“Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up.” — Bob Lemon, former Cleveland Indians pitcher and MLB manager . . . and also a former minor leaguer
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Rather than stay in a hotel, as I have done so often on my drives so far, I found a house for the night via Airbnb. I used Airbnb once before to find a beach house in Uruguay, but this was my first domestic use. The house I found is in a quiet Charlotte neighborhood just outside the inner beltway (Wesley Heights, I believe), but close enough to BB&T Ballpark that I could walk, so I did.
And I’m glad I did. Despite only travelling to the Queen City maybe a dozen times in my life, I have spent a significant part of those visits walking the city, rather than driving. This time, in the short mile between the Airbnb house and the ballpark, I was struck by just how integrated the older Charlotte neighborhoods are with the newer burgeoning downtown area. This proximity is not unusual — indeed, in our state alone, Durham, Raleigh, and Winston-Salem also are home to established neighborhoods that blend into their downtown areas — but the way it is carried off in Charlotte may be the most natural. Rather than just being next to downtown, the neighborhoods I’ve walked through here feel like they are a part of downtown, not just a neighbor to it.
I mention all of this not because I’ve run out of things to say about minor league baseball but because I think it parallels an important aspect of baseball that my visits to these minor league parks is helping me to understand. I walked into town on 4th street, scanning the blocks for my first sign of the ballpark, but all I kept seeing was Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. BofA Stadium is a fortress-like monster on the southwest edge of downtown that dwarfs many of the buildings around it. I’ve been there a few times for football games and had the same impression inside the stadium as I did today outside it. Rather than being a part of its surrounding community, the football stadium swallows the neighborhood whole.
Not so BB&T Ballpark, or, for that matter, any of the other stadiums I’ve visited. No matter their capacity, they are all intimate spaces in which only the most agoraphobic would be in distress. Baseball is a human-scale game — no matter what level, Single A to MLB, fans are right on the field, and their interaction with the players is frequent . . . and expected. There is no comparison in any other major sport. Football keeps spectators dozens of yards away from players; NBA courtside seats are limited to those who pay to be photographed in them; hockey separates fans from the rink with Kevlar-strength plexiglass (OK, I know that’s also for fan safety, but still, the behavior it elicits from drunk fans because it is there, separating them safely from the players they taunt, makes removing the barrier extremely unappealing, even if the pucks were made of cotton). Only golf gets close, with its famous walking galleries that follow certain players from hole to hole, but golf is hardly the broadly appealing spectator sport that baseball is.
And because baseball at any level is so human-scale, it also always seems to me to be more family-oriented. I sat beside a very proud father and his 4-year-old son for the son’s first baseball game. The dad calmly but still excitedly explained all of the players and plays to his son, who was engaged throughout (well, at least until he got tired and had to go home in the bottom of the 4th inning) and asked lots of questions. The highlight for me was the father’s simple but accurate explanation of all of the statistics that flashed on the screen each time a player came to bat. By the 3rd inning, his son was reading the stats on his own and making a call about whether he thought the player’s at-bat would be worth watching. And it’s not just a fathers-and-sons event, either; most groups at baseball games are entire families. Bob Lemon was right . . . at least in the first part of his quote at the head of this post.
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Charlotte 3, Gwinnett 2. I love minor league baseball, and I have loved the enthusiasm and budding talent on display at all of the Class A games I have seen so far, but it sure was nice to be at a AAA game for a change of pace. These guys may be professional players on the rise or on the way down, but they are MLB-caliber either way. Both pitchers kept the ball in the park, but both teams also were blessed with more than a few good hitters. The highlight of the game was a nice snag by Charlotte shortstop Drew Garcia, who made a highlight-reel on-his-back snag of a sharply hit grounder and still managed to get the ball to first for the out. The bulk of the scoring occurred in the 3rd, with Gwinnett plating a run at the top of the inning and Charlotte responding with 3 in the bottom half. The visitors made the top of the 9th a little nerve-wracking by pushing across a runner on an infield single and a double, but the home team prevailed in the end, but closer Junior Guerra settled down and got the final Gwinnett batter to line out to end the threat.
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Today’s beer: When in Rome. I went with local brewery NoDa Brewing Company and their Jam Session Pale Ale. For those of you who know me and know my beer preferences, I assure you that that is not a typo. Yes, I drank a pale. and it was pretty good. If nothing else, it really benefitted from being ice-cold, which was perfect for what turned out to be a blazing-hot and humid night well into the 90s.
Another Greensboro update: Be sure to check the animated .gif I added to the Greensboro Grasshoppers post of bat-dog Miss Babe Ruth doing her thing.