By John Bohnenkamp
Everyone was talking about the new prospect.
It was a June night in 1977 when I saw him play.
It was his first game with the Burlington Bees. First-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, third pick overall. An All-American at Minnesota. One of those can’t-miss players.
He would lead the Bees to the Midwest League championship that year. He was playing for the Brewers the next season.
Paul Molitor is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Summer, 1986. Another can’t-miss prospect. Big left-handed hitter.
In the one game I saw him, he struck out three times. He hit a long home run to left field in his final at-bat.
Larry Walker is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
This is what you could see if you took in a minor league baseball game at Community Field. You would pay a few dollars to see someone chase a dream. And if they caught it, you felt like you were a part of it.
It was a bargain communities embraced.
Major League Baseball took all of that away on Wednesday. MLB teams issued 119 “invitations” to minor league franchises to join them as affiliates — the 120th is coming soon.
The Bees, and fellow Midwest League teams Clinton and Kane County, weren’t on that list.
It wasn’t a surprise. MLB’s saber-rattling at the elimination of 40 affiliates that started in 2019 became a full roar once the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
MLB wanted to cut costs, and run the minors its own way. The goal, we were told, was to raise salaries for minor league players — you know, the salaries MLB already controlled and did nothing about forever — while improving working conditions, an improvement that will be mostly paid for by the minor league affiliates.
It’s like when the big box stores announce they’re going to raise wages for workers, and then quietly cut jobs and hours. It looks good, but it’s really not.
Less employees — fewer teams mean fewer roster spots. And better work environments paid for by somebody else.
It’s a bargain MLB embraces. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision.
The small communities that embraced baseball at its lower levels? Sorry, you don’t matter anymore.
Burlington has had professional baseball for more than 100 years. It was part of the community’s summer soundtrack, but there were times it felt like the community took it for granted, that it will always be there.
Cold beer. Hot dogs. Fireworks during the July 4 weekend.
It’s been a part of my life, personally and professionally, forever.
In 1994, my first year covering the team, the Appleton Foxes, an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, came to town for a May series.
The Foxes had this 18-year-old infielder who was the Mariners’ first-round pick the year before. I tracked him down during pre-game workouts for an interview. Sure, he said, but we would have to do it in the outfield while he went through his stretching routine. And for a half-hour, we talked about his life, and where he was in his career. Great kid, great interview.
Then Alex Rodriguez went out and had five home runs and drove in 13 runs in a three-game series.
Those were the prospects you saw come through. You saw future Cardinals, future Cubs, future Twins.
And then you saw them on the biggest stages.
Max Muncy played for the Bees, and won a World Series this year with the Dodgers. Molitor won World Series titles with Toronto.
The 2014 Royals made the World Series with a team that consisted of former Bees such as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy. They lost that year to the San Francisco Giants, but won the Series next year against the New York Mets.
There were those in the community who felt that title belonged to them, too.
Most players who came through made lasting relationships within the community, especially when the Bees had host families who offered homes to players. Some players returned to live in the community after their careers ended. Molitor, for all of his success, has helped the organization by coming back for fundraising events.
Burlington was their home for a summer. It was part of their dream.
It was a bargain so many embraced.
The 2020 season would have been a chance to say goodbye. Burlington, and so many others, were on the original list that had been leaked, and it felt like one more run was imminent. But the pandemic took that way, a financial and emotional blow.
The Burlington Baseball Association announced Wednesday afternoon that there will be baseball next summer in some form, in some way. Still, it was a day when it felt something was lost.
This is survivable. Many former Midwest League cities still have summer baseball in college wood-bat leagues or independent professional leagues. It’s still a soundtrack.
Survivability, though, doesn’t take away the disappointment of what is gone.
It will still be a bargain.
The embrace will just feel different.
Photo: Hector Yan jumps on the back of Nonie Williams after Williams delivered the game-winning hit in a 2019 game at Community Field. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)