Every baseball team at every level of professional and amateur competition is selling you one thing at the beginning of every season. It’s not $7 sodas, tickets, and sadly not every team is selling churro dogs yet. What you can find at every Opening Day across America being sold to the fans of every team is hope.
Baseball and spring have become more or less synonymous, and a lot of that has not only to do with the start dates, but also with some of the symbolism associated with each. Spring brings us new life and each new baseball season brings new life to every team. That’s a deep as I’m going to go into baseball metaphors because I am not a poet and metaphors are the crutches that bad writers use for support. (Irony!) In any case, every team is equal in the standings at the beginning of the season and with that comes the hope that any given team can finish on top of the standings.
This is a feeling that is mostly unique to baseball. In the NBA, we knew that the Philadelphia 76ers were going to be terrible and that the Golden State Warriors were going to be really good. In the NFL, we know the New England Patriots are going to be in the playoffs every year and the Buffalo Bills are not. The biggest upset in North American sports in terms of gambling came during the 2011 MLB season when the Cardinals were at 999-1 odds to win the World Series late in the season. Texas Rangers fans can tell you what happened that season as they look over their shoulder for the ghost of David Freese. In fact, three of the four biggest upsets in North American sports history occurred on a baseball field.
When there’s a season that’s 162 games long, bizarre things are going to happen, not just from game to game but over the course of an entire season. Baseball is the also the hardest sport to predict as one year you’ve got Adrián Beltré posting a 9.5 WAR and finishing second in the MVP race and the next he’s batting .255 while posting a 3.2 WAR. Baseball is a weird sport and that’s what makes it so great, you truly never know how the next at-bat is going to go. And that brings us back to the topic of hope.
From Little League to the Major Leagues, most of the hope that comes with each new season is focused around the team. The team hopes they can make the playoffs, win a championship, or just perform better than last season. After all, baseball has always been a sport that celebrates team and sportsmanship over individuality and personality. Whether that’s right or wrong is a debate for another day. However, in between the lowest level of competition and the best players in baseball, there’s an area of baseball where the hope is no longer directed towards the team, but the hope is about each individual player. The minor leagues.
The Salt Lake Bees are the AAA affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels professional baseball team. In layman’s terms they are one step below being in the MLB. I attended both the Bees Media Day and Opening Day and got to witness the difference first hand. (I didn’t even have to sneak in like usual, the Bees let me be there. It was dope.) During Media Day, the interviews with players had very little to do with what they could do for the team, but what they could do to get to the major league level. In the MLB, questions about each individual player’s performance are common, but they are often in regards to how it will help the team. This line of questioning doesn’t exist as much in the minor leagues, it’s all about how individual performance can help you move on from the team your currently on. It’s a dynamic that’s not glamorized in the televised world of the MLB.
Baseball has always been an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. Sure you play on a team but the game is a series of 1-on-1 battles between the pitcher and the batter with other fielders sometimes getting involved. The sum of each individual moment comes together to form the results of the team. In football, every single player has an important role in a play. In baseball, the right fielder might not touch the ball for nine innings. This is why minor league baseball is so different from the baseball we know; the players are still on teams, but the team aspect is stripped away to focus on each player. I would make a pretty solid guess that every single player at every level of the minors would trade a minor league championship for a chance to move up one more level every time.
The Bees very own manager, Keith Johnson, said that he would measure his success as a manager based on how many of his players make it up to the major leagues. You’ll never hear Ned Yost, manager of the World Series winning Royals say he considers the season a success if he puts four players on the All-Star Team.
The Bees are an especially interesting minor league team in that they have two players on the roster with a World Series ring (Quintin Berry and Ramon Ramirez) and over 1,700 games of big league experience among the entire roster. As the season moves along, these guys aren’t hoping to achieve a life-long dream for the first time, their hoping to get back among the best, and in some cases to one again reach the top of the mountain. While many young players simply want to make the majors, most of these guys have been there, and they want to get back once again. And on Opening Day one player did get back, RHP Nick Tropeano was recalled to the Angels before the first pitch was even thrown, taking that last step towards the destination every other player is still trying to reach or return to.
These other players still had the Opening Day game to play, and in terms of highlights it was generally uneventful. Although every baseball game is eventful cause baseball games are wonderful events, this one was without many jaw-dropping plays. The Bees won the game 5-3 over the San Francisco Giants minor league affiliate Sacramento River Cats. Nate Smith, the Angels 3rd ranked prospect, pitched a solid game and got the win while seven of the nine Bees players got on base. As Ryan Lollis grounded out to end the game, it wrapped up the first of 144 games on the Bees schedule. You can bet that each player hopes their not on the roster for every single one of those games, but there’s no guarantee one way or the other.
That’s not to take away from the skill of the players or the quality of the organization. It’s the reality of baseball. In the minor leagues you are still one of the top players in all the world, you’re just not among the best. Every true competitor wants to be with the best, and if you are content with being in the minors, you’re very likely not even going to get to that level in the first place. Eventually, competition will sift out those who belong among the elite and those who don’t.
Opening Day is a majestic event (and should be a national holiday), and that was no different for the Salt Lake Bees game. There’s nothing that can beat watching a baseball game on a warm spring evening, no matter the team or the location. There is an actual sense of a new beginning, a clean slate to write whatever you want onto it. And as the players walked off the field and into the evening, the special feeling of a new season remained. Mike Trout once played for the Salt Lake Bees, trying to make his own dream of playing in the MLB a reality. There’s no reason to think the current Bees can’t find success at the next level either.
Minor league baseball isn’t the planned final destination for the players, but there’s still an atmosphere that can only be found at a baseball game. The focus may be on players instead of teams but the game remains the same. Hope springs eternal with baseball, and on Opening Day every player and every fan is there looking to take that hope and see it become reality. You can’t ask for anything better than that.
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