ROOT FOR THE HOME TEAM: THE BEST PLACE TO SEE MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL – COURTESY OF ASPHALT LIFE BY ATLAS ROOFING

Former minor league player Corey Thrush was in attendance at the Dragons game against the White Caps with his father, Allen, and mother, Michelle.Photo provided by Corey Thrush

 

Bottom of the ninth, one man on. Good guys behind by one. The sun slips behind a cloud, just for a moment, but it’s enough for a hint of a breeze to ruffle the napkins you’re using to hold a hot dog (mustard and chili, thank you). Your guy, team hero, tosses some genial insults over his shoulder to his teammates, adjusts his cap and picks up his favorite bat. The saunter to the plate takes about 15 years, and the pitcher watches him, impassive. Just a tiny tightening around the mouth, perhaps. They’ve faced off before, these two. Last time wasn’t pretty.

 

Your guy gets to the plate, kicks in the sand, knocks his shoes with the bat. He always does that. Takes his stance. Gets comfortable. Looks at the pitcher for the first time. Yeah, I see you.

 

The sun is out again, hotter now. No breeze. Other fans may be shouting, cheering, but it’s all just background noise. Hot dog forgotten, beer forgotten. Nothing matters except those 60 feet, 6 inches between the mound and the plate.

Pitcher doesn’t seem to be moving. He’s waiting, ball in his glove, chest high, almost like he’s at prayer. He squints into the late afternoon light, looking for a signal from his catcher. Is that it? Decades pass.

 

Wyatt Earp staring down Billy Clanton at the OK Corral. Luke Skywalker facing Darth Vader. Dirty Harry and the bank robber. Do you feel lucky, punk? Tony Stark vs. Steve Rogers. Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect white teeth.

Somebody is going to hurt when this is over.

 

There’s the wind-up. The ball leaves his hand, but somewhere around the middle of its journey, it decides to defy the laws of physics and hang suspended in space and time. No movement. No breeze. No sound. No one in the crowd is breathing.

 

Then …crack! The world is back in rhythm and the ball is gone, gone, over the fence, still going. The grinning hero jogs the bases, high-fives the coaches, even the other players. Winks at a girl in the stands behind third base.

You realize you’re screaming, jumping up and down. Where’s your hot dog? Oops. On that guy’s shirt. He doesn’t notice.

 

LOVE FOR THE GAME

Major League Baseball (MLB) may hog the TV lights, but true fans of the game know that the real action is at minor league stadiums. A record 42.4 million fans attended minor league games in the U.S. last year, an increase of more than 850,000 over the previous year. Compare that with just 17.6 million, the total attendance for NFL games last season. Baseball is still America’s game. Take that, helmet-heads.

 

Price is a factor in the minor league’s popularity. An MLB game can be pretty expensive unless you watch it at home with your own beer and chips or join some buddies at the local sports bar. But lower costs for tickets, parking, souvenirs and food at minor league stadiums mean you can still afford to take the family out to see the farm team.

 

A bigger reason for those high attendance figures is that fans love being able to see future World Series superstars. Another is the sense of camaraderie. Minor league teams make considerable effort to create a strong sense of community among their players and local fans. Popular promotions such as cannons firing team T-shirts into the stands and allowing children to run around the bases after a game are just two examples of how teams connect with their fans.

 

Brad Dunn understands. A Southeastern sales agent for Atlas Roofing, Dunn is a fan of the minor league Greenville (SC) Drive.

 

“The Drive is a Class-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox and their stadium was modeled after Fenway Park,” said Dunn. “It even has a large wall in left field that locals have dubbed The Greenville Monster.”

 

A fan from way back, Dunn appreciates the lower ticket prices, the smaller, up-close-and-personal size of the stadium – and the fact that the team cared enough to put a playground out behind left field to keep the littlest fans happy.

 

His job keeps him on the road, but he tries to work in a game in the towns he visits. “My job requires me to make a lot of calls and take a lot of meetings,” said Dunn. “But if the opportunity arises to see a game, I’ll do it because baseball is just so enjoyable.”

 

WHAT IS MILB?

Before we address the issue of the best place to watch a minor league game, we have a more pertinent question to consider: What exactly is minor league baseball (MiLB)?

Minor league is a big deal. Just as organized as the majors, the minor league is composed of teams that are usually independently owned and operated, but directly affiliated with an MLB team through a Player Development Contract (PDC). Minor league teams are also called  “farm clubs,” a term coined by Branch Rickey, general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals back in the 1930s. He formalized the minor league development system and joked that teams in smaller towns were “growing players down on the farm like corn.”

 

A few minor league teams are directly owned by their major league parent club, such as the Springfield Cardinals, owned by the St. Louis Cardinals. MLB and MiLB teams typically enter into a PDC for a two- or four-year term. At the end of the term, teams can renew their affiliation or sign new PDCs with different clubs. The Detroit Tigers have been spring training in Lakeland, FL, and affiliated with the Lakeland Flying Tigers minor league team for 80 years — the longest-standing relationship between a town and team in organized baseball.

 

Today, minor league baseball teams thrive in large, medium and small towns across the United States. The four primary minor league levels are Class-A, Class-A Advanced, Double-A and Triple-A. A young player entering his professional career usually begins on a Class-A team and progressively moves up to Triple-A, the last step before being called up to play in the majors, or “The Show,” as players call it. Other minor leagues, such as the Rookie League, Rookie Advanced League and the Class A Short league, have compressed seasons that offer players other opportunities to get the experience they need to advance in their careers.

 

WHERE TO SEE A GAME

Some Triple-A teams have TV contracts, but broadcasts are usually restricted to away games for that market. Many teams air games on the radio. But watching a game on TV or listening to it doesn’t give a fan the full baseball experience. For that, you need to be in the stands. Most Triple-A teams play in ballparks with a seating capacity of 10,000 to 12,000, which gets you much closer to the action than a 40,000-seat MLB stadium.

From your seat in a minor league ballpark, you can smell the dust players kick up when they run the bases. Catch some of the chatter in the dugouts. The sound of the bat connecting with the ball – and immediately propelling the player toward first base – has a primal urgency in person that just doesn’t exist on TV. Players are approachable, eager to sign autographs and pose with young fans when Mom or Dad whips out a smartphone. And the food – do hot dogs taste as satisfying anywhere else? Are the drinks as cold and refreshing? The peanuts as salty? You know the answer.

 

Forty-seven states have at least one minor league team and most have several. Florida has the most with 21 teams, followed closely by California (17) and New York (13). Even the smallest state, Rhode Island, has the Pawtucket Red Sox, a Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.

 

The ballparks may be smaller than their MLB counterparts, but many are first-class facilities. Fans attending Marchant Stadium in Lakeland will soon enjoy the benefits of a $40 million renovation. Fans will be able to enjoy shaded armchair seats down the left-field line and a 360-degree walkway around the ballpark offering access to a berm pavilion designed for concessions and activities. A restaurant and patio in the right-field corner is part of a five-station hospitality expansion featuring air-conditioned suites, a stadium club and a covered party area capable of hosting three “picnics” of 100 to 200 people.

 

PLAYERS LIKE THE BALLPARKS

As special as they are to fans, ballparks can hold even more significance for the players. For the guys in the uniforms, the game is nine innings of excitement and camaraderie. Sitting in the dugout, they trade barbs with one another one minute, cheer each other on the next. They trash-talk the other team. They become, as the saying goes, a well-oiled machine designed to defeat their opponents. Underneath it all, though, runs a current of uncertainty – will I be called in to help win the game? – as well as a constant prayer to the gods of baseball: please don’t let me mess up.

 

During his career in MiLB, Corey Thrush played in dozens of professional ballparks, including Growden Memorial Park in Fairbanks, AK, where such greats as Barry Bonds and Dave Winfield got their starts. He also played at Desert Sun Stadium, the former spring training home of the San Diego Padres in Yuma, AZ, and Illinois’ legendary Danville Stadium, built in 1945 and used for the 1992 film The Babe.

 

Today Thrush and his father own Thrush and Son Complete Home Improvement in Brookville, OH. He still attends games whenever possible at nearby Fifth Third Field in Dayton, home to the Class A Dayton Dragons, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. He has memories of playing on that very field for a high school all-star game. To this day, he feels the atmosphere is unlike any other ballpark. “I have experienced this stadium many times as a fan, since I am from the Dayton area,” said Thrush. “From the first pitch, you can feel the excitement in the air. You see the joy on everyone’s faces as they get to experience a professional baseball game with the hopes of seeing the next big name in professional baseball.”