Posted by: Ryan | September 9, 2010

Winterlong

It pains me to tag this post as an “Off-Season Essay,” but that’s what it is, since all of the minor league seasons ended the first week in September, except for the few clubs hosting playoff games that only matter to their hometown fans.

Although I’ll blog intermittently throughout the fall and winter, it feels important to wrap up my summertime experience, the way Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien wrap up the Red Sox games at 10:15 or 10:30 every night.

Of course, you’ll get the best taste of what I saw and felt by reading through my various essays from the games, and by taking a look at the many photos I took this summer. But here’s a quick rundown of the highlights, to perhaps guide you on your own exploration of minor league parks *next* summer. Or to help you through the fall and winter, through those long months before Pitchers and Catchers.

Best Overall Experience

The second game I attended in Reading in early July was a beauty. What more could one expect? A brisk, well-pitched game (2-0) that featured a home run by Reading’s starting pitcher. Sure, I got mustard on my pants, but I also nabbed a foul ball, and was out walking the tree-lined streets at 9:15, giving me plenty of time to listen to the Phillies on the car radio as I drove to my father’s house, 45 minutes south. I’ll think of that evening on a dark December night, when I need a reminder that this white winter world is only temporary, and one day I will again ascend the steps of the stadium and see the players in white and red uniforms stretching on the green grass.

Best Glimpse of a Future Major Leaguer

I followed Domonic Brown around the Northeast this summer (and yes, I am spelling his name correctly). I saw him in Manchester in early May, in Reading in late May, and would have seen him in Scranton in early July, if he wasn’t off at the Futures Game over the All-Star break, a game held to showcase up-and-coming talents. The other night I saw him pinch-hit for the major league Phillies on MLBtv.com. He tapped weakly to second, but in his lithe, coiled frame, you could sense his promise, and in his waggling black bat, you could understand his menace. At the first game I saw this summer, in Manchester, he went three-for-five, and briefly put the R-Phils ahead with a grand slam that was still rising when it hit the scoreboard in dead-center. At each of the three Manchester games I saw after that evening, I looked at the scoreboard, then looked at its distance from home plate, and knew that I had seen something, and someone, special.

Best Merchandise

I’ve railed enough against The American Way in this blog, that perhaps you’re surprised that I care about T-shirt and hats. But I do. I bought a shirt at each of my top-rated ballparks (Reading, Portland, Pawtucket, and Vermont), and threw in a Fisher Cats’ shirt for good measure, as well as a Pawtucket hat. Portland had the best souvenir stand, and I had a hard time choosing between a lime-green hoodie and a Perros Del Mar shirt in Spanish. Given the Dominicans in the crowd, I chose the camisa en Espanol (even though it should have read Los Perros Del Mar). The woman behind the counter even let me try it on before I handed over my 20 bucks.

Best Food

No real winner here, as I didn’t eat anything memorable at any of the 10 parks I visited (and believe me, I tried). Momo’s Barbecue in Harrisburg gave me a very nice beef brisket sandwich. I would have been disappointed had I received it in a restaurant, but among the calvacade of fries and chicken tenders at the other parks, it receives special note. By the end of the summer, I was considering eating each evening *before* entering a stadium.

Saddest Thing Witnessed

You sit very close to the action at most of these minor league stadiums. The proximity giveth, and the proximity taketh away. At the second game I saw in Portland, a woman sitting about ten rows behind the third-base dugout got nailed in the eye socket by a screaming foul liner. The crowd let out a concerned, sickened, “ooh” after the ball hit her, then immediately hushed. The EMTs led her out, and she waved to show that she was OK, but I’m sure they took her to the emergency room. I hope that she’s OK today, and I also hope that someday she’ll return to Hadlock Field.

Funniest Thing Witnessed

The second game I saw in Reading moved along so quickly that we were in the top of the ninth at 9:00, a little less than two hours after the game started. Soon the R-Phils had gotten two outs. At that point, a family filed in and settled into the row ahead of me: Mom, Dad, and two little girls. The girls held held ice cream cones, and had their kinky hair tied up in those elastics with colored plastic balls at the ends.

The father exhaled as he sat down, then said, “Wow!” as the batter grounded to second. I suppose he was blown away at how close they were to the action. A quick flip to first, and the ballgame was over.

The man turned to me. “It’s over?”

I nodded.

“That’s it?” He turned to his wife, who buried her head in her hands and said, “We’ve been driving around and around, looking for this place.”

I gathered my things as he repeated, “The ballgame is over?”

“Yeah. Sorry, man.”

He leaned back in his chair and sighed, as his wife started to laugh. In a moment, they’d walk past the same usher they had given their tickets to five minutes earlier. They literally saw one pitch. Factor in ice cream, gasoline, and that’s a pretty expensive pitch.

Ballparks I’ll Visit Next Year

I’m sure I’ll get to Manchester a couple of times. It’s sort of my default park, a solid B option. But I’ve decided that I need to visit Reading at least once a summer. And maybe next year I’ll take a weekend in Pawtucket instead of going to my usual two or three games at Fenway. Portland would be fun to visit again. And really, Binghamton wasn’t that bad, and it’s kind of on the way to my Dad’s house in Lancaster. As long as we’re heading down I-81, we could stop in at Scranton. And Harrisburg is a short drive from Lancaster, too, and there’s a whole *bunch* of minor league teams in Maryland…

It should be another good summer.

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