Those who deride the Midwest as flyover country clearly haven't taken the time to drive through it.
Dave Hoekstra has, many times over, and the results of his baseball-based adventures are chronicled in "Cougars and Snappers and Loons (Oh My!): A Midwest League Field Guide." The book is an irreverent travelogue, consisting of over 60 essays dedicated to the eccentric personalities, venerable ballparks and off-the-beaten path dive bars and diners of the long-running Class A circuit.
"[Visiting Midwest League ballparks] makes for a great weekend road trip," said Hoekstra, a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. "Baseball takes up two or three hours of the day, so there's always time for thrifting and local diners."
Since 1992, Hoekstra has written a column for the Kane County Cougars' game day program called "The Glove Compartment." The book is a greatest hits compilation of sorts, with the majority of the content culled from nearly two decades worth of columns.
"[The column] started as a spinoff of what I do here [at the Chicago Sun-Times], a lot of regional travel and Route 66 kind of stuff," explained Hoekstra.
"I've been covering the Cougars since they started [in 1991], and when the team was first announced, they were greeted with so much skepticism," he added. "People didn't think Minor League Baseball would fly so close to Chicago. But they drew in the suburban fan base and have done very well with kids and families, and it gave birth to a whole Minor League Baseball renaissance [in the Midwest]."
The success of the Cougars sparked Hoekstra's weekend wanderlust, and the results are on full display throughout the book. But whether he's writing about an idiosyncratic steakhouse in Lansing, Beer Can chicken in Cedar Rapids, or Friday fish fries in Beloit, the thread that unites it all is baseball. Players such as Edgar Renteria, Dontrelle Willis and Adrian Gonzalez are profiled, but Hoekstra is equally interested in lesser-known ballpark characters.
"Minor League Baseball creates a sense of community," said Hoekstra. "One of the great things about traveling around is you can meet other people and make connections."
Hence, the reader is treated to essays on bus driver Richard Gerritsen, mascot Mike Forrest, songwriter Greg Brown and traveling super-fan Jeremy Justus (who brings his own celery salt to the ballpark, in case he has to spice up the taste of an unsatisfactory hot dog). In the introduction to his essay on Justus, Hoekstra writes a pair sentences that could serve as a handy summation of the entire book: "Because of its long and leisurely schedule, baseball is America's greatest road sport. Summertime is a highway and every game is an exit."
Due to this nomadic and open-minded philosophy, Hoekstra won't be running out of material anytime soon. From WPA-era ballparks along the banks of the Mississippi to gleaming new facilities serving as the centerpiece of downtown revitalization projects, the Midwest League (and Minor League Baseball in general) will continue to serve as the jumping-off point for an infinite variety of distinctly American adventures.
"There are always going to be new places to go," said Hoekstra.