out of high school, he plays on a college team — hopefully a Division I school from a power conference, which gives him a chance to play in the College World Series

4. Get drafted or signed as a free agent by one of the 30 major-league organizations

5. Play his way through rookie ball, low A, high A, and AA, which lands him in AAA

And if he excels in AAA, he gets a shot at one of the 900 spots on a major-league roster in any given season.

Which brings me to Sugar, a terrific movie I watched on DVD last night. It’s the story of a fictional Dominican teenager who, thanks to a mid-90s fastball and a knuckle curve that drops off the table, gets a shot at stardom. The movie takes him from a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic to a team in the Midwest League, which is in the lower level of class-A minor-league ball.

They used a real Midwest League stadium, Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, Iowa, home to the Quad Cities River Bandits. (They’re called the Swing in the movie, which is the team’s former name.) The verisimilitude is amazing. Other than creating a fictional major-league organization, the Kansas City Knights, they used real ballparks, uniforms, and team names. The actors aren’t pro baseball players, but they’re athletes.

The places where they fudge are pretty minor. For example, they take the story’s hero, Miguel, straight from spring training in Arizona to what appears to be mid-summer in Iowa. In reality, Iowa in April would be cold and sloppy-wet, a major source of disconnection for kids who’ve never seen a snowflake. (That includes some American high schoolers from the South, as well as the kids from Latin America.) And Miguel’s pitches don’t really look as devastating as they’re supposed to be, which makes sense, given that the actor, Algenis Perez Soto, never pitched during his many years playing amateur baseball on the island.

For me, the open question is how Sugar ranks among the best baseball movies of all time. I think there’s a broad consensus about the top five or six — Bull Durham, Eight Men Out, Field of Dreams, Bad News Bears, Major League, and maybe a weepie like Bang the Drum Slowly or The Rookie. You can put them in any order and probably find plenty of agreement.

I’m tempted to say Sugar automatically jumps into the conversation, and closer to the top of this list than the bottom. It’s more than a baseball movie — I think it’s as good a movie about the immigrant experience as In America, just to pick one example — but it’s more about baseball than anything else. 

If you’ve seen Sugar, how would you rank it among baseball movies? If you haven’t seen it, how would you rank your favorite baseball movies in general?

  • Haven’t seen the movie but ballparks bring me back to my time spent pitching and catching during my youth. I’ll pick it up as soon as possible. Great post Lou.

  • TJ

    Having not seen Sugar I will have to refrain from opinions on it and go directly to ranking a few of the baseball movies I have seen. Bull Durham is far and away my favorite with Major League coming in second (albeit quite a ways behind). Eight Men Out was good as well as Field of Dreams. I thought that the ommision of A League of Thier Own was curious here but I understand that you can’t name every baseball movie you know of. I’m sure to get flamed for this but I thought that The Natural was an epic fail of a movie. Just terrible!! Anyway, my 2 bits.

  • Most people are disappointed to see a minor league game for the first time until they make it there. Then they realize how much closer they can see everything and at a MUCH better price. Or at a bigger convenience.

  • Lou: Okay, THE NATURAL is a little overdone–maybe a LOT overdone–but I remember loving it when I was a kid. And if that’s not on the list, how do you justify FIELD OF DREAMS? All the ‘baseball / nostalgia / magic’ stuff is lost on me. But maybe I’m just not enough of a fan of the game.

    BULL DURHAM definitely leads the pack. Right in Costner’s (admittedly limited) wheelhouse. And Susan Sarandon being absurdly sexy and funny, and Tim Robbins before he started taking himself a tad too seriously? It’s a shutout.

    Looking forward to SUGAR though–heard good things, even before reading this post.

  • I just forgot A League of Their Own. But I didn’t forget The Natural — like TJ, I just didn’t care for it.

    Andrew, I included Field of Dreams because it’s one people always mention when they make lists of the top baseball movies. It’s not in my personal top 5.

    If I had to rank, it would probably go like this:

    1. Bull Durham (gotta agree with Andrew on this one — it’s the MVP in this division)

    2. Eight Men Out (dark, but it stuck with me in a way the others didn’t)

    3. Bad News Bears (I may be in the minority here, but I really like both versions)

    4. Sugar (for all the reasons listed above)

    5. Major League (when it’s on cable, I’ll drop whatever I’m doing and watch)

    6. A League of Their Own (a bit too sentimental at the beginning and end, but everything in between is terrific)

  • I haven’t seen “Sugar”, but I definitely have to get this DVD as soon as possible…it sounds VERY interesting. I have always been a great fan of baseball movies, among my favorites are “Bull Durham”, “Field of Dreams”, “Eight Men Out” and – as far as kids are concerned – “The Sandlot”. It’s such a charming movie which I loved to see with my son. 🙂

  • The Sandlot is another one I forgot about. It wouldn’t go in my top 5, but I liked it a lot. I think my kids liked it as well (at least the parts with the dog!).

  • I don´t know the movie “Sugar”, bit i think i´ll watch in next time. Sounds great and really intresting. The genre “baseball movie”,l just know “Cleveland Indians”… its an new experience and i´ll see if i like it or not. Thanks für your Post Lou.

  • I watched sugar a couple of months ago, really nice moovie. you’ve got good tastes!

  • I´m going to serch for the movie “Sugar” right now. It sounds to be a really interesting movie! By the way, do you know where can I find it?

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