This serves as the first post in my second season of a monthly series called “Down on the Farm” that will chronicle visits to various minor league parks throughout the 2012 campaign. (The entire 2011 edition can be accessed here.)
Many of this season’s summaries will emanate from the Midwest League, the 16 team Single A league that has operated across the Heartland for more than half a century.
Since 2000, there have been eight teams in two separate divisions, east and west. Most eastern teams are located in the so-called Rust Belt of Ohio, Michigan and Northern Indiana, while the preponderance of western division teams play in the Great Plains and Mississippi River towns of Illinois and Iowa. Wisconsin has two teams, and for the last three seasons, the Commonwealth of Kentucky has provided southern charm with a squad in Bowling Green.
Somewhat uniquely, the MWL season is divided into two halves and each team’s record is “reset” in the middle of the season, following the All-Star Game. Eventually four teams from each division qualify for September’s playoffs. The Quad City River Bandits, who play in Davenport, Iowa’s scenic Modern Woodmen Park, are the defending champs.
By my math, at least 90 percent of the players are 23-years-old or under. Midwest League alumni currently in the Majors include Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Prince Fielder and dozens of others.
The A Ball affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, Burlington plays in Community Field, aka “The Hive.” It’s a simple facility, similar to Lewis and Clark Park in Sioux City, that stands along a main road in this quaint Mississippi River town of roughly 25,000. Burlington sits on the bluffs of the Ole Miss in southeastern Iowa, but the ballpark is a few miles inland.
Originally built just after World War II, the grandstand burned down a quarter-century later and was rebuilt for the start of the 1973 season. Though an old park with just over 3,000 capacity, renovations took place in 2004 and 2006. Those included a partial covering of the grandstand, an improvement in the sound system, a new scoreboard, a new outer brick facade and, best of all on a windy, cool Monday night, a modern press box.
In fact, this was Opening Night, and the Bees, who were last in attendance at 835 per game in 2011 — though now second to last in 2012 – drew a solid and enthusiastic 1,000 fans. Unfortunately for the faithful, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers spoiled the night with a 6-2 triumph.
The majority of seats at Community Field are metal bleachers with the first four rows stretching from dugout to dugout completely screened in. Those seats are green plastic with cup holders and, with a very active concourse running behind them, clearly offer the best comfort and view.
More positives at Community Field include $1 Monday (hot dogs, popcorn, soda and even pizza), as well as free parking and, overall, good sightlines from nearly any seat.
The Bees’ most notable alumnus is Paul Molitor, who after being drafted third in America out of the University of Minnesota 35 years ago, played for the Bees in 1977. He hit .346 that season, leading the Burlington to the Midwest League title. The Bees’ most recent championships was in 2008.
The crowd — many of them donning St. Louis Cardinals gear — was festive, perhaps due to Opening Night festivities, but there is one particular fan more exuberant than others. His name is “Dancing Bobby” and I was informed he has been at nearly every game for the past three decades. Bobby stands throughout the game along the first base line and regularly dances when music is played.
After a business stop in western Illinois, I was at another yard roughly 14 hours and 200 miles later in the Chicago suburb of Geneva.
Located 35 miles due west of the Windy City, it was an intrepid move to build a minor league yard in the shadows of two storied major league clubs. But that’s what Kane County Chairman Philip Elfstorm did in 1991 (the franchise played the prior four decades in various Illinois and Wisconsin towns), and it’s worked out well for this Kansas City Royals’ Class A team. Notable Cougar alumni include Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera, and more than 100 others, past and present.
Fifth Third Bank Ballpark is a suburban stadium, but wisely built off the main road in wooded, bucolic setting. Fixed seating is just 7,500, yet Kane County has attracted crowds nearly double that size many times due to plentiful lawn and picnic area seating. The Cougars, who draw from a monstrous Chiagoland metro area of nearly 10 million denizens, are perennially among the league leaders in attendance. They currently sit third for that category in 2012, though, like most MWL clubs, the team draws much better once the weather warms.
I attended on a blustery, cold Tuesday afternoon where 95% of the crowd were schoolchildren, as is common for early weekday starts across the Minors in April and May. Kane County won easily, though by the sixth inning, few spectators remained as the school buses departed and the thermometer dipped some more.
Fifth Third is otherwise a simple park, with a metal bench set up, not too different from Community Field. It provides good sightlines; a concourse that offers a field view unless behind home plate; the press box is not too high up; and ample parking is available, albeit pricy.
After the 2008 season, the stadium underwent a major renovation project that added a second-level seating area, covered concourse and, perhaps most impressively, skybox suites down the baselines with their own private entrance and dining area. Geneva being an affluent suburb, this was indeed a sagacious endeavor.
Fifth Third Ballpark will host the Midwest League All Star Game June 19. This will be the fourth time they’ve had the honor. Albert Pujols, Jake Peavy and Clayton Kershaw have played in prior contests.
Talk to you next month when I plan to review another MWL stadium (Clinton, Iowa) and Oklahoma City’s Bricktown Ballpark.