Escape To Minor League Baseball

The sports discourse can be a loud and unpleasant place. Why not escape to the weirdness of minor league baseball?
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In the last decade—right around the time the Jacksonville Jaguars were drafting Reggie Williams, although the two appear unrelated—media coverage of politics and sports made a quantum leap into the unwatchable. Talking-heads shows proliferated at an Ebola-like rate, and what once had been a loudish cottage industry for overweight pundits—there was little space between The McLaughlin Group and The Sport Reporters—metastasized suddenly and malignantly, dumbing the shit out of everything nearby. We're soaking in this.

Flip the channel from First Take to whatever Four Upset Whites Sitting Around A Table programming is on Fox News, and your brain may or may not even register the change. And what is all this heated blather about? Not incident or policy or specific anything, but narrative.

The tyranny of narrative soothsaying and obsessive forecasting in political media has been recently dissected in Mark Leibovich’s This Town, but the same fixation on narrative exists in sports, for the same reasons. It's the easiest way to fill space with sound: sussing out ups and downs in narrative encourages spectacularly pointless meta-debate on generally pointless topics such as PED suspensions (as opposed to, say, the way we do or don't understand PED use) and Hall of Fame worthiness (as opposed to how we measure worth) and LeBron versus Jordan (as opposed to a question with an actual answer).

After these topics are thoroughly processed, discussed, debated, and debated again for seven to ten days, we can then archive them for eventual Wikipedia searching in 15 years. A given day's outrage from D.C. has the same impact, finally, as Peyton Manning’s overtime interception against the Ravens. That is, nothing, given that the world will continue to turn and bigger things will happen as they otherwise would, but something in that it creates grist for a sub-argument on whether this was the key issue in the ultimate outcome, whether a legacy gets tarnished or enhanced, or so fatuously on.

All this false consequence and imaginary significance is exhausting, and all the more so because it is so difficult to escape. But there is a place in sports that offers some escape from this. There is always minor league baseball.

***

Of course the players aspiring and striving in the minors care a great deal about their results. Fans are, on balance and quite reasonably, happier watching a home team win than lose. But, for the most part, the final score is inconsequential. Player development matters, but the outcome of any season is only a tangential curiosity.

There are championships in minor league baseball, and the playoffs are in fact going on now in most minor leagues, but they draw fewer fans than the regular season games. (As one of the select few in attendance when Ryan Minor and Calvin Pickering powered the Delmarva Shorebirds to the 1997 Sally League crown, I speak from experience.) But minor league baseball is the one truly Zen sport we have—you’re there just to be there, and the being there is the only point. If the Batavia Muckdogs beat the Vermont Lake Monsters and you’re not there, did it even happen?

In a culture more and more obsessed with instant declarations of success and failure, a minor league baseball game is one of the last places to be free from the narrative-crazed debate club's incessant attempts at one-upping and out-knowing. One temple is about as good as the next, honestly. But consider these Diamonds of Tranquility the next time you take a minor league meditation break.

Corpus Christi’s Whataburger Field

Family lore has it that my great-grandfather, who traveled the nation in his R.V., thought Corpus Christi was American’s Eden. Family lore also holds that this notion is endearing and 100% pathologically insane. Nonetheless, the stadium for the Corpus Christi Hooks does have the most important part of a minor league stadium experience locked down: a picturesque view from beyond the outfield, in this case of a giant bridge visible from the stands. This stunning outfield scene will help erase thoughts like "Why again did I spend $846 on airfare to come to Corpus Christi?" and "What in the absolute hell could Great-Grandpa Lyon have been thinking?"

Northwest Arkansas Arvest Ballpark  

Deep in Wal-Mart country is the most un-Wal-Mart of stadiums. Camden Yards was and still is pretty great, but it begat a by-now well-chronicled mania on quirky retro stadiums that became epically twee and willfully quirked-out and bound in brick, so much brick.

The baseball version of the big box store, then, is everything that a big box store isn’t: old-timey, impractical, and obsessed in showing off its off-the-rack soul. To counter that, we have Northwest Arkansas Arvest Ballpark, a tribute to the modern.

There is limestone and lots of glass. There are interior stands ringed by a canopy that will probably be on the cover of the next M83 album. And what's weird about it is un-designed and actually, actively strange. A relative of mine attended a Naturals game recently and reported the following: a surprising number of groupies searching for Springfield Cardinals at a nearby hotel, a cave-bro mascot, and enough cell reception to play Angry Birds. Going to a Northwest Arkansas Naturals game is to get in on the ground floor of an imagined Jetsons-style baseball future. It's weirder and more wonderful than it knows, or meant to be.

Marion’s Rent One Park

With its AstroTurf dirt (AstroDurf?), the home of the Frontier League’s Marion Miners, will also give you the rare taste of the baseball modern. A warning, however: Try to go light on Independent Leagues. Going to an Independent League game is like drinking 100-proof liquor—it will provide you with some great moments, but eventually you’ll end up cripplingly sad.  You can only see so many guys sliding and scuffling for $19,000 salaries set to the tune of Mambo Number 5 before a sense of bleakness envelops you. Nice ballpark, though.

Huntsville’s Joe Davis Stadium

A drab destination you should avoid even before you consider that earlier this year, the Huntsville Stars were going to raffle off coupons for guns until “liberal bloggers”—quote via the (hopefully) inimitable Breitbart Sports—made them cancel it.

Thankfully, the “gun grabbers” couldn’t totally ruin “2nd Amendment Night,” though, as NRA members got free admission, and copies of the Constitution were given to all attendees. (Presumably, between the 3rd and 4th inning fans were instructed to use their score-keeping, mini, eraser-less pencils to cross out “A well regulated Militia” from their promo Constitution.)

If you find yourself in Alabama but would like to avoid “Stand Your Ground Day” or “Benghazi Reenactment Night (Darrell Issa’s Version),” then perhaps check out the splendid and less-politicized stadiums in Birmingham and Montgomery instead.    

Staten Island’s Richmond County Bank Ballpark

The Times recently declared Queens to be the new Brooklyn, which means that Queens peaked as any kind of Brooklyn refuge sometime around March 2012. This can only mean that Staten Island is the new Queens is the new Brooklyn! To add to this good fortune, the Times recently called Staten Island “decidedly unhip.” Based on this alone, I bought 3-day passes to the yet-to-be-created, but assuredly tastefully curated, musical festival that will be hitting Staten any year now.  

The Island also boasts a moderately lovely stadium that looks out onto the water towards the parts of New York City that people actually consider to be New York City. The Yankees' New York-Penn League team plays there, which is exactly as important as you want it to be.

Stockton’s Banner Island Ballpark  

The West Coast version of Staten Island's ballpark, but located in an area that won't be dealing with the myriad consequences and complications of gentrification until sometime around 2045.

Frisco’s Dr. Pepper Ballpark

That's Frisco, Texas, not a nickname for any larger or more cosmopolitan city. With its utterly unique design, this stadium is in a class of its own. Its foreboding, yet oddly inviting, structures and masses of what seem to be eerily silent empty rooms serve to create a maze-like structure that makes this stadium minor league baseball’s The Shining's Overlook Hotel.

Just looking at photos of this ballpark is enough to induce a Jack Torrance-ian fugue state. More than once I blankly scrolled through picture after picture of this place while wondering, Does this place really exist? Did I sell giant pretzels there in 2004? Is Ian Kinsler asking me to murder my family?

The danger of falling into the grip of Dr. Pepper Ballpark dementia is muted somewhat. Instead of Shelley Duvall running through the halls screaming in terror and coming upon an unexplained mascot sex scene, it's more a matter of wandering around lost before stumbling on Steve Buechele finishing up a Daily Jumble in his office.  

***

Which, maybe, doesn't sound like the sweetest escape. But consider what we're escaping from. Today, right now, baseball games are being played by players in stadiums and towns we’re only dimly aware exist, slowly and peacefully and utterly without all that fake urgent consequence. Strike the Sasquatch is waiting— to clear our minds, to set us free—and all we have to do is fall into his synthetic embrace.


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