Everybody starts somewhere. For some, this is only a wayside en route to bigger, better things; for others, here is the journey’s end. Life exists here, passes through here, passes away here. In this edition of Nine Innings–yes, it’s still a thing–we examine baseball [and] life away from the bright lights and upper decks of the big leagues.
Fourth Inning – Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. — Matthew 7.14 [KJV]
Prior to this season, I had never been to a minor league baseball game.
I’m a 37-year-old man who loves baseball. The closest I had been to this was an independent ball game in Canada featuring the Winnipeg Goldeyes, when they still played in Winnipeg Stadium. The barest of minimums was done to retrofit the CFL field, the then-home of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, for the non-rectangular game. I don’t even remember the game or its outcome, aside from the fact that it 1) apparently took place, and 2) was extremely cold.
Saturday night, I took one of my daughters to Fox Cities Stadium for her first proper baseball game. The week prior, I had taken her sister to her first game–a lovely, warm spring day before rain came and washed things out in the middle innings. Saturday, we were treated to a balmy game-time temp of 38 degrees with the sun aggressively making its way toward the west. We were layered up and the breeze was largely blocked by the concourse, but hot chocolate only acts as antifreeze for so long. When the game ended, she joined the other kids that braved the elements in taking her lap around the diamond--‘she who endures to the end shall be safe at home’–and we went to grab dinner, frost-nipped faces notwithstanding.
I bought two April ballpark passes on a whim, mostly because they were incredibly affordable and I really wanted the Lorenzo Cain bobblehead given away at the Rattlers’ home opener. (It sits proudly at my desk in that perpetual lean-back swing.) I failed to factor in the fickle Midwestern weather; a cold spring has complicated our plans, baseball-related or otherwise. Thus far, I’ve been to three of four home games and the forecast looks promising for the T-Rats homestand later this month.
As a good Midwesterner, I plan to milk these passes for all their worth and then some. And I plan to take my kids along for the ride. God help us all when it comes to bringing my three-year-old boy.
This winter, my girls received a Christmas gift of dance lessons from their grandparents. For two months, we’d get up on Saturday mornings, one of us would truck the kids downtown to the studio and they’d get the basics of jazz, tap and ballet. They loved it, and we loved to watch them try their best.
On the second to last week, the other parents and I were invited into the studio to watch the students perform a short dance routine. It was clumsy, imprecise, off-beat and some completely forgot the moves they had just learned minutes before. It was also adorable, and I couldn’t have been more proud of my twins giving their best effort in what amounted to a recital.
The recital is often only enjoyable for the parent of the child performing. It’s always cute when it’s your kid doing the dancing or performing. Not so much with the others.
Low-A baseball is in no small part the same way. Fox Cities Stadium has banners along the outside of its mortar block facade featuring the major league ballplayers who had once paid their dues on its field. Mitch Haniger, Felix Hernandez, Orlando Arcia, LoCain. Current Brewers Top 30 prospects Aaron Ashby, Brice Turang and Je’Von Ward are all here, along with prospects and ballplayers of varying quality and upside. For guys like Ashby and Turang, Appleton will be in the rear-view mirror sooner than later, as their star rises, they’ll be off to Carolina, Biloxi, San Antonio, The Show.
For others, the road will end here, as baseball’s proving grounds reward the best and won’t hesitate to punish those who aren’t. Like expecting my daughters to spin pirouettes after two months of dance lessons, or expecting Mozart after a kid stumbles their way through ‘Hot Cross Buns’, the low-A game is often not art: the very-talented dominate, the less-talented struggle, lots of grounders, pop flies that land in the outfield. The games often move more quickly than at the highest level. As a result of this, great plays and good offense are things to truly behold and not to be taken for granted as they are on, say, Sunday Night Baseball. (Turang, for example, turned several pretty double plays in the field, while generally struggling at the plate.)
Minor league ball is perfect for instruction, and great to get kids exposed to the game. Both my girls can get sensory overload easily; the booming PAs and loud crowds of a big league ballpark would probably intimidate them, as opposed to the smaller, more intimate minor league fields where I can talk them through the game and we can play catch on the field before or run around the bases after.
Yes, minor league baseball (and the indies of varying stripes) is more for fun to paper over two unflattering realities:
That the baseball itself is often not good and wins and losses are secondary to player development;
And that we are watching stars shine, but we are in kind mostly watching careers–dreams of players and parents alike, years spent striving for the top–die in front of our eyes.
The minor leagues: Baseball’s recital.
None of that matters to the dozens of kids coming to the ballpark. And none of that should really matter to those of us who bring them. It’s baseball – despite the conditions and elements, I maintain that a bad day at a baseball game is better than a good day just about anywhere else. And despite the brooding, existential overtone, there should be joy for those who put on the uniform for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (or whatever minor/indie team is near your home): these men get the opportunity of which we paying customers could only dream, to do what they love and get paid for it. They may not make it to Milwaukee aside from driving 90 miles south on I-41, their road may take them through Appleton, but end in Double- or Triple-A. They may not have anyone but their grandparents covet their baseball card.
How else would they have the chance to play at the highest levels without being afforded the chance to play here? The difference between a dance studio and Radio City Music Hall is merely one of capacity. So, too, is it with the church sanctuary and the concert hall, the ballpark and Great American Ball Park. Journeys begin and end with the recitals that happen in the interim.
And they are that much more meaningful with those who choose to come along for the ride, come what may, from wet shoes to rosy cheeks. Base hits and broken dreams, they all happen here, because baseball is life itself.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.