By Roger Weber
In baseball, one day's failures can be erased the next sunny afternoon.
Domonique Lewis learned the opposite is also true. In 2004, when he played center field for the Reds' single-A franchise in
he was one of the few offensive bright spots for a last place team.
One afternoon in May he went 5-for-5, an impressive accomplishment
on a team that rarely scored more than three or four runs a game. In celebration he took advantage of the promotional 5-for-5
deal at Arby's- five roast beef sandwiches for five dollars. But his decision backfired. He got violently ill and was forced
to sit out the next day's game. But that wasn't the end of his troubles. Dayton's
manager shamed him the next day by successfully eating the five roast beef sandwiches and not getting sick.
Despite the shortcomings of that Dayton team, they sold out every home game for the fifth straight year. Though it has just
over 7,000 seats and houses a team of players closer to college kids than major league ballplayers, Fifth Third Field in downtown
Dayton has a live-action video board, an upper deck and 30
The Dayton Dragons' franchise is one of the prime examples of
successful minor league organizations. Since the early 1990s, the minors have taken on a whole new meaning to many fans. 41
million fans crammed into small fan-friendly ballparks in 2005 and as prices rise and intimacy disappears in the major leagues,
popularity of minor league baseball continues to skyrocket.
"MiLB", the abbreviation an advertising campaign has recently
given minor league baseball, is meant to try to put the farm system in closer connection with the major league teams. But
what has made minor league baseball so enjoyable over the last few years has been its ability to stay small while upgrading
its quality in almost every way.
Four basic levels span the ranks of amateur kids to impending
major league call-ups and declining former stars. The talent is about as good as much of the majors', but minor league players
aren't typically ruled by multi-million dollar contracts. They play for peanuts in cash and a chance to someday make it out
of town to the big leagues.
Player turnover is rampant. Some players get stuck in double-A
and the fans learn to expect their names on the lineup cards, but others are just stopping by on their quick assent to the
pinnacle of their goals. Sometimes major league stars get injured and demoted for a "rehab assignment," giving minor league
fans chances to watch Derek Jeter or Manny Ramirez from third row seats for $8.
Most MLB fans don't pay attention to the little pieces of big
trades, but most major league trades mean some prospect changes teams. Major league teams build their teams differently. Some
trade their prospects for proven aging talent. Some make enough money on tickets and $7 beers that they can buy whatever talent
they need. But a few teams use the classic system- pumping young stars through their minor league system to build a cheap
long lasting dynasty at the major league level. These teams along the way create minor league powerhouses that don't correspond
with the major league team's success. In the minors success depends on the big league club, but getting to see prospects turn
into major league superstars makes it worth the ups and downs.
What many like best about
the minors, though, isn't only the talent on the field.
"They're a time machine
to a much simpler and different time," said Eric Pastore, webmaster of digitalballparks.com.
New minor league stadia are glitzy
and full of special effects and luxury suites, but they still hold the personality that makes the minors unique. Seats are
good, prices are cheap and players are happy to sign autographs. Between inning promotions like fan eating competition and
dizzy bat races give the farm system a simple lighthearted feel.
In Columbus zoo animals are brought in to perform and in Louisville a merry-go-round is the backdrop for the right field foul
pole. In Altoona, PA, there's
a roller coaster over the right field fence. In Reading there's
a hot tub. In Jacksonville it's a church and in Toledo
it's a set of seats wedged between two buildings called "the roost". In Lansing
it's a huge short right field fence. In Billings, Montana
several stories of rimrock are the center field backdrop and in Columbus
there's a sculpture garden. In Memphis the scoreboard is shaped
like a guitar. In Akron, it's the Ohio and Erie
Canal behind left field and the "birthplace of the hamburger" in right- the Menches Brothers restaurant. In Davenport, Iowa it's the Mississippi River in right and in almost all the new parks there's a grass
berm surrounding the outfield, making baseball really a day at the park. In the minors almost every park is unique. Baseball
isn't big business and winning isn't everything.
Few jobs are harder than being
a minor league beat reporter or radio broadcaster. Usually these people must fill up columns and airtime with information
about players about whom all they know is a uniform number and a batting average. There's less focus on the steroids issue
and more on the ability of the inexperienced pitcher to hold the majors' next speed demon on second base.
Not many baseball fans can match the Kernels, Lumberkings and Lugnuts with their respective
cities- Cedar Rapids, Clinton, IA and Lansing if you're wondering- and even fewer could tell you the story of Bill Faul, the
pitcher who packed nothing but a gun in his suitcase for a two-week road trip, then bit the head off a parakeet in an Indianapolis
locker room and smashed a mouse in his pants with a baseball bat.
Most baseball fans would rather
sit 100 feet in the air and eat $5 hot dogs. And most teams would rather spend $8 million on an over-the-hill shortstop than
take a chance on a young speedster with a wild arm. Major league baseball is great. There is nothing like seeing the best
players in the world play America's pastime before big crowds on national
television, but as they say in Dayton, the Reds didn't create
Dragons' fans, the Dragons created Reds' fans.