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Play Ball

The timeless fun of a visit to Texas’ minor league baseball parks
Written by John Lumpkin. Photographs by Michael Amador.

WHATBURGER FIELD

From a perch beyond the left-field fence, the mid-summer scene unfolds like a real-life Field of Dreams. An afternoon thunderstorm gives way to puffy clouds. Scores of youngsters stream onto the outfield turf with their mitts and new souvenir baseballs for a session of pitch-and-catch with their parents.

Texas Minor League Baseball – 2016 Edition

The legends of Texas' minor league baseball are just one of the bonus perks of game day. See the lineup and some special offers.

Essentials

Texas’ minor league teams play in the summer, from roughly April to September. Here’s more information for teams mentioned in the story:

The Texas AirHogs play at the Ballpark at Grand Prairie, 1651 Lone Star Pkwy. For the 2016 season, the Texas AirHogs have merged with the Amarillo Thunderheads in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball; the team will play half of its games at Potter County Memorial Stadium, 3303 E. Third Ave., in Amarillo. Call 817/343-0729.

The Round Rock Express, Triple-A Texas Rangers affiliate, play at Dell Diamond, 3400 E. Palm Valley Blvd. in Round Rock. Call 512/255-2255.

The San Antonio Missions, Double-A San Diego Padres affiliate, play   at Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium, 5757 US 90 W. Call 210/675-7275.

The Corpus Christi Hooks, Double-A Houston Astros affiliate, play at Whataburger Field, 734 E. Port Ave. Call 361/561-4665.

Other Texas Minor League Teams

El Paso Chihuahuas, Triple-A San Diego Padres affiliate

Frisco RoughRiders, Double-A Texas Rangers affiliate.

Midland RockHounds, Double-A Oakland Athletics affiliate.

Alpine Cowboys, Pecos League.

Laredo Lemurs, American Association.

Sugar Land Skeeters, Atlantic League.

While little ones scramble after soft tosses they can’t catch, the older, more experienced children snap their throws to the adults, with a sharp thwack of ball meeting leather. Close by, it sounds like popcorn popping.

So goes the pre-game activity on Father’s Day at Dell Diamond, home of the Triple-A Round Rock Express. Major league teams like the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers may generate the biggest crowds and headlines, but they can’t match the intimate fan experience of minor league ballparks like this one, which offer low-priced seats, player interaction, and a close-up view of lively competition.

With stadiums from Sugar Land to El Paso, Corpus Christi to Amarillo, and Austin to Alpine, Texas is home to 10 minor league teams playing in five leagues for the 2016 season. The clubs range from the Round Rock Express—a Rangers affiliate that’s one step below the big-league team—to teams like the Laredo Lemurs (part of the independent American Association), where rookies make only $800 a month and endure lengthy bus rides between games.

Depending on their level, minor league players could be semi-pros with side jobs to make ends meet or a famous star like Texas Ranger Josh Hamilton on a rehabilitation assignment. More broadly, they are on their way up or down—college or high school draftees, prospects from Latin America’s baseball academies, undrafted rookies hoping to catch a scout’s attention, and veteran journeymen still chasing the dream.

The Texas minor leagues feature state-of-the-art venues like the El Paso Chihuahua’s Southwest University Park, which opened in 2014 and drew one million spectators in less than two seasons, as well as quaint, venerable settings, like 1,400-seat Kokernot Field in Alpine, made from locally quarried stone and the home of the Pecos League Cowboys.

Whichever park you visit, you’ll meet imaginative mascots, like the spike-collared Chico the Chihuahua in El Paso, who appears more cranky than cuddly, or Henry the Puffy Taco in San Antonio. Don’t bet on Henry when it comes time for his nightly race around the bases with a young volunteer from the crowd—the taco almost always loses.          

The ballparks’ nightly promotions rival the team mascots in creativity. In San Antonio, the annual “Used Car Night” draws thousands when Security Service Federal Credit Union gives away 12 vehicles. Other top draws are $1 beer nights, free food for seniors, and ticket deals like $2 Tuesdays in which tickets and concessions cost $2 each. The Sugar Land Skeeters once held a school’s-out “Splash Day,” with water-balloon fights and spray hoses. In Round Rock, throngs turned out when the team gave away Willie Nelson bobbleheads.

While most Texans can find a minor league ballpark close to home, there’s nothing quite like hitting the road for a summer baseball journey. Last summer, I set off on my own version of this nostalgic American road trip, starting from my hometown in the Dallas area and heading south on Interstate 35 to Corpus Christi with stops along the way in Round Rock and San Antonio. It’s an easy excursion of less than a week if team schedules mesh. Just make sure you’ve got an open shelf waiting at home for a new stock of ball caps.

GRAND PRAIRIE

The Ballpark at Grand Prairie, home of the Texas AirHogs (formerly the Grand Prairie AirHogs), has the classic features of a baseball stadium, albeit on a smaller scale. There are suites above home plate, a shaded grandstand, and embellishments like statues of Navy aviators that honor the legacy of the decommissioned air station nearby. “AirHogs” is slang for such pilots.

The AirHogs, part of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, harken to the early days of the sport, when dozens of communities like Vernon and Paris hosted professional teams. Today’s version are the “independent” leagues, whose members aren’t affiliated with Major League Baseball clubs. Many of these players are scrapping to make a career out of baseball, working other jobs during the off-season and shuffling between teams in search of opportunity.

Before a game against the St. Paul Saints, rock music blares as the players take their cuts during batting practice. A beverage stand serves regional craft beers with thematic names such as “Slow Pitch” and “Sidewinder.” In the concourse behind home plate, a food vendor decked out in sunglasses and a ball cap serves up quesadillas, nachos, and ballpark fajitas.

As the first pitch approaches, seven- and eight-year-old players from the Haltom Youth Baseball Association hustle out of the stands in replica AirHogs uniforms, pairing with AirHogs starters for warm-up tosses. Then they take positions in the field with the players to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” caps across their hearts.

Small knots of spectators are on hand, far fewer than the 27,000 at the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Park seven miles down Interstate 30 in Arlington. So why bring the youth here instead of the major-league stadium?

“You get a better feel for the actual game—what goes on in a game,” says the boys’ coach, Lane Pinkston. “You don’t have nosebleed seats. You can be a part of the game.”

ROUND ROCK

Dell DMatt and Jenny LaSeur and their three boys arrive early to Dell Diamond to claim a grassy spot beneath the two-story “Home Run Porch” in left field. The older boys—ages eight and five—are members of “Spike’s Junior Sluggers Kids Club,” a promotion with $1 general admission, and the two-year-old is free. With the parents’ tickets costing $4 each, the LaSeurs’ admission totals $10—not bad for an evening of baseball under the stars. “We sit out on the berm,” says Matt. “We have a ball.”

Behind the third-base dugout, the LaSeurs join other families forming a line in anticipation of the Father’s Day pitch-and-catch. Soon they file to the outfield for a brief experience of playing under the lights. Kids are everywhere. The operator of the tractor dragging the infield holds a toddler in his lap. Other children flock to the Fun Zone, a playground with slides, forts, and even a bungee cord and trampoline.

But Dell Diamond caters to adults, too. On the suite level is a chic, air-conditioned club with food buffets and a bar offering drink specials like a bourbon-spiked milk shake and a prickly-pear margarita.

The Express’ team gear reflects a railroad theme, conflating Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan’s “Ryan Express” nickname and the railroad tracks running nearby. In 2000, Ryan, his son Reid Ryan, and partners helped bring professional baseball to this Austin suburb, convincing Round Rock to build a ballpark in the middle of a cornfield.

Ryan’s influence extends to the stadium concessions like the 34 Chophouse (Ryan’s jersey number was 34), which offers burgers made from Ryan-branded beef. I choose the “Aloha Burger,” a juicy, teriyaki-marinated patty topped with grilled pineapple, Swiss cheese, and chipotle mayonnaise on a King Hawaiian roll.

My decision to dine at a picnic table away from the action turns out to be prudent when I hear the crack of a bat, followed by the crowd’s roar. Express outfielder Michael Choice has clobbered an Iowa Cubs errant pitch into Home Run Porch for a first-inning grand slam. I’m sorry I missed it, but I might also be wearing my Aloha Burger (instead of eating it) amid the crowd’s jumping, raucous celebration.

SAN ANTONIO

Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium, commonly known as “The Wolff” and home of the San Antonio Missions, also offers fans a bargain, especially on $2 Tuesdays, when grandstand seats, parking, beer, sausage wraps, and tacos all cost $2 each. During my visit, I join regulars Dominick and Alicia Tapia, who prefer to sit in lawn chairs on the hillside beyond the left-field foul pole. As fans, the Tapias are part of San Antonio’s rich legacy of professional baseball. The city fielded a charter team of the Texas League in 1888, along with Houston, Galveston, Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth.

Our schedule puts us in San Antonio on “Ball Cap Night,” and I have a free Missions cap to prove it. For a snack, I consider the local pizza, barbecue, or “Ballapeño’s 1/4 pound Nacho Dog,” which is named for the team’s Ballapeño mascot. But the Funnel Cake Fries are more intriguing—deep-fried strips of funnel cake, sprinkled with powdered sugar, slathered with chocolate sauce, and covered with whipped cream and syrupy strawberries.

On the field, the Missions seek revenge against Texas League rivals the Midland RockHounds, who had won 5-0 the night before. It looks promising when Alberth Martinez, a five-year veteran, lifts a double to left field, driving home the first two Mission batters. Alas, he would be caught in a rundown after overrunning second base, and the Missions wouldn’t score again in a 6-2 defeat.

hooks

CORPUS CHRISTI

Whataburger Field, home of the Corpus Christi Hooks, the Houston Astros’ Double-A affiliate, resonates with warm Gulf Coast atmosphere. Located at the Corpus Christi Port, the park offers fans a view not only of the game but also of huge tankers navigating the nearby port channel, as well as the picturesque Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge.

Corpus Christi embraces much of the best of minor league baseball—it’s a mid-sized Double-A market with a strong fan base that reveres its players. When first-baseman Conrad Gregor was growing up in Carmel, Indiana, he could not have imagined that his new home would be on the Texas Gulf Coast, but he recalls his dad taking him to Indianapolis Indians minor league games. “I remember sitting on the outfield lawn, not a worry in the world, close to my buddies, just having a good time,” he says. So it goes in Corpus with young fans of Gregor, a 2015 Texas League all-star.

Drafted out of college powerhouse Vanderbilt University, Gregor joined the Hooks in his first full rookie season in 2014. He makes ends meet by staying with a local host family. Some minor league clubs rely on their fan base for this kind of help, offering a small subsidy and season tickets. “I love it,” Gregor says. “It’s lots of fun—great when the fans get behind you like Corpus Christi.”

A staff of energetic young professionals generates the ballpark atmosphere at Whataburger Field. JD Davis, director of ballpark entertainment, and his team program a sophisticated video board with four instant replay cameras. They also synchronize a player’s favorite music to his upcoming at-bat and display players’ statistics.

The programming can be quite poignant. During my visit, the surviving family members of a soldier who died in Operation Desert Storm take the field for a public ceremony, wearing commemorative T-shirts.

Then, in an upbeat segue, the team picks a boy from the stands for the traditional start of the game. As he makes his way down the aisle to the field, cameras project the boy’s image on video boards across the park while his parents scramble into position to take photos. The microphone is thrust toward his face. At first, the youngster gulps, but then he rises to the occasion and shouts for all to hear, “Play ball!”

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