Sports Page

Inning 9: Final Wrap-Up

There seems to be a growing distance—emotional and financial—between sports fans and their "heroes." Fans, especially young fans and families, are finding new outlets for their leisure time and entertainment dollars.

Yet, when all is said and done, people keep going to ballgames or following the action on TV, because the games still reward them by giving them what they seek.


A. Minor League Prices, Major League Fun

You are standing in the Dairy Queen parking lot, wearing a Red Sox cap and savoring a chili dog, when a voice from behind says, "Wrong hat."

You turn around to see a middle-aged dad standing next to a middle-aged mom, and for a second you think you're seeing double because they're wearing identical outfits: black walking shoes, white tube sox, plaid shorts, and a short-sleeve shirt, all topped by what looks like a Red Sox cap, except that there's a P where the B ought to go.

Fishing for autographs
Fishing for autographs at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Photo courtesy of the Pawtucket Red Sox.

"You need to get a hat like ours," they chime in unison, "a Pawtucket Red Sox hat." Then they start telling you all about the "PawSox"—the triple-A minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. And they are so enthusiastic that you can't help but listen. After a while they turn to leave, but not before they make you promise to take your kids to a PawSox game.

A month later, your whole family sets out on the 45-minute drive from Boston to McCoy Stadium, where the August evening will deliver one pleasant surprise after another. The parking is free, the traffic is manageable, the crowd is civilized, and your $5 box seats are directly behind first base. (Is this heaven? No, it's Pawtucket, Rhode Island.)

The game turns out to be an absolute gem. Pawtucket wins in the bottom of the ninth on a grand slam by third baseman Louis Aguayo. Everyone goes home smiling.

Total cost for the whole memorable evening: About the same as going to a movie.

The Boom in Minor League Sports

After some very lean seasons during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s minor league baseball is back! Fans have rediscovered that they can have fun at the ballpark without emptying their wallets.It is a classic example of substitution: When major league ticket prices soared, fans—especially families and middle-income fans—began to find their way back to minor league ballparks where they could buy affordable tickets to watch the "stars of tomorrow" play their hearts out.

How much more affordable are the minors? Just look at the price difference between the Boston Red Sox and the Pawtucket Red Sox. A grandstand seat for a 2012 home game at Fenway Park cost over $50. Forty miles to the south, at Pawtucket's McCoy Stadium, the best seats in the house were selling for $11.00 apiece. Do the math: A family of four would pay a total of $44 for great seats at McCoy (and the parking is free) versus $200 plus at Fenway (where parking costs are sky-high and anything but hassle-free). Granted, there are no big-name stars in Pawtucket, nor are your friends likely to be impressed when you tell them you went to a PawSox game. But are superstars and snob appeal worth five times the cost? A lot of fans are beginning to wonder.
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The Hometown Connection

The charms of minor league games are not limited to low-cost tickets. People are also drawn to the relaxed, fan-friendly atmosphere and the overall absence of "major league attitude."

The minors seem to make it easier for fans to reconnect with the games and the players. To understand why, just show up early for a PawSox game and watch the young fans who "fish" for autographs by lowering plastic milk jugs from the stands. The scene will tell you almost all you need to know.

Or make your way to the Massachusetts seashore, where the Cape Cod League has maintained a hometown connection between fans and players for more than 100 seasons. Every summer, its teams host some of the country's most talented college ballplayers. A list of former Cape Cod Leaguers reads like a ballot for the Major League All-Star Game—Mo Vaughn, Frank Thomas, Chuck Knoblauch, Nomar Garciaparra, and Carlton Fisk, just to name a few.

But the quality of play isn't the only attraction. Fans in Massachusetts seaside resorts like Hyannis, Falmouth, and Orleans feel a genuine affinity for the ballplayers who represent their towns. The players live with local families and work summer jobs at local businesses. Townspeople—both year-round residents and summer visitors—think of the Cape Cod League players as "our kids."

It's exactly the way everyone thinks sports used to be—maybe even better. Admission is free, the bats are wood, and the kids play hard. Add to that the delicious cool of a July evening on Cape Cod plus the company of people you enjoy, and you come very close to earthly paradise.

Sure, the games may not mean as much as they do in the big leagues. But when you get right down to it, none of the games—not even the "big ones"—mean anything more than what the fans bring to them.
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B.Two Entrepreneurs Give Fans a Fun Product at an Affordable Price

Entrepreneurs are a diverse bunch. Some are innovative and unconventional, others are "pluggers." The one thing they have in common is that they organize a business and assume the risk of running it.

By anyone's definition, Miles Wolff and Mike Veeck are entrepreneurs. They are also largely responsible for the revival of minor league sports.

Miles Wolff and the "Other Bulls"

"We got the sun out now, we got the fresh air, we got the teams behind us . . . so let's play two."
Ernie Banks, a.k.a. "Mr. Cub", Hall of Fame Shortstop

Miles Wolff began working in baseball as a $600-a-month jack-of-all-trades/general manager in the Atlanta Braves farm system. When he paid $2,417 for the Durham (North Carolina) Bulls franchise in 1978, his goal was to keep the team alive so he could continue to have a job in baseball. He borrowed money from family and friends, convinced local officials to make $25,000 worth of badly needed repairs on homey (decrepit) old Durham Athletic Park, and used his own good baseball sense to make the Bulls into a thriving local success.

Saint the Pig
Saint the Pig.
Photo courtesy of Saint Paul Saints and Michael Martin.

Then, in 1987, Hollywood turned Wolff's team into a national sensation when a film called Bull Durham—starring Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins, and Susan Sarandon—revealed the quirky pleasures of minor league baseball to audiences in packed moviehouses across the country. Sales of Durham Bulls merchandise skyrocketed, and so did the value of Wolff's investment.

From a financial standpoint, the Durham Bulls were a runaway success, but Miles Wolff was beginning to wonder if he hadn't lost something along the way. The politics of trying to build a new stadium and the increasing economic tensions with Major League Baseball were taking a toll on him.

So in 1990, Wolff sold the Durham Bulls for an estimated $4 million. Then he set out to rediscover the sense of enjoyment and satisfaction that had drawn him to minor league baseball in the first place. He did it by taking the lead in organizing the Northern League, an independent baseball league in the upper Midwest.

At one time, all minor leagues had been independent. They were just smaller—or "minor"—versions of the major leagues. But during the 1920 and 1930s, Branch Rickey, general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals (and later the Brooklyn Dodgers), convinced the Cardinals' ownership to buy minor league teams and use them to develop players for the big league club. The system caught on, and independent teams, which received no major league financial subsidies, faded from the scene.
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The Northern League's first few seasons during the early 1990s were touch-and-go, in part because its teams received no financial subsidies from the majors. Some of its franchises soon folded, but the league survived, and a few of its teams have enjoyed solid success.

The most notable Northern League success story has been the St. Paul Saints franchise, owned by Mike Veeck, son of the late Bill Veeck (see Inning 1). Mike had inherited his father's love of baseball and his flair for making the game fun. Maybe his Saints lacked the drawing power of big league superstars, but Mike Veeck knew how to attract fans and show them a good time. Crowds delighted in the sight of Saint the Pig delivering baseballs to the home plate umpire.

And that was only the beginning. Stefan Fatsis, author of Wild and Outside, a marvelous book about the founding of the Northern League, describes Mike Veeck's formula for success:

The goofier the gimmick the better. Hence Saint the Pig. Hence Irish Night, in which the Saints wore green caps and ran around green bases. Kitchen Appliance Night. Man on the Moon Night. Mary Tyler Moore Appreciation Night. They brought fans to the ballpark and gave the ballpark over to fans. The experience in St. Paul was participatory, from the grandstand barber—a gimmick begun by Bill Veeck in Comiskey Park—to the barrage of witty commentary from Al Frechtman and his wittingly hip musical tastes. (The team's unlikely theme song was the Sammy Davis, Jr. rendition of Isaac Hayes's achingly dated theme from the movie Shaft.)

Veeck helped to create an atmosphere that teetered on the edge of anarchy—but was always purposeful. The scene could appear spontaneous, but in fact much was carefully organized, on time schedules prepared before each game.

Note: The Northern League folded after its 2010 season.
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C. Some Things Never Change

Pro sports has been remarkably resilient. Fans have come back after every strike or lockout.

"I think about the cosmic snowball theory. A few million years from now the sun will burn out and lose its gravitational pull. The earth will turn into a giant snowball and be hurled through space. When that happens it won't matter if I get this guy out."
Bill Lee, Pitcher and Philosopher, on dealing with pressure

But each dispute has taken its toll. You can hear it in the voices of fans who call the all-sports talk radio stations. Some are angry; others are disenchanted. Many are bewildered.

There seems to be a growing distance—emotional and financial—between fans and their "heroes." Not so long ago, sports stars were a lot like the rest of us. They worked during the off-season to make ends meet, and they lived in the same neighborhoods as their fans. Sometimes they even played stickball or shot baskets with the neighborhood kids. But those days are gone forever.

Tastes have changed, too. Fans, especially young fans, have been finding new outlets for their leisure time and entertainment dollars: the Internet, popular music, and the movies. In fact, the day might be coming when baseball, basketball, football, and hockey won't even dominate the sports sector of the entertainment market. Fans are increasingly attracted to pro wrestling, NASCAR, soccer, and the X-Games—in large part because the stars of those sports seem so much more accessible.

Ted Williams
Ted Williams taking the Navy oath in 1942, when there didn't seem to be as much distance between sports stars and the rest of us.
Photo courtesy of The Boston Public Library, Print Division.

Yet, despite all the changes, people keep going to games or following the action on TV because, when all is said and done, sports reward fans by giving them what they seek. Those who look for greed, selfishness, and meanness will find all three in abundance. But if fans are able to look past all that, they might also experience something they'll talk about till the end of their days.

"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts."
Earl Weaver, former manager, Baltimore Orioles

And even if nothing memorable happens on the field, on the court, or on the ice, our games offer us the chance to pass a few pleasant hours in the company of people we enjoy.

Laugh at Fenway
Sharing a laugh at Fenway, 1940s.
Even if nothing memorable happens on the field, our games give us a chance to gather in a public place and celebrate the things we still have in common.
Photo by Leslie Jones, courtesy of The Boston Public Library, Print Division.