When it comes to size, scope and longevity, few, if any, sporting bodies can rival Minor League Baseball. With 160 teams in nearly as many markets, there are innumerable nooks and crannies to explore. This marks the 10th installment in a 14-part series dedicated to such explorations, providing one unique, weird, poignant or otherwise memorable fact about each team or city in each of Minor League Baseball's admission-charging leagues. Remember -- it's about the journey, not the destination. To share your own favorite team or city facts, please reach out via email ([email protected]) or Twitter (@bensbiz). Previous installments: International League, Pacific Coast League, Eastern League, Southern League, Texas League, California League, Carolina League, Florida State League and the Midwest League.
The South Atlantic League is often referred to as the Sally League. The first Minor League circuit to go by this name was established in 1904 and ran intermittently through 1963. That league was a direct precursor to today's Double-A Southern League. As for today's Class A South Atlantic League, it was established in 1980 and can be traced to the 1948 establishment of the Western Carolinas League. That circuit was founded by 29-year-old John Henry Moss, who went on to serve as South Atlantic League president from its inception through 2007. A plaque honoring Moss and his six decades of Minor League Baseball stewardship can be found at every SAL ballpark.
McCormick Field, home of the Asheville Tourists, is located amid hilly terrain. The land dramatically slopes upward just beyond the outfield fence, leading to an at-times unsightly tangle of unchecked vegetation. In 2015, the Tourists creatively addressed this landscaping challenge by hiring a team of goats to chew through it. "The goats have been living in shelters behind the outfield as they worked, gradually moving from foul territory and across the hill from right to left field," reported the Asheville Citizen-Times, adding that the goats had names such as Casper, Cinnamon and Sugar.
In 1905, at age 18, Ty Cobb won his first professional batting title as a member of the South Atlantic League's Augusta Tourists. He made his Major League debut later that season, collecting the first of his 4,191 career hits. In Cobb's honor, Augusta's Minor League team was named the Tygers from 1922-29. A more recent tribute to Cobb could be found at the GreenJackets' previous home of Lake Olmstead Stadium. It was 366 feet from home plate to the power alleys in honor of Cobb's lifetime batting average.
Charleston is a charter member of the South Atlantic League, having played its first season in 1980. But over the course of three team names (Royals, Rainbows, RiverDogs) and four affiliations (Kansas City, San Diego, Tampa Bay and the Yankees), the organization has never won a league title. This is the longest current drought in Class A, and the third-longest in Minor League Baseball. No current team in the Minors has existed for a longer period of time than the RiverDogs without having won a championship. There's always next year.
Most teams experience a dip in attendance in their second year at a new ballpark. Not so for the Columbia Fireflies. The team, formerly the Savannah Sand Gnats, drew 261,134 to Spirit Communications Park (now Segra Park) in its inaugural season of 2016. The next season, the Fireflies drew 315,034. A big part of the reason for the anomalous increase was the presence of Tim Tebow on the roster. The evangelical erstwhile quarterback opened the 2017 season on the Fireflies and proved to be a big draw in Columbia and throughout the South Atlantic League. Tebow played 64 games for Columbia before getting promoted to the Class A Advanced St. Lucie Mets.
Cities are the most common geographical signifier employed by Minor League teams, but there are also states, counties and regions aplenty. The Delmarva Shorebirds are unique, however, in that they are the only team to utilize a tri-state portmanteau. Or a portmanteau of any kind, for that matter. Delmarva, short for Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, represents the Eastern Shore region in which the team is located. The Shorebirds operate out of the "mar" portion of their team name, in Salisbury, Maryland. There has never been a South Atlantic League team based in Virginia or Delaware.
The South Atlantic League long has had an affinity for insect-based names, and in this regard, Greensboro led the way. The team played as the Hornets from its 1979 inception through 1993, and as the Grasshoppers from 2005 onward. It is one of three insect teams currently in the SAL, along with the Augusta GreenJackets and the Columbia Fireflies. Greensboro played as the Bats from 1994 through 2004, however, and for its first two seasons with this moniker, the league did not have any teams named after insects. Fortunately, Savannah filled the void in 1996 by changing its name from the Cardinals to the Sand Gnats.
The Drive played their inaugural season in 2005 after relocating from Columbia, South Carolina, where they were known as the Capital City Bombers. It was not a foregone conclusion that the team would be named the Drive, despite the region's strong connections to the automotive industry. "Joes" was one of the finalists, in honor of Greenville native "Shoeless Joe" Jackson. This potential name was vetoed by Major League Baseball, however, "because Shoeless Joe was banned from baseball for his alleged involvement in the 1919 Black Sox scandal." The Drive's home of Fluor Field is located directly the across the street from the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum, based out of a house in which Jackson lived and eventually died.
Municipal Stadium, longtime home of the Suns, features a roof-based press box that can only be accessed by a metal spiral staircase. It is no coincidence that Hagerstown is also home to the Duvinage metal stair company. Duvinage's founder, Pierre Duvinage, patented the first metal spiral staircase in the United States in 1895.
The Crawdads, established in 1993, have an all-time record of 1,898 wins and 1,845 losses. It took them until 2015 to pass the .500 mark, however. The Crawdads were a White Sox affiliate from 1993 through 1998, and in that time, they went 374-464. They fared better over their next 10 seasons as a Pirates affiliate with a 705-677 mark. The Crawdads' current affiliation with the Texas Rangers began in 2009. In 2014 they went 80-59, their fifth straight winning record, leaving them with an all-time mark of 1,526-1,526. The next season they won 81 games, establishing an all-time winning record en route to the league championship.
Kannapolis Cannon Ballers
The recently rebranded Cannon Ballers, formerly the Intimidators, will take the field in a new downtown ballpark upon the resumption of Minor League Baseball. The team used to play at Intimidators Stadium, where at least one person was attacked on the field by a bat. The year was 2010, and the person was second baseman Daniel Wagner. In 2011, when prompted by this writer, Wagner recalled the harrowing experience.
The Jersey Shore-based BlueClaws are located firmly in Bruce Springsteen country, in close proximity to his hometown of Freehold as well as the Asbury Park venues in which he first made a name for himself. Since 2008, the Phillies' Class A affiliate has staged an annual Bruce Springsteen Appreciation Night, honoring Springsteen via "BruceClaws" theme jerseys and performances by tribute bands. Springsteen has never attended one of his appreciation nights, but the team has never lost hope that one day he might.
Ty Cobb played in Augusta in 1904 and 1905, and from 2008 through 2019, Ty Cobb worked for the Lexington Legends. This latter-day Ty Cobb, of no relation to the former, began his Minor League Baseball front-office career as an Omaha Royals intern in 2008. He was traded to the Legends, with the Royals receiving a bottle of Maker’s Mark Kentucky Bourbon, a box of cigars and a copy of the 2003 film "Anger Management" in return. After spending a full decade as a member of the Legends' front-office staff, Cobb left the team in order to pursue a career outside of Minor League Baseball.
In the Double-A Southern League, the Mississippi Braves are the only team to have the same name as their parent club. Similarly, the Rome Braves are the only team in the South Atlantic League to have the same moniker as their parent club. Prior to arriving in Rome in 2003, the franchise spent 13 seasons as the Macon Braves. The last non-Braves affiliate in the South Atlantic League to have the same name as its parent club was the 1995 Piedmont Phillies, who changed their name to the Boll Weevils the following season.
West Virginia Power
The RiverDogs aren't the only Charleston-based team in the South Atlantic League, as the Power operate out of Charleston, West Virginia. The team was known as the Charleston Wheelers (1987-94) and Charleston Alley Cats (1995-2004) before assuming its current West Virginia Power moniker in 2005. But as the Power once had to share Charleston with another team, they now have to share West Virginia. Prior to the 2015 season, the New York-Penn League's Jamestown Jammers relocated just outside of Morgantown and changed their name to the West Virginia Black Bears.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.