- By Ollie Walden
I looked at the calendar just yesterday and noticed that the month of March is about to officially end and the month of April is about to kickoff. That means the beginning of less bouncing basketballs on television and the return of the boys of summer. While basketball in winter sees you driving to sports bars or rushing home after work to watch games in front of the television, baseball season always finds fans leaving home in the evening to catch a night ballgame, or grown men sneaking from work to catch a day game at the park.
The crackling of the wooden bats and the balls sailing into bleachers and other places. The smell of popcorn and peanuts and the standing in lines for hot dogs or beer. All the things we remember when our parents took us to a game as a child, they all come back to us as the weather warms and the season changes to spring. Filling out the stat sheets or hanging over the rails after games hoping for autographs. What other sport do you get to bring your own glove to the game in hopes of bringing home a memory to cherish forever?
Baseball, more than any other sport, connects with the little kids in us. We remember as ourselves as little boys or little girls hoping to catch a home run ball or even a foul ball and getting it signed by a player. Eating Cotton candy and blowing bubbles with your gum while screaming “Batter, Batter, Swing” at the opponents. Most of the time, you don’t even recall who won or lost the game, but you remember the ice cream you ate and singing take me out to the ball game during the seventh inning stretch. For a lot of us, we didn’t live close enough to see many games or for others, we didn’t have as much money to go to many games. It was the nearby minor league games that we were able to afford and see during the summer. Minor league baseball is as responsible for drawing fans to the game as much as Major league baseball is.
For a lot of fans, myself included, a minor league game was my first introduction to live professional baseball. It wasn’t the Major league teams that you see on television, but that didn’t seem to matter as much. The Minor league games were more family friendly with either a playground or a merry-go-round to play on and they always seemed to have some acts to entertain fans between innings. We loved watching the frisbee catching dogs or the jugglers and no one could resist the antics of the Famous San Diego Chicken, if you were lucky enough to catch him making an appearance at the ball park. The players seemed more personable talking with fans and signing autographs or taking pictures. They didn’t seem like players sometimes, but just guys you see everyday who just happen to play baseball.
There were giveaways and special priced nights and interesting and fun mascots to see. Most of the mascots seemed to have some sort of local tie-in to the community like the big, furry, green sea monster, Champ, who entertains fans during Vermont Lake Monsters games and is based on a local legend. There is also, Homer the Polecat, who is based on a real skunk that was spotted roaming the field during an actual game. Homer can be seen roaming the stands in Alabama during Huntsville Stars games.
Homer is also known to sometimes race kids around the bases after games, but for some reason he hasn’t won a single race to date. There is Conrad the Crawdad of the Hickory Crawdads and I can’t forget to mention, Muddonna the Mud Hen, of the Toledo Mud Hens. Fun and catchy named mascots is a lure for a lot of minor league teams as well as gimmicks and specially priced nights. Over the last decade, Minor league baseball set records for attendance for five consecutive seasons in a row, topping out at an all-time high of just over 43.2 millions fans during the 2008 season. The growth of minor league baseball is evident with all the new minor league stadiums popping up throughout the country now. They are not the monstrous stadiums that the big city major league teams have, but smaller more fan friendly stadiums that almost every seat makes you feel like you are right there close to the action. Minor league baseball seems to draw fans to the games for many different reasons as well.
Families come for the entertainment and the affordable prices. Some serious fans come out to see the young prospects that are being developed by the major league teams and may some day soon be playing in the big leagues. More and more companies are buying group tickets as a way to boost worker morale. Minor league baseball is bringing the fans back to the game and providing normalcy back into our lives. That is something we all need to see after the strike season of the 90s and the steroid controversy seasons of the late 1990s and 2000s when baseballs credibility suffered badly in the media spotlight.
Baseball is still to this day feeling the effects of Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemons and now Barry Bonds dragging the leagues image through the steroid filled mudpit. Yes, we all saw the home runs blasting out of the stadiums, but what we have found out since is all the needle injecting and drugs that were going on behind the scenes. It turned fans away from the game and away from the sport. It seemed for a time that anything being mentioned about baseball was negative.
Many fans walked away from the game and crowds and television ratings suffered. It’s taken a grass roots effort among the minor leagues to get back in touch with the fans and draw them back to the sport and its helped all of baseball. The hard working staff workers should be commended for the effort to get fans back within a recession and the sports image crisis.
They have brought us back with good, old fashioned baseball games and with creative marketing and promotions. They are selling the part of the game we missed as kids back to us. They are offering us back the excitement and memories we remember and cherish. They are making us begin to really feel like baseball and fun belong back together again. They are helping us to believe in the sport and to give baseball another chance. Yes, I am glad the calendar is changing and Yes, I am ready for another minor league summer.