Ah, autumn. A nip in the air, the trees are changing, football is back, but mostly… October baseball. I’m a sports fan. I grew up on minor league baseball.
The Wichita Aeros were a big part of my youth and the first professional sporting event I ever attended. That sticks with a guy, I was hooked. Back then the minors were a bit different than today.
Of course you had the young prospects fighting to make the bigs but there were also some old vets playing out their string. You don’t see that anymore. The parent club won’t pay the freight and wants the roster spot for a possible future “player to be named later”. I saw some good ones coming up and going down.
Vida Blue as a teenager throwing hundred plus smoke, Buddy Bell and Chris Chambliss on their way to stardom, veteran Cookie Rojas playing out the part of coach as much as player, and on and on.
As a young adult in Nashville, we had The Sounds. The minors were changing by then but it was still a great way to spend a cheap night out. Nothing says family night like free tickets from Kroger and a six pack hidden in the bottom of a diaper bag. Funny how that one beer I bought lasted the whole game.
Great moments can happen in the minors with superstars doing rehab assignments or trying a new sport. Michael Jordan came through Nashville as a Birmingham Barron during his brief baseball career. As the Yankees farm, some good ones came through Nashville. Don Mattingly, Buck Showalter, Otis Nixon and Willie McGee all wore a Sounds jersey. I got to see Reggie Jackson, Bucky Dent, Lou Piniella, Goose Gossage and Tommy John in an exhibition game. Even George Steinbrenner was there to harass Yogi Berra as he managed the Yanks.
The stadiums are a huge part of the charm of the minors. From the old concrete and steel classics like Lawrence in Wichita or Greer in Nashville with their splintery wooden bleachers (unfortunately, not any more) to typical aluminum and bright colored plastic seat fields like Homer Stryker in Kalamazoo (could there BE a better name for a baseball field?) or beautiful new parks like AutoZone Park in Memphis and Louisville Slugger Field.
Perhaps the best park in minor league baseball, Richmond County Bank Ballpark at St. George on Staten Island, overlooks the Statue of Liberty and New York skyline. What a fantastic way to spend a summer evening… free ride on the ferry and a bit of America’s pastime.
At any park, one of the beauties of minor league baseball is the ability to be heard by players and umpires due to the lack of crowd noise and close proximity to the field.
They can hear your words of encouragement and constructive criticisms. This was put to good use recently by my daughters, 23 and 21, yelling “Happy Birthday” to one of the hunky young players. They were greeted with a smile and a wave. Try that at a big league park.
As a former volunteer middle and high school baseball coach at a tiny Caribbean school, I feel fully qualified to shout out valuable coaching instructions to the players, as well as much needed direction to the coaches and men in blue (aka umpires). Gems like, “Throw strikes”, “Wait for your pitch”, “Have you lost your mind?” or “Yo Blue, the strike zone is like an imaginary box, try to picture it in your mind next time!”
You know, really helpful stuff like that. It’s also a good idea to know the name of the city that has the next lower club in the system so you can yell that at some unsuspecting player who has just done something really boneheaded. That really gets their attention, they love it. This works well in the majors too.
Watching the fans can be as much of a show as the action on the field. It’s Veronica’s favorite part of the game, other than the nachos with extra peppers. Along with the purists and scouts who just want to watch a game or see some prospects, you’ll find some true die-hards for the local club.
In our new lives as Gypsynesters, going to a game is a great way to get in touch with the city, whether you’re just visiting or it’s your hometown. Each game, the park, the fans and the feel are a wonderful reflection of the home town.
Of course the goal of every single player in the minors is to make the majors and play in a World Series, so enjoy the post season, root for your team, and remember, every one of those guys on the field was once banging away in the minors with big dreams.