Major league baseball play begins early every April, and fans across the United States flock to ballparks to watch their favorite teams and players. Professional baseball players today often make the game look so effortless that it's easy to forget what a tough path they've followed to get to "The Show." Few players reach the majors without first playing in the minor leagues, sometimes referred to as the "farm system" or, more recently, the "player development program." Basically, this system enables players to prepare for the big leagues by playing in progressively tougher minor leagues based around the country.
Experts say minor league baseball has become more popular over the years because it's affordable, fans can see and hear all the action and the players -- young guys with big club ambitions -- really hustle.
In many ways, the minor leagues, which also begin play in April, mirror the majors. But there are also ways in which life in the minors is quite different. In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll examine the world of minor league baseball by taking a behind-the-scenes look at one of the nation's most successful minor league clubs, the Triple-A Durham Bulls. We'll explore the relationship between the North Carolina-based team and its major league "parent" -- the Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- and learn more about what it takes to run a minor league baseball team as an entertainment business -- something baseball insiders say Durham does extremely well!
What's a Minor League Team?
A minor league baseball team is affiliated with a major league team, and today any minor league team has two major goals:
- The development and preparation of young players for the big leagues
- The forging of a successful local business. (More later about how these two fit together.)
Most major league teams have minor leagues structured like this:
- Rookie team - This level is usually young players just out of high school or college, with an average age of 19.
- Class A - This level of play is just above the rookie team. Some major league teams, such as the Devil Rays, have both A and "advanced A" clubs playing in two different leagues.
- Class AA (Double-A) - Players are more experienced at this level (average age is 23) and more likely to jump from here to the majors. AA teams may include former major leaguers who are there temporarily to recover from an injury or work out a performance problem before returning to the big club.
- Class AAA (Triple-A) - This is the step just below the major leagues and the quality of the baseball at this level is very close to what we might see at a major league game.
Although there are some baseball stars who are drafted or signed to contracts and go straight to the majors, they are the exception to the rule. The majority of players play at least one minor league season. Occasionally, exceptional players, such as former Durham Bull Andruw Jones (now a centerfielder for the Atlanta Braves), whirls through all the farm teams in one season and winds up in the majors the following season.
Each minor league team plays in a league of teams with players at similar levels of proficiency, usually with all the teams in the league within busing distance of one another (long, dull bus rides are among some players' least favorite memories of their time in the minors!). As a player advances to AA and AAA, many of those bus trips are replaced by plane rides because league teams are geographically farther apart. (Salaries go up, too!)
All (with the exception of short-season teams which play 76 games) professional baseball players play at least 140 games, working seven-day weeks from early April until (depending on post-season play) the summer's end. (Rain-outs, which once provided an occasional day off, seldom happen anymore, due to the much improved drainage systems in today's ballparks. The only remaining day off? All-Star Game day in July and that's only a day off for players who aren't chosen to play in the game.)
Some minor league teams have long affiliations with major league clubs -- the Durham Bulls were part of the Atlanta Braves' farm system for 17 years. However, one minor league team might be affiliated with several major league systems over its lifetime. That's why, experts say, smart minor league team owners promote and market team loyalty, rather than loyalty to individual players who may be gone next week! In 1998, the Bulls began play as part of the minor league system of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, an American League expansion team.
Some minor league teams use some version of their big club's name. However, because of the popularity and tradition of the Durham Bulls, the team has retained its name, and its familiar logo of a smoke-snorting bull.
History of the Minors
According to minor leagues expert Bob Hoie, the first recognized minor league was the Northwestern League, which was organized in 1882. League officials sought cooperation and protection of player contracts from the National League -- a necessary step because independent clubs often lost their best players during the season to the National League and, later, to the American Association clubs.
In 1883, the Northwestern League, the National League and the American Association signed an agreement that bound the clubs to honor the contracts of players on reserve lists, to recognize each other's suspensions and expulsions, to establish territorial rights and to form an arbitration committee to settle disputes. The agreement also set minimum salaries -- at a higher level in the National League and the American Association and lower in the Northwestern League -- and basically assigned "major" or "minor" status to teams, Hoie said.
In 1885, a new National Agreement was adopted, making the National League and the American Association (which had just accepted the Interstate Association as an "alliance" league) the principal parties and removing from minor league clubs the protection of the reserve clause. Two years later, that clause was reinstated for the minors, but the lines had been drawn and the major-minor league distinction had been formalized.
The next new National Agreement, which came on the heels of the American Association's collapse in 1892, established minor league classifications for the first time and awarded major league teams the right to draft minor league players at fixed prices. (While all these negotiations were underway, the number of minor leagues in the country had grown from two in 1883 to 17 by 1888.)
Briefly, organized baseball was confined to the northeast quadrant of the country, expanding to the South in 1885, to the upper midwest in 1886, to California in 1887, Texas in 1888 and the Pacific Northwest in 1890.
Meanwhile, the Negro Baseball League, which was being raided (for players) by the partially integrated minor leagues, sought -- and received -- protection under the National Agreement. Unfortunately, economic woes and, some say, the pressures of the times, led to the closing of the league two weeks later. According to Hoie, that kind of casualty was common during the 19th century when more than 40 percent of the leagues that started a season failed to finish it.
Minor league baseball continued to hang in there with its core supporters over the economic battles of the next several decades -- battles that often focused on draft issues and salaries and pitted majors against minors and higher minors against lower minors.
By 1963, 90 percent of the minor league clubs were major league affiliates and the overall number of minor clubs was down. But that had changed by the 1980s, when minor league baseball exploded (experts aren't sure why), topping 20 million in attendance in 1987 for the first time since the 1950s. The Buffalo, N.Y., team set an all-time minor league attendance record with 1.1 million in 1988. And -- in what may have been the catalyst for the 1990 major-minor crisis -- minor league franchises, which could be picked up for a song in the 1970s, were being sold for millions.
The Professional Baseball Agreement that binds the majors and minors was set to expire at the end of 1990. Under that agreement, the majors provided significant support for the minors. The majors proposed a reduction in those subsidies, claiming that the minors were healthy enough to pay more of their operational expenses. On the other hand, minor league clubs resented what they perceived as attempts to take financial advantage.
After the dust settled, most minors gave in, fearing they couldn't survive without players provided by the majors. Under the new agreement, the majors would still pay most of the operational expenses, but minors were now required to pay a share of their ticket revenues to the majors, forego their share of big-league TV revenues and meet newly established minimum standards at their parks.
It was generally believed that these changes would reduce minor league clubs' profits and, in the process, stabilize or reduce the value of franchises, Hoie said. This did not turn out to be the case; in 1992, the Las Vegas franchise sold for a record $7 million and some less-than-successful Class A franchises were sold for more than $1 million each.
Despite the positive trends of the past decade or so, not all minor league clubs enjoy the degree of success of Buffalo, Indianapolis, Louisville and Durham clubs; around 25 percent of the clubs still draw fewer than 1,000 fans per game. Only time will tell if minor league baseball's roller-coaster ride of the past century will continue.
The Durham Bulls
The rich tradition and history of the Durham Bulls illustrates, in many ways, how the minor leagues in the United States have evolved. Durham has been a baseball town since 1902, when the Durham Bulls took the field for the first time in George Lyon Ball Park as a member of the North Carolina State Professional Baseball League. The Bulls' name came from the town's most successful industry at the time -- tobacco -- and most popular brand of tobacco, Bull Durham. (The movie came later!)
Early leagues opened and folded and shut down on several occasions due to World War I, the Depression and World War II. The team won its first league championship in 1924. And the ballpark, which had undergone two name changes, echoed the team's moniker with the new name, El Toro ("the bull" in Spanish) Park in 1926.
Durham began its first major league affiliation in 1933 with the New York Yankees. Following that season, local philanthropists donated $20,000 to the city, which purchased El Toro and renamed it once again -- this time to Durham Athletic Park, or what locals call the DAP. This park, located near downtown Durham's tobacco warehouses (now used for other functions), became an integral part of the community, drawing families and sports fans from across the region to the charming, traditional baseball park. (Locals so loved the DAP that the Bulls feared they would not accept the new, larger DBAP (Durham Bulls Athletic Park), when it was opened in 1995).
Over the years, the Durham Bulls have been affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds (1936-40), the Brooklyn Dodgers (1941-47), the Detroit Tigers (1948-61), the National League expansion team Houston Astros (1962-66), the other National League expansion team New York Mets (1967-69) and the Philadelphia Phillies (1969-72). The Bulls' longest relationship (to date) was with the Atlanta Braves, starting in 1980 and ending in 1996, when the Bulls were granted a Triple-A franchise with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for a team in the International League.
Other historic moments over the years included:
- June 1939 - Fire burned the DAP to the ground, resulting in $100,000 in damage. (According to Bulls' official history, groundskeeper Walter Williams, who slept under the stands, escaped through the center field gate.) After an amazing two-week reconstruction project, the Bulls were back playing in the DAP. Photo courtesy Durham Bulls Crash Davis, the player whose story inspired the movie "Bull Durham," throwing out a Durham Bulls game ball in 1999, more than 50 years after he played on the team Photo courtesy Durham Bulls The famous bull, with his flashing eyes, wagging tail and smoking nostrils, was left to the Bulls after the making of the movie "Bull Durham."
- 1987 - "Bull Durham," starring Kevin Costner as a minor league player on his way out, was done primarily at the DAP and other area locations. The story was loosely based on the life of Durham minor leaguer Crash Davis, who played in the late 1940s. The movie's 1988 release put the Durham Bulls -- and other minor league teams -- in the national limelight. (The famous snorting bull, originally intended as a prop for the movie, remains at the DBAP, where his eyes flash red, his tail wags and smoke pours from his nose when the "good guys" hit a homer. Last season for the first time, the guy who "operated" the bull from inside its wooden frame, was relieved from duty when technical improvements enabled staff to remotely operate El Toro.)
- June 1989 - Team owner Miles Wolff asked the City of Durham to build a new, larger ballpark so that Durham could qualify for a Triple-A franchise. (Triple-A ballparks have to have the same dimensions and characteristics as major league parks.) The city agreed to pay for a new ballpark using certificates of participation -- a financing plan that later changed to include $11.28 million in county general obligation bonds, which would require voter approval and $5.02 million in city money. The voters rejected the bond issue for the new stadium, and the debate about whether the city should build a new ballpark raged among fans and in local government meetings.
- August 1990 - Average game attendance of 6,202 at the DAP (considerably beyond its seating capacity) pushed Durham's attendance to 300,499, making it the first Carolina League team ever to pass the 300,000 mark. (Today, Bulls' attendance continues to place them, along with Triple-A teams in Buffalo and Indianapolis, in the top half dozen minor league teams in the nation.)
- March 1991 - Jim Goodmon, president of Capitol Broadcasting Co., bought the Bulls from Wolff and made plans to shift the team to a new park he would build on a site near Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Later that year, Durham leaders rallied to the cause of keeping the team in town by offering millions to renovate the DAP or help build a new stadium.
- 1991 - Infielder Joe Morgan became the first (former) Durham Bull to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
- May 1992 - The City of Durham agreed that the new park would be built on a 10.28-acre site just off the freeway in downtown Durham and negotiated a 20-year lease with the Durham Bulls. The council agreed to finance the project -- which ended up costing more than $16 million -- using certificates of participation (and avoiding another bond referendum).
- July 1992 - The Bulls unveiled their new mascot, Wool E. Bull, the winning entry in a local contest to name the lovable mascot. (The "E" in his name stands for "Education" and he lives up to that name by his annual involvement with children, schools and community groups, Crichton says.)
- April 1995 - Seven years after Wolff's original proposal, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park opened its doors for its inaugural season. Fans, mollified by the fact that the beloved old DAP would be used for other local concerts and athletic events, turned out en masse.
- November 1996 - After a couple of near-misses, a joint application of the Bulls and the Devil Rays was accepted and Durham was granted a Triple-A franchise by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.
- April 1998 - The Bulls took to the field in their first season as the Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. (The ballpark had undergone additional renovations -- such as raising the left field wall to make the degree of hitting difficulty comparable to that of other Triple-A parks.)
Minor leagues expert Lacy Lusk told HowStuffWorks that the Durham Bulls were among the early leaders of the modern-times minor league "boom." "The Bulls -- even before the movie "Bull Durham" came out -- were a popular team. Since the same players rarely stay with a team for more than a couple of years, loyalty should definitely be built up around the brand, the ballpark or simply the entertainment value of the game," he said. "Winning and losing has little to do with a minor league team's success at the gate, and the Bulls' operators understand that. With a new ballpark and their name recognition, the Bulls have been one of the teams at the front of the minor league boom we're still experiencing."
A Minor League Team as a Business
As we mentioned earlier, the major league club's player development goals must co-exist happily -- and profitably -- with the local owners and operators of a minor league club. According to Bulls' assistant general manager Mike Birling, who works with general manager George Habel to handle the team's business affairs, there is clear delineation between what the major league affiliate does and what the local administration does. There are also some areas of shared responsibility.
Baseball is the Thing
An important -- and little known -- point to make is that the major league organization makes all the decisions about who plays for each minor league team for the season. The process to determine which players will report to which team is intense, wrapping up after six or more weeks of play and discussion at spring training camps.
That's why, Bulls Community and Public Relations Director Brian Crichton says, the main office in Durham didn't have their final roster of players until the teams broke spring training camp in Florida. "We have a list of about 30 players who are likely to come here," he reported in late March. "But we won't know exactly which 24 players will be here until the last minute. The Devil Rays make all the decisions about who comes, goes and gets moved up through the system." (Baseball "wives" are familiar with this aspect of professional baseball -- with packing for unknown destinations and waiting for the word while staring at two or more possible routes drawn out on a map!) Read more about how these assignments work in the Durham Bulls' transaction glossary.
The major league club director of player development also assigns the manager, who runs the team, coaches, who work with players on hitting, pitching and catching skills, and trainers, the guys who help keep the players healthy and in good shape. (In many organizations, managers and coaches also work their way up through the minors to the majors.) The Devil Rays have sent Bill Evers to Durham as manager this season -- his fifth season with the Rays and his third with Durham.
Major league clubs keep close watch on their farm teams, sending scouts and front-office staff to watch games and keep stats on players -- all of which contributes to the future progression of the players. (Other teams also send scouts to check out young players they might be interested in picking up when their contracts are up and they're available as free agents.)
It's Also a Business!
One of the reasons the Durham Bulls -- often held up as a textbook example of how a minor league baseball team can succeed -- have done so well is that owners like Wolff and Goodmon have carefully marketed the team and not the individual players. That's why local folks have continued to be loyal Bulls fans no matter which players are around or with which major league team the Bulls are affiliated. They also understand that running a baseball team is a business -- a different kind of business, but still a business, Birling said.
"What successful business people like Miles Wolff and Jim Goodmon understand is that a minor league baseball game has to offer the kind of entertainment that can compete with the wealth of entertainment choices people have today," Birling said. "Our mission to provide the finest in entertainment for the family and people of all ages."
That's why Crichton and his staff pull out all the stops at home games. It's not just a ball game (although that's why many people are there) -- it's nine innings of flashy, family entertainment.
For example, the first home game of the 2000 season, the U.S. Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights, helped the Bulls start their quest for a third straight South Division title by landing on the field and delivering the official game ball to ceremonial first pitch guest Wade Boggs, a future hall-of-famer.
And there's more: Later in the season, an American bald eagle named Challenger, who'd been injured and was rescued by a local man, swooped down from a nearby office building to land on his trainer's arm just in time for the last note of the National Anthem. "People really love this -- it's great for the kids and contributes to the patriotic feeling people get when they watch our national pastime," Crichton says.
During every game, a lucky child is selected to "run with the bull" -- that is, to race Wool E. Bull around the bases. (Funny, how the kid always wins!) Participation is big at the DBAP -- if it's your birthday, you may be asked to stand on top of the dugout and lead the crowd in its traditional 8th inning rendition of "YMCA."
And you never know when Scout the Bat Dog (she's a real dog and she really carries bats) might put in an appearance or when Wool E. will break out his 6-horsepower Briggs & Stratton-powered go-cart and race across the field to give the youngsters a thrill. He may also sign autographs in the Ballpark Corner Store or make an appearance at the complex's playground, where children romp in the ball pit or on the slides while their parents watch them and enjoy a good view of the game at the same time.
The 10,000-seat park, designed by HOK Sport, the same group that designed Baltimore's beautiful Camden Yards, offers several different venues from which to watch the game:
- Gallery/Diamond View seats or Reserved seats (all seats have cup holders and seat backs)
- Club or Field Box seats for a closer look
- You can have a group picnic in one of the right or left field picnic areas
- You can celebrate a special occasion with your coworkers or friends in a Sky Box (indoor-outdoor seating with the best views of the field, cable TV and private attendant taking care of food and drink orders).
- And because sitting on the lawn was such a popular part of life at the old DAP, designers deliberately incorporated that feature -- a grassy hill out beyond center field -- into the park's layout.
Another important part of the overall experience at the DBAP is the food -- even opposing teams can't wait to play there. Hot dogs, burritos, ice cream, nachos, pizza, cotton candy, barbecue, fried dough -- you name it, you can find it there. There are more than a dozen concessions stands and several free-standing concession carts, operated by more than 100 local vendors.
Show Me the Money!
There are three main sources of revenue for a minor league team, according to Birling:
- Ticket sales - Several weeks before the 2000 season opener, the Bulls had sold over 220,000 tickets -- that's almost half of the 460,000 typically sold in a season. (Birling says the Bulls place a cap on the number of season tickets they sell to allow more tickets for group sales.)
- Corporate sales - Ads, wall signs and sponsorships
- Actual game revenues - This includes the team's percentage of concession profits (concessions are independently operated), merchandise from the Ballpark Corner Store (gift shop) and proceeds from the popular speed-pitch machine.
Major business expenses include rental of the ballpark (owned and maintained by the city), player-related expenses, payroll for around 100 employees (office, promotional, field, parking staff) on any given game day, National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues dues, and ticket taxes.
The Devil Rays negotiate and pay player salaries, and the Durham Bulls participate with them in paying for bats, balls, equipment and uniforms. Since umpires must remain neutral, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues trains, assigns and pays umpires.
The Life of a Minor League Ballplayer
The life of a minor league baseball player revolves around practice, games, meals, sleep and travel. It's a scramble to make time for their families or for other interests. In the case of the Bulls, Birling and his staff have arranged for most of the players and their families to live in the same apartment complex during the season. That way, they can share rides, and families can provide support systems for each other when the players are on the road.
Most wives don't try to work regular jobs during the season -- both because of their husbands' erratic schedules and because they're usually only in town for the season, returning to their homes in other states until spring training rolls around again.
For practical and team-building reasons, each baseball team travels together (on buses or planes) to away games. Every baseball organization has a different attitude towards families; some encourage wives to travel to away games, while others consider families distracting and prefer that they stay home -- or, if they come to away games, at least stay in a different hotel!
According to Crichton, Durham Bulls' CEO and president (Jim) Goodmon extends the family-friendly atmosphere at the ballpark to players and their families as well. In addition to having players meet the public and booster club members and sponsors, the Bulls also organize team gatherings and socials. And main office staff try to act as a resource for the kinds of questions new arrivals might have about the community.
One special event that was particularly successful last season will be repeated this year: Players' wives will don their husbands' uniforms and run a silent auction of baseball memorabilia on the concourse. (The benefits go to the Durham Bulls Youth Athletic League, a collaboration between the city Parks and Recreation Department and the Bulls. In this program, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are brought together for soccer and baseball. These kids are recognized on a special night each season, when they are able to hang out with the players and other Bulls' staff.)
Working at the Ballpark
Crichton, who works at marketing the team year-round, represents dozens of local young people who -- once baseball season starts -- work as many hours as the players. "A lot of people talk to me about how glamorous my job must be. And I do love it -- but they're not thinking about the fact that, on game days, we may be here 20 hours before we can go home. Then we get up and do it again the next day," he said. "We do it because we love it and we want to do a good job, but it's also a difficult time in terms of relationships in our lives and other interests."
Also a fixture at the DBAP is head groundskeeper Kevin Robinson. Robinson, who studied agronomy with a specialization in turfgrass management at North Carolina State University, may not be well known to baseball fans, but his work speaks for itself and makes him popular with the players. "The condition of the field greatly affects the game. The main goal of my job is to create a safe field, where injuries are not caused by the playing surface, and a good playing field. Communication with the players is very important -- they let me know how they like the field and I do my best to accommodate them," he said.
Robinson works on the ball field year-round. Obviously, things intensify when the season begins each spring. On those days, he's at the park by 6 a.m. or so, doing maintenance on the field, making some last minute improvements after practice and just before game time and usually wrapping up -- on a good day -- at around midnight.
DBAP ranks among Baseball America's list of the top five minor league ballparks in the country. What makes a good park? Its "play-ability," Robinson said. The process of reaching maximum "play-ability" (meaning that when a ball hits the infield, it has a "good roll" on it and takes no "bad hops") as well as creating an aesthetically pleasing park is complex and time-consuming.
For example, the correct turfgrass species for the appropriate region of the country must be determined. The DBAP has Bermuda 419 and Robinson overseeds it every fall with a perennial ryegrass to maintain a green, well manicured field year-round. The trick, he said, is a smooth transition from the ryegrass, which dies out in early summer, to the Bermuda grass, which comes out of dormancy at about the same time.
And speaking of grass: Have you ever noticed the patterns of light and dark stripes in the grass on the baseball field? Robinson explained that the effect is actually caused by the combination of a reel mower with rollers laying the grass in different directions and the reflection of sunlight off the blades of grass. "Where the pattern is a lighter shade of green, sunlight is reflecting off the leaf blade surface," he said. "Where it's darker green, the sunlight is reflecting off only the tips of the leaf blades."
Underneath the grass is a custom-designed system called Prescription Athletic Turf (PAT). This system (tailored to each park's soil, field layout, existing materials, etc.) provides maximum drainage by using 100 percent sand as the subsoil; this helps to decrease the number of rain-outs. "It eliminates some problems but creates others and makes the entire turfgrass system more delicate and harder to maintain," Robinson said. "The nutrients and water needed by the plants are not held by the sand -- they leach through the soil profile. But if you save games that would have otherwise been cancelled, it is worth it."
One of the most difficult aspects of caring for the baseball field is dealing with rain. When it becomes clear that rain is going to threaten the completion of a game, Robinson, his crew and about 15 other front-office employees pull out the "tarp." The unfolding of this heavy 170 foot by 170 foot vinyl tarp is, in itself, quite a spectacle. There's a trick to unrolling the heavy tarp smoothly without getting caught under it and being buried by your fellow rollers, he grinned.
If you would like to learn more about minor league play or locate the minor league baseball team nearest you, check out the official site of Minor League Baseball! And if you're lucky enough to have a minor league team in your hometown, go out, soak up the atmosphere and support the team -- they may be the major league stars of the future!
For much more information, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- In baseball, how does a pitcher throw a curveball?
- How does a "perfect game" in baseball work?
- How do they create patterns in a baseball field?
- When a baseball player hits a home run, how do they know how far the ball traveled?
- How do retractable roofs in convertible stadiums work?
- How Performance-Enhancing Drugs Work
More Great Links
- Durham Bulls
- Tampa Bay Devil Rays
- Minor League Baseball/Official Site
- Baseball Almanac
- The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
- Baseball America
- ESPN.com: Tampa Bay Devil Rays
- CNN/Sports Illustrated
- Organized Baseball Tours
- Why Is Baseball So Much Better Than Football?