Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I don't care if I ever get back

We took our son to his first Major League Baseball game earlier this year in Atlanta. We did the whole thing like stereotypical fans. We got him a hot dog. Later we got him ice cream in one of those mini helmets. We did not get peanuts and Cracker Jack because it's not 1923 and because, honestly, we did care if we ever got back. We watched the best player of today's generation (Mike Trout) as well as the best player of the previous decade (Albert Pujols) bot hit home runs. We saw the Braves rally from a 5-1 deficit to tie it up in the 9th inning and then stayed for the 10th.

With the game still tied and the attention span of my five-year old and the four-year old of the other couple who was there with us nearing its end, we called it a night and headed for our friends house for the night. Driving there, my son wanted to listen to the game on the radio, so we did with  the Angels eventually defeating the Braves in the 13th inning. All in all, he seemed to have a good time and enjoyed his experience.

So on the 4-hour trip back home the next day, my wife and I asked him about his experience and what he thought about seeing his first big league game. He said it was fun, but he actually liked going to the Savannah Sand Gnats, our local minor league team's games, more.

"It's not so loud and it's not so crowded," he said.

So this past weekend, we took him and a friend to a Savannah Sand Gnats game. The Sand Gnats play in "Historic Grayson Stadium." Historic is usually a code word for "old" and in this case, the stadium is old. Originally constructed in 1921, the stadium underwent major renovations in 1941 following destruction from a Category 2 hurricane in August of 1940. Spanish-American War veteran Gen. William L. Grayson spearheaded the campaign to raise the $150,000 needed to rebuild the stadium that now bares his name.

Fun at the ballpark.
Despite being old and lacking the amenities of modern stadiums, Grayson Stadium is a fine place to watch a ball game. The outfield wall is plastered with ads from local business. So many, in fact, that I couldn't tell you one of them on the wall because they all ran together. I think there was maybe one for a law firm, but I really couldn't tell you. If those organizations' goals were to support baseball in Savannah, they succeeded. If they wanted to get their message out to potential customers, well, in this instance, they failed miserably. The aisles are wide enough for my son and friend to run around and play without really bothering anyone else.

This particular Friday night turned out to be a great night to go. As has been the case for as long as I can remember, there's no parking fee. We parked maybe 200 feet beyond the right field wall and walked right up. Also that night, the team was collecting canned goods for those less fortunate, so for a few donations, the four of us got in free. On top of that, it was bobblehead night at the ballpark, so each of us got a Gnate the Gnat bobblehead, which is exactly as cool as it sounds. (We got there early to make sure we got one, my parents, who also came to the game, showed up late and didn't get one. They weren't too upset about it.) The weather was unseasonably cool for a July night, with game time temperatures in the mid-70s at first pitch.

One thing about Minor League games is fans' allegiance to their favorite Major League team doesn't carry over. The Sand Gnats are located in Braves territory, and looking around the stadium, there was no shortage of Braves fans on hand. However, they all seemed to be rooting for the Sand Gnats, who are the affiliate of their division rivals, the New York Mets. Despite that, the fans had no problem wanting to see Savannah play well and defeat the Lexington Legends (of the Kansas City Royals.)

But it wasn't just Braves fans (and the two Royals fans I saw) there. I had on my Cubs hat, as apparently other people did too. As I was in line to get a drink, a guy walked by, saw my hat and said, "hey, another Cubs fan, that's the fifth one I've seen tonight." From my seat, I counted several Orioles fans, a few Reds fans, a Mets fan and one guy down front who was wearing a Montreal Expos hat. There was also a smattering of Yankees fans as well as a guy in a Brewers cap.

Midway through the third inning, the boys start to get restless, so my wife and mom took the boys to the jump castles while dad and I watched the game. The stadium underwent additional renovations in 2009 in which they installed giant fans above the seats to create a comfortable breeze during the game. And other than the obstructed view seats where posts block your view, there really isn't a bad seat in the stadium.

My wife hates this. I love it.
Despite being one of the lowest levels of the minors, there are players from this level who eventually go on to become stars. Among those who have played for the Sand Gnats who have gone on to have success in the Major Leagues are Adrian Beltre, Edwin Encarnacion, Travis Hafner and Ryan Zimmerman. On this night, I wanted to see Dominic Smith. He's a 19-year old first-baseman rated among the top-50 minor league prospects in all of baseball. He did not have a night to remember. Smith went hitless with two strikeouts and was tossed from the game for arguing with the umpire after striking out in the 7th. Truth be told, he probably should have been ejected in the 5th for arguing, but the umpire was in a more forgiving mood than I would be. All in all, not a good night for Mr. Smith, but in the unlikely event he becomes a star, I can say I saw him way back when.

There's a chance the Sand Gnats may be leaving Savannah. The team wants the city to build a new stadium with more modern amenities and if they don't, they've threatened to leave, with Columbia, SC seeming to be a likely landing spot for the team. I'd be disappointed if they left, but I can understand a city not wanting to spend $30 Million on a new stadium when I'm sure there are other things the city could spend that money on. If they do leave, It'll mean we have to drive an extra 25 minutes (one way) to get to the nearest minor league team. We'd still do it, it'd just be different. Or we'll just go to games when we visit my in-laws. And my bobbleheads would likely go up in value as they'd become rare collectors items for that small subset of fans who really, really, REALLY like Minor League mascot bobbleheads.

Eventually the boys make it back from the jump castles in time for the last few innings of the game. We'd probably head home at this point if it weren't "Kids run the bases" night at the ballpark. But that's what I like about Minor League games, there's always something to attract and keep fans engaged (and, presumably, spending money.) My son and his friend were both extremely excited about the opportunity to run the bases, even if Gnate was going to be at home plate.

You see, my son doesn't like giant mascots. From the local college team's Eagle to Gnate to any others, he is anxious around them. Sure, they're all smiling and welcoming, but I can't get him to go stand next to a mascot for a picture. Sadly, my Photoshop skills are also not that great, so I can't even pretend he's done it. But now, if he wanted to run the bases, Gnate would be awaiting him when he completed his trip.

Finally the game ends with a 5-2 Savannah win and the kids all line up. The friendly young woman in charge is very clear that parents are not able to run the bases with their kids so we have to wait down the third base line for them to finish and then they'll find us when they finish. The kids all patiently wait their turns as they walk make their way down the first base line. From there, they're supposed to say their name (not shout it, we're instructed) into the microphone and then circle the bases.

Soon it's my son and his friend's turn and they start running. They're both careful not to pass the person in front of them (more of the rules) and when my son finally gets to home plate, instead giving Gnate a high-five like the other kids, my son gives Gnate a huge hug and then runs over to find us with a big smile. When we asked him why he gave Gnate a hug, he said "because I love him."

Overall, he and I had a much more enjoyable experience than the Major League game. It was more relaxed, less crowded and overall a more fun atmosphere. Sure, he skipped out on some of the game to play in a jump castle and sure it's likely none of the players we saw will ever be Major League All-Stars, much less Hall of Famers, but the game was fun and we had a good time.

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