In the Part Two of this series, we will cover the lower levels of the Toronto Blue Jays minor league affiliate system. The team’s history with each franchise may be brief, but the legacies of each league, team, ballpark are long and storied.
The first stop in our tour of Blue Jays minor league affiliates is Lansing, Michigan.
Single A (A) – Midwest League
Many of the affiliate leagues we discussed in Part 1 had a long and varied history, and the Midwest League is no exception. The original version started out simply as the Illinois State League in 1947, with all 6 teams being located within the state. After a member team moved to Kentucky in 1949, the name changed to Mississippi–Ohio Valley League, and operated under that moniker for 5 seasons. It wasn’t until 1954 with two more teams added in Iowa, did the name officially change to its current Midwest League moniker. The league has seen member teams come and go throughout the years, with many teams moving to new towns and names changed. In the interest of brevity, we will keep this brief history short; however, you can read about it in more depth here, if you should choose.
Throughout their long history the franchise has associated with three cities, seven nicknames, as well as being affiliated with seven different major league teams, including Boston, Cleveland, San Diego, Kansas City, Chicago Cubs, and now the Toronto Blue Jays. Their current name and home field have been in place for the Lansing Lugnuts since the 1996 season when they relocated. The Lugnuts are the first foray into the MWL for Toronto, as they were previously represented, at the Single A level, in the South Atlantic League until 2004. This partnership (2005-present) has worked well for fans of the big club, as Lansing is a short drive for those in Southwest Ontario. Hopefully this relationship will continue past the current player development contract which expires after 2016.
The Lugnuts home, owned by the City of Lansing, is Cooley Law School Stadium, with the naming rights, through a sponsorship agreement, belonging to the largest law school in the United States, Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Until 2010, it had been known as Oldsmobile Park, named after the General Motors division that was once based in Lansing. It boasts a seating capacity of just more than 7000 with significant lawn, patio and standing space available throughout the complex. Another exciting addition is the 80-unit apartment complex being built outside the park from left-center to right-center field, which provides a unique back drop. Not to mention amazing views of home games for any residents lucky enough to face the ballpark.
Short-Season A – Northwest League
The Northwest League, also known as Northwest League of Professional Baseball has been around in one form or another since 1890. Previous iterations have been known as the Western International League, the Northwestern League, with its current format being formed in 1955. Previous league formats had up to four member teams in Canada, throughout British Columbia and Alberta, while the current league has had three in total. New Westminster, B.C. (1974), Victoria, B.C. (1978-80) had short stays, while Vancouver (2000-present) has been, by far, the most successful. The Northwest League is a Short Season Class A league with the typical 75 game season starting from mid-June, after MLB teams have signed their amateur draft picks, and ending in early September. This setup allows teams to get young players, especially high school signings, acclimated to the rigors of daily games and travel associated with professional baseball.
The Vancouver Canadians have been the affiliate of two Major League clubs since their acceptance to the Northwest League. Their original affiliation with the Oakland Athletics lasted a decade (2000-2010) before they came to agreement with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011. While their affiliation with Toronto hasn’t lasted as long, as of yet, it has proven fruitful for both organizations. The Blue Jays recently signing a Player Development Contract extension thru 2018, is further proof of Vancouver’s success as a franchise. The beginning of this success is easily pinpointed to 2007 when two local businessmen, Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney, purchased the club. The Canadians went from a financially struggling franchise to recipients of the prestigious John H. Johnson President’s Award as MiLB’s most complete franchise, within six short years. Vancouver was the first Canadian franchise and only the second (Mexico City, 1976) outside of the United States to receive the award. Impressive indeed.
The home of the Canadians, Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium is an institution within the City of Vancouver. Originally constructed in 1951, and originally named after a local brewing company, Capilano Stadium, played host to two affiliates, the Vancouver Capilanos (1951-1954) of the Western International League, and Vancouver Mounties (1956-62, 1965-69) of the AAA Pacific Coast League. Unfortunately the ballpark would have a nine-year lull before it would again host professional baseball, when in 1978, they became the home of the Oakland Athletics’ PCL affiliate.
That same year Capilano Stadium was branded as Nat Bailey Stadium. Bailey, was a successful local business man, life long little league baseball advocate, and part owner of the Vancouver Mounties during their tenure in the PCL. Since 1978, Nat Bailey Stadium, has successfully played host to professional baseball for 37 consecutive seasons. In 2015, Scotiabank Park at Nat Bailey Stadium underwent reconstruction before the season which saw its seating capacity bumped up from 5,157 to just north of 6000, a much welcomed addition to local fans. With such investment, and the franchise being in the midst of a 25 year lease with the City of Vancouver, the stadium’s owners, the future looks bright for professional baseball in the city.
Rookie Advanced League – Appalachian League
The Appalachian League has a long and staggered history which began in 1911. In its early days the league was strictly independent, with none of its six teams being affiliated with Major League Baseball. This first installment lasted a mere four seasons (1911-1914) before folding. Its second attempt, again with six independent member teams, was only slightly more successful, lasting 5 seasons (1921-25) before folding and not being present for twelve more years. The third and latest incarnation started in 1946 with four member teams, and has run successfully, with one year of inactivity in 1956.
The present day Appalachian League, is a ten team league, which operates as a short-season, Rookie Advanced League (68 games) for its major league affiliates, with games beginning in mid-June, after the amateur draft, and ending in early September. This level is the second lowest rung on the affiliate ladder, just above the standard “complex” rookie leagues (Gulf Coast League & Arizona League) which play games at Spring Training complexes. The competition is typically higher in the advanced leagues, with teams being able to charge admission and sell concessions, unlike the lower level.
The Bluefield Blue Jays have been Toronto’s affiliate since 2011; however before that they enjoyed a 53 year run (1958-2010) with the Baltimore Orioles. That affiliation was the oldest continuous affiliation with a MLB team in minor league baseball as the time of its dissolution. During their history, Bluefield associated with two minor league associations (Mountain State League 1937-42), the Appalachian League (1946-present), and six major league affiliates. Their history with the Boston Braves (1946-51), Washington Senators (1953), Boston Red Sox (1954-55), Brooklyn Dodgers (1957), Baltimore and Toronto, is certainly a glimpse through the long history of baseball. It should be noted that Bluefield’s player development agreement with Toronto concludes after 2016.
The home of the Bluefield Blue Jays is a modest sized park named, Bowen Field. It was originally opened in 1939 to play host to the Bluefield Blue-Grays and sported a very unique all-dirt infield and outfield. While the playing surface had been updated over the years, the original wood construction stadium remained, until being destroyed by a fire in 1973. A new concrete stadium was quickly rebuilt in its place, and is the same stadium that stands today.
Bowen Field has a seating capacity of 3000, and has seen many upgrades over the past 25 years to help make the park more player and fan friendly. A unique aspect of Bowen Field is that it lies on the state line between West Virgina and Virgina. The stadium is located within the city park of Bluefield, West Virgina, and operated by that city; however, Bowen Field lies completely on the Virgina side of the state line.
Fun note: Current Toronto Blue Jay, Kevin Pillar, owns the franchise records for batting average (.347), on-base percentage (.377), slugging percentage (.534), and is the first Bluefield Blue Jay to play for the Toronto Blue Jays.
*Featured Image Credit: 3dpete UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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Wade is a long time baseball fan who has been involved with the game for over 30 years. Including as a former college player, amateur pitching coach, and blogger.