A few years ago, I watched my childhood hero, Ryne Sandberg, at work on a baseball field—but not in the Chicago Cubs uniform of his heyday. He was prowling a minor league diamond as manager of the IronPigs, working his way back to the big leagues. He eventually made it, but that night, there were a few distractions.
Despite it being July, it was Halloween Night. Ryne gamely donned a black-and-white uniform adorned with a life-size skeleton. Between innings, live monkeys strapped onto border collies chased a flock of sheep across the diamond, eventually herding one into the dugout. The crowd roared. My hero chuckled.
That’s the thing about minor league baseball: It may look, feel and smell like Major League Baseball, but even in Triple-A, it’s something different altogether. Nobody worries much about the score, and after you buy a ticket, park your car and drink a beer, you’ll still have enough cash left over to pay the bills next week.
And, of course, there are the ballparks—throwback theaters where the sideshows sometimes outshine the game. On a midsummer evening, you’ll find baseball distilled to its essence: salty peanuts, future stars on their way up and, just maybe, a few monkeys herding sheep.
Photo courtesy of Victory Field.
Victory Field, Indianapolis
No city in the Midwest, perhaps in America, has capitalized on the power and thrill of sporting events like Indy. And the home field of the Indianapolis Indians offers some of the best seats (and lawns) to see it all. A block from the Colts’ hulking downtown NFL stadium, the park was designed by the firm that imagined Baltimore’s transcendent Camden Yards and has space for 14,000 fans. Recline in the grassy home-run zone or snag a picnic package at the heart of one of America’s most walkable, vibrant and family-friendly downtowns.
• Kids-eat-free Sundays.
• The nearby NCAA Hall of Champions museum.
Photo courtesy of Huntington Park.
Huntington Park, Columbus, Ohio
History infuses the Columbus Clippers’ field. Photos in the concourse and Hall of Fame bar document local baseball lore. One factoid: Columbus created baseball’s first concession stand in 1887. Luckily, vendors here no longer sell whole Vidalia onions and tripe.
• Dime-A-Dog Night every Monday (40,000 dogs once sold at a game).
• A chat with team historian Joe Santry, who says two women gave birth at a game in 1932.
Photo courtesy of Modern Woodmen Park.
Modern Woodmen Park, Davenport, Iowa
When a batter for the Quad Cities River Bandits blasts a homer over the right-field wall, the ball lands in the Mississippi River. A dinger to left? That might hit the 105-foot Ferris wheel. This quintessential low-level minor league field embodies as much amusement park as stadium. An actual patch of corn along the left-field line casts a Field of Dreams spell on the view. (The real Field of Dreams, where Kevin Costner summoned his dad’s ghost, is 90 miles away in Dyersville.)
• Bumper cars, a roller coaster and a double-decker carousel in the mini amusement park.
• A video game zone, featuring 10 flat-screen TVs, gaming consoles and arcade machines.
Fifth Third Field, Toledo, Ohio
If you know the classic TV show M.A.S.H., you know the Toledo Mud Hens as Cpl. Klinger’s favorite team. (Toledo native Jamie Farr played Klinger.) You may not realize, though, that the Mud Hens’ downtown ballpark has been a catalyst for urban revitalization since opening in 2002. It’s located in a warehouse district called Hensville, and one building in right field holds the park’s signature feature: a home-run porch called The Roost, with 282 primo seats. No matter where you sit, be sure to order a Muddy’s Sea Salt Slam (caramel, ice cream and more in a waffle cone).
• Hens and Hounds nights, when fans can bring dogs.
• The nearby Fleetwood Tap Room, named for the first black pro, Moses Fleetwood Walker, of the Toledo Blue Stockings.
Photo courtesy of CHS Field.
CHS Field, Saint Paul, Minnesota
America’s favorite pastime blends with art at the sparkling new stadium for the Saint Paul Saints. Multicolor seats overlook a field that yields to a nature preserve beyond the fence. A concourse art gallery behind home plate showcases local artists at each game. And above the main entrance, a cedar overhang with black pillars looks like a Lowertown artist’s loft turned upside down. What the Saints lack in an MLB team affiliate (they don’t have one), they make up for in stardom. Actor Bill Murray is a co-owner (“team psychologist,” per the roster). He’s been known to check tickets at the gate on game day and step in as a batting practice pitcher.
• A craft beer stand along left field with 30-plus drink options.
• Studios and lofts surrounding the stadium open the first Friday of each month to show artwork.