Bigger isn’t always better, but in this case it would be. Kevin Tresolini of The News Journal reported this week that the Wilmington Blue Rocks want to become a Class AA team in the Eastern League after spending their entire modern existence as a member of the Class A Carolina League. And this news comes at the perfect time for the Blue Rocks, a baseball team that’s stuck in a rut.
It’s been a mostly successful rut and the Rocks’ attendance figures are still the envy of most minor-league teams in their class. But their average attendance last season of 4,349, which was third in the Carolina League, was also the second-lowest since the franchise was resurrected in 1993, and it’s obvious to anyone that the Blue Rocks don’t generate the juice around here that they used to.
When the Rocks first came to town they were an immediate success on and off the field. Matt Minker, the late, great owner of the Blue Rocks, always pressured the Kansas City Royals – the franchise that owns the Rocks – into sending some of their budding stars to Wilmington. And that’s one reason why we got to watch the Royals’ best prospects, like Michael Tucker, Johnny Damon, Mike Sweeney and Carlos Beltran, begin their professional careers.
Those Blue Rocks teams always competed for, and often won, the Carolina League championship and people made a point to come and see the young players who would one day become major-league All-Stars. Plus, the Rocks and Frawley Stadium were brand new and people were caught up in the excitement.
This year, none of the Royals’ top prospects are on the Blue Rocks’ roster. Their best young players, according to Baseball America, were sent right to the Royals’ Class AA team, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. They include the Royals’ top-rated prospect, shortstop Raul Mondesi (the 28th overall prospect in minor-league baseball), as well as pitchers Brandon Finnegan and Miguel Almonte.
So, the Blue Rocks got lesser players and that won’t help draw fans to Frawley Stadium, and it certainly won’t make them stay once they get there. That, of course, is one of the peculiarities of minor-league baseball and the Blue Rocks have always had an interesting relationship with their fan base, which supports them, but doesn’t really care about them, at least as far as wins and losses go. Fans love to come to the park and soak up the minor-league atmosphere and eat some hot dogs and drink some beers and buy some Blue Rocks paraphernalia – and then they leave in the seventh inning of a tied game because it’s getting late and the kids have to go to school the next morning and they’re getting a little cranky anyhow…
So, the Blue Rocks need a jolt and moving up to Double-A ball could provide it. First of all, it means a bigger and presumably better ballpark, since the Blue Rocks would have to expand Frawley Stadium’s capacity to meet Class AA standards. The Blue Rocks have a beautiful home, as good as any in Class A, but it would be fun to see a new and improved version.
And, of course, it would also mean better players. The baseball would be more polished and the players would be closer to the big leagues than the current Blue Rocks are. And the teams they play would be closer to Wilmington than the Carolina League teams are. The Blue Rocks would play in the Eastern League against teams from Trenton, N.J., Harrisburg, Pa., Bowie, Md., and, sadly, Reading, Pa.
That’s sad because it means the Blue Rocks can’t be affiliated with the Phillies, the parent team of the Reading Fightin’ Phils. Philadelphia and Reading have a close and long-term relationship that won’t change, so even though it would be the perfect marriage for the Blue Rocks and fans – who could watch young players develop at Frawley Stadium and then watch them blossom at Citizens Bank Park – it won’t happen.
In fact, if there’s one downside to all of this, it’s the fact that the team Wilmington would move here, the Eastern League team currently based in Binghamton, N.Y., is affiliated with the stinking New York Mets. That creates the ugly possibility of rooting for a kid who plays for the Blue Rocks and then a couple of years later watching him beat the Phillies.
So, a move to Class AA won’t make for a perfect world for Blue Rocks fans, but it would make for a better one. And, for a little while at least, the Blue Rocks would once again be the talk of the town.