Tag Archives: minor leagues

Baseball’s Narcischism

Players in new countries often suffer a kind of culture shock when immersed in another country’s baseball culture. Latin American players sometimes comment on the lack of joy in Japan’s game, while many from North America find the endless meetings to discuss opponents’ tendencies and weaknesses mind-numbing.

Japanese describe western baseball as a game of speed and power. What sounds like praise is also an opaque slite that says Americans attempt to physically overpower baseball in a way that lacks the science, art and discipline revered in Japan.

Former Seibu Lions manager Haruki Ihara was fond of saying Japan had nothing to learn from MLB. This was an extreme example of the kind of misinformed nationalistic dogma that sports sometimes encourages, where it’s us versus them. Ihara is proud of the effort Japanese put into the game, and rightfully so. But to be dismissive of other styles and ways of thinking is to restrict what one can learn.

Baseball is parochial at heart. As much as sports can bring people together, it can also highlight minute differences in approaches, and to fans of the local game, that can mean a constant critique of the way others play. What are unwritten rules but an effort to assert that one set of behaviors is the “right way” to play the game and that conflicting views are “wrong?”

You see this as much off the field as on, where social Darwinism seems to steer much of the discussion of what baseball is towards those with the most influence and money.

Within any league you can name, because of owners’ wealth and their power to gift a region their brand of the game or take it elsewhere, they sometimes talk as if their businesses grant them a degree of ownership of what baseball is.

Owners and team executives are also sources for stories about policy, so it’s very easy for us in the media to be swayed by their point of view that baseball is a business. It’s one thing to explain why teams and leagues make decisions that adversely affect their customers, by using blackout rules or by manipulating service time. It’s another to argue that fans should accept that behavior.

Arguing that teams should manipulate service time to lengthen the time prospects need to reach arbitration is akin to arguing that political office holders should give sweetheart deals to big donors because “that’s how the system works.”

Although people make money off of baseball, it isn’t itself a business, it’s a game, and how it’s played, watched, and marketed as entertainment varies a lot. Just because Major League Baseball attracts more of the best players in the world, doesn’t make MLB synonymous with baseball or give its owners the power to decide what baseball is and isn’t even if they talk as if it does.

When people refer to “baseball” they so often mean “their baseball,” the game they grew up with and the way it is played by the teams they follow. For most modern American fans, social Darwinism is really part of their baseball, since MLB essentially lords it over its imperial colonies in the minor leagues. These people tend to see baseball as a kind of order of quality, with the quality of a league defined by its location in the world hierarchy.

With MLB nowhere near starting in the current coronavirus pandemic, Americans looked at other leagues and some desired to know where they fit in their stratified social Darwinism models. How good a league is CPBL? Is it better than Double-A? How about KBO? To answer that question, someone published a graphic that had MLB at the top followed in descending order by NPB, Triple-A, KBO, Double-A, CPBL, and so on down to rookie ball. I don’t remember if it had the Mexican league or not, which MLB has nominally labeled as “Triple-A.”

But Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are different animals that aren’t organized by the same principles that govern talent within MLB’s imperial structure. In this regard, they are something like how minor league ball was in the United States, Canada, and Cuba before Branch Rickey and the Cardinals ruined it by spreading their tentacles across the continent much as the British Empire had around the globe in the preceding centuries.

By amassing resources, the Cardinals were able to compete at a high level and forced other teams to mimic them at a great cost to baseball across America. The creation of farm systems was a form of baseball eugenics to achieve efficiency at the cost of variety.

Pro leagues outside the majors’ imperial sphere aren’t “levels,” they are leagues, were like the majors, teams keep their top talent in order to win games. That makes their leagues vibrant sources of variation that enrich baseball as a whole. I believe baseball was better before MLB turned minor leagues and their teams into the baseball version of chicken houses, where poultry is grown to order in unhealthy conditions because they aren’t any part of a real ecosystem.

Baseball needs to grow and be part of places and cultures. And deciding where those cultures and their baseball ranks, as many baseball fans do around the world, is a vile, narcissistic exercise.

The left-handed pilgrim

Brandon Mann

Back in the day, there was a left-handed pitcher on the BayStars’ farm team. He didn’t walk guys and didn’t allow home runs, which is saying something in the high-scoring Eastern League. The BayStars, however, decided they had other options. That was the end of the 2012 season. Six and a half years later, Brandon Mann is back in Japan with the Pacific League’s Lotte Marines, having completed a pilgram’s progress of independent minor leagues on two continents, the minors in the United States, and finally — in 2018 — the major leagues.

Because the BayStars were a terrible team in 2011, and Mann had done well on the farm team, it was a mystery why he didn’t get more opportunities to pitch with the first team in Yokohama.

Too young to know

“When I was here last time, I was just young and I inexperienced. I got here at 26 and I’d only played a little bit of Double-A time when I originally came,” Mann said at Zozo Marine Stadium on March 30.

“After 2012, then indie ball and I just couldn’t get picked up. A lot of minor leagues and indie ball and then the Rangers finally gave me a shot in Triple-A and I put up good numbers there, and they called me up. Nobody else was doing well, and they said, ‘We’ll take a shot on this guy.’ I threw well my first few times up there. For me it was about I want to get back to Japan. Honestly, that was my thought process.”

“That (Japan) experience, when I got to the big leagues in the States, the stadiums, the crowds, I thought back to my first start at Tokyo Dome and there were like 35-40,000 people, and I won that game. But I remember how nervous I was. When I got called up to the big leagues, my debut was in Houston. It was mother’s day and it was a full stadium. I came on with the bases loaded and got out of it, but I used my Japanese experience to get me through a lot of that. Now that I’m back here, I’m very comfortable and I feel like I can just go out and pitch. And I know how to pitch now.”

But if he couldn’t persuade people to take a shot on him six years earlier, what happened between Point A and B to make the Rangers and Marines give him a second look?

Grinding it out in the minors

“I played in the BC league for an entire season, and I got crushed. It was shocking and it made me work harder. I finished the year really well and actually got a workout with SoftBank. I went back to the States, I signed with the Pirates. I had a great year. I had a 2.90 ERA and they released me. They told me I was too old and I didn’t throw hard enough.”

“So I finished the year in indie ball and did well. Nobody signed me, so I went home, and that’s when I started going to Driveline, started training there. I did an entire year of indie ball. I broke the strikeout record in indie ball and Oakland finally gave me a shot. I spent two years in Doube-A with Oakland, then they told me, ‘I think we’re going to pass on you.’ So then I worked out for a ton of teams again, and finally Texas gave me that opportunity.”

With increased velocity from his new offseason regime and – for once – good timing, Mann made the Rangers’ Triple-A team out of spring camp, where he’d been warned he likely wouldn’t get any contract whatsoever. Being told he was too old or too this or too that, he said, only motivated him more.

“I think that fueled me, the ‘You’re good but we’ve got younger guys,’ or he’s a fringe guy,” Mann said. “But I got to the big leagues. I’m very grateful and blessed. I was gone from Japan for six years and it took five full years before I got to the big leagues. That’s the even crazier thing.”

“There are going to be guys who make it to the big leagues fast. And then there are going to be guys here, young guys who make it to the ichi-gun (first team) fast. But then there are other guys that are late bloomers. I was definitely a late bloomer, 100 percent. Some guys mature differently.”

His journey made him an eye witness to minor league life, although by his own admission, having financially stable parents allowed him to hang in there and survive what can be a difficult existence.

Minority report

“Some people might say, ‘You only made it to the big leagues for 25 days,’ but those 25 days show a lot more heart than people who it’s just handed to them. It’s a story for the average person. I had to work really hard for it,” Mann said.

“It’s amazing that they don’t take care of their minor league players. It really is (criminal). I’ve seen so many crazy things in the minor leagues. After I played in NPB, people started actually paying me decently. “

There are 20-hour bus rides and then you get three hours of sleep, and then you go to a field and you’re there for eight or nine hours. You’re getting paid, what less than $4 an hour. I don’t know how MLB doesn’t take care of their players better.”

It extends to the balls

Another hurdle for minor league pitchers adjusting to the majors, according to Mann is the balls, which are radically different and act differently — at least in his case.

“The ball is completely different between the minors and the big leagues. To this day, I cannot understand why they do that. I have two different grips for my pitches for big league balls and minor league balls, because they do completely different things,” he said.

“And I’m really into analytics. I train at Driveline in the offseason. When I throw with major league balls and I throw with minor league balls, the spins and the trajectories of the balls are completely different with the two balls. It’s fascinating. When I signed with Chiba, I had them send me a few of the NPB balls, so I could focus on using that with the analytics.”

While it makes sense that Japan uses balls that suit its tastes, why MLB and the U.S. minors use different balls can — like minor league salaries — only be attributed to MLB stinginess.