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NATHANIEL WELCH

THE STADIUMS MAY BE SMALLER (AND THE SALARIES, TOO), BUT MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL IS HELPING AMERICA RECONNECT WITH ITS FAVORITE PASTIME.


WHEN I PLAYED on the University of Vermont (UVM) baseball team during my brief college career in the 1970s, Centennial Field was in ragged condition. The playing field was rutted and muddy most of the time, and the old grandstand was slowly falling to pieces, posing something of a health hazard to those who strolled by. Baseball in Vermont was at a low ebb; there was no professional team nor any real interest in the mediocre university squad, which had been downgraded from the varsity level. To call the crowds sparse would be an overstatement – the rickety stands were often empty when we took the field.

So it was a joy to return to this small baseball jewel in Burlington, on the shores of Lake Champlain, after a 30-year hiatus and find a nearly full house rooting for the Lake Monsters, the wonderfully named team that brings Class A Minor League Baseball to Vermont each summer. The turnaround is fantastic. The field itself is gorgeous, thanks in part to a new drainage system that’s strong enough to stand up to Vermont’s notorious mud season, and the historic stands have been fixed up without being altered or replaced, giving the field, which opened in 1906, a classic presence. The outfield walls – where I once banged a triple, my only extra-base hit in college – are filled with freshly painted advertisements for local businesses that want to be associated with the minor leagues and UVM baseball, once again a varsity sport.

Credit the revival of Minor League Baseball -- sparked in part by the movie Bull Durham and in part by the enduring charm of the game itself -- for the transformation and preservation of Centennial Field, one of the oldest parks still in use today, and for the construction of dozens of new baseball stadiums in midsize and smaller cities. Even as the major leagues are booming, garnering record attendance and television revenues, so are the minor leagues, whose fans are flocking to see their local favorites in ever-increasing numbers. The precision of the minor leagues’ play does not match that of the major leagues, but the passion does. And it doesn’t hurt that a night at a minor-league park costs far less than a trip to Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, or any other major-league venue.

“Minor League Baseball is one of the most popular attractions in America right now. Last year, it drew more than 45 million fans throughout the country, and I think a lot of it has to do with affordability,” says C.J. Knudsen, general manager of the Lake Monsters. “It’s tradition, it’s our history, and it’s fun to come out to the ballpark. You spend five bucks for a kid’s ticket and you catch a baseball game, and you’re guaranteed to get an autograph or a high five from one of the players. In our case, we’re fulfilling the needs of baseball fans in Vermont, upstate New York, and parts of Canada. The support is amazing.”

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NATHANIEL WELCH

Minor-league games have something of a carnival atmosphere: Team mascots work the crowd and entertain with between-innings shenanigans such as sack races, dancing contests, hula-hoop games, and sing-alongs. But the family-oriented frivolity masks the serious nature of the competition. This is where would-be major leaguers must prove themselves against others who may be just as good. The players with something special, with nearly superhuman skills and dedication, may move up and win multimillion-dollar contracts, but most will fall by the wayside, forced to start looking for a more conventional career after having spent several years chasing an elusive goal.

“The pressure they face is unbelievable, especially for the rookies in their first year of professional baseball,” says Knudsen, whose job duties have included filling ketchup dispensers and making sure the aging clubhouse is skunk-free. “They need to understand that this is their job, not a high school or college team. If they don’t perform well, they’re going to get fired. Everyone is trying to reach the majors, so the competition can get pretty fierce.”

Most of the players in the minors were superstars in high school and college but now find themselves playing against people of similar ability. Their managers, often retired major leaguers with distinguished careers and who themselves dream of managing in the big leagues, are looking for intangibles. Does sheer desire translate into patience and skill and self-improvement? Does the player explode in anger after an error or a strikeout and make the same mistake again and again? Does he hustle in the middle of a slump? And can his body hold up to the killer pace of playing day after day after day for a long season punctuated by bouncy bus rides, cheap food (meal money is about $18 per day), and a never-ending series of bland hotels?

Hollywood has romanticized baseball in movies such as Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams, but often, in the real world, Field of Broken Dreams would be more like it. This is particularly true for teams that have no formal affiliation with a major-league squad, like the Bridgeport Bluefish. Most of the Bluefish players are castoffs who’ve been let go by higher-level teams because of injury or poor play. The only true star is their manager, former major-league standout Tommy John, a crafty left-handed pitcher who won 288 games and who may still make it into the Hall of Fame. Watching the Bluefish take batting practice in the impressive new Harbor Yard stadium, a cornerstone in the plan to revive this aging New England city, John says each of the players is trying to convince major-league scouts that he deserves another shot at the big time.

“We’re a second-chance league,” says John, a friendly, still-fit, articulate man whose own long career depended on the second chance provided by the pioneering 1974 elbow-reconstruction surgery now known in medical journals as Tommy John surgery. “These are guys that played in affiliated baseball and were released for whatever reason and still think they can play. So our mission is to try to get them back into higher-level baseball. You make calls. Hopefully, a ball club like the Yankees or the Mets will say, ‘Gee whiz, we’re looking at this kid; he can help.’ The Yankees signed one of our players before he ever threw a pitch for us.”

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NATHANIEL WELCH

The players learn the fundamentals here, and they are also taught to respect, and cultivate, the fans. Many major-league players have become aloof over the years, insulated by their agents and by their million-dollar deals, but minor-league players realize they have to reach out to each and every paying customer. John says this is particularly true for independent teams, like the Bluefish, that have to pay their player salaries without help from a wealthy major-league organization. Many in the stands are young boys and girls learning about the game, and minor leaguers are taught to do everything they can to make these visits the start of a lifelong baseball habit.

“We try to accommodate the fans,” says John, who has been in the game more than 50 years. “After the games on Sunday, we stay out on the field and sign autographs for half an hour. Kids run the bases, we line up in the dugout, and they can come in and talk and get autographs. You have to do things differently here -- you really have to promote it, because you’ve put these guys out on the field and a lot of people have never heard of them, so you have to make the players more personable to the fans.”

The strategy seems to be working, judging from the constant stream of fans pushing through turnstiles. Many of those attending say they have come to prefer bush-league ball to the glitzier major-league games.

“I’m hooked on Minor League Baseball,” says Garrett Starasinic, as he stands in line to buy a $2 hot dog at Dodd Stadium in Norwich, Connecticut, where the Connecticut Defenders play. “It’s an amazing sport, and the fans are great. It’s very community-oriented, and you’ve got a close-knit group of people who rally behind the local team. It’s more down-to-earth than the major leagues. It’s nice to see all the fans out here. There are a lot of good players out there -- it’s such a step up from high school and college -- and it’s a privilege to be able to watch them on the way up.”