I worry about the trainers.
As we start the 2021 baseball season, Minor League Baseball is now firmly under the control of Major League Baseball. This has already brought about significant change.
A few low-level minor leagues – like my sentimental favorite, the Class A New York-Penn League – have been folded entirely. The others have had their time-honored names stripped from them, rearranged and rebranded with bland, waiting-for-sponsors titles. For instance, the century-plus of heritage behind the International League name has been discarded in favor of “Triple-A East.” Minor-league teams are now “licensed affiliates” who make a point to announce that their schedules have been provided by MLB.
It feels to this lifelong minor-league fan like any vestige of the old MiLB could be ripe for elimination, if it doesn’t make MLB money or burnish the parent organization’s brand in some way.
And one of the purest manifestations of the old MiLB is the trainer’s card.
Big-league sets don’t include trainer’s cards; you don’t find them in St. Louis or Los Angeles. (The best a big-league trainer could typically hope for, card-wise, was to appear as a small, golf-shirted dot on the fringes of the team picture.)
Instead, you find trainer cards in Wausau and Pawtucket, in minor-league card sets, adding bulk to the team set alongside the mascot, the stadium, the general manager, the owner, or occasionally even the chaplain. (He bats and throws righty!)
They’re not tremendously sexy cards, from a design standpoint, and they’re certainly not the most sought-after. If you were to sweep through a minor-league ballpark at the end of Team Set Giveaway Day, you’d probably find at least a couple of trainer cards, cast aside by kids whose solitary interest lies with uniformed on-field personnel.
Still, these cards are a tradition in many minor-league sets. And they serve a purpose, beyond filling out a set. They provide some small token of recognition to men and women whose work is necessary, even crucial, but unglamorous and almost certainly not lucrative.
These people work hard to keep the minor-league armies marching. They deserve these tips of the cap – whether they carry the old-fashioned title of Trainer, or newfangled, health-related handles like Strength and Conditioning Coach or Physical Fitness Coordinator.
I have no difficulty imagining a future in which MLB brings all minor-league card production into a central operation and discards the trainer card. They’ve junked bigger traditions, after all. Plus, trainer cards always have a touch of the podunk about them – and MLB isn’t in the podunk business.
It certainly won’t kill anybody if they do that, but it will be a loss, just as the New York-Penn League is a loss. It will be one less homespun touch, one less glimpse behind the polished facade.
Of course, the pendulum could swing the other way. With interest in cards at an almost absurd high, maybe MLB will want to churn out cardboard on anybody they can think to photograph. Trainers? Groundskeepers? Racing mascots? That self-appointed superfan in face paint who makes an annoyance of himself blowing a vuvuzela and is thisclose to being banned at the beer kiosks? Bring ‘em all on; someone can be convinced to buy.
If we get trainer cards in chrome or refractor style, with multiple color variants, I might just be convinced to love the brave new world.