X-Factor

The minor-league turf of talent, sweat and tears.

By Joseph Silverzweig

When you settle in on the grassy hill over the top of the outfield at Smith’s Ballpark to take in a game, your mind is on a lot of things: the perfect spot to sit, not spilling your beverage, which direction your kids are running off in—maybe even the game. We rarely pause to consider the intense and usually thankless grind experienced by the athletes on the field, the sacrifices they must make to get close to their dreams, and the obstacles in the way of achieving it.

Although we think of athletes as wealthy and famous, minor league ballplayers are anything but. Baseball isn’t a sport reserved for giants, and it doesn’t require a flawless physique. A minor league ballplayer can easily fade into the background of your average neighborhood supermarket or dentist’s office. They make little money, with lawsuits occasionally cropping up that allege teams pay them less than minimum wage. They seldom travel in comfort or style, instead riding in buses with little notice of where they may be headed next. Their families can’t afford to follow with them, which causes considerable strain. Without job security or quality union representation that major league athletes are afforded, they’re often an injury or a string of bad luck away from being out of a job forever.

Very few ever make it to the big leagues. Only 10 percent or 11 percent of minor league players are estimated to ever participate in a Major League Baseball game. Those harsh numbers are worse for the so-called “journeymen” who make up sizeable portions of every minor-league roster. These players have talent but didn’t meet expectations, are often overlooked or are never in the right place at the right time to take a major league field. They bounce from league to league and team to team for years,  taking up pitches and at-bats for other players. It’s a hard life that just gets harder.

The prospects of a call-up grow dimmer for a lot of reasons. Baseball, like most sports, is driven by conservative decisions. MLB general managers would rather have a mediocre player they know, understand and can predict than take a risk on an unproven journeyman out of one of their developmental teams. Politics also play a role—the front office is under a lot of pressure to make good use of the latest hot prospect, the blockbuster trade or the flashy free agent signing, and they’ll often continue to give those players time even if they aren’t producing.

The game itself has also begun to change, with MLB managers relying on advanced statistics and analytics to prepare shifts, pitching plans and other strategies to handle the game’s best players. In the low-budget world of minor-league ball, none of that exists, so there’s no way for journeyman players to learn it.

When you add that to profoundly different strike zones, park dimensions and other variables, there’s an enormous adjustment between being in the minor league and coming up to the show. It’s an unfair system, but that unfairness is part of why it works very well for the major teams that run the minor leagues.

The minor leagues are training grounds for new draft picks and exciting prospects. The best players, in an imaginary perfect world, are expected to fly through the ranks, spending a few weeks or months in each league before being promoted to the next and then, the next. Then ultimately, they’re promoted to the majors just in time for the stretch run to the playoffs. This quick learning curve can’t happen without plenty of opponents— and the opponents have to be competent baseball players. Having teams full of good-but-not-great players striving for a big break serves this system well. General managers are able to feel confident their top prospects will be seeing the best pitches, defense and bats their minor leaguers can muster, because those minor leaguers are holding on to their jobs for dear life and trying to prove that they are ready for the show.

This stable, unchanging base of players allows the minor leagues to serve as a petri dish for intriguing prospects—it’s a controlled environment with enough there for the successful player to thrive and the player who doesn’t have what it takes to falter—ultimately subsumed into the agar of minor league baseball. It’s an effective method for clubs to feel confident about their personnel decisions, and it creates an entertaining on-field product that brings baseball all over the country to places like Salt Lake City that would not otherwise get to see too many swings of the bat.

But, for a sport that’s enjoyed 15 consecutive years of growth and has now hit $10 billion in revenues, questions continue to arise about whether minor league ballplayers are given a fair share of that growing pie and a fair chance at earning their place in the show.