Unless you are a Tigers or Giants fan, baseball season is sadly over. For my Rockies-and-Mariners-loving-self, the season has been over for nearly a month. It’s always a depressing time. April seems so far away, especially now that I live three states away from the spring training complexes in Peoria, Arizona.

So to cheer myself up, I’m reminiscing about my minor league vacation while half-heartedly listening to Game 2 of the World Series on mlb.com.

I’d been wanting to go to Tennessee for ages (there was a trip planned four years ago that went awry) to see the Jackson Generals AA baseball team – formerly the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx. Why the need to see a random team in Tennessee? Because these ball playing fellows are just two steps away from being Seattle Mariners.

I’ve followed the Mariners minor leagues for years. I grew up cheering on the Everett Aquasox (the Mariners short season single A team) just north of Seattle. When I moved to Las Vegas, my favorite male travel companion and I would leave Sin City every summer weekend to instead hang out in the crappiest towns of Southern California. We would follow around the High Desert Mavericks (the Mariners long season single A team), cheering for them on in the fabulous cities of Victorville, Lake Elsinore, Bakersfield, and Lancaster. We had to be the only people LEAVING the excitement of Las Vegas to become Victorvillians for the weekend. But hey – baseball calls. We had things timed so Tom could pick me up from school on Friday and we’d pull into Stater Bros. Stadium in Adelanto just as the national anthem was starting. This mad dash unfortunately did not allow for a stop at The Mad Greek in Baker.

Anyways, after future Seattle Mariners are finished being Everett Aquasox and High Desert Mavericks, they move onto Tennessee to become Jackson Generals. (There is also a team in Clinton, Iowa, but I haven’t been there yet. Next year!) Therefore when my parents and I planning on visiting family in Baldwin, Wisconsin, I insisted that we “swing by” Jackson, Tennessee on the way back to Colorado. (Note to the geographically challenged: Jackson is NOT between Denver and Baldwin.) Luckily my parents are also diehard minor league fans, so convincing them to take a five-state detour was an easy task.  

We left Graceland in the afternoon and made the two hour drive to Jackson. I was humming Johnny Cash’s “We’re Going to Jackson,” for most of the drive, despite my mom gently suggesting that the song was most likely referring to the town in Mississippi. Unaffected, I sang on. My favorite part about driving through the south is singing all the country songs that are affiliated with various cities. I’ve made more than one travel companion despise the songs “Maybe it was Memphis” and “I’m a Little Past Little Rock (but a Long Way from Over You)” over the years. Come to think of it, that is probably why Tom killed the trip to Tennessee all those years ago.

Back to baseball: The Jackson Generals play in Pringles Park, right off of I-40 (you can see the park from the freeway). Being in Tennessee, the place was HOT. My mom claimed that she’d requested seats in the shade, but we were seated squarely in the sunshine. If you go to a game around 4:00, you’re going to want to sit in sections G – I in rows 15-22. Later in the evening, your back is to the sun if you are on the third base side sections A – F. Luckily, it was not very crowded, and so we abandoned our assigned seats and moved to the shade. It was a great game, even though the Huntsville Stars beat us in the 11th inning. If you are in the area, catch the game on the radio at 101.5 FM.

A few days later my mom and I found ourselves in Little Rock Arkansas for a day longer than expected (The Little Rock Nine Museum was just too cool. We couldn’t tear ourselves away after our allotted one hour had passed). How should we fill up an evening?

Baseball, of course! Right across the river from downtown Little Rock is the gorgeous Dickey-Stephens Park, home of the Arkansas Travelers since 2007. While the stadium is relatively new (the gal checking us in at our hotel was reminiscing about watching the Travelers at Ray Winder Field. She rolled her eyes at the mention the “new” stadium), the team is certainly NOT. The Travelers have been around 1895! They are currently affiliated with the Los Angeles Angels.

The game was fun, full of typical minor league shenanigans: errors, ground rule doubles and a run scored due to consecutive wild pitches. It was apparently “paramedic night” at the ball park – the men in white made three trips to the field, the first incident involving a little leaguer who passed out during the national anthem (it WAS pretty hot). Luckily everyone made it through the nine innings without having to be transferred to the hospital.

My mom and I were especially glad to have had a fulfilling night of baseball when we returned to our hotel room to find that back in Seattle Ichiro had been traded to the damn Yankees. It’s a good thing I like farm teams, because that’s basically what my Mariners are – a farm team for the Yankees. Luckily this World Series game that I’m listening to right now does NOT involve the soul-sucking/money grabbing team that gets booed by their own fans in New York. Listening to Detroit shut them down a few weeks ago was glorious. Things aren’t looking so good for Detroit now, but its baseball…you never know what could happen. Maybe the Mariners will even make it to the play-offs someday.

I can’t wait for next April…

I’m writing this from the Tokyo-Narita airport. This airport makes me want to stay in Japan. It’s fantastically organized and spotless. It is hot though. I read somewhere that the Japanese government is keeping buildings at 85 degrees to conserve energy. “Good for them,” I’d thought, not remembering that I would be sitting in a Japanese government building for four hours. Oh well.

But this post isn’t about a Japanese airport. It’s about someplace even hotter: Modesto, California. The problem is that I’m traveling faster than I’m blogging, which is pretty much the best problem in the world.

So Modesto. Not typically a sought after destination, unless you are a minor league baseball fan. Last Tuesday (June 21st) the Modesto Nuts hosted the California-Carolina League All-Star Smash, wherein the top prospects for both leagues battle out their nine innings together. The game is played in different stadiums each year, alternating between the east and west coast. This year it was Modesto’s John Thurman Field turn to host the event.

 

Modesto pulled out all the stops for the 5,000+ fans that were in attendance, from Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers throwing out the first pitch to the fireworks show after the game. California even beat Carolina 6-1, thanks mostly to a typically minor-league 3rd inning which included two walks, a fumbled double-play ball, a hit batter, two singles and a sac fly. Buy hey – we’ll take it!

 

John Thurman Field is located at 601 Neece Drive, Modesto, CA 95351. The area is pretty nice (not always the case for baseball stadiums), tucked near a park and golf course. If you want to avoid the parking fee, plenty of street parking is available.

The stadium features mostly bleacher seating, but those bleachers have backs, so they’re not too bad. The only seat-seats are in the section behind home plate. But no matter where you sit, your less-than-$20 seats will have a great view. Thus the allure of minor league baseball.

If you go to a game, be sure to get an autograph or two. The players are more than happy to oblige, and you never know…they could be major leaguers someday! 

You know “family packages” are usually for a family of four? At a Salt Lake City Bee’s game you can win a family pack of baseball tickets – for a family of eight.

In the Bee’s program, along with the lineup and scorecard, are advertisements for local Mormon churches. The parking lot (where you should NOT park, to avoid the $6 fee) is filled with large and expensive looking SUV’s – useful for both traversing mountain passes and shuttling large families to and fro.

This is one reason why I always buy tickets to minor league baseball games when on a spring or summer road trip. (The other reason being that I love baseball more than traveling itself. And that’s saying a lot!) Minor league ballparks provide major community insight. The outfield walls will be covered with advertisements to local restaurants. Community events will be referenced over the loudspeakers in between innings. Friendly people surrounding you (because baseball lovers are the best kind of people) will fill you in on anything you might want to know about their hometown. From the ceremonial first pitch to the 7th inning stretch, minor league stadiums are “1-2-3” times better then local tourism offices.   

A couple minor league tips:

  • Peruse the concession area and enter any contests. Almost all stadiums have free giveaways. Since this is not a major-league crowd, you actually have a good chance of winning!
  • Ballparks are often in questionable areas of town (where land and property is cheaper), so be aware. Surrounding hotels are often not the best…but usually they are less expensive.
  • Minor league players are amenable to signing balls and programs. Come early or stick around after the game to score an autograph.
  • Check www.milb.com for a list of ballparks throughout the US. Call ahead to reserve tickets because some stadiums do sell out. 
  • Bring blankets and warm clothes. Even Southern California gets cold in the 8th inning.
  • Learn how to keep score. It’s fun, a great conversation starter, and a good record of the game. If one of the players makes it to the majors it’ll be fun to look back and remember the game where you saw him as a 19-year-old rookie, chasing big dreams.