Talking Shop: John Sickels on the Business of Covering MiLB

Talking Shop: Minor League Life

By Jessica Quiroli

Look for this series to be featured throughout the season! We'll talk to someone in the minor leagues about the business and media, and how those worlds intersect and impact one another.

I'm happy to present the first installment with my longtime colleague and a pioneer in the business of covering MiLB, John Sickels. Now with The Athletic for the 2019 season, Sickels was the mind behind Minor League Ball on SB Nation, where I worked with him covering the minor leagues a few years ago. We talked recently about that website, what interests him most about covering the bus leagues and how the business of minor league baseball coverage has evolved.--JQ


JQ: When you started out covering MiLB, what were fans especially interested in? Because they're so savvy now, how has their interest shifted?
I started doing prospect stuff with Bill James in 1993 then transitioned to the internet in 1996 with That was 23 years ago and the internet was just getting started, so in that way I was a pioneer.
At the time the main prospect interest came from fantasy players looking for a future edge. That is still true today, although the amount of information available today is far greater and so are the expectations. Back then a Top 50 prospect list was the gold standard. Nowadays you have Top 100 or 200 or 500 lists and information available on high school and international players who are years away from the majors.  
While fantasy players are still the main core of the audience, there has been increased interest from general baseball fans and specific followers of the minors.
JQ: When I started my own MiLB blog, Heels on the Field, in 2008, I felt unsure anyone would care about something entirely focused on the minor leagues. We're you skeptical when you began Minor League Ball? How quickly did the idea connect?
By the time I started Minor League Ball with SB Nation/Vox in 2005, I was fairly confident there would be enough interest to sustain daily blogging as opposed to occasional articles.
That was a success and although Vox pulled the plug at the end of 2018 for their own reasons, we ran for 13 years, an eternity in internet time. Our traffic grew every year and I’m proud of what we accomplished.
JQ: Do you think upstarts covering that specific aspect of baseball have a shot at connecting, or are bigger sites monopolizing the market?
I think we are in a consolidation process right now. Digital media continues to grow in terms of traffic but companies are still trying to figure out how to monetize it.
The pure advertising model used by Vox for example doesn’t seem to provide enough revenue, at least if you want to actually pay writers, and we are seeing more companies switch to a subscriber model.
My guess is that this trend will continue. Upstarts are going to have a rough time of it in the short run, but quality material will find an audience one way or another, eventually. It can take time though.
JQ: With so many people jumping to cover MiLB now, and getting more attention because of social media power, what motivates your focus? Why do you still love this?
I still love baseball but if I am completely honest, I was burned out on blogging after 13 years. I’m trying to make a living of course….I have a family to support and my wife and children are my main focus. The work supports them, not the other way around. That said, I have been very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
JQ: When we worked together at Minor League Ball, we often talked about the kinds of stories readers we're interested in. What pulls you in as a writer?  Do you think readers have the same interest as you do?
I have always been more interested in the underdog type prospects, the 10th round or 20th round or non-drafted free agents who work their way to the majors without big hype.
For fantasy owners these guys have value, but on a personal, human level they hold more interest for me than the well-known bonus babies. Those types of stories pull me in, players overcoming obstacles and exceeding expectations.
JQ: How do you think the business of covering MiLB will evolve in the next few years?
I think we will see an increasing focus on players as people. The recent attention paid to poor minor league salaries is an example of that. How the business will evolve as a business is hard to say given the consolidation in digital media mentioned earlier.
JQ: Finally, what do you hope to do going forward covering MiLB? What excites you?
I will be doing a weekly prospect column for The Athletic in 2019 but it is not a full-time gig. I own the rights to the name Minor League Ball but as I noted above, I am burned out on daily blogging and am still uncertain on what I want to do in the baseball world.
Follow John on Twitter @MinorLeagueBall

Postcards from the Minor Leagues: Padres Todd Van Steensel

Postcards from the Minor Leagues

This is the first installment in a four-part series this baseball season. Todd Van Steensel will check in with blog posts on his experiences in the San Diego Padres organization, giving us a front row view of MiLB life. Look for added features such as photos and special Q&A's with every installment.-- Jessica Quiroli, AHOD Editor


Greetings from Spring Training with the San Diego Padres!


How did I wind up here, so far from home in Australia? 


Let us start when I was part of the Minnesota Twins organisation. An organisation I had been part of for six seasons. But just over a month after appearing in the Southern League All-Star Game, and spending two weeks on the injured list, I was told that there was no longer a spot for me within the Minnesota Twins and I was handed my release. Although I was disappointed and had to say goodbye to some close friends that became like family, I was excited at what the future would hold and looking towards a fresh start somewhere else. 


A few teams came calling over the next few days, affiliated and independent league teams, but nothing really worked out. I decided to begin my off-season early and prepare to play for my hometown team in the Australian Baseball League. Heading into the ABL season there was a lot of excitement for me. For the first time in six years I’d be part of my first opening day roster and able to play a full season, our team was under new ownership by one of the most passionate baseball people I’ve met, and two new teams were joining the league. But the thing I was most looking forward to was showing teams what I was capable of doing on the field and try and secure a contract in the USA for the 2019 season. 


Week one of the season came along mid November and we were facing newcomers, Geelong-Korea. A team comprised completely of Korean players from the Korean minor league or former KBO players, but they were based in a town in Australia. I pitched twice that weekend and was able to get video footage and scouting reports from that weekend. I passed it all onto my agent, who quickly shared it to any MLB team he had contacts with.


Within a week of him sending out all that information, the Padres came calling, offered me a contract and I had signed. It was a sense of relief, to know I still have a spot in baseball, and someone saw value in me. 


The ABL season came to an early end for my team, the Sydney Blue Sox, as we were knocked out in the semi finals. I didn’t have too much time to be upset and dwell on it, because in a few weeks time I was going to fly to the US for spring training. That isn’t without a little scare at first whether I’d make my flight or not! 


As an international working in the US, I need a visa and, well, the visa process isn’t fun at all! I applied for my visa on January 10th, and had a flight booked for February 21st. You would think I gave myself plenty of time to have it approved and sent back to me. But, after sending countless emails, and one tweet, which received an immediate response, my visa was back in my hands on February 18th! In years past I would send my completed papers to the Consulate and have it sent back to me within ten days but the last two years it’s been a real struggle. Last year I actually missed my first flight to Spring Training because I hadn’t received it back yet! Nonetheless, I got my visa back and made my flight! 


And this is where I am today. Currently in Peoria enjoying my first spring training in Arizona and my ninth spring training overall. No matter how many years I do this, no matter how monotonous it gets or how many bullpens, drills, games, bus rides and meetings we go through, it’s still a special feeling being in spring training preparing for another Opening Day. 


You can follow Todd on Twitter @toddvs35

Picture it, Phillies, 1946: The Remarkable Life of Edith Houghton, First Full-time Female Scout

Hard as it is now, Houghton joined a boys club when it was damn near impossible.

By Jason Love

The Philadelphia 76ers made national news recently with the hiring of Lindsey Harding as a full-time scout. The former WNBA and Duke University basketball star became just the second full-time female scout in NBA history. Harding’s hiring is reminiscent of another female pioneer who made history with a different Philadelphia professional sports team over 70 years ago. 


The Philadelphia Phillies hired Edith Houghton as a full-time scout in 1946. Houghton who grew up in North Philadelphia (the same neighborhood where WNBA star and Olympic gold-medalist Dawn Staley would hone her basketball skills years later) across the street from a baseball diamond. Bob Carpenter, the Phillies owner, decided to hire Houghton after she met with him and General Manger Herb Pennock. 

Houghton became the first full-time female scout working solo in Major League Baseball history. Bessie Largent was previously employed by the Chicago White Sox in the 1920s through the early 1940s scouting players. However, she worked alongside her husband Roy who was a full-time scout for the team. Bessie assisted Roy as they worked in tandem. 

Born in 1912 Houghton played for the Philadelphia Bobbies, an all-girl baseball team. The Bobbies pre-dated the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). The AAGPBL started in the 1940s and was the inspiration for the film A League of Their Own starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks.  Houghton, the youngest player on the Bobbies, toured the United States and even Japan playing baseball throughout the 1920s. Known as “The Kid” she primarily played shortstop and was a student of the game. 

Established in 1883 the Phillies have never been known as a progressive team. The Phillies were the last team in the National League to integrate. Philadelphia was also one of the last teams to introduce analytics to their game plan. With the exceptions of their recent hiring of Gabe Kalpler and Matt Klentak, the Phillies are an old-school organization rooted in tradition. The hiring of Houghton was a bold move by the Phillies at the time. There is some debate as to why Carpenter took a chance on Houghton. Was he impressed with her knowledge of the game? The team had struggled for many years (decades even!) and some say he had nothing to lose with adding Houghton as a scout. He decided to take a gamble on the young woman with an incredible amount of baseball knowledge.  


How did a young woman from North Philadelphia end up working for the Phillies? Houghton served in the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services) during WW II. After the war and needing a job, she simply asked to meet with the ownership. At this time the Phillies played at Shibe Park (later named Connie Mack Stadium) at 21st and Lehigh not far from her home. Growing up in the area, many people within the sport were familiar with the young baseball prodigy. Her persistence paid off, and she was brought in for the interview. 

After being hired, Houghton worked for the Phillies from 1946 – 1951. The region she covered was the Greater-Philadelphia area and South Jersey. Houghton signed more than a dozen players during her time with the Phillies although none ever made it to the majors. Since she was still in the Navy Reserves, she was called back to service during the Korean War. Once her service ended Houghton decided to move on from baseball. 

Many years passed since Houghton’s time with the Phillies before baseball saw another female scout working on a full-time basis. The Seattle Mariners hired Amanda Hopkins as a scout in 2016. She is currently in her third year working for the Mariners. Nathan Bannister is a pitcher Hopkins scouted who was drafted by Seattle. Bannister is playing for the Arkansas Travelers in the Mariners minor league system. 

In addition to the Mariners, other women are now working with MLB teams. The Oakland Athletics hired Haley Alvarez as a scouting coordinator. A few years back the A’s also hired Justine Siegal to work for the organization as a guest instructor with their younger players. Astrid DeGruchy worked on a part-time basis scouting for the San Diego Padres. Kim Ng holds a vice-president position within Major League Baseball’s executive offices. Women are making inroads into many different upper-level positions within professional baseball. 

Baseball had a female general manager on the minor league side of the equation a few years ago. Lindsay Rosenberg worked her way up within the Camden Riversharks organization until being named GM in 2015. The Riversharks were an independent team playing in the Atlantic League. Unfortunately, the Riversharks ran into difficulty with their lease at Campbell’s Field and the team folded after the 2015 season.

It is feasible that in a few years a woman will be a general manager for a major league team. Returning to Houghton, after leaving the Phillies she lived a relatively quiet life. Houghton ended up moving to Sarasota, Florida where she passed away in 2013 at 100 years of age. She is buried in Northwood Cemetery in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia. It is fitting she is buried alongside professional baseball players such as Kid Gleason, Duke Esper and George Bradley. The Baseball Hall of Fame also has a display about her inspirational story. From growing up in North Philadelphia to playing baseball throughout the United States to visiting Japan to having her story told in Cooperstown, Edith Houghton lived a remarkable life.