You have to be baseball obsessed to make a minor league baseball game a vacation destination. But that’s what we did as my wife, youngest son, and I loaded up and made the five hour drive to southeast Iowa and the river city of Burlington. It is the home of the Royals’ low-A affiliate the Burlington Bees of the Midwest League. After securing a room for the night we grabbed a fast food meal and headed for the ball park for a 7:05 p.m. start. It was a perfect summer night for baseball-clear, warm, with a light breeze. We went high-dollar opting for the $7.00 box seats that put us just to the right of home plate in the second row, close enough to read the brand on the hitters’ bat. We settled in with just over 1200 other spectators to enjoy an evening of baseball.
The field was a deep green and well-manicured. The outfield fence was composed of sections advertising local businesses. Right and left field were two-signs high. Six banks of lights were located around the field atop poles rising high above the stadium. When the switch was flipped prior to dusk the field was fairly well-lit. There were no video boards, no visual and sensory overload. The scoreboard had a small digital display that provided player names, numbers, home towns, and season stats. It was enough.
I perused the Bees roster for any recognizable names. Last year’s #1 pick for the Royals, Eric Hosmer, started the season at Burlington but had been promoted to high-A Wilmington earlier in the summer. The only notable name was 2008 fourth round draftee Tim Melville, a first-round pitching talent the Royals snagged as a sign-ability pick. Three players from the 2009 draft were on the roster, the highest being sixth-rounder Cole White, a pitcher out of the University of New Mexico. Most of the roster was composed of 20 to 22-year olds with a smattering of older players still chasing their baseball dream.
The opponent for the Bees this night was the Quad Cities River Bandits. Mascot names around the Midwest League certainly do not lack for creativity. There are the Lugnuts, the Kernels (this is corn country, you know), the Loons, the Snappers (that’s a turtle for the urban dwellers out there), and the Timber Rattlers just to name a few. The titles reflect the grassroots nature of the minor league environment.
The evening’s promotion was Rivalry Night. Cubs and Cardinals fans had been challenged to show up and display their loyalty for their MLB team. St. Louis devotees had a decided advantage when the call to voice team allegiance was announced. We had our Royals gear on, but no one seemed to notice.
Two radar guns were in evidence right behind home plate monitoring velocity of those who were on the mound. 20-year old Sam Runion, a second round pick in 2007 got the start for the Bees. He threw hard but straight and River Bandits’ hitters drove several missiles into the outfield in the first two innings and took an early lead which they would never relinquish.
The best play of the night occurred with the second hitter in the batters’ box. The River Bandits’ lead-off hitter worked Runion for a walk then immediately tried to steal second. With a good jump, it looked like he would swipe the base easily. But Bees’ catcher, Jose Bonilla, threw a laser beam to the corner of the bag and nailed him.
It was clear from watching play that the Royals’ have already moved most of their top talent from the 2008 draft to their high-A affiliates. The Bees, who played for the Midwest League championship last year, are languishing in the lower half of their division in 2009. Of the players we saw, Jason Thompson, who followed Runion to the mound, was the only one who caught my eye. He showed solid stuff and looked like he might have some promise as he develops command. Reliever Riquy Pena could really bring it, but only had a vague idea of where each pitch was going.
Of course, the evening’s festivities included more than just the game. Along with the Cubs-Cardinals promotion there were a variety of contests, drawings, and trivia questions to entertain the fans between innings. Burlington was hosting a Babe Ruth tournament for the weekend and players from a couple of the teams competed in a sack race relay on the field. One has to like the simple appeal of minor league baseball without all the high-tech glitz.
The game concluded with the home-towners on the short end of a 4-2 score. The evening at the ballpark was capped with an excellent fireworks display. I suspect that most of Burlington stopped what they were doing and went outside to watch. We left the stadium having gained more than our money’s worth. Of course, it’s hard to put a price on a night of baseball wherever it’s played.
Back at the motel my wife met a couple who had traveled all the way from Mississippi for the game. But their motivation was more personal than ours. Their grandson, 20-year old pitcher Mike Lehmann, is a starter for the Bees. He is in his second professional season and they said they never miss a game. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll be watching him on the mound in Kansas City and this August night in Burlington, IA will be a fond baseball memory for us both.