It's a hot day leading up to a glorious warm summer evening -- a perfect night to catch a ballgame.
If you were fortunate enough to get Orioles tickets months ago, you'll head on down to the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. But otherwise, you're likely locked out -- Orioles games have been sold out for the past month and a half (26 straight games through Thursday night), and getting tickets should remain an almost unobtainable goal the rest of the year. The serendipitous days of suggesting a trip to the stadium on the spur of the moment now seem so distant, so unimaginable.
Unless, that is, you go to Frederick, or Hagerstown, or Harrisburg, Pa. -- or any other place that happens to offer minor league baseball. Those three franchises are located within a reasonable drive of Baltimore and offer good baseball at a much cheaper price than major league ball -- and often an evening that's just as enjoyable.
I've been going to minor league games for 10 years now, and their appeal continues to grow. If you haven't been to one, don't underestimate the appeal: Minor league ball may not have the marquee names and best-in-the-world level of play, but it has much more:
*Minor league baseball is dozens of signs plastered on the outfield wall, lauding the services of, say, Manny's Mesquite Bar-B-Q or Dixie Do-Right Dumpsters ("We're in the Haul of Fame"). The outfield fence at Harry Grove Stadium, the Frederick Keys' park, features no fewer than 110 signs between the foul poles, a crazy-quilt configuration of ads placed next to each other every which way.
*It's pre-game milking contests and other cornball promotions that major league baseball usually disdains as uncool, but seem just right for a minor league game.
*It's 19-year-old players making a thou sand bucks a month who display all the cool-as-ice mannerisms and insouciance of their better-known major league brethren -- that is, until the game starts and the mistakes mount, and it's very clear that the lads are, indeed, but a year or two out of high school.
Mike Blake wrote in his 1991 book, "The Minor Leagues: A Celebration of the Little Show," that the minors are "bus rides, dust, and signs in the outfield that say, 'Hit Me and Win a $10 Suit.' " He probed a little deeper and found something else to say about minor league baseball:
"It is a link to a naive, young, easily excited and entertained, if a bit unsophisticated, America that knew how to have a good time without all the trappings and hype of the 1990s."
That's minor league baseball exactly -- unassuming and touchingly innocent.
Now, given the scarcity of Orioles tickets, minor league baseball becomes even more attractive.
"We get a tremendous amount of [ticket] requests from people who say, 'I can't get Orioles tickets -- what can you folks give me?' " says Keith Lupton, general manager of the Frederick Keys, the Orioles' single-A minor league team.
"When people tell us they can't get tickets to Orioles games, we tell them we can put them in the first row," says Mike Oravec, assistant general manager of the Hagerstown Suns, the Orioles' double-A team.
Actually, being in the first row isn't necessary at a minor league game. Since most stadiums are pretty small -- capacity between and 10,000 -- you can get a cheap seat and be right on top of the action.
And getting a cheap seat is one of the prime attractions. Minor league teams promote heavily the notion that, as Mr. Oravec says, "we provide G-rated entertainment. It's something in which Mom, Dad and the two kids can come here, have a good time and still leave with money in their pockets."
For example, the top price of a Suns or Keys ticket is $6 for a box seat. General admission tickets -- still quite close to the field -- are $4 for adults and $2 for children 6-17 (5 and under are free). A family of four can get tickets at Harry Grove Stadium or Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium for less than the price of one $13 box seat at Camden Yards. As an added inducement, parking is free and concessions are significantly cheaper.
The Harrisburg Senators, the double-A farm team for the Montreal Expos, have a similar price range: $6 for a box seat, $5 for reserved grandstand, $4 for adult general admission ($2 for children 12 and under). The Senators, like the Keys and Suns, believe in keeping it all in the family -- "clean, family-oriented entertainment" is how Harrisburg general manager Todd Vander Woude describes a night at the 5,200-seat RiverSide Stadium.
In keeping with the family atmosphere, the Keys' Harry Grove Stadium features a no-smoking, no-alcohol section and a kids-only concessions stand that sells hot dogs for a dollar and Kool-Aid for 79 cents. Another nice touch is the grassy, hilly area near each foul pole. Children can run the area freely, chasing foul balls or each other, while their parents watch the game without worrying about the mischief the kids might discover.