Fields of (Big) Dreams

Where do baseball legends come from? Visit a minor league ballpark this summer and you may see one in the making.

Minor League baseball game is quite possibly the best deal in sports. There. I said it.  

Sure, Major League Baseball has better talent and more recognizable names. But the minors offer their own perks.

First off, the price is nice. A family of four buying two adult tickets, two child tickets, four hot dogs, two sodas, two beers, a program or scorecard and parking can expect to pay about $61 per game, according to a recent Minor League Baseball (MiLB) survey of its U.S.-based teams. By comparison, the average cost for the same package at a major league game last season was $197.

The minors also offer a chance to see talented up-and-coming players before they become superstars. Almost every player in Major League Baseball started this way. That includes Washington Nationals rookie phenom Bryce Harper, who first cut his teeth with the Hagerstown Suns; Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who was called up from the Harrisburg Senators; and 2011 National League “Rookie of the Year” Craig Kimbrel, who graduated from the Gwinnett (Ga.) Braves to join the Atlanta Braves. Minor league players are hungry, and their hustle is intense.

To be clear, MiLB is professional baseball. It’s a farm system made up of 160 teams in 14 affiliated leagues that feed into the Big Leagues. When major league teams draft high school or college players who are not yet good enough to play in The Bigs, they send them to work their way up through the ranks. (The MiLB hierarchy starts with the Rookie League, followed by Class A, Double-A and then the highest level, Triple-A.) Once a player has proven himself in one level, he ascends to the next tier, and then the next until he is finally ready for the majors.

Even if you aren’t up on the latest player stats, a day at the park is just plain fun. Minor league stadiums are usually viewer-friendly, the food is affordable (and often good) and the between-inning entertainment can be hilarious. In addition to exciting double plays and nail-biting finales, you may witness kids racing each other on giant jalapeno-shaped pillows, or a monkey riding a dog.

And if you happen to catch a foul ball and get it autographed after the game, hang on to it. You never know what it could be worth someday.

Road Trip!

There are lots of great ballparks within driving distance of your home base in Arlington, Falls Church or McLean.

Norfolk Tides

Triple-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles

With a seating capacity of roughly 12,000, Harbor Park is one of the largest stadiums in the minors. Its location on the Elizabeth River in downtown Norfolk also offers one of the best views.

Named one of the “25 coolest Minor League parks” in the nation last year by Complex magazine, the 19-year-old stadium feels very much like a major league ballpark, with almost 9,000 lower deck seats, 2,800 upper deck seats and 400 seats in 24 luxury skyboxes. There’s a reason it has a big league feel: it was designed by the architecture firm HOK Sport of Kansas City, Mo. (now Populous), which also masterminded some of the finest major league stadiums in the country, including U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore and Jacobs Field in Cleveland.

Norfolk presents a bevy of family-friendly mascots and acts during games, as well as fireworks and special promotions such as Armed Forces Night, Bark in the Park (fans can bring their dogs to the game) and Picture Night, during which the first 4,000 to enter the stadium receive a color photograph of a Tides player.

Harbor Park offers good eats, too. In addition to the standard hot dog and pretzel at the concession stand, you can swing by Hits at the Park, which offers an all-you-can-eat buffet with dishes such as Caribbean jerk chicken with pineapple salsa, and pecan-encrusted tilapia with balsamic brown butter. If you want to grab a bite before the first pitch, there are dozens of restaurants within a half mile of the stadium. You can get to them via the city’s light-rail system, The Tide, so you don’t have to park twice.

For weekenders, there are several hotels within walking distance of the park, including the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel and the Norfolk Waterside Marriott.

Players to watch:  Outfielder Xavier Avery, first baseman Joe Mahoney and pitcher Chris Tillman
Info: Harbor Park, 150 Park Ave., Norfolk, Va. 23510, 757-622-2222, www.norfolktides.com
Tickets: $9-14 (discounts available for large groups)
Distance: 195 miles

Hagerstown Suns

Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals

If you’re looking for a Minor League Baseball team with history, the Suns have it. Municipal Stadium, which hosted its first season in 1930, is one of the three oldest minor league ballparks in the country.

The team’s recent history isn’t too shabby either. Suns Manager Brian Daubach was a member of the 2004 Boston Red Sox squad that won the World Series. Bryce Harper, the number one overall pick in the 2010 major league draft, made his pro debut here. And last season, Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg (who was MLB’s number one overall draft pick in 2009) made three rehab starts for the Suns following elbow surgery.

Municipal Stadium contains 5,000 seats, plus family-friendly features such as a picnic area, fireworks on Fridays and all kinds of freebies. Recent giveaways have included team photos, seat cushions, pink foam fingers, T-shirts and even garden gnomes.

Every Thursday is Thirsty Thursday, offering drink specials and post-game concerts with acts such as Stoked, Half Serious and Hicktown. On Sunday afternoons, kids can run the bases as part of FUND-day, when schools, charities and other groups raise money by selling Suns tickets.

Tailgating is permitted, but you can also sidle up to the concession stand for a sizzler hot dog or sausage. Moe’s Southwest Grill serves burritos and nachos.

If you wish to spend the night, the Best Western Grand Venice Hotel is the official hotel of the team and is a short walk from the ballpark. It offers an exclusive Suns room rate of $79 for fans.

Players to watch: Starting pitcher Alex Meyer, outfielder Brian Goodwin, designated hitter Cutter Dykstra (son of former Phillies and Mets outfielder Lenny Dykstra) and shortstop Jason Martinson
Info: Municipal Stadium, 274 East Memorial Blvd., Hagerstown, Md. 21740, 301-791-6266, www.hagerstownsuns.com
Tickets: $9 to $12; $5 per ticket for groups of 10 or more
Distance: 70 miles

Frederick Keys

Class A Advanced affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles

The Frederick Keys are the reigning Carolina League Champions. It’s the fourth time the team has captured this honor in its 23-year history, with three of those championships in the past seven years. To date, the Keys have sent 122 players to the majors, including current all-star Matt Wieters and Gold Glove award winner Nick Markakis.

Harry Grove Stadium is equally impressive. Built in 1990, it was one of the first minor league parks to feature luxury suites (with carpeting, furniture and cable TV) that overlook the game.

Still, a Keys game offers something for everyone. In addition to its picnic pavilion and a Fun Zone with inflatable toys and playground equipment for kids, the stadium has one of the largest selections of food you’ll see at a minor league ballpark. Vendors include the Keys Creamery (for all things ice cream-related), Hot Corner Grill (serving up Philly cheesesteaks, grilled chicken sandwiches and Italian sausage with peppers and onions) and Fiesta Crab Shack, among others.

The team keeps fans entertained between innings with games such as the Taco Bell Sauce Race (think Washington Nationals presidents’ race, but with mascots instead dressed as sauce packets). Zoo Night features visiting animals from the nearby Catoctin Zoo, and the famous Cowboy-Monkey rodeo showcases monkeys riding on the backs of dogs.

Fireworks cap off most weekend home games, and youth teams are frequently invited to run out onto the field with the Keys players before the opening pitch.

If you plan to make a weekend of it, there are nine hotels within a one-mile radius and 28 within a five-mile radius (the official team hotel is the Best Western Historic Frederick).

You’ll also find 112 restaurants within a mile of the park, with options ranging from chef Bryan Voltaggio’s nationally acclaimed Volt, to the more casual and popular Brewer’s Alley Restaurant.

Players to watch: Pitcher Clayton Schrader, first baseman Aaron Baker and outfielder Trent Mummey
Info: Harry Grove Stadium, 21 Stadium Drive, Frederick, Md. 21703, 301-662-0013, www.frederickkeys.com
Tickets: $9 to $12
Distance: 46 miles

 

Bowie Baysox

Double-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles

Although Prince George’s Stadium holds 10,000 people—the largest park in the Eastern League—it feels intimate, thanks to its relatively narrow foul territory, which makes the players and the action on the field seem close.

The venue has many options for the young and the young at heart, including a kids’ park with a carousel and inflatable playground equipment, and plenty of stunts between innings with chances to win money or prizes. These include the occasional T-shirt toss, hula-hoop contest, or Jalapeno Hop race, in which kids race each other on pepper-shaped pillows.

Other special events include Mutt Mondays (bring your dog to the game), Tailgate Tuesdays, Double Dog Deal Days (offering two free hot dogs and Cracker Jacks with the purchase of a regular-price box-seat ticket), bobblehead giveaways and fireworks.

If you want to eat at the park, the concession stand carries the usual fare, such as the Bubba Burger, chicken sandwiches, Italian sausages and nachos. For big appetites, the Black Angus Grille offers specialties like the famous Bowie Big Dog, a 1/3-pound all-beef hot dog, or the half-pound Black Angus Burger.

Nearby strip malls and the Bowie Town Center also offer a variety of chain restaurants, including Noodles & Company, Uno Chicago Grill and On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina.

Players to watch: Shortstop Manny Machado and third baseman Jonathan Schoop
Info: Prince George’s Stadium, 4101 Crain Highway, Bowie, Md. 20716, 301-805-6000, www.baysox.com
Tickets: $7 to $17
Distance: 26 miles

Potomac Nationals

Class A Advanced affiliate of the Washington Nationals

Barry Bonds played here. So did Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Bobby Bonilla and Albert Pujols. Enough said.

Potomac has been known by many names over the years, including the Alexandria Dukes, the Prince William Pirates, the Prince William Yankees, the Prince William Cannons and Potomac Cannons. The team is now affiliated with the Washington Nationals.

The “Pfitz,” as the G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium is affectionately known, seats about 6,000, but its large foul territory makes it feel bigger than most minor league parks. Even with a new video board, the stadium is fairly bare-bones, but fans come more for the game than the ambience.

Food choices are pretty straightforward, including the requisite hot dogs, hamburgers and popcorn. Skip the pizza and get the chicken tender basket.

What the Pfitz lacks in luxury, it makes up for in character. Home games feature promotional stunts ranging from the wacky to the insane, such as Wing Fling, a contest to see which restaurants, bars or individuals have the best wings in Northern Virginia; Battle of the Sexes, in which men and women compete against each other in events such as tug-of-war; Star Wars Night, when costumed actors roam the stadium; and Mustache Night, during which the team honors the most distinctive mustaches in baseball history and offers half-off tickets for anyone who has a mustache. T-shirt and bobblehead giveaways are also customary, as are fireworks. Kids get to run the bases on weekends.

Players to watch: Center fielder Michael Taylor (very fast), left fielder Kevin Keyes (huge bat) and pitcher Robbie Ray
Info: G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, 7 County Complex Court, Woodbridge, Va. 22192, 703-590-2311, www.potomacnationals.com
Tickets: $6 to $15 (Mondays are $1)
Distance: 28 miles

Extra Innings

Got time?  Here are some additional teams worth checking out.

Aberdeen IronBirds

Class A Short Season affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles

Ripken Stadium 873 Long Drive, Aberdeen, Md. 21001 410-297-9292 www.ironbirdsbaseball.com
Tickets: $9.50 to $16
Distance: 85 miles

Delmarva Shorebirds

Class A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles

Arthur W. Perdue Stadium 6400 Hobbs Road, Salisbury, Md. 21804 410-219-3112 www.theshorebirds.com
Tickets: $5 to $13
Distance: 127 miles

Richmond Flying Squirrels

Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants

The Diamond 3001 N. Boulevard, Richmond, Va. 23230 804-359-3866 www.milb.com/index.jsp?sid=t3410
Tickets: $4 to $19
Distance: 106 miles

A League of Their Own

The Minors aren’t the only good baseball deal in our region. If you enjoy seeing true amateurs play for the sheer love of the sport, check out the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League—a wooden bat summer system made up of 10 teams in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Created in 2005 and named in honor of legendary Baltimore Orioles coach and manager Cal Ripken Sr., the league is exclusively for college players who are 23 and under.  And it’s competitive. Roughly 35 to 39 of its players are drafted each year into the MiLB farm system, estimates league commissioner Robert M. Douglas. “We always have scouts here to see these kids,” he adds.

Each team has 30 players on the roster and plays 42 games, starting in June. Ticket prices range from $3 to $7. As in the Minors, games offer a variety of kid- and family-friendly promotions and entertainment—although unfortunately, no fireworks.

Nearby Cal Ripken teams include the Alexandria Aces, Herndon Braves, Washington Grays, Rockville Express, and the three-time defending league champions, Bethesda Big Train, which plays at Shirley Povich Field off Westlake Drive in Rockville.

“It’s baseball the way it was intended to be played—with a wooden bat,” says Big Train manager Sal Colangelo, now in his 14th year with the team. “We bring in some of the best players from across the country and present a family-friendly environment.”

http://calripkenleague.org

Nigel F. Maynard is a die-hard Atlanta Braves fan and catches the occasional Bowie Baysox game. He lives in Hyattsville, Md.

Categories: Travel
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