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Family Adventures Close to Home:
Take Me Out to the (Minor League) Ballpark
By Janis Cooke Newman
"A man with a sandwich on his head just won us two Barry Zito bobbleheads!" shouts my son, Alex. He's dancing around our seats, four rows behind home plate.
"What?" asks my husband, coming back from Turkey Mike's drink stand with a couple of Sobe green teas.
"In the Quizno's Sub race," I say, going off with Alex to claim our bobbleheads.
These turn out to be not just any Barry Zito bobbleheads, but ones in which the heartthrob Oakland A's pitcher is dressed in the pinstriped uniform of the Visalia Oaks--the minor-league team Zito played for before he became a major-leaguer. Which makes sense, since these Barry Zitos are being given away at Municipal Stadium in San Jose, home of the San Jose Giants, one of the minor-league affiliates of the big-league San Francisco Giants.
There are 116 full-season minor-league teams in America--teams made up of 20-year-olds hot to prove themselves and post-40 major-league players who love the game too much to give it up--like former Oakland A Ricky Henderson, who now plays for the minor-league Newark Bears.
And while it's tough to beat the excitement of going to a major-league game, minor-league baseball is one of the great undiscovered secrets for entertaining the masses. It's cheap--box seats at San Jose Giants' games are only $9, while general admission is $7; $4 for kids under 10. It's intimate--when the ballpark only holds 5,000 people, you're always close enough to be hit with a foul ball. And then there are the giveaways.
"It's time for the second-inning bingo numbers," says the announcer. All over the ballpark, heads covered by very cool black San Jose Giants caps bend over bingo cards. "I-43, N-36, G-20."
"We got one!" Alex shouts, folding down a number on the bingo card that came with our $1 souvenir program.
"And, if your lucky number is 213895," says the announcer, "you've just won $10 worth of gas from Rotten Robbie."
Not having won the gas--which would have made our outing a major deal--we turn our attention back to the game. In the third inning, a San Jose Giant slides into second, sees the outfielder drop the ball, scrambles up and then slides into third, which illustrates the other great thing about the minors--the baseball you're watching for under 10 bucks is pretty close to major-league quality, and sometimes better, since the players never know when there will be a big-league scout in the stands.
On average, five San Jose Giants move up to the big leagues every year. Former San Jose Giants who've swapped the SJ on their caps for SF include Russ Ortiz, Kurt Ainsworth, Chad Zerbe, and Yorvit Torrealba.
Between the third and fourth innings, two little boys come onto the field to participate in the La Posada "Eat an Enchilada" contest. The two boys have one minute to eat as many enchiladas--drenched in La Posada enchilada sauce--as they can. The prize--which, not surprisingly, goes to the larger of the two boys--is a gift certificate to a Mexican restaurant.
Between the fourth and fifth innings, we have the Sara Lee Bagel Toss, which involves throwing a normal-sized bagel through the hole of a giant bagel painted on a sandwich board--a feat that turns out to be more difficult than it appears.
All these food-oriented contests get our appetites going, so before the fifth inning starts, we follow the painted footprints beneath the grandstand to Turkey Mike's Baseball and BBQ. Turkey Mike's is named in honor of "Turkey Mike" Donlin, a hitter who played for both San Jose and the New York Yankees at the turn of the century, and whose distinctive on-field strut is responsible for the poultry-based nickname.
The food at Turkey Mike's is better (and cheaper) than at most major-league ballparks. On their open-air grill, they cook everything from baby back ribs and chicken-apple sausages to the more prosaic hot dogs and hamburgers. And if you don't feel like balancing a plate of ribs slathered in BBQ sauce and a mound of potato salad on your lap, you can eat at Turkey Mike's picnic tables, next to the third-base line.
We order Italian sausages smothered in onions and peppers, and then stop to check out the murals before heading back to our seats. The San Jose Giants' stadium is a functional design of orange-and-green-painted concrete, built in 1942 as a WPA project. Since then, the walls have been covered with baseball-related murals.
Alex likes the ones that feature Loony Tunes--Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, and even Marvin the Martian, in old-timey baseball uniforms. My husband prefers the bigger-than-life portraits of Babe Ruth and Roberto Clemente. And I'm fascinated by the faded pennants from minor-league teams of the past--the San Jose Bees, and the Toledo Mudhens.
By the time we return to our seats, we're between the fifth and sixth innings, and it's time for the horse race. Behind the outfield, horse-shaped cutouts made of plywood jerk around a track, popping in and out of the handpainted signs advertising Heinz Ketchup, the High Five Pizza Company, and Baby Ruth candy bars.
"And the winner is blue!" shouts the announcer.
Our color is red, but we're not disappointed for long. Half an inning later, several boxes of brand new baseballs are tossed into the stands from the aisles, and Alex nabs one.
At the seventh-inning stretch, we stand for a recording of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America," and then we get to sing, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Before the eighth inning, ushers come through the aisles handing out coupons for a free hamburger at the San Jose Wendy's.
Between the eighth and ninth innings, it's time for the San Jose Giants' famous "Smash for Cash" contest. An old bread truck is driven onto the field, and three players attempt to smash its headlights by pitching baseballs at it. The player who breaks a headlight shares a $50 prize with a lucky fan. One player does knock out a light, but on closer inspection, the judges rule that it's not actually smashed, and no one wins the $50.
No matter. Everybody's happy. The Giants beat the rival Modesto A's 64. And at the end of the game, all the kids are let onto the field to run the bases.
On our way out, Alex tries out his arm at the Speed Pitch, and wins a ticket to another San Jose Giants game by guessing the speed of his third throw--a blistering 33 miles per hour. Then he joins the rest of the kids surrounding the just-showered players, and gets his glove signed by the next stars of Pac Bell Park.
"I'll give you twenty bucks for that Barry Zito," a man offers me, as I stand waiting for my son.
"Are you crazy?" I say. "This is a minor-league Barry Zito." h
GETTING TO THE GAME
Municipal Stadium, where the San Jose Giants play, is about an hour from Noe Valley. Take 280 south to the 10th Street exit. Turn right onto 10th Street, and then left onto Alma Avenue. The stadium is on your right. Parking is $4.
For the San Jose Giants' home schedule, visit www.sjgiants.com.
Except for the popular July 4 fireworks game, most games don't sell out. But if you want to buy tickets ahead of time, you can do so online. Seats are $9 for reserved box seats, $7 for general admission grandstand, and $4 for kids under 10 in the grandstand. Kids under 4 are free. There are no bad seats, and even the grandstand bleachers have backrests, but I think it's worth the extra couple of dollars for the super-close reserved seats.
Be sure to buy a scorecard for $1, so you'll have a bingo card, lucky number, and color for the horse race.
A terrific book about taking kids to see minor- and major-league baseball throughout the country is Fodor's Baseball Vacations, by Bruce Adams and Margaret Engel ($20). Have fun.
Are We There Yet? is a Noe Valley Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.