The Breakup

For the first time since 1992, Security Service Field will house a new affiliate. (via Brian Gautreau)

For the first time since 1992, Security Service Field will house a new affiliate. (via Brian Gautreau)

Colorado Springs and Denver are separated by less than 70 miles of Interstate 25 in central Colorado, which made the affiliation between the Colorado Rockies and Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox a cozy little union for two decades. But now, it’s over.

On Sept. 17, two weeks after the Sky Sox finished a dismal season, the Rockies announced they were leaving Colorado Springs after 22 years. In the massive reshuffling of affiliations in the Pacific Coast League this fall, when six of the league’s 16 teams swapped parent clubs, the Rockies signed a player development contract with the Albuquerque Isotopes, leaving the Sky Sox to hook up with the Milwaukee Brewers.

The big flaw in Colorado Springs for the Rockies was the usual, the ballpark. Security Service Field opened in 1988. According to reports from the Denver Post, Rockies ownership wanted its Triple-A club to play in a more modern facility, which it will get in Albuquerque. Isotopes Park was built in 2003.

Now Rockies farm hands won’t be a short drive from the big leagues, and they won’t be playing in front of pro-Rockies crowds during home games. But the bigger blow is to the affiliate the Rockies left behind. For many members of the Sky Sox front office, watching the Rockies and Isotopes cozy up to one another at the introductory press conference in Albuquerque felt a lot like hearing their parents tell them they’re divorcing now that everyone is grown up and out of the house.

“It certainly was a bit of a surprise,” admitted Tony Ensor, Colorado Springs’ president and general manager, doing his best to be diplomatic. “But this is part of the business of baseball. We’re disappointed that the Rockies chose to go in a different direction. But we respect the process and we respect their ability to make a decision they feel is right for their organization.”

It may end up being a good move for Colorado Springs, too. The Rockies didn’t always send their best prospects to Triple-A. Troy Tulowitzki skipped it when he was coming up. So did Dexter Fowler, although he did get sent down a couple of times after his big league debut in 2008. Third baseman Nolan Arenado practically skipped it, playing just 18 games there in 2013.

To be fair, neither of the Brewers’ home-grown offensive stars, Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy, spent much time in Triple-A, either. Braun got 113 at-bats with Nashville, while Lucroy got just 80. Pitcher Yovani Gallardo made 13 Triple-A starts before he went to Milwaukee for good.

Regardless, the change in affiliation will be virtually transparent to Sky Sox fans. The team didn’t exactly bend over backward to leverage ties to the Rockies. The team name is a nod to its affiliation with the Chicago White Sox way, way back in the 1950s. Team colors have are navy and red, not black and silver. There wasn’t even a Rockies sleeve patch on players’ jerseys.

“There are teams out there that slant heavily toward the major league affiliate, but we’ve never been one of those organizations,” said Ensor. “We won’t change our way of doing business. We have our own identity and we promote that identity.”

That’s a good move, said Dennis Conerton, president and chairman of the Beloit Professional Baseball Association, Inc., the community trust that runs the Beloit Snappers, a Low-A team in Wisconsin, just 76 miles from Milwaukee. The Brewers weren’t just the Snappers’ first affiliate when the team joined the Midwest League in 1982. Conerton said Milwaukee was instrumental in Beloit landing the team.

Still, Beloit had that fatalistic sense of a scorned lover that most minor league teams do. They knew the city’s relationship with Milwaukee wouldn’t last forever, especially when so many towns across the country were building new ballparks. Originally known as the Beloit Brewers, the team changed its names to the Snappers in 1994, adopting an angry little snapping turtle wielding a bat as its logo.

“The turtle logo was a good decision,” said Conerton. “Snapping turtles are important in this area and the logo is cute and quirky. We knew that in the long run, the focus in minor league baseball would be less and less on the major league affiliate.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The end finally came in 2005, when Milwaukee left Beloit’s Pohlman Field, built in 1982, for a younger model — in this case, Appalachian Power Park, which had just been completed in downtown Charleston, W.Va. Beloit got lucky, getting the relatively close Minnesota Twins on the rebound, but losing the Brewers still hurt.

“It’s hard to think back to what it meant then, but the Brewers are basically the state’s major league team,” said Conerton. “I think it was a very big thing for our community. Our fans listened to the Brewers broadcasts and made bus trips to County Stadium. It was a natural relationship.”

Part of the Brewers’ rationale for leaving was wanting its young prospects to play in the relatively warmer climate of the South Atlantic League. But here’s the thing: When Milwaukee returned to the Midwest League four years later, it didn’t call Beloit. Instead, the Brewers signed a new player development contract with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in Appleton, about 150 miles north of Beloit. Ouch.

“That’s a natural fit, too,” said a diplomatic Conerton. “The Brewers attract from that market, and they can work in tandem very well.”

With the Midwest League’s oldest stadium, Beloit has since become the wallflower at the dance, waiting every two years for a big league club to come calling. For the last two affiliate shuffles, it’s been the Oakland Athletics. And as usual, this fall it had to wait until another, more glamorous team chose its partner. In this case, the Chicago Cubs picked South Bend.

Conerton insists the A’s are a good fit, but sort of in the way you might describe a blind date having a nice personality.

“Geographically, they’re not in the realm of what we used to have, but we looked at the size of their market and they’re a similarly small-market team,” said Conerton. “They had a brand identity we were attracted to and still are, and they were familiar with our market.”

That’s what minor league teams do when they break up with a close parent team. They put on a happy face and talk about the new partner in their lives. As Conerton espouses the A’s penchant for developing big league players, Ensor touts the Brewers flying in Doug Melvin, their president of baseball operations and general manager, Gord Ash, their vice president/assistant GM and other front office luminaries for the introductory press conference at Security Service Field.

Plus there’s the fact that the baseball itself is increasingly just a sideshow at minor league ballparks. That’s a point Shawn Touney, director of media relations for the Kane County Cougars, made via email in response to a question about losing the Cubs affiliation this fall. Kane County’s ballpark in Geneva, Ill., is only about 47 miles from Wrigley Field.

“I would say that for the most part, our fan base is here for the family-friendly, G-rated, affordable entertainment we offer (fireworks shows, promotions, theme nights, etc.),” Touney wrote. “There definitely is a segment of our fan base who pays particular attention to the baseball (affiliation, which prospects are on our roster), but above that, the majority of our fan base is casual baseball fans who are coming to Cougars games for a variety of reasons.”

Ensor added that minor league towns are increasingly transient. Thanks to its large military community, for instance, Colorado Springs is an amalgam of people from all over the country with allegiances to teams all over the place, including Milwaukee.

Still, there’s always a chance that the Rockies and Sky Sox will get back together again. The Sox are bound to the Brewers for the minimum two years, although the Rockies signed a four-year agreement in Albuquerque. After that, who knows? The next time could be forever.

More major league teams are either buying into or outright owning their minor league franchises. In 2007, for instance, the Fenway Sports Group, a subsidiary of the Boston Red Sox ownership group, bought the High-A Salem Avalanche in southern Virginia and moved the Red Sox affiliate there after Salem’s agreement with the Houston Astros was up after 2008.

The move freed the Salem front office to go all-in on appealing to the so-called Red Sox nation by designing the team’s whole identity, uniforms and all, around the parent club. Its ballpark, Lewis-Gale Field, even has a little Green Monster.

This fall, the owner of the Oklahoma Redhawks, Mandalay Baseball Properties, LLC, sold a piece of the team to the Los Angeles Dodgers, which had just left Albuquerque at the altar after six years. For Oklahoma City, it’ll be the first time in a long while the team won’t have a parent club within driving distance. Its last two major league affiliates were the Texas Rangers (1998-2010) and Houston Astros (2011-2014), although Alex Freedman, director of media relations and broadcasting for the Redhawks, said the Astros don’t have much of a fan base in Oklahoma City.

“Most people here who are baseball fans are either Rangers or Cardinals fans,” he said. “If we’re not going to be affiliated with one of them, the chance to be with an iconic team like the Dodgers is a positive thing for them.”

Neither the Rangers nor Cardinals were an option this year. Texas is hitched with the team in Round Rock, Texas, until 2018, while the Cardinals own and operate their Triple-A club in Memphis.

For Freedman, the change of ownership and affiliate means plenty of offseason work for him and the rest of the front office in Oklahoma City. They not only have new affiliate contacts to get familiar with, they have new bosses. And as the media contact, Freedman will be working with beat writers in the L.A. area. The question buzzing around Oklahoma City now is, will the team’s identity be new next year, too?

“That’s a question we get a lot,” Freedman said. “But as our general manager said during our press conference, we don’t know yet. There is still a lot of paperwork that needs to be finalized. But with the Dodgers brand, we’d be foolish not to export it here one way or another.”

In other words, it’s pretty likely they will, perhaps in the same way the Inland Empire 66ers did when they became a Dodgers affiliate after the 2006 season. The team, based only 60 miles east of Dodger Stadium in San Bernardino, proudly stitched “LA” on its uniform sleeves, worked with the Dodgers on a number of giveaway promotions and welcomed a parade of Dodgers legends for autograph signings all season.

For the Sixers, life couldn’t have been better. But then, in 2010, the Dodgers broke it off, going for the California League affiliate in nearby Rancho Cucamonga.

Inland Empire is with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, another geographically close affiliate, albeit without the same movie-star looks as the Dodgers. Sixers jerseys even have the big red “A” on the sleeves. Red isn’t the team color, though, and the team’s identity plays not off the parent club but the famous U.S. route that runs through town.

Inland Empire learned the same tough lesson the Colorado Springs Sky Sox have just learned. It doesn’t matter how close your parent club is. Unless that club makes that big commitment of ownership, nothing lasts forever.

Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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Marc Schneider
8 years ago

I think you meant the transition will be “seamless.”

8 years ago

Richmond became another “wallflower” when the Braves’ AAA franchise moved to Gwinnett County near Atlanta: 2009 saw no pro ball in Richmond.

2010 brought the Flying Squirrels (the Giants’ AA affiliate; formerly the Connecticut Defenders) which have drawn decently, despite having a west-coast parent and continuing to play in an outdated stadium. (The Giants’ recent run of success has probably helped as well; my kids have programs w Joe Panik on the front cover.)

I am looking forward to a new stadium, and ideally (and selfishly) a Nationals’ affiliate moving in. I’d hope that a Richmond affiliate would be attractive to the Nats: strengthen the fan base a few hours south (where we get Os and Nats on TV, but I see more Braves, Yankees, and Red Sox fans than anything else.)

8 years ago

Appleton is 150 miles not North but Northeast of Beloit. About the same distance away from Milwaukee, and in a better general area (bit more people, bit more $$$) from which to draw fans to Milwaukee for a Brewers’ game.