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Elevation and the Sky Sox: Why did it work in the past? Why not now? Why will it in the future?

June 21, 2017 Updated: June 21, 2017 at 10:47 pm
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A crowd of 6,520 watches as the Sky Sox defeat the New Orleans Zephyrs 5-4 Tuesday, June 3, 2014, at Security Service Field in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

It's the elevation, stupid.

OK, D.G. Elmore wasn't quite that blunt and didn't quite rework the classic political phrase, but that was the emphasis in Wednesday's press conference.

The Sky Sox owner made it very clear that altitude was the driving force behind the decision to move the Triple-A team to San Antonio and replace it with a Rookie League team from Helena, Mont.

He likened it to the Sky Sox being a supplier, and the customer - in this case the Milwaukee Brewers - needs their product to be tweaked. At some point, you have to listen to those demands or the relationship will no longer work.

But if the altitude in Colorado Springs is such an issue now, why was the team able to survive for 30 years, and why would a lower team be able to make it work.

Here's a brief explanation:

Why then?

As Elmore explained, the stakes in players' development were vastly different when the team moved from Hawaii to Colorado Springs in 1988 as the top affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. The process of evaluating players and analyzing data was far less complex. More to the point, investments weren't as large. Now, draft picks sign for bonuses as high as $7 million and can become worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In 1988, Cleveland's best player - Joe Carter - earned $840,000.

Then, when the Rockies were awarded an expansion franchise, the Sky Sox became a logical Triple-A partner. Elmore mentioned Wednesday that, had Colorado not ended that partnership, there's a good chance the team wouldn't be leaving.

Why not now?

The Rockies ended their affiliate agreement after 22 years with Colorado Springs because their pitching was taking a beating at altitude. They found a slightly lower home at Albuquerque that still prepared players for Coors Field, but lacks the consistent punishment. The Rockies' exit signaled the beginning of the end for Triple-A baseball in the city. The Brewers unwittingly took over as the major league partner and the team has been eyeing a move ever since.

Why might it work in the future?

Will altitude still impact a short-season Rookie League team? Of course. But players in the Pioneer League, which will move to Colorado Springs in 2019 are just getting their feet wet in professional baseball. Hitters are adjusting to the velocity of pitchers. Teams are evaluating who can cut it defensively. And pitchers don't often have complex arsenals. In short, it's a simpler game and not the refined level of Triple-A. Also, there are only about 37 home games per season at a level players don't often repeat. So even if pitchers take a beating, it won't be a repeated beating the way it can be in Triple-A where Sky Sox reliever Rob Scahill made his 111th appearance with the team Tuesday. In Rookie League, players are less likely to be moved during the year, but after that most will either advance or be weeded out of the game.

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