My love of baseball started with a Minor League Baseball game and the promise of cotton candy.
That's why I am saddened that kids in 40 communities may have lost their chance to experience a minor league game in 2021. Major League Baseball is reducing the number of minor league teams from 160 to 120.
As I looked through the list of teams cut, including two Iowa clubs that lost their MLB affiliation, I can't help to think about how much I appreciate having an MiLB team in my community.
Having the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, playing just 20 minutes from my house means I have the opportunity to attend a lot of games. In contrast, the closest MLB team–the Royals–is two and a half hours away.
I encourage those living in or near communities with an MiLB team to attend the games. I was in second grade when my dad came home with tickets to a Storm Chasers game. He planned to take my mom, but she wasn't interested in sitting outside in the humid Nebraska heat. Instead, my dad asked if I wanted to see the team play at Werner Park.
I hadn't ever been to a game, and I wasn't sure I could sit through an entire one. Nine innings sounded like a long time. I agreed to go after my dad promised to buy me some cotton candy at the game.
That night I caught a foul ball, danced along with the mascots and listened to my dad and uncle discuss the game and the players. Sometime during the game, I lost interest in my sugary treat and started watching the game. By the time the ninth inning ended, I had become a fan.
Many of my favorite summer memories since that game have occurred at Werner Park. My dad and I either buy season tickets or half-season tickets each year. Our seats are a few rows behind the Storm Chasers' dugout, while my uncle prefers seats closer to home plate.
The fan base is smaller, but it's just as fun–if not more–than MLB games. MiLB employees work hard to make sure everyone has a good time. They lead us in cheers, shoot T-shirts into the stands and coordinate autograph sessions with the players.
If your goal is to meet future MLB stars, then start with an MiLB game. It's a lot easier to meet the players when you aren't competing for their attention with thousands of fans. At the Storm Chasers games, I have met several future MLB stars. During one autograph signing, I met future Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Brett Phillips, who hit a two-run walk-off single to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the 2020 World Series. I also met Kansas City Royals second baseman and 2020 Gold Glove finalist Nicky Lopez when he was warming up for an MiLB game. I yelled to Lopez and he came over to take a photo with me and my uncle.
I have had the most success meeting players by the away team's dugout. Usually, they don't have as many fans in the crowd. That's how I met former Nashville Sounds player Franklin Barreto, who later made it to the majors with the Oakland A's. Barreto heard me yelling his name from the stands. On the way to the plate, he leaned over the wall to give me a high five. While walking back to the dugout, he gave me a fist bump. Barreto also invited me over to the dugout to get autographs from his teammates.
Once I have a meaningful interaction with a player, it's hard not to become a fan and follow their career. I started watching MLB games so I could continue to see Barreto, Phillips, Lopez and others play.
Even if the players you meet don't join the big leagues, you can still have some amazing memories of them. One of my top baseball memories is of Logan Moon, whose professional baseball career ended after four years in the minors. I met Moon during an autograph session before a Storm Chasers game. He was playing that night, so I told him to "hit a homer for me." Moon hit a home run in his first at-bat. Some people may say that was pure chance but ask any true baseball fan and they will say that's part of the magic of the game. The next day Moon gave my uncle a baseball that said, "To Joslyn, here's your HR. Logan Moon #32." I still have that ball in a case, but more importantly, I have the memory.
Speaking of baseballs, I always have a glove with me at the games. I have brought home a ball from just about every game I have attended. If I get more than one ball, I hand it to another kid in the stands. I have also collected a few broken bats from players over the years. Those are rare for fans to get for free, so your best bet might be to purchase one from the gift shop.
Not all my baseball memories involve baseballs or players. Many are just about spending time with my family at the games. Some of my favorite memories include my second-grade birthday when I got to throw out the first pitch, convincing my dad to dance for the cameras so he would appear on the stadium's big screen, my sister's smile when I caught a ball and handed it to her and teaching my mom the difference between a home run and an RBI.
Some things have changed since I first went to a Storm Chasers game. I am in seventh grade now and prefer cheeseburgers to cotton candy. I also know enough about the game to speak up during baseball conversations between my dad and my uncle. But no matter how old I get I will always know that the minor leagues are where the real magic exists in baseball.
If you have the chance to attend an MiLB game in 2021, I encourage you to do so. Go for the cotton candy if you must but stay for the memories.