It Takes 50 Minutes To Count To 3,000

We all have a moment that nudges us down the path toward fandom. This is my story of watching Robin Yount’s 3,000 hit with my dad on September 9, 1992.

countystadium

Photo from onmilwaukee.com

3,000 is a big number. Especially when you’re a kid obsessed with baseball. I was 8 years old on a cool, unassuming late-summer evening. Dinner was finished, dishes were washed and put away. The local news on television turned to sports. The reporter, well, reported that there were still tickets available for the Brewers game that night.

We were sure that there wouldn’t be!

My father seized the opportunity, for, you see, this wasn’t any ordinary night. This night was destined to live on forever in Milwaukee, a city hungry for baseball legend.

My brother, three years younger and with belly full, had fallen asleep on the couch. My mom, deciding to stay home with him, brewed a thermos full of hot chocolate for my dad and me to share. We hustled out the door to the Milwaukee County Stadium ticket window.

Proof!

I was there. It happened.

Lower Grandstand Section 20. Row 32. Seats 23 and 24. $20.

(In retrospect, that was a fair amount of money for my dad to spare, raising a young family with my mom on a tight budget. He really wanted this to be special for me. Thanks, Dad!)

Our seats were on the aisle in the very last row of the lower grandstand. Third base side. Not bad. The best seats I’d ever sat in thus far in my 8-year-old life. But, any time the ball was popped into the air, it disappeared from sight. The upper grandstand overhang was a bit of a nuisance, but who was I to complain? I had my dad, the Brewers, and a thermos of hot chocolate.

The game moved along quickly, but in about the 4th inning, a gentleman, walking up the aisle, paused by our side.

“Excuse me, are you two together?”

My dad and I looked at each other, “Yes, we are.”

“Oh, well, I just got invited to a box seat on the mezzanine and won’t be using these tickets. Would you like them?”

8th row behind home plate. My dad’s lucky number. This is when I learned about, and embodied, the expression “walking on air.”

robin3000

Photo from @brewers Instagram account.

I’d never been surrounded by so much anticipation. Robin Yount stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 7th inning. The first pitch carried with it a massive contingent of flashing lights. Strike. Everyone held on to Robin’s swing. With the 0-1 pitch, he laced a single to right field, collecting his 3,000th career hit.

I still see him backpedaling after rounding first base, Paul Molitor holding out his hand to pull him in for a hug, and the entire team mobbing in celebration. There was a mob scene in the stands behind home plate as well. And I was a part of the legend.

We heard the entire city rejoicing. Robin was the hero we knew he was. He gave us something we never had. Every single one of his 3,000 hits came as a Brewer, and it felt as though each one was placed on the diamond accordingly for us. For Milwaukee. The fabric of his narrative intertwined with ours and a thread still endures. 23 years later. I carry this thread every time i go to the ballpark. I think of my dad, and I think of what else will be.

The Minor League Baseball (MiLB) System Explained

drpepperballpark

Dr. Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, Texas. Home of the Frisco RoughRiders, Double-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers.

Understanding the layers of Minor League Baseball can be tough. Here’s my attempt at a pithy explanation.

Typically, a player is drafted out of high school, college, or an independent team by a major league franchise. This player is then assigned to an affiliated minor league club for development.

Affiliated clubs operate within the Minor League Baseball system, answering, ultimately, to the commissioner of baseball. The teams themselves are most often owned independently, but are under a contract with their partner MLB franchise.

The players have no say in their destination, moving through the ranks as their MLB employer sees fit. Only very few make it to the top. Most will bounce up-and-down through the ranks as their skills progress or regress.

The (simply explained) Minor League Baseball hierarchy:

Rookie: Teams play a shortened schedule, from mid-June through August or September. This is the lowest level of MiLB and is most often where the youngest and least experienced players hone their skills.

Class A-Short Season: Another short season classification consisting of 2 leagues. Teams here play about 75 games in all. They start a bit later to allow for collegiate leagues to finish, so many college players get their start here. Therefore, this league will often be the transition point from college-level aluminum bats to pro-level wooden ones. 8 MLB franchises do not have an affiliate at this level.

siyanks

Richmond County Bank Ballpark in New York, New York. Home of the Staten Island Yankees, Class A-Short Season affiliate of the New York Yankees.

Class A: With a 140-game schedule, this is where players get used to playing every day for a long season. Most are working on pitching control and batting consistency. Most players won’t be with a club here for more than a season.

Class A-Advanced: For most players, this level is a second or third promotion, but an occasional first-round draft pick begins here.

Double-A: Occasionally, players will make a jump to the majors from this level. Star players from international leagues that were recently signed by MLB sometimes start here.

Triple-A: A mix of young players and veterans await for the final call-up. Some are on an MLB 40-man roster. Many players spend time moving back-and-forth from Triple-A and the Majors until they establish themselves as reliable.

In all, there are 160 affiliated teams in 14 leagues. Would it be crazy absurd to see each one play at home in a single year? We hope to find out in 2016.

Deciphering the Layers of Professional Baseball in the United States and Canada, Part 1

Yankee Stadium in New York, NY, home of the New York Yankees

With the announcement of Major League Baseball’s 2016 schedule, stuff’s starting to cook here at Big Year Ball. There will be no official announcements until all affiliated MiLB teams through Class-A publish next summer’s lineup (we’re looking at you, Eastern, Southern, Texas, California, Florida State, Carolina, South Atlantic and Midwest Leagues), but that doesn’t mean we’re not excited! Rile ’em up!

In the meantime, let’s take a quick look at professional baseball in the U.S. and Canada.

Who’s your favorite team? When asked, most of us will immediately think of the Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise located within the closest metropolitan area in which we grew up (FYI my favorite’s the Milwaukee Brewers and, yes, I’m from Milwaukee and, yes, I grew up within the actual city limits of Milwaukee). But, we’re not all city kids. What if you came-of-age in, say, O’Fallon, Missouri? Or, Alamogordo, New Mexico? What if your transient childhood left you with no geographical affiliation whatsoever? Fret not; there are more options! Many more!

In fact, there are hundreds of professional baseball teams across this great continent, and we can split them into two basic categories, as I see it: Affiliated and Independent.

To begin, let’s unravel the stitches of Independent Professional Baseball.

Many of our favorite players played independent ball at some point in their career (two classic examples are Ricky Henderson and Jose Canseco). However, independent leagues do not compete against teams affiliated with Major League Baseball. This affords them a certain freedom, though, since they are not subject to MLB location and market restrictions. They often thrive in small towns, or in close proximity to affiliated teams. Some teams don’t even have a home at all (like the Frontier League’s Frontier Greys)!

MCU Park in Brooklyn, NY, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, Short-Season Class A affiliate of the New York Mets

Affiliated teams, on the other hand, operate as an extension of Major League Baseball (you know, your Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, et cetera). These affiliated clubs serve as a “farm system” for a specific franchise, grooming players until they’re called up to baseball’s biggest stage. Players move up and down throughout several layers of progressively difficult competition (from Rookie Ball through Class A, AA, and AAA) as their athletic skills improve or fade over time. These layers are most commonly referred to, collectively, as the “minor leagues.” Minor League Baseball (MiLB) clubs operate in larger cities across the country, from the Clinton LumberKings in Iowa to the Brooklyn Cyclones in New York City.

Farm system classification can get complicated, though, so we’ll explore it more in Part 2 next week. Stay tuned!

I Don’t Care If We Never Get Back

Baseball road-trips on the brain.

30 baseball games in 30 ballparks in 30 days. It appears straightforward and simple, but it’s an adventure. For a fan, it’s the ultimate expression of dedication to Major League Baseball.

For most, it’s a pipe dream. Delayed indefinitely due to familial and occupational constraints. Who can honestly spare a solid month of their productive adult life to traverse the country watching grown men in fancy pajamas play a child’s game? We’ve got 401(k)s to manage!

Fresh out of Harvard, Ben Blatt, baseball fanboy and statistical wizard, dreams of the 30-in-30 challenge. In-between college and the real world, he seizes his moment, writing an algorithm to map the “perfect” route for his effort. Realizing his purist ideals and compulsive nature require a companion, he enlists the help of his best pal, Eric Brewster. Eric’s enthusiasm is less for the sport than it is for the experience and opportunity to test Ben’s personal limits. Their real-life journey is chronicled in, “I Don’t Care If We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever.”

The game details are inconsequential. Ben and Eric’s conviction gives way to sleepy innings in the stands and monotonous motions on the road. Their account is not about the thrill of the game, rather, it details the gaps in-between that they somehow manage to fill with hi-jinx. It evolves into a test of friendship and limits of human proximity. I suppose that’s the consequence of obnoxiously routine 15-hour overnight car rides with a limited rotation of companions.

While this book grabs your attention and occasionally makes your heart race with anticipation (will they make it before first pitch!?), there’s something hollow about Ben and Eric’s particular experience. And it falls short of exciting me for my own baseball adventures.

I would consider this essential reading, though, for those interested in the intricacies and potential road blocks of baseball-themed cross-country road-trips.

And as for my own adventures, I’ll take them on regardless.

Stubs and Stats

. . . The stories in these stubs . . .

. . . stories in the stubs . . .

Statistics are the foundation of baseball. It’s how we determine the best teams, the greatest players, the stadiums that produce the most home runs, or even the odds that a batter will find the gap on a tuesday in August at home with a 2-2 count and cloudy skies.

Things can get crazy.

But how do you measure fandom? What player performs best when you’re in attendance? Which team, despite your best efforts, just never seems to win while you witness?

Enter my newest obsession, fueled by a recent trip home to Milwaukee. For nearly three decades, my mother meticulously logged the daily activities of the family on a calendar in our dining room; additionally, my father has held on to every ticket stub he’s ever purchased. Ever. This created the perfect storm for my statistical satiation.

I’ve now confirmed my presence at 133 baseball games in 31 years of existence.

$3 general admission!? Those were the days.

$3 general admission!? Those were the days.

How often do you think about ticket stubs, anyway? They’re as necessary to the modern game of baseball as the players themselves. Without them, there’d be no fans.

To many, they’re temporary pieces of paper, tucked into a wallet or stuffed into a pocket. Often, they’re discarded when the game is through. They’re fleeting proof of admission.

For me, though, they not only affirm presence, but carry information that proves my value as a fan. With the help of Hardball Passport (an awesome service I am not associated with), I can now quantify the affect my being has on America’s pastime. I am complete.

Here’re some highlights:

Most home runs: Lucas Duda (8)

Best batting average, minimum 15 games: Mark Loretta (.396)

Best earned run average, minimum 10 games: Jesse Orosco (0.64)

Interesting to note, in the 25 games I’ve seen him play, Robin Yount has never hit a home run (he was the Milwaukee Brewers franchise leader in home runs until Ryan Braun passed him earlier this season).

Sorry, Robin!

I did, however, witness his 3,000 career hit:

Proof!

Proof!

When Does Hoarding Become Pathological? 

IMG_5025I have a lot of baseball cards. A lot. Mostly from the late 80s through mid 90s (which are notoriously worthless). Their market value, however, doesn’t undermine their importance to me, personally. In an odd, misguided way, I’m a part of each one. Growing up, I painstakingly and obsessively sorted them by brand and series number.

I’ve rediscovered this passion, but with a twist. Pieces of a childhood I’ll never reclaim are locked inside these cards. I want to see each one for a final time, breathing in the musky cardboard.

Starting next summer, they will be randomized and dispatched into the hands of strangers I bump into at ballgames. Hopefully, it’ll inspire a youthful surge, recalling memories they themselves sorted and stored long ago.

Perhaps a weird ritual, but it feels right.

In the meantime, I’ll share my favorite (re)discoveries (like the Jose Canseco card above) on @BigYearBall’s Instagram feed. What are your favorite cards from the era of over-production? Check out my gems and tell me what you think!

Miss Babe Ruth

Photo from Greensboro Grasshoppers official website

Miss Babe Ruth, photo from Greensboro Grasshoppers official website.

We never forget the ball players that grace our diamonds and weave their on-field glory into the legacy of our cities. But, what about those that work diligently behind the scenes? How many groundskeepers or official scorers or ball girls can you name?

I can name one: Miss Babe Ruth.

A workhorse for the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Low Class A, South Atlantic League, Marlins affiliate), the main duties of this Labrador Retriever include fetching bats, delivering balls to home plate umpires, and running the bases after the game.

There are others like her out there, the legendary Chase “That Golden Thunder” included, but Babe has a special place in my heart. I watched her in action shortly after her debut in August of 2006.

Tonight, she will work her 645th consecutive home game and conclude her service at the end of the season.

In honor of the loyalty and steadfast dedication you’ve shown your community, I’d like to wish you a happy retirement, Babe!