ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- The fans went home happy after the International League eked out a 2-1 victory over the Pacific Coast League in Wednesday's Triple-A All-Star Game.
But let's be honest -- the fans would have gone home happy either way. When it comes to All-Star Games, the results on the field take a backseat to the overall entertainment experience. These annual exhibitions provide the host club -- in this case the IL's Lehigh Valley IronPigs -- a chance to showcase their ballpark and game operations to fans, players and peers.
And the IronPigs put on a heck of a show.
It all starts with Coca-Cola Park, which opened in conjunction with the IronPigs inaugural 2008 season (the club relocated from Ottawa). The $50 million facility was designed by HOK (the firm behind Camden Yards in Baltimore and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia) and features a wrap-around concourse, extensive grass berm seating area, and a 20x50-foot scoreboard.
The community was initially skeptical of the IronPigs, as a result of several previous failed efforts to bring professional baseball to the area. (At one point, a ballpark for an independent league team was partially built and then torn down.) But this wary attitude dissipated once the stadium opened its doors and fans were able to experience Coca-Cola Park for themselves, and the club drew over 600,000 fans in each of its first two seasons.
Wednesday's All-Star Game continued this prolonged coming-out party. The heavy rains that earlier hit the Lehigh Valley area subsided and the IronPigs were able to strut their stuff in front of a national MLB Network audience.
The viewers at home were treated to ample shots of the Coca-Cola Park atmosphere, witnessing a ballpark that in size and scope is as close to the Major Leagues as the Minors get. Skydivers parachuted onto the field before the game, Philadelphia Eagles legend Chuck Bednarik threw out the first pitch, and American Idol contestant Tyler Grady sang a histrionic version of the National Anthem.
But this is still very much the Minor Leagues. While the viewers at home had to slog through yet another commercial break, the fans were treated to a litany of distinctly Minor League entertainments.
Between-inning game included "Whack-an-Intern" and a spaghetti-eating competition featuring blindfolds and jumbo overalls (I guess you had to have been there for that one). Not one but two dancing grounds crews performed, with Fresno's "Drag Kings" joining the IronPigs' "Dirt Dudes" (who brought down the house with a clothes-shedding version of "I'm Too Sexy"). And of course, there was the nightly Pork Race. Underdog Hambone blew an early lead, finishing third behind Diggity and winner Chris P. Bacon.
These irreverent attractions, combined with a ballpark filled with pig puns (from the "Pork Illustrated" game program to "Boar"d Rooms in the office areas), are in line with the philosophies of IronPigs general manager Kurt Landes.
"I have a Single-A mentality," he told me in a 2008 interview. "That means I want total fan participation, and that I'm going to analyze all aspects of the game to make sure the fans are involved. I put a huge focus on game presentation. It may sound cliché, but we're going to approach every game as if it were a Broadway show."
This effect was achieved Wednesday, during what was arguably the biggest game of the IronPigs' two-and-a-half year existence. But after the game, Landes was still focused on the one thing that he couldn't control that evening.
"I'm just glad it didn't rain," he said.