Tuesday, May 16, 2006

My love of minor league baseball

I love baseball. I love the smell of fresh cut grass, the crack and not the ting of a bat, kids running around begging for autographs, but most of all, I love minor league baseball.

My first ever minor league game came when I was in college and traveling from my home in San Francisco to college in Rindge, New Hampshire. I had been driving since Lincoln, NE and was starting to see double and triple from the total boredom of the terrain. Well, I was flipping around the radio and heard the pre-game show for a game between South Bend(IN) and some other team. Considering I hadn't seen a game in awhile, and I was in need of dinner and a beer, I stopped off to catch the game. The park was nice and old, the parking was free, and a general admission ticket ran me a whole three bucks. I settled into my GA seat and was immediatly asked by someone, "Hey, you have never been here before, have you?" Thinking I had taken someone's spot, I apologized and got up to leave to find another seat. I was stopped and was told I hadn't done anything wrong, he just hadn't seen me before and wanted to introduce himself. I learned pretty quickly that minor league baseball is a different animal.

I have no idea who won that game, nor it is important. All I know is that I talked baseball with this old timer for nine glorious innings. I saw insane in between innings promotions, drank a two dollar beer, and ate a one dollar hot dog. I saw kids busting their tails because they didn't know when their dream of playing in the bigs would end. This is what started my love affair with the minors.

Since then, I have been to parks in Pawtucket, RI; Nashua, NH, Portland, ME; Quebec City, QC; Brockton, MA, and of course Burlington, VT. There is something so pure about going to these parks. For example, Centennial Field in Burlington is the oldest ballpark that is currently being used in all of minor league baseball. There is so much foul territory that almost every foul pop has to be chased down. The GA seats are concrete, and I am convinced they haven't been repaired since the early 40's. The grandstand is covered, and there are even a few obstructed view seats. The staff is friendly, and when my now wife and I started going to games on a regular basis, the ushers got to know us by name. There is the sea monster himself(aka Champ) dancing on the dugouts leading cheers and nailing the opposing team with the "Dreaded Champ Curse" before each game. George Commo, the legendary play-by-play voice of the Vermont Expos/Lake Monsters sings "Take Me Out to the Ballgame", and seeing the in between innning on-field promotions with the kids are worth the price of admission. Oh yeah, and the players actually sign autographs.

As a bit of background, the Lake Monsters are the "A" affiliate of the Washington Nationals in the New York Penn League. These are kids who are just out of high school or college, and in many cases are playing pro ball for the first time. Most of these kids are not high draft picks, so they make the huge sum of $850.00 per month. They stay with host families, and are at this level to prove themselves. These are guys who know their dream of playing pro ball may not last long, so they enjoy every second. They sign autographs, give pointers to kids, talk to the fans before and sometimes during games, and they actually play hard. How many times have you seen a major leaguer sign an autograph without charging a hundred bucks? Good Lord, these kids will sign until their fingers bleed. That is why I love the minor leagues, it is baseball at its purest and where the sanctity of the game actually still matters.

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