A User's Guide to the Mid-Atlantic's Minor-League Baseball Parks
They no longer compete with the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Instead, they are locked in titanic struggles against the Lowell Spinners and the Batavia Muckdogs. Yet Billy claims, "I am proud of playing in the big leagues, but this is pretty close." What is going on here?
The Ripkens are owners of the Aberdeen IronBirds, a year-old minor-league baseball team in their boyhood hometown. The IronBirds play in a glorious new park with charm and the coziness of 6,000 seats. Despite being in Maryland, they play in the New York-Penn League, a short season Class A league that is the first step in professional baseball for many players. Dreams of the big leagues are both vivid and a long way from reality, but this is the pros, where a young man gets paid to play a game.
The dreams of the Ripken brothers started in Aberdeen, and though they carried those dreams to the top of their profession, they never really left their hometown. Mom still lives in the house the boys grew up in, and Billy still has his home here. Game day, Billy says, is "like a big high-school reunion." Together the brothers began the Ripken Baseball Academy, a series of training camps for kids and teens that, in Cal's words, "teach character through baseball." Along came the opportunity to add the minor-league franchise, and the IronBirds were born in 2002 as an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.
The game on the field in Aberdeen is different from Camden Yards in several important aspects. Minor-league teams are more focused on developing talent than winning games. If a pennant happens as a by-product, it's a bonus. Even with this player-development emphasis, the sad truth is that only a few of the players in the minors will ever play a day in the major leagues. The vast majority of the players will chase a dream they cannot catch, and the poignancy of that truth is buried in each minor-league park.
There is a considerably less subtle difference in the minor leagues, and it is woven around and through the baseball game that ostensibly is everyone's reason for being at the ballpark. It's the unsophisticated, nutty, slapstick pastiche of contests and promotions that threaten to turn a ballpark into a carnival midway. As Billy Ripken puts it, "We can't control what happens on the field. What we can work on is how much fun you can have at the ballpark."
In the minors, the fans are part of the act. A small child is chosen from the crowd to race the mascot around the bases. Guess who wins that one? A couple of teenagers are zipped into inflatable suits that turn them into simulated sumo wrestlers. Last one standing wins a pizza. Large men race on tiny tricycles.
On any given night, the entertainment may include Blues Brothers impersonators, the Famous Chicken, or Frisbee-catching dogs. Sadly, one popular performer retired last year. Dynamite Lady, riding into the park on a bicycle and dressed in a sequined outfit stolen from Wonder Woman, blew herself up after ball games for the enjoyment of thousands. She made a career traveling the country, climbing into a Styrofoam box packed with explosives that produced more flash and fury than bodily harm.
Even without Dynamite Lady, the minor leagues are exploding in popularity. Last year the Sacramento River Cats outdrew the major-league Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins, which may not sound like much given the problems of the Expos and Marlins, but even bad major-league teams are not used to being challenged by their minor-league cousins. Two other teams, including the Saltillo Sarape Makers of the Mexican League, drew more fans per game than the Expos and Marlins. Baseball travel is also growing in popularity, evidenced by everything from a Fodor's travel guide to a well-known series of credit card commercials.
Cost is a positive aspect of the minors. The cheapest ticket at Camden Yards in 2003 is $9, while the most expensive ticket at most minor-league ballparks is $8. For the frugal, there are even better deals. In many towns, local companies sponsor half-price deals on weekday evenings. Bring the right coupon, candy wrapper, or grocery store discount card and a family of four can see a game from the bleachers for the grand total of $10. You could try to spend the savings at the concession and souvenir stands, but their prices are much cheaper, too.
Ultimately, though, you don't go to the minors because the price is reasonable. You go for all the other things. Look for tomorrow's stars at the beginning of their careers. Pick out the strangest billboard on the outfield fence. Watch the people as well as the game. Chat with a stranger, because no one is nasty at a baseball game. Make a day of it and see what else each town has to offer. Within a day-trip distance of Baltimore you will find seven memorable ballparks in the minor leagues. Each one is different, with its own eccentricities and local flavor, and they range from one of the oldest parks in the country to that brand new one in Aberdeen.
For several years I have been visiting ballparks, usually in the company of my brother or my wife and kids. I can't claim it has been a voyage of personal discovery or a quixotic search for the soul of America. We just wanted to see ball games. But along the way, we did find something a little bit more. Following are observations from our visits to the parks nearest to Baltimore.
TEAM: Aberdeen IronBirds
PARK: Ripken Stadium
LEAGUE: New York-Penn League (Class A)
AFFILIATE: Baltimore Orioles
DATE: Aug. 5, 2002
FAVORITE SEAT: The sections down each line angle in toward the field so that you nearly look down the foul line toward the hitter. There is also a fabulous café behind home plate with flagstone floors, patio tables, and a buffet, but it costs $120 for a table of four.
QUIRK: The bullpens are behind the outfield fence. Windows are cut into the fence and screened with chain link so the players can see the field.
NICE TOUCH: Look up. When an IronBird player gets a hit, the first three letters in the ripken sign atop the scoreboard flash on and off. Look down. The Ripken Stadium logo is cast into the end piece of each row of seats.
BEER: Redhook was the best of limited options.
FOOD: You can get the fancy grilled chicken Caesar wrap or the smoked turkey breast and cheddar wrap for $5, but we'll clog our arteries with the pork barbecue and fries.
MUSIC AND SOUND: They played "It's Raining Men" while shooting hot dogs into the stands. Kind of rude if you think about it. Especially when the hot dogs came unwrapped in midair and parts showered down on the crowd.
BILLBOARDS: Two billboards! This may be the worst figure in the entire minor leagues. The IronBirds must think such crass commercialism is beneath them, but billboards on the outfield fence is a minor-league tradition that should not be jettisoned lightly.
CONTESTS: "YMCA" is ubiquitous in ballparks, having outlasted its origin as a gay anthem. The IronBirds gave it a nice twist by picking several kids out of the crowd and dressing them as the Village People. The kids sang along and led the crowd in making the letters, except for the 3-year-old boy dressed as the leather biker who instead stood and picked his nose in front of 5,000 people.
MASCOT: We never noticed one during our visit, which we took as a possible blessing. Apparently the team has since introduced Ferrous, a big dark-gray bird. In photographs, he seems to be trying hard not to look like a pigeon.
SMALL TOWN ALARM: All the kids in the contests were named Justin, Austin, or Dustin.
OVERHEARD: A woman seated in the row in front of us turned to her companion and began ranting: "That foul ball was hit where we sat last time. When we were there, no balls came near us. Today that's three in four innings!" Face it lady, God hates you. Nearby, one little boy explained things to his less worldly friend: " You know if you get a ball here, you don't have to throw it back to them!"
WE'VE NEVER SEEN THAT BEFORE: The third baseman ducked. On a ground ball! Maybe he lost it in the lights.
PROGRAM: The 2002 team photos looked like they were taken at the county jail. Either the photographer is awful or this is the ugliest team ever assembled.
SOUVENIRS: The Hangar includes Cal Ripken mementos as well as an IronBirds logo blanket for $60.
Call (410) 297-9292 or visit www.ironbirdsbaseball.com.
TEAM: Bowie Baysox
PARK: Prince George's Stadium
LEAGUE: Eastern League (Class AA)
AFFILIATE: Baltimore Orioles
DATE: Aug. 4, 2002
When is the best seat in the house not the best seat in the house? Usually we all want to get up close, watch the players' faces, and second-guess the umpires' calls. In Bowie on a Sunday afternoon with the field surface temperature registering 121 degrees, few folks wanted the box seats. Fans clustered into the last five rows of the stands to get the only shade available. It's a strange sight to see rows of great seats going begging while everyone elbows into the cheapies. Trust us, take the shade.
Prince George's Stadium is a handsome modern park in cream-colored rough-faced block with green railings and accents. It stands well out in the suburbs, past the Home Depot and the Chick-fil-A, but once inside you'll only see the field backed by a thick stand of trees. In the long-running tug-of-war between suburban forests and parking lots, we'll be rooting hardest for these trees to pull an upset and preserve the lush green backdrop for Baysox games.
FAVORITE SEAT: Sit in the last row of the general admission bleachers behind home plate. The press box is right behind you and you can listen to the radio broadcaster call the game for you. The view is fabulous, the sound is good, and you're only a few steps from the broad, breezy concourse, which of course is where they keep the beer and food.
QUIRK: White UFOs hang on wires above the crowd. It's not an alien invasion. They are the public-address speakers, but we kept expecting them to say, "Oon-ee-utz." (If you don't get this, you have to watch Dick Van Dyke Show reruns until you find the answer).
BEER: Two choices: Miller or Miller Lite. Even my father-in-law's refrigerator offers a bigger selection.
FOOD: The Black Angus Grille looked interesting, but it was closed by the fourth inning. That prevented us from trying the pickle on a stick.
MUSIC AND SOUND: Nothing special. They played "Brown-Eyed Girl" twice.
BILLBOARDS: According to one rotating ad on the scoreboard, "Jesus Is the Answer," but if you're looking for a more earthly solution, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers suggests that you "Supercharge Your Electrical Career."
PROMOTIONS: Former wrestling star Jerry "The King" Lawler was signing autographs on the concourse when we visited. He is best remembered for pummeling comedian Andy Kaufman on Letterman about 20 years ago. Apparently that kind of fame is lasting, because dozens of fans were lined up for his scrawl on an 8x10 glossy. If you worship a different "King," you may want to visit on Elvis Tribute Night.
CONTESTS: Chick-fil-A sponsored a between-inning contest that immediately became one of our all-time favorites. A giant inflatable cow was dragged into right field. A fan was blindfolded, spun around, and sent staggering onto the field. Find the cow, knock it over, and win some incredibly valuable prize like dinner for two at Chick-fil-A. With the crowd screaming directions and encouragement ("Left, you idiot! Left!"), the intrepid contestant not only found the cow, but wrestled it down with a fury that would have made Jerry Lawler proud. In fact, he managed to deflate the defenseless cow, which didn't win him any bigger prize from Chick-fil-A but brought him the biggest ovation of the entire game.
MASCOT: Louie is the team mascot and consists of a shag carpet and purple hair. Given the heat, we mercifully saw little of him. Far better was the life-size toothbrush that came out to brush off home plate. You don't see that every day.
THAT'S ODD: Not one, but two sales displays for screened-porch builders.
WE'VE NEVER SEEN THAT BEFORE: At the Outback Steakhouse tent down the left-field line, we found five employees and huge piles of bananas. There were no customers and no clues to what these folks were selling, but we've never seen that many bananas in one place before.
BEST NAME: Give the parents of Napoleon Calzado credit for thinking big, but Beau Hale wins with a stage name right out of a 1950s movie magazine.
PROGRAM: Free at the ticket window, it included the "Eighth in a series of articles on how the dirt and clay of Prince George's Stadium are prepared and maintained for the season." Give them credit. Most folks could only come up with three or four articles on the topic.
SOUVENIRS: The souvenir stand has one remarkable attribute--it's air-conditioned. Our favorite item was the folding chair with the Baysox logo on the back, a bargain at $20.
Call (301) 805-6000 or visit www.baysox.com.
TEAM: Delmarva Shorebirds
PARK: Arthur W. Perdue Stadium
LEAGUE: South Atlantic League (Class A)
AFFILIATE: Baltimore Orioles
DATE: Aug. 6, 2002
The minor leagues have long been famous for some of the strangest acts in the entertainment business. We've already mentioned the Dynamite Lady, but she wasn't the only one to make the rounds of America's small towns. Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller toured the minors well into his 60s, striking out local fans who wanted the chance to get a hit against an all-time great. Rubber-faced Max Patkin mimicked umpires and players in a uniform six sizes too big for him. The Mayberry Deputy worked the crowds as a Barney Fife impersonator and was so good you'd swear you could smell Aunt Bee's pies and hear Opie whistling.
Myron Noodleman carries on this strange tradition and is currently one of the hottest acts in the minor leagues. He looks like the love child of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Lewis. If you're under 12 years of age, French, or drunk, you'll think he's a god. If you're not, you'll still get a few good laughs out of his act. We saw him on a Tuesday evening at the Delmarva Shorebirds game. He has a few on-field routines set up with the players and umps between innings, and the rest of the game he wanders through the crowd doing a variety of shtick. Yeah, we know, it doesn't sound as good as a woman blowing herself up, but unless Dynamite Lady comes out of retirement, Noodleman is the best thing going.
Salisbury certainly has a good thing going. Perdue Stadium was built in 1996 and is a star among the modern wave of ballparks. From the pillars and the three-story cream-colored tower that mark the main entrance, to the flowers and giant baseballs that decorate the exterior, Perdue exudes a welcoming charm. Inside, dark green stadium seats and railings contrast with white ironwork and the brick-colored facade. All this produces a powerful home field advantage. The night we visited the Shorebirds won their 14th straight at home.
FAVORITE SEAT: If it's Myron Noodleman Night, get good box seats behind the home dugout. That way you'll get the full benefit of Myron's act. Otherwise, buy a general admission ticket for the bleachers, which begin quite close to home plate.
QUIRK: After the game, players exit through tunnels at the end of the stands where the kids line the railings begging for autographs. Maybe these aren't major-league stars, but to a 10-year-old the players are heroes worthy of worship.
NICE TOUCH: We don't know how the Shorebirds arranged this, but the flyover by 60 Canadian geese before the start of the sixth inning was very impressive.
FOOD: The half-pound Angus burger is $6 and goes well with the gourmet jalapeño pretzel. For dessert, pick between the funnel cake à la mode or the orange creamsicle float.
MUSIC AND SOUND: The Price Is Right theme was used for one of the between-inning contests, and that thing can stick in your head for hours. Go ahead. Hum it to yourself. See.
BILLBOARDS: A 12-foot-high man's head with his mouth wide open encourages all to "Prevent oral cancer." Let's hope the colo-rectal campaign takes a more subtle approach. If any of the fans or players are in a different kind of trouble, Freedom Bail Bonds claims, "We put your feet back on the street!"
PROMOTIONS: Bring your dog to Bark in the Park Night. Don't have a dog? The first thousand fans on one August night last year received a free loaf of bread.
CONTESTS: Usually the prizes in these contests are of modest value: a free car wash, dinner at a local pizza shop, a team ball cap. Delmarva provided a chance to win a brand new convertible. A female fan picked at random stood on the third-base side and simply had to throw a ball into the passing convertible 30 feet away. Sadly she only threw the ball 10 feet. Her husband was not happy.
MASCOT: Two mascots for the price of one. Sherman Shorebird is bright orange with a 2-foot-long beak, and Big Mario is a stereotypical Italian pizza man with a big white chef's hat. We'd like to see a duel to the death.
SMALL TOWN ALARM: The PA announcer congratulated a fan on his 81st birthday and acknowledged another couple on their wedding anniversary. Which raises the question, how did this husband convince his wife to celebrate their anniversary by watching Myron Noodleman at a baseball game?
OVERHEARD: "Uh-huh . . . Oh? . . . Uh-huh . . . Uhm. . . ." A woman near us went on in this fashion for nearly two innings while her male companion told the most boring story in captivity. We give her credit for patience because we were nearly ready to beg him to stop. For her sake, we hope they weren't the anniversary couple.
THAT'S ODD: Behind home plate, where you will normally find rows of higher-priced seats, Perdue Stadium has a pizza stand and an ice-cream shop. Above them is a café with a great view of the field, but it only had 11 seats occupied in the fifth inning. It's an odd design, but the ice cream is good.
WE'VE NEVER SEEN THAT BEFORE: This is a bad sign for the future of the National Pastime. The park has an arcade room with video games and an air-hockey table. It was busy with kids throughout the game. Is this a sign of the impending fall of Western civilization?
BEST NAME: The players' names were boring, but the trainer's name was Trek Schuler.
PROGRAM: A free program with stats, trivia, kid's page, and a list of former Shorebirds who have made it to the majors.
Call (410) 219-3112 or visit www.theshorebirds.com.
TEAM: Frederick Keys PARK: Harry Grove Stadium DATE: April 6, 2003
LEAGUE: Carolina League (AA)
AFFILIATE: Baltimore Orioles
PARK: Harry Grove Stadium
DATE: April 6, 2003
Why are they called the Keys? Many minor-league teams have odd nicknames. Some are named after strange local animals (Toledo Mud Hens, Amarillo Dillas, and Savannah Sand Gnats). Others play on some local industry (Lansing Lugnuts, Albuquerque Isotopes, and Asheville Tourists). But why the Keys?
We asked that question of more than a dozen folks while walking around Harry Grove Stadium. And it is a walkable little ballpark. The broad concourse provides a clear view of the field, and you can stroll from the party deck down the left-field line to the merry-go-round in the right-field corner.
As for our question? Well, the fellow sitting behind us with two toddlers freely admitted that he didn't have a clue. The concession-stand volunteers and the souvenir-stand employees drew blanks. So we went to Guest Services, where the information lady had the information we sought. The team is named for Frederick's most notable citizen, Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner." As far as we can tell, this makes the Frederick Keys the only sports team ever named after a poet. Take that, Lugnuts.
FAVORITE SEAT: We walked up 10 minutes before game time and bought two box seats in the second row, right beside the visiting dugout. This gives you the privilege of watching the on-deck hitter's butt only five feet away. If you like that sort of thing, these are the seats for you.
QUIRK: This is one of the few ballparks that does not play "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Instead, during the seventh-inning stretch, the fans pull out their key rings and sing the local anthem "Shake Your Keys." One of the team's employees stands on the dugout with a big board with the words on it, to help the newcomers. Everyone shakes their keys, which doesn't make as much noise as you'd think.
BEER: Pick a designated driver before coming to Frederick. An honest-to-goodness local microbrewery is represented here. Down the right-field line, Brewer's Alley has three varieties on tap, and all are worth a taste. Behind home are another eight brands on tap. Pray for extra innings.
FOOD: Try the pulled pork sandwich from the Power Alley Pub down the right-field side. Once that settles, follow up with the corn dog nuggets and fries. If that settles, cap your day with the fabulous fry bread--fried dough with cinnamon and sugar.
MUSIC AND SOUND: Tunes included "The SpongeBob SquarePants Theme," "Orange Blossom Special," "Low Rider," and "Love Rollercoaster." Almost as varied as the beer.
BILLBOARDS: Frederick wins the Maryland title with 72 billboards in three outfield tiers. Very impressive. Sometimes, however, two different billboards, coincidentally set together, yield unintended consequences. At Harry Grove Stadium, adjacent billboards proclaim: official hot dog of the frederick keys, arthur c. crum, jr., attorney at law.
PROMOTIONS: These guys appreciate their beer. Two beer-tasting events are on the schedule. For $38, get food, beers, and a ticket to the game in the Keys Café. Other ways to get a headache include 16 Fireworks Nights.
CONTESTS: One fan is selected to roll three giant dice off the dugout roof. If they all land face up, the fan wins a big-screen TV. Not bad, but we think the dice are loaded. It was easier to win a 13-inch TV. In a contest sponsored by the local pest-control company, a girl tossed big plastic bugs toward her boyfriend. He wore special big stretchy pants. Catch all the ants in your pants and win the television. Who knew pest control could be such fun?
MASCOT: Keyote, the Coyote. Looked like he'd been smoking peyote.
OVERHEARD: The brave dad behind us, unaided with his two little girls, begins by trying to explain the game. "That is the pitcher. He'll throw the ball and the batter will try to hit it." Unfortunately for Dad, the girls look beyond the pitcher, down the right-field line. "Look! A merry-go-round!" Dad holds out for several innings before giving in and hiking the girls to the Kids Zone.
BEST NAME: Hugh Quattlebaum. That's tough to fit on the back of a jersey.
Call (301) 662-0013 or visit www.frederickkeys.com.
TEAM: Hagerstown Suns
PARK: Municipal Stadium
LEAGUE: South Atlantic League (Class A)
AFFILIATE: San Francisco Giants
DATE: Aug. 7, 2002
It's billed as "historic" Municipal Stadium, and it is one of the oldest parks in the country. However, not much remains of the 1931 original other than the grandstand roof and the brick outfield walls. The rest is a hodgepodge of additions and renovations that, while functional, add little character or charm. It is worth noting the spiral staircase that leads up to the press box atop the grandstand roof and the bull's-eye target high above the right-field wall. If a player hits a home run into the bull's-eye, a lucky fan wins a brand new car.
But some things haven't changed. A group of Little Leaguers sat behind home and watched each at-bat intently. They kept up a constant chatter, offering the same advice to the hitter that their coaches had clearly drilled into them, the same snippets of baseball wisdom that have been around since Municipal Stadium was new: "Wait on him." "Just meet the ball." "Straighten it out." "Come on, base hit." Of course, their coach had his own advice for the hitter. Mumbling to another Little League dad, he said, "Just hit the bull's-eye. I need a new car."
FAVORITE SEAT: Our favorite seat in Hagerstown is standing room only. About a dozen guys, all between 40 and 60 years of age, stand behind the first-base dugout, which is the perfect height to lean on. These are all regulars. Some bring blankets to spread out on the dugout roof to soften the concrete for their elbows. Some have autograph books and baseball cards. All have food, beer, and an easy manner that enables you to step up and start a conversation. If there were a brass rail to rest your foot on, this would be an outdoor version of Cheers.
QUIRK: The screen above the crowd behind home plate is like a giant pitch-back. Foul pops hit the steeply pitched screen and shoot back onto the field.
NICE TOUCH: Minor-league teams often have local Little Leaguers take the field with the professional players for the national anthem. Hagerstown goes one better and has one of the kids serve as the PA announcer for the home half of the first inning. We also liked the banners at the top of the grandstand, one for each team in the South Atlantic League.
BEER: Now here's a selection to make everyone happy. At the party zone down the left-field line, you'll find about 20 different varieties of beers and other malt beverages. Keep your souvenir cup and get your first drink at a local bar for half-price. We're starting to like Hagerstown.
FOOD: Mostly the usual ballpark fare. The barbecue wings were cold. You're better off with the burgers or chicken sandwiches from the grill on the third-base side. If it's hot out, try Smoochie and Bubba's Shaved Ice in the bright yellow trailer behind the third base grandstand. Thirty-five flavors to choose from, including cappuccino, kiwi, and tiger blood.
MUSIC AND SOUND: Music was good, but turn up the sound. When a Suns player is hit by a pitch and refuses help from the trainer, the Suns play the Village People's "Macho Man." Someone in the press box has a sense of humor.
BILLBOARDS: Hagerstown wins the award for most billboards with 68. Congratulations to the sales department, which went beyond the usual advertisers, like car dealers and bars. One billboard advertised the 140th Battle of Antietam Re-enactment.
PROMOTIONS: Can you have a cow on 4-H Night? We don't want to ask about Weenie Wednesdays.
CONTESTS: One opposing player is designated the Strikeout Player of the Game. If he whiffs, everyone's ticket is good for a free cheeseburger at a local fast-food chain. With each at bat, as the player approaches the plate, the PA announcer intones in a deep, slow, ominous voice, "Cheeseburger"--which sends the crowd into a frenzy.
MASCOT: Woolie B is an orange and black bumblebee who does the usual mascot stuff, but one bearded fellow, apparently not a big fan, flipped him off. We've been to a lot of baseball games over the years, but this was the first time we've seen anyone make an obscene gesture to the mascot. If you visit Hagerstown, give Woolie some love.
THAT'S ODD: The earliest arrivals take the parking spaces farthest from the park. The wisdom of this becomes obvious during the game, because most of the parking lot is within reach of foul balls.
BEST NAME: Petersen Benjamin seems to have his name backward. At 1-5, he also seems to have his win-loss record backward.
PROGRAM: The program is nothing special, but the cover is. A local company sponsored a contest for kids to design the covers for the 2002 programs, and no graphics firm could do better with crayons. Inside is a list of season-ticket holders, so their friends and neighbors know whom to hit up for freebies.
Call (301) 791-6266 or visit www.hagerstownsuns.com.TEAM: Potomac Cannons
Built just before the wave of great new parks sparked by the success of Camden Yards, Pfitzner Stadium lacks many of the expected modern amenities. No grandstand roof, no luxury suites, and a press box that sits like a WWII German bunker atop the last rows of bleachers. The stands are built eight feet above the field, so the front row of seats totters on the edge of a royal blue cliff. Combine that royal blue with aluminum bleachers, green aisles, and orange seat backs, and you have a color scheme that no one has loved since the early 1980s.
On the field at this low rung of the minors, players chase the early stages of a professional dream. Barry Bonds is Potomac's most distinguished alumnus, but for every Bonds who makes the Big Show, dozens don't come close. The chasm between Potomac and the major leagues is a wide one, but the dream lives here nonetheless.
On the softball fields around Pfitzner Stadium, a different dream lives on. While the young pros play in sharp uniforms in front of paying fans, local guys play in matching T-shirts in front of girlfriends, wives, and kids. Watch the pros play, then stroll across the road to the softball fields. Slip quietly onto the back of the bleachers behind the families. Forget the beer guts and male-pattern baldness and watch the Lorton Boys battle Sheetz. It's a long, long way from the major leagues, but strangely closer to the heart of the game.
FAVORITE SEAT: If you sit in the bleachers down the lines, you can watch the pitchers horse around in the bullpen, but the bugs thicken late in the game. Better to sit in the top row of the grandstand: good view of the field, a nice breeze, and you can turn around and catch a little of that action on the softball field.
QUIRK: Throughout baseball, dugouts may vary in length or height, be they below ground or at grade, but fundamentally they all consist of a sheltered area with one long bench against the back wall for players to park their butts. Not in Potomac. In all our travels, this is the only two-row dugout we've ever seen. Being only 20 feet long, the dugouts had to be built with two rows of benches to accommodate all the players. It looks more like a jury box.
NICE TOUCH: A blackboard on the concourse lists former Cannons in the majors with their current stats, while the Bonds Watch tracks Barry's progress up the major-league career home run list. One of the attractions of the minor leagues is the opportunity to see future stars at the beginnings of their careers, and Potomac does an excellent job of highlighting this fact.
BEER: Nothing unusual but a nice selection at the beer stands on both the first- and third-base sides. Try an Icehouse.
FOOD: You get waitress service in the box seats, but you'll grow old waiting for it to get around to you. Take a walk to the third-base side and try the sausage--Polish or Italian, your pick. If you're looking for something other than usual ballpark fare, get the shrimp basket with fries.
BILLBOARDS: One billboard challenges us all: "Think you know what a career at 7-Eleven is about? Think again!" OK, we thought about it. It's still pretty much Big Gulps and lottery tickets, isn't it? And hoping we don't wind up on TV's Caught on Tape being pistol-whipped in a robbery? Sorry, 7-Eleven. We'll stick with sitting in ballparks and making fun of the billboards.
PROMOTIONS: Twelve Fireworks Nights.
CONTESTS: Most of the contests were a little flat. With the stands eight feet above the field, the paper airplane toss was a natural. Longest toss wins.
MASCOT: Big Shot has a nose that supposedly looks like a cannon projecting from his head. Problem is that 9-year-old boys take great glee in sticking their giant foam No. 1 fingers into Big Shot's nose. There's a design flaw that wasn't apparent until it was too late.
SMALL TOWN ALARM: Grandma and Grandpa take the grandkids to the ball game. When Grandma tries to take a photo, Grandpa tries to sneak the rabbit ears over the kids' heads. Grandma yells at Grandpa, Grandpa laughs, and the kids go back to their popcorn. How did Norman Rockwell miss this moment?
OVERHEARD: Half a dozen boys stand outside the park with their baseball gloves, hoping to get a foul ball hit over the stands. To increase their chances, they have one boy inside the park serving as a spotter. The spotter waits for the batter to approach the plate and then yells to his buddies, "Lefty! Lefty!" All the boys run like mad to the opposite side of the park. Back and forth they go with each batter until their exertions are rewarded with a foul pop and a mad scramble. After a few moments of exhilaration and high fives, it's back to work for another baseball.
WE'VE NEVER SEEN THAT BEFORE: On a slide into second base a player broke his belt. Now we're not talking about one of those softball players who put a fair amount of stress on their belts. This was a skinny guy in the pro game.
BEST NAME: If Milko Jaramillo ever makes it to the majors, he's going to have a sweet marketing deal with the Milk Board. Got Milko? Unfortunately, he was hitting .234.
Call (703) 590-2311 or visit www.potomaccannons.com.
TEAM: Wilmington Blue Rocks
PARK: Judy Johnson Field at Frawley Stadium
CITY: Wilmington, Del.
LEAGUE: Carolina League (Class A)
AFFILIATE: Kansas City Royals
DATE: Aug. 6, 2002
It's hard to imagine how Wilmington could do this any better. Imaginative fan contests, excellent food and beer, a Hall of Fame, a beautiful downtown ballpark, and a life-size dancing celery make this a great stop on your minor-league tour. Yes, that's right, a life-size dancing celery.
The ballpark with the unwieldy name was built in 1993, and it's a beauty. Warm red rough-faced block, contrasting cream bands, and dark green trim give it a classy appearance. It nestles into its downtown streetscape like it belongs. As you approach the park from the right-field corner, you can peer inside, getting a glimpse of the gracious interior and blue rocks in 8-foot-high letters on the facade behind home plate. Once inside, you'll enter the broad, shaded concourse. If you are visiting a luxury suite, climb to the second deck. Otherwise, amble out into the sunshine to find your seat.
The Blue Rocks know how to have a good time. A local plumber sponsors a plunger-toss game with contestants aiming at a toilet. The announcer takes a pie in the face from a fan, nearly gets a broken nose, and is still a good sport about it. The contestant in the grand-slam inning can win $5,000 or a mattress. They have so much fun singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" that they sing it twice! If that's not enough, when the Blue Rocks score, a guy in a giant celery costume runs out and dances behind home plate.
FAVORITE SEAT: Not a bad seat in the park. From the first-base side you'll have a nice view of downtown Wilmington. We're not kidding.
NICE TOUCH: Negro League star Judy Johnson is remembered with a statue at the main entrance, and Robin Roberts, who pitched in Wilmington on his way to the Hall of Fame, has his number "36" on the right-center-field light stanchion.
BEER: Blue Rocks Amber Draft was excellent. You're going to need a good beer with all this food.
FOOD: You could stuff yourself at the Blue Moose Grille on the first-base side with a Buffalo chicken sandwich, popcorn chicken (regular or Buffalo flavor), Philly cheese steak, or jumbo hot dogs that are really jumbo. Top it off with funnel cakes with Oreos.
MUSIC AND SOUND: With many of the fans blowing off work on a Tuesday afternoon, the PA system plays the Seven Dwarfs singing "Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho, It's Off to Work We Go."
BILLBOARDS: Hardcore Composites is "leading the world in large scale composite structures," undoubtedly a great source of civic pride for Delawarians. Happy Harry's Discount Drug Stores has a drawing of a very, very happy Harry. Maybe Harry's getting into his own hard-core composites.
PROMOTIONS: It's hard to go to a Blue Rocks game without getting a freebie. Giveaway days include oven mitts, lunch bags, golf umbrellas, and checkbook covers, not to mention Mr. Celery caps, Mr. Celery baseballs, and Mr. Celery bobble-heads.
CONTESTS: Did we mention tossing plungers at a toilet? No one claimed this would be Masterpiece Theater.
MASCOT: There was a blue moose, but you can't beat the giant celery. You can even buy a Mr. Celery beanbag at the souvenir stand for $11.
WE'VE NEVER SEEN THAT BEFORE: The concession stand has an express line for season-ticket holders. Class warfare is overdue.
BEST NAME: The hitting coach is Terry Bradshaw. Sorry, wrong Terry Bradshaw.
Call (302) 888-2015 or visit www.bluerocks.com.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201