Not every place in the minor leagues is flush with success, of course. One of the most disappointing situations is in Baseball City, a Florida State League franchise that averages just 298 a game in a shiny new stadium. Says Brian Poldberg, manager of the Kansas City farm club, "Any kid who doesn't come home with a foul ball every night isn't trying."
But even if a team is losing money on an annual basis, its franchise value continues to appreciate. This new prosperity has not gone unnoticed by the big leagues. In fact, that will be a major bone of contention when talks begin later this month on a new Player Development Contract between the National Association and Major League Baseball. The big clubs kept the minors alive through all those lean years, and now they wonder why they must continue to support them. A major league team might spend as much as $6 million a year on its player-development program. For a club like Montreal, which broke in three rookie regulars this year and another handful of pitchers, that is a good investment. For a club like Kansas City, which spent so lavishly on free agents last year and didn't get a pick until the third round in this year's draft, that is not such a good investment.
In a recent interview with
, commissioner Fay Vincent sounded some ominous notes for the minors. Said Vincent, "The major league owners are saying, Here are these minor league franchises that are selling at very high levels. And one of the reasons the franchises are so valuable is that we, the major league teams, are spending five, six million dollars apiece supporting that operation. And we're willing to carry the brunt, but we think that economic allocation should be revised."
The rules governing major league subsidies are rather complicated. For instance, in Class A, major league teams pay for 100 dozen baseballs, 25 dozen bats, training supplies, $8 a day in meal money for the first 18 players on a club, and the first nine rooms (two players to a room) at a road motel. Then there's the matter of bookkeeping costs paid to the National Association: Every time a major league team assigns a player, it must pay the NAPBL $35. If 26 teams each make 150 such moves in the course of a season, the Association stands to make $136,500 off those penny-ante fees. The PDC committee will want to know why those practices must continue.
Despite the growing attendance and the skyrocketing franchise prices, these are critical times for the minors, both at the bottom and at the top. If the money made available under the Player Development Contract is cut sharply, smaller operators may soon find themselves operating nothing. No Bend. No Pulaski. No Medicine Hat. At the Triple A and Double A levels, teams are tampering with the very essence of the game—the charm and local flavor—by introducing designer uniforms and cookie-cutter stadiums and carpetbag owners. The minors are still better served by such crowd-pleasing attractions as Dynamite Lady. For about $1,000 she'll come to your stadium, crawl into a box, blow up the box and emerge unscathed in a scanty swimsuit. But if the minor leagues aren't careful, they might perform their own version of Dynamite Lady's act: Boom! And then bust.
It is Saturday night at Durham Athletic Park. The Bulls host the Salem Buccaneers, with no special promotions. Five thousand, six hundred and seventy-nine happy people file in.
Up on the hill in rightfield, Cathy Sokil also keeps close watch over the game. A landscape architect by day, she is the Belle Durham at night, the woman behind the Bull. To make the tail wave, she pulls a rope. To make the nostrils snort, she opens the valve on a cannister of CO. To make his red eyes light up, she flicks a switch. Asked how much she makes a night, she replies, "Fifteen dollars, plus all the beer I can drink and all the nachos I can eat."
As the merry crowd files out after the Bulls' 5-1 victory, Sokil says, "I love this place. I grew up in Chicago near Wrigley Field, but this is better. I know the ballpark has only a year or two left after this, and it makes me sad. I worry about what will happen to my Bull."
The evening brings to mind a passage in a book. Not just any book, either, but Season of the Owl, by Miles Wolff:
I asked Will sometimes why he didn't work somewhere where he could make more money, and he'd always say, "Tom, there are some things money can't buy, and money can't buy a warm Carolina summer night with a ball game, a box of popcorn and green grass on a field."