Until this past Friday, my last taste of Midwest League baseball came in 1994, when I watched the Appleton Foxes defeat the Madison Hatters at a sparsely populated Warner Park. You could still smoke at the ballpark in '94, and at Warner there were rarely any fans nearby to offend, so my friends and I fired up cheap-o cigars.
We were there to see the Foxes' shortstop, Alex Rodriguez. He was the most hyped prospect in pro ball that summer after inking a Seattle Mariners contract with a then-record $1.3 million signing bonus. More accurately, we were there to heckle him mercilessly. For all we knew, it worked. In four at bats, the 19-year-old A-Rod didn't hit the ball out of the infield.
In those days, Single A minor-league ball had little charm. There were no goofy promotions to enliven the game, and most rosters were in a constant state of flux - talented players attracting any kind of fan attention were quickly moved up to the Double-A team.
When the Hatters left town after that '94 season, few wept. Thirteen years later, Madison has grown so enamored of the Mallards, our summer college ball team, that those calling for the return of minor-league baseball have been all but drowned out.
Either that or they've just moved on down I-90 to Beloit.
The Beloit Snappers have been averaging 1,200 fans to Pohlman Field this summer. Jonesin' for a little hardball in the window between the end of the Mallards' season and the start of school, I was one of those fans last Friday.
The Snappers are in their third season as the Single A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, after spending 23 seasons in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. This is an interesting turn of events for the Midwest League team.
To remain competitive with a small-market payroll, the Twins have wisely established the model system for developing young talent through their farm teams rather than paying big bucks for established free agents.
This has meant working hard to sign top draftees and sending qualified prospects to Beloit after they've been evaluated with one of the club's developmental teams. Indeed, the Twins' top five picks from the 2006 draft are playing regularly for Beloit this summer.
That includes Chris Parmelee, a 19-year-old right fielder from Chino Hills, Calif.; he was taken in the first round - 20th overall - by the Twins right out of high school. Parmelee hit his team-leading 15th homerun of the season in the bottom of the third last Friday.
As a first-rounder, Parmelee is expected to improve steadily and remain on track to compete for a spot with the major league club. The same isn't necessarily expected of switch-hitting second baseman Steve Singleton; he wasn't drafted until the 11th round, 336th overall. But Singleton is every bit the contributor Parmelee is, hitting .275 in the leadoff spot.
Against Burlington, Singleton went two for four with a double. But with 22 errors on the year, he'll have to improve in the field to attract attention from the Twins, who are known for their sticky-gloved middle infielders.
Parmelee and Singleton are just two of the reasons for Beloit's success. The Snappers have earned a spot in the Midwest League playoffs for the third straight season by claiming the first-half title in their division.
Tyler Robertson, Beloit's star starter at 8-3 with a 2.27 ERA, was on the mound last Friday, and he didn't disappoint, scattering five hits over five innings and striking out eight. A fan seated behind the Snappers' dugout kept track by posting each K, the scorebook designation for strikeout, on the railing.
Mallards fans will instantly notice the lack of noise and craziness at Pohlman Field. They take the baseball more seriously in the Midwest League than in the Northwoods League. But the Snappers could learn a few things from the Duck Pond, including timely customer service at the concession stand. I missed a good chunk of the game waiting in line for hot dogs.
Still, the stands remained full until the final out of a 6-1 Beloit victory with the promise of a post-game fireworks display and a free loaf of bread on the way out of the park. And what's more American than baseball, carbohydrates and explosions?