A Double Dose of MiLB Action

IMG_1110There’s a plethora of Minor League Baseball in the Mid-Atlantic and frankly, there’s no good reason to avoid it. As May turned to June, we had one particular date on the calendar: the weekend of June 3. Why? The Columbia Fireflies were visiting the Hagerstown Suns. Why was this noteworthy? The one, the only Tim Tebow would be paying a visit to Hagerstown. As a Gator, I had to be there.

Unsurprisingly, tickets were hard to come by, but we managed to secure some grandstand seats for Sunday, June 4. The game was sure to be close to a sellout. We grabbed tickets for Hagerstown, accompanied by a few friends and were excited (well, I was; Ansley can’t stand Tim Tebow. Must be the two national championships he won with Florida while she was at Georgia…)

One would think an afternoon in Hagerstown would satiate our baseball appetites, but fear not friends, the title of this post is not a misnomer. No, no. We caught the Frederick Keys on the way home, because one game on a Sunday afternoon is just not enough!

Let the adventures begin!

First Stop: Antietam

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We hopped in the car on Sunday morning and enjoyed the absolutely gorgeous ride from D.C. to Hagerstown. On the way, we decided to inject a bit of history into the trip and stopped at Antietam. What better thing to than history to pair with baseball? The battlefield’s nestled between the rolling foothills in northern Maryland, not far from the West Virginia and Pennsylvania borders. This serene setting hosted some of the worst violence during the Civil War and it was difficult to imagine the horrors as we trekked through the enormous battlefield.

The Sun Shining Bright in Hagerstown

It was a roughly 30 minute drive from Antietam to Hagerstown. We were cutting a bit close to the 2:05 p.m. first pitch, but we’d be fine. Our friend (another Gator) got there as soon as gates opened 2 hours before first pitch. He hoped to meet Tebow. He nervously texted us about the growing crowds. We all shrugged it off.

Sure, it’s Tim Tebow, but it’s single A baseball. In Hagerstown, Maryland. How crazy could it be?

The answer? Very.

The parking lot was bursting at the seams. No attendants directed us to a parking spot, nor was there a sign informing us the lot was full. Cars were everywhere. Every conceivable place to park a car was full. I considered leaving the lot and driving down the street. I didn’t want to get a parking ticket at a Hagerstown Suns game. One of our friends suggested we create our own space. I was hesitant, but screw it. Who would tow or ticket us? The nonexistent parking attendants who clearly cared more about the jam packed game?

We locked the car and headed to the gate.

Gator Nation Travels….even to Hagerstown

I don’t know what I expected. Tebow’s a big deal, even after a short, albeit memorable NFL career, and seven years after he left the University of Florida. I wore a Gators baseball shirt, which felt appropriate for the moment, and due to the Gators rolling through the NCAA baseball tournament (which they just won. yay!). I wasn’t alone.

Everywhere you turned, someone was wearing Gator gear. Hats, shirts, jerseys, tank tops, you name it. There were people wearing Tebow Philadelphia Eagles jerseys. Wait….Nike made Tebow jerseys for his cup of coffee with the Eagles? Did Tebow even have enough time for a cup of coffee with the Eagles? How? Why? What…?

Ok. I digress. Seriously though, I hope that guy bought it on the clearance rack at a T.J. Maxx.

Municipal Stadium is….old

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The Suns play in Municipal Stadium. It’s old. Built in 1930, Municipal Stadium was built in six weeks. An entire ballpark. Sure, we’re not talking about Yankee Stadium here, but six weeks? Why do the Suns still play in this ancient park? Always consult a team’s website, for you never know what information it may hold…. In 1930, the organization signed a 99 year contract with the city of Hagerstown to play on that piece of land (the land, not necessarily the ballpark) for one dollar per year. Yes. The Suns pay the city a one whole dollar a year to play at Municipal Stadium.

With that said….the park is showing its age. It has a wonderful covered grandstand that’s reminiscent of Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona (another old park), but the seats were a bit uncomfortable, and the bleachers along the third base line needed some serious help.

However, it wasn’t all bad.

There was a reasonable beer bar (for a single-A ballpark, mind you) down the left field line, including a couple of local beers (one of which was a stadium exclusive). A local high school sponsored a concession stand filled with higher end treats (including delicious hand cut fries). The Suns have a team store, but it was a glorified closet, and the selection was sparse. I picked up a cap (because of course I did), but this was definitely one of the weaker MiLB team shops I’ve visited (until we went to Frederick later that afternoon).

IMG_1126The Game

Single A ball always delights me. We’re so used to watching Major League Baseball, we often forget where professional players generally start: at the bottom, playing in dingy parks for low pay and a brutal life on a bus. The imperfect play of lower level minor leaguers always brings a smile to my face. Batters still can’t quite hit a breaking ball. Infielders are slower to react to a bouncer. Outfielders just plum misplay a routine fly ball. It makes the game fun, and the warts only add to baseball’s claim as America’s pastime. We–like those single A players–are imperfect. We make errors–sometimes ones that cost us the game. But, we’re still fresh-faced, hoping to learn from our mistakes, and improve upon our game. In effect, low-A ball exudes optimism.

I like that.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the game. Well, the Suns couldn’t dim the Fireflies, as they lost 5-3. Despite going 0-2, Tebow played a role in the win. He walked with the bases loaded, securing an RBI. Tebow’s RBI walk drew a raucous applause from the crowd. It was as if he hit a game winning doubles. Alas, he did not.

Around the 8th inning, we grew antsy. The Tebow-mania wore off (as did Ansley’s relentless booing of Tebow when he approached the plate)

There had been some discussion of swinging by Frederick to check out the Frederick Keys in high-A (we’re movin’ on up!) on the way back to D.C. It was roughly 30 minutes from Hagerstown and we a decision had to be made.

Even though it was a “school night,” an additional baseball game on top of seeing Hagerstown and touring a Civil War battlefield sounded like a fantastic idea. It was settled. We were going to Frederick.

Intermission: Make Believe Parking Spaces

During this brief intermission, I figured it would be worth mentioning that our car was not in fact ticketed or towed for being in a make believe space. In fact, our ingenuity led someone to park in a make believe space directly behind us! As we were walking to the car, I felt no remorse leaving early. More than 4,000 souls crammed into Municipal stadium on a sweaty afternoon, and all of those people were about to come pouring out of the park, ready to flee. Many of them were parked illegally. I assume some had challenges getting out.

We were not among them. Leaving early was wise.

Frederick Keys: High A Means Upgrades

Thanks for sticking with me!

So, we cruised down the highway, barreling through Maryland. After 30 minutes, we arrived in Frederick, a town that more or less amounts to an exurb of the DMV (what folks up here call the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia metro area; yes it’s a silly name that conjures up bad times at an actual DMV).

Nymeo Field: Generic but Nice

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We exited the highway towards a gleaming beacon of baseball. Compared to the nearly century old Municipal Stadium, Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium (in the city of Frederick, in the county of Frederick, in the state of Maryland…), is a modern MiLB ballpark and was a delightful place to see a game. A few downsides: 1. there’s no roof, so if you’re exposed to the sun, be prepared. 2. The park–while modern–is fairly generic. Walking around, I felt like I’d been to at least 4 other MiLB parks with a similar aesthetic. It was nice, with a reasonable number of food and beverage options (big emphasis on local Flying Dog beer). Sadly, the Frederick Keys had the worst MiLB team store I’ve seen. (And this is coming from someone who saw the Birmingham Barons use a literal closet for a team shop at the old Regions Field in Hoover, AL.) The Keys stashed their limited selection of gear under a tent.

Look, I get it, most minor league teams don’t need a fancy team store with a plethora of souvenir options, but a tent? Ooook. Regardless, I skipped the souvenirs. The Keys have a pretty generic look (by MiLB standards) and their hats weren’t the most appealing. I guess I’d just settle for my fantastic Hagerstown Suns cap.

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We ended up with some great seats along the third base line in the second row. It’s another plus side to seeing minor league games. Sure, you’re not necessarily seeing big name players, but you’re almost guaranteed to get a great seat for around $10. I really don’t think I’ve been to a minor league game wishing I had a better seat. Frederick was no different.

The Game

The Keys played the nearby Potomac Nationals (a–you guessed it–Nationals affiliate) and the game was all Frederick until the end. The Nationals put up 2 runs in the 9th to make it look like a close game, but the 4-2 final might as well be a 10-0 final. Frederick’s starter pitched 6 innings of shutout 2 hit ball and struck out 7. It was a joy to watch.

Also notable…..Tim Tebow was not the only Gator we saw. Former Gator catch Taylor Gushue played catcher for the Nationals. Sadly, he didn’t have a sizable Gator fan base cheering him on. It’s great to be a Florida Gator, but unless you’re Tebow, the frenzy doesn’t follow.

Venturing Home After a Long Day

A double header preceded by a battlefield tour makes for a long day. It was a great experience catching two minor league games in a day, and aside from the significant headache I had from slight dehydration, it was certainly worth the adventure. Minor league games remain one of my favorite pastimes. While the game is certainly imperfect, it’s a more realistic experience. There are fewer distractions, less alternatives within the ballpark, and more of a focus on the game. Major league ballparks continue to ramp up new distractions to keep fans from watching the game and simply keep them in the stadium, but minor league teams generally don’t have the budget for such chicanery. You’re there to watch baseball and it’s a welcome alternative to the real world. For just a few short hours, you can focus on nothing but the game, forgetting work, the real world, or any other stressors. It’s what makes baseball so great. It’s why in its earlier days, fans would leave midday obligations behind to venture over to their local field to watch a game. Even if we can’t leave work at noon every day for a game, it’s nice to still have the option to forget everything else and just watch a ballgame.

What’s Next?

Now that I’ve finally caught up on writing, maybe it’s time for another game? We were trying to hit up Baltimore on July 1, but it simply didn’t work out. Here we are, 1.5 seasons into our time in the mid-Atlantic, and we still have yet to make it to Oriole Park. I’m getting grumbly about it… Maybe at some point in July or in August (when I conveniently have Fridays off. WOO)

Also, there’s a slight chance we’ll make it down to SunTrust Park before its inaugural season comes to a close. All political problems aside, the Braves built themselves a great-looking facility. Sure, it doesn’t have the views offered by PNC or AT&T Parks, but SunTrust looks nice, with a slew of modern amenities not available at Turner Field. Hope we make it down there soon.

Of course, there are plenty of other minor league options in the area, so stay tuned for any last minute adventures. They’re sure to happen before we draw the curtain on the 2017 baseball season.

Cheers.

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