How to fall in love with baseball all over again.
There is a certain feel to big-league ballparks, a crackling of energy found nowhere else. Anyone who has visited PNC Park, particularly in the last 15 months, knows the sensation. The stands seem to reach to the sky, vibrating as they fill up. The scoreboard looms over the outfield, its digital possibilities limitless.
The stakes are high, the umpires formidable, the players at the top of their game. And when the place fills up (coughwildcardcough), the electricity in the air is as viscous as nacho cheese.
It is a feeling like no other — and a feeling that you absolutely should turn your back on now and then.
For there is other baseball out there, not far from here, and it is good baseball. Exciting baseball. Inexpensive baseball. Close-up baseball. Baseball with unorthodox between-inning promotions and really odd mascots in big furry outfits cheerfully getting in your face. It’s baseball with a completely different energy, and it’s perfect baseball for a day trip or a summer’s weekend barnstorm if you want a brief change of pace from the Bucs.
Minor-league baseball takes you even deeper into summer, showing you diamonds in the not-so-rough outside Major League Baseball’s major markets — and even the smaller markets like ours. Take interstates to exits in the middle of mid-sized cities and dump yourself off onto unfamiliar roads. Fork over $3 or $5 for parking and wander toward smaller ballfields that will remind you of the way baseball was played during American yesterdays and, at the same time, give you a prescient glimpse of major-league tomorrows.
Go north for the evening to Erie, where, not far from the lake, the AA Seawolves build Detroit Tigers talent and kids can take advantage of a play area that features a new 22-foot slide. Head south to Washington — Pa., not D.C. – to see the Washington Wild Things, whose brand of baseball has nothing to do with the major leagues (they’re part of the independent Frontier League).
Or knock off early from work and take U.S. Route 22 east into the hills to the home of the AA Altoona Curve, where tomorrow’s Pirates are playing today, where not long ago young men named Andrew and Pedro and Neil haunted basepaths a few yards away from the oldest wooden roller coaster in the land.
Hit the turnpike to Harrisburg, where a AA team called the Senators — an affiliate appropriately enough of the Washington Nationals — plays ball on a beautiful little island in the middle of the mighty Susquehanna River. Or keep driving a bit farther to Reading to see the AA Fightin Phils and find a trove of history in an Eisenhower-era ballpark, complete with a swimming pool beyond the right-field fence — a worthwhile glimpse of the Philadelphia Phillies’ prospects on their way up. Know thine adversary.
If you’re making a weekend of it, venture farther afield to Trenton, N.J., where you can watch the New York Yankees’ AA talent and purchase a ballcap depicting an angry, muscular thundercloud clutching a lightning bolt as if it was a Louisville Slugger.
Or head down past Wheeling to Columbus, Ohio, with its steeped history: The Jets (1957-70) of Hall-of-Famer Willie Stargell and later the Clippers (1977-79) were the Pirates’ AAA farm team. Today, the Clippers — long the fertile ground for Yankees’ prospects — are part of the Cleveland Indians’ farm system. They play in an elegant ballpark that offers 21st-century amenities (including a great VIP bar overlooking home plate) alongside a baseball experience that evokes the early 20th century in the most appealing of ways.
You want quirkiness? Barely 4 1/2 hours east of downtown Pittsburgh are the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, a Phillies farm team that decided, despite a name derived from an ingredient in steel manufacturing, to ride the wave of trendiness and come forth this year with a cap festooned with a slice of bacon.
In recent years, it has become popular to make baseball about nostalgia, about dreams of a pastoral past (even though it always has been as much a city game as a country one). That’s an understandable instinct and a potent narrative, particularly for Pittsburghers, who live in a town rich with sports heritage and a baseball lineage that stretches back to Grover Cleveland’s first administration.
But the baseball narrative is one of tomorrows, too — of young men dreaming big and putting in the sweaty, sometimes unsung work to get where they’re going. In these baseball towns within striking distance of Pittsburgh, dreams flourish. The kids — and at age 19, 21 or 23, they really are still kids in many ways — take the field determined to go from AA to AAA and, if they’re lucky and talented and committed enough, to the Show itself.
So Pittsburghers, take heed. You have it all in your backyard right now: a buffet of tomorrow’s stars — the guys who’ll be on the baseball cards of 2015 and, if they have the right stuff, in the starting lineups of 2017 and part of the postseason thrills of 2020.
The wife of Yankees great Lou Gehrig, Eleanor, famously asked her husband to define the difference between a major-league player and a minor-league one. His answer? “One step.”
That’s the great thing about minor-league ball. You can go watch that step as it’s made. So gas up the car, pack up the cooler and the kids (or the buddies) and get out there to see the quirky, local, unexpected baseball life beyond PNC Park. Have a microbrew. Catch a foul ball. Hug a mascot. See tomorrow’s Andrew McCutchen. Have it all at your fingertips. You might not care if you ever get back.
One Night Fun
Stadium: Peoples Natural Gas Field, 1000 Park Ave., Altoona, Pa.
2014 season: April 3-Sept. 1
★ AA Farm Team for the Pittsburgh Pirates
As you settle into your seat and watch baseball’s future stars take the field, you can’t help but sense that AA Ball is all about possibility. Just a couple of years ago, when he stood on this pitcher’s mound, Gerrit Cole was a short-haired kid barely able to legally buy a beer. Now he’s striking fear in the hearts of experienced All-Stars. Yet for all that major-league magic, something else is also unmistakable: The best minor-league ballparks leave you feeling as if you’ve stumbled on a small-town carnival, rife with goofy games and giveaways that speak of a quirky sense of humor.
You’ll find all that at the Altoona Curve. On June 1, the Curve will offer to its first 1,500 fans a Starling Marte oven mitt, the only kitchen implement that also can bring back memories of the Bucs’ 2013 season. If that’s not kitschy enough, visit the Curve on Aug. 23: The first 1,500 visitors that night will get the unique “Shark Tank” ornament featuring cartoon depictions of former Curve pitchers Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes and Bryan Morris happily riding together on the back of a shark.
If creative giveaways and the antics of mascot Al Tuna (he emerges from the outfield wall and dances to celebrate Curve homeruns), Steamer, Diesel Dawg and Tenacious the railroad engineer aren’t enough, leave home early enough on a Saturday to add a visit to Lakemont Park next door. With a roller coaster on the right-field horizon, Lakemont bills itself as the eighth-oldest amusement park in the United States. It’s home to numerous rides, including the Leap the Dips wooden rollercoaster. Lakemont also offers go-karts, an 18-hole mini-golf course, paddle boats and a swimming pool. (Details at lakemontparkfun.com.)
Former Pirates All-Star (1990-1996) Carlos Garcia took over last year as the Curve’s manager. His roster includes right-handed pitcher Nick Kingham and shortstop Alen Hanson — both considered top prospects to make the jump this year or next to the Pirates’ AAA team in Indianapolis. This year, outfielder Willy Garcia has come to Altoona after a successful 2013 season with the Bradenton Marauders.
On June 14, the first 1,500 fans will receive a collectible Andrew McCutchen MVP figurine. Tickets for these giveaways tend to sell out early, so plan ahead. And on July 15-16, the Curve will host this year’s Eastern League All-Star Game.
Approximate drive time from Pittsburgh is 1 hour, 45 minutes. (Note that Saturday home games begin at 6 p.m., so leave plenty of time.) Should you decide to spend the night, several hotels are nearby along U.S. Route 220.
Stadium: Jerry Uht Park, 110 E. 10th St., Erie, Pa.
Season dates: April 3-Sept. 1
★ AA Farm Team for the Detroit Tigers
Even by AA standards, the Seawolves’ stadium is intimate. Opened in 1995 and renovated in 2006, the entire complex is wedged into a single city block and seats slightly more than 4,000. You can squeeze nearly twice as many people into an Altoona Curve home game. But ask the folks at the Seawolves front office and they’ll tell you: That lack of space inspired a creative seating plan that their fans adore. ESPN named the reserved seating along the first-base line No. 5 among its Top 10 Best Baseball Seats in the Minor Leagues because this elevated section is high enough to give a bird’s-eye view of the entire field while hovering so close to the base path that you can practically touch the players.
The double-decker picnic area has become a favorite of families who prefer to spread out rather than line up in a single row of seats. That picnic area is even more entertaining this year thanks to a newly installed 22-foot slide, the most recent addition to the expanded Kids Fun Zone.
Food is affordable and filling: Enormous “walking tacos” will satisfy even the hungriest visitors. This year, specialty hot dogs and kettle corn have been added to the menu, which also includes “California garlic fries” and pepperoni balls.
And the Seawolves’ on-field entertainment includes a staple of many minor-league ballparks: Rewarding fans when a player on the opposing team strikes out. During each Seawolves game, one player on the opposing team is named the McDonald’s Strikeout Player. If he goes down swinging, you get a coupon for, say, a Big Mac.
Eight-time All-Star and longtime Tiger Lance Parrish (a Clairton, Pa., native and member of the 1994 Pirates) signed on in February as the Seawolves’ manager.
On June 27, VisitPITTSBURGH is sponsoring a jersey giveaway for kids ages 4 to 14. And fans at the July 12 game versus the Binghamton Mets can buy a $20 ticket ($10 for season-ticket holders) for a beer tasting that includes light snacks and 12 craft-beer samples (4 ounces each).
Approximate drive time from Pittsburgh is 2 hours, 15 minutes.
WASHINGTON WILD THINGS
Stadium: CONSOL Energy Park, 1 Washington Federal Way, Washington, Pa.
Season dates: May 15-Sept. 4
★ Member of the independent Frontier League
The world of AA baseball has the unmistakable sheen of MLB glamour sprinkled over its smaller-town charm. Frontier League baseball’s beauty is that it offers none of that. The players, some barely old enough to have finished college, find lodging with local families that volunteer to host them for the season. They’re offered a private bedroom but have no expectation of a private bath. They warm up along the edge of the parking lot. And you can tell where players’ families and friends are seated by the cheers that erupt within the tiny stadium.
This feels like baseball should, or at least how we’re taught it should. You can hear the players talking to each other. The crack of the bat feels even more immediate within this little park tucked behind a shopping mall along Interstate 70, not far from the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border. There are no pretensions here, no prima donnas: Manager Bart Zeller also serves as the third-base coach. For $15, you can sit 10 feet from the on-deck circle. The concession staff serves cookies and (local) milk during the seventh-inning stretch. And local businesses seem to sponsor just about everything. (On a night last summer, the public address system crackled with the words, “The sixth inning was brought to you by Six-Pack Charlie’s, 501 Jefferson Ave., downtown Washington!”)
But perhaps life for the Wild Things is becoming more intense: Beginning on June 5, they’ll be sharing their park with a new professional fast-pitch women’s softball team called the Pennsylvania Rebellion that includes former All-America athletes on the roster.
Approximate drive time from Pittsburgh is 45 minutes. It’s close enough that you probably won’t need an overnight stay unless you’re coming from, say, north of Cranberry. But there is a Comfort Inn next to the stadium, and several other motels are located nearby.
Stadium: Metro Bank Park, 1 Championship Way, Harrisburg, Pa.
Season dates: April 3-Sept. 1
★ AA Farm Team for the Washington Nationals
The folks who run Metro Bank Park clearly want you to have a good time. Rather than designing typical luxury boxes located far above the action, the Senators’ stadium offers the ultimate flip side: dugout suites nestled right up against the field. They run $300 for a group of 12, so gather up some neighbors and plan a road trip. As a single visitor or for a smaller group, consider Club Seat tickets ($33). These offer extra-wide seats with great views, plus access to the Patriot News Press Box Club and its “upscale, all-you-can-eat buffet.” Sounds almost like a classy, Major League Baseball experience, right?
Here’s a reminder that AA Ball is a species all its own: If you attend a Senators game in a group of 20 or more, one or more members of your group will be invited to sing the National Anthem before the game, assuming another singer isn’t already booked for that date.
Ticket prices start as low as $9 for “Ollie’s cheap seats” out in left field. No matter what kind of seats you’re hunting for, you’ll know exactly what you’re buying. Click on any seating section within the team’s online stadium map, and you’ll see a photo of the view of the field from that spot.
For your tiny humans, Faulkner Honda Kids’ Zone has seven bouncy inflatables. You can purchase a wristband for the day for $10 or let kids bounce for $1 per turn. And Metro Bank Park is one of the few baseball stadiums that allow you to leave and re-enter during a game. That may not sound meaningful, but if you’ve ever realized five minutes into a game that you left your phone in the car (or the sunscreen in the trunk, or your child left her glove on the back seat), you’ll be grateful that it’s simple to dash back to your vehicle and grab what you need.
Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals and Jeff King played there, back when it was a Pirates affiliate.
When the Senators face the Akron RubberDucks on July 31, they’ll give away a free iPad every inning. At game’s end on Aug. 14, women 18 and older are invited to dig up the infield in search of a diamond pendant donated by Mountz Jewelers. (After that game, the Senators head out on the road for four days, leaving time for their grounds crew to get the field back into shape.) Fans who attend the June 5 and July 24 games are slated to be entertained by the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo Show, a team of trained, costumed Capuchin monkeys that ride on the backs of dogs, mimicking real cowboys riding horses.
Approximate drive time from Pittsburgh is 3 to 4 hours.
The visiting team hotel is the Park Inn by Radisson, located on the Carlisle Pike in Mechanicsburg. For a cozier room, you’ll find the charming City House bed-and-breakfast inn less than a mile from the stadium. [cityhousebb.com]
Stadium: Huntington Park, 330 Huntington Park Lane, Columbus, Ohio
Season dates: April 3-Sept. 1
★ AAA Farm Team for the Cleveland Indians
Huntington Park opened in 2009, but its brick facade and industrial design echo the early 20th-century style of the factories and warehouses that long have stood in what now is the Arena District in downtown Columbus. It’s a beautiful park designed to fit in with the neighborhood — and to welcome the neighbors. Locals who don’t have time to stop by for an entire game can watch through huge metal screens — modern “knotholes” positioned along the outfield wall.
In a touch that seems more Grapefruit League, ticket-holders can opt to stretch out on a picnic blanket atop the grassy berm that overlooks center field. It’s a great spot for kids to burn off some energy if nine long innings in the summer sun is making them restless.
For those who don’t want to rough it on the sloping lawn, there are plenty of creature comforts: In Club seats ($20) behind home plate, you have access to an open-air lounge with a sandwich station and full bar, and even outdoor heaters to warm up chilly spring and fall evenings. Run a tab from your seat, where the waitstaff will deliver cocktails, glasses of wine (a ballpark with a wine list!) or such healthy snacks as hummus with veggies and pita chips. Not your style? The dining options keep getting better: The City Barbecue kiosk near the park’s main entrance offers fragrant brisket and melt-in-your-mouth ribs, and the nearby sandwich counter serves up panini (including vegetarian options). Over at the AEP Power Pavilion, you’ll find an upstairs bar and restaurant area with balconies overlooking the field and a few rows of bleachers on the top level.
Fans periodically are plucked from the crowd to participate in games such as building a huge fabric hamburger complete with fabric toppings on top of another contestant (sponsored — because everything at minor-league parks is sponsored by someone — by Wendy’s). You can cheer for Ricky Relish or one of his competitors in the Sugardale hot dog race. (Cute, but not quite as cute as racing pierogies.)
Want to see the Pirates’ top crop of young stars but don’t have time to trek to the Indianapolis Indians’ home field for a game? See them play much closer to the ’Burgh. They’ll be visiting the Clippers July 17, 18, 19 and 20, and again Aug. 23, 24 and 25. The Indians will be looking to dominate, as they did in early April when Gregory Polanco, Andrew Lambo, Jaff Decker and their teammates swept a series against the Clippers.
Approximate drive time from Pittsburgh is 3 hours, 30 minutes.
Recently renovated, the nearby Comfort Inn Downtown Columbus has an outdoor pool. But if you’re making a weekend of your trip, consider the Fort Rapids Waterpark resort, 15 minutes from the stadium on I-70. Prices vary, but a Saturday-night room for a family of four with waterpark passes and breakfast for everyone can run between $259 and $399. [fortrapids.com]
READING FIGHTIN PHILS
Stadium: FirstEnergy Stadium, 1900 Centre Ave, Reading, Pa.
Season dates: April 3-Sept. 1
★ AA Farm Team for the Philadelphia Phillies
From the moment you enter FirstEnergy Stadium, it’s clear there’s a party going on. On stage, a band of mascots is rocking out. The real guys inside those furry costumes somehow manage to deliver spot-on covers of hits from various eras with more emotion than you ever thought could emerge from a 6-foot-tall frog. Nearby, kids try their hand at throwing fastballs in the Phunland entertainment area, while hungry folks line up for food and drinks. Some opt for the traditional hot dogs and burgers, but the smart ones go for crispy crabcake sandwiches.
This historic ballpark — opened in 1951 and now the oldest in the Eastern League — once was the home field of Roger Maris. Today, it has been expertly updated for a modern crowd without losing its original charm. There are no bad seats in the house. But perhaps the best ones are out in right field, where you can pay to swim in a huge pool as you watch the game (and perhaps snag a homerun ball that lands in the water next to you).
There is no shortage of classic minor-league hijinks: When the Fightin’ Phils face the Altoona Curve on Aug. 8, a “human cannonball” will launch himself out of a cannon.
Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Ryne Sandberg and Ryan Howard all have played here. Today, Phillies hopefuls are busy battling to reach AAA and beyond.
Approximate drive time from Pittsburgh is 4 to 5 hours.
On June 12, pitcher-turned-lawmaker Jim Bunning will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his perfect game by signing autographs (at no charge) as fans are issued Bunning bobbleheads. Other giveaways this season include a John Kruk garden gnome (June 30), a Domonic Brown bobblehead (July 9) and a Cole Hamels bobblehead (July 27).
Chain motels dot the exits of the Turnpike and U.S. Route 222 around Reading. Consider booking two nights if you want to hit the outlets or the region’s renowned antique malls, both of which are within a 30-minute drive.
Cross the Border:
If you’ve come this far, why not drive a bit more and add a visit to the Trenton (N.J.) Thunder, the AA Farm Team for the Yankees? [trentonthunder.com]