If you blinked, chances are you missed out seeing the Pawtucket Red Sox in the 2011 Governors’ Cup playoffs. The three-game sweep administered by Lehigh Valley was that fleeting.
In a week’s time the PawSox went from mighty division champs to postseason wallflowers. One Saturday night, they’re basking in the glow of winning the I.L. North. The next Saturday sees the clubhouse resemble that of a funeral parlor, with players quietly exchanging farewell handshakes and hugs while gathering up their personal belongings for the trip back home.
Talk about life changing in an instant, with elation cast aside in favor of the season coming to an abrupt end. If you wished to remain uplifted, your only choice was to walk into the Lehigh Valley clubhouse, where jubilation was served with a side order of beer dousing, which contributed mightily to the dousing of uniforms.
The short and not-so sweet events that cast a pall on an otherwise remarkable season got this scribe to put on the thinking cap regarding what lies around the bend once the regular season concludes on Labor Day. The points below are designed to illustrate the belief that it’s a whole new ballgame come minor-league playoff time, which doesn’t necessarily come equipped with the same tingling anticipation one commonly associates when referencing postseason sporting events.
1). Tough ticket? Not really
The minor-league season starts in early April and concludes the first Monday in September. That’s how the season is presented on those handy pocket schedules and that’s the message delivered by front office types to potential ticket buyers.
Closer to home, Pawtucket always does a admirable job in attracting fans to come out to McCoy Stadium with giveaways, special appearances, fireworks displays and affordable ticket prices. The on-field product has always been the No. 1 marketing tool – “come and see Boston’s stars of tomorrow today” – yet it’s the entire package that has made catching a PawSox game a top attraction year-in and year-out.
Selling the regular season is an easy chore. That’s not the case come playoff time. For starters, you don’t even know if the hometown ‘9’ is going to qualify, a major loophole those in charge of selling ducats and suites run into when they place calls to promote the possibility of playoff baseball.
Once the playoff berth is officially clinched and the home dates are revealed, only then does the marketing campaign have some steak to go along with all that sizzle. Problem solved in terms of attracting customers? Hardly.
Generally you’ll see a spike in attendance at minor-league stadiums once school is let out in June. Come September, those same kids who pleaded with their parents to take them to the local ballyard are back in school, buried in homework and after-school activities. Losing such a key demographic hurts in terms of revenue generating and atmosphere creating.
The PawSox staff should be commended for drumming up support and the fashion in which they did. The “Arnie’s Army” poster giveaway was a nice touch. So too was having the Red Sox World Series trophies on hand. The “Our Team, Our Time” slogan further illustrates the enthusiasm that gripped the offices on Ben Mondor Way.
Yet there were also signs Saturday at McCoy regarding the theory that the playoffs exist in an opposite universe. The suites along the first base line and the barbeque area were closed for operation, though it should be noted the suites along the third base line were all occupied.
The announced attendance for Saturday’s game was an April-like 5,017, though it could have been worse. Durham drew 4,964 fans for its two home playoff games against Columbus, which saw 6,056 enthusiasts pass through the turnstiles for the Game 3 series clincher in Ohio. Lehigh Valley had paid attendances consisting of 5,880 (Game 1) and 7,865 (Game 2).
Bottom line? Minor-league playoffs are a challenging sell on so many levels.
2). Head-scratching arrangements
The PawSox won the division while the IronPigs were the wild-card entry. Therefore one would think the first two games of the best-of-five series would take place in Pawtucket before shifting to Allentown, Pa.
Wrong. The International League predetermines its playoff format under which the wild-card winner always plays the North champ. It cuts deeper, since the wild card representative receives the luxury of starting the series at home where two games are guaranteed. Meanwhile the division winner, the club that actually accomplished something worth denoting, enters the series knowing that only one home game is a given with an asterisk attached to everything else.
Given this bizarre structure, it seems the PawSox were better off as the wild card, a belief expressed by many on Saturday. Maybe that was frustration spilled over from the team’s hanging-on-by-a-thread status, but let’s cut to the chase: this series should have begun at McCoy.
The fact that it didn’t flies in the face of conventional playoff wisdom.
3). Down to bare bones
You had a feeling the PawSox would see their roster picked apart the moment the Red Sox started to experience turbulence. The needs of the parent club always supersede those of the Triple-A team, regardless if its in the midst of a playoff run or not.
In a 24-hour span Pawtucket bid adieu to its middle-of-the-order thumper (Ryan Lavarnway), the likely Game 1 playoff starter (Kyle Weiland) and an all-around contributor (Nate Spears). Scott Atchison was recalled in the middle of the series, yet another blow that rivals that of losing fellow pitchers Michael Bowden and Felix Doubront.
Would have Pawtucket’s fortunes been different had manager Arnie Beyeler had the aforementioned names at his disposal, plus a healthy Ryan Kalish? There’s no question in my mind.
The Sept. 1 date in which major-league rosters can expand can leave a playoff-bound Class AAA team singing the blues – unless you’re Lehigh Valley. The only notable defection the IronPigs suffered was losing infielder Pete Orr. Such a paucity of moves is directly linked to the double-digit command the Phillies presently find themselves basking in. Philadelphia’s playoff fate is set while Boston’s keeps growing murkier with each passing day (and loss).
That’s why you saw one team operate at nearly full strength while the other limped toward the finish line, a tough-to-swallow ending for a Pawtucket team that only a week earlier had the necessary pieces to forge ahead and make a deep playoff run.