The first sign that something's a bit different here comes with parking: despite being just in time for a 7:05 start, we still find a spot within spitting distance of the stadium. Not that it's not a draw at the game's start, most of the 5,000 seats in the stadium are occupied, and plenty of chair-toting fans dot the lawns overlooking the outfield. There're even a couple of hardy souls in the hot tub, despite a late-August, post-rain swelter.
This is Frontier League Baseball, and the way it's played by the Gateway Grizzlies at GMC Stadium in Sauget, Illinois, illustrates its appeal to fans weary of $10 parking, $8 beer and the risk of lewd, neighboring fans. Although the setup is familiar (seats, a big scoreboard, multiple food stands, teenagers hawking concessions), everything here is like a miniaturized version of what you'd find across the river at That Other Stadium. Importantly, prices follow that logic, too, so most seats are $8 and hot dogs are a buck-fifty. (I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the reasonably priced and oh-so-delicious chocolate-covered frozen banana with nuts that I ate somewhere between the 5th and 9th innings...) The compact surroundings leave virtually no one out of earshot of the "steeeeee-rike!" calls that ring out when pitcher Layne Meyer is on a roll. During the game, tiny planes fly just behind the outfield fence, headed for the nearby Downtown St. Louis Airport (something akin to Cincinnati's airport actually being in Kentucky).
In more ways than price, an evening with the Grizzlies is relentlessly "family-friendly" (despite the snatches of Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys' "Brass Monkey" that sometimes blare from the P.A. and an unexplained sweep through the stands of the Show-Me's Girls, who left fans wondering what else they could possibly show). Nearly every night features some sort of promotion aimed at young fans: I happened in on C.R. Frank Popcorn lunchbox night, but it could've just as easily been Dairy Queen Kids Run the Bases Night or Tribout Carnival & Bingo Supplies Foam Bat Night. A group of portly fellows seated just behind home plate managed to construct a pretty good-sized Beeramid, but they were quiet and kept to themselves. When an actual, people-flying-out-of-the-dugout fight broke out (and resulted in at least one ejection from the game), the facility managers just turned the music up loud enough to drown out the swearing. (Someone was on the ball, though, and got "Yakity Yak (Don't Talk Back)" cued up within 10 seconds.) The final night of regular season play was being pushed, complete with a chance to "tp the ballpark." What kid wouldn't love that?
It's clearly a safe zone for lots of families, who feel free to let their kids roam free once inside those brick walls. Nothing will get too out of hand, they must figure; even a woman working a concession stand admonishes some young boys to stop running and slow down. Although there are plenty of adult beverages (both mixed drinks and beer) to be had, all would-be imbibers have to check in at a centralized desk near the entrance to submit their IDs and be fitted with a neon green "Drinking Age Verified" bracelet.
Another stunning feature of the minor league experience is the level of paid sponsorship and product placement that permeates every aspect of the game. (This surely is just as prevalent in the majors, but in such a small space, it seemed overwhelming.) Thus, a pitching change is actually the Budweiser Pitching Change, one lucky set of fans wins the privilege of sitting in the "sweet seats" donated by a local futon company, a female fan is picked as the A.G. Edwards "Sweetheart of the Game" and everyone from Hoosier Bat to union locals has a sign up somewhere in the park. (Informants tell me that even the men's room is not immune: prominent over the urinals is an ad for Merlin Stelzer power tools.) Between innings, players on the field take a "cool, refreshing water break, courtesy of Puritan Springs." In a move I remember from watching the Triple A Memphis Chicks, there are giveaways (corresponding with notations on certain pages of some programs) throughout the game. Two features that were new but welcome to my baseball experience were that Midwestern staple, the 50/50 raffle, and a contest called "Launch-a-Ball," which seemed to be the main reason many fans were there. A woman in the row behind us took pity on the newcomers and explained the game: you purchase a bag of numbered tennis balls (that are recorded as yours, by name), and at the close of the game, you can stand pretty much anywhere in the stadium and attempt to throw them into hoops and buckets on the field that represent various prizes. Not being familiar with the art form, our group did not fare well.)
And the game? Oh, well, that game we lost to the Rockford Chickenhawks. Wait, maybe it's the Riverhawks. Well, we lost, but most of the fans hardly noticed.
At press time, the Grizzlies had clinched the West Division championship and were still in contention for the Frontier League Championship. Perhaps rabid fan support had something to do with it: during the regular season, the Gateway Grizzlies became the first team in league history to average an attendance of more than 4,000 fans per game over the season.
The fans, it seems, are always ready to get grizzly.
Amanda E. Doyle appreciates minor-league baseball, but is not, herself, athletic.