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Sunday, June 23, 2002

I spent my Sunday afternoon at the ballpark, but not at Pacific Bell Park watching the Giants. Mom and her friends got tickets to watch the local minor league team play, and I went along. Actually, I drove my car down to Rohnert Park Stadium with four lovely ladies, three of them (amazingly enough) even older than I am, and one several decades younger (a granddaughter).

At a major league game, I never could have afforded tickets for the first row of the stands directly behind home plate, but that's where we sat today. There were people in front of us, but they sat on plastic patio chairs and had waitresses taking their food and drink orders. We had to get up and stand in line for our hot dogs and sodas.

Today's event: the visiting Long Beach Breakers against your Sonoma County Crushers. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we were happy to be in the shaded area under the overhang. I haven't followed this team, but we were so close that I got to know some of the players' names and faces. I could see them roll their eyes when they didn't agree with the umpire's call. I could hear the fast balls hum and the catcher's mitt pop.

The difference between major league and minor league baseball is a little like the difference between Broadway and community theater. Every so often you'll see a performance that will thrill and amaze you, but there are likely to be so many weak links in the supporting cast that you have to make allowances for the show as a whole.

If you know what you're getting into and don't expect more than you're likely to get, it can be a lot of fun. When you go expecting to have a good time, you probably will. Plus (in the case of baseball, anyway), there's so much going on that you can enjoy being there among the people and not even notice how the game is going.

At a minor league ballpark, the press box announcer almost never stops talking. The promotions between innings are a tradition in the minors. Children race the team mascot (Crusher, the Abominable Sonoman) around the bases, two guys in sumo suits play football until one of them falls and can't get up, someone tries to catch fly balls or chip a golf ball onto a makeshift green. There are games involving giant bowling pins and oversized dice.

The prizes are giveaways from the team's sponsors - burgers from a local diner, coupons from the Indian casino, free games at the bowling alley. It's not the kind of thing that keeps people coming back to the ballpark, but it helps pay the bills and it keeps the crowd from noticing that they've paid money to watch a bunch of players who are up-and-comers and hangers-on, not quite good enough for the next level.

Everyone is there determined to have fun, and it's hard not to. Families, even large families, can afford to attend minor league games, and there are enough distractions to entertain all ages and all levels of interest in baseball. Baseball at the ballpark is so much more than the game on the field, and when you're with an amiable group, the atmosphere is just right for enjoying each other's company.

Rohnert Park Stadium

Looking out at the field from our seats behind the protective net.

As for the game, the Crushers won, 13-10. They came from behind four different times in the game and put it away at the end. They hit well, which is a good thing, because they don't play very good defense. Many balls that should have been caught were just out of reach, and the game lasted three and a half hours simply because of all the mistakes. When you give a team four or five outs in an inning, instead of the conventional three, you're going to be there a long while.

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