I have been an avid baseball fan for over a decade now. My first game was actually in 2004 at Tropicana Field when the Devil Rays took on a star-studded Yankees team featuring the likes of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams… and Bubba Crosby. Of course, eight-year-old Mark from Northern Ireland did not know these were superstars but in another visit to St. Pete in 2010, my parents and I were sat in the right-field bleachers to see the Yankees again. We were surrounded by loud-mouth New Yorkers as is often the case wherever the Yanks play and I have a vivid memory of a Robinson Cano home run sailing over my head and landing on the concourse behind us. For many, this would be enough to make them a Yankee fan for life but from that day on I was hooked on the Rays.
The first sight of the dome as you drive along the I-275, the palm tree-lined walkways from the vast car park to the entrance; the sight of the lineups on the screen outside that entrance; the smell from the concession stands as you walk through the cavernous halls at the Trop; the first glimpse of the turf and the (in)famous catwalks and, of course, the rays touch tank. To many baseball purists – and in my time following this magnificent sport I have learned that there are many – Tropicana Field is their idea of fresh hell but it is where I fell in love with the sport and the Rays.
However, today I am here to make a confession – I have realised that I am a baseball casual. Yes, I have been the only one of my friends to follow the sport religiously. Yes, I have bored my parents and partner to tears with stats that make no sense to them and, yes, I did once make an Excel spreadsheet tracking the batting and pitching stats from every Rays game in the 2015 season… but I have been an ashamed baseball elitist.
Pre-pandemic, I loosely followed college and Minor League baseball but, in truth, I usually consumed it through the odd clip on my Twitter feed or whenever a superstar went to the minors on a rehab assignment. I watched bits and pieces of the College World Series whenever it was shown on UK TV and heard of the top college prospects come draft time but, truthfully I didn’t know my Vanderbilts from my Auburns.
This changed somewhat whenever my partner and I moved to Vancouver in 2019. I was delighted when I discovered that the Vancouver Canadians were the short-season affiliate of the Blue Jays and tickets were cheap and easy enough to come by. A quick Skytrain journey to King Edward station in the southeast of the city followed by a 10-minute walk down Ontario Street leads you to Nat Bailey Stadium. ‘The Nat’ is truthfully one of the most charming stadiums of any sport that I have ever visited. The stadium is nestled in a residential area but the evergreen trees that make up the batter’s eye and the wooden benches that you park yourself on make you feel a million miles away from the big city and in a true hub of minor league baseball.
We sat behind home plate watching BP as the sun set while chowing down on poutine and I had a grin like a Cheshire cat. Side note – if you’ve never had or even heard of poutine, it’s a French-Canadian delicacy of fries (chips), cheese curds and gravy. “But that’s just a cheesy-gravy chip from the chip shop” I hear you cry. Well, you’re wrong I say and you HAVE to try it. A perfect companion on a winter’s night watching ice hockey or a summer’s day at the ballpark. Anyway, enough about my food ramblings.
Like many minor league clubs, the Canadians have a proud record of developing major league talent with names such as Nelson Cruz, Nick Swisher, Sean Doolittle, Kevin Pillar and Cavan Biggio among those to have earned their stripes at Nat Bailey Stadium. Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman once stood on the mound there too, meaning that, if Thor was healthy, 40% of the Mets’ starting rotation would be Vancouver alumni.
This is not just an ode to Vancouver, though I was delighted when I heard that the Canadians would be the Jays’ High-A affiliate starting this season as part of the Minor League reshuffle. We were intending on attending more C’s games in 2020 but COVID-19 meant that not only was our time in Canada brought to a premature end, but the 2020 minor league season was whitewashed. College baseball was at least able to start its season but for the first time since its inception in 1947, there was no champion crowned in Omaha at the College World Series.
While I, like the rest of us, was glad that we could at least get some baseball last year, the 60-game season with its empty stadiums, summer camps and alternative training sites just felt flat. As a Rays fan, it was, of course, a very successful year but there was just something missing and that something was the baseball pyramid that props up the major league product we all love so dearly.
There would be no MLB without MiLB. This sounds such an obvious statement but the old phrase ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone’ really sums this up. So much of normal everyday life that we took for granted in the pre-COVID world was either paused or taken away from us and we pined for it and learned to appreciate it and that’s how I felt about the lower levels of the sport I so love. That’s when I realised I was a great big baseball snob. I had always prided myself on appreciating the side of various sports that many did not. The nuances, the imperfections, the grassroots. I had always scoffed at those on social media who seemed unable to comprehend that football exists outside of the top six in the Premier League and, yet I had let myself down.
All throughout the winter, I kept a meticulous eye on any announcements regarding college and minor league baseball. I watched keenly the chopping and changing of the minor league system and set reminders on my phone for the various key dates for different leagues as well as when Spring Training camps would open.
In the same week that spring training camps opened, college baseball opened its season and it is a joy to behold. The ‘ting’ of the aluminium bats, the charm of the ballparks and the sheer passion of the players all make it a wonderful spectacle. I have never seen two-out bases-empty walk celebrated before but that is part of the lure. As I write this, I am watching highlights on YouTube of the Evansville Purple Aces and the Georgia Bulldogs or ‘Dawgs’ as they are affectionately known. At the weekend, I listened to a Florida State Seminoles game live on the radio while working around the house and it filled my heart with such joy. Baseball on the radio has a particular charm to it that is very hard to explain.
I am open to recommendations to college teams to follow. I have a Seminoles lanyard that I bought in Dick’s Sporting Goods many years ago and have added the Big House in Ann Arbor to my sporting bucket list after watching the All or Nothing series on the Michigan Wolverines on Amazon Prime but I am not sure either of these qualify me to be a supporter. They’re also fairly mainstream so if anyone can persuade me otherwise, please feel free.
While this is still Division One of NCAA baseball and many baseball hardcores in the US and Canada will tell me I’m still barely scratching the surface, I am determined to take in everything that baseball has to offer this year. I will follow all of the Rays’ affiliates closely as well as my beloved Canadians but I am going to keep an eye on just about as much baseball as possible. With the vaccine rollout continuing and limited numbers of fans allowed back in stadiums this year, let’s keep everything crossed that we can get through a 162-game Major League season with as little disruption as possible. Let’s also keep everything crossed that all other levels of baseball can make it through their respective seasons.
I am sure I am not the only one in the past year who has had moments where things you never did or never took notice of suddenly become the only thing you want to have or do. I am not a big drinker and can’t stand the taste of beer but have commented on numerous occasions that I would love nothing more than a cold pint in a bustling bar. Had you told me this time last year what all would have happened in the next year, I wouldn’t have believed you. A world without sports? Never. It happened, though and to see baseball coming back in a close-to-normal format is enough to bring a tear to my eye. We’re all optimistic for a great summer and nothing says summer like baseball, whether that’s in New York, Vancouver, Omaha or every other baseball outpost in between. You better believe I’m going to take it all in.
Mark is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @realmarkstrange