Minors reap benefits

If the 2002 World Series winds up looking just like the ’94 Series, the only bad news for the minor leagues may be that the work stoppage didn’t arrive sooner.

The most-reported possible strike date Sept. 16 comes after the minor league seasons and most playoffs end, so fans won’t even have a fall back place to watch baseball. Traditionally, the minors have received a boost in attendance when the majors have stopped playing.

The minor leaguer players have no union and a majority work for $1,100 a month or less. During strikes or lockouts, they also play the best baseball in North America. Fans who can’t stay away from the game find new outlets, as do television networks. During the 1981 strike, widely perceived as one of the contributing factors to the two-decade boom of the minor leagues, the Richmond Braves suddenly became America’s team as several of their games were shown on TBS.

With teams like Wilmington, Potomac and Frederick close to major league clubs and Myrtle Beach in the middle of Atlanta Braves’ country, Carolina League attendance undoubtedly would rise in a prolonged strike. In 1994, minor league attendance spiked up 15.4 percent following the Aug. 12 big league strike date.

Wilmington also felt positive effects the next season, when it set a club attendance record with 358,000 fans. A work stoppage was resolved in the spring of ’95, shortening that major league season by 18 games. The Blue Rocks lead the league this season with 4,790 fans a game, putting them on a pace to come within 25,000 of that 1995 figure. That season, though, fans became even more cognizant of the value of minor league baseball.

“Based on the ’94 strike, I recall it having a bigger impact on the ’95 season,” Blue Rocks general manager Chris Kemple said. “The strike lingered on. When they’re striking and it’s January, February or March and maybe they’re in their ticket-buying mode, that’s when they call us.

“We attributed a lot of that attendance record to the tickets that were purchased in the offseason by people who might have been looking for an alternative to a major league game or Phillies’ season tickets.”

As enjoyable as a night out as a baseball game can be, though, one has to wonder how many times the major leagues can stop action and not hurt the industry as a whole. It’s one thing to realize the minor leaguers have nothing to do with a strike, but they are after all hoping to become major leaguers. How many World Series can be canceled before fans turn their backs on anything related to baseball?

Perhaps it’s a positive that minor league games carry far less weight than major league games. A larger percentage of fans go for the family entertainment rather than for what’s on the field.

That’s both the blessing and the curse of the minor leagues, but it’s the truth. When the Carolina-California League All-Star Game ended in a tie in Wilmington this June, no one seemed to mind. When the major league game finished in a tie, the crowd broke into a series of boos and “Let Them Play” chants.

Those who run minor league teams, though, may want to start their own “Let Them Stop Playing” chorus.

When fans look for a cheaper alternative to the big leagues and don’t feel like complaining about salaries, the minors are the place to go even more so when major league baseball isn’t available. Baseball followers can still hear the crack (and not the ping) of the bat and see some amazingly talented players who aren’t quite ready for prime time.

Eventually, though, enough could be enough. Cal Ripken and Mark McGwire helped save the game in the last eight years, but will someone have to hit .400 or put together a 57-game hitting streak to do the same in the next decade? Maybe some day, fans will begin to turn off all of baseball.

“Our position is if it’s bad for baseball, it’s bad for the Blue Rocks,” Kemple said. “A strike may help us in the short-term, but anything that’s bad for baseball in the long-term can only hurt us. None of us want to see a strike happen.”

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