Diamonds in the Rough

Diamonds in the Rough

Minor League Baseball may not have the big names you'll find in the Majors -but it does have stars-in-the-making, great views and a lot of old-fashioned fun

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A Minor League Baseball game is quite possibly the best deal in sports. There, I said it.

Sure, Major League Baseball has better talent and more recognizable names. But the minors offer their own perks.

First off, the price is nice. A family of four buying two adult tickets, two child tickets, four hot dogs, two sodas, two beers, a program or scorecard and parking can expect to pay about $61 per game, according to a recent Minor League Baseball (MiLB) survey of its U.S.-based teams. By comparison, the average cost for the same package at a major league game last season was $197.

The minors also offer a chance to see talented up-and-coming players before they become superstars. Almost every player in Major League Baseball started this way.

That includes Washington Nationals rookie phenom Bryce Harper, who first cut his teeth with the Hagers­­??town Suns; Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who was called up from the Harrisburg Senators; and 2011 National League “Rookie of the Year” Craig Kimbrel, who graduated from the Gwinnett (Ga.) Braves to join the Atlanta Braves. Minor league players are hungry, and their hustle is intense.

To be clear, MiLB is professional baseball. It’s a farm system made up of 160 teams in 14 affiliated leagues that feed into the Big Leagues. When major league teams draft high school or college players who are not yet good enough to play in The Bigs, they send them to work their way up through the ranks. (The MiLB hierarchy starts with the Rookie League, followed by Class A, Double-A and then the highest level, Triple-A.) Once a player has proven himself in one level, he ascends to the next tier, and then the next, until he is finally ready for the majors.

Even if you aren’t up on the latest player stats, a day at the park is just plain fun. Minor league stadiums are usually viewer-friendly, the food is affordable (and often good) and the between-inning entertainment can be hilarious. In addition to exciting double plays and nail-biting finales, you may witness kids racing each other on giant jalapeño-shaped pillows, or a monkey riding a dog.

And if you happen to catch a foul ball and get it autographed after the game, hang onto it. You never know what it could end up being worth someday.

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Where to take the family to see a game this summer

Norfolk Tides

Triple-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles
Harbor Park
150 Park Ave., Norfolk, Va.
757-622-2222, www.norfolktides.com
Tickets: $9-$14 (discounts available for large groups)
Distance from Bethesda: 203 miles

With a seating capacity of roughly 12,000, Harbor Park is one of the largest stadiums in the minors. Its location on the Elizabeth River in downtown Norfolk also offers one of the best views.

Named one of the “25 coolest Minor League parks” in the nation last year by Complex magazine, the 19-year-old stadium feels very much like a major league ballpark, with almost 9,000 lower deck seats, 2,800 upper deck seats and 400 seats in 24 luxury skyboxes. There’s a reason it has a big league feel: It was designed by the architecture firm HOK Sport of Kansas City, Mo. (now Populous), which also masterminded some of the finest major league stadiums in the country, including U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore and Jacobs Field in Cleveland.

Norfolk offers a bevy of family-friendly mascots and acts during games, as well as fireworks and special promotions such as Armed Forces Night, Bark in the Park (fans can bring their dogs to the game) and Picture Night, during which the first 4,000 to enter the stadium receive a color photograph of a Tides player.

Harbor Park offers good eats, too. Pick up a dog or a pretzel at the concession stand or swing by Hits at the Park, which, during games, offers an all-you-can-eat buffet with dishes such as Caribbean jerk chicken with pineapple salsa and pecan-encrusted tilapia with balsamic brown butter. If you want to grab a bite before the game, there are dozens of restaurants within a half mile of the stadium. You can get to them via the city’s light-rail system, The Tide, so you don’t have to park twice.

For weekenders, there are several hotels within walking distance of the park, including the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel and the Norfolk Waterside Marriott.

Players to watch: Outfielder Xavier Avery, first baseman Joe Mahoney and pitcher Chris Tillman.

Hagerstown Suns

Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals
Municipal Stadium
274 East Memorial Blvd.,
Hagerstown, 301-791-6266,
www.hagerstownsuns.com
Tickets: $9 to $12; $5 per ticket for groups of 10 or more
Distance from Bethesda: 59 miles

If you’re looking for a Minor League Baseball team with history, the Suns have it. Municipal Stadium, which hosted its first season in 1930, is one of the three oldest minor league ballparks in the country.

The team’s recent history isn’t too shabby either. Suns Manager Brian Daubach was a member of the 2004 Boston Red Sox squad that won the World Series. Bryce Harper, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 major league draft, made his pro debut here. And last season, Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg (who was MLB’s No. 1 overall draft pick in 2009) made three rehab starts for the Suns following elbow surgery.

Municipal Stadium contains 5,000 seats, plus family-friendly features such as a picnic area, fireworks on Fridays and all kinds of freebies. Recent giveaways have included team photos, seat cushions, pink foam fingers, T-shirts and even garden gnomes.

Every Thursday is Thirsty Thursday, offering drink specials and post-game concerts with acts such as Stoked, Half Serious and Hicktown. On Sunday afternoons, kids can run the bases as part of FUND-day, when schools, charities and other groups raise money by selling Suns tickets.

Tailgating is permitted, but you can also sidle up to the concession stand for a sizzler hot dog or sausage. Moe’s Southwest Grill serves burritos and nachos.

If you wish to spend the night, the Best Western Grand Venice Hotel is the official hotel of the team and is a short walk from the ballpark. It offers an exclusive Suns room rate for fans ($79 plus tax).

Players to watch: Starting pitcher Alex Meyer, outfielder Brian Goodwin, designated hitter Cutter Dykstra (son of former Phillies and Mets outfielder Lenny Dykstra) and shortstop Jason Martinson.

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