From the Roost to the Blue Monster and its snorting bull to a hub for March Madness, the International League can be a wild place to watch Minor League Baseball.
Toledo's Fifth Third Field is the smallest park in Triple-A with 8,943 seats, paltry compared to the Buffalo Bisons' gargantuan Dunn Tire Park that houses 18,025 fans. But the Mud Hens have the Roost, a nickname for a short right field porch reminiscent of old Tiger Stadium, that gives them a raucous home field advantage.
The Roost is the most popular party area at Fifth Third Field, with many dates being booked six to eight months in advance. Fans are literally on top of the playing surface as the first two rows hang over the field. That atmosphere helped Toledo near its club attendance record last season by drawing 556,995 fans en route to its first Governor's Cup since 1967.
"We have sold out over 100 times in the first four years here and even sold out playoff games, which never happens in the Minor Leagues. We have already sold over 320,000 tickets for the 2006 season," said Jason Griffin, the Mud Hens' director of public/media relations.
While the Roost is popular, the Blue Monster at Durham Bulls Athletic Park can be intimidating. The left-field wall is a towering 32 feet high with an old-style manual scoreboard akin to Fenway Park's Green Monster. However, unlike Boston's historic monster, Durham has a snorting bull with red-lit eyes and a wagging tail above its wall that is a piece of Hollywood folklore. The Bull was modeled after the famous bovine featured in the movie Bull Durham, while the actual Bull hangs in the concourse of the DBAP.
Speaking of wild animals, Opening Day in the Minors may be a week away but Gators, Bruins, Tigers and Patriots will be descending on Indianapolis and nearby Victory Field this weekend.
The Indians' home park is adjacent to the RCA Dome, which is hosting the Final Four of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Its location is part of the reason why Victory Field is considered a jewel of the Minors, as it was called the "best Minor League park in America" by Sports Illustrated in 2001. The $20-million facility boasts an open concourse that allows fans to view the field throughout the ballpark, as well as festival-style lawn seating and angled outfield seats. Plenty of luminaries will attest to how great of a park Victory Field is.
"It's a beautiful ballpark, and it's part of one of the best sports downtowns anywhere in America," Bob Costas said in 2000. "I mean, you've got the Colts ballpark right there, the new arena for the Pacers is there and Victory Field all within walking distance. I don't know of any other town in America where you can literally stroll from one to another ... And of course, Victory Field, I'm probably the 5,000th person to say this, is a miniature version of Camden Yards or Coors Field in Colorado that have been so successful."
The rabid fans of college basketball have nothing on Pawtucket's fan base. The PawSox lie in the heart of the Red Sox Nation and play in historic McCoy Stadium, which opened in 1942. Pawtucket led the International League in attendance for the second year in a row in 2005 and drew the fourth-highest number of fans in the Minors.
"I don't think anyone has a fan base like us ... It's unique," Pawtucket vice president of public relations Bill Wanless said. "The great thing about us is we are only 40 minutes down the road from Fenway, so Red Sox fans are really into what goes on down here. Red Sox Nation is here watching our games. They go crazy when we show a Red Sox highlight. They want to know about every player that we have as a lot of them go up to Boston."
Much like Fenway, McCoy has a distinguished history, as it hostged the longest game in the history of the Minor Leagues. On June 23, 1981, Pawtucket finished a 33-inning, 3-2 victory over Rochester that featured the likes of Cal Ripken, Wade Boggs, Bobby Ojeda, Bruce Hurst and Marty Barrett. Pawtucket will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the game throughout the 2006 season. They will host a reunion on June 23 with Boggs and Barrett already confirmed to attend. Other promotions include the giveaway of statues of Barrett crossing home plate with the winning run.
Red Sox fans appreciate the history of McCoy, but the park received a major $16-million facelift in 1999. Video boards and concession areas were added. Pawtucket expanded its seating area from 7,000 to 10,000 seats, made the park handicapped-accessible and improved the clubhouse and concourse.
"It brought us into the 21st century," Wanless said. "But it still has the charm and old-time feel."
The only International League park that has more history is the Columbus Clippers' Cooper Stadium. "The Coop" opened in 1932 during the Branch Rickey area. However, it is on its last leg and there are plans for Columbus to move into a new ballpark as soon as 2008.
One of the newest parks is Louisville Slugger Field. The home of the Louisville Bats opened its gates in 2000 and combines the history of a baseball-rich region with modern charm.
The park is near Browning's Restaurant, named after Pete "The Gladiator" Browning, who played for Louisville in the late 19th century and helped create the first Louisville Slugger bat. It is also just a short walk from the Louisville Slugger Museum. The views from inside the stadium are picturesque, as the Kennedy and Clark Memorial Bridges serve as a backdrop for baseball, and the field is among the best in baseball, though not as renowned as the surface at Knights Stadium in Charlotte.
"I've never seen greener grass and a greater playing surface than I saw when I was in Charlotte," said Ian Locke, the Norfolk Tides' media relations director.
Charlotte's promotions are also quite prominent. For instance, fans attempt to win a pre-owned vehicle every Friday night. The Knights also stay true to their name with some on-field entertainment.
"Since we are the Knights, one of my favorite on-field promotions is a joust where two contestants compete with velcro heads attached to a body suit and they do their best to see who can knock the head off their opponent," said Timothy O'Reilly, the Knights director of media and public relations.
For some serenity in the International League, there is the Norfolk Tides' Harbor Park. The 13-year-old stadium incorporates amenities like a full-service restaurant, an expansive concourse and two brand-new Daktronics video boards in right field alongside a seascape setting on the Norfolk waterfront.
"Countless times during the season fans will see sailboats, tugboats and barges cruising up the river. And the way the sun reflects off the water for day games makes for really great scenery," Locke said.
From the wild to the serene, the International League offers a bit of everything as prospects reach the final step before the Major Leagues. There are fields that are equally suitable for soccer (see Rochester's Frontier Field) and stadiums that offer gravy fries (only at Ottawa's Lynx Stadium). From rowdy fans in the Roost to a sports haven in Indianapolis, the International League is a cool place for baseball.
"You know you have made Triple-A," Wanless said, "when you play in these stadiums."