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?