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Bush Leagues, Palm Trees and Roller Derby Girls: A Night Out at the Ballgame

No Zoom: up close at a Marauder game

BRADENTON -- When I took in my first Marauders game, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd been to McKechnie Field for spring training, but it'd been years since I'd seen minor league baseball. Ten, to be exact. I was living in Colorado Springs and got out to see a Sky Sox game in 2000, but before that I'd have to go back to my teens.

Of course, I'd been to dozens in my youth, but I've often found it disappointing whenever I've revisited such memories, since they so seldom live up to romanticized recollection.

I was prepared to get hosed for parking or walk twenty blocks, like I did when I saw the Pirates play the Yankees in the spring of  '07, so I was pretty juiced when I saw a makeshift sign advertising plenty of free parking behind the Boy's Club. The city patrol car at the gate and the security guard walking the grounds was a nice touch.

I stepped out of my car and could already hear the distinct crack of the bat, as players warmed up. My walk along the backside of the stadium revealed little, but the sound of whistling balls snapping into mitts in the visitor's bullpen was like the smell of comfort food.

The stadium had the carnival feel of a small-time circus. It smelled of popcorn and cheese steaks, which added to the effect. The local roller derby team, the Bradentucky Bombers, were doing a live demonstration behind the grandstand and I did my best to avoid a stray elbow.

Number one fan and future pitcher, Jose Garcia

I was immediately reminded of my favorite part of Minor League Baseball; the promotions. With a shoestring budget, club staff has to actually use their imaginations to add sizzle to the events. A team once had Turkish Millionaire Night, where they gave a million Turkish Lira (about US $1.16) to the fan who could answer the big trivia questions.

Roller girls were a nice touch though, especially the one who cartwheeled down the concourse  in her skates. I grabbed an ice cold bottle of beer for only $3 and two big hot dogs for a five-spot and did the math in my head; $6 for a ticket, free parking, and $8 for dogs and a beer.

Where else could I get cartwheeling roller girls, a professional sporting event, and a meal for 14 spins? This was a night out.

Before the game even started, I was impressed by the approachability of the players. Several were signing autographs in the concession area and the rest were engaging fans hovered around the fence. Four-year-old Jose Garcia, threw a few pitches at the "guess your speed" radar game set up behind the stands.

"We're here every night," his mother told me. "Jose knows every player. It's all he talks about."

Jose's father tells me that whenever his son plays baseball on his video games, he pretends it's the Marauders' DH, Eric Fryer at the plate.

Cartwheeling roller derby girl

Fryer had homered twice that week, so Tony, who'd played Pony League ball up north, was stoked to see him continue the streak.

I take my seat in the box section behind home plate. Box 1, Row 1, Seat 1; but I've gotta move over one when Father Mills, an Episcopal Priest at Christ Church, shows up with his 15 year-old-daughter Rachel. They've got season tickets and the Father gave the mass with khaki shorts underneath his robe that night, to hasten their arrival.

"We come just about every night," he tells me in a voice that beams a child's enthusiasm. "Rachel's here more than me. If I can't make it, her mother brings her over."

Rachel is a rabid fan with encyclopedic knowledge of the team. At her request, the family even rescheduled their summer vacation to coincide with a road trip, so that they'd only miss two home games, rather than six. Her favorite player is Tony Sanchez, the Pirates number one draft choice. A prototype catcher that can hit, Sanchez was an All-American at Boston College and seems like a shoe in for the bigs.

The game starts and I'm reminded of Bull Durham, that iconoclastic baseball film with Kevin Costner , Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. It feels like I'm living out a scene from the movie, except the catcher is the first-year phenom and no one calls him "Meat."

The Marauder meets his match

As the ballgame begins, the real entertainment starts. Craig Faanes, a retired biologist from Wisconsin has the other row 1 seat behind home plate. Fannes is a first-rate heckler, I mean the kind of guy that affects batting averages and inspires umps to wear earplugs.

From one kid's stance to another's haircut, Faanes has got something for all of them, but he saves his best stuff for the men in blue. When a close play comes across the plate in the third and the umpire seems poised to call the Marauder out, Faanes' loud "safe" seems to cause reconsideration, and the run scores. The guy sitting behind us taking score credits him with an assist.

"I love these guys," Faanes tells me. "They make $1,500 a month and they play their hearts out for the love of the game. There's nothing like it."

Faanes tells me that his best-in-the-house season ticket cost him just $210.

"Three bucks a night brother, can you believe that?"

The Marauders are winning, but the game becomes incidental. The experience is what it's all about. The lights come on in the fifth inning, six-year-old kids race the bases, donning helmets and jerseys at each, for a $15 gift certificate to Hooters, while the pitcher warms up. The next inning two guys try to unwrap a frozen shirt and get it on first. At some point, there's musical inflatable chairs and someone gets to throw water balloons at a roller derby girl.

A towering home run from Bradenton's 6'8 first baseman, Calvin Anderson, who went 4 for 4 on the night, calls us back to the game. During the stretch, we all belt out a verse of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and get our last beer, just before they shut off the taps.

When the home team closes out the show, it feels like someone singing happy birthday when you were a kid. The announcer invites people to stick around and run the bases, as the kids in the clay-orange stained uniforms sign more autographs on the way off the field. Who says you can't be a kid again, at least durning baseball season?   


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