The Arkansas Travelers were just a failed physical away from welcoming a legitimate major league superstar to their ranks a couple of years ago.
In 2011, former Los Angeles Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, a Pine Bluff native, was expected to join the Travelers, the Angels’ Class AA Texas League affiliate, on an injury rehabilitation assignment at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. But Hunter’s progress after his hip injury was not satisfactory, and his appearance, which would have been a first for the Travelers-Angels affiliation, did not take place.
Ordinarily it works the other way — Arkansas sends players to the big leagues instead of receiving them.
Since 1963, when minor league baseball organized into the structure under which it operates today, clubs have developed players almost exclusively for major league teams.
In the first half of the last century, the minors were a patchwork of A, B, C and D leagues. Major league clubs had loose working agreements in which they would purchase a minor league team’s top players, but there was not a steady talent pipeline to the big leagues like there is today.
Now the minors are structured in classifications ranging from Class A to Class AAA. There are also short-season rookie leagues, for the newest, rawest young players.
Major league teams sign two- or four-year “player development contracts” with minor league teams at each classification, and they send their young players to those teams for development.
No money changes hands, and certain subjects are off limits, like demands for a new stadium, when PDCs are discussed.
Theoretically, each and every player on a minor league roster has a chance of making it to the major league parent club.
There are also a handful of unaffiliated, independent leagues populated by players who could not secure a contract with a major league organization and former big leaguers or contract minor leagues looking for a second chance. Often a major league team, looking to shore up a minor league lineup somewhere, will sign a player out of independent ball.
The Arkansas Travelers have been affiliated with the Los Angeles Angels since 2001 and are set to begin another in their series of two-year PDCs. The Northwest Arkansas Naturals, who play at Springdale, are affiliated with the Kansas City Royals and early last season signed a four-year PDC that will begin next year.
The Travs and Naturals compete in the Class AA Texas League.
The Angels’ organization includes three rookie teams in Arizona, the Dominican Republic and Orem, Utah; a low A team in Burlington, Iowa; a high A team in the area of southern California known as the Inland Empire; the Class AA Travelers; and the Class AAA Salt Lake Bees.
The Royals’ setup includes four rookie teams, in the Dominican; Surprise, Ariz; Burlington, N.C.; and Idaho Falls; Class A teams in Kane County, Ill., and Wilmington, Del.; the Class AA Naturals; and the Class AAA Omaha Storm Chasers.
Prior to the Angels, the Travelers were affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals for 35 years. The Naturals have been with Kansas City since 1995, when they were located in Wichita, Kan., and known as the Wranglers.
Wichita moved to Springdale in 2008.
A major league team will supply players, field staff and trainers and make all field-level personnel decisions, promoting or demoting players and hiring and firing coaches and managers as it sees fit. The minor league management operates the local ballpark, providing uniforms and some equipment and helping to care for players’ immediate needs while trying to turn a profit.
It is a system that sometimes frustrates fans, who often see the best players promoted in the midst of pennant drives. Since winning baseball sometimes takes a back seat to the needs of the major league club, the minors do what they can to fill seats through giveaways and promotions, like the Travs’ wildly popular Clunker Car Night.