For pure old-fashioned all-American fun, nothing beats a minor-league baseball game. Except seeing five in a row, over five days, at five of the Northeast's best small ballparks. Joined by his uncle and nephew, Peter Jon Lindberg hits the road
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.
Brooklyn, New York
Some essential background: Uncle Jon grew up in Minnesota, which didn't have a major-league team until 1961. ("I was a free-agent fan," he says.) Like many kids in the fifties, he fell hard for the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose roster included six future Hall of Famers, among them Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, and an up-and-comer named Sandy Koufax. "To me—and to a lot of people back then—Brooklyn was the capital of baseball," he recalls. The end, however, came quickly: in 1957, the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, and the Capital of Baseball collapsed into decades-long heartbreak.
But in 2001, pro ball made a triumphant return to the borough. That June, the Brooklyn Cyclones (Single-A farm club to the Mets) opened their first season in Coney Island, in a marvelous new 7,500-seat stadium in the shadow of the Cyclone roller coaster. Joy in Mudville! Single-A teams rarely draw huge crowds, yet thanks to affordable tickets and a heady nostalgia for Brooklyn baseball, that's exactly what the Cyclones have done.
KeySpan Park abuts the Coney Island boardwalk, and a salty Atlantic breeze often sails over the outfield. The stadium itself is a throwback to an earlier time, when all baseball was local. You want Brooklyn?Check out the billboards for SAL'S TRANSMISSIONS and UNCLE LOUIE G'S ITALIAN ICE. Or the "Brooklyn Heritage Nights" (Russian, Jewish, Irish, Italian) that regularly pack the stands. In lieu of computerized liquid-crystal displays, players' stats are handwritten on a felt-marker board, beside a cart proffering cotton candy and Pixy Stix.
The Cyclones themselves, while not quite the '55 Dodgers, are as polished as any semi-pro squad. Tonight they're battling their archrivals, the Staten Island Yankees, in a tight, tense matchup: a true pitcher's duel, with the score deadlocked at 1–1 for six straight innings. For most of the kids here, however, the on-field action is secondary to what Jesse calls "silly distractions." Distractions like a costumed-mascot race pitting Mustard against Relish against Ketchup ("And Mustard wins a trip to the wiener's circle!"). As for this evening's fireworks display, it's been canceled due to an impending rainstorm. "We apologize for any inconvenience this causes," the announcer says. Yet the rain, magically, holds off, and we take in nine full innings of ball—a Brooklyn loss, in the end, but a rollicking time nonetheless.
As we barrel up the coast, en route to our next park, we play a little game called Stump the Jesse. For a kid with a sixth-grade education, my nephew is uncannily well versed in American history, or at least a certain thread of it. Jon, who can recite verbatim from The Baseball Encyclopedia, throws us some curveballs. "Who was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit his home run in 1951?" "Who was the youngest player to appear in the major leagues?" "Who was the smallest player ever?" Answers: 1) Willie Mays was on deck. 2) Joe Nuxhall pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in 1944 when he was just 15 years old. 3) Eddie Gaedel, three foot seven, pinch-hit for the St. Louis Browns in 1951 as a one-time promotional stunt. (He walked.)
It's Jesse, too, who recognizes the name of the pitching coach for the Norwich Navigators (who have since become the Connecticut Defenders), tonight's home team. "Bob Stanley," he muses. "Didn't he pitch in Game Six of the '86 World Series for the Red Sox?" Yes, it's that Bob Stanley—on the mound when Bill Buckner flubbed the infamous ground ball. (Never mind that this happened eight years before Jesse was born. As a Red Sox fan, he's hardwired to recall tragedies he never experienced.) "Wow, Bob Stanley," Jesse says, not sure whether to be excited or gravely concerned.
But it's hard not to get excited about the Norwich team. They began as a Double-A Yankees affiliate; Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson played here before being called up. The Defenders are now a farm club for San Francisco, which is about as far from Connecticut as you can get on dry land. Still, local enthusiasm is undiminished, and the 6,700 seats at Dodd Stadium fill up with every age group. (Yesterday's game was "Grateful Dead Day.")
The Dodd's plain clapboard façade is a bit humdrum, but the atmosphere is exceedingly pleasant. And the food is a plus: frozen root beer floats, maple kettle-corn, and clam chowder. Jesse manages to snag a foul ball, and after the game—Norwich wins on a walk-off three-run homer that brings down the house—we retire to the parking lot for a round of catch. The rain has spared us again, and fog is rising off the gravel. Suddenly the back door to the clubhouse opens. Jesse stares for a moment, then trots over with his ball. "Sir, are you Bob Stanley?" he asks. "Sometimes," the man replies. Jesse smiles sheepishly and hands over the ball; Stanley signs it, then walks off into the misty night.
Pawtucket, Rhode Island
In its upper echelons, minor-league baseball approaches the glitz of the big show. The Pawtucket Red Sox, a Triple-A Boston affiliate, sell out games routinely, especially when injured Beantown stars are sent down for rehab. In the past few years, Curt Schilling and Nomar Garciaparra have both done stints with the PawSox. Bronson Arroyo pitched a perfect game here before being called up to Fenway. In other words, this is serious ball, with top-notch players and no silly sideshows. Jesse is pumped. He's got his stack of PawSox trading cards, he's got his foam PawSox bear paw, and he's hunched over his scorecard, dutifully noting every play.
The 64-year-old McCoy Stadium is awash in concrete, fluorescent lights, and sticky soda syrup. But what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for with energy and buzz, and the kids eat it up like fried dough. We're deep in Red Sox Nation, by all accounts. During a break in play, the JumboTron switches over to the Sox game in Boston, and the stadium goes ape.
The rain has held off, and we've hauled ourselves halfway across New England to my old stomping ground, Boston. Following games in Massachusetts tonight and Maine tomorrow, we're hoping to catch the final championship game of the Cape Cod Baseball League, the most famous amateur league in the nation. Every summer, top-ranked college players flock to the Cape to live with local families, mow lawns or paint houses, and strut their stuff for big-league scouts. (One out of every seven current major-league players spent a season on Cape Cod.)
But tonight, we're ready for the Rox. Following an afternoon behind-the-scenes tour of Fenway—which, by the way, you must take—we ditch the city and floor it to Brockton, a proud working-class town 25 miles south of Boston. Brockton Rox games are among the most irreverent—and entertaining—in baseball. When your team is advised and co-owned by actor Bill Murray, comedian Jimmy Fallon, and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, it's hard to be dull. The Rox are named for native hero Rocky Marciano. Beautiful Campanelli Stadium is the smallest park we've visited (official capacity: 4,750), though the fans make enough noise for twice that many people, cheering and chanting with thick Massachusetts accents. Indeed, Brawckton Rawx is the perfect name for a New England team.
The townie feel is pervasive. Sneakers, loafers, and golf shoes dangle from the rafters, in honor of Brockton's shoemaking heritage. Smoke from the hamburger grill wafts across the infield. And the program notes that the Rox are in need of host families for itinerant players. (Jesse wants to adopt the designated hitter: "He could teach me to bat lefty!")
Comic touches are what set Brockton apart. Bill Murray is listed on the program as Director of Fun, and the announcer shares his deadpan style: "What-ever..." he sighs when the visiting team scores. Fun-house mirrors hang in the bathrooms. The club sandwich is called a Tonya Harding. (Took me a second to get that.)
Between innings, the high jinks move onto the field. "It's SUMO TIME!!!!" the announcer cries in the middle of the seventh, and out waddle a father and son wearing huge inflatable fat suits. To the strains of L.L. Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out," they gleefully bounce into each other. On one night, a local Greek restaurant sponsors "My Big Fat Greek Olympics," whose events include a leg-of-lamb toss and "bowling for baklava."
As if all that goofiness weren't enough, in 2004 the Rox staged what they hoped would be the quietest game in baseball history. Fans were issued signs with yeah written on one side and boo on the other, and were asked to remain silent throughout the game, even for home runs. Decibel-meter readings were sent to the Hall of Fame; confirmation of the record is still pending.
You've got to love a team with a mascot like Slugger. "He's a puppy with flippers!" one girl shouts. "He's a walrus with paws!" her sister says. "No, girls, he's a sea dog," their father decides. Slugger is the beloved icon of the Portland Sea Dogs, one of the brightest spots of the minors. Founded in 1994, the Dogs quickly set minor-league records for attendance. Until recently, they were a Double-A farm club for the Florida Marlins.
In 2003, to their fans' unmitigated delight, the Sea Dogs switched their affiliation to the Red Sox—and how. A replica of Fenway's Green Monster was erected in left field, complete with a Citgo sign. The skyboxes were renamed for Boston legends: Williams, Petrocelli, Fisk, Yastrzemski. Fans show up with T-shirts declaring I SUPPORT TWO TEAMS: THE RED SOX AND WHOEVER BEATS THE YANKEES. Portland's lineup today includes two of the minors' top prospects: shortstop Hanley Ramirez and knuckleballer Charlie Zink, who may soon be big-show stars.
Hadlock Field is a terrific ballpark, not least for its location—smack in the heart of Portland, abutting the old red-brick Expo Building. As at Fenway, there's no foul territory to speak of, so you're right there next to the action. From our seats, we can hear the conversation between a runner and the third-base coach. (I think they're talking about a postgame clambake.) The crowd starts to cheer when the players jog onto the field, and never lets up, stomping on the aluminum floor and banging ThunderStix until the last pitch is thrown. When Portland hits a home run, a massive lighthouse rises from behind the center-field wall, bells clanging, foghorn blaring. You'd think they were playing the Yankees in the ALCS, so deafening is the applause.
It's here that we encounter the ZOO-perstars, an independent mascot troupe that travels around the minor leagues performing skits in sports-themed animal costumes. Some of the highlights: Nomar Garciaparrot, Ken Giraffey Jr., and Shark McGwire. Jesse is skeptical at first—just more "silly distractions." But he quickly dissolves into hysterical laughter as a giant grinning seashell named Clammy Sosa gobbles up a Sea Dogs player whole, belches loudly, then proceeds to spit out his socks, his shoes, and his helmet.
Alas, we never got to see the Cape Cod league—the best-of-three championship series ended after two games, and by the time we hit Hyannis, the boys of summer had gone. Sigh. In those immortal words learned by every kid who grew up in New England, There's always next year.
The minor leagues are filled with players with exotic, onomatopoeic, or just-plain-funny names. Our top picks (all real):
"He's batting cleanup on my team," Jon says.
"And he's my DH," says Jesse.
A pitcher, no less.
"Probably not a power hitter," Jesse concludes.
Perhaps named for Abner Doubleday.
Tyler von Schell
Either a shortstop or a German count.
No, really, come on.
Most minor-league teams play from early April through early September, after which come several weeks of playoffs and championships. Tickets are generally available the day of the game, but for the best seats order ahead online or call the box office.
Most Valuable Guide
For detailed information on parks and destinations, and advice on planning your trip, consult Fodor's Baseball Vacations (Bruce Adams and Margaret Engel, Fodor's, 2002), which covers 117 ballparks—major- and minor-league—across the United States, with reviews of nearby restaurants, hotels, and sights.
KeySpan Park: Brooklyn Cyclones
(New York–Penn League; Single-A short-season)
1904 Surf Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y.; 718/449-8497; www.brooklyncyclones.com; tickets from $5.
Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium: Connecticut Defenders
(Eastern League; Double-A) 14 Stott Ave., Norwich, Conn.;
860/887-7962; www.ctdefenders.com; tickets from $5.
McCoy Stadium: Pawtucket Red Sox
(International League; Triple-A)
1 Ben Mondor Way, Pawtucket, R.I.; 401/724-7300; www.pawsox.com; tickets from $6.
Campanelli Stadium: Brockton Rox
(Can-Am League; independent)
1 Feinberg Way, Brockton, Mass.; 508/559-7000; www.brocktonrox.com; tickets from $4.
Hadlock Field: Portland Sea Dogs
(Eastern League; Double-A)
271 Park Ave., Portland, Maine; 207/874-9300; www.seadogs.com; tickets from $3 for children and seniors, from $6 for adults.
Cape Cod Baseball League
Ten teams play 44 games between June and August at 10 parks around Cape Cod, most of them at high schools, where families picnic and children race after foul balls. It's as casual, as pure, and as exciting a version of baseball as exists nowadays. Best of all, it's free.
...and Four More Gems
A highly subjective roundup of favorite minor-league ballparks—and their teams—across the country.
Harbor Park: Norfolk Tides
(International League; Triple-A)
Gorgeous, riverfront Harbor Park opened in 1993. The Tides, a Mets affiliate and traditionally a strong upper-echelon club, have faltered at times, but the fans keep pouring in, not least for the wide-open sight lines and pleasant views of downtown and the Elizabeth River.
150 Park Ave., Norfolk, Va.; 757/622-2222; www.norfolktides.com; tickets from $8.50.
Fifth Third Field: Dayton Dragons
(Midwest League; Single-A)
Movie-mogul owners Peter Guber and Paul Schaeffer have filled their handsome 7,230-seat, $22 million park with a Hollywood back lot's worth of amusements, including a senior citizens' singing troupe called, ahem, the Retirement Village People. Oh, yeah, and the Dragons—a Cincinnati Reds farm team—play great ball.
220 N. Patterson Blvd., Dayton, Ohio; 937/228-2287; www.daytondragons.com; tickets from $7.
Isotopes Park: Albuquerque Isotopes
(Pacific Coast League; Triple-A)
Both the Isotopes (a Florida Marlins affiliate) and their stadium (a 12,700-seat retro park with quirky Atomic Age design) debuted in 2003. Inside you'll find a vast picnic area in left field, a grassy berm in right, and a beautiful mountain vista beyond—and some pretty great burritos, tacos, and churros at the concession stand. (The brilliant team name, by the way, comes from a joke on The Simpsons.)
1601 Avda. César Chavez SE, Albuquerque; 505/924-2255; www.albuquerquebaseball.com; tickets from $5.
Raley Field: Sacramento River Cats
(Pacific Coast League; Triple-A)
The 14,400 seats at Raley Field, on the banks of the Sacramento River, make it one of the largest stadiums in the minors— and with fans this dedicated, they need the space. California's capital went baseball-less for a quarter-century before getting the Cats in 2000; since then they've shattered minor-league attendance records. From the infield, there are inspiring views of golden-arched Tower Bridge and the city skyline beyond. And with comfortable seating, affordable concessions, and a family-centric crowd, Raley feels as intimate as any park half its size.
400 Ballpark Dr., West Sacramento, Calif.; 916/376-4700; www.rivercats.com; tickets from $6.
For any baseball fan traveling through New England, a stop at Fenway is essential. Hour-long guided tours take you inside the press box, onto the hallowed Green Monster, and (if you're lucky) out on the field itself.
Red Sox Ticket Office, 4 Yawkey Way, Boston; 617/226-6666; www.redsox.com; adults $8, children under 14 $5; tours year-round.
A Major-League Road Trip
Generations Touring Co. (888/415-9100; www.generationstouringcompany.com; $2,499 per adult, $2,199 per child under 12) is leading an East Coast baseball pilgrimage July 27 through August 2. You'll start with a Yankees game and then circle the bases from Cooperstown to Boston to Rhode Island— in a motor coach with a TV tuned to baseball movies.
Richmond County Bank Ballpark: Staten Island Yankees
(New York-Penn League; Single-A short-season)
One of the top new additions to minor-league ball, the S.I. Yankees' gleaming home is worth the hefty bridge toll. (You can also take the Staten Island Ferry-it's free). Upper-level seats offer fabulous views across the harbor to the Manhattan skyline. Catch a home game against Brooklyn and you'll see intracity rivalry at its best.
75 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island, N.Y.; 718/698-9265; www.siyanks.com; tickets from $8.
Centennial Field: Vermont Lake Monsters
(New York-Penn League; Single-A short-season) Dating from 1906, rebuilt in 1922, this is one of America's oldest and most attractive ballparks, still with some antique wooden seats and a covered-roof grandstand. History is not the only draw: the Lake Monsters' mascot, Champ, is based on a legendary creature (think: Nessie) said to live in Lake Champlain.
287 Colchester Ave., Burlington; 802/655-4200; www.vermontlakemonsters.com; tickets from $3.
Further Reading & Inspiration
Take Me Out to the Ballpark by Josh Leventhal (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2000).
Nicely produced picture book of new and classic major-league parks, plus a few minor-league fields.
The Last Best League by Jim Collins (Da Capo, 2004).
Vivid behind-the-scenes account of the legendary Cape Cod Baseball League chronicles the 2002 season of the Chatham A's. A fun read if you're heading to the Cape.
Touching the Game: The Story of the Cape Cod Baseball League (Fields of Vision & Eye Candy Cinema, 2004; on DVD and VHS)
Evocative documentary film about the Cape Cod league, mixing player interviews, game footage, and archival shots into a Ken Burns-esque portrait.