In much the same way that Miller Lite drinkers once argued "Great Taste" vs. "Less Filling," fans of Minor League baseball usually take one of two stances regarding why they choose to spend so much of their free time at the ballpark.
On one side are the baseball junkies, those who relish the chance to see talented prospects on their way up the big league ladder. For these fans, Minor League baseball's primary appeal is that up-and-coming players can be observed in an intimate environment -- before they are blinded by the lights of big league stardom.
On the other side are those who enjoy the all-around entertainment value that the Minor Leagues provide. Nine innings of baseball are supplemented by bobblehead giveaways, dizzy bat races, sumo wrestling sideshows, concession stand specials and countless other pleasant diversions. Where else can you get that kind of bang for your buck?
As this Web site's designated "expert" on promotions and team operations, I generally tend to advocate the latter view (not that the competing perspectives are mutually exclusive). But neither side fully takes into consideration what I believe is an often overlooked and increasingly valuable aspect of attending Minor League games -- the sense of community and continuity it can provide.
A sense of belonging is increasingly important in 21st Century America. Small businesses have largely been replaced by homogeneous chain stores, and technological innovations purportedly designed to "connect" people often have the effect of creating a profound sense of isolation. The "virtual" has replaced the "real" to a startling degree and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find our own "Cheers," that place where everybody knows your name. But Minor League ballparks can be that place, making them valuable commodities in this age of social disconnect.
This essential truth was hammered home Monday morning. A co-worker sent me a link to an article in the Modesto Bee about the death of Frank Johnson, a longtime ticket taker at Modesto's John Thurman Field. Johnson had been employed in this capacity from 1971-2005 and, after he retired, the stadium's west entrance was renamed in his honor. Writer Brian VanderBeek talked to several people who were friendly with Johnson, including longtime season-ticket holder Darlene Westley.
"I have so many memories, but what I'll remember most was how much he enjoyed his job and made everybody at the ballpark feel good," she said.
My point? There are Frank Johnsons at every Minor League ballpark in the country and they deserve to be recognized. Ownership groups, team names, logos and stadiums come and go, but these unsung stalwarts provide a comforting sense of belonging and familiarity from year to year and decade to decade. Such individuals can be fans as well, from grizzled old men who insist on sitting in the same seat at every game to families who attend games on Sundays as religiously as if it were church.
There are certainly many teams who "get it" when it comes to the importance of this part of the Minor League experience. In recent years, several clubs have honored ballpark regulars with their own bobblehead dolls. Binghamton Mets scorekeeper (and former pitcher) Steve Kraly has been recognized in this fashion, as has Savannah Sand Gnats vendor Frank "the Beer Man" Dinan and Auburn Doubledays superfan "Dancin'" Bill Jayne -- to name but a few.
But instead of continuing to write in broad stereotypes about ballpark regulars, I will do what I always do -- defer to those who know better. Therefore, please get in touch with your own stories about Minor League employees and fans, those special individuals whose presence at the ballpark can be counted on year after year after year. Profiles on these "ballpark fixtures" could make for some entertaining content on this site and would help to illuminate this overlooked perk of attending games on a regular basis.
After all, going to a Minor League game is a proactive, communal event. The opportunity to watch top prospects or enjoy a postgame fireworks show are great selling points, but, in the end, the chance to become a part of something larger than yourself could be the best selling point of all.
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.