I am just back from the second annual Minor League baseball road trip. My brother and I started doing this as an excuse to get together and as a way to enjoy live baseball when our beloved Minnesota Twins are frankly hard to enjoy (48-60, and far out of contention).
So this year it was off to Iowa, on a winding journey of 900 miles. There were many diversions, many glimpses of America, but as to the actual baseball part of the trip...
First up was a Friday night game at the home park of the Clinton Lumber Kings.
We try to always walk to the ball park on these trips. Clinton is a town of 30,000 that has seen some economic hard times but is hanging in there. As we strolled up to the stadium it did not look to be a very big crowd attending, so the ticket lady said we could get some good seats.
"You want to be in the front row?"
We said sure, and asked if as VIPs there would be cold beer waiting for us there. She laughed and said that would cost us extra.
Excellent seats. We had to get our own beer but what a nice place to park them.
You see a different view of baseball from close up. Here for instance is a reminder that we are in the low Minors....
No way a player wears mended pants in "The Show".
There were about a thousand fans in attendance that night. And if our little section was any indicator they are serious fans. My brother sat next to an intent young woman keeping score. He can follow a game as closely as anyone. But once or twice she would correct him on some minor point, a late inning substitution and so forth. It was the only time she spoke with us. On the other hand, sitting right behind us was a genial pair of retired folks. He loved baseball and we carried on a long and often erudite conversation the whole game. His wife was less of a fan, he had brought her to the park for her 64th birthday. At the end of the game we all stood up and shook hands, something I had not encountered before but an excellent punctuation mark to an evening of shared experience.
A nice little park beside the river. Our local commentator told us that attendance was better back when the "gambling boat" was anchored a few hundred yards out past center field. They built a casino elsewhere and the boat, with its casual but probably free spending fans, went elsewhere. I also learned that about ten years ago they had a flood entirely inundate the park. It was necessary to excavate the field down 8 or 9 feet to repair the damage.
The score did not not matter to us, but for the record the Lumber Kings defeated the Beloit Snappers by 7-4. The quality of play was quite good. Much better in fact than we saw on last year's Road Trip. The Clinton manager got ejected from the game for his vociferous argument of a balk call late in the game. It was a Major League quality rant. Even the local fans had to admit that he was probably justified in his outrage.
Next up was a visit to Cedar Rapids. There we found the Kernels, who are the low A affiliate of the Twins. Generally we just cruise in and get whatever tickets are available, part of the point of this trip is being casual. But having noted an atypical start time I checked the Kernel's website that morning and noted that it was a special night. They were having a Beach Night/Jimmy Buffet theme. After the game there was to be a concert. And fireworks. Alarmingly they claimed it was Standing Room Only.
So I called the ticket office. A nice young lady said she could find us a couple of bleacher seats, or would we perhaps like to sit in a suite? One of these had not been reserved that night and they had just opened it up for individuals. We decided we could handle looking like big shots. Big shots who were staying in a faded motel that had cost us $48 bucks for the night!
The flamingo was part of the Beach Night theme.
The view from the Big Shot seats. This was as fans were filing in, they ended up with an announced crowd of over 5,000.
It is a different experience from these rarefied heights. Our "suite mates" hardly talked at all. We were sitting on the chairs out front of the enclosed area. I saw some kids who stayed back in the glassed in area behind us, twiddling with electronic devices. It was a long walk and an elevator ride down to get food and drink.
But a perfect evening for a game and it must be said, one very fine view. The Kernels alas had an off night. They did not look good at the plate, and were worse in the field. Four official errors. And two consecutive batters reached in what to a serious fan was an egregious bit of bad baseball. When an opposing batter lays down a good bunt it does not bode well for your team to have third baseman, pitcher and catcher all stand stock still like birds hypnotized by a snake. It almost seemed as if nobody knew what to do and they all feared looking foolish by trying. Well, there are reasons why these fellows are still in the low minors. Despite a last ditch rally the Kernels lost to the Quad City River Bandits 5-2. It should be noted that the Kernels are still in first place with the Bandits nipping at their heels.
Comparing the two experiences is difficult. Both were fun and we would/will certainly return. The Clinton game had more of a "Bull Durham" feel to it, but in part that may be because we had better information on the players. Who is on the way up, who is playing out the last days of a Minor career. I must say that neither park let the various gimmicks between innings - chicken tosses, silly races etc. - interfere with the Game. The food was OK at Clinton, sub-par in Cedar Rapids. The beer at both places was not up to Wisconsin standards. Parking was free, not that it mattered to us. We may have been the only pedestrians in attendance.
Fun. We are already starting to think about next year. Baseball is always about hope and renewal and continuity. I think making the trip earlier in the season was smart. Last year we went at the very tail end of summer and the quality of play was indifferent. This year you could see that there was still intensity in some player's eyes, they were still hoping to make that one great play when a scout was watching. Still hoping to get their chance to move up to The Show.
Buy me some Peanuts and Cracker Jack. And you can toss the shells anywhere you like.