By John Bohnenkamp
The Midwest League opened its season on Friday night.
At the same time, the Burlington Bees, one of the league’s former members, were holding their spring banquet.
That, Prospect League commissioner Dennis Bastien told the crowd at the Catfish Bend Convention and Event Center, was a good thing.
“Four years ago, 10 years ago, 30 years ago, you would have been playing tonight,” Bastien said. “You would have been playing on this drizzly, cold, 31-degree night in April. And maybe, maybe, 50 people came, and why they were there, no one knows. That is the beauty of the Prospect League.”
The Bees, in their second season in the college wood-bat league, will open the 2022 schedule on June 1 at home against Quincy when the weather will be a lot warmer.
The 60-game schedule in June, July and early August, Bastien said, eliminates any sort of weather worries.
“You don’t have those Aprils, you don’t have those Mays, when kids are not out of school yet,” Bastien said. “(Bees general manager) Tad (Lowary) can take his 30 best promotions, and put them in 30 nights. You don’t have to string them out, and not have to worry about putting them on a cold Tuesday night in April, when it’s drizzling, or there’s snow.”
The contraction by Major League Baseball that cost Burlington and 41 other cities their Minor League Baseball affiliation forced the Burlington Baseball Association to find an alternative league in the winter of 2020, and the Prospect League was happy to take in the Bees.
Bastien said he talked to five organizations within the league’s Midwest/Appalachian footprint that lost their MiLB affiliations — Midwest League teams Burlington and Clinton, along with teams in Lexington, Ky., Morgantown, West Virginia, and Jackson, Tenn. Burlington and Clinton joined the league, with Jackson coming into the league as the 17th team in 2023.
“What you have here with your facility, whether you realize it or not, this is an absolutely beautiful facility,” Bastien said of Community Field. “If you’ve been to other ballparks, you should be proud of what you’ve got. You should be saluted for that. This place is amazing.”
And while the Bees don’t have an MLB affiliate anymore — they were affiliated with the Los Angeles Angels when the contraction happened — Bastien pointed out how 172 former Prospect League players have made it into MLB organizations. Trey Sweeney, drafted by the New York Yankees in the first round last season, played for Lafayette in 2019. J.T. Brubaker, the starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in Thursday’s season opener against St. Louis, played in the league in 2014.
“You’re going to have, likely, within three or four years, a player who has been here as a Bee make it up (into an MLB organization),” Bastien said. “When you get to watch a kid work his way up, get drafted, sign, and play up to the big leagues, it’s going to happen here.”
Bastien said he appreciated the reaction he received from Bees fans on a visit to Burlington last season.
“I don’t know how many people came up to me and said, ‘Listen, this is a breath of fresh air,’” Bastien said. “These kids will run through a wall. These guys are working to work their way up (to making it to an MLB organization). Every single one of them has that dream.”
Photo: Prospect League commissioner Dennis Bastien speaks to the crowd at the Burlington Bees’ spring banquet on Friday. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)