As the days get longer and warmer and one wanders about outside more often it is reminiscent why baseball is great. While football has pretty much taken the top spot these days as America’s pastime, there is nothing like a game of catch, the sound of the crack of a bat and the wonderment of what made baseball still so popular to this day.
Baseball pretty much signals not only warm weather, it signals vacation and for kids of all ages no school for a little while. While football is my favorite sport and has been since I learned to walk, there’s nothing quite like playing the game. Lazy afternoons, humid evenings and the stereotypical mom’s apple pie – that’s why I loved to play baseball and watch it to a somewhat lesser degree. Football’s great, but the beginning of the season signals a new school year, cooler temperatures and a much more divided fan base. I love football season, but I hate the end of summer it signifies. And now with modern technology and it’s a 12-month season and I can’t get away from it. Baseball signified spring and summer, football the fall and basketball the winter. Sometimes I would throw in hockey or wrestling or some other sport – that was the way I defined my seasons – not in the traditional way like everyone else.
As much as I loved playing baseball, it has become brutal to watch at times. Unlike football when all 11 players on each side are crucial to the outcome of every particular play, baseball is basically a game of catch with someone with a large stick trying to interfere. That’s when the other seven players on the field become involved. Unless someone gets on base the odds are usually nine against one. At best the odds are nine against four.
Watching baseball requires stamina and discipline. A celebrated no-hitter means no one got on base, thus a long boring affair to the casual fan – which most sports are to be honest. Football, basketball, hockey all have something going on at all times. In baseball the less action the better. A pitcher that strikes out a batter has one that swings and misses three times. No action unless the ball is in play. In football and basketball the ball is in play on every play – it is the center of everyone’s attention. Hits, runs and errors make the game of baseball exciting to the casual fan – and often uneasy for the hardcore fan depending on which side they’re on. Granted, no-hitters are all historical and everyone will get lost in the moment when one is going on. And when the no-hit bid is broken fans from both sides will warmly applaud the pitcher for his (or her) effort.
Baseball is also the original fantasy sport. There are so many stats, categories and hallowed records. Before the “steroid” era Roger Maris’ home run record of 61 was marked in record books with an asterisk. Why? Because his era played 162 games and Babe Ruth – the original home run king’s era played in 154 games a year. It’s the only sport if you only get a hit three out of ten times you’re considered an all-star.
That being said there is no visible time clock at a baseball game. Most are played for nine innings and you play until there is an actual winner and loser with not ties – unless you played in the MLB All-Star Game a few years back, but that’s another story for another time. Games can go as quickly as 90 minutes to over four hours depending on Mother Nature, lack of offense or defense and media timeouts. You can usually figure the actual amount of action in a baseball game to clock in well under 20 minutes of a three-hour game.
That being said, one does not have to pay attention the whole time. Whether the majors or a minor league (farm) team the experience of attending a game can be a lot of fun. The movie “Bull Durham” gives a relatively accurate portrayal of minor league baseball. There are a lot of dreams both realized and shattered on the baseball diamond with more than a fair share of quirky personalities. Personally I have covered minor league baseball since the 2000 season. And while hundreds of names haves have come and gone over the years in front of me, as well as a lot of “bad” baseball, I’ve seen more than my fair share of now major leaguers. I’ve gotten to hangout with everyone from a 19-yaer-old Prince Fielder to then 19-year-old Cincinnati Reds hurler Homer Bailey, seen everyone from the Upton brothers, Evan Longoria, Freddie Freeman, Joey Votto – you name it, if they came through the Southern League I’ve had a chance to see them in person.
And in this era many of the sons of major leaguers I grew up watching –I’ve seen their sons and talked with a few of them. I’ve met men like Tony Pena, Jr., Tony Guinn, Jr., the aforementioned Prince Fielder, whose dad is Cecil, Aaron Herr (dad Tommy). If you look at a roster during any given season there will be names you recognize for their famous dad – some succeed like Fielder while others don’t (Pete Rose, Jr.). So there is something quirky like that to entertain yourself.
Living in a medium-sized media market has its drawbacks as well as its perks. Where I live we will never have a pro football team, a major league baseball franchise or an NBA team. We are close enough to a major market (Atlanta) where in a drive of less than two hours I can see NFL, MLB and NBA games. Being where I am I can often get to the venue that residents of the city because of traffic. Over the years I have gotten this down to a science. What my city does offer is rugby, soccer, FCS college sports and a AA affiliate to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Before the Dodgers came to town the Reds called my town home for 20 years.
Going to a minor league game is unlike any other beast. Bargains are still to be had with tickets as low as $4 to all sorts of promotions with giveaways as wide as varied as umbrellas to used cars. And the food, while it isn’t the greatest doesn’t cost an arm and a leg like it does at Braves and Falcons games. And attending a minor league game…
Attending a minor league baseball game is like attending one of the largest cocktail parties you’ll ever attend. Because of the slow nature of the game there are groups of people sitting together and socializing. If a little action breaks out of the field, so be it. Since 2000 I have made more friends than I ever did in college and during my fraternity days. After a while it’s like Cheers – everyone knows your name. I met two of my dearest friends while covering the Chattanooga Lookouts. One is a now retired veterinarian whom I swear everyone at some point took their pet to – including me. “Doc” as we affectionately call him moved to town about 30 years ago and is a big baseball fan. He’s been a season ticket holder since he arrived in Chattanooga. His partner in crime is a gentleman by the name of Corky, a retired bondsman with more stories about the workings of local government than anyone I know. Every night game they hold court along the third base concourse. Everyone knows them – or they want to, at least. I’ve learned more and laughed harder than ever by having the opportunity to hang out with these two.
And like I said, everyone has taken their pet to see ole Doc. Hanging out with Doc is a chance to do real networking. He’s introduced me to a number of bigwigs – heads of surgery at local hospitals to owners of big business – you name it they know Doc and he’ll go out of his way to introduce you so you can make a business or even a social contact. Until he retired from his practice a couple of years ago e very game I witnessed someone shaking his hand and thanking him for being a great vet. It didn’t matter how old, rich, poor of color they were they were and still are glad to see Doc although he no longer has to answer any pet care questions.
Over the years I’ve seen more business deals done over a Lookouts game over a microbrew beer and some peanuts than what I’ve seen at Fortune 500 companies – and I’ve seen a few. That’s one of the great things about minor league baseball.
This season has been a little rough for some local baseball fans. As the All-Star game approaches next week the Lookouts are in last place, which is not conducive for business. But after all, it is the minor leagues. A number of years ago I was befriended by a scout for the Atlanta Braves. I had given him a tip of a restaurant to eat when he got in to town and he loved it. He always made a point to stop by and say hello to me when he came into the press box. One particular evening we were in an extended rain delay and we started talking shop. I noted that the AA affiliate for the Braves was not having a good season when he told me this revelation. The Braves did not look at win-loss records in their minor league team. The team’s job is to coach and teach these guys how to play their position, how to handle a bat and so on, so when (and if) they make it to the major leagues they’ll be ready to play. Winning is much more important at the major league level. And that’s something the Braves know more about than most teams as they haven’t had a losing record since 1990, a stretch that included on World Series title and 14 straight post season appearances. There’s something to be said about this strategy.
The major leagues are a professionally run machine that keeps a certain amount of decorum. Things are a little looser in the minors – and that is part of the charm of it. Even the managers have entertaining names like Razor and Jayhawk for example.
And a manager with personality is worth his weight in gold and I wish front office executives would pay heed. Let’s look at one Phillip Wellman for example. Even the most casual of baseball fans know of Wellman – or at least his blowup that was a YouTube sensation in 2007. The incident happened at AT&T Field in Chattanooga when the Braves faced the Lookouts. Protesting the ejection of his pitcher Wellman went on a long tirade that started with him covering home plate with dirt and then drawing a larger home plate since he thought the umpires were liberal with their strike zone. He then started uprooting bases then crawled on his belly like a soldier in combat. Grabbing a rosin bag he pretended to “pull the pin” and hurl the bag at home plate as if it were a grenade. He then stormed into the outfield and “ejected” the umpires. As he got to the wall here the exit door was he blew a kiss to the crowd and bowed. Wellman received a standing ovation. The league gave him a three-day suspension. Talking heads on ESPN talked about that being the end of his career, but it wasn’t. This season he is the AA manager for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s affiliate. Wellman had a long tenure with the Braves dating back to the early ‘90s and a brief tenure as manager of the Chattanooga Lookouts, then affiliated with Cincinnati.
Wellman may have taken his prompt from Razor Shines. Shines is currently the manager of the Chattanooga Lookouts, Wellman’s old team. Shines managed in the Southern League ten years ago for three seasons with the Birmingham Barons, the AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. A number of the players Shines coached in Birmingham were part of the ’05 White Sox team that won the pennant. Shines is another example of why I like attending minor league baseball games. The team may be bad some years but a personality like Shines only comes around so often. Shines has this intense look on his face while he’s managing. He reminds me of Louis Gossett, Jr. in “An Officer and A Gentleman”. On a handful of occasions I’ve seen him come out of the bullpen to dispute a call. It was nothing like Wellman’s blowup, but it was picture worthy. We used to cheer him to come out of the dugout to raise hell. When he did cameras started clicking.
Razor Shines is without a doubt one of the greatest things about baseball. Animated at times, stern at others, you know he knows his business and is looking for the best for his team. I wish all coaches were like that. He smiles more these days than I remember from the past but that fire is still there. I hope the Dodgers realize what a gem they have with Shines in their organization. Both Shines and Wellman are what make baseball great.
You rarely see emotion the way these guys have it. I wonder if they are dismissed for being so animated and gregarious. Baseball being the grand ole game with tons of tradition doesn’t realize what they’re missing out on by these two larger than life personalities not being offered a chance at managing a big league club.
Too emotional? Maybe so that’s a good thing, though. Remember Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame Manager Bobby Cox? He holds the record for most ejections as a manager. What does that mean? Unprofessional? Not at all. It is a motivating factor for his team. By his ejections Cox was fighting for his team and his guys – not after ego gratification. And the team often responded, lest we forget 14 consecutive division championships and one World Series title. Baseball will I hope realize this and look at guys like Phillip Wellman and Razor Shines to lead their men into battle in the coming years to come at the big show. And those of us watching these guys in our hometowns, enjoy them and their enthusiasm for the game. I wish everyone was enthused about what they do like these guys. After all these are many of the joys of summer.
– Dave Weinthal
Enigma's mobile Concert Calendar!