This month we’re profiling Minor League Baseball fans across the country who go to impressive lengths to show their love of the game in creative ways and stay connected to their favorite teams even when the action on the field is on hold. Do you think you can stake your claim as “MiLB’s Biggest Fan?” Tell us why at the MiLB Fan Lounge, created in conjunction with MiLB partner Brand Activation Maximizer, for a chance to be a special guest and share your story on our official podcast, The Show Before The Show.
A call went out to find Minor League Hat Twitter.
The response was loud.
The caps donned by Minor League players across North America are the most visual elements of their teams’ identities and the most functional for fans. Sure, maybe a jersey speaks louder, but a hat is something anyone can throw on to run to the store or take the dog for a walk or rush to the airport. There, it is a conversation-starter, a fashion statement and a snapshot of a person. Four stories sampled below cover the spectrum of Minor League hat enthusiasts, from some just getting started to those who have found a lifetime of memories in the game.
North of the border
For Brendan Pannikar and Steven Postma, both 28, it started as a fun concept that’s become a holiday tradition. While attending Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, together in the early 2010s, the pair were closer to Buffalo (20 minutes) than Toronto (90) and got hooked by the Minor Leagues.
“We would attempt to get over [the border] to some Bisons games, and this was even before they became the Blue Jays’ Minor League affiliate,” said Pannikar, a Toronto resident. “I think back in 2013, maybe 2012, being that close to the border we started doing some cross-border shopping the weekend after American Thanksgiving. As our sports fandom has heightened and the years have gone along, we’ve taken more of an interest in Minor League Baseball.”
One day between classes, the pair started going through Minor League team names, logos and hats. An idea was born: a hat exchange.
“It took a few years for the ball to get rolling,” Postma said. “This will be year five, but we hope to do it for a lifetime.”
Each year prior to the holidays, the process begins ahead of an annual trip back to St. Catharines -- including a jaunt to the States for the ceremonial giving of caps. First, a list of 10 caps each posts to the other’s Facebook wall, then a narrowing to five finalists. The pair talks through the list with friends, tabulating votes and garnering input as they pare down their groups. The process is different for each.
“My quantities are not up there, but I will tell you I’ve put a lot of hours into picking out each individual hat,” Postma said. “The logo just has to look unique, but it also fits my personality or where I’m at in any given year. I can kind of look back and see where I’ve been. It’s kind of hard to describe, but it’s just looking at all these different logos and saying, ‘That’s me. That is me. I need this hat because it fits me.’”
Panikkar’s method is similar.
“I try to make it so that there might be a bit of a connection to who I am as a person,” he said. “For example, the Lake County Captains hat, the guy looks like a bit of a goofball and I consider myself a bit of a goof. That’s one there.”
From the final five, each selects the year’s victorious hat for his friend. Over the years, Panikkar has gotten Lake County, the West Virginia Black Bears, Syracuse Chiefs (now Mets) and Amarillo Sod Poodles. On his own, he’s purchased caps from the Buffalo Bisons, Visalia Rawhide and Missoula Osprey (now PaddleHeads). Among Postma’s acquisitions are the Gwinnett Stripers, Richmond Flying Squirrels, Clinton LumberKings and Salt Lake Abejas, the Copa de la Diversión cap of the Salt Lake Bees.
“I’m very surprised in Canada here how many people I will bump into on the day to day who just love the hats, who follow Minor League Baseball. It's quite refreshing,” Postma said. “You could just be in the grocery store and someone’s like, ‘Oh, nice hat!’ And then we start talking about Minor League Baseball. It’s a really good conversation piece.”
The pandemic has robbed the two friends, like all of us, of one of their top summer traditions. Panikkar misses nights in the Minors.
“Honestly, Buffalo is an incredibly underrated city,” he said. “Just being able to go to spend a weekend there with a few friends or my girlfriend, I just love how cozy Minor League Baseball stadiums feel. And they also do a very good job with their promotions and ticket prices, as well. When you get as high as Triple-A or Double-A, you’re seeing some of your organization’s best prospects. Last year when I went to the Bisons game, it was about a week or a week and a half before they called up Bo Bichette.
“It’s kind of cool to see them before they hit the bigs. Plus, I think it’s way easier to interact with players than it is on the big league stage because you’re that much closer to the field.”
The season may not be happening, but the hat exchange will carry on in some form.
“Last year we did a four-day trip to the States to do this hat exchange,” Postma said. “It kind of grows every year, so talk to me in 20 years and we’ll see. We’ll probably be in Hawaii for a couple of weeks doing it.”
Dragons in Sin City
Though he’s a native of one of the Minor League’s hottest of hotbeds, De Rice and his hometown Dayton Dragons didn’t cross paths until later in life. Rice, 40, had moved away by the time the Dragons arrived in 2000 and embarked on the longest sellout streak in American sports history. Still, they found each other.
Rice spent the bulk of his formative years in Atlanta before moving to Las Vegas, where he lived for a decade until earlier this year. His love for the Cincinnati Reds was a constant.
“As a Reds fan just really getting into prospects, I started following the (affiliates) and like, ‘Oh, we have a team here. We have a team there,’ Chattanooga, Louisville, all that stuff,” he said. “Then I was like, ‘Oh, we have a team in my hometown!’ So I started following them and saw how successful they were. They have the retrospectives of players who played there like Joey Votto and Johnny Cueto. It’s really cool. It’s a sense of pride to wear a hat with my hometown team on it and have people ask me about it because it’s a pretty cool logo."
A budding interest in the Minors put the closest team to Rice for the last decade on his radar. Last year, the then-Las Vegas resident got season tickets for the Aviators’ inaugural campaign at Las Vegas Ballpark.
“It was incredible,” he said. “It’s a really nice park. The amenities there are really nice.
“I would go to the games when they were the 51s. They were in downtown Vegas and it was kind of sketchy. [Cashman Field] was old, had the metal benches and everything. Going to the new park and getting season tickets -- I was right down the first base line -- it was really nice. They would do things for season-ticket holders like have banquets and stuff like that. I really enjoyed it.”
Though Reds prospects didn’t pass through the Pacific Coast League last year, Rice did catch them in Las Vegas this spring. The Reds played an exhibition series against the Cubs on March 7-8 at Las Vegas Ballpark before the pandemic shut down baseball.
Last season, Rice followed as some of the top talent in the A's system moved through Las Vegas along with future stars on opposing sides.
“I took my girlfriend (Michelle Taylor) with me and she started following along and watching the players and stuff,” he said. “Then when the A’s games would come on, I’d be like, ‘Hey, do you remember him?’ And she’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, we watched him play last week!’ Seeing players like Gavin Lux, I saw him last year come through, [ Yordan Alvarez ] for the Astros, the guy who hit a billion home runs in the Minor Leagues last year and he’s up there now.”
While Rice’s budding hat collection includes his hometown Dragons and adopted hometown Aviators, he’s also embraced Minor League Baseball’s Copa de la Diversión initiative with a Las Vegas Reyes de Plata lid and one of Copa’s most discussed and beloved caps, San Antonio’s Flying Chanclas.
“When I wear that hat, I get a lot of looks and people are like, ‘Is that what I think it is?’” he said, laughing. “I have to explain the whole thing. It’s cool. I like having that conversation starter.”
The A’s connection is perfect for Rice’s current chapter; earlier this year, he moved to Northern California for a job promotion. Someday soon, he’ll experience that region’s Minor League teams.
“I was actually looking forward to going to some Major League games in San Francisco and Oakland,” he said. “I know San Jose has a team, so I’m definitely going to check that out if we can ever go to games and stuff again.
“And I held on to my season tickets in Vegas, too. I’m sticking with Minor League Baseball because it’s a cool product.”
A Tacoma tradition
Anna Lindall is a Pacific Northwest native, so, of course, she’s a Mariners supporter. But her Twitter bio only lists the most important element of that fandom: “Rainiers fan!”
With her parents, Robert and Diane, Anna and her family have long owned Triple-A Tacoma season tickets, and she’s grown up alongside Rainiers baseball. Now 31, her cap collection is almost exclusively hometown: 36 Rainiers hats, to be exact.
“I would say the logo,” she said of the driving force behind her cap purchases. “Most of my Rainier ones span from the original Tacoma logo to some of the [giveaway] ones when they do the throwbacks. I have some of my dad’s hats that I saved after he passed away, and then some of my Rainier hats are actually autographed.”
Robert died four years ago. Lindall retains her connection to him and the game in part with some of his collection. The Mariners family is her other clan.
Lindall boasts autographed caps and merchandise from M’s stars past and present as they’ve passed through Tacoma from Felix Hernandez to Kyle Seager to Mallex Smith to Braden Bishop and more. Last year, she won one of Bishop’s Spring Training jerseys at auction, got him to autograph it, then presented it back to him to raffle off for the Bishop family’s 4MOM Charity in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
“One of the Rainier games we were at, his dad was there, and I actually happened to be wearing one of his 4MOM sweatshirts,” she said. “His dad pointed to me and gave me a thumbs up, and Braden one time threw me a ball.”
Cheney Stadium is serving as the Mariners’ alternate training site. Next year, Lindall is excited for one thing above the rest.
“Probably seeing the prospects the Mariners have,” she said, “like Jarred Kelenic if he’s in Tacoma, people like that.”
Minor League Midwest madness
Kevin Kloehn has snapped up every ballgame experience possible since he was a kid. A native of Kaukauna, Wisconsin, he started attending his first Minor League games in a different era.
“We would go to Appleton Foxes games when I was 12, 13 years old,” he said. “We’d take the local city bus up to Appleton, walk down the tracks and go to the game, and my mom would come pick us up at like 9:30. I’d go with some buddies, and this is all before cellphones, so it was kind of like, ‘Well, the game will be done around 9:30, so I’ll meet you in the parking lot.’”
A love of the game permeates Kloehn’s life, and he carries it with him from coast to coast. The Milwaukee resident, 49, travels around the country for his broadband engineering firm work, and baseball comes with the trips.
“When our engineering people travel with me, they pretty much know that they’re going to see a ballgame,” he said with a laugh, a reality never better exemplified than on a trip to Las Vegas with company executives.
“My president of the company was asking about where we were going for dinner,” he said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to the ballgame.’”
A father of three, Kloehn’s love for baseball has spread to his kids, especially sons Jackson and Truman, with whom he does an annual baseball trip. As the Kloehns have formed relationships with Brewers prospects coming through Wisconsin, they’ve followed them up the chain with trips to Class A Advanced Carolina, Double-A Biloxi and Triple-A San Antonio in addition to annual trips to the Midwest League All-Star Game.
“It was a running joke that Truman, my middle kid, if we would do the first pitch at these games, Cody Ponce the pitcher was always catching the ball,” Kloehn explained. “We got to Biloxi and they had somebody else slated to be the catcher and Cody walked up and was like, ‘Hey, that’s my job.’”
The innumerable games and trips have resulted in a bountiful collection of bats, balls, cards, jerseys and caps. Most of Kloehn’s hats are from Brewers affiliates or ballparks he’s visited but also include Minor League logos he simply loves, like the Montgomery Biscuits and Vermont Lake Monsters.
“Invariably, there will be people where one of two things will happen if they ask you about your hat: one, if they recognize it. ‘Oh, are you from Biloxi?’ ‘No, I just have a Biloxi Shuckers hat because I went there because they’re a Brewers affiliate,’” he said. “There’s that or they recognize it as a Minor League hat. ‘Oh, this guy, he’s a Minor League guy.’”
Wherever he goes, the Minor Leagues are.
“It’s just one of those things -- you could sit around and have a burger and talk Minor League Baseball stories forever.”
Tyler Maun is a reporter for MiLB.com and co-host of “The Show Before The Show” podcast. You can find him on Twitter @tylermaun.