The more I delve into the nature of minor league baseball, the more I realize how different it is than its big-league counterpart. In fact, it's amazing how different it is than most any other sports entity.
Most of us close to the minors are well aware that player development is of premier importance, moreso than winning. It should go without saying. Why else would MLB clubs infuse millions of dollars into their minor league teams? Establishing a reseve of young talent has never been so crucial as it is today with injuries, particular to pitchers, so prevalent.
MLB teams will reinforce the idea that winning is important, and of course it is. Winning is an attitude that can develop among a core of minor league players and translate into big-league success.
The Twins are a great example. In 1998, the Rock Cats featured 1B Doug Mientkiewicz, SS Cristian Guzman, OF Jacque Jones, OF Torii Hunter, C A.J. Pierzynski and LHP J.C. Romero as they crushed their way to the Northern Division pennant. Within the next two seasons, they were the core of a young Twins club that was playoff-bound.
In 2001, the Rock Cats roared the Eastern League pennant with 3B Michael Cuddyer, 1B Justin Morneau, OF Michael Restovich, OF Dustan Mohr, RHP Juan Rincon and OF Lew Ford, many of whom figured prominently in the next wave to Minnesota.
But winning is simply a desirable byproduct of development, and fans need to appreciate minor league games for what they are. It's fine if fans want to immerse themselves in pennant races, batting championships and powerful statistics but the real value to the fan is appreciating the sterling defensive plays, late-inning rallies and powerful pitching performances because they're all there for the watching.
When the Rock Cats lost set-up man Rob Delaney to Triple-A Rochester, the first reaction is to dwell on what the team lost. Delaney's contribution to the Cats over the first 10 weeks of the season was monumental. But when the disappointment of losing him diminishes, we have to be happy for the player, happy for the Cats coaching staff for inspiring Delaney and happy that the Twins' system is producing.
In the big leagues, there is little to be happy about other than winning.
Vince Lombardi ("Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.") may not have liked the concept, but minor league baseball provides the excitement of watching young players develop.
In New Britain, we marvel in the fact that Kyle Lohse, now a multi-millionaire with the St. Lous Cardinals, was once 3-18 with a 6.04 ERA with the Rock Cats in 2000. How about Ron Mahay, a light-hitting outfielder with the New Britain Red Sox in the early 1990s, still in the big leagues as a left-handed relief pitcher?
We can also marvel about having the chance to see how a young Joe Mauer blended remarkable talent with that intangible "feel" for the game into super-stardom. And how left-handed hitting Jason Kubel took the EL by storm for a mere month, showing the Twins that his ability was at a higher level.
On the other side of the coin, we have seen highly touted first-round bonus babies hit the wall and splatter into the domain of working stiffs like most of us tend to be. Remember pitcher Adam Johnson? How about the sad cases of LHP Ryan Mills and OF B.J. Garbe, great young guys who for one reason or another didn't have what it takes.
There's nothing I'd rather see then an EL pennant flying majestically over New Britain Stadium, but you know what? There's nothing wrong with just enjoying the baseball as the games go rolling by.