Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Apple Among Oranges: The Fort Wayne TinCaps and the Authentic Minor League Experience

Baseball has always intrigued me. I don't really know why. Something has always drawn me to the sport. It has to be one of the largest, most popular professional sports in the nation. This has nothing to with the gigantic television contracts that these teams are apparently getting, or the richest sport contracts in our great nation. No, it's because no matter where you live in the nation, there's probably at least one professional/semi-professional baseball team within a half hour from your house. Check it out.
I worked in minor league baseball for four seasons. I miss it every other day. Mostly when I actually attend a baseball game. When I attend a live game now, I don't even go for the actual baseball. I'm sucked in to what it takes to make a successful organization. There are so many variables that go into longevity of a team's fandom. After seeing up close and personal, actually having to convince people to go Gary for a baseball game because their fears are wrong, I have always been intrigued of the amount of energy you could put into the team when you didn't have to do that.

Last week, I got to revisit that opportunity.

Traveling to Fort Wayne, Indiana, I was excited to revisit my favorite minor league team. Still my favorite, despite a couple failed job applications. Fort Wayne's ballpark, Parkview Field, is located downtown, where you can walk around both before and after the game. On a gorgeous summer night, such as this past week, you can't really ask for much more. I had never completely understood the appeal for an area to do things afterwards until. This might be my fault for going to countless White Sox and RailCats games for years: go to the game, then get out. We'll just stop on White Castle on the way home.

What really grabs my attention my third time back to the stadium is their naming sponsor: Parkview, one of the local hospital organizations. My previous trip I was able to talk to someone about what they do for each other. I didn't fully understand that conversation until now, especially since I can see the mutually beneficial relationship for both sport team and hospital. The ballpark is open from the morning until game time so residents of the city can talk a leisurely stroll, or even run, around the concourse. This might actually be my favorite thing about the team.
Did I just say that? I lied. Their logo is the best thing about team, and maybe even about baseball in general. The TinCaps. The logo is an apple. An awesome looking apple. Many people always wonder, why an apple? Well, Fort Wayne just so happens to be the burial spot of Johnny Appleseed, who also happens to be the mascot of the team in his tin cap. In this day and age where not too many major league teams are expanding or changing team names, minor league teams really need to grab a hold of this creativity. It's been awesome to see Gary (RailCats), Schaumburg (Boomers), and even Akron (RubberDucks) hit a home run with their name change. Fort Wayne made a great move by changing their name this past decade, although I still find the reason why to be quite befuddling.

As for the actual in game experience, they have one of the best video boards at a sporting arena I have ever seen. Only Memorial Stadium in Bloomington is one that blew me away at first sight (go Indiana football!). They are able to successfully use it for statistics, replays, and fun between inning shenanigans. I have not been lucky enough to partake in non-game events, such as an overnight camp out movie, but I could only imagine what Monsters Inc would look on that marvelous screen.

Seeing some of the in between inning events, nothing at Fort Wayne seemed really stale to me. Granted, at this point, to be really unique is tough to do because there's probably a reason why it's so unique: it's probably not a good idea. The one on-field game that four lucky fans get to do is the build-a-burger game, where one person dressed in a bun throws giant vegetable looking things on their buddy who is also wearing a bun, only to body slam him next to home plate. Fans are always into it and it's always good for a cheap laugh. As for the best non-game, I'm a sucker for the dentist or orthodontist sponsored base clean: a little kid runs out to a base carrying an oversized toothbrush and cleans it, simulating brushing teeth. It's awesome, it's always cute and I would do it in a heartbeat.

Now, for the best thing about the night: Jake, the Diamond Dog. I always seen dogs become a part of a team from time to time. Just take a look at Hank and the Brewers. However, Hank was never going to be a bat dog. Jake, a Golden Retreiver was seen between multiple innings, whether it was taking water out to the two umpires (god bless them) or going out to catch a frisbee. He'd even go out and grab the bats between batters during the game. That dog was very well trained and the crowd enjoyed it very much. If I ran a team, I'd have a team bat dog all season. Probably why I don't run a team.
Of course, this all was magnified by one thing: a near sell-out crowd. Games always have that extra aura of awesome when there are thousands of other fans cheering right next to you, having a great time. Some games I've been to have been a real drag due to the number of fans there. Sometimes, it happens. The thing that casual fans have to keep in mind, however, is the amount of work that it takes to actually put all of this stuff together. I'll never forget the one time someone asked me to start filling out a giant group ticket form for a big group outing and I had to ask them to give us a call the next day. He said, befuddled, "Oh, you guys open up before 5?" Yes, sir. Sports are just not fun and games, except for when they are. Behind each game, there are hard-working people that organize everything to make sure your family has an affordable place to create some awesome memories.

And the business opens well before 5 PM.

- Jimmy Bobowsky
Find more of his work at JimmyBobowski.com

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