Remembering the Great Eight 

If the Richmond Braves leave, we just might get better baseball.

The Richmond Braves, packed with young, talented players, whipped their chief rival, Tidewater Tides, 5-1 and captured the International League West Division crown. The squad, thought too inexperienced to compete before the season started, celebrated on the field while fans roared and fireworks exploded overhead. In the next few weeks, the Braves went on to capture the Governors' Cup, the International League's championship series, over the Syracuse Chiefs.

Many of those young players crafted strong, big-league careers in the years that followed. Outfielders David Justice and, to a lesser extent, Ron Gant, found stardom, reaching all-star teams and big contracts. Others, such as Kent Mercker, Mark Lemke and Tommy Greene, had solid major-league careers. Even pitching coach Leo Mazzone, working in as anonymous a position as any in the sport, is considered one of greatest in the game's history (most notably, he coached Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz to dominance in the 1990s).

The team brimmed with energy. During the next five seasons, Richmond saw a galaxy of budding young stars. The 1992 season gave the city Vinny Castilla and Ryan Klesko. The 1993 edition featured a corps of prospects known as the Great Eight, which included future standouts Chipper Jones, Jose Oliva and Javy Lopez.

While the city and the Braves negotiate, argue and posture over a new ballpark, Richmond baseball fans face the specter of Atlanta moving its Class AAA franchise. Meanwhile, followers of minor-league baseball maintain Richmond is well-established as a strong baseball market, so much so that a Class AA or Class A club would likely jump at the chance to replace the Braves if they left.

As the debate continues over a new stadium, however, one of the key arguments posited by Braves supporters is the quality of Class AAA baseball.

Few argue that Richmond can find another team, but securing another Class AAA team, the highest in the minor-league pecking order, is less likely. So, the theory goes, building a new stadium for the Braves would ensure the region would reap the economic rewards and star-spotting that comes with a higher quality of baseball.

Experts, however, say the lower leagues on the ladder are catching up with Class AAA. And increasingly, many of the up-and-coming prospects are emerging from the lower classes as major-league franchises increasingly use their top farm clubs as holding pens for injured players and reserves.

The Richmond Braves appear to be a case in point. As the glory years of the early '90s fade into the past, only once since 1994 have the Braves reached the Governors' Cup final — which ironically came in August and September 2004, shortly after the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston flooded The Diamond, forcing playoff games to be moved to other stadiums. Meanwhile, attendance continues its decade-long decline. Some people even argue that a switch to Class AA might be a better fit for Richmond.

"The average fan wouldn't notice that much difference, if it's in pleasant surroundings [and if] it's a good night out," says John Schleppi, chair of the Minor Leagues Committee for the Society of American Baseball Research and a professor at the University of Dayton.

He says the game can be more entertaining in the lower leagues when you consider that Class AAA players are often sent down from the majors to work on specific skills. The emphasis isn't necessarily on winning.

Class AAA ball clubs stock their rosters with major league reserves needing regular playing time and with prospects in search of that last bit of polish.

Don Mincher, president of the Class AA Southern League and the former owner and general manager of the Huntsville Stars, says leagues such as his are the first big test for future major-leaguers. As a result, his league, along with the Eastern and Texas leagues, is stocked with talent.

"On an ordinary basis, [players] need to hit triple-A to get that last-minute instruction — unless they're needed," says Mincher, noting that Atlanta's John Francoeur, an outfielder, bypassed Richmond and jumped from Class AA Mississippi to the parent club. Atlanta, racked with injuries and lowered salaries, has routinely rushed in prospects with only brief stays in Richmond.

The Richmond Braves teams of the early 1990s played with big-league talent, but had the cohesiveness and youth often found in the lower leagues. They stood as an exception for most Class AAA squads, says Scott P. Mayer, co-author of the history book "Baseball and Richmond."

"I think there was a different philosophy at how [Atlanta] looked at the minors," Mayer says. "They kept the players at triple-A longer, and they got a good crop of young players."

Mincher marveled at those players when they played for Greenville, then Atlanta's Class AA affiliate, before they made it to Richmond. "I will never forget those guys," he says. "We drew a heck of a lot more people" playing in Greenville.

But after those strong years, minor-league reality returned to Richmond. The squad saw its share of future major-leaguers in recent years with such players as Andy Marte and Johnny Estrada. But many of the hottest prospects barely touch base in Richmond anymore. Baseball America listed the Atlanta's top 10 prospects at the end of last season, and right now only one — Anthony Lehew — plays at The Diamond. The highest player on the list, Andy Marte, now plays in the Cleveland Indians organization. Fans can find the No. 2 athlete, the hyper-touted Jarrod Saltalamacchia, at Class AA Mississippi. The rest are scattered from Atlanta to the Braves Class A team in Rome, Ga.

The Braves are not alone. In Washington, D.C., former University of Virginia pitcher Ryan Zimmerman leapt from Class AA to the Washington Nationals last September.

"I don't know of any organizational change that made it all that different. It seemed all those guys came through [Class AA] Mississippi last year," says John Charles Bradbury, an economics professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and creator of the Sabernomics blog on baseball statistics. "I think the need last year was, they had to go all the way down to double-A, because they had no one to get," Bradbury says of the Atlanta Braves, of which he's a rabid fan.

Bradbury usually decides what games to attend based on the caliber of the teams playing. But he's probably the exception.

"It depends on what you want. Versus double-A or triple-A, I can't speak to that," Bradbury says. "In major-league baseball, the games are more expensive. I like to go and see high-quality baseball. But some people value minor-league ball and sit right behind home plate for less than $10. It's a personal preference."

Perhaps that's why when Atlanta moved its Class AA franchise, it toyed with placing it in the Atlanta suburbs before moving it outside Jackson, Miss. The minors' highest level sits between two different products.

For the average fan, Class A or Class AA baseball may be a better experience.

"While I grew up in a major-league city, the last 15 years I've lived in a triple-A city," says Mayer, who grew up watching the Cincinnati Reds. "I got to like the single-A, double-A stadiums better. You're closer to the action."

"The quality of play isn't as high," he continues, "but the energy is a bit higher. [The players are] young. They know they've got a drive to make it to the majors." S

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