Your attention, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls—it's time for today's trivia question! Exactly how awesome is minor-league baseball?Is it (a) unbelievably awesome, (b) totally awesome, or (c) wicked awesome?Answer at the top of the ninth!
Minor-league baseball, founded in 1901 as an alternative to the majors, is in the throes of a renaissance. Since 1990, 102 new stadiums serving the official Minor League have opened across the country: intimate venues that make the game more accessible, and much more fun besides. And while the majors charge upwards of $100 a ticket, seats in the bush leagues typically cost less than a Coke at Yankee Stadium. Baseball lovers know great value when they see it: last summer, attendance at Minor League games swelled to a record 41 million.
And that's just for the 160 teams acting as farm clubs for the majors. (These are divided into the elite Triple-A, Double-A, and Single-A classes, as well as into lower-tier rookie clubs.) There are also dozens of independent and college-level clubs that have no affiliation with the big show—not that they're any less thrilling to watch. They're everywhere, these minor-league teams: the Lansing Lugnuts, the Hickory Crawdads, the Yuma Scorpions, the Wichita Wranglers, the Batavia Muckdogs. No city is too small, no potentially rabid fan base too insignificant.
But for my money, the best—and the most passionate—minor-league games are played in the Northeast. New York and New England are historic baseball rivals, of course, and that rivalry has intensified with disputes over the game's origins. Was baseball invented in 1839 near Cooperstown, New York, as historians once claimed?Or, as some recently unearthed documents indicate, was it being played 48 years earlier in Pittsfield, Massachusetts?
I'm a dyed-in-the-hosiery Red Sox fan with plenty of reason to feel good about baseball of late. But I'll admit that even at Fenway—where rapacious scalpers ask $300 for bleacher seats—big-league ball has lost much of its old-time magic. Determined to rediscover the easy joy of the game, I set out on a five-state minor-league road trip. Tracing a 400-mile route from Brooklyn, New York, to Portland, Maine, I found a mother lode of excellent ballparks, old and new. To accompany me, I recruited a crack team of fanatics: my uncle, Jon, and my stepsister's 11-year-old son, Jesse. Both can spout more baseball trivia than Espn.com. And we had numerology on our side. Jon's got exactly 24 years on me; I have 24 years on Jesse. Jon's boyhood idol was Willie Mays, number 24 for the Giants. My favorite player, Dwight Evans, wore 24 for the Red Sox. Jesse's hero?Boston's Manny Ramirez—number 24. Spoooooooky.
And so, precisely 48 years (twice 24, if you're counting) after Jon attended his first baseball game, we gathered road maps and weathered mitts, piled into my car, and set off on the Uncles & Nephews Hardball Tour.