Pro baseball at bargain prices

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Before the movie &uot;Bull Durham&uot; came out in 1988, minor league baseball was but a blip on the radar. Today, the minor leagues are more popular than ever, and for good reason. For family-friendly entertainment at an affordable price, minor league baseball is hard to beat.

There are plenty of advantages to visiting a minor league ballpark compared to going to a major league game.

Minor league franchises have become aware over the years of being more &uot;kid friendly&uot; and now include more attractions for the kids than just baseball. Many have playgrounds and picnic areas, on-field contests where kids can win prizes, there are giveaways almost every night and mascots. Baseball purists may scoff at such antics, but keeping kids’ attention in the Video Age is a necessity.

Another advantage of minor league baseball is the accessibility of the players, many of whom actually interact with the fans. You are more likely to get free autographs from minor league players before and after games than you are from MLB players who already have &uot;made it&uot; and don’t feel the need.

A huge advantage of minor league baseball versus the majors is cost. The closest major league team to western Tidewater is the Washington Nationals. RFK Stadium is one of the worst in the majors. The best seats in the ballpark are sold out for the year. Sure, you can sit in the upper deck, a million miles from the field, for $5. But decent seats at RFK will cost you between $16 and $45 apiece, and it costs $15 just to park your car.

Virginia has six minor league baseball teams scattered throughout the state. Two of them are in the Class AAA International League, three are in the Class A Carolina League, and one is in the Rookie Appalachian League.

The International League

The International League is the highest minor league classification. These are the players who are closest to making the big leagues and from time to time are called up to the majors during the season. Of course, the Norfolk Tides are the closest team to this area, but the Richmond Braves are not that far off.

It’s hard to believe, but Harbor Park has been open since 1993. The home of the Norfolk Tides is still one of the best minor league facilities at the AAA level and was recognized as such by Baseball America in 1995. Now affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles, Norfolk continues to provide enjoyment to local fans.

Harbor Park features activities for the kids, such as speed pitch and a nice souvenir shop. The ballpark also has a wide variety of food vendors for a minor league facility.

Harbor Park rarely sells out its more than 12,000 seats. On most nights, the stadium is about half full. Decent seats can be had by walking up to the box office, especially on days when there is not a promotion. Tickets range from $9.50 to $11. Students up to high school age and senior citizens and military personnel can get tickets for $8.

Since Harbor Park is the closest facility to this area, group sales are an option.

If you are going to a Tides game, plan to be at the ballpark at least an hour before game time. Traffic backs up in both directions on Interstate 264 close to game time.

The Richmond Braves play at &uot;The Diamond,&uot; one of the notoriously bad AAA ballparks in the country. For example, general admission seating is way off the field, and you will sit in bleachers. The park is also not aesthetically pleasing as some of the newer ballparks in the league, like Harbor Park and Durham Athletic Park.

Because of this, the Braves are near the bottom of the International League in attendance. Still, if you are a Braves fan, it is worth the trip to see the future major- leaguers who come through Virginia’s capital city. And the Atlanta Braves’ farm system is noted for growing its own major league talent.

Tickets for the R-Braves range from $7 to $10, and general admission seats for children under 12 and senior citizens are just $4.

Carolina League

The Carolina League has been around since 1945 and actually has teams as far north as Delaware and down to South Carolina.

The Salem Avalanche is one of the best minor league values anywhere. Salem Memorial Baseball Stadium, which opened in 1995 and seats 6,300, is a wonderful ballpark by Class A standards, especially compared to places like Kinston and Winston-Salem, who play in the same league.

Tickets for the Avalanche range from $6 to $8 for adults and $1 off each ticket for kids under 12. Seeing the Blue Ridge Mountains behind the outfield fence is worth the price of admission. The Avalanche provide bouncies for the kids, two large picnic areas, a well-stocked souvenir stand and free programs. The ballpark seating is also spacious.

Despite playing in a small town, the Avalanche is third in average attendance in the eight-team Carolina League. It’s not hard to see why.

The Lynchburg Hillcats, a farm team for the Pittsburgh Pirates that plays just an hour away from Salem, take the field in a ballpark that was originally constructed in 1939 but was renovated in 2004. Despite the renovations, Calvin Falwell Field shows its age. There are plenty of brown spots in the infield and outfield grass. The ballpark seats just under 4,300, and many of those seats are bleacher-style.

There are some pluses. Some of the reserved seats are covered, and all seats are very close to the field. The Hillcats have a quality souvenir store, which includes game-worn jerseys. Before you enter the ballpark, there is a Lynchburg Sports Hall of Fame room, which includes memorabilia from former Lynchburg minor league teams.

Ticket prices for Lynchburg are reasonable and are the same as in Salem.

The Potomac Nationals are a farm team for the Washington Nationals. Woodbridge’s G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, originally opened in 1984, has been renovated several times to go along with the name changes this team has had (Prince William Cannons, Potomac Cannons). Barry Bonds played his first professional game in the ballpark.

A new ballpark is in the plans. Perhaps the new facility will be able to draw fans. The P-Nats are currently sixth in attendance in the Carolina League, despite being located in the largest metropolitan area. One disadvantage is that Potomac is just a little more than 20 miles from the parent club.

High ticket prices are also a drawback. Tickets range from $6 to $12 and are more in line with what AAA teams charge. The team does have a &uot;family four pack&uot; on Sundays for $55, which includes more than just tickets.

Appalachian League

The Appalachian League was formed in 1911, closed its doors a few times, and now has existed since 1957. The league brings in players directly from the major league draft, so the season doesn’t begin until mid-June.

The Danville Braves moved into their current stadium in 1993 from Pulaski. American Legion Post 325 Field is nestled in Dan Daniel Memorial Park and is not easy to find.

The park seats 2,500 and is in great shape for a Rookie League stadium. The D-Braves are in the middle of the pack of the Appalachian League in attendance.

Several Braves major league players have passed through Danville on their way to the big leagues, including Jermaine Dye, Wilson Betemit, Andruw Jones and Adam LaRoche.

Tickets for the Danville Braves range from $3.50 for youth and senior citizens to $6.50 for reserve seats under the roof.

Tickets for all of these teams can purchased over the Internet through the individual clubs’ Web sites.