For the Love of the Minor League Game

Jon Popham reminds us of the joy and optimism each new season offers for players and fans alike.

Well, here we are again, friends, just a few days away. We'll soon be smelling the freshly cut grass, hearing the crack of ash to leather, tasting the unhealthy but undeniably great taste of ball park dogs, seeing the team take the field, and feeling the warm sun kissing our faces again. Yes, it will soon be Opening Day!

On a recent weekend, I made my early trek over to Modern Woodmen Park, home of the Quad Cities River Bandits. It was the first (relatively) warm Saturday we've had since November, so it was already a good day. As I walked up the steps to enter the stadium, my pace picked up the same way my heartbeat quickened. The closer I got, the better I felt. I was coming home! As I reached the top of the steps, walked onto the concourse and saw the field again for the first time in seven months, my heart skipped a beat. She is truly a beautiful lady.

It was audition day for the National Anthem singers and other pre-game talent for the season. There were people nervously pacing around the concourse, waiting for their turn at the mike. I stepped into the sunshine, closed my eyes, and basked in the feeling of being at home. The field looks good for being so early in the spring. After a $300,000 upgrade during the off-season, it should be in perfect shape! The dirt tracks are still mud and the tell-tale signs of a flock of geese remain on the outfield, but it's already looking like the best field in the Midwest League.

In April, 25 guys will show up to start the season. Some of them will be faces we saw last summer, some will be brand new. All will be eager to show their best game every night for 140 games. Every one of them will be wanting to get out of here, to be promoted, but many will learn to call this place home for a while.

The first few games of the season will look like a high school team getting together to practice for the first time. Errors will abound, as will strikes and fouls. Some guys will wash out early; some will shine beyond their expectations. As a minor league fan for many years, I've come to know that the one thing that remains constant is change in minor league ball. As always, I will cheer (and miss) the guys who get promoted and I will feel bad for (and miss) the ones who get released. One thing I know, the team that arrives in April will not be the team that finishes in September.

We'll probably see guys like Robert Stock and perhaps Shelby Miller again. We probably won't see Chuckie Fick or Casey Mulligan. Who else will get to put on the red and black uniform and take the field on the banks of the Mississippi? What will our new coaching staff have to offer us as fans and writers? Will this be the year that we finally make the post-season and get past the first round of the playoffs?

Minor league baseball is a game unto itself. Yes, they play the same nine innings, the same outs, strikes and balls, but the players are different. They are younger, they are hungrier, and they have never tasted big league clubhouse food. They earn less for the entire season than their big league counterparts earn in a three-game series. These guys don't play for their paychecks; they play for that elusive shot at the show. They carpool or ride a bicycle to work every day. They pile five guys into a two-bedroom apartment. They ride on a bus all over the Midwest as a team. On the field, they don't hold back—they go 120% every day, day in and day out. To these guys, it's still a game they love to play. Someday it will become a job, but not today.

Minor league ball players often leave home before they are done with high school. Their cell phone is their lifeline to home, to parents, siblings and young girlfriends who only want them to come home. Sometimes I have to remind myself that these are boys, just wetting their feet in the world of adults. Sometimes I want to offer them the option of calling me dad if it makes them feel a little more at home. Sometimes I wish that I could just put them in the car and drive them home for one night's sleep under their mom's roof. Sometimes I see them taking great strides on their own journeys toward independent adulthood. Sometimes they make me so proud that I want to pop.

Soon these boys who I call my sons will move on from here. Some will remember this stop on their life's journey. Some will try to forget. They say that your life counts when someone remembers you. So these minor league guys ALL have lived lives that count. As I write this, I'm already starting to dread the end of the season.

For now, though, it's opening day. This really should be a national holiday! Clear the field; announce the lineup; chalk the baselines; batter up! Strap yourselves in! It's going to be a wild ride! This is baseball! Today, I love the day. I love this game!

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