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Why Fans Love Minors: $2 Tickets, Pig Mascots, Small Parks

August 13, 1994

Undated (AP) _ Terry Kennedy was trapped. The former All-Star catcher, now managing the Class A Vermont Expos, had to get from the dugout to the locker room, and there was only one way to go.

So he squeezed through the stands, sneaked through a concession line and snaked toward the clubhouse. He was in a hurry because his team was about to hit, but still had time to say hello and sign some autographs.

Is it any wonder why fans love to watch minor league baseball?

″People who come to the games very rarely ask, ‘Who’s pitching?’ and ’Who are we playing?‴ said Chuck Domino, general manager of the Double-A Reading Phillies of the Eastern League.

″They just want to be a part of the minor-league experience because they’ve heard so much about it,″ he said. ″It’s the ambience, the affordability and the accessibility of the players, everything.″

And besides, with major leaguers on strike, it’s the only game in town.

There’s free parking, tickets for only $2 and seats so close that players talk to the crowd. There are races between innings, pass-the-hat collections after home runs and even St. Paula, a mascot pig - dreamed up by Mike Veeck, son of Bill, of course - who brings balls to umpires.

There’s Nolan Ryan’s son, Ken Griffey Jr.’s brother and Korean player Chan Ho Park on their way up, and Glenn Davis, Leon Durham and Tim Wakefield trying to make comebacks. There is a stadium in Albuquerque with a drive-in view and a field in Colorado Springs where fans can watch from a hot tub. There are the Durham Bulls, the team that helped revitalize interest in the minors because of a movie, along with the Nashville Sounds and the Nashville Xpress, who share a ballpark in a unique arrangement.

All that, and a rookie outfielder named Jordan.

Starting Sunday night, many fans will get their first look at life on the farm. That’s when ESPN, with no Toronto at New York game to show, will televise Michael Jordan and the Birmingham Barons on the road - in the luxury bus he bought for the team - against the Memphis Chicks at Tim McCarver Stadium.

″You know, we’ve had Cal Ripken and Jose Canseco and Bo Jackson and Mark Langston and everyone else come through this league,″ said Southern League president Jimmy Bragan, one of the many baseball Bragans. ″But like I was telling Michael, there’s never been a player that had the effect on attendance that he has.″

In fact, Jordan has been accouting for about 40 percent of all attendance in the 10-team Southern League. That’s even with him hitting under .200, although he recently hit his first two home runs.

Helped by Jordan, overall minor league attendance is headed for another record attendance. This year, the 216 minor league clubs are on pace to draw almost 32 million; in 1984, the 164 clubs drew 17.7 million, and the numbers have gone up every year since then.

Though most of the minor leagues finish up in the first week in September, many clubs expect to see some boost in attendance because of the strike. It happened in 1981 when major leaguers had a 50-day strike in midsummer.

″I think it will take about 10 days to hit, for fans to go through their withdrawal period,″ said Tim Marting, general manager of the Class A Modesto A’s, who play about 75 minutes from Candlestick Park and the Oakland Coliseum.

″At first, I think people will treat it like the Athletics and Giants are on a road trip. Then, I think people will be like, ’Hey, I haven’t heard them on the radio for awhile,‴ he said. ″Already, though, I’d say every third call we’re getting now is from the Bay Area, asking for a pocket schedule.″

The strike also has provided a few more good players to the minors. In the days before the walkout, several major league clubs sent down top prospects, especially pitchers, so they could get more work.

Arthur Rhodes, who pitched shutouts in his last two starts and was named AL player of the week, was farmed out by Baltimore. William VanLandingham, 8-2 for San Francisco, and Sterling Hitchcock, in the Yankees’ rotation, also were sent out.

It’s not glamorous.

Meal money averages about $16 instead of the $60 that major leaguers get; in fact, sometimes minor leaguers can be found in line with fans before games buying hot dogs. Players stay at the Red Roof Inn rather than the Ritz Carlton and salaries are in the thousands, not millions, but it’s pure baseball.

″People need their baseball fix,″ said Melody Tucker, general manager of the Everett Giants of the Northwest League. ″We’re hearing from them every day. The fans call and say they need to come and see games.

″A major league strike isn’t good for anyone, we know that,″ she said. ″But for those who miss their baseball, at least the minor leagues are still here.″

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