In my part of Illinois, I am fortunate enough to have no fewer than five professional baseball teams within an hours drive and I am not including the Cubs or the White Sox. Really, given their records of mediocrity for nearly a century, can you still consider those teams professionals?
Independent & Minor League Baseball is making a huge splash of popularity across the nation, creating an atmosphere where fans can enjoy a game played by professionals. The stadiums are intimate & the level of play on the field is great. It allows the game of baseball, professional baseball, to find homes in parts of the world that might not be able to support the high salaries, exorbitant ticket prices, and outrageous fees for food & souvenirs that are inherent with the more popular Major Leagues. Seeing the game played by people who are playing for the love of the game as well as the hope of making the big time is refreshing if not vastly more affordable.
Recently, my younger brother Matt came to town for a visit. Hes also a huge baseball fan and we have shared many memories associated with the game. From competing against each other in Little League, to getting autographs from the players at Wrigley Field, we both thoroughly enjoy baseball. He even treated me to a Minor League game last year by taking me to see the Toledo Mud Hens, a Minor League affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.
Before my brothers visit, Id seen a few Minor League and independent league teams play back home. Matt had only seen Major League games before and the Mud Hens were the sum total of his Minor League experience. Wed talked about the state of the big league game and how disillusioned wed grown with our favorite teams. I decided to return his kind gift of a game with a trip to Alexian Field, the home of the Schaumburg Flyers.
The Flyers are a relatively new team, being part of the Northern League of independent teams. They are not affiliated with any Minor or Major league system. The teams in the Northern League have a few former and future Major Leaguers on their rosters. Regardless of their miniscule links to the big time, baseball is being played!
We had an outstanding time and Matt was most impressed with the quality of play, the beautiful stadium, and of course, the low cost of a ticket. We sat behind home plate, extremely close to the action, and bought our tickets the day of the game. Even being late for the game, we procured these great seats for the low price of $10.00 per seat. Add in a few excellent plays on the field, a hit batsman, and a fine argument between player & umpire and our trip to see the Schaumburg Flyers defeat the Kansas City T-Bones was a very memorable experience.
The seed was planted and a crazy idea was born. Why not take in a game the next day? We could go see the Kane County Cougars, an A-level Minor League team near my home. A quick check of their website and we were poised to see more professional baseball.
This time we got great seats down the first base line for $5.00 each and enjoyed a game in the sun played by a few future All-Stars! The Cougars have a few current Major Leaguers included in their past and who knows if theyll have more. Thinking about it, who cares? The Cougars gave the Burlington Bees a Fathers Day they, and the Martello brothers will never forget.
Four teams and two different leagues in two days. Now we recognized our mission: see as many consecutive local professional baseball games as we could. We frantically searched the internet for schedules.
Sticking with the Northern League, we went to Joliet, IL the next day to see the majestic Silver Cross Field where the MIGHTY Joliet Jackhammers took on the St. Paul Saints of Minnesota. Even though the Jackhammers fell on this day, this was possibly the nicest of the new local stadiums and for a variety of reasons, we had the best time. Everything from the team uniforms to the silly promotional games played in between innings provided Major League entertainment.
The next day found us witnessing an extra inning contest. The Rockford RiverHawks of the Frontier League, another independent league, defeated the Richmond Roosters to the delight of a small but proud group of fans. This game provided a few memorable moments, not the least of which being the Roosters properly executing the famous hidden ball trick and tagging out an embarrassed RiverHawks player. THE HIDDEN BALL TRICK FOR GODS SAKE! You can watch a million Major League games and never see anyone try the same play that had previously only been successfully attempted by the Bad News Bears! THIS was AWESOME!
Our last day of baseball found us on our only out of state trip. We went to Gary, Indiana to watch the Gary South Shore RailCats get trounced by the team that stared our ridiculous journey, the Flyers. Once again, the cost of baseball and the quality of the field, the players, and the fun far outweighed any former alliances and emotions we had for Major League baseball.
When it was all over wed seen 9 teams & 5 stadiums in 5 days. Four of the games had us sitting a few rows behind home plate and all the tickets were purchased the day of the game. Id acquired quite a nice assortment of baseball jerseys and Matt started a collection of baseball hats. Not including food and souvenirs, wed spent LESS than $50.00 a piece for 5 days of professional baseball and entertainment. We didnt even have to pay for parking.
Wed have seen six games together had another local team, the Windy City Thunderbolts, not been out of town that week. I made the trek myself a few weeks later and saw them endure a loss to the Springfield Ozark Mountain Ducks. I even took my mother-in-law since the field was so close to her home and tickets were buy-one-get-one-FREE. Two tickets behind the plate for a mere $8.00. I did have to fork over an outrageous $2.00 for parking, but I forgave the local heroes.
Matt extended his baseball holiday by one day when he discovered he could watch the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers of Appleton, Wisconsin. I game him a little grief about not staying in Appleton an extra day to see the other team in town, the Appleton Legends. He could have at least watched the Oconto Justice, the DePere River Bandits, or the Green Bay Billys by heading a little farther north. Quitter!
What Ive discovered in my own back yard was my favorite sport and a piece of Americana. I know that the game is alive and well. Sure, every one of the players in these small-time leagues would gladly trade in their home-spun values and love of the game for the big-time dollars and hero worship found within the Majors. I dont care. For now, at this level, the game is once again perfect . I can afford to watch the professional sporting competition I love. PLUS, I have the added benefit of watching these games without the heartache associated with devotion to a Major League team when your team loses. If you live in Chicago, theres NOTHING but heartache! I have no emotional attachment to any of these independent teams and while I root, root, root for the home team out of respect, I dont care who wins. I just want to watch and enjoy the game.
Thinking back to Barry Bonds and the Home Run Derby, I am reminded of something I saw at my Windy City Thunderbolts game. After P-Nut Williams cracked a towering home run over the outfield wall I was asked to contribute a few bucks to the home run bucket. This is an old-school baseball tradition where a home team player is rewarded with donations from the crowd for hitting the big hit. The money collected goes directly to the player. Since these guys rarely make more than $850.00 to $2,500.00 a month for their play, a few dollars for a home run seemed more than reasonable. Two home runs were hit that night and I gladly paid to watch players hit them. It made perfect sense to me.