It begins at home. That’s what sets baseball apart. That’s what you see when you grab your peanuts and beer and settle into your seat at spring training. Children running up and down the steps or playing catch. Moms spreading out blankets on the berm and slathering little ones with sunscreen. Dads lying back with their baseball caps pulled down, shading their eyes from the glaring sun as they watch the players on the field warm up for the game.
Family Fun in Florida
I’m in Jupiter, Florida, at St. Louis Cardinals spring training. They’re about to play the Detroit Tigers, but the Cards aren’t on the field yet. The only red is in the stands.
And what a sea of red it is. The names Molina, Heyward, Carpenter, Wainwright, and Holliday are everywhere. But what’s different from other sports is so many children are decked out in jerseys and T-shirts. Even the babies. There’s a newborn in her car seat next to me. She’s wearing a tiny Cardinals hat, a Molina onesie, and little socks with the St. Louis logo. I want to pick her up and hold her like a doll. Her brothers, age five and seven, are running around with crushed hotdogs in their hands, each in Cardinals gear, anxious for the players to come onto the field so they can get their autograph.
Along the edge of the berm, just behind the bullpen, is a line of kids in baseball caps—boys and girls, each vying for the best spot to see the players when they arrive. In a seat nearby sits an old man, his face folded in wrinkles, a straw hat with a Cardinals ribbon on his gray head, his eyes as bright as a child’s. In his lap is a score book. He writes the names of the teams on top, his hand not as steady as it used to be. He attended his first Cardinals game in 1936 and has scorecards going back for decades, games fixed in his own handwriting, moments in time preserved. Some are stained with beer drippings. Others are smeared with rain, all bringing back memories with a glance, not only of the game, but of his life.
The day is warm and sunny, a cathedral of blue stretching over the manicured green and brown of the field. Mouthwatering aromas of juicy hotdogs and popcorn drift on the slight breeze, mixed with the smell of freshly mowed grass and watered dirt. The stands, now packed with Cardinal Nation, are filled with the sounds of conversation, laughter, and vendors offering Cracker Jacks and ice-cold Budweiser—a sure favorite for the St. Louis fans.
The Cards Enter the Field
Suddenly, a cheer goes up, and a line of red walks onto the field. The kids rush forward with bats, balls, plaques—anything they can grab—to get autographs. There’s Yadier Molina, looking more fit than ever, John Lackey, towering over everyone like Goliath, and Jason Heyward, strolling coolly to the outfield.
They don’t stop, but go straight to work. The kids are left to get signatures from anyone else they can. A little girl, probably four or five years old, dressed in a pink skirt with a pink Molina jersey, her blond hair in a curly ponytail with pink Cardinals ribbons, waves to Michael Wacha, holding out a ball for him to sign. He grins. Who could resist her? He signs the ball, and she looks at it, smiling like it’s Christmas morning.
She runs through the crowd to her family’s blanket. “Look, Daddy,” she says, holding up the ball for him to take. He picks her up instead. “Wow, honey, that’s amazing!” She keeps looking at his smiling face, the ball tucked under her arm. It’s not about the ball anymore. It never was. It’s about her dad, sharing that moment with him. Sharing baseball.
Minor League Baseball’s Popularity
Spring training, with its intimate, family-friendly atmosphere, has a similar feel to it as Minor League Baseball, just with all the big-time talent. But not everyone can travel to spring training, and it lasts only a month. Minor League Baseball is here all season, and it’s right in your hometown. Its convenient, wholesome, and fun atmosphere is why it’s a growing favorite outing for American families, topping attendance of the National Football League, National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League.
Another reason is the low price. The average cost of a Minor League Baseball game for a family of four is around $54. Other professional sporting events can cost three times that amount. You also get to see major talent and enjoy players working their tails off to make it to the big leagues. Since Major League Baseball began its free agent draft in the ’60s, less than a couple dozen players have gone directly to the majors without playing in the minors first. So, chances are, if you go to Minor League games, you’ll see the next Albert Pujols or Derek Jeter.
Most importantly, though, baseball is about being with family and friends. Like camping or going to the beach, it’s time spent together, slow-paced, relaxed, and fun. You can talk, eat funnel cakes with your kids, catch T-shirts shot out of guns by silly mascots (or get a Lightsaber like those they’ve given out at New Orleans Zephyrs games), and even get onto the field by participating in the many promotions kids love—mostly racing the mascot around the bases.
I was at a game once where the mascot missed the memo and kept beating the kids. He was a competitive sucker and got booed in shame. But he was forgiven when he handed out candy during the fireworks show. Some kids even gave him a hug.
You Always Come Back Home
Baseball is about new beginnings, spring, endless possibilities as the field stretches to infinity. It’s a journey families take together, starting at home, going through life with all its runs and errors, hits and outs, catches and drops. It’s a story played out on the same field, ever-changing, no game identical, but all with the same goal. To make it home again.
As Ken Burns said, “Nothing in our daily life offers more of the comfort of continuity, the powerful sense of belonging, and the freedom from time’s constraints than does our National Pastime. It is the place we always come back to—home.”
Like the little girl in pink with her ponytail swishing and an autographed ball squeezed tightly in her hand, the place she always comes back to is her daddy’s arms. I watch her throughout the game as she runs down the berm to see a pitch and grins when a Cardinals player hits the ball; every time, she looks back to her dad to make sure he sees. He always does.
After a few innings, Molina is finished playing. To everyone’s delight, he comes to the corner of the field and is immediately swarmed with children. The little girl is fearless, and pushes her way into the crowd. Several moments later, she re-emerges, ball in hand and her face shining. “Daddy, Daddy! I got it. I got Molina!” She dashes forward, pushing the ball into his hand, wrapping her arms around his neck. She’s home. That’s what matters. That’s baseball.