Minor League Spotlight: Bus Leagues Baseball

This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com

The Bus Leagues are, by definition, the low levels of minor and independent leagues of baseball nicknamed as such because the teams are traveling by that mode of transportation. While they’re not traveling in the lap of luxury, the road from the minors to the majors is filled with talent and excitement.

Since 2007, Eric Angevine and Brian Moynahan have been writing about the minor leagues of baseball at their website, Bus League Baseball. Along with a number of contributing writers, they have profiled and interviewed players, people affiliated with teams and fans alike to provide a unique perspective on the talented and always entertaining level of baseball. They recently launched their own domain at Bus League Baseball. When I approached them to do an interview with Baseball Digest, they enthusiastically provided great insight into minor league baseball.

Baseball Digest: What led to your interest in covering minor league baseball?

Eric Angevine: The only big city I ever lived in was Denver, for a few years in the 1990s. I had grown up in Wichita, KS, so I was much more likely to see a minor-league or even a college game. For the past ten years I’ve lived in Charlottesville, VA, and we’re surrounded by teams here. I have a seven-year-old son, and he loves to go to games with me, so we’ve checked out the teams in Lynchburg, Salem, Richmond, and Norfolk pretty often. We’ve even started to range farther afield to take in the Altoona Curve (they have a roller coaster in the outfield!) and the Danville Braves. This year we already have tickets to see the Durham Bulls. So, the crux of the answer is that it became something I could do with my family, especially my kid. Since I love to write, it only made sense to start a blog. That’s also why it mattered to me to talk about mascots and promotions and the actual experience instead of just numbers, or how quickly someone could get to the majors.

Brian Moynahan: To make a long story short, I got pulled into minor league baseball blogging by Eric. We had been friends online for about a year and really respected one another’s writing style. One night we were chatting and the conversation turned to our mutual interest in minor league baseball. We thought it might serve as a good opportunity for collaboration. A couple days later, he sent me a link to a web site he had created and was like, “Go here and start writing.”

BD: Have you seen a change in covering minor and independent baseball leagues since the evolution of the social networks like Twitter and Facebook? The Bus Leagues website has been around since 2007, has it become easier to connect with teams and players through these networks?

EA: Definitely “yes”. Brian and I have landed interviews with prospects and administrators through every possible medium. We’ve established a back-and-forth with Tiffany Brooks, who is trying out for the independent Big Bend Cowboys, all because she left a comment on the blog one day. Sometimes we’re better able to follow people we want to talk to because they’re on Twitter. Sometimes the reverse happens, and they (or their agents) contact us. Just the fact that someone who’s dedicating his or her life to baseball takes notice of what we have to say and wants to share some words with us points to a huge shift in the paradigm of baseball coverage in general.

BM: Twitter has definitely changed our site, for the better. It has made everyone involved in the game, from players to front office personnel, as accessible as they choose to be. I’ve landed at least two interviews just by saying hello and chatting for a bit. Michael Schlact and I, for instance, had a lovely conversation about Thin Mints, which I think helped him see that I wasn’t just some weirdo. It’s a little more immediate than email or Facebook, so you can converse more freely to set things up. Twitter has also been a great tool for introducing us to other writers and allowing us to share work back and forth.

BD: Between the minor league leagues and independent leagues, there are literally hundreds of teams playing ball throughout the country. If you had to pick two factors to explain how these teams are able to maintain some sense of a fanbase, what would they be?

EA: For affiliated teams, the two factors would be the chance to see pro baseball in your backyard and the opportunity to see guys who are on their way up or stars on rehab assignments. Independent teams are a little different. For them, it’s even more important to be viable family-friendly entertainment – sort of a carnival with a baseball game attached; in some cases, teams have been there long enough to become local treasures.

The social aspect of it can’t be underestimated. A post that still draws daily traffic on Bus Leagues is one that contributor Will Georgantas wrote in 2008 about attending a New Hampshire Fisher Cats game where he met up with Brian for the first time. The post pretty much encapsulates the mission of the site for me: it has photos of the guys posing with mascots, visiting the PA booth, admiring the ballpark, talking about prospects and trying to figure out what the heck a Fisher Cat is. Minor league baseball is just fun. That’s the root of its popularity.

BD: Speaking of the ‘carnival’ act that surrounds minor league and independent league baseball, last season the Mets Single A Brooklyn Cyclones had a Medieval Night that included sword fights between innings while pitchers warmed up. In 2005, the Brockton Rox of the Can-Am League gave former Major Leaguer Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd a roster spot 8 years after his last appearance in any professional league. There are hundreds of promotions like these that take place every year. What is the the most entertaining or interesting promotion or player sighting you have seen during your trips to see various leagues?

EA: I think the kings of ballpark fun are the Charleston RiverDogs. They have a Veeck in charge, and sometimes they convince part-owner Bill Murray to put on the inflatable sumo costume and wrestle. I haven’t made it down there yet, but it’s top of my list if I can figure out when and how. Worth it for the food alone. Speaking of food, one of my favorite trips was to see the Red Sox of Salem, VA. A couple of years back they were an affiliate of the Houston Astros called the Salem Avalanche. They serve this massive pulled-pork BBQ sandwich with cole slaw on top (photo by me) and they kept making my son sno-cones long after he should have been cut off. One of their sponsors that night was a bread company. So as we left they gave each of us a loaf of bread,and we walked out — three generations of us, including my mother-in-law, wife, and son — happy as clams because of a simple little promotion.

Looking at this, I’d have to say that food is at least a third of what I enjoy about baseball. Will has friends who moved to North Carolina recently, and he emailed us for a consensus on which Durham Bulls ticket mini-package they should order. I looked at the possibilities and said “there’s no way I can recommend anything other than the ‘Hit Bull, Win Steak’ ticket package.” Bull Durham is the inspiration for so much of our blog. One place I visited for the visual appeal (and the chance to see Matt LaPorta on the visiting team) was the Altoona Curve ballpark. There’s an amusement park attached to the stadium, and the roller coaster is right behind the outfield fence. The cars are painted with letters that spell “G-O-C-U-R-V-E” as they rattle by the field.
For player sightings, the old AAA Richmond Braves (since departed) went absolutely ape a few years ago when Deion Sanders was sent down to rehab. I think they had people hanging off the scoreboard to get a look at him.

BM: In minor league baseball, it is vital to establish a rapport with the community. That’s easier said than done, and sometimes just doesn’t happen, for whatever reason. In Nashua, they tried to do that initially, despite some strong opposition to the team, and had some success. You need, as an organization, regardless of level, to do everything you can to show the public why they should attend your games.

One of my favorite promotions ever was Watergate Day, which we did when I was in Nashua. We gave away Richard Nixon bobbleheads, and our PA announcer – Ken Cail, the best in the business, hands down – did the first couple innings in a fake voice (as Deep Throat) and we shut everything off for seventeen minutes in the middle of the game – scoreboard, sound effects, everything. We tried to get a local named Richard Nixon to come throw out the first pitch, but he wasn’t interested.

BD: Brian, I saw on the Bus Leagues twitter feed that you interned with the Nashua Pride in 2003-2004. Growing up in New England, the Pride was one of my favorite teams of all time. We know that former MLB players end up in the independent leagues as players, managers, and coaches. In fact, I was in attendance when former big leaguer Pete Incavilia hit a towering home run against the Nashua Pride a few years after he left the majors. I was curious whether people in the front offices within the independent leagues latch on with MLB organizations, or if MLB personnel sometimes turn up with an independent organization.

BM: I started as a PR intern for Nashua in 2003, then was promoted to Media Relations Manager in November. I got to see Rickey Henderson, Jose Lima, Dante Bichette, Eric Gagne – guys past their primes, but still very cool. In Manchester, I saw Travis Snider win the All-Star Game Home Run Derby in 2008. Also, last year, I was able to see a number of young players like Colby Rasmus, Andrew McCutchen, Fernando Martinez, Matt Wieters. Ironically, I saw them all in the majors, but they were guys who originally caught my eyes as minor league prospects.

Just from my limited experience, I’ve seen people move from the independent ranks into affiliated organizations. One guy I worked with got a job selling tickets for the Diamondbacks, another spent a year or two with the Frederick Keys, still another moved to Rancho Cucamonga to work with the Quakes. It’s just like a player trying to break through: if you are willing to work your butt off, and can sell an organization on that, you’ve got a shot.

BD: Thanks so much for giving our readers at Baseball Digest your thoughts on minor league ball! We’ll finish off with one more question. Do you have any plans for the 2010 season, with regard to seeking out particular teams or leagues?

EA: I’m definitely going to head down to North Carolina and see some of the great teams down there. Hoping to see the Hagerstown Suns as well. I’ve had a longstanding invitiation from Will to come see the Brooklyn Cyclones. The most exciting news is right next door for me: Virginia is finally getting AA ball, with the former Connecticut Defenders moving to Richmond to become the Flying Squirrels. We’re all holding our breath that Stephen Strasburg will stay in AA long enough to come visit. If not, I’ll happily drive up to Harrisburg. We’ve been dying to find someone who can cover the west coast for us, but we haven’t yet. We’re launching our own domain, though it will look much the same.

BM: I live in New Hampshire, so my goal for the season is at least one visit to any ballpark within easy driving distance. One of our contributors, Chris, lives in upstate New York, so I’m hoping to get up there over a long weekend to see some International League games.

Thanks again go out to Eric and Brian for answering a few questions for Baseball Digest! Be sure to check out their website, and keep an eye on Baseball Digest as we’ll follow up with the Bus Leagues throughout the season.

Next week, the Minor League Spotlight will focus on the Birmingham Barons, the AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox! In addition to previewing the long time major league affiliate, we will ask the Barons’ clubhouse manager a few questions about his team!

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