Sunday, May 18, 2008

From the Bigs to the Buses

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

From the rural sandlots to the city stadiums, the basic premise of baseball – three strikes, three outs, nine innings, etc – remains constant. Sure, the talent level rises with every step to the majors, but does an increase in whiz-bang glitz and glamour make for a more entertaining game? Is happiness and emotional attachment at the ballpark directly related to cost and hype? Or have I been reading too much Freakonomics?

These questions are a result of seeing two games of various levels this past weekend. Last Friday night, I used one of my season tickets and saw James Shields of the Tampa Bay Rays one-hit the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The next night, I traveled to Viera, nee Melbourne, Florida, received a free ticket and watched the Class-A Florida State League Brevard County Manatees take on the Tampa Yankees.

As anyone who has followed my past writings knows, I am a closet Rays fan. Although I grew up a Mets fan, since moving to Tampa two years ago, I’ve had an interest in the Rays, especially in regards to the team’s transformation from doormat to dominant. So as an admirer, and not yet a full-blown fan, I was on my feet applauding what may have been the best pitching performance in franchise history.

Unlike my newfound fascination with the Rays, the Brevard County Manatees have been my favorite minor league team since their inception in 1994. Formerly a Marlins’ farm team, the Manatees are now the A-ball representative of the Milwaukee Brewers. Personally, I still wear the teal Manatees hat. I think it looks better than the newer red and blue version.

My two weekend destinations, independent of the score, couldn’t have been more different. A trip to the Trop is almost like a journey to the amusement park. Despite its reputation as a bad place for baseball, the Rays ownership has turned Tropicana Field into a fan friendly experience, with batting cages, speed gun contests, and plenty of other bells, whistles, gizmos, and doo-dads. The coup de grace of this new Trop is the new large video score board installed before the 2007 season. Every stat the above-average fan needs is broadcast, from OPS to pitch count, WHIP to walks per nine innings.

Even the fans at Tropicana Field have their own vibe. Whereas a growing number are starting to pepper the stands with Upton and Shields jerseys, many still wear generic merchandise mixed with attention-getting flare such as clown wigs and boxing robes. Topping off this group of new fans was an American Idol contestant in town to sing the National Anthem.

A Manatees game at Space Coast Stadium, on the other hand, is a far different experience. Instead of a celebrity singing for America, for example, the Manatees had two anonymous local crooners. Instead of a promotional foul line race between characters dressed as Pepsi, Aquafina, and Sierra Mist, the Manatees featured two local little league coaches dressed in generic ketchup and mustard bottles. Instead of amplified stereo noise, blinking lights, and new-age scoreboard, Space Coast Stadium relied on an old fashioned public address system and a video screen fit for an Sega Genesis.

So was the Rays’ game I paid for that much better than the low-budget Class-A Manatees contest I saw for free? Well, in this case, yes. But only because of the magnificent pitching artistry of James Shields. If not for the great Mr. Shields, it might have been a toss-up.