By Rick Palsgrove
The Columbus Clippers will face some new opponents this year following Major League Baseball’s structural shake up of the minor league system.
Major League Baseball – in an effort to streamline, cut costs, and increase revenues – shrank the number of minor league teams from 160 to 120. It also revamped its top level Triple-A by eliminating the names International League and Pacific Coast League and creating a new 20 team league called Triple-A East and 10 team league called Triple-A West.
The Columbus Clippers are long-time members of the International League, a league that begin in 1884. The Pacific Coast League started in 1902. Now both league names are gone.
However, Clippers President and General Manager Ken Schnacke said the quality of baseball being played at the Triple-A level will remain the same.
“It’s a bit of a change,” said Schnacke. “But players change every year anyway and this new format will eliminate some travel.”
The Clippers’ 2021, 120-game schedule will include a combination of six game and four game series against opponents. The Clippers will compete in Triple-A East in the Midwest Division along with traditional rival the Toledo Mud Hens as well as the Indianapolis Indians, Louisville Bats, St. Paul Saints, Omaha Storm Chasers, and the Iowa Cubs.
Schnacke said each six game series will be followed by an off day, usually a Monday.
“We lose Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Flag Day because of that, but we’ve got to roll with it,” said Schnacke, who said Dime-A-Dog nights will still be held on Tuesdays and Dollar Days will be on Wednesdays.
Schnacke said, due to the ongoing corornavirus pandemic, that, as of now, the state has instituted a 30 percent capacity limit at the 10,000-seat Huntington Park. That number could increase as the year goes on and the state lifts some restrictions.
The Clippers’ home opener is May 11 against Omaha and Schnacke said pandemic precautions will include a buffer area along the dugouts and bull pens and fan seating of pods of six people or less.
“It’s a lot to get ready for,” said Schnacke.
Regarding the demise of the name “International League,” Schnacke said that, though the name will not be prevalent this year, there are efforts that the name be maintained at some point.
Schnacke added there will be no league all-star game this year nor will there be a Triple-A national championship game as in the past.
“These could return in 2022,” he said.
Author and historian James Tootle, who wrote the book, “Baseball in Columbus,” which documents the history of professional baseball in the city, said it is disappointing to see the name International League, with its rich history come to a close.
“The league’s roots go back to the 1880s and it has produced countless players and managers who made their mark in the minor league cities where they played on their way up to outstanding careers in the majors,” said Tootle.
He noted that, before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he prepared for that breakthrough by honing his skills in 1946 on the International League’s Montreal Royals.
“Baseball greats Red Schoendienst, Walt Alston, Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, Chipper Jones, Columbus’ Billy Southworth, and others are enshrined in both the IL Hall of Fame and in Cooperstown,” said Tootle. “Columbus has a long history in the International League with the Jets (1955-70) and the Clippers (1977-present), and has won many championships. The history of the IL deserves to be remembered and preserved.”
Tootle said that, while Columbus may lose several traditional opponents like Syracuse and Rochester, this season, fans will probably not miss playing teams with geographically ambiguous names such as Lehigh Valley.
“Columbus will continue to play familiar rivals Toledo, Indianapolis, and Louisville,” said Tootle. “These teams are not only International League opponents, but also the teams Columbus played against during the half-century (1903-1954) when the Columbus Senators and Red Birds were in the old American Association with those same cities.
Columbus also resumes playing St. Paul, another rival from the American Association era. It is my understanding that the 2021 schedule, which has Columbus mostly only playing teams in its own division, is due to travel restrictions caused by the pandemic and the Clippers may resume playing more of the old International League rivals in 2022.”
Tootle believes most fans will adjust to the restructuring. To them, a summer night at Huntington Park with an office group after work or with family will look about the same.
“However, to the knowledgeable fan who keeps a box score and is accustomed to following the team’s progress in the standings, the changes will be significant,” said Tootle. “When we think about why MLB did away with the historic International League name, and all the other league names throughout minor league baseball, we need look no further than the new name: Player Development League. MLB seems to be making a statement that the purpose of minor league games is to develop the skills of individual players to advance to the major league level, rather than for the local team to win games and league championships. It is always nice to win, but the main purpose of PDL games will be to provide an opportunity for players to achieve individual rather than team goals. Triple-A games will continue to provide an opportunity for an established MLB player to pitch a few innings or get at-bats while rehabbing an injury. Fans may like this since it is an opportunity to see a famous MLB player.”
He said none of this is new.
“We have seen this trend in minor league games for several decades – to give more attention to preparing individual players for the majors than building a winning team,” said Tootle. “When doing research in newspapers from the early to mid-20th century, one notices the greater number of column inches and photos devoted to the local team rather than the MLB teams. In the past, the local team generally used the same starting lineup throughout the season with few roster changes. Some stayed at Triple A for two or three seasons and fans got to know ‘their players.’ In recent years, players typically move back and forth between the majors and minors on a daily basis and fans have difficulty learning the names of the players.”
He said the Player Development League is a more accurate reflection of the relationship between the majors and minors.
“But for those in the stands who care about which team wins the game and have an appreciation for the history of the national pastime, the elimination of International League and all the other traditional league names creates a sense of loss,” said Tootle.
He believes Columbus is in excellent position to adjust, with its fine Huntington Park, experienced organizational leadership, continuing popular MLB affiliation with Cleveland, and history of community support.
“Once we get past the pandemic and crowds can return in larger numbers, Columbus should be fine,” said Tootle. “Columbus is an exceptionally strong franchise in every way.”
He said the real adjustment challenges will be felt in the 40-plus cities that lost their teams when the restructuring plan reduced the total number of minor league clubs from over 160 to 120.
“Empty ballparks and no baseball – a sad circumstance for any town,” said Tootle. “We may see the creation of new teams and leagues not associated with organized baseball to serve these communities which have suddenly lost their teams. We may see an increase in the popularity of college baseball as players who would have signed professionally out of high school may now choose to play on college teams as a way to get a shot at a professional career.”
He said the best hope for successful adjustment is the game itself.
“The atmosphere on a beautiful summer evening at the ballpark will always be magical,” said Tootle. “It is hard to beat that experience no matter what the name of the league might be. Baseball is a resilient game. Even with this total restructuring of the minors, somehow the game is always able to adjust and keeps going on—but perhaps diminished this year by the absence of the traditional league names that have been part of the fabric and history of professional baseball for generations.”
For information on how to purchase James Tootle’s book, “Baseball in Columbus,” visit www.arcadiapublishing.com.