Sunday, July 10, 2011

Alexandria Beetles baseball: desperation entertainment (unedited)

I like the idea of minor league baseball, but it's hard to get emotionally attached to a team.

My beloved Chicago White Sox won the world series in 2005. Less than six years later there are three players left from that 2005 team. That's the nature of baseball.

In the minor leagues the turnover is far greater. I'm sure there are players who spent several years on the same minor league team, but movement up and down the minor league system, or being traded from one team's minor league system to another, is the common scenario for baseball players trying to make it to the big leagues.

Most minor league baseball teams are affiliated with a major league team. If you play for the Great Falls Voyagers of Montana, your goal is to make it to the Chicago White Sox.

But there are several minor league teams not affiliated with a Major League Baseball franchise, and one of those teams is the Alexandria Beetles of Alexandria, Minn.

The Beetles play in the Northwoods League, a summer league composed of collegiate baseball players. Many aspiring Major League Baseball players are drafted out of high school, foregoing the collegiate experience. But college baseball is a viable avenue to a major league career, too, and college baseball players who are living the dream have few options during the summer if they want to maintain their college baseball eligibility. That's where the Northwoods League comes in.

You won't find the career minor league journeymen playing in the Northwoods League, it's a place for collegiate players to spend their summer playing competitive baseball without getting paid to do so. I'm sure the teams are allowed to arrange housing and other benefits for their players, but the players aren't paid.

Some minor league teams, typically the AAA affiliates of Major League teams (the highest level of minor league baseball) draw thousands of fans to games. The teams are typically located in cities of significant size, such as Buffalo, N.Y., Indianapolis, Ind., and Toledo, Ohio.

Most of the Northwoods teams are in Minnesota and Wisconsin, in cities that are of decent size, but far from spectacular in population. Toledo has about 287,000 residents. Alexandria has less than 12,000, and there aren't many neighboring cities of significant size to draw upon.

Allegedly the Beetles game I attended last week drew more than 1,000 spectators.

I have long wanted to see the charm a collegiate minor league game in Minnesota has to offer, but I've been unwilling to make the 60-90 minute drive to cities north and south of Minneapolis to attend a Northwoods game. But I made the 15-minute drive last week to see the Beetles while on vacation.

There's a definite small town feel at a Beetles game. The old city ballpark that hosts Beetles games has a nice grandstand behind home plate, but it seats a few hundred, not thousands. There are bleachers along the baselines, but there's no outfield seating, other than a few promotional seats that weren't in use last week.

The only minor league products I have witnessed are the St. Paul Saints and the defunct Duluth-Superior Dukes, both independent minor league teams. The Saints franchise has been around in its present form for nearly 20 years. They were drawing more than 6,000 spectators a night, every night, for years. In recent years they have had to work harder to keep people coming back, but that's another story.

The Beetles sell a similar experience as the Saints. There's a lot of entertainment added to the on-the-field product. The game is serious, but the atmosphere between innings is far less so. Humor and minor league antics are part of the total package. It's cute, but not a reason to keep coming back week after week. If you don't enjoy watching competitive baseball, you'll tire of attending Beetles games in a hurry.

I had wanted to attend a Beetles game two summers ago, but their schedule didn't mesh with my vacation plans. Ditto last year. But I finally made it in 2011, and I can't say I'm going back in 2012.

Half the battle in minor league baseball is putting asses in the seats. Minor league ballparks don't gouge patrons like their major league counterparts when it comes to concessions, so once you're in the ballpark, there's a chance you'll support the franchise with a hot dog, soda or beer purchase. For the Beetles, putting asses in the seats means giving away general admission tickets for weeknight games. I made the mistake of saving $6 or $8 by taking advantage of a free general admission ticket to a Wednesday night game.

Many people who attend minor league baseball do so for the social aspects of the experience, not so much for the action on the field. In Alexandria that means several well-meaning parents attend a game with their undisciplined children, because being a good parent means pretending you're creating a lifetime memory at the expense of people who have little tolerance for your filthy offspring.

I wound up sitting in front of some freakishly freckled woman with about 10 kids under the age of 6. I lost count how many times her disinterested children brushed up against my back because it was difficult stepping around the folded stroller behind me. At no point did Freckzilla appear to notice her spawn were infringing upon my personal space. I call that Alexandria hospitality.

I got up to get a beer before the game was half over, if for nothing else than to get away from the riff raff. When I returned my bench was infested with the little freaks. Freckles was surprised to see me return and sort of apologized for invading my space. I quickly pointed out there were plenty of good seats still available. That's because several people were already headed home before the game was half over. I knew I wasn't returning to my seat, Freckula made it less obvious I wanted nothing to do with her brand of white trash.

As for the action on the field, collegiate pitchers aren't under a minor league contract for a reason. If you're above average as a pitcher, it has to be tough to turn down a minor league contract, even if there's a college scholarship dangling in front of you. The pitching and game play isn't horrible, but it definitely lacks what Major League Baseball has. I saw home runs and defense, but I also saw a fair amount of lackluster play. Not sloppy, just lackluster. That makes it harder to appreciate the game in progress, especially when it quickly escalates to a lopsided contest. Final score: 13-4 in favor of the home team.

The ballpark was like nothing I had ever seen. If you know anything about baseball fields, you know the deepest part of the park is center field, and that the distance to left field is shorter than the distance to center field. Yet in Alexandria it was 350 feet to the left field foul poll, yet only 345 feet to center field. The odd dimensions included a 385-foot sign in left-center field. The dimensions from center field to the right field foul poll were in line with your typical ball field.

As I watched the game, studied the field dimensions and surveyed the crowd, I was thankful for my meaningless life in the Twin Cities, but more about that another day.

I was glad I spent three hours at the ballpark by myself, and thankful I'm not resigned to accepting a night at an Alexandria Beetles baseball game as summertime entertainment.


Anonymous said...

You're being rather harsh on them, methinks. Granted, I don't have a lot of basis for comparison (nor can I remember exactly how that game went), but the Beetles generally put on a pretty good product.

Your main argument seems to be that you sat by some pretty terrible fans, which isn't the best way to judge a team. The point in the season that you came at was a pretty poor one, too--it was more or less the dead arm point for the pitchers--it's a pretty gruelling schedule that they play on compared to college, and that's one of the harder points for pitchers to adapt to, so around that time in the season they're all nursing sore arms. Earlier on it hasn't caught up with them, and later on they've gotten used to it, but that one period is indeed pretty putrid.

I doubt you're inclined to give them another chance, but the playoffs will be coming up soon--it might be worth a watch.

Arthur Fonzarelli said...

You raise a good point about pitching, and perhaps I'd see a better overall product had I been there at the beginning of the season, before the nightly grind had set it. St. Paul Saints contests are often lopsided, too, and the team is comprised of many guys who should have been through the grind of daily baseball more than once. I guess I was expecting something more since these were collegiate players. Perhaps that's not fair.

And regarding the crowd I sat with, it's not as if I couldn't afford a ticket in the "good" seats. I should know better than to sit in the cheap seats. My buddy Chip use to buy a partial-season ticket package for Stinktown Brewers games. He bought a bunch of cheap seats in the upper deck, and given the affordability of the tickets in his section he found that he was sitting among too many idiotic college students. (Hey, we were idiotic college students, too, but years after the fact the antics are annoying when you're on the outside, looking in.)

You get what you pay for. I'd probably enjoy the game more had I sat among the beautiful people. And perhaps I'd get a better product were I to go back another time.

Part of my disappointment with the experience is probably connected to the fact that I've been slowly losing appreciation for the live sporting event experience. I once claimed I'd retire from pro sports when I hit 40. I'm 40 and still going to occasional Minnesota Twins games, but I'm closer to retirement than I was five years ago, to be sure.