Let’s go Lansing Lugnuts that is. Last night I went to my first Minor League Baseball game. I’ve been to a couple of Major League games before, but on a nice summers’ evening it was about time to find out more about what goes on in the lower echelons of the game that has always intrigued me. When I was about 8 my uncle brought me back a Red Socks baseball and pennant from a business trip. Maybe that got it started. One of my favourite writers Stephen Jay Gould was a huge baseball fan and used the apparent extinction of the .400 batting average as an adroit metaphor in one of his books to discount the idea of evolutionary progress with humans at the pinnacle in. And of course there are the parallels with cricket.
The lower levels of professional sport rarely get heard above the din and clamour for the biggest and best teams. The FA Premiership is now the richest football league in the world and followed avidly by many fans around the world. Its transition from a league with a reputation of violence and hooliganism to one of the most marketable sporting brands in the world has come via a change in attitude and facilities. I have a vivid memory from one of my first trips to a Bristol City game in the late 1980’s (again, I must have been about 8 – I hasten to add City are not, unfortunately, in the Premiership). I needed to use a bathroom so Dad took me to the ‘Gents’ where I was confronted simply by a 10 foot wall painted black with a gutter of urine running along the bottom. The smell was ‘colourful’ as was the language around me. It was intense to say the least. How this experience has effected me later personal development I can only guess – Mum certainly didn’t approve of me going along. But the violent and abusive behaviour that once embodied watching the game is no longer tolerated and the terraces have been replaced by more manageable and comfortable rows of covered seating (and more hygienic toilets).
Apparently a similar change has occurred in the minor leagues of baseball. In the game programme was a piece about the rise in popularity of Minor League games. Season attendances in every season since 2000 have been placed in the top 10 since the leagues began and in 2006 the current record was set at 41.7 million fans. That’s more than the NBA, and more than the NFL and NHL combined, each year. Fifth Third Field in Dayton Ohio has sold out every game since it opened in 2000. But the continuing growth has come since the 1990’s and a similar attitude toward the game as has changed football in the UK. And the programme article described a lady faced by a similar toilet experience as my childhood one – it’s certainly not like that now. The emphasis has shifted toward entertainment and whilst the minor league game hasn’t changed, the crowds have. In family-friendly America this means kids. And lots of ’em.
So whilst the high pitched screaming wasn’t so good for my ears, the $9 seat in the third row along the first base line was good for my wallet and got me close to those 90 mph pitches. I have got to say though, even with my uneducated eye, the quality of play wasn’t quite up there with, say, the SF Giants. The Lugnuts gave up 4 runs in the first inning and it wasn’t looking good. But then South Bend gave up 5 in the second and from there on we cruised to victory (8-5). Highlights from ‘the game’ for me included a Lugnuts batter snapping his bat over his knee (golfer style) after he struck out with the bases loaded, and the genius sack race ‘run’ by some ‘hefty’ women from the crowd between 8th and 9th innings. I was less impressed that they wouldn’t refill my plastic beer glass when buying a second and that I HAD to have a new one. Grrr…
Regardless of the quality of play it was a good night. And seemingly the growth of Minor League Baseball is good for the cities in which the teams are located. Oldsmobile Park is leading the much needed regeneration of the waterfront area of downtown Lansing. After the game, the fireworks reflected in the windows of the old Ottawa Power Station (above) that has lain empty for over a decade. Regeneration is needed in Michigan of all places in the States, where the decline of the American auto industry has hit hard. With manufacturing in sharp decline the state and the city need to turn to alternative industries for income and regeneration. The dollars spent in the stadium are now helping to boost the local economy, and give this part of town something to build around for the future. So, let’s go nuts!