It’s been more than 19 months since the last official minor league baseball game – when the Sacramento RiverCats defeated the Columbus Clippers 4-0 to win the Triple-A National Championship.
That void finally comes to an end this week when a completely revamped version of minor league baseball makes its debut.
However, opening day 2021 will be without much of the pageantry and promotion that has made the minor leagues such a family-friendly way to enjoy the national pastime.
“There’s no question that there’s pent-up demand, and you can multiply that by 100 when you realize that most teams around the country are going to be opening under continuing restrictions of some sort,” Derek Sharrer, executive vice president and general manager of the St. Paul Saints, tells USA TODAY Sports.
While there will be changes taking place on the field, including new experimental rules, the biggest difference between now and 19 months ago will be in how the leagues are structured.
After the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the entire 2020 minor league season, Major League Baseball ended the professional baseball agreement that had governed the relationship between the majors and minors since 1901. Over the winter, MLB completed its takeover of the minors, eliminating 43 mostly lower-level franchises and reorganizing the different classes into a more standardized structure.
All 30 major league teams now have four full-season minor league affiliates, one or two fewer than before. Two formerly independent clubs, the Saints and the SugarLand Skeeters, will join the minors as official MLB affiliates.
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One of the goals of the reshuffling was to move minor league teams closer to their parent clubs to make travel more efficient.
The Saints becoming the Minnesota Twins’ Class AAA team is perhaps the best example.
“We certainly have a unique circumstance here as we make the transition,” Sharrer says “There have been minor league affiliates close to their major league parent club in the past, but Triple-A to the major leagues operating this close, it’s never been done in this way before. It’s really exciting.”
The Twin Cities neighbors have enjoyed a healthy relationship in the past, with the Twins using St. Paul’s CHS Field – less than 11 miles away from Target Field in Minneapolis – as their alternate training facility during the pandemic.
“I don’t think any of us, either on the Twins side or the Saints side of the equation, ever really dreamt that this is where it would end up,” Sharrer says.
On the other hand, 43 franchises lost their affiliations with major league clubs. Several others that remained were demoted to lower levels. In Fresno, California, the Grizzles were left out of the shuffle, going from Class AAA with the Washington Nationals in 2019 to low-A with the Colorado Rockies.
“When you have something that’s been the same way for a long time, people may want to stick with the same program. For us, we understand that the game is evolving and that Major League Baseball needed to take a different approach in how they develop players. And we’re respectful of that,” says Grizzlies President Derek Franks.
“We had a great run as a Triple-A team and we’re going to start a great run as a Single-A team again. We’re just proud to be part of the new system.”
Other changes the minors will see this season will be with several experimental new rules MLB wants to see tested.
— Class AAA parks will have larger bases, going from 15-inch to 18-inch squares, to see if it results in more stolen base attempts. MLB teams averaged less than 0.5 steals per game each of the past two seasons, the lowest rate in nearly 50 years.
— At Class AA, teams will have limits on their ability to shift on defense. Infielders will have to keep both feet on the infield dirt before the ball is put in play. A requirement to have two infielders on either side of second base could also be implemented later in the season.
— In High-A, pitchers will have to step off the rubber before making a pickoff throw. If not, they’re charged with a balk.
— And in Low-A, all pitchers will be limited to two pickoff throws per batter with a runner on base. Some leagues will also enforce time limits between pitches and innings. Others will experiment with an automated strike zone.
Despite the subtle changes on and off the field, minor league officials remain confident fans will return to the ballpark as soon as they can.
“You don’t realize how great something is until you don’t have it. And I think that’s the sentiment we’ve felt from our fans,” Franks says.
Each of the minor league levels open their regular seasons on Tuesday, most with limited seating for fans. However, officials are hoping to be able to increase capacity incrementally through the summer to the end of the season in mid-September.
“What minor league baseball is known for is the fan experience, sometimes even above and beyond the experience between the white lines,” St. Paul’s Sharrer says. “Now having a year under their belts of not being able to play in front of fans, of not being able to open their gates and entertain fans as the way they have for years – I think you’ll see minor league teams turn it up, so to speak.
“I think you’re going to see teams doing everything they can to entertain fans like they never have before.”
Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner
Minor league affiliations, 2021
Columbus (Ohio) Clippers (Cleveland)
Indianapolis Indians (Pirates)
Iowa Cubs (Cubs)
Louisville (Ky.) Bats (Reds)
Omaha (Neb.) Storm Chasers (Royals)
St. Paul (Minn.) Saints (Twins)
Toledo (Ohio) Mud Hens (Tigers)
Buffalo (N.Y.) Bisons (Blue Jays)
Lehigh Valley (Pa.) IronPigs (Phillies)
Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings (Nationals)
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) RailRiders (Yankees)
Syracuse (N.Y.) Mets (Mets)
Worcester (Mass.) Red Sox (Red Sox)
Charlotte (N.C.) Knights (White Sox)
Durham (N.C.) Bulls (Rays)
Gwinnett (Ga.) Stripers (Braves)
Jacksonville (Fla.) Jumbo Shrimp (Marlins)
Memphis (Tenn.) Redbirds (Cardinals)
Nashville (Tenn.) Sounds (Brewers)
Norfolk (Va.) Tides (Orioles)
Albuquerque (N.M.) Isotopes (Rockies)
El Paso (Texas) Chihuahuas (Padres)
Oklahoma City Dodgers (Dodgers)
Round Rock (Texas) Express (Rangers)
Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters (Astros)
Las Vegas Aviators (A’s)
Reno Aces (D-backs)
Sacramento RiverCats (Giants)
Salt Lake Bees (Angels)
Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners)
Arkansas Travelers (Mariners)
Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Royals)
Springfield (Mo.) Cardinals (Cardinals)
Tulsa (Okla.) Drillers (Dodgers)
Wichita (Kan.) Wind Surge (Twins)
Amarillo (Texas) Sod Poodles (D-backs)
Corpus Christi (Texas) Hooks (Astros)
Frisco (Texas) RoughRiders (Rangers)
Midland (Texas) RockHounds (A’s)
San Antonio Missions (Padres)
Binghamton (N.Y.) Rumble Ponies (Mets)
Hartford (Conn.) Yard Goats (Rockies)
New Hampshire Fisher Cats (Blue Jays)
Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs (Red Sox)
Reading (Pa.) Fightin’ Phils (Phillies)
Somerset (N.J.) Patriots (Yankees)
Akron (Ohio) RubberDucks (Cleveland)
Altoona (Pa.) Curve (Pirates)
Bowie (Md.) Baysox (Orioles)
Erie (Pa.) SeaWolves (Tigers)
Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators (Nationals)
Richmond (Va.) Flying Squirrels (Giants)
Birmingham (N.Y.) Barons (White Sox)
Chattanooga (Tenn.) Lookouts (Reds)
Rocket City (Madison, Ala.) Trash Pandas (Angels)
Tennessee Smokies (Cubs)
Biloxi (Miss.) Shuckers (Brewers)
Mississippi Braves (Braves)
Montgomery (Ala.) Biscuits (Rays)
Pensacola (Fla.) Blue Wahoos (Marlins)
Aberdeen (Md.) IronBirds (Orioles)
Brooklyn (N.Y.) Cyclones (Mets)
Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Renegades (Yankees)
Jersey Shore BlueClaws (Phillies)
Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks (Nats)
Asheville (N.C.) Tourists (Astros)
Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods (Rays)
Greensboro (N.C.) Grasshoppers (Pirates)
Greenville (S.C.) Drive (Red Sox)
Hickory (N.C.) Crawdads (Rangers)
Rome (Ga.) Braves (Braves)
Winston-Salem (N.C.) Dash (White Sox)
Dayton (Ohio) Dragons (Reds)
Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps (Padres)
Great Lakes (Midland, Mich.) Loons (Dodgers)
Lake County (Eastlake, Ohio) Captains (Cleveland)
Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts (A’s)
West Michigan Whitecaps (Tigers)
Beloit (Wis.) Snappers (Marlins)
Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels (Twins)
Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs (Cardinals)
Quad Cities (Davenport, Iowa) River Bandits (Royals)
South Bend (Ind.) Cubs (Cubs)
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Brewers)
Eugene (Ore.) Emeralds (Giants)
Everett (Was.) AquaSox (Mariners)
Hillsboro (Ore.) Hops (D-backs)
Spokane Indians (Rockies)
Tri-City (Pasco, Wash.) Dust Devils (Angels)
Vancouver (British Columbia) Canadians (Blue Jays)*
*Home games will be played in Hillsboro, Ore.
Carolina (Zebulon, N.C.) Mudcats (Brewers)
Down East (Kinston, N.C.) Wood Ducks (Rangers)
Fayetteville (N.C.) Woodpeckers (Astros)
Kannapolis (N.C.) Cannon Ballers (White Sox)
Delmarva (Salisbury, Md.) Shorebirds (Orioles)
Fredericksburg (Va.) Nationals (Nationals)
Lynchburg (Va.) Hillcats (Cleveland)
Salem (Va.) Red Sox (Red Sox)
Augusta (Ga.) GreenJackets (Braves)
Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs (Rays)
Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies (Royals)
Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Pelicans (Cubs)
Daytona (Fla.) Tortugas (Reds)
Jupiter (Fla.) Hammerheads (Marlins)
Palm Beach (Jupiter, Fla.) Cardinals (Cardinals)
St. Lucie (Port St. Lucie, Fla.) Mets (Mets)
Bradenton (Fla.) Marauders (Pirates)
Clearwater (Fla.) Threshers (Phillies)
Dunedin (Fla.) Blue Jays (Blue Jays)
Fort Myers (Fla.) Mighty Mussels (Twins)
Lakeland (Fla.) Flying Tigers (Tigers)
Tampa (Fla.) Tarpons (Yankees)
Fresno (Calif.) Grizzlies (Rockies)
Modesto (Calif.) Nuts (Mariners)
San Jose (Calif.) Giants (Giants)
Stockton (Calif.) Ports (A’s)
Inland Empire (San Bernardino, Calif.) 66ers (Angels)
Lake Elsinore (Calif.) Storm (Padres)
Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Quakes (Dodgers)
Visalia (Calif.) Rawhide (D-backs)