By Wesley James
Blue Jays from Away
This is the third part of an eight-part series by Wesley James that looks into the eight levels of minor league baseball that the Blue Jays participate in.
When Vladimir Guerrero Jr walked into Bowen Field in Bluefield, West Virginia to start his professional baseball career in 2016, he walked into a town shaped by baseball.
Bluefield, Va., is coal country. For those living in the mining towns of the 1920’s and 30’s, coal mining life was intertwined with baseball life. If you owned a glove you’d have it on your belt all day - yes, even down the mine. Coal companies formed competitive teams and the competition became so important that a company in one town often bought workers from rival companies to work for them.
If you played on the company team, preferential treatment was yours. After all, your job wasn’t to mine, your job was to play baseball in the Coalfield League. You’d still have to go down the mine, you just didn’t have to do anything when you were down there. You know, in case you got hurt.
Today, Bowen Field is the home of the Bluefield Blue Jays, the Advanced Rookie affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. In 1939, the first Bowen Field was built to house the Bluefield Blue-Grays, a team founded in the 1920’s to compete against other mining towns in the Coalfield League. By the late 1930’s Bluefield had become an important stop for minor league baseball.
In 1938, the Blue-Grays won the class-D Mountain State League Championship, drawing over 70,000 fans. In 1939, Bowen Field was built and has stood directly on the border of West Virginia and Virginia ever since. Numerous major league teams have been affiliated with the team through the 40’s and 50’s, including the Boston Braves, Washington Senators, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1958, the Baltimore Orioles began their affiliation and stayed in Bluefield until 2011.
Much has changed in Bluefield since the Coalfield League days but baseball still gets in the news. When the Baltimore Orioles chose to abandon their affiliation with the Advanced Rookie Appalachian league and were replaced by the Blue Jays, let's just say, it didn’t go unreported.
After 53 years the Bluefield Orioles were the longest running affiliate of a major league team in minor league baseball history. Local media struggled hard to come to grips with the change. “Repeat after me: The Bluefield Blue Jays,” read the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. “Yes, the Blue Jays.”
Even the Washington Post ran a story about the change of affiliation. After all, the seats themselves in Bowen Field came from old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, the birthplace of Babe Ruth. Hall of Famers Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray had played here. Many generations of fans had grown up thinking of Bluefield as Orioles country. No longer.
Minor league affiliations are complicated. Not only do team rosters radically change from year to year but team affiliations change constantly. Major league teams sign Player Development Contracts with minor league affiliates for two or four-year terms. At the end of these contracts an MLB club can choose to move their affiliation somewhere else or re-sign a deal. This happens at all levels between Advanced Rookie and triple-A.
There are two Advanced Rookie leagues in North America. The Appalachian League has 10 teams that play out of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The Pioneer League has eight teams that play out of Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado. They are both short season leagues that play between mid-June and late August. This is the second lowest level of the minor leagues in North America and for many players this is their first stop after being drafted or signed. For those promoted from the Gulf Coast League, not only do they get a break from the Florida summer heat but they can also enjoy playing in front of their first crowd as a professional.
Between 1977 and 2002, the Advanced Rookie affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays was the Medicine Hat Blue Jays in the Pioneer League. Many of the stars that would fill the best Blue Jays teams of the late 80’s and early 90’s passed through Alberta. Pat Borders, David Wells, Lloyd Moseby, John Cerutti, Jimmy Key, and Mike Timlin all played in Medicine Hat, Alta.
Paul Fetz was the last general manager of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays in 2002 before Toronto re-affiliated to the Appalachian League. Fetz knows well the complications of managing clubs at this level. Currently, he’s the president and general manager of the Helena Brewers, an Advanced Rookie affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers in Montana.
“A lot of these re-affiliations they aren’t personal, they’re business decisions.” Fetz said over the phone last week. “The major leagues want a safe, comfortable environment to train their players. If there are some issues with the facility, it’s in the best interest of that minor league affiliate to correct them.”
When a minor league affiliate can’t accommodate a needed change, and a better facility opens up, quite often a change is made. In 2002, a weak Canadian dollar, a new general manager in Toronto, and low attendance chased the Blue Jays out of Alberta. Toronto re-affiliated to the much closer Appalachian League and took over the Pulaski Blue Jays. Four years later they invaded Orioles country and affiliated with Bluefield.
“Medicine Hat had been with the Blue jays organization for a very long time,” noted Fetz. “The decision to move affiliations wasn’t because they didn’t like Medicine Hat. Medicine Hat is isolated even though it is only three hours from Calgary. Roving instructors and advisors within the Blue Jays organization had to fly into Calgary and they couldn’t go direct. When you do that kind of flying it takes a while to get to your final destination. It’s also expensive. What they eventually decided to do was to go with Pulaski which is much closer to both Toronto and other affiliated minor league teams at the time.”
Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez, and Roberto Osuna have all played for the Bluefield Blue Jays since 2011. Most recently Vladimir Guerrero Jr started his professional career here as a 17-year-old in 2016.
In 2011, Kevin Pillar ate up the Appalachian League pitching and set team records in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. In 60 games he hit .347/.377/.536. While his numbers were impressive, they also highlight the limitations of judging premium hitting at this level.
Advanced Rookie games often feature undeveloped defensive skills. Pitching is also less accurate and less refined - those who can make effective contact can sometimes get by just putting balls in play. Pillar has always excelled at this; in college he had a 54-game hitting streak. In the major leagues, however, what once were hits, are now outs. The wrong habits can be easily reinforced and sometimes only promotion to a higher level and tougher competition can expose flaws and encourage a player to try a new approach.
In 2016, Guerrero hit .271/.359/.449, numbers that initially appear less impressive than Pillar’s numbers at the same level. Few would assume Pillar is a better hitter than Guerrero will be. In 2011, Pillar was 22 years-old and a 32nd round draft pick with low expectations playing against teenagers. In 2016, Guerrero was 17 years-old and displayed impressive plate discipline and walk rates, especially for his age.
Pillar was not expected to make it to the major leagues. Those drafted as low as he was only get noticed if they force a team to recognize that they’re doing something special. To his credit, that’s what Pillar did in Bluefield (and continued doing throughout the minor leagues). For many low draft picks assigned to Advanced-Rookie this is where the journey begins or ends.
Up next: The Vancouver Canadians.
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The 2018 Toronto Blue Jays Minor League Handbook has arrived! Visit the Handbook page for more information!