Sunday, May 20, 2007

Minor Weekend

I absolutely love minor league baseball. I have felt as long as I have lived here that the abundance of minor league baseball in the area is the single least appreciated resource the Tampa Bay area has. One of my first memories of moving here way back in 1986 was finding a huge stack of coupons for free tickets to a Tampa Tarpons game at the cash register of the Wags restaurant (now a Denny's) by the stadium. I was sure there had to be a mistake. Surely someone wouldn't leave so many valuable (FREE!!) coupons in one place. I grabbed two of them and was blown away when I got to Al Lopez Field that night and found less than 1,000 people there. Anyway, going to the Tarpons games became my thing to do. And while the Tarpons and Al Lopez Field are both loooooong gone, I still go to minor league games every chance I get...which isn't very often, unfortunately. But I found myself with a very rare full weekend off so I went over to Clearwater to see the Threshers take on the Sarasota Reds Saturday night.
You hear a lot of people compare the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg to sisters bickering over who's prettiest. I've always thought of Clearwater as the third sister who, while not as traditionally gorgeous as the other two, is certainly cute in her own right with a great personality, making her actually the most attractive of the three. Although, she's currently pretty heavily involved with a sketchy religion which admittedly takes off a little of the luster, but I still enjoy going to Clearwater. Heck, I liked going there to watch baseball at old Jack Russell Stadium (almost a carbon copy of Al Lopez), but Brighthouse Network Field is simply amazing. For starters, it features an open concourse, meaning you can get up from your seat and go get food or whatever and still see the game. I don't know why every new ballpark doesn't have this feature but they should. Seems like a no-brainer. Secondly, unlike just about every other spring training/Florida State League park, it's open all the way around. If you want to sit in the outfield (on a grass berm) you can. Third, and this is big, Frenchy's operates a full service tiki bar (margaritas!) out in left field. On top of all this, there was going to be free postgame fireworks. So I was all set for a great Saturday evening of minor league baseball in one of my favorite places.
Top of the second inning, I went to get food. Because the Threshers are an affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies and the Phillies train there during the spring, they serve Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches there. I had one and I guess it was ok but I think cheeesteaks are overrated. I don't know why Philadelphians are so fond of greasy, cheese-soaked meat on a roll that they made it the signature food item of Philadelphia, but then I consider myself a Chicago guy and I hate doughy "Chicago style" pizza and the idea of hot dogs with pickles and tomatoes on them makes me gag. So what do I know?
In the 3rd inning, I took the long way around to Frenchy's for a margarita and passed the bullpens in left field below the concourse. Both teams share the same space with a waist-high chain link fence separating them. But the Threshers pitchers, displaying an entrepreneurial spirit, had set up their own unofficial, unauthorized in-game promotion. Someone had placed cups of water and written in the dirt "MAKE QUARTER, WIN A PRIZE". The idea being that fans standing on the concourse could throw quarters at the cups and if they made it, they'd win. The more difficult the shot, the bigger the prize. Putting a quarter in the closest cups, pretty much a straight drop over the rail, would win you a baseball. The intermediate cups would get you a Threshers cap. And nailing the far away cups would score you a bat. I asked the bartender at Frenchy's if they did that every game and he said "Usually, but they got shut down the other night. Something about taxes." There had to be at least $30 on the ground while I was there so I could see the money adding up. That's another beautiful thing about the minors though: the players will actually take time to pick up quarters. The bartender actually won the bat (one toss...I'm guessing he practices a lot) while I was standing there and promptly gave it to a nearby kid, which was nice.
From there, I went to the seats along the 3rd base line to watch the rest of the game. Now, I have been to, let's see if my math is right here...about 2 million baseball games in my lifetime and I have never, ever caught a ball. I've never even come all that close. Once, when I was kid, a Cecil Cooper home run into the right field upper deck at old Comiskey Park landed about three rows right in front of me, but that's as close as I've ever come. Until Saturday, that is. 8th inning and Reds catcher Chris Kroski blistered a screaming foul right at me. I stuck my left (glove) hand out and plucked it cleanly right out of the air. Ok, it probably wasn't hit that hard and I juggled it...slightly...but still. My first ball! I got a nice hand from the fans, bowed appreciatively and immediately looked for a nearby kid to magnanimously give it to. Because the thrill is in making the catch and there's nothing more pathetic and ridiculous than an adult catching and keeping a ball. Besides, you get an extra ovation when you give it to the kid. So I graciously offer it to the first tyke I see, and he shakes his head no. What? He's...he's shaking me off? "Here sport. You can have it." "That's ok", he says. "You caught it, you keep it. Good job." What the..? This is my big moment and some brat in a Countryside Dodgers shirt is showing me up! I've waited my whole life to catch a ball and then make the grand gesture of giving it away and this ankle-biting crumb snatcher won't take it! So I actually had to hunt down a small child to take it, by which time the moment had passed and my secondary ovation was lukewarm at best. But the game was good (Reds over Threshers in 10 after the Threshers rallied in the 9th to tie) and the fireworks were great. Maybe not Epcot great but definitely on par with any minor league baseball fireworks I've ever seen. Plus, they didn't play Lee Greenwood or any other tired fireworks standards.

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