Sunday, August 3, 2014

Soul of the Game Part II: A Minor League Kind of Towm

For a city like Indianapolis, Minor League Baseball has become a parallel line bonded closely to the path of the city itself. This year marks one hundred twenty-eight consecutive seasons of baseball played in Indiana's capital. The namesake Indians ballclub was founded in 1902 and has served as a AAA-class team for Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Montreal, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston Braves, and currently for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Throughout all of the changes in players, managers, affiliations and so on, the one constant is the city's support for its team. I traveled to Indianapolis to take in a ballgame with my best friend of over 15 years. We've each seen our share of baseball games, but on a perfect night in late-July, we found out what makes the Minor League game special.

Indianapolis Indians v. Charlotte Knights
Victory Field, Indianapolis, Indiana
July 24th, 2014 - Attendance:

I suppose it was on more of a whim than anything else. The plan had already been in place for Alex and I, along with our friends Ben and Kevin, to visit Cincinnati that Saturday. My current employer allowed for me to take a few days off, so I made the decision to head to Indy early to catch the end of the Indians' homestand. I remember the night of the game having absolutely perfect weather- a cool summer night with little threat of rain or even clouds. The most frustrating part of it all was finding a place to park. We had found our way downtown only to run into the madness of game night traffic. From our vantage point, the park looked already full. There were still people filing in and we had not yet found a place to park Alex's car. Our tickets were twenty bucks each, but that came with a few bonuses. As it turns out, there was a family night promotion that included a hot dog, unlimited soda, and a t-shirt for a few dollars more than a normal ticket. Once we found a garage and made our way to Victory Field, we were swept up in the ambiance of the adjacent area. Indianapolis, though a major U.S. city, doesn't give off much of the same vibe as it's large-market counterparts. So as we walked up to the gate, I was reminded of Gary and Comstock Park more than Chicago and New York. There was about an hour before first pitch, so we had ample time to cash in our free concessions and pick up the shirts. We made our way to our seats, located near the right field foul pole. The sun, still high but slowly fading behind the first base grandstand, was beating down on us in such a way that we could barely see the infield.

In recent years, I've grown more of an appreciation for the Minor League game. I talked to a few Indians fans throughout the evening, and the common theme was that the high turnover of players was actually exciting. My whole concept of Minor League team support was an understanding that any player that was good for long enough would leave, so there could not be a long-term commitment. From the small conversations I had, that seems quite the opposite. Players are promoted to Indianapolis through the Pirates' system, and almost instantly there is chatter about the fresh face on the club. Living just outside of an MLB market, my only view of Minor League players is the everlasting wait for top prospects to make the big league roster. For those I spoke to, it was the opposite side of the same coin. There is a pride in their players being called up to the parent organization, and a thrill of being the finishing school for the possibly the next Bonds, Jeter, or Trout. The Charlotte Knights are the last stop before making the Chicago White Sox, a club in the fog of trying to understand if they are competitors or rebuilders. In Charlotte, Chicago's top two prospects lie in wait for their call up. The man of this particular hour was Micah Johnson, Indianapolis native and second baseman for the visiting Knights. There was a buzz around him, not just for his abilities on the field, but because the local product had come home if only for a moment.

The game began as a sort of pitcher's duel, with Charlotte's Matt Zaleski and Indy's Nick Kingham each tossing three scoreless frames. Kingham continued with his dominance into the fourth, but Zaleski slipped in the home half. Indians' left fielder Jaff Decker launched a lead-off solo home run to break the tie. An inning later, Zaleski gave up a double to catcher Tony Sanchez, who was quickly bumped over to third on a single by Blake Davis. Moments later, Sanchez was sprinting home on a wild pitch. The result was clear. Indianapolis was up 2-0 and looking like the game was under control. Then, as baseball has been cruelly known to do, the wheels fell off. In the top of the sixth, Kingham would be chased from the mound after a devastating performance that resulted in seven runs for Charlotte. While big innings are nothing rare in baseball, something that occurred that neither of us had ever seen in person.

Following a single by Dan Black, Micah Johnson walked to the plate. He battled Kingham from a no-ball, two-strike at bat to a full count. Fouled away. Fouled away. Walk. He would come around to score on a bases loaded double that cut through the cool, Indiana summer and the hearts of Indians fans just the same. 4-2, Charlotte took the lead but they were not finished. Moments later, Kingham walked the bases loaded again, only to walk in another run. His day was over, but the inning languished on for reliever Vin Mazzaro. Soon, Johnson was at the plate again. Strike. Ball. Strike. There he was, again behind in the count. He book ended two outside pitches with a pair of foul knocks. The next pitch- ball four. Micah Johnson had worked two full count walks in the same inning. While it doesn't have the glamour of two home runs in the same inning, two walks is perhaps more impressive given the purpose of baseball's "finishing school." It was something to marvel at I suppose. To have that level of vision and patience to battle a two-strike count to a walk is a great quality to have in a player. To do it twice in the same inning is masterful. The next batter popped out to center field. The inning was over, but the rubble of a disastrous inning was still fresh.

Alex and I had waited for the sun to settle behind the first base wall before wandering outside of our newly acquired shade. The golden hour light made for an obnoxious distraction for someone trying to watch a baseball game. One gaze beyond the outfield entrance area and downtown Indianapolis was glowing in the amber light of early evening. It is very easy to forget you're actually located right near downtown until you look east. From our outfield view, Victory Field seems set in any other small town across the country. Forgotten are the high-rises that linger overhead. Unnoticed is the absolutely colossal structure that is Lucas Oil Stadium. The sentimental nature of a ballpark nestled into a downtown grid is an odd one. It seems like an oasis, much like Gary's ballpark, but in equal hand fits in as if it had been there all along. The modern incarnation of Victory Field was completed in 1993. Relative to the team's dead-ball roots, the field might be considered an infant. Just inside the main gate, a carefully crafted welcome area stands full of carnival-style games as well as concessions stands. The outfield lawn area really presents the ballpark as a small-town destination. On that night, the grassy seating district was full of mostly large groups of twenty-somethings seated on large sheets. Coolers are not only allowed, but encouraged for those with lawn seat tickets. Just beyond the left field foul pole is a cantina-style bar called The Cove. It offers a moderately interesting view paired with discounted drink packages. We weren't interested, but the area adds a nice aesthetic touch and mildly links Indianapolis in theme to the parent organization- the Pirates.

We caught the rest of the game much closer to the infield than our original seats. Indy never scored again, but for good measure, Charlotte added a pair to lock the game away. The final run was scored by Terre Haute, Indiana native and former Indiana University catcher Josh Phegley, who has spent some time with the White Sox in 2013. The game belonged to Charlotte. There was never any doubt in that. But the thought that lingers with me is that sense of pride that the Indians fans have in their players. While their main concern is the success of their beloved Indians, they already understand the nature of their place in baseball's pipeline. In that, perhaps the success of Phegley and especially Micah Johnson resonates in a similar fashion. They can be proud of their team and its back-to-back division titles, but there is nothing wrong with feeling good about a few home grown products doing well, even if it is against the home club.

Minor League Baseball has its quirks. This year, special uniforms are a huge fad. There are often wacky promotions and on-field shenanigans to entertain in-between innings. Often times the majors fail to create this atmosphere. Perhaps it is just not necessary at that level. What ever the cause, the charm of indie and Minor League ball is bound to the affections of those who fill the seats. In indie ball, it was a family-type bond that flowed between players and fans. Minor League Baseball is too erratic for that. Despite the number of players that will use the team merely as a final stepping stone to the majors, the Indian faithful hold strong to the big picture- the success of the team. The soul of Minor League Baseball is, while serving as a means to an end, a pleasant escape from the business and regulations of the parent league. There is a hope that comes with watching young prospects develop. While some will quickly move on to bigger and better paying things, there is a sense of pride in knowing that the game is going to be just fine in the hands of the next generation. That pride is alive and thriving in the steadfast heart of a true Minor League city like Indianapolis.

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