Seven levels of Angels: ‘It’s a grind,’ even for Mike Trout
By Kurt Kragthorpe
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jul 13 2013 07:25PM
San Bernardino, Calif. • As the Inland Empire 66ers rallied during a lengthy eighth inning last Sunday, two staff members walked through the stands behind home plate, proudly carrying a 25-pound cupcake.
Clearly, this was a job for Kobayashi.
This tour of the Los Angeles Angels’ farm system had begun at Spring Mobile Ballpark, where the Salt Lake Bees hired the renowned competitive eater for a promotional contest. And now, in the 90-degree heat of a southern California evening, the 66ers employees are hoping the bottom of the eighth will end soon enough for them to declare a winner of the game-day sponsor’s raffle prize — before it melts.
Minor league baseball is all about food, marketing and competition. The players climb through a series of levels in a quest of attrition — only about 10 percent will play in the major leagues — while the various teams they’re assigned to around the country do everything they can to attract fans and maintain a thriving business.
"You’re literally fighting over people’s attention," said 66ers general manager Joe Hudson, who formerly worked for the Utah Grizzlies hockey team.
Minor league baseball’s 160 teams have combined to draw at least 41.2 million fans for eight straight years, annually more than the NFL and the NBA combined. The industry overall is "a stable operation," said Bees GM Marc Amicone. "Everybody at every level makes a real effort to be a good business."
But it’s not easy. Located roughly 50 miles from Angels Stadium in Anaheim, the 66ers compete for fans with their own parent club. Part of their strategy is to emphasize those ties. That explains next month’s promotional giveaway of the Kole Calhoun Garden Gnome, celebrating the Inland Empire era of the outfielder who eventually joined the Angels (he’s now with the Bees).
Recalling his initial thought upon learning of the 66ers’ scheme, Calhoun said, "Are you kidding me? OK, it could be cool, but I mean, a garden gnome?"
Hey, whatever it takes. The players understand the promotional efforts, because they’re similarly trying to distinguish themselves, hoping they can move up steadily in the organization.
"It’s a grind, it’s difficult," said Bobby Scales, the Angels’ director of player development. "This might sound crazy, but even for guys like Mike Trout, it’s difficult. On a daily basis, you have situations that arise that test how much you want to play this game."
Trout wouldn’t disagree. The day he was named to start in the Major League All-Star Game, Trout stood in the dugout of Angels Stadium and both cringed and smiled about the memory of launching his career in the Arizona League only four years ago. At 17, he played front of maybe a couple of dozen fans (even with free admission) nightly, with game-time temperatures of 115 degrees or higher.
"It’s a lot better up here, obviously," he said.
So they play on, hoping someday to find work in the big leagues with a minimum annual salary of $490,000, in contrast to seasonal wages of about $1,000 a month in the minors. Money is among the reasons they persevere through the system with no guarantees, even for highly drafted players.
As Scales said, "It’s not for everybody."
Minor league franchises pitch the exact opposite theme. They market affordable family entertainment and an experience beyond "just the standard baseball game," Hudson said.
Even so, this tour produced notable stuff on the field, at every stop. The night Kobayashi ate 13 hot dogs in 60 seconds in Salt Lake City, the wonderfully named Tommy Field gobbled up ground balls with several spectacular plays at second base. In Burlington, Iowa, two hometown Bees lacked baserunning smarts, enabling Peoria third baseman Patrick Wisdom to make an unassisted double play — even with no force-out, after fielding a grounder.
Cal Towey walked five times in a game in Orem, accounting for 450 feet of advancement. Ex-University of Utah star C.J. Cron of the Arkansas Travelers smoked a line drive that maintained its trajectory until hitting a fence next to the scoreboard, 420 feet from home plate. In Arizona, left-handed pitcher Kyle Hunter picked off three baserunners. Andy Workman ran down fly balls from consecutive batters on the warning track in center field in San Bernardino.
And in Anaheim, the Angels rallied to tie Boston with four runs in the ninth inning, before winning in the 11th on Josh Hamilton’s two-run homer.
These, then, are the tour’s lessons: Expect something memorable to happen, and stick with it to the end. That’s what the Angels’ players at every level are doing, until they’re told otherwise.