Down On The Farm is a series where we go deeper with the Chicago Cubs minor league affiliates. We'll look into operations and cool stories, as we sit down with the people who work there. Today, we talk with Randy Wehofer of AAA Iowa about the significance and value of the minor leagues.
For years, I discounted minor league baseball. Since the Cubs weren't so good at developing prospects, I just didn't care. There were so few Cubs prospects that came up and were actually good, while the Cardinals could draft Albert Pujols in the 13th round and have him become a legend. Since it all seemed like randomness and luck, it didn't seem worth my time or attention. The Tom Ricketts era brought change to that, as they revamped player development into a primary goal of the franchise. Player development is arguably the top priority of the franchise now, and it's paid off with players like Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks, Kyle Schwarber, and many more.
In the last couple of years, I've been paying more attention to the minor leagues. I've finally been getting my butt to a couple of games a year at my local Kane County Cougars. After meeting with each minor league affiliate at the 2020 Cubs Convention, I was inspired to make this year the one to visit some of the Cubs minor league affiliates: namely South Bend and Iowa. The stupid Corona virus put the kabash on some of that, but I'm still hoping to get there at some point. The minor leagues have grown on me.
A lot of people discount the value of the minor leagues. I did. Obviously it's not the highest quality of play, so I didn't want to give it time in my busy schedule. Major League Baseball agrees to a certain extent, as they are currently trying to contract the minor leagues by nearly 25%. The NBA and NFL don't have minor leagues, and it doesn't seem to matter much. What makes baseball different?
During my phone interview with AAA Iowa's Randy Wehofer, he shared a bit of his perspective. Randy's been in the minors for his entire professional career, with nearly two decades of radio announcing and front office work as well. With that much experience with the minors, it's no surprise that he's a strong advocate for the minor league system. At one point, he shared a terrific perspective on the value of the minor leagues to baseball:
With the minor league system, I think baseball has it right. I think we have the best system in place and that's why the major league baseball product has stood the test of time. Football and basketball are completely different. The NFL and the NBA are playing are completely different types of games than when I was a kid. They're giving millions of dollars to kids, whom they haven't had a chance to teach how to play the game in the way they want them to. A kid might be the star of his AAU team, and yet he never learned how to pass. But he's the top pick in the draft and then all of a sudden he's on your roster.
In baseball, you might be a top pick in the draft, but in four years if you can figure out how to hit a breaking ball, there's a low chance that you'll get to the big leagues. If you want to do the work and you're good enough, you have a chance, but the minor leagues provides the chance to develop mentally as well.
Sometimes the minor leagues is just a place to learn how to fail. Most professional baseball players have always been the best player on their team their entire lives. Then suddenly the difficulty level changes. They have no idea how to mentally handle their first 0 for 12 stretch, and they're all going to have one. Some of what the minor leagues is, is like an internship where you can fail without getting fired immediately.
Because that's what baseball is. It's a game of failure. Maybe you struck out 10 of your last 12 at bats. It could be because you're not used to playing every day or you're not used to traveling. But over the course of 500 at bats, those 12 are inconsequential as long as you keep your wits about you.
That's one of the interesting things I get to see: what separates who makes it and who doesn't. It isn't about power and hitting, most of it's mental. Who can handle 140 games in 152 days and have some perspective about the roller coaster that every season is. So that's what they're learning to do as much as it is how to hit or how to pitch. You're competing against peers that are closer to you in talent, but you're also battling yourself.
Without me even knowing it, Randy described why I like baseball so much more than other professional sports. You might have the fastest of fastballs, but if you don't develop the mental skills to use that pitch effectively, it won't matter for long. The deeper mental game within the sport is what makes baseball have lasting entertainment value. It provides a level of depth that the fastest running back in football cannot provide.
Basketball and football don't need the same level development, because those sports aren't as mentally challenging as baseball is. Beyond trick plays, there's not nearly as much strategy in basketball and football as there is in baseball. Those sports are all about the raw talent: how fast someone can run, how high someone can jump, how strong someone is. Seeing the extreme end of humanity's physical skills is interesting, but only for a bit. Because of this, those sports have completely changed over time, and in my opinion, not for the better. The game of baseball is much more mental, as it expertly crafts physical talent with mental talent into a well rounded sport.
Baseball is also about adapting and adjusting to failures, just like everyday life. It draws me in with empathy, because I've been through my equivalent of an 0 for 12 stretch, and have had to adapt and adjust. Because of how the game of baseball mirrors real life, it makes it a much more interesting sport to invest my energy and time into.
To relay this back into the minor leagues, I think it's fantastic that they give players the chance to develop under less pressure. It provides a natural system of progression, which ensures the top talent is well rounded. If I failed a test in high school, I had to learn from the experience so that I didn't fail in the same way as an adult and get fired from my job. School was less about reciting facts, and more about developing the skills to grow as a person and succeed as an adult. In the same way, minor league baseball ensures that major league baseball always has the best possible quality product on the field consistently.
Minor League's separation from the big leagues provides players the chance to develop and grow. It keeps us from watching raw talent constantly burn out at the major league level, much like how football players are lucky if they last more than four years professionally. In baseball, we are fortunate to see the top players remain as contributors for a decade. This consistency gives baseball a depth that others just can't touch.
That's not to say that minor league baseball is an extremely inferior product that isn't worth our time either. For many people who don't live near a large city, it gives them a chance to have a local team to root for. Minor league fans are often big league fans as well, so having a spread of minor league teams all over the country does a lot to build up the national brand of the MLB. These minor league games introduce them to the game, and give them a chance to experience a live ballpark experience. Because as we all know, Baseball on TV isn't nearly the same as baseball in person.
I'm really disappointed in Major League Baseball's push to slash the minor league system. There's a lot of really wonderful people I've talked to who stand to lose their jobs. A lot of great smaller communities about to lose fixtures of the their communities. Major league baseball stands to lose quality of play as prospects lose a chance to develop. It is a loss for everybody. Even if a minor league team isn't a huge moneymaker, they deserve a lot more respect as an underrated fixture of the game.