“You can’t beat fun at the ol’ ball park,” the late Harry Caray used to say. And there’s a particular kind of fun associated with minor league baseball, where major leaguers of the future incubate.
It’s now becoming something of a tradition again in the Atlanta area, as the Class AAA Gwinnett Braves are about to open their second season in the area after moving from Richmond, VA. The team held its “play day” for fans Saturday (3/27/2010), with people getting a chance to run the bases, shag flies and get autographs from former Braves stars (see video).
I never got a chance to experience minor league baseball much as a youngster. The old Atlanta Crackers were before my time, though they have a rich tradition. Stars such as Eddie Mathews and Tim McCarver played there. A Birmingham, AL, native (like other immediate family members), I remember my father telling stories of seeing Walt Dropo hit tape measure shots for the old Birmingham Barons at Rickwood Field. Years later, that team became part of the Oakland A’s system, and family members there would relay stories of Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers wowing everyone with the Birmingham A’s. (Check it out).
I worked for a time at the Macon Telegraph, and that history-rich city just down the road still has echoes of Pete Rose and Tony Perez playing with the Macon Peaches at Luther Williams Field. Years later, as a Florida journalist, I was among those who saw a young Andres Galarraga and a rehabbing Steve Rogers play for the Montreal farm team in Jacksonville at Wolfson Park.
Folks, the spirit coming from the field in the so-called bush league teams is remarkable. Those players are hungry, making average salaries and meal money, and riding buses between cities. There are no endorsements or national TV. They are much more cordial with fans and play with a hustle and love for fundamentals than the major leaguers. If you want to show your youngster how the game is played, go there. You’ll see a lot fewer missed bunts and baserunning blunders than from players who have seven-figure guarantees.
The Gwinnett stadium in particular, now named Coolray Field for corporate purposes, has a unique touch. The outfield berms allow fans to lounge on the grass while watching. The 6,500 seating capacity keeps all fans close to the action. Yet it’s big city accessible, on a main thoroughfare near I-85. There are still those who did not like taxpayer funds subsidizing the Braves’ efforts to relocate the team here, and they have a good point. But it does bring some jobs and retail spending to the area, not to mention some civic buzz. Gwinnett County now is a metropolis of its own, with an area that hosts top entertainment acts, and a minor league hockey team (Gladiators). That is much like my former home of Orange County, CA, regarded by some as just a suburb of LA. Not so there, either: Studies show that most people who live in Orange County (population about 3 million, to 775,000 for Gwinnett) also work there, and they have baseball (Angels) and hockey (Ducks) teams of their own to distinguish themselves from the metropolis to the north.
So the evolution of baseball in Atlanta continues. Fun to see which current G-Brave people will rave about years from now.