Baseball America, Canadian born and raised
* When he founded Baseball America 30 years ago, Allan Simpson changed the way amateur baseball news was reported. And it all started out of his home in Vancouver, BC. ….
By Alexis Brudnicki
Imagine what it would be like if draft day came and went and there was no news of who was selected, except directly to the chosen players themselves.
What if there was no buildup to the draft?
No player rankings?
Zero scouting reports?
Well, that’s exactly what it was like not that long ago.
Just over 30 years ago, Allan Simpson changed all of that – he changed the way that baseball news was reported, he altered what was considered important in the baseball world; he made a difference in the game. And he did so right out of his home in Vancouver.
“Before Allan came along and developed Baseball America, the draft was something that – pretty much if you were not a player drafted, you literally didn’t know that it even occurred hardly,” managing editor of Baseball America, J.J. Cooper, said. “No one had really ever taken an actual expansive look at who were the best prospects out there.
“Really, I think it just seemed too daunting a task. There are too many players who are out there who are eligible. They’re in high schools and colleges and junior colleges – how would anyone ever wrap their arms around all that?
“Allan figured out a way. That’s impressive. There’s an entire [brand] of coverage now that really started from Allan having the idea to put together what was [then] called the All-America Baseball News for the first couple issues, out of his garage in Canada.”
It wasn’t easy for Simpson to figure out a way to do what he envisioned. The first ideas stemmed from the jobs he held in baseball, and wondering why there wasn’t more coverage of the game beyond the big leagues.
“I always thought that baseball at the player development levels, or below the major league levels, was very underexposed,” the Baseball America creator said during the winter meetings in Orlando. “And I was involved at the game at different levels – I went up to Alaska to work with summer teams there and I was involved with college baseball to a degree.
“None of those games were ever getting any kind of national publicity and I thought, they do the same sort of thing in hockey, football and basketball; why can’t they do the same thing in baseball? … I thought, there’s more interest in this then what’s being portrayed out there, so that’s why we got into everything.”
But in order to get into everything, Simpson needed some help. So he got in touch with Tracy Ringolsby, now a Baseball America and MLB.com columnist who at the time covered the Seattle Mariners.
“I was working for the paper in Seattle and Allan came down and wanted to talk about some ideas,” Ringolsby said. “We talked about that you need to have a niche. At the time, there were a bunch of biweekly or monthly baseball magazines coming out in all sorts of societies but none of them had any direction.
“Allan had a background in the minors and in scouting so it seemed like a normal thing. I had always had a good relationship with scouts and was intrigued by scouting and player development. So I told him I would help him. Allan was the guy who did all of the legwork.
“What I helped him more than anything was that I had a relationship with a lot of the major-league writers and I could convince them that Allan was a guy worth working for and reassured them that the cheques would all cash. There were a lot of places cheques never showed up and knowing Allan and his character I said, ‘If those cheques don’t show, I’ll pay you.’ I knew he would pay.”
Simpson did pay, and even recalls offering Ringolsby a whopping $25 for their first body of work. While the interest in their coverage eventually did begin to take off and grow, getting the information they needed wasn’t always without its obstacles.
“[Recently] we were talking about how Pat Gillick wouldn’t give us information so we had to go about it in a roundabout way,” Simpson said. “Tracy knew Pat and Pat just didn’t want to be associated with giving away information. And the more power to him because it was kind of like breaking the code almost; you didn’t share information, and he stuck to it pretty closely. It was very different in those days.”
A lot has changed with the technological advances and information revolution that the baseball world has experienced since then.
“Modern-day technology and communications has made news get out much faster,” Simpson said. “Because back in those days, I think some of the writers doing stuff on computers was in the very early stages, even at that point. Communication was difficult. You didn’t have cell phones.
“Doug Melvin was telling me a story of when he was working for George Steinbrenner in the Yankees system and he had to sit in the room (at the winter meetings) beside the phone and was told not to leave in case any transaction might come along. So it’s really changed in that sense. It was funny, him telling the story about how he was locked to his hotel room and never got out, because of the chance that somebody might phone and offer a deal or might make a deal.”
Ringolsby has enjoyed watching the evolution of coverage from when he and Simpson were the pioneers of it to now.
“It was something that somebody was probably going to do at some point in time,” Ringolsby said. “I happened to be covering a team that the draft was important to. It wasn’t real good – it was the Mariners in their early years. So I always had a good relationship with people in scouting and player development, so it intrigued me to think that these guys could evaluate and find major league players, at the level that they were finding them.
“It’s fun to watch how places do it now and fun to see what it’s become. What I can remember is when Major League Baseball wouldn’t announce the draft list and we’d still get it. The fun time was the challenge – we really had to dig to find information. Major League Baseball wouldn’t announce the rounds each player was drafted in – we’d have it the day of the draft. That was the fun part because it involved a lot of hard work and effort. It wasn’t anything that was easily available.”
Both Simpson and Ringolsby are both adamant that if they hadn’t begun covering the development of players that someone else soon would have. But Simpson is impressed by the current interest level, and believes that they had fortunate timing in their beginnings.
“It’s kind of rewarding in some ways to see the interest in all of it,” Simpson said. “We had an idea going in that there was more, whether it was the minors, prospects or the draft, and every one is much more popular now than they were 30 years ago.
“We had good timing, in terms of recognizing that there might be a boom this way, and recognizing that we came in at a time when minor league ball was starting to take off. If anything, throughout the years, it was a case of really good timing.”
Whether or not it was good timing, Simpson and Ringolsby took a chance on something that had never been done before, which is never an easy venture.
“What [Allan] did is largely invent a layer of baseball coverage that didn’t really exist before,” Cooper said. “The Sporting News had covered minor league ball very extensively throughout much of their run but always from the standpoint of who won the Eastern League; who hit the most home runs in the Southern League; and that sort of thing.
“What Allan, with the help of Tracy and many others, what he invented was the idea of looking at the game from a player development standpoint, having that focus and looking at the minors in the way really that big league clubs treat the minor leagues.”
Now working for Perfect Game, Simpson’s interests haven’t changed much over the years. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer remains passionate first and foremost about the draft, with all over development coverage falling in quickly behind the draft.
“That’s my passion because it’s really the bridge,” Simpson said. “It’s the bridge between amateur baseball and professional baseball. It sort of ties everything together. There are normal interests in drafts in any sport and there wasn’t at the time. Major League Baseball made a point of not letting you know much information about it.”
With more information available now than most can handle, the game and its coverage has certainly come a long way over the last three decades, largely due to Simpson and his belief that what others considered to be impossible was not.
“Allan’s legacy is that where a lot of people looked at what he wanted to do and said, ‘Oh that’s not possible to do; that’s too hard,’ Allan looked at it and said, ‘How can you do this? How can I figure out a way to cover the minors, the draft; college ball, the way that I think it should be covered,’” Cooper said. “That one decision to do that has paid off for baseball in many different ways.
“You look at college ball now compared to what it used to be. College baseball is a much bigger deal – there were a lot of people involved in that, but one of the people involved was Allan Simpson, making the decision that college baseball deserved to be covered at a national level. That was something that really wasn’t done before that.
“Minor league baseball is a big business now. When Allan started putting together Baseball America, you could pick up a minor league team for a dollar in your pocket and the willingness to assume the debts of the team had already accrued them. Now teams sell for millions of dollars – again, there are a lot of people who were involved in that but one of those people was Allan Simpson. He solved a problem for minor league baseball at a time when minor league baseball looked like it was something that was dying instead of thriving.”
This story originally appeared exclusively in the Canadian Baseball Network Newsletter. You can sign up for the free CBN Newsletter at the top of this story.