At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Sunday, July 6, 2014

In the Minors

Summertime this year brings several things to mind. Yes, it's the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I...but this history major will get to that in a few days. Instead there is something more that needs discussion. Baseball.

Specifically, minor league baseball.

In the distant future, I hope to write a baseball-themed book. I've thought about doing a revisionist historical sports fiction novel, sort of a "what if the 1981 players strike didn't result in a split season", as not many people realize the National League playoffs that year would be St. Louis-Cincinnati and not Los Angeles-Montreal. But I've also given consideration to doing a minor league-themed novel of sorts, although that's well down the line after the Cameron Ballack series is done, not to mention my World War I historical novel which will have some dominating research to clear out of the way.

I truly enjoy baseball. It's not as physically punishing as football or hockey, and it doesn't have the flow of soccer, but the strategic element is enjoyable. While I live in a major league baseball-crazy area (St. Louis), the ticket prices for the common man can be rather high. In fact, in 2010 our family drove across the state and went to a Kansas City Royals game in more cost-effective fashion than we would have to a Cardinals game here. And there's a perfect outlet for baseball fans who don't want to pay major league prices.

My experience going to minor league games isn't extensive, although when I was three years old and living in Richmond, Virginia, we lived in an apartment just three blocks from The Diamond, where the Richmond Braves played. But as I was a young tyke, I wouldn't have understood a game even if my folks had taken me. But a few years later, we moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and I managed to squeeze in time in many places where I've lived since watching teams in the minors. To wit:

(1) 1978-84, Jackson Mets: The week after we moved to Mississippi, infielder Mookie Wilson (later known as the batter whose ground ball went through Bill Buckner's legs to win Game Six of the 1986 World Series for the New York Mets) married his wife Rosa at home plate at Smith-Wills Stadium. His teammates formed an archway of bats for the couple to walk under on their way back to the dugout. No lie. And marital bliss wasn't the limit of the Mets' success while we lived there as they competed in the Class AA Texas League. One night in the early 80s, the Mets turned a four-run comeback against the Arkansas Travelers to tie the game with two outs in the ninth and then won in in the tenth. I remember because I was in the sixth row praying to God to let the Mets win. League championships followed in 1981 and 1984, by which time we moved to Maryland. Smith-Wills Stadium was a functional edifice that could have used a good paint job, seating 5000 fans but usually bore about 4000 empty seats. But I did get to see Daryl Strawberry hit his 30th home run of the season in 1982, and they had an amazing grilled sausage sandwich that was 100% fat and one of the most deliciously deadly things I've ever consumed.

(2) 1991, Frederick Keys: Although living in the greater Baltimore area for the better part of 1984-1994 (though much of the time I was away at school) meant decent access to Oriole games downtown, the Class A Carolina League put an Orioles-affiliated team in the small town of Frederick about seventy-five minutes from where we lived. Harry Grove Stadium was one of the first parks built with the open concourse behind the last row of seating so that everyone walked down to their seats. No complaining about free parking and free programs, which more than made up for the view past the outfield looking at Interstate 70. It was the place where my brother Seth and I saw Erik Schullstrom pitch a 2-0 no-hitter against the Kinston Indians, and then the next month our family saw the Keys stomp the Peninsula Pilots, 12-6, in a game in which the Pilots made six errors against six consecutive batters in the fourth inning. Again, no lie. Another plus was that the players were quite accessible for post-game autographs and conversation. That sort of humility isn't as prevalent in the majors.

(3) 1991; Pawtucket Red Sox: On our family vacation up to Maine, we stopped in Rhode Island at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, just outside of Providence. The Toledo Mud Hens beat the Sox, 6-3, that night in a Triple-A International League game, but two things stood out. One, McCoy was a classic facility (they've done renovations since then), and two, lots of kids had rattails as part of their hairstyles. I mean, rattails in 1991! What the heck? The one major drawback is the distance from the field. The stands are ten feet up from the playing surface so it gives the sense of some distance from the action. But it doesn't stop the crowd from getting into the game.

(4) 1991; Chattanooga Lookouts: By far, the most classic, old-school stadium I've entered. Historical Engel Stadium. Why the absolute bluest of blue devils they ever moved to AT&T Park by the river is beyond me (maybe luxury boxes). For this game against the Charlotte Knights of the Southern League (AA), I was enchanted by the large covered grandstand that ran from first to third base. Seating was individual seats, with box seats as plastic fold-down chairs, reserved seats as bucket seats, and even general admission--though wooden--were fold-down chairs. Much better than any metal bleachers. A train would emerge from the scoreboard whenever a Lookouts player hit a home run. And you couldn't beat the hill at the center-field fence with the name "Lookouts" on it. An A+ facility all the way and a historic landmark.

(5) 2004-05; Kannapolis Intimidators: I love the fact this Class A South Atlantic League team honored Dale Earnhardt, Sr., with its nickname, but Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium (now CMC Northeast Stadium) was a considerable dud. No covered grandstand for protection from rain. Although I liked the non-symmetrical playing field, the center concourse serves no purpose and there is a portion of the third-base line seating that is concrete. Yes, just concrete, no seats, no bleachers. What? Not to mention that the population had voted against a tax levy to finance the stadium, but commissioners wanted it built anyway. So the fans have never been in love with the team like many other communities. I guess that explains one game I went to where there was a crowd of 150 in a stadium that could seat 4600. Ugh.

(6) 2006; Charleston RiverDogs: In the same league as Kannapolis, but Riley Park--which the Dogs shared with The Citadel--is miles ahead of CMC Northeast Stadium. While they could spread out where the concessions are (they're bunched on the third base line, but hey, we were seated right there) and parking was a mile away, the game atmosphere was phenomenal. And the concessions were great, especially the ice cream Cool Dog. And the fact we went on $1 beer and hot dog night helped stretch our dollar. Not to mention that Charleston is an amazing city to spend a few days.

(7) 2011; Gateway Grizzlies: I'd better wrap this up because it's turning into a book itself. The Frontier League is made up of about a dozen independent teams with no major league affiliations. That means the players are there for love of the game and desperately hoping for a break. GMC Stadium in Sauget, Illinois, has plenty of free parking and the upper concourse surrounds the seating area (about a dozen rows close to the field). There is a grassy berm past the right outfield fence, plenty of picnic areas, and concessions are varied and delicious. The oddity is the Lutherburger, a bacon cheeseburger slapped between a bun of a split Krispy Kreme donut. Yes, no lie. Mascot "Izzy" is active and entertaining and even gave Lindsay a hug. Luxury boxes are open-air and located behind and not over the concourse. Win or lose, the crowds are normally large and active. GMC Stadium won the best minor league ballpark award a few years back and it's easy to see why.

Well, that was a lot, but hopefully you'll smell the hunt and scope out a minor league team to check out nearby. You'll be glad you did.

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