MiLBYs are the end-of-season awards that honor the best players, teams and performances of the Minor League season. For three weeks, fans chose their favorites in 13 categories, and now we're announcing the Fans' Choice winners as well as MiLB.com staff picks for the major awards.
When the sun went down and the lights came on in Clinton, Iowa, on June 28, Paul Gierhart grabbed his camera and made his way out to left field.
"Plain and simple, everyone loves a sunset, baseball and an opportunity to be in the picture," Gierhart said. "The LumberKings fans can probably tell you where they were seated in the stadium that night."
Gierhart went back to a spot he found in 2011 and framed the ballpark under a cloudy sky. He snapped more than 100 photos as the sun descended behind Ashford University Field while Clinton hosted Wisconsin in a Class A Midwest League game.
"With shooting baseball, you have to be ready for anything," he said. "There is a lot of anticipation based on what you feel might happen. I believe, more than anything, I have developed a sense of anticipation shooting Minor League Baseball the last eight years."
Gierhart did not, in that moment, anticipate his photo being voted the best of 2013, but on Thursday the fans had spoken. Thanks to the beauty of his capture and support from Midwest League fans, his photograph officially won the MiLBY Award as Photo of the Year.
"I am really humbled by the support of the fans," said Gierhart, a Rock Falls, Ill., native and father of three who works at Allied-Locke Industries Inc. and has contributed to MiLB.com since 2006. "Without the fans, there is no Minor League Baseball. I believe this is a real tribute to the fan support on both sides of the Mississippi River for Minor League Baseball, regardless of which team they follow. This award validates Minor League Baseball in the Midwest and the fact that fan support is truly the cornerstone of this sport."
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Gierhart's dramatic sunset photo was a finalist for the Photo of the Year MiLBY alongside a variety of images from the 2013 season -- other contenders included pictures of a collision at the plate, three shots of diving catches, a patriotic fireworks scene, a stormy night in Tampa and a wild championship clubhouse celebration. Nature was a theme of this year's finalists, with other images depicting dogs, monkeys, rams, cats and even a butterfly on the field during a Minor League game.
But, like last season, fans gravitated toward an image showing weather and nature as a background to a summer night at the ballpark; in 2012, fans voted for Morrie Silver's well-timed photo of a lightning strike just beyond center field during a Triple-A Rochester game. This year, the storm clouds evoked more beauty than danger.
"This image reflects God's gift of nature in combination with the greatest game ever invented," Gierhart said. "It tells a story. It's a tribute to the fans being part of the landscape of baseball. It's all the romance of the game experience while watching or visiting the 'Field of Dreams.'"
Gierhart thought the photo was a good mix of the game's situation and a moment in time with weather and baseball coming together.
"In one sense, I agree -- images of nature vs. baseball appeal to fans because of the surrealism they evoke, but if you look at the shot I took closely, you'll see one runner on first, a relief pitcher in the bullpen warming up and a batter approaching the plate," Gierhart said. "The LumberKings are threatening to score, almost in the same way the threatening clouds have arrived on the scene. I believe I finally settled on submitting this image because it was telling a story."
Gierhart covers the Midwest League as a photographer for MiLB.com and said he appreciated the support from local fans during the voting process. He personally asked friends and family to vote online.
"[The] process gave me an opportunity to connect with the Clinton LumberKings fans, fans I have met at other ballparks in the Midwest League, friends and family," said Gierhart, who credited LumberKings general manager Ted Tornow and director of media relations Chad Seely for their campaign support. "The Clinton LumberKings even went as far as to put something on their website, Facebook page and Twitter to make it easier for their fan base to vote."
Fans were able to vote along with other MiLBY Award categories until Oct. 22.
"I really wasn't sure I had a chance against all of the great images from the other photographers, but the LumberKing fans along with Minor League Baseball fans everywhere chimed in with their votes," Gierhart added. "I really look at this as a way the LumberKings fans could leave their mark on the 2013 season and say, 'We really have something special here in Clinton, Iowa.' Win, lose or rainout, they are proud of their team, ballpark and city."
Gierhart said he got lucky "being at the right place at the right time."
"I believe what makes this image so compelling is pure luck," he said. "I happened to be moving from one side of the field to the other that evening and the cloud formation caught my eye. Earlier in the season, another MiLB.com photographer took a grand sunset shot (right). I wondered if I could even come close to matching what Mark Kuhlmann took.
"Mark captured these great tangerine orange colors in the cloud in his shot -- my shot resulted in more of a menacing purple/gray against a soft blue sky with warm reflecting highlights. Since twilight is probably the most difficult time to photograph, I probably took nearly a hundred shots. The lighting kept changing."
Above all (no pun intended), Gierhart's cloudy take on a small-town baseball game was just part of his mission to improve as a photographer and find a way to create a unique image.
"Instead of saying, 'Oh, that's a nice sunset developing tonight' and just keep shooting the game, I changed to a wide-angle lens and figured out how to shoot the image better than what I did in 2011," he said. "With all the great MiLB.com photographers submitting hundreds of great images day after day during the season, I can't help but be inspired by what they are taking and really embrace thinking outside of the box and beyond my comfort zone on occasion. This image reflects one of those occasions."