-- by Louie Opatz, MBA freelance writer
The route to the 2017 Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Tournament has been reshaped for Class 'B' teams across the state.
Beginning this season, Class 'B' will be divided into four sections, down from eight last year.
At its monthly meeting on Jan. 7, the Minnesota Baseball Association's state board maintained the Class 'B' 16-team state tournament — a single-elimination first round and double elimination after — with four teams reaching the tournament from each of the four new sections. The state board will seed the state tournament after the field of 16 has been determined.
The larger sections should strengthen the section battles to reach this year's state tournament in Green Isle, Hamburg and Norwood, according to state board member Mike Nagel. The previous configuration meant two sections — Sections 5B and 6B — had only four teams and three sections had just five.
With only four teams in a section, a forfeit or a team folding meant that the top-seeded team could reach the state tournament without playing a game, which happened last year in Section 5B.
"When each section sends two teams to state and there's a section with three teams or one that forfeits, it kind of defeating the purpose of even having the section," Nagel said. "This is, I think, going to make it more competitive — more like a 'C' tournament."
Nagel is hopeful that the rejiggered sections will strike the right balance of welcoming new state-tournament entrants and returning the best teams 'B' has to offer.
"Hopefully it will create more interest and still allow some of the newer teams or the teams that are not the perennial powers to still have a shot to make it to state," he said.
Matt Van Der Bosch, manager of the 2016 Class 'B' champion Miesville Mudhens, said that he doesn't see the four-section format changing the state tournament field altogether, though it should breathe some new life into the 2017 edition.
"Our thoughts are it’s nice, and it’s kind of an exiting change of pace," Van Der Bosch said.
The Mudhens will remain in Section 1B with Dundas, Elko, Hastings, Northfield and Red Wing. This season, the section will be welcoming in three new members: the Austin Greyhounds, the Austin Blue Sox and the Rochester Royals.
Brian Anderson, manager of St. Cloud Beaudreau's, also sees the logic behind increasing the number of teams in each section.
"Really, it makes sense for where Class B is at right now," Anderson said. "There are not very many teams and it’s kind of dumb that a team would make it to the state tournament without playing a game, so it makes sense in that regard."
Beaudreau's was in Section 7B and will now play in Section 2B, which is composed of teams from the old 7B and the old 6B.
The former Section 6B featured teams from Northern Minnesota, while the old 7B stretched from Brainerd to Marshall, with several teams in the central part of the state, near St. Cloud. The new Section 2B spans nearly the entirety of the state, from Marshall to Hibbing — a 602-mile round trip.
As Van Der Bosch pointed out, Marshall is actually closer to Omaha, Nebraska than it is to its section-mate Hibbing.
"I don’t mind the new sections, personally," Van Der Bosch said, "but I can see how it’s not feasible demographically for some people."
The move to four sections comes in advance of a potential class realignment; the MBA has hired consultant Brian Dolan to assist in developing systems to set up criteria for Class 'B' and 'C' teams and, depending on Dolan's findings, teams could be moved up to 'B' or down to 'C' in the near future.
Van Der Bosch believes that Dolan and the board's efforts can create concrete classification criteria that rely on data — a welcome development.
"I’m optimistic for it: you have to draw a line in the sand with criteria and say what makes a 'B' team and what makes a 'C' team," he said. "That’s never really been done."
Anderson echoed Van Der Bosch's sentiments but remains somewhat incredulous about any possible reclassifications after years of talk and speculation.
"I think it’s something that’s well overdue," Anderson said. "This has been an obvious issue for Class B teams for a long time. At the same time, I remain skeptical that something will be done because I’ve been hearing that something will be done for years now."
Nagel understands the skepticism of 'B' managers and explained that just because Dolan has begun working on classifcation does not mean that the resulting data will effect major changes — simply that the line between 'B' and 'C' has been drawn.
"The reclassiciation is just an informational gathering of data — it may or may not even be usable once we go ahead and put it together," Nagel said.
Though some teams may move between 'B' and 'C,' Nagel said he doesn't expect any drastic changes.
"I really don’t think there’s going to be a lot of team movement up or down because of the criteria," Nagel said. "It’s just going to be a way for the board to say, 'This is the line. do with it what you want.'"
The data-gathering and system development are simply another tool that the state board can use to ensure that Minnesota amateur baseball remains strong, Nagel said.
"I think we're always open at looking at different ideas and options," he said.
Ultimately, Nagel expressed a desire for caution to ensure that Minnesota amateur baseball remains of the highest quality.
"Doing nothing is better than doing something wrong," he said.
Class 'B' Sections
Section 1 – Austin Greyhounds, Austin Blue Sox, Dundas, Elko, Hastings, Miesville, Northfield, Red Wing, and Rochester Royals (9)
Section 2 – Brainerd Bees, Cold Spring Springers, Duluth Express, Hibbing, Marshall, Moorhead Brewers, Sauk Rapids Cyclones, and St. Cloud Beaudreau’s (8)
Section 3 – Burnsville, Chanhassen, Chaska, Eagan, Prior Lake Jays, Savage, Shakopee Indians and Victoria (8)
Section 4 – Andover, Anoka, Blaine, Brooklyn Park, Champlin, Coon Rapids, Elk River Wood Ducks, Forest Lake, Hamel, Isanti, Monticello, Ramsey, Rogers, and St. Michael (14)