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TERRY HERSOM: American Association will look a little different in 2021

TERRY HERSOM: American Association will look a little different in 2021

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SIOUX CITY -- If baseball’s independent American Association has announced it already, I missed out on the memo.

It didn’t take long, though, for me to realize that our Sioux City Explorers have lost a league rival that was also one of the X’s South Division opponents.

Lost in the shuffle of a world-wide pandemic was an announcement last October 23 from the Texas AirHogs, the suburban Dallas club based out of Grand Prairie, Texas, which has closed up shop after 13 seasons in the league.

I can’t say I’m surprised in this development after the AirHogs posted a 28-72 record in 2019 – 10 games worse than any of the Association’s other 11 teams. Last year, of course, Texas joined Sioux City and four other clubs in electing not to play since laws in their home states would have forced them to play in empty ballparks.

Cutting the schedule back from 100 games to 60, the league pared down to six teams and wound up crowning the Milwaukee Milkmen as its 2020 champion. After topping the six-team standings at 34-26, the team from suburban Franklin, Wis., faced the runner-up Sioux Falls Canaries (31-27), winning a scheduled best-of-seven series in just five games.

Then, on Dec. 9, came news that the St. Paul Saints, one of Sioux City’s original rivals since the old Northern League was launched in 1993, had agreed quite eagerly to become the Class AAA (top) farm club of the nearby Minnesota Twins.

If memory serves, this agreement hadn’t been possible in the not-too-distant past because Major League Baseball had required big-league clubs to put a little more distance between themselves and any of their farm teams.

Even though there were times when the Saints would draw bigger crowds than the Twins on evenings when both played at home, the new arrangement certainly makes plenty of sense. After all, if Minnesota wanted to promote a Triple-A prospect any time in the last 13 years, they had to ship him in from their affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., which has now become the Washington Nationals’ Class AAA partner.

St. Paul definitely deserves a place among affiliated baseball’s premier franchises. After all, in most recent years the Saints ranked fifth or sixth in professional baseball for attendance below the major league level. They trailed only four of five of the 30 Class AAA teams with consistent season averages of over 8,000 customers per game.

Good as this news has been for the Saints, it wasn’t such a lucky break for baseball journeyman George Tsamis, who had managed St. Paul for the last 18 seasons and is now, last I heard, shopping for a job at age 53.

In terms of the American Association, the loss of St. Paul and Texas keeps the league with an even number of teams at 10. Also, since St. Paul was in the North Division and Texas in the South, I’d expect the two divisions won’t require any shuffling and that Sioux City will again vie for the South division pennant with Lincoln, Kansas City, Sioux Falls and the Railroaders from Cleburne, Texas.

Gone but not forgotten, the former Grand Prairie AirHogs made their American Association debut on May 8, 2008, with former major leaguer Pete Incaviglia at the helm. Ironically, they lost that contest 10-3 to the Saints in St. Paul.

This was less than a year after Incaviglia was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame after an Oklahoma State career in which he established NCAA records that still stand, belting 48 home runs as a junior and 100 career homers (in 213 games) in three seasons. OSU reached the College World Series all three years.

Incaviglia led the AirHogs to a league championship in 2011 and then spent five years with the Laredo Lemurs, who won the title in 2015 by shocking a Sioux City juggernaut that put up a league-record 75-25 regular season mark.

Elsewhere in the Association, meanwhile, several exciting changes have developed as the X’s and their rivals cross their fingers on getting back to a 100-game schedules.

In Kansas City, for example, the T-Bones have become the Kansas City Monarchs, resurrecting the name of the former Negro League power. The name change reflects on a new partnership between the Kansas City franchise and the Negro League Baseball Museum.

The American Association has also unveiled a new logo that reflects its new partnership with an entity named Baseballism, which will design and market new apparel to be sold online and in all the league ballparks.

Even more significant was the announcement last fall that Major League Baseball has named the American Association, Atlantic League and Frontier League as “partner leagues” with MLB. While this does not make the Association an affiliated league, it should open a few more doors for some of our players.

Now, let’s cross our fingers and hope an upgraded Lewis and Clark Park will once again offer a welcome summer diversion starting in May.

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