It’s a Wednesday afternoon in June in Seattle, a beautiful, sunny day, and I am disappointed because, 2,300 miles away, a storm system has rolled into West Tennessee. “The tarp is on the field, and it will not be coming off tonight,” confirms Brandon Liebhaber, the voice of the Jackson Generals, and I’m surprised at how viscerally sad that phrase makes me feel. It’s frustrating that oftentimes, the weight of how much we love something is measured only by its sudden absence from our lives. I have never thought of myself as a person who loved minor league baseball, but as I close out the radio app and look at my suddenly silent phone, a feeling of loss surges through me, sharp as vinegar.
There are a lot of kitschy reasons to love minor league baseball—the names, the wacky promos, the theme jerseys that celebrate everything from Harry Potter to Ren and Stimpy. There are practical reasons, as well. Minor league baseball is cheap: dollar nights abound and cover everything from tickets to watery beer and tepid hot dogs, and parking is usually free and in a field somewhere. Minor league games are great places to bring kids; since you’re not sinking a ton of money into tickets, it doesn’t sting so badly when your toddler throws an epic tantrum in the bottom of the third and you have to leave. The players are accessible and generally happy to sign whatever you thrust before them, maybe take a selfie or two with the kids.
But all these things cover the experience of actually being at a minor league game. Why would a person with access to a professional baseball team—just a bus ride away!—instead choose to spend her nights hunched over a radio, listening to a game happening far away, featuring players no one has heard of? For me, it starts with the quality of the broadcast. The paucity of available jobs at the upper echelons of broadcasting means there are many, many absurdly talented voices telling the stories of minor league baseball. Part of the fun of tuning in is listening to Dan Besbris describe a desert sunset at Sam Lynn, or Brandon Liebhaber’s endless stream of adjectives for the West Tennessee sky. The relatively lowkey nature of MiLB allows broadcasters a little more latitude in describing the surroundings of each game, and the result is something that’s part poetry, part 1940s radio play. In a way, being restricted to just an audio description of the game—I don’t have MiLB.tv, and the broadcast quality leaves something to be desired, anyway—feels somehow purer, as if I’m connected to the fans before me who experienced baseball this same way: using the broadcaster’s description as a framework, and relying on my own imagination to fill in the gaps. I might be listening over WiFi to a station that’s nearly across the country from where I am, but I’m not in essence that different from my dad sixty years ago, ear pressed up against the family radio in Three Tree Point, listening to Leo Lassen broadcast the Seattle Rainiers game. Unlike listening to a Mariners game, where I know the players and the stadium so well I have no problems picturing the game action in my head, the minor leagues allow for my imagination to sketch the ballpark at Biloxi, or Beloit, or Burlington; to imagine Cade Gotta as a towering golem, or give Bryan Lizardo a slightly reptilian face. If jazz is the notes you don’t play, minor league baseball is the inside-the-park homer you don’t see.
As the season wore on and my obsession deepened, I found myself becoming more invested in individual players. Away from prospect rankings and scouting reports, I chose favorites based on merit—who seemed to always come up with a clutch hit, who had a nasty curveball for an out pitch, who was a threat on the bases. Sometimes these homespun observations matched up with what Official Prospect People said; often they didn’t. Benji Gonzalez is a 26-year-old AA infielder who played 129 games in Jackson this year, the most he’s ever played in one place, with almost a hundred more plate appearances than he’d seen in any other season. This year, batting leadoff for Jackson, he set a career high for RBIs, with 59. He hit more home runs than he did in the past two years combined. It was a career year for Gonzalez, and about 500 people saw it.
Paying attention to the minor leagues means paying attention to people like Benji Gonzalez, players who will probably never sniff the majors but who are good at their jobs, and hardworking, and beloved by their teammates; loving minor league baseball means celebrating those players alongside the prospect superstar-rocketship to the moon-Edwin Díazes of the world. Being a minor league fan is a lot like being the unseen doily-embroiderer in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Filling Station”: somebody does love us all, and sometimes that person must be you.