How to watch a Minor League game

May. 17, 2014 @ 04:25 PM

Most Durham Bulls fans go to a game rooting for the home team. Well and good. But there is another way to watch a Bulls game, or any other minor league baseball game. Maybe it’s best not to root too hard for the home team, but just watch how well the game is played.

The reason is simple: Victory in any given game isn’t the primary motivation for Bulls’ management. They are there to develop players for the parent Major League team, the Tampa Bay Rays.

This all became stark a couple of weeks ago when Bulls Manager Charlie Montoyo pulled pitcher Mike Montgomery from a game, two outs from throwing a no-hitter, because Montgomery had reached his maximum pitch count for a single game. The fans booed loudly, and I wrote a column for The Herald-Sun criticizing Montoyo and the rigid adherence to pitch count that seems to be taking over the modern game. I said it changed the game, and I wouldn’t go back

A lot of people agreed with me. Some didn’t. One was Joel Crisler, a former minor league pitcher at the Triple A level, who believes throwing too many pitches ruined his arm and his shot at the major leagues.

“There wasn’t any real concern about pitch count back then,” says Crisler, 57, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels organization in the late 1970s and early  ’80s. Teams “signed guys that they felt could complete games. At that time here wasn’t a real specialty of being short relief or a middle setup guy.” 

It’s well known that youngsters, 10-12-year-olds and even teenagers, should limit their pitch counts. Many experts say the youngest players shouldn’t even try throwing a curve ball because of the twists it puts on their not fully developed arms and wrists. But I had asked in my column why more mature modern pitchers, with better training than their predecessors of a generation ago, should be so limited in pitch count.

Crisler, who now coaches high school baseball in Georgia, says that’s because young prospects are playing baseball almost year-round now. “These kids don’t get a break like we used to do.” A youngster with talent will play high school ball, fall ball, travel ball, Crisler says.

“Pitchers are pitching 150- 180 innings a year when they’re 15 years old. That just didn’t happen when I was young. There are more kids who aren’t even getting out of high school before they have serious progressive arm injuries.” Pitch counts are necessary for a pitcher’s health, he says.

But pitch counts and, of course, the fact that the best players in the minors are likely to be called up to the majors, means the minor league game is different from, say, a Yankees-Red Sox matchup, where winning is the goal.

In the minors, “Winning those games and winning the championship, as far as the organization is concerned, is totally secondary to developing players and moving players through their system,” Crisler says.

He advises watching the game a different way, without focusing so much on the score.

“Watch how they play the game,” he says. Does a guy get down on himself after booting a routine play? Can the batter bunt, or hit behind the runner to avoid a double play?

 “I enjoy watching a pitcher who doesn’t walk a guy after his teammate makes an error,” Crisler says. “I like to see an infielder , after a guy walks a guy, make a great play to get a double play.”

Crisler has persuaded me to go back. And I’ll root for the Bulls, but in a different way.

Bill Arthur is retired after a 40-year career in journalism and now is a free-lance writer in Chapel Hill.