Take me out to the ball game


Jenny Fromer

With an upcoming significant birthday, I decided that how I wanted to celebrate was to travel around the US watching minor league baseball.  I narrowed down my parameters to New England, and in 10 days visited five different parks in five different states. I did, however, kick off the tour with a trip to Yankee Stadium, where I got to see my Yankees beat up on the Orioles to close out a sweep.  I was asked by a couple of people if I was disappointed that it wasn’t a more interesting game, but the truth is I was grateful that the win was certain early on and I could just enjoy being there.

Yankee Stadium

From NYC the next stop was New Britain, Connecticut to see the AA Rock Cats (Rockies affiliate).  One common theme that quickly emerged was how it all felt a bit like a carnival.  Tickets are cheap, staff are an army of super-polite high school students and from beginning to end it is all about family entertainment.  There is always a mascot, or a bevvy of mascots, and barely a half inning goes by without some kind of fan interaction: dizzy bats, chucking T-shirts or burgers into the crowd, mascot races and so on.

The electronic scoreboards are used to full effect.  While player stats and info can be very basic, sometimes just listing position as IF or OF, most make effective use of random clips.  Most notable were the Single-A Lowell Spinners (Red Sox affiliate), whose opposition (the Connecticut Tigers) included a Will Allen and a Steven Fuentes who were subjected to a clip of a demented woodchuck shouting ‘Alan’ and ‘Steve’ multiple times while they stood in the batter’s box waiting for the pitch.

Meanwhile, on the field, from Single-A to AAA, there is really good ball being played.  Pitchers throw hard, commonly in the mid-90s and fielders make the plays they should make.  Small sample size admittedly, but there seemed to be more balls in play and fewer strikeouts than you see in the Majors.  There were also way fewer home runs.  I saw one from the Reading Fightin’ Phils at my first game, and didn’t see another until the Binghamton Mets and Trenton Thunder each went yard in my final game.

By far my favourite stadium was in Burlington, Vermont, home of the Single-A Vermont Lake Monsters (Oakland affiliate), and not just because of the free bobble-head of Champ (their mascot) that I received for my spending spree in their store.  It was that it had the most open and community feel.  I liked that you could stand down the outfield line behind just a low fence.  I loved that Champ circled the field regularly on a motorised bike.  And I enjoyed the Staten Island Yankees’ convincing 8-3 win, with a starting pitcher who touched 100 mph a few times.

minor league mascots

I went to two Red Sox-affiliate home parks, the Single-A Lowell Spinners and the AAA Pawtucket Pawsox.  Both stadia were a little imposing and lacked the friendly feel of the others.  The Pawsox versus the Buffalo Bisons (Toronto affiliate) game had the added value of including a lot of players that had been in the Majors for more than a cup of coffee: Jackie Bradley Jr., Rusney Castillo, Allen Craig, Jemile Weeks, Dalton Pompey, Munenori Kawasaki and the closer, Chad Jenkins.  Another bonus for me was that both Red Sox teams lost -- in fact every home team I saw lost.

So it was fun. It is cool to pay $12 and sit right behind home plate.  It was a treat to pull into the ballpark parking lot 10 minutes before game time and be able to go in.  But somewhere amongst all this fun I was conscious of a stark reality.  It was something akin to going to the circus when you are just a bit too old and being struck by the poor conditions for the animals and the tired, jaded nature of the clowns.  It came from watching the players.

In recent years I’ve read a lot about minor league player conditions.  One of the most interesting sources is Dirk Hayhurst, who, after a long minor league career and a very short Major League one, now writes, speaks and ‘podcasts’ about the game.  Hayhurst has said, “Being a minor league player is a brutal experience—a brutal experience you, dear minor league player, can never speak of.  If you ever decide to tell the general public of your disgust with professional baseball, that it's paying you in stale beer and day-old hot dogs for the honour of playing among its chosen immortals, expect your words to echo off into the endless vacuum.”

There is a romantic view that this experience, this sacrifice, is worth it in order to chase the dream, and an assumption that most of us would give our eyeteeth to be in their position.  In fact, some might argue that if it wasn’t so tough players wouldn’t work so hard to make it to the top.  However, ex-minor leaguer Garrett Broshuis, a pitcher in the Giants’ farm system from 2004 to 2007, now turned lawyer, has filed a lawsuit against MLB on behalf of 20 minor league players citing violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Even if this suit isn’t killed off by MLB it will take years to litigate, but perhaps signals the beginning of change.

In the meantime, most minor leaguers subsist below the poverty line, chasing a dream that less than 10% of them will see realised.  On the field, the baseball they play is hard to distinguish from that of the big leagues.  And it’s hard not to think that a simple rounding error across a few of the monster contracts – Robinson Cano, Miggy Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, to name but a few -- could improve the lives of everyone languishing in the minors.

So I thought about all these things, but I kept going back, because there is really nothing better than sitting behind home plate on a nice summer’s evening and watching quality baseball.

tagged under: baseball, mlb, minor league baseball, experiences, travel, trips

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