The lights in the Sky Sox clubhouse go out, the disco ball spins specks of light around the room and the tunes of “Epic Sax Guy” blare.
On the road, it’s the same routine. Only without the disco ball.
After each of its victories during a club-record 18-8 start entering Monday's rain-delayed start, Colorado Springs has celebrated in the same manner.
“Why change it if it’s working?” said Lewis Brinson, Milwaukee’s top prospect who is batting .329 through the season’s first month.
The reasons behind the torrid pace are easy to identify. Offensively, the Sky Sox lead the Pacific Coast League in slugging percentage. On the other side, the team’s pitchers have allowed the fewest runs in the 16-team league despite the inherent disadvantages of playing its home games in the highest-elevation ballpark in professional baseball.
Colorado Springs has outscored teams an average of 6.5-3.7 over 26 games.
“I don’t see it as a hot start,” manager Rick Sweet said. “I just see it as our guys playing up to their abilities.”
But, in the big picture, what does it mean for a Triple-A team to be playing this well?
It isn’t likely to impact attendance. Minor league crowds tend to show up for fireworks, when tickets or beer are discounted or when the weather is favorable. Market size, stadium quality (and age) are also factors. They aren’t typically swayed by results. Albuquerque, El Paso, Round Rock and Sacramento have finished among the PCL’s top five in per-game attendance each of the past four years regardless of their place in the standings.
The Sky Sox have had two winnings seasons over the past 12 years, and in neither case did it impact attendance. In 2009, crowds dropped over the previous campaign. In 2012, attendance finished exactly in line with a slight progression from the year before and year after.
Winning at Triple-A also hasn’t corresponded with a pattern of improved results at the next level. St. Louis and Kansas City each won World Series titles within two years of their Triple-A affiliates winning the PCL title. But just as often a team like Oakland or Arizona have seen its fortunes go the other direction.
Overall organization talent matters and pointed to the turnarounds for Houston, Kansas City and the Chicago Cubs in recent years. Milwaukee is in similarly good position with a top-five rating according to most publications. But overall organizational talent and Triple-A quality are not necessarily related. And entering Monday, Milwaukee’s three other minor league teams had losing records.
But in the Sky Sox clubhouse the consensus is that winning matters, even at a level where the mission is development and the players most responsible for that winning could be plucked for promotion at any moment.
“The American way is to win,” Sweet said. “When you win it’s more fun. When you’re having fun and doing stuff you like it’s easier to work and do more.”
Brinson said he hopes winning together can set a precedent for a group of high-level prospects in Colorado Springs. Many, like himself, Josh Hader, Ryan Cordell and Brett Phillips landed with Milwaukee in trades over the past year, so this is their first prolonged experience in the organization and with each other.
“If you get up to the big leagues with some of these guys you’ll know how they tick, when they want to be fed information, when they want to be talked to, you’ll know when they’re feeling good, feeling bad,” said Brinson, a center fielder who turned 23 on Monday. “It’s very good to have guys down here that you’re probably going to play with for a long time with the same team.”
Brandon Woodruff, who is 5-0 with a 1.83 ERA and quickly emerging as one of the top right-handed pitching prospects in the organization, concurred.
“It’s awesome,” Woodruff said. “When you’re winning and guys are having a good time, it makes for a good clubhouse. … It builds a good foundation for sure.”