If you’re sick of the big leagues, but not baseball, check out your backyard.
Here in Michigan you can watch the Beach Bums in Traverse City, the Lugnuts in Lansing, the West Michigan Whitecaps near Grand Rapids, the Great Lake Loons in Midland, and the Kings in Kalamazoo. Michigan fans can see six minor league teams if you count the Toledo Mud Hens – and seven if the Tigers start slumping again. Michigan baseball fans haven’t had it this good in decades.
In 1949, the U.S. boasted almost 500 minor league teams, supported by 42 million fans. But their ranks shriveled when major league baseball expanded, TV blossomed and air conditioning made staying at home much cooler. In just three years, attendance dropped almost 80%.
But when major league baseball turned its back on its fans with strikes and lockouts, the minor leagues aggressively courted them. Almost every fan-friendly custom you see at major league stadiums today they stole from the minors, including fancy food, daily promotions, pop music and endless stunts to keep the fans coming back, win or lose. As a result, the minors have grown back to a robust 176 teams nationwide.
Visit one, and you understand why.
You park your car for a couple bucks, and in a couple minutes, you’re in your seat. Every employee you meet seems to be working overtime to keep you fat and happy. They remember the season ticket holders’ names, and welcome them back each night.
The workers shower the fans with free frisbees, candy bars and bunched-up T-shirts fired from sling-shots. Between innings, they sponsor the usual potpourri of minor league gags, including the dizzy bat race, the hula hoop contest and a sumo wrestling match – always involving fans pulled from the stands.
A minor league baseball park is no place for the self-conscious. You should expect to let your hair down and join the show.
Kids play on the grass embankments, stand on the dugouts and sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch – while waving to their parents – and get to run around the bases when the game’s over.
Fans don’t leave minor league games early, because they’re enjoying the whole experience, not just the outcome.
In the minors, even the players aim to please. Unlike the lollygaggers in the majors, the bush leaguers take their at-bats as if they’re being timed, they don’t whine about the umpire’s calls and they actually run all the way to first base on hopeless ground balls. Of course, they’d better, or they’re gone.
The players put their hearts in their work for less than they could make flipping burgers at McDonald’s. So, why do it? Because after four or five years of flipping burgers, McDonald’s will never give you a big league contract. Do any of these guys really have a chance? As one manager told me, “If you got a uniform, you got a chance.”
These guys are doing what they’ve dreamed about all their lives: playing baseball.
Some dreams are a little more modest. I met two brothers who had good jobs at Oldsmobile, but asked the Lansing Lugnuts if they could walk around the park with trash cans. They only got minimum wage – and all the cans they could find. “If it wasn’t fun,” one told me, “we wouldn’t be here.”
He then picked up his trash can, turned toward his buddies in the stands and bellowed, “Get yer trraaaaaash. Cold trash here! Get yer trash!”
And that, in a peanut shell, is the difference between the majors and the minors: Everyone in the minors is making less money, and having more fun.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.