After watching the College World Series, I'm more convinced than ever of something that I've been kicking around for a few weeks now: There needs to be more minor league baseball on television.
Actually, I just lied to you. The College World Series is a red herring. The only reason I brought it up is so that I can mention that I correctly predicted the champion, Oregon State, which swept North Carolina in the final series for its second straight title.
I didn't call it here, but discussing the CWS before its start with Bob Edwards on his XM Radio show, I said I was picking the Beavers to win it all even though I hadn't watched a college baseball game all year.
That's the kind of analysis you can't get just anywhere.
It's easier to find college baseball on TV than it is to find minor-league ball, but while college ball has grown nicely over the past few decades, it's never going to be more than just a tiny niche because the quality of play isn't great except at the very top, and because too many people just can't abide the ping! of aluminum bats.
But minor league baseball: Why isn't ESPN running a game of the week, at the very least?
I started thinking about this when ESPN televised Roger Clemens' first rehab start, in Single-A with the Tampa Thunder. Then the four-letter's broadcast of the June amateur draft, a first, convinced me that the baseball television-viewing public has grown very interested in prospects and might be interested in getting more chances to watch them play.
Minor league attendance has been growing for a quarter of a century, and the rise of fantasy baseball and the ease of obtaining information about minor leaguers have made the casual fan much more cognizant of what's happening down on the farm.
Two decades ago, you had to be a complete baseball nerd to have even heard about all but the most blue-chip of prospects, the Darryl Strawberry types, at the time they were called up to the bigs, even by your home team. Now it's common for everyday fans to know at least a little bit about the home team's top few prospects, for those players to be regular topics of conversation on talk radio, that sort of thing.
Serious fantasy players are always on the lookout for future stars, and there are a lot of serious fantasy players out there.
The official Web site of Minor League Baseball has its own version of the big-league MLB.tv, called MiLB.tv, where fans can watch minor league games online for about $7 a month or $30 a year. There are occasional free games. But other than the odd local broadcast or big event, you just can't get minor league baseball on TV.
If you're patient, and in some cases even if you're not, you can watch all manner of far less popular sports. According to my TiVo schedule, I can tune in to archery, beach volleyball, cheerleading, polo and shooting in just the next few days. But not minor league baseball, excepting one Mexican League game on ESPN Deportes. But the Mexican League, while technically rated Triple-A, isn't home to many prospects.
A spokeswoman for ESPN, after reminding me that it did run a minor league game of the week in 1995 to ratings approximating zero, told me there are no plans afoot for the network to cover more minor-league ball than it does, which is the Futures Game and the Triple-A World Series. ESPN.com does carry some minimal minor league content, mostly in partnership with the excellent Baseball America.
Minor League Baseball spokesman Jim Ferguson acknowledged, "There's not a lot of minor leagues televised" and noted that cable systems sometimes broadcast a few games a year for a local team or an affiliate of a local big club.
When I told him I've been thinking minor league baseball would be great on national TV, he said, "Why would you say that? Why would you think that everybody would be interested in the Wichita team?"
I don't. I think people would be interested in the minor leagues as a whole, in the stories and especially the prospects. I can see a half-hour weekly studio show, with highlights of notable plays and players and profiles of some of the prospects most likely to succeed -- not the prospects who have overcome some childhood illness, thank you very much.
Then, done right, the game of the week could be a showcase for these players. The emphasis would be on player development, not on whether the Wichita Wranglers can break their three-game losing streak tonight. The announcers would do a lot of talking on the air to scouts, major league executives and minor league managers about various players' strengths, weaknesses and chances. They'd talk to the players too.
We viewers would get a sampling of games from Triple-A, with its sometimes five-figure crowds, all the way down to short-season ball, where the crowds are small and the clubhouses are pretty much razor-free.
And then of course the pageantry and silliness of minor league baseball, with its kooky theme nights and wacky between-innings games and promotions, would be a big part of the show.
It'd be nichey as hell, but seamheads and fantasy players would love it if it were done well. And there are at least as many of us as there are badminton fans.
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A correction to last week's column about my All-Star ballot. I wrote about Aaron Rowand of the Philadelphia Phillies that "a good-glove center fielder with a .994 OPS needs to be starting in the All-Star Game."
This is true, but I'm not sure where I got that figure. Rowand's OPS that morning was .884, not .994. But a good-glove center fielder with an .884 OPS ought to be starting in the All-Star Game in most years too, including this one.
The column has been fixed.
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