In the U.S., one sport still dominates the summer landscape — baseball (sorry, soccer nuts). And in Tampa Bay, one baseball team reigns supreme (even though the Rays’ low attendance figures are so consistent that they’re no longer news).
But we’re here to tell you that the Rays aren’t the only game in town. And enough complaining about the drive to St. Pete. Professional baseball is currently being played — at considerably cheaper prices, and with arguably more fun to be had — at a park near you.
We’re talking about minor league baseball, played in the Tampa Bay area for nearly the same length of time as the Rays season. In Hillsborough County you have the Class A-Advanced Tampa Yankees, who call Steinbrenner Field their home after their major league cousins conclude spring training and depart for the Bronx at the end of March. Pinellas County is home to the Dunedin Blue Jays and the Clearwater Threshers, the Class A-Advanced teams respectively of the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies.
At a recent Tuesday night game in mid-April, conditions were ideal at Steinbrenner Field. True, the crowd was sparse. In fact, driving up Dale Mabry Highway before the game, I thought I had made a mistake and misread the schedule. But as I approached the ticket booth and saw people inside it, I realized there would indeed be baseball tonight. Parking is ridiculously easy (not to mention free), and getting to the stadium from the lot takes just a few minutes. Tickets are only $6. The ticket seller asked where I wanted to sit, but it almost didn’t matter once I got inside; with so few in attendance, I could have chosen virtually any seat in the cavernous structure (capacity is 11,000).
Among the regulars who attend games at Steinbrenner Field is a Wesley Chapel resident who only wanted to be identified by her first name, Judy. Her only complaint about going to the games is that not enough people are there to join her. She’s a serious baseball fan; while watching the game, she was listening via earbud to the play-by-play of the Rays-Yanks game underway across the Bay at the Trop. She’s not a fan of the Ray’s much-maligned home. “It was nice the first time [I attended] because it was raining outside. But it’s very loud. I’m not happy when I’m sitting there.”
As for the level of play in minor league games, Judy concedes there’s a reason why they call the bigs the majors. “Don’t get me wrong. They’re learning. But last night they scored 11 runs. It’s a fun night, they’re nice kids. They’re learning.”
[About those class designations: All MLB teams host a number of teams in their farm system, aka the minors. The highest level of that system is Triple A, where the players are almost ready for prime time. Below that is Double A, and then comes Class A, just above the rookie team. Some MBL teams — like the three mentioned above, and the Rays — have both A and A-Advanced clubs playing in two different leagues.]
Joe, from Spring Hill, attends minor league games in Tampa, Dunedin and Clearwater. His unofficial analysis of nightly attendance is “there’s half as many fans in Dunedin [as Tampa], and six times as many in Clearwater.”
Although not entirely accurate, Joe’s not completely off base. Last season the Clearwater Threshers averaged 2,570 a game. The Yankees in Tampa averaged 1,817 fans, and the Blue Jays in Dunedin a rather paltry 830 fans. (In Polk County the Lakeland Tigers averaged 1,027 fans a game.)
Tampa, Dunedin, Clearwater and Lakeland teams all play in the Florida State League North, along with teams in Brevard County and Daytona. The Florida State League South consists of teams in Fort Myers, St. Lucie, Palm Beach, Bradenton, Charlotte and Juniper. There’s talk that the Blue Jays may move their spring training to Florida’s East Coast, in which case there’s a strong chance their Class A team would go with them as well. Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch is already pondering what team Pinellas could find to replace them if they go.
A chief appeal of minor league baseball is that “it’s arguably more family-oriented because of the pricing.” So says Vince Gennaro, a baseball consultant and author of Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning Baseball. The highest regular season ticket in any Bay area minor league park is $12 at Bright House Field in Clearwater. Gennaro also says that since minor league organizations can’t really market individual players (since in Class A there’s a good chance the rosters will change throughout the year) they have to rely on other means of appealing to customers. “It’s not just pure baseball anymore,” he says.
Nobody follows that philosophy better than the Clearwater Threshers. The club has always had an aggressive marketing philosophy, choosing to change the team name from Phillies to Threshers when they moved into Bright House Field in 2005 — a decision that enabled them to sell nearly a million dollars worth of merchandise that year. They also do a promotion for every game of the season — all 70 of them.
That includes $1 nights on Tuesdays, when key items — tickets, hot dogs, draft beer, popcorn, peanuts — go for a buck. That deal boosted the average attendance on Tuesday nights last year to 4,000 from what would generally be around 1,200, according to John Timberlake, general manager of the Threshers and director of Florida operations for the Phillies.
“The more you make, the more you spend,” says Timberlake, who believes his organization spends more on marketing than any other local team in the region. The Threshers try to maximize the assets of Bright House Field, including its suites and press box, whose air conditioning is a mighty antidote once June hits. Day games can be a bit of a drag in the long, hot summer months, so recently the team opted to offer Sunday brunches as an added incentive, with a slightly higher ticket price ($15-$18) than normal.
Last week I attended a Threshers game on dollar night Tuesday, and it was a blast. But you don’t have to go on the cheap to have a good time.
A dollar gets you in the ballpark (and you might even get in for free, depending on the mood of the ticket-seller). A dollar also can get you a nondescript hot dog, and some other basic foodstuffs. But Bright House Field also has a “Beers of the World” concession down the left-field line that offers an extraordinary diversity of foreign and craft beers.
There’s also a tiki bar in left field (officially called Frenchy’s Tiki Pavilion) that is a total happening on its own. With TVs set to ESPN and misters blowing, attendees can hang here for awhile without focusing on the game at all.
That’s what Clearwater resident Justin Butler was doing approximately 20 minutes before game time last week. He’s more of an MLB fan, attending 15-20 Rays games a season, but on most Tuesday nights his posterior is planted firmly on a stool at the Tiki Pavilion.
Threshers management is so aware of the fun the pavilion provides that it hosts a Happy Hour there every Wednesday at 5 p.m., whether or not there’s a game.
Bottom line, if you love baseball, you’ll like the minor leagues. Robert Hoday goes to Thresher games most Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights, and says he’s had the chance to see players like Ryan Howard and Kyle Drabek on their way up.
At Steinbrenner, Riverview resident Richard Arzon said, “Baseball here is a lot more pure. There’s hunger. Everybody wants to do really well. Some major leaguers — I’m not saying very many, and certainly no Rays — they kind of lean back a little, especially the ones that have already made it.”
Largo snowbird Bill Ronan enjoys going to see both the Jays and the Phillies in Pinellas County, but then again, he loves seeing any and all forms of minor league baseball. Every winter for the past four years, Ronan has taken his time in his trip from Michigan to Largo. In recent years he’s attended minor league games in Louisville, Indianapolis, Nashville and Gary, Indiana, where “there’s nothing going on, except a beautiful new ballpark.”
So if you want baseball, family-friendly and at a low cost, and you don’t mind the heat, head to the minor league games this summer.
But let me just state that after attending two games in local parks the past couple of weeks, if the Tampa Bay Rays ever get the funding to build a new ballpark somewhere in this region, it must be a retractable dome — because going to night games in the springtime is absolutely heavenly.
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