Last week, while I was traveling with my father, I received an e-mail from the Birmingham Barons. They had noticed my web page and were inviting me to come to Birmingham and throw out the first pitch at a Barons game. Obviously, throwing out the first pitch at a game would be a dream come true -- and I hadn't been able to attend a minor league game yet during my travels. So, I re-arranged my plans and worked it out so I could be in Birmingham on Friday afternoon.
Rachel and I got up around 7:00am so I could call the Plymouth dealership where my van had been towed the previous night. When I spoke to the chief mechanic (who had aslo driven the car earlier in the morning) he said there was nothing wrong with the car. A few hours later, after some more tests, he re-affirmed his position and handed us back the car at no charge. On the way to Birmingham, Rachel and I stopped and had everything on the car tuned, tightened, lubed, changed or cleaned (by a very nice gentelman named Max, originally from the Boston area). It was a precautionary measure, in case the car decided to act up again.
Hoover Metropolitan Stadium is located at the very end of a picturesque wooded drive in Birmingham, AL. Capable of seating only 10,000 fans, the park is quaint compared to the stadiums in the big leagues, but full of life and color. Believe it or not, the stadium is a multi-use facility (owned by the City of Hoover but operated by the Barons organization) and the beginning of the school year brings the local high school football team to the field for competetition. Parking lots surround the facility and right down the road a beautiful living community is under construction. It is a neighborhood attraction in the making.
As you walk around the outside of the stadium you have no trouble finding the entrance or areas to purchase tickets -- there is only one of each. If you walk into the Barons' offices you are greeted by several pleasant women who put their calls on hold to answer your questions and direct you around the park. And, fans gathering in front of the park before the game are more than happy to tell you about the history of the team, the stadium (which was only built ten years ago to replace Rickwood Stadium, the oldest park in th e history of baseball) and anything you would ever want to know about Alabama.
Once inside the park, you are immediately strucky by how simple and beautiful the ballpark is. Seats stretch around between the foul poles on only one level (box seats for the first ten rows and bench seating for the remaining rows) with a second level behind the bench seats holding twelve individual luxury suites. There are no obstructed views in the park, no ticket costs more than $6, and no seat is more than 100 feet from the field. There is a patio style restaurant off of third base (behind the seats) that seats and serves close to 1500 fans on one evening. A picnic area beyond the right field seats offers fans a chance to enjoy an outdoor (or covered) picnic while watching the game. And, fans who are interested can sit on the grass down the right and left field lines to watch the game.
Everything in the park is sponsored -- a necessity if the team is going to generate enough revenue to operate on a daily basis. The outfield wall is constructed of billboard advertisements -- stretching around in two levels and extening out at 340 feet in the corners and 405 feet to center field. A new scoreboard sits in right center field -- complete with a action screen displaying player statistics and other important messages. Even the tops of the dugouts have advertisements (the visitors are sponsored by Kleenex while the home dugout is sponsored by Revco and Huggies). Combined with the colors of the field -- which is beautifully manicured (more so than many major league ballparks) it creates quite a colorful backdrop for a ballgame.
Batting practice was cancelled because of a steady downpour. When the rain finally began to subside and the tarp was being removed from the field, Rachel and I walked down and stood outside the Barons' dugout -- hoping to get a feeling for what the players go through as a pre-game ritual. Instead, we ended up in a conversation with the local television camera man about the trip and the differences between major league baseball and minor league baseball.
The husband and wife team (along with their daughter) who were setting up the camera on the first base side were big baseball fans -- and Barons' fans in particular. The woman is a local of Alabama while her husband came all the way from Long Island, NY. Both agreed that Minor League Baseball was more fan-friendly than the big leagues explaining that "... several players will come and sit right here [pointing to the corner of the dugout just inside the stands] and spend an hour signing autographs for all the children in the park -- you don't see that in the majors."
As the finishing touches were being put on the field (lines painted, bases delivered) Rachel and I walked down the tunnel behind the plate and towards the press box. We were met in the stairs by Dan Evans, Assistant General Manager for the Chicago White Sox, who I had met and toured Comiskey Park with back on July 5th. He recognized me, asked how the trip was going, and we talked for a few minutes about some of the better moments on the journey. He invited me to come and see him at his seats behind home plate and wished me luck as he ran into the locker room to grab a towel.
The managment of a minor league team is nothing like that of a major league team. First of all, the minor league team is only responsible for the things that are "outside of the white lines" because the players are provided by the big league club (in the Barons' case, by the Chicago White Sox). Simply, from the making and selling of the hot dogs to the fixing of a leaky faucet in a stadium bathroom, to the promotional item being distributed to the fans -- the front office folks are in charge. However, unlike a major league club, the Barons only have a dozen or so employees to accomplish all of those duties.
When we arrived at the ballpark I was met by Chris Jenkins the (self proclaimed) "Director of Crap" for the Barons. Mr. Jenkins had sent me an e-mail about a week ago inviting me to Birmingham for a visit and offering me the chance to throw out the first pitch. He gave us a tour of the stadium, arranged for a meeting with the Barons President and General Manager, and answered all the questions we had about the stadium, team and general running of the ballpark. Unfortunately, because it was raining quite heavily when we arrived, Mr. Jenkins had to help pull the tarp onto the field.
After lunch and a visit to the largest mall in the state of Alabama (no kidding), Rachel and I sat down with Bill Hardekopf, the President and General Manger of the Barons. After he explained how minor league baseball management compares to management in the big leagues (the partnership where the major league club provides the players while the minor league club takes care of everything else) we tried to compare the attitudes between the two leagues. Mr. Hardekopf explained that the Minor Leagues focus more on the fans than the "bottom line" creating an atmosphere where fans want to come to the games to see the team play. He added that "if you asked all the fans as they left the park. . . most of them wouldn't be able to tell you who won, but all would say they had a great time at the ballpark."
The conversation continued on a similar track but shifted focus to the attitudes of the people who work for the minor league teams. I asked if he, or any of the people working for the Barons, would want the "call to the majors". After acknowledging that one of the frustrating things about the minors is that the best players -- once they have proven their talents -- are brought up the big leagues, but said "I wouldn't give up my job for anything -- and I know there are probably 50,000 people in this town who would want to take it -- that's how much fun we having being this close to the game." As our conversation neared an end, Mr. Hardekopf, who had been watching the weather channel during our conversation inquired about some of my findings on the trip. After I explained the reaction of the fans to some of the proposed changes -- and how I worried that the "game" of baseball might get lost in the shuffle, he said simply, "baseball is still alive in the minor leagues," and we ended at that.
The press box at "the Met" is more than just a media headquarters -- it is the scoreboard operations room, a television camera studio, the public address announcers residence, and the dining room for the employees of the Barons. As the fans are filing through the gates, the Barons staff (who on this night had just come from putting the tarp back on the field) gather to eat a hearty meal (on this night there were hamburgers, biscuits, several different types of hot and cold vegetables, and five different varieties of fresh pie) and talk about the various activities for the night. As soon as they finish, the staff is dispatched to the field area where they will run the rest of the night's activities.
During the game, the press box also acts as the headquarters for all stadium entertainment and announcements. The guys opertaing the scoreboard and musical system announce the various prizes and contests and then make predictions and comments about the winners. On occasion, it is even their duty to choose the winner of a contest (such as the twist contest for free hot pretzels) so all of the folks shout out their choice for the winner until a concessus is found. On this night, most of the guys were watching the Seattle Mariners battle the Chicago White Sox on television (Randy Johnson struck out 19 and held the White Sox scoreless -- much to the dismay of the press box patrons). Of course, as the action got heated in the late innings the press box residents were forced to choose appropriate sound effects and music to accompany the game's action (train whistles for Barons runs and "Welcome Back Kotter" theme song for the return of Todd Worrell to the ballpark). All in all, it was almost like a little game they played with the folks in the park.
The food at Hoover Metropolitan Field is surprisingly similar to that of a major league ballpark -- with the one possible exception that is is owned a operated by the same folks in the front office who are selling tickets, pulling the tarp on and off the field, and running the scoreboards. There are hot dogs, pizza, popcorn, peanuts, and soda -- all at prices that rival those of small import car. A gourmet pretzel stand, fresh-squeezed lemondade area, microbrew dispenser, and ice cream area are the highlights at the park (each is centrally located near the park's one entrance so fans have little choice but to patronize). Of course, if the fans take their seats before eating, they will have to get up and find the food stand on their own because there aren't enough employees to have food delivered or sold in the seating sections.
Because I was scheduled to throw out the first pitch before the game, I was too nervous to eat any of the food in the park. I had a late lunch at one of the local restaurants and snacked on biscuits in the press box, but my stomach was not interested in anything but tossing and turning. The fans who did choose to purchase food -- and that includes almost everyone who was not receiving catered food (barbecue chicken and cookies) as a part of one of the visiting church groups -- seemed particularly enamored by the hot dogs and popcorn. There was not a lot of beer consumption, and I only saw one plate of nachos in the whole park. Rachel went in search of dinner during the seventh inning and returned with a tasty looking piece of pizza -- which, while smiling wildly, she explained she had received for free because the vendor had "taken a liking to [me]." Otherwise, it was a pretty standard fare.
Minor League Baseball is more fun to watch than the big leagues. It is as simple as that. The play is not as good, the players not as well known (if known at all) but the effort is noticeable and the environment very entertaining. And, for the most part the fans agree -- 5,105 paid to attend (although only a handful showed up due to the inclement weather).
Throughout the game there were promotions and drawings offering fans free prizes donated by local restaurants and companies. Tonight was White Sox Cap Night so all of the fans (under the age of 14) were handed cotton hats upon entrance. For each half inning to follow, lucky numbers were called out (corresponding to those on selected pages of the program) and fans won gift certificats to local restaurants and shops. The standard horse race took place after the top of the fourth inning -- although it had a slight twist because each of three color horses (actually sticks with pictures being run around by members of the front office staff) corresponded to a part of the park (the section that cheered loudest won a free dessert from a local eatery). And, you can't forget the twisting contest that rewarded the section who danced the best with free hot pretzels.
The fans that were drawn to the park on this night -- and there were not very many because the weather was not very inviting -- all seemed to have a wonderful time with the festivites. Most of the seats in the park were filled with kids -- some as young as five or six years old -- who ran around while the game took place and tried desperately to win one of the many contests. Of course, there were the regular Barons fans (including one named Steve who sat one section over from us right on top of the dugout) who laughed at the fans who were not as interested in the game as they were. And, the luxury suites and banquet areas above the seats were packed with church groups (more than 50 were supposedly in attendance) who kept dry while cheering wildly for their local heroes.
And, the local heroes did not dissapoint on this night -- going on to win 12-1 over the league leading Orlando Rays. It was a pretty ugly game -- some very simple throwing errors resulted in unearned runs -- but one that deomnstrated the love the minor leaguers have for the game. Bloop singles were stretch into doubles, stolen bases were taken at every possible opportunity, and players were not afraid to slide in the wet dirt or through the soggy outfield to attempt a play. On top of that, the Barons starting pitcher showed an impressive fastball and curve to the visitng White Sox scouts and baffled the Rays' hitters -- holding them scoreless after the first inning for a complete game win.
And, as the rain fell during the late innings and the runs began to pile up for the Barons, natural baseball instinct took over. After a three run double for the Barons, the Rays' pitcher plunked the next batter on the shoulder -- to let him know things would be different from that point on -- only to provoke what could have become a bench clearing brawl. In the end, only the pitcher lost his temper, shouting profanities at the batter and earning himself an ejection from the game. Players stood on the top step of the dugout, but decided to finish the game without incident so they could get out the rain. That's what I call action!
Rain was the dominant factor on this night. Many of the attractions had to be cancelled or shortened due to the rain. Several thousands fans who had paid for tickets never came through the turnstiles -- giving the park a very empty and depressing feeling for most of the game. But, everyone in attendance had a good time, and the Barons' front office folks (after they had finished putting the tarp back on the field after the game) seemed quite happy with the evening despite the inclement weather. "That's what this business is all about," said one of the guys in the press box, "some days are better than others -- but there's always baseball in Birmingham."
This is the mechanic from the Plymouth dealership outside of Atlanta. He couldn't find anything wrong with my car -- and then couldn't find my car -- and sent me on my way with a smile and no charge.
A view of Hoover Metropolitan Stadium from the tunnel behind home plate. If you look really hard, you will see the President and GM of the team raking the infield, the Director of marketing painting the lines, and Chris Jenkins forming the mound. That is teamwork!