MINOR SUMMER - SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
There’s something utterly blissful about a warm summer evening. It can wash away the misery of a scorching day, and cast a spell of sweet amnesia, as if the withering heat of a July or August afternoon were just a mirage. For me, after-sundown temps in the 80s, plus a night at the ballpark, equals a seasonal treat right up there with Sno Cones and water slides.
To clarify: I’m talking minor league baseball, a fantastic bargain for our recessionary times. Where $20 buys you a great seat—generally, these cozy fields have no bad seats—with cash left over for parking, a hot dog and soda.
Each September 1, major league teams expand their rosters from 25 players to 40 for the final month of the season, calling up their top minor league prospects. That’s why minor league clubs wrap up their seasons by Labor Day. In Southern California, five teams play Single-A ball: the Lancaster JetHawks, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, Lake Elsinore Storm, Inland Empire 66ers and High Desert Mavericks.
Only 16 miles separate the 66ers’ San Manuel Stadium (named for a local Indian tribe) from the Quakes’ home turf, The Epicenter. (I refuse to call it Loan Mart Field, after a cash-advance company that bought the stadium’s naming rights). A 40-mile drive south from The Epicenter takes you to The Diamond, home of the Storm.
At minor league games, quirky and silly are the default settings. The modus operandi is a love of the game, of players walking along the railing to sign little kids’ baseballs and programs and hats. How old-fashioned. How homespun. Yes, please!
Who can take themselves too seriously wearing a uniform with Isotopes, Lugnuts, Sand Gnats or Mud Hens stitched across the front? Offbeat team names are a hallmark of the minor leagues, and imagination and ingenuity make up for teams’ shoestring budgets.
Take the late-August Sunday when my husband and I watched Lake Elsinore battle the Modesto Nuts. Between innings, a “flying squirrel” races a boy from one foul pole to the other. The mascot, Ace, gives the kid a right field-to-center field head start—and then blazes past him to the left-field finish line. It’s so hot that Storm players stand under a dugout water mister; meanwhile a guy in a furry costume refuses to give a cute kid a pity victory.
Storm promotions make games an affordable family outing: Margarita Mondays, Two For One Tuesdays, Wacky Weenie Wednesdays, Thirsty Thursdays—something for everyone! The Diamond also bills itself as a Green Stadium. As a recycling pitch plays on the scoreboard screen, a Storm worker collects fans’ empty soda and water bottles. Bravo!
The Storm lost, but the youngest fans seem unfazed as they line up behind the visitors’ dugout. The players have cleared the field, and now the base paths belong to the kids. They dash to first, round second base and then third, and finally stomp on home plate, proud parents recording the whole trip on cell-phone video. Nine innings of pent-up, sugar-rush energy released in one lap around the infield. That’s the sort of simple, no-cost tradition that defines the minor leagues. Ingenious! Now the little buggers will sleep on the ride home.
The gleeful ritual is repeated September 1 at The Epicenter, after the Quakes clinch a playoff spot with an extra-innings offensive flourish. Team mascot Aftershock, a green dinosaur, joins at least 200 kids running the bases after the final pitch.
It’s Labor Day weekend, and Dodger Matt Kemp is the big attraction. Fans line up outside the Epicenter locker room, hoping he’ll sign autographs after the game. The Los Angeles centerfielder, nursing an injured ankle, was serving a rehab assignment with the Quakes. A banner on the left-field wall reminds fans that they’re in “Dodgertown Rancho Cucamonga.”
Fan participation is an essential ingredient at minor league games, and we’re not just talking about the time-honored “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the Seventh-Inning Stretch. Be prepared not only to spell out “Y-M-C-A” but also to “Cha Cha Slide,” DJ Casper’s hip-hop tutorial with the signature “Everybody clap your hands” lyric.
At minor league parks, the food is as good as the sight lines. I gobbled the three-taco plate at Quakes Cantina next to right field, where a cluster of tables lets you dine while watching the game. The menu at Hot Corner Grille next to left field features bratwurst and, of course, Dodger Dogs.
A few days later, the Quakes travel to San Bernardino for a California League playoff game against the 66ers. San Manuel Stadium is an oasis in an otherwise dodgy downtown neighborhood. This working-class city declared bankruptcy in 2012; it’s nice that baseball gives the local economy a little boost.
In the fourth inning, newcomers in the crowd find out the meaning of those “Sound the Horn” stadium banners: a train whistle blares when 66er Michael Snyder smacks a home run. Next comes an only-in-the-minors moment: We’re passing the hat, the public-address guy announces. Fans drop dollar bills into a cap, a sweet reward for tonight’s slugger. In the bottom of the sixth, the press-box guys give a boy the microphone to be guest announcer. He introduces 66er batters with impeccable delivery and pronunciation.
Just when I think minor league baseball exists in some nostalgic parallel universe, I’m reminded these guys belong to the 21st century and the social media generation. As each 66er comes to bat, the scoreboard displays his photo, uniform number, position, batting average—and Twitter address. Want to follow shortstop Eric Stamets? Go to @Ezdoezit8 for his every tweet.
Most minor league players will never make The Show. But damn if this isn’t the best job a guy in his 20s could hope for. An age when his peers are in college, serving a couple tours in the military, maybe toiling at a fast-food joint. These athletes play for little more than meal money, and during the off-season, must earn a paycheck some other way.
Eventually, they’ll have to take up another occupation to carry them through to their AARP years. But for now, relishing the camaraderie of the dugout and the tour bus, they’re the Boys of Summer.
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Mary Schubert Bender is a lifelong Californian and 22-year newspaper reporter. Favorite pastimes include her beloved dogs, cycling on rail-trails, skiing on medium slopes, swimming, web site design and exploring off the beaten path, camera and notebook in tow. She also loves college baseball. Go Titans! Her blog, Ink-Stained Wretch, can be found at bentshoe62.tumblr.com.