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The joy of minor league baseball

The joy of minor league baseball The joy of minor league baseball

The Portland Sea Dogs won, but that’s not why, fundamentally, the fans went home happy.

The Double-A minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, the Sea Dogs play in a cozy ballpark in Portland, Maine, and are having a pretty good year — their 2-1 victory over the Binghamton Rumble Ponies was their fourth in a row and they’re in first place in the Northeast Division of the Eastern League.

I attended the Sunday afternoon ballgame during a summer stay in Maine, and I, too, went home satisfied, even though I have no rooting interest in the Sea Dogs, the Rumble Ponies, or any other Eastern League team, not even the Akron RubberDucks.

No, I was content to bask in the glow of minor league baseball, one of the glories of an American summer. The mascots loom large, the betweeninnings entertainment is amusingly inventive, the scores don’t matter (much), and everything is geared to creating warm memories around the game that may not be the national pastime anymore, but still occupies an outsized place in the national consciousness.

At its best, minor league baseball combines the feel of a small-town parade and a meeting of the local Rotary Club, with nine innings of baseball interspersed.

The level of competition is, obviously, nothing like the majors; there’s no Shohei Ohtani on the field. On the other side of the coin, there’s usually no insane traffic and hassle, no highway-robbery prices (a hot dog at a Baltimore Orioles game costs $8.25), and no jerks cursing at the top of their lungs.

You can get general admission tickets for a Portland Sea Dog game for a whopping $11.

The allure of minor league baseball in the ordinary course of things isn’t a high-stakes series against a bitter rival or a particular star. (The title of one book about the minors is “Where Nobody Knows Your Name.”) Rather, it’s the experience; everything is smaller scale and friendlier.

In Portland, the ballpark staff is so cheerful and solicitous you almost wouldn’t be surprised if they invited you to come by their place for a clambake after the game.

On this afternoon, the team was honoring Special Olympians from Maine. A number of the athletes were part of a group that threw out first pitches, and one sang the national anthem, in a particularly heartfelt and moving rendition.

Meanwhile, the team’s mascot, Slugger, who looks like a dog but is supposed to be a harbor seal, performed in skits between innings, including his tradition of losing a race with a kid around the bases. (His entry in the Mascot Hall of Fame puts his lifetime record in these races at 0-1,928.)

It all happens at Hadlock Field, considered one of the best of the minor league parks. It opened in 1994 but feels like more of a throwback. It is nestled among the city’s streets, the way the classic major league ballparks once were. Railroad tracks run behind left field and an old brick exhibition center abuts the right-field line.

With a capacity of about 7,000, there isn’t a bad seat in the place. Balls fouled back behind home plate routinely leave the facility entirely. In a homage to the Green Monster in Fenway Park, left field has a 37-foothigh green fence topped by a Citgo sign and giant Coke bot- continued from page

tle. On Sundays, the Sea Dogs let kids under age 16 run the bases after games. Given the number of families in attendance, it’s tantamount to inviting half the ballpark to file onto the well-manicured field. Hundreds of kids make the circuit around first and to home — where just minutes before the professionals were playing — at top speed. Pure. Joy. And, oh, yeah, Portland starting pitcher Isaac Coffey struck out nine, and catcher Nathan Hickey hit a two-run homer in the victory.

It’s always one, two, three strikes, you’re out, at the old ball game, but the minor leagues offer a particularly charming version of the timeless game.

Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.

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