At the upper levels, professional sports are all about winning.
Amateur sports are all about fun.
Minor-league sports? Somewhere in between.
That much was evident at the Salt Lake Bees’ game Saturday night in Salt Lake City, where the home team fell 4-2 to the Albuquerque Isotopes. Certainly, manager Keith Johnson and his players weren’t pleased after suffering their second consecutive loss in as many nights to a division rival, and there’s a lot at stake for all of them — whether it’s the pursuit of a Pacific Coast League championship or a promotion to Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Angels.
But for the 13,000-plus in the stands at Smith’s Ballpark, wins and losses don’t seem to matter as much. On a picture-perfect night for a ballgame, the bulk of the fans were there for the postgame fireworks show. That much is obvious, considering the combined crowd for Thursday, Friday and Sunday was 15,348, and it would be much more if fans were merely interested in watching baseball.
But that’s really what minor-league sports is all about from a fan’s perspective. You’re getting to see the stars of the future for a low price, that way when you see them hit the big time, you have memories of watching them “way back when.” If the home team wins? Great. You might get a free burger at the local fast-food joint with your ticket stub, after all. But if they lose? Hey, it was Dollar Dog night, and you got to have a family night out for under $30. Can’t beat that.
Some of the promotions surrounding minor-league sports add to the entertainment value. Saturday’s game in Salt Lake City served as “Superhero Night.” As I walked into the Bees’ offices to pick up my media credential, I found myself waiting in the lobby with Batman and Wonder Woman. That doesn’t happen every day.
The night before, the Bees and Isotopes had a flashback to the 1970s, with Salt Lake donning the bright-orange uniforms of the Salt Lake Gulls and Albuquerque wearing the Ronald McDonald-esque colors of the Albuquerque Dukes.
The Isotopes have the minor-league promotion thing down to a science (no pun intended, by the way). When I lived in New Mexico, I caught a couple ‘Topes games when I’d drive down to Albuquerque for the weekend. The team’s name is not only a reference to nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory — it’s also a reference to an episode of “The Simpsons,” in which the hometown Springfield Isotopes threaten to move to the Land of Enchantment. As a result, rather than fans chanting “Charge!,” they chant “Marge!”
Later this month, the Isotopes will rename themselves the Albuquerque Green Chile Cheeseburgers for a game, in honor of one of New Mexico’s signature delicacies. They’ll be facing the Fresno Grizzlies, who will be rebranded as the Fresno Tacos.
In my California years, I got to follow the Single-A Lancaster JetHawks, who were a Houston Astros affiliate at the time. At that level, games are truly a community event. One of my paper’s columnists even performed the Funky Chicken atop the visitor’s dugout during the seventh-inning stretch one night. Star Wars Night was always a treat, though the Wookiee motif certainly looked better on some players than it did others.
Some of the players lived in the same apartment complex as I did. While a number of those players, including current Astros superstars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, have gone on to bigger things, you could see how much it meant to them to be the big fish in a small pond when kids would see them in the supermarket. I’m sure it’s the same for Bees players when they go across the street to Lucky 13 after a game and get to mingle with the fans.
So, if you’re looking for something to do, go check out some minor-league baseball this summer, whether it’s the Bees, the Orem Owlz or the Ogden Raptors. You never know where some of those players might end up.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. He, too, likes to take advantage of Dollar Dog Night. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.