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The International Writers Magazine: Baseball

Big Adventures in the Minor Leagues
Brett A Padelford

Our epic minor league baseball journey this past July – eight games, six states, eight days – began with a resounding splash: a revolting, chunky one as my best friend Josh blew his lunch out (and on) the passenger door of his Toyota Camry.    The trip had begun a mere five minutes earlier as we pulled out of downtown Santa Barbara onto Highway 101 heading south toward LA.   And now, here we were: me laughing, Josh retching, and cars honking.

After months of planning and anticipation, it was an ignominious start for what was to be a long time in close proximity with another guy.  Josh had come along for a wedding of another friend the night before, which was the reason we’d started the trip up in Santa Barbara instead of from my apartment in LA.  He enjoyed the post-party a little too much and now we were starting the trip at a gas station with him cleaning the upholstery and me trying not to sympathy-puke.

Eventually we got on the road and began what was to be a 3,250 mile trip through the American West experiencing minor league baseball in its many forms, from wanna-be-big league AAA teams in large cities like Portland and Las Vegas to the baseball-is-the-only-show-in-town Rookie League clubs in outposts like Ogden and Great Falls.

That first day, July 1st, we made it to an Inland Empire 66’ers game in the urban wasteland of San Bernardino, California.   We drove overnight to Vegas and hit our second “numbered” team the next day in Sin City, the Las Vegas 51’s.  On the morning of the third, we drove north on I-15 into Utah for a Class A Ogden Raptors game set against the epic backdrop of the Rockies.  This was followed by an equally epic 450 mile overnight trek through Idaho into Montana.

The 4th of July saw us in Great Falls, Montana for a sold-out Great Falls White Sox game (with post-game fireworks).  A nighttime trek through the backroads of Montana and a few encounters with deer got us to Spokane for an Indians game the next day.  On the sixth, we drove down the Columbia river to Portland, Oregon for a AAA Beavers game before splitting an over 650 mile journey in half: Southern Oregon at night and Northern California on the morning of the 7th.

We made our seventh game in seven days in Stockton that night for a Ports game.  Then we discovered that we could hit one last game in Visalia, California on Sunday afternoon – with perhaps 75 total people in the stands to watch the Oaks – before making it home that night… exhausted and triumphant.

While this accomplishment was – at least in our opinion – ridiculously epic, the eight day journey was really just Josh and I eating badly, sleeping at weird times, and spending way too much time stinking up the car.  In other words: serious bonding.  Minor league baseball is made for it.  Anything involving beer, junk food, and our national pastime all wrapped around a road trip has natural allure for the North American male.

Life on the road was actually easier than expected and, more unexpectedly, Josh and I didn’t feel the urge to shove each other out the puke door five days in.  We only got lost a couple times, which was surprising for a guy that can’t find his friend’s apartment after four years (Josh) and another who can drive toward the sunset and think he’s heading east (also Josh).  We did take two wrong-turns, each of which took us on detours through rural roads.  A six-year-old, dog-eared road atlas and a stack of printouts from Mapquest did the trick, though, to keep us on track.  Wrong turns could mean getting to our motel at 6:30am instead of 5:00am, with another full day of driving ahead.

During the trip, we ended up watching approximately 24 hours of baseball.  I’d always been a baseball fan but never to the level of Josh, who’s made the pilgrimage to every major league park in the country.   Experiencing it every day of the week and discussing it endlessly with Josh really helped me appreciate the game more.  I even learned how to fill out a scorecard.

The minor league game is especially gratifying because the players, well, try.  All of them are hoping for their ticket out of baseball purgatory so they run out every infield grounder and dive for outfield flies.  They haven’t yet been tainted by the big money and ego-inflating adulation of the majors.  They’re just trying to make it.

And then there’s the food.   I decided early in the trip that getting a hot dog at the minor league games was a bad idea.  No, not because they’re made of mystery meat but because I’d miss out on some great local fare if I stuck with the tried-and-true.  On our trip, we sampled some ready-for-the-bigs fare – deep-fried asparagus in Stockton, California and awesome garlic, parmesan fries in Ogden, Utah – and some definite bush league food like “taco-in-a-bag” in Great Falls, Montana.

This culinary Frankenstein consisted of a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos cut across the side with ground beef and processed cheese slopped in.  It tasted awful, got all over my hands, and made my stomach ache. Trying new things, though, was a necessity on the road.  Besides, as much as one might try, nobody can survive a week-long diet of hot dogs and beer.

Just like taco-in-a-bag, the experience of minor league baseball sticks with you.  Mostly, it’s the people.  There was the big fire chief in Las Vegas who gave us free tickets as we walked into the stadium.  He regaled us with a few unfunny stories per inning, laughed overly loud at his cleverness then looked right at us, expecting us to join in.  We complied.  Or the proper old lady in Montana who thought we were “boys from the base” and was very polite when we told her about the trip.  Then, when her hometown White Sox pitcher gave up a couple runs, she whispered a terse “shit” to herself.  Or the little boy in Ogden who worried to his mother that if he the caught a foul ball hit by a home team Raptor player, the hitter would be call out.

Most of the experiences in minor league baseball are impossible to have in the big leagues.  At Yankee Stadium, you’ll never hear the stadium announcer announce bingo numbers between batters or address a man by name in the crowd and tell him to “call home, your wife wants to talk to you.”  Square dancing lessons are never given for free outside of Dodger Stadium.  And the flag is never brought into Wrigley Field on the back of a Harley.

So, this summer, you can drop a couple hundred bucks for good seats at your local major league team, pay 15 or more bucks for parking, drop 50 bucks more for a hat, a program, and a hot dog, and then watch your favorite juiced-up hero break into his home run walk around the bases.  Or… you could grab a buddy, buy an air freshener, jump in the car, and head out on the road.

For a week or more you can wake up every morning ready for another day at the diamond: lined with pristine white chalk, fragrant with fresh grass and filled with young players who run when they hit it out.   And it’s all cheap: front row seats for $10 and a free scorecard when you walk in.  Yeah, you’ll hear “YMCA” way too many times and get sick of watching people fall over in the “dizzy bat race,” but in the minor leagues the next new, strange, awesome experience is waiting to happen – just don’t forget the barf bag.  

Brett Padelford May 2008
Brett is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He is already planning his next trip through the minor leagues. his time, he and Josh are not leaving the day after a wedding.

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