It’s always the same. Every time the owners and players wage labor war, Johnny Sportswriter at the Daily Bugle rolls out a column lambasting the bigs and recommending that you take advantage of the affordable prices, motivated players, and small-town flavor of minor league ball.
Don't believe a word of it. Johnny Sportswriter doesn’t really want you to ditch the majors for the minor leagues. After all, he works the major league beat in a major league city. Johnny Sportswriter is just venting his frustration and inoculating himself against the pain of the forced hiatus that usually accompanies these owner-player dustups. Once he’s had time to clear his head, he’ll be back to stuffing himself at the press box buffet table and thanking his lucky stars he gets to watch the majors for a living.
But inevitably there will be people who take Johnny Sportswriter's advice more seriously than Johnny Sportswriter does himself. They boycott the big leagues, having convinced themselves that the minors are better than the real McCoy. Are they on to something? Do the bush leagues hold pleasures impossible to find at the big league level? Even though I live in a triple-A town, I had only been to one minor league game in the past ten years, and couldn’t answer with my usual brand of half-cocked certainty. So to find out whether the minors live up to their billing, I spent last Friday night watching the International League’s Columbus Clippers battle the Ottawa Lynx. I even took notes. What follows is the tale of the tape.
One of the biggest complaints about major league baseball is how expensive it is. By the time you pay for tickets, parking, hot dogs, pennants, shirts, big foam fingers, and beers #1-7, you’re out a mint. At Columbus’s Cooper Stadium, parking was $2 and box seats $ 8.50 (though I could have paid $ 5.00 general admission and snuck past the geriatric ushers into the good section pretty easily). The beer and the foam fingers were more in line with big league prices, but if you really wanted to rough it and do without the foam finger, you’d still come out with enough money for a sack of post-game sliders. Mmmmmmmm, gastro-intestinal distress . . .
Verdict: the minors.
One of the fictions spun by big league boycotters is that the minor league game is somehow more accessible and "closer to home." This may be true for the 22% of the population that lives in rural America, close to the Carolina Mudcats and the Tennessee Smokies of the world. But most people live in big cities, and most big cities either have major league baseball or are near it. As for accessibility, tell me, if you had to choose, would you rather be dropped in the middle of San Francisco and have to find your way to PacBell, or would you rather be dropped in the tobacco fields of Zebulon, North Carolina and have to find your way to Five County Stadium out on Highway 39? Would it help if I told you that it was banjo night at Five County?
As for Columbus, Cooper Stadium is located in the part of town where the leukemia rates are high and the check cashing businesses outnumber banks. Something tells me that if Columbus ever got itself a major league team, it wouldn’t be playing in the Appalachian ghetto that some locals refer to as "pig town." I’m not necessarily a fan of gentrification, but if I’m leaving a ballpark at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night with a few Miller High Lifes in me, I’d prefer not to be in a part of town where cabbies fear to tread.
Verdict: the majors.
On account of the increasing costs and corporate influence associated with the major league game, the chances of sitting next to an A-1 yuppie scumbag at a major league stadium are very good these days. I guess your feelings about this category will all come down to your tolerance for yuppie scumbags.
On Friday I sat next to a couple named John and Jamie. Both are students, with John holding down a full time job at the local Anheuser-Busch brewery to boot (did you know that employees are given two free cases each month as a part of their compensation package? I’m in the wrong line of work.). My intuition told me that Jamie would rather have spent her Friday night being wined and dined at Alana's than to be dragged out to a ballgame and listen to John sing the SportsCenter theme every time Drew Henson made a great stab at third. But she seemed like a good sport about it. In fact, the place seemed to be full of good people. Some borderline insane people like the lady behind who kept warning me that she’d "knock [my] ass over" if a foul ball came our way, but good people nonetheless. I liked it.
Verdict: the minors.
Fun! Fun! Fun!
As I’ve mentioned before, more and more major league teams have decided that the game on the field isn’t enough to hold the fans’ interest, so they've started turning the ballparks into carnivals, complete with merry-go-rounds, ferris wheels, and sideshows. This phenomenon is still pretty new in the majors, however, and there are still places like Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium where the game will always be king. The minors are a different story. Because they know that they're peddling second-rate talent, the minors have always been about showmanship and distraction.
Something other than baseball was happening every half-inning Friday night. There were pizza giveaways, shopping cart races, baseball bingo, scavenger hunts, winning seat numbers, and dash-for-cash events. Even worse, Friday night’s game had a theme: Animal House Night. In honor of this special occasion, the first pitch was thrown out by an apparently plastered member of some college’s Sigma Chi chapter. The pitch was high and outside, but I’ll cut him some slack considering he was wearing a toga.
Some would say that all this peripheral business is good because it encourages people who wouldn’t otherwise come – people with small children for example – to come out to the ballpark. I would say that it’s very bad because it encourages people who wouldn’t otherwise come – people with small children for example – to come out to the ballpark.
Verdict: the majors.
There isn’t a bad seat at Cooper Stadium, or most minor league parks for that matter, and even though I arrived ticketless an hour before game time, I managed to get a seat right behind the home team dugout. The great seats had their drawbacks, however. Even though I’ve read Ball Four and ought to know better, I'd always hoped that ballplayers were generally decent guys you wouldn't mind hanging out with. But sitting so close to the action, I got the "pleasure" of overhearing two Clippers discuss all the fine "tail" in the crowd that night. Classy. Still, this is really no contest.
Verdict: the minors.
The Actual Ballgame:
Minor league aficionados will try to convince you that minor league games are somehow more refreshing or uplifting, and that the guys in Richmond, Rochester, Pawtucket, and Columbus are more enjoyable to watch because they’re playing the game for the love of it rather than a paycheck. Right. Maybe there are some players in it for the sheer love of the game, but everyone I saw on the field Friday night would give his right arm for the minimum salaries, per diems and charter flights of the show. Anyone who'd tell you otherwise is lying. Now that we've got that little romantic conceit out of the way, let’s turn to the actual quality of play.
Ok, let’s not. No one would seriously argue that you’re seeing a better ballgame at Triple-A than you are in the majors. I mean no disrespect to the Columbus and Ottawa players I saw last Friday night, but with a scant few exceptions, hardly any of them will have a legitimate gripe if they don’t make it to the big leagues. It may be cruel to say that Columbus’s backup catcher Creighton Gubanich will never play for the parent club Yankees, but it’s the truth. What’s more, it’s a truth that Gubanich himself seemed well aware of as he flailed his way to an 0-4 night against Ottawa, cussing at the umpire and yelling at himself each time he took the walk back to the dugout. This wasn’t uplifting; this was kind of sad. Perhaps it’s better at the lower levels where everybody still thinks they have a chance, but even if the major leaguers hit the picket lines tomorrow, I would have a hard time watching the not so quiet desperation that is Triple-A baseball day in and day out. Maybe I’m too sensitive. Maybe Gubanich was the guy talking about all the tail at the ballpark that night and he gets his share of fulfillment from that and that alone. I just kind of doubt it.
Verdict: the majors.
So where does this all leave us? Tied 3-3 in my completely arbitrary categories. Perhaps there are a dozen better things about the minors that I’m not taking into account, and maybe watching millionaires argue with other millionaires in the majors is draining the life out of those of us who still care, but I’m the judge here and the judge has to make a decision. The majors get my nod in the tie-breaker. I enjoyed myself much more than I thought I would Friday night, but there’s no way I’d turn my back on the big leagues. The minors are called the minors for a reason. Johnny Sportswriter may flirt with abandoning the bigs for his small-town mistress when the news turns bleak, but he’ll be back. And with the exception of a few grudge-holding fans out there, so will the rest of us. We always have.