Smokies find a long-term partner in Cubs

Jun. 11, 2014 @ 07:04 PM

 Brian Cox still remembers having to change uniforms and logos every time the Tennessee Smokies switched their major league affiliation.

The Southern League team’s general manager said it was probably toughest on his assistant, Jeff Shoaf, when the Smokies went through partnerships with four different major league teams in the first decade of this century. Those headaches appear to be a thing of the past after Tennessee agreed to continue its relationship with the Chicago Cubs for at least the next four years on Wednesday.

“It’s nice to be able to be with an organization, No. 1, that wants to be with you,” Cox said. “Those are relationships that we create throughout the years in minor league baseball that the major league team and minor league team are able to pick up the phone and talk to each other every day and not feel uncomfortable.”

The two parties could’ve agreed to a two-year player development contract but instead signed for the maximum term. When the agreement runs out in 2018, the teams will have been affiliated for 12 seasons. That’s second in team history only to Tennessee’s 23-year relationship with Toronto that ended in 2002.

Following the dissolution of that partnership, the Smokies spent two years each with the St. Louis Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks before becoming the Double-A affiliate of the Cubs in 2007.

“We could’ve just extended it for two years if we had any questions about them,” said team president Doug Kirchhofer. “More important to us, if they had any questions about us they would be reluctant to commit to us for four years. That’s what makes you feel good, to know that they have that kind of faith and confidence that we can do the job for them and this is a good place for their players and their staff.”

Jason McLeod, Chicago’s senior vice president for scouting and player development, represented the Cubs at Wednesday’s announcement. He praised the Smokies for both the facility upgrades they’ve completed — including a new field — and the experience the club provides for upwards of 200,000 fans each year.

“When we started discussing the possible extension of Tennessee, we had many conversations with Brian and Doug,” McLeod said. “We talked about how important it was for us and for our players, most importantly, to be in an environment that would allow them to work hard every day and get the most out of their abilities. When we had those conversations, they took action.”

Tennessee has a better winning percentage (.533) as a Cubs affiliate than under any of the previous 11 partnerships the team has joined dating back to the Boston Bees in 1936. While the Smokies haven’t won any league titles during that time, they have been in the Southern League playoffs five times and made the championship series three times.

Kirchhofer said even though the Cubs have had front office changes since partnering with the Smokies, the two teams have remained close. That, he said, is the sign of a strong relationship between teams.

“We’ve gone through a GM change with the Cubs and our relationship didn’t diminish,” Kirchhofer said. “If anything it got stronger. That’s where you want to be. You want to be where the strength of the affiliation is bigger than just the people that are involved.”