If baseball is a summer religion, its church is the ballpark. This is the perfect summer to take in a sermon on the mound. Plan a pilgrimage to some or all of the seven parks below, because minor league baseball is a great way to rediscover the holy spirit of the game. Amen!
Canal Park is a steel-framed beauty. It feels just like a little Jacobs Field or Camden Yards -- indeed, all three stadiums had the same designer. Canal Park is home to the Cleveland Indians' AA squad, the Akron Aeros, who battle weekly in the big, cantankerous Eastern League. Grab one of the 9,097 seats in the stadium ($10 reserved, $8 for juniors and seniors), and watch one of 71 home games against teams like the Bowie Baysox, Erie SeaWolves, and Reading Phillies. Park highlights include the largest freestanding scoreboard in the minor leagues and a cool game room in the right-field corner, featuring the ever-popular Speed Pitch. Of course, last season the Aeros struggled mightily, finishing second to last (63-78) in the southern division, with mediocre batting and pitching -- and the worst fielding percentage in the Eastern League. But 2005 is a whole new ballgame.
Scouting Report: J.D. Martin is the man on the mound this season. This Aeros right-hander was selected by the Indians in the first round of the 2001 draft. In 2004, his 11 wins ranked third in the Carolina League and were the third-most in the Indians farm system.
V.A. Memorial Stadium
In 1993, this adventurous minor league ball club in central Ohio was the lone charter member of the independent Frontier League, which is now the top single-A independent league in the country. Since their first game, the Paints have played at V.A. Memorial Stadium -- an old, renovated V.A. hospital park with personality. The stadium sports a variety of seating, including grandstands, bleachers, and even a ground-level picnic area down the third-base line. Tickets are a measly $3-$6; on Sundays, children under 12 are admitted for $1 -- and they get to run the bases after the game. Parking is free, and you can grab a 14-ounce draft beer for $2 and a hot dog for $1.50. Heck, if you ask nicely, the team might even let you play.
Scouting Report: The Paints finished fourth in the east division of the Frontier League with a .500 winning percentage (48-48) last season, 14 games out of first place. Keep an eye on Big Beau Blacken at the plate -- he hit 17 homers last season.
Even the most oblivious fan recognizes names like Derek Jeter, Don Mattingly, and Andy Pettitte. Each one is a baseball all-star, and each took a turn playing at Cooper Stadium -- home to the Columbus Clippers, the Yankees' AAA affiliate, which competes in baseball's International League. The embodiment of the rich history of Columbus baseball, the Coop dates back to 1932. With seating for 15,000 and a full roof, it's a wonderful example of large, Depression-era minor league stadiums. The park was the first minor league ballpark to install Astroturf. Luckily, it returned to grass in 2000. The seating is comfortable and close to the action (most tickets cost between $5 and $9). A visit to the Coop is a great way to catch tomorrow's baseball stars up close and personal today.
Scouting Report: In 2004, a record 20 players, including Kevin Brown, Homer Bush, Jason Giambi, Felix Heredia, Orlando Hernandez, and Scott Proctor, wore both Clippers and Yankees pinstripes during the season.
Fifth Third Field
The Dayton Dragons' Fifth Third Field is one of the largest stadiums in the Midwest League; it's also one of three different Fifth Third fields. With a second deck, 30 skyboxes, and a sizable scoreboard, Dayton's Fifth Third feels more like an AA or AAA facility, not a lowly class A ballpark. Every seat in the stadium is theater-style, with armrests and a cup-holder. If you sit at the second-deck club level, your food is served by waiters and waitresses. You can tour the concrete concourse, which circles the stadium and is designed for fans who just like to linger. There's also a berm in the outfield with festival grass seating. There's only one problem: Most of the 70 home games of the Dragons, a Cincinnati Reds affiliate, are sold out.
Scouting Report: Manager Alonzo Powell and pitching coach Larry Pierson will both return for their second seasons in Dayton, with Chris Sabo -- a former Reds standout and 1998's National League Rookie of the Year -- joining the staff as the Dragons hitting coach.
Lake County Captains
After only two seasons, Classic Park has lived up to its name. This home of the Lake County Captains (an Indians farm club) offers fans the classic ballpark experience with big games, stellar entertainment, and 7,273 seats -- all with good views. The smooth grass field is second to none; it was voted the Best Playing Surface in the South Atlantic League in 2003 and 2004. Picnic areas on either end of the main concourse are good for hosting groups up to 400. A grass berm above the outfield boasts cool festival seating. Audience entertainment is top-notch and includes pregame onfield autographs, a postgame kids' run, a T-shirt toss, and Skipper, the team mascot.
Scouting Report: The Captains won almost 100 games in their inaugural campaign in 2003, losing in the South Atlantic League Championship Series. Last year, the club finished 73-66 overall.
Mahoning Valley Scrappers
Scrapper (skrap-er) n. 1) An individual who fights, wrangles, and battles with a junkyard-dog-style mentality; 2) Mahoning Valley's hard-fighting, class A baseball team playing in the New York-Penn League. Both definitions capture the spirit and endurance of this Indians farm team. The ball club will play 38 dog-eat-dog home games (out of 76 total) at Eastwood Field this season, against colorful ball clubs like the Auburn Doubledays, Batavia Muckdogs, and Jamestown Jammers. Located right behind the Eastwood Mall in Niles, Eastwood Field is surrounded by 6,000 seats and is covered in beautiful Kentucky bluegrass. Grab a 16-ounce beer ($3.00) and a hot dog ($2.50), and watch quality minor league baseball while enjoying fun-filled between-innings contests like the dizzy bat race, musical chairs, frozen T-shirt contest, and our favorite, the rally gorilla.
Scouting Report: After the team's trip to the New York-Penn League championship last year, Rouglas Odor, the Scrappers' fifth manager in seven seasons, will have big shoes to fill in 2005.
Toledo Mud Hens
Fifth Third Field
Toledo has been playing pro baseball since 1883. Its famous minor league franchise took on its Mud Hens moniker in 1896, naming itself after the long-legged local bird that inhabited surrounding marshland. Today, the Mud Hens are the top affiliate for the Detroit Tigers and are playing in the International League. The team's fabulous Fifth Third Field just opened in 2002 and doesn't have a bad seat in the house. Pick from 8,943 slate-back chairs, 776 picnic seats, or standing room for 398. Some of the best seating is in the Roost -- 282 upper-deck chairs situated down the right field line, half in fair territory, half in foul. The closest seat is less than 60 feet from home plate -- closer than the pitcher is to the catcher. Of course, finding a seat might be the difficult part, as the Hens have finished in the top 10 in minor league attendance since 2002. Maybe that's because tickets for all 72 home games are only $8 a piece.
Scouting Report: Larry Parrish will return for his third straight season as manager of the Mud Hens after leading the team to a 65-78 record in 2004. He is the 71st manager in Toledo baseball history.
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