Super Bowl cities nurture big league ties

Super Bowl cities nurture big league ties

When the Indianapolis Colts play the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7 in Miami, it will be played in a Major League Baseball stadium, but with neither team representing an MLB market.

However, as you wait for the official handoff from pro football and the satisfaction of pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training starting on Feb. 18, there are still a wealth of baseball connections to the Triple-A towns of Indianapolis and New Orleans.

They are two towns that have eagerly cranked out a steady and necessary flow of National Leaguers for more than a quarter-century now, some booms and some busts, and their complete baseball histories go way back to a time before automobiles.

Maybe you knew that Hank Aaron played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the 1952 Negro Leagues before the Boston Braves signed him to a Major League contract, or that Randy Johnson took his last developmental steps for the Indianapolis Indians before the parent Montreal Expos called him up in 1988 to start a wondrous career that just now ended.

Hall of Famers who went through Indy include the likes of Grover Cleveland Alexander, Luke Appling, Gabby Hartnett, Harmon Killebrew, Nap Lajoie, Al Lopez, Rube Marquard, Joe McCarthy, Bill McKechnie and Ray Schalk.

Maybe you knew that Chris Coghlan blazed through 25 games last summer for the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs of the Pacific Coast League on his way to an eventual National League Rookie of the Year Award with the Zephyrs' parent Florida Marlins club. Or that Will Clark came out of New Orleans to thrill Giants fans starting in 1986, or that a couple of great Yankees lefties named Ron Guidry and Andy Pettitte were born around the bayou.

Both farm teams from Indianapolis and New Orleans finished third in their respective divisions last year, the Indians in the International League's West and the Zephyrs in the PCL's American South. Both affiliates return for the 2010 season as the springboards to The Show for top prospects in the Pirates (Indianapolis) and Marlins systems, and both again will become a spring and summertime way of life for many residents long after their NFL team has sealed its fate.

Interestingly enough, both cities list the Boston (now Atlanta) Braves as being their Triple-A club's first parent Major League organization after World War II. The Indianapolis Indians were a Braves affiliate from 1946-47, and the Zephyrs -- then playing as the Kansas City Blues of the Western League -- were a Braves affiliate from 1949-51.

The Indians have sent prospects to eight different Major League clubs, most recently the Pirates since 2005. Professional baseball was first played there in 1877 and it has been a Triple-A home since 1902. From 1968-73, the Indians were the top farm team for the Cincinnati Reds, and that meant a bunch of parts that would fit into the Big Red Machine: Pedro Borbon, Bernie Carbo, Dave Concepción, Dan Driessen, George Foster, Ken Griffey, Ray Knight and Hal McRae among them.

The Zephyrs' franchise history spans 100 years, three cities and five leagues and affiliations with 14 of the present 30 Major League clubs (some more than once). This will be their second consecutive season as the Marlins' Triple-A club, following a stint for the Mets. The club's two moves were influenced by geographical changes at the Major League level, as the Philadelphia A's move to Kansas City forced the Blues to move and then the Colorado Rockies' 1993 entry as an expansion club forced the Denver Zephyrs to move to New Orleans.

From 1955-84, the Zephyrs were known as the Denver Bears, and fans there would see a succession of future Major Leaguers that included Tim Wallach, Warren Cromartie, Tim Raines, Graig Nettles, Terry Francona, Pat Rooney and Bill Gullickson. Billy Martin got his managerial start for the franchise. In 1985, when they became known as the Zephyrs (named after the passenger train) in the American Association, future Reds great Barry Larkin was named the league MVP.

First of its kind
There is a rich baseball tie between the towns of this Super Bowl's participants, including Indy's hosting of the MLB Winter Meetings just last month, and still it is interesting to note that, assuming you're willing to concede the Washington's market's affiliation with the Orioles before the Nationals arrived, no previous Super Bowl has matched up two cities where there was no local Major League club.

Vikings fans are still stinging from the pain of seeing Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson and their Vikings lose an overtime classic, but there is the consolation of knowing they have a brand-new Target Field opening up in April. Jets fans saw it end too soon, but based on the buzz around the Internet after the Conference Championship games, they are by and large in a countdown mood and eager for the Mets and Yankees to start it up in Florida camps.

If you flip through the Roman numerals of Super Bowl history, you will find that every event was followed by a Major League Baseball season involving at least one of the two markets just represented, with the allowance of the Baltimore-Washington connection. Interestingly enough, that even includes the very first two Super Bowls won by Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers in January of 1967 and 1968.

In the first one, the Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10. Kansas City would go on to play its final season that next summer as the Kansas City A's.

In the second one, the Packers beat the Oakland Raiders, 33-14. At that same time, Oakland fans were the proud new owners of those former Kansas City A's.

Even those Packer fans were hardly strangers to baseball. Many of them had rooted for Aaron and Milwaukee Braves champs in the past, saying goodbye to the Braves when they finished up in 1965 and moved to Atlanta. Packer fans would become Brewers fans when the expansion Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee for the 1970 season. So it was nothing like Indianapolis-New Orleans.

Roger Staubach led the Dallas Cowboys to a 24-3 Super Bowl VI triumph over the Miami Dolphins on Jan. 16, 1972. Sports fans in the Dallas-Fort Worth market were crazy about their Cowboys, but they also were looking forward to a brand-new team called the Texas Rangers starting up in Arlington that summer.

What about those Miami-Washington games in 1973 and 1983? Or the Buffalo-Washington game in 1992? The nation's capital was Orioles country, and it certainly had a baseball mind-set for generations of Washington Senators fans. These days Baltimore's metropolitan base shares its loyalties with the Washington Nationals, who moved from Montreal.

Really the best chance for a precedent in this matter might have been during the overlap of the careers of quarterbacks Jim Kelly and John Elway. Buffalo is another Triple-A baseball town, and so was Denver until the Colorado Rockies came along in 1993. But a Bills-Broncos Super Bowl matchup never happened. Whenever the Broncos played in the big game, it was against either an MLB market team or at a time when the Rockies were around.

Think back to Super Bowl III on Jan. 12, 1969. Joe Namath led the Jets past the Baltimore Colts, 16-7. It was a prelude to what happened the following summer: the Amazin' Mets beating the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. There are no preludes in 2010.

There are some connections as a baseball fan, though. Start with the Marlins fans who get to drive over to Sun Life Stadium, site of their summertime baseball home to come, and watch Peyton Manning, Reggie Bush and the rest vie for NFL supremacy. See how many Indianapolis and New Orleans baseball connections you can find, and then realize that it is all part of the big machine that turns out your favorites in the national pastime.

Spring Training tickets went on sale Saturday for fans of the Astros, Pirates, Mets, Nationals and D-backs. Your team's Grapefruit or Cactus League exhibition tickets probably are now available. There is one more meaningful football game to be played before "Play Ball" is heard, one directive that commands all of our interest for the plays and the commercials, and then it's time for the big handoff.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.