Minor League Dreams, Major League Hearts

by Todd Hawley

In 2001 my priorities shifted away from baseball. Things like the bad economy (and lack of employment), soured relationships, and lousy playing by the Giants early on, among other thing,s got me too depressed to write much of anything. But I decided to take a break from my misery in mid-July, when I got a chance to see the "Junior Giants" (i.e., the San Jose Giants) play. I'd only ever seen one other minor league game, and that was a Sacramento River Cats' game at the Oakland Coliseum in 2000. It was actually quite fun and very intimate even in a big-league stadium. There were only a few thousand people there, and we all got to sit very close. I even got a chance before the game to watch the River Cats' starting pitcher warm up and, if I'd wanted to, I probably could have chatted with the coaches and players standing around.

Municipal Stadium in San Jose, home of the Junior Giants, is kind of the same way. Built in the early 1940s and only holding three or four thousand people at most, it too is a very intimate place. Before the game I partook of a huge barbecue they offered as I watched the Giants and their opponent, the San Bernadino Stampede, warm up before the game. And as I looked up in the sky every so often, I'd see a plane flying into San Jose Airport.

Before the game, the public address announcer hawked various sponsors and upcoming promotions, including a duct-tape night. After the National Anthem, both teams took the field and gave the crowd some fairly good baseball, especially considering that these were mostly guys in their late teens and early twenties and rather raw, talentwise. Yes, there was the occasional dropped fly and blown double play, but it still was enjoyable. You also realized these guys all had a dream of playing in The Show, but in all likelihood almost all of these players would fall far short of that goal. You also could tell these teams weren't making much money. Several players' batting helmets were held together with masking tape (or even duct tape).

Lenn Sakata, the ex-Orioles player, managed the Giants and also doubled as their third base coach. I suspect this is the custom in A-ball. There are also only two umpires, as opposed to four in the majors. But what struck me most about the game were the between-inning promotions. Things like kids racing around the bases, or a lawn mower race, or even a "smash the headlight off the van" promotion (which that night was won by the Giants' burly catcher). The guy sitting in front of me had played college ball as a catcher, and he pointed out that catchers tend to have stronger arms anyway. Apparently the catcher, as opposed to any pitcher, usually won that contest.

Alas, the Giants lost that night, but still it was a fun way to spend the evening. A couple weeks later I traveled over to Vacaville on a warm Tuesday evening to watch the Solano Steelheads (the Vacaville team) play the visiting Sonoma County Crushers in a Western League game. The Western League is an independent league consisting of players "that no one else wants." You course may remember, for instance, that Kevin Mitchell played (somewhat infamously) for the Crushers in 200. Last year Mitch was their hitting coach, and his cousin Keith Mitchell, another former major leaguer, played on the team. I arrived about 20 minutes before game time and spent 15 minutes trying to find the stadium (located behind where the Nut Tree Restaurant used to be), and with no signs anywhere, it was next to impossible to find. I managed to arrive early enough to see a little warmup before the game started.

Independent-league baseball quality varies. Some leagues are probably high-A level at best, and the Western League is somewhere between A and AA. There is some talent at this level. The Crushers' closer had recently been signed by the Yankees, for instance, and they had two Cuban refugees who most likely would get picked up by some major league organization for 2002, including that night's starter, who pitched four innings of no-hit ball before giving up a home run in the fifth, then getting hurt and coming out of the game. In his previous start he'd gone eight innings, giving up only two runs. Many others who have played in the independent leagues have gone on to play in the majors. Chad Zerbe played in the Western League, for example. As with the San Jose game, you could tell that the level of talent was nowhere near the majors -- dropped fly balls, outfielders overthrowing the cutoff man -- but still it was highly entertaining.

And again, while some of the promotions were hokey, they added to the game's enjoyment. However, I'm beginning to wonder if every minor league game plays "YMCA" by the Village People during some point: I heard it at this game, theSan Jose Giants gam,e and a Crushers home game I went to earlier in the season season.

Also, Vacaville's stadium is directly in front of the Solano County airport. You can see planes landing and taking off behind the eucalyptus trees beyond the stadium. And the airport beacon just in back of the right field fence seemed strange. I really felt like I was watching a minor league game in the Midwest or deep South, which actually was kind of cool:quite a difference from the view at Pac Bell. And when one of the Crushers hit a home run, after he finished running the bases, you heard a loud "Boo!" over the loudspeaker.

One other promotion at both games. At every game, a player on the other team is the designated "beer" or "beverage" batter. If they strike out, the price of beer or sodas are cut in half for 15 minutes. At the Steelheads-Crushers game it was quite warm and when the "beverage batter" struck out, I hightailed it back over to the concession stand so I could get a half-price soda.

I also got a chance to chat briefly with the Crushers owner, a nice man who implored me to come up to Rohnert Park to see a Crushers home game. I mentioned to him that I had called their office to ask about getting a couple schedules (I collect them). Interestingly, he replied that they get deluged with requests for schedules and that, being a team with limited funds, they found it difficult to meet the demand. He said the least fans could do was include a SASE with their request. To me this sounded quite reasonable. After all, this game drew maybe 1,000 fans, and I suspect the other teams draw about the same at their games. Not a lot of money to be made there. However, it was a nice, intimate crowd, and there was something nice about running into the same folk in the concession stands over and over. And the Crushers wound up winning the game.

I did manage to get up to see the Crushers' next-to-last home game in late August. They play in a stadium built in the early 1980s for the Angels' long-gone California League team. The Crushers chatted with fans and let them on the field to take pictures. I even talked briefly with a couple of opposing players on the Chico Heat -- not something you could ever do much of at a Giants' game. Again, lots of fun and between-inning promotions that are hokey as hell, but again they add to the overall experience. The Crushers have a great mascot who walks around the park during innings, clowning around and shaking hands with the fans. Although the game went on forever (almost 3-1/2 hours), it still was a blast, and, again, the Crushers won -- impressive considering that Chico is probably the best-un team in the league. And yes, they also played "YMCA" between innings. There was also a beverage batter at the Crushers game. He struck out, so I got a soda for 75 cents. (Yeah!)

While this level of professional ball is considerably different from a Giants game, it still is baseball and it still is fun. Frankly I think I'd much rather watch an indy-league game than an American League game, for example. It's spontaneous, it's intimate, and these are players who, while having virtually no chance of reaching the majors, still play hard and play to win. It's an enjoyable way to spend a summer evening. As I drove back home from these games I'd seen, I smiled at the chances I'd had to watch a different level of pro baseball. While the minor league regular seasons end every year after the Labor Day weekend (and the indy leagues a week or two before that), I'm looking forward to seeing more minor league games in the future.

Todd Hawley spent his wayward youth in the vast wasteland known as Southern California before realizing that his true calling in life was to live in the paradise of Northern California and root, however vainly, for the Giants. He is a freelance technical writer currently looking for work in this dot-comless economy and also writes online book reviews on Amazon.com. You can reach him at thawley@tdl.com.

Copyright © 2002 by Todd Hawley.

Last updated 3/3/02

E-mail Todd at thawley@tdl.com

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