When the Aints Came Marching In

Photo courtesy of Pete Miller via Flickr.com. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pmillera4/

Photo courtesy of Pete Miller via Flickr.com. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pmillera4/

I like baseball. I can’t say I’m the perfect fan – I don’t follow it the best in the world, and I don’t understand the finer points of the game. But I enjoy watching a game, especially live. As an American of a certain age, I think  it was unavoidable that I would have some connection to baseball. I remember when I was two or three, my mom bought me a little plastic Baltimore Orioles helmet (although I thought the logo was of Chilly Willy).

When I was older, I watched baseball on TV. Indiana doesn’t have its own major-league ball club, so we split our loyalties among the closest teams: the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, and the Cincinnati Reds. Our local TV station aired the Reds, so that’s who I followed. Later, the station switched affiliations to the Cubs, and though Harry Caray was fun to listen to, I couldn’t really get into the Cubs.

After graduating high school, I moved to St. Louis. I went to games at “old” Busch Stadium, and then to the refurbished “old” Busch Stadium. (I moved away before “new” Busch Stadium was built.) Cheap seats really were cheap back then, and it was easy to round up friends and head down to watch on short notice. I still remember the best-pitched game I’ve ever seen live. The Cardinals beat the Rockies 1-0. The game lasted one hour 57 minutes.

I moved back to Indiana. This was right when Peyton Manning was drafted by the Colts. I’d been a football fan, a long time but I’d been following Manning his entire college career, and to have him play for my hometown team (okay, I lived an hour away, close enough) pulled my attention squarely to the NFL.

But then, six years, I moved to Minneapolis, and I once again had a hometown baseball team. At the time, the Minnesota Twins were playing at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, which was designed for football, not baseball. The ideal layout for a football stadium is an oval, whereas for baseball, a square or circle is preferable. Football stadiums also typically hold more seats. This means that there were a lot of really bad seats that the Twins sold for really cheap. So once again, I could go to games on the spur of the moment on the cheap, though now (in part thanks to good public transit) I typically went alone.

A few years ago, the Twins moved to a shiny new ballpark, Target Field. It so happens I only live a few blocks away. Tickets are more expensive now, so I haven’t made it to as many games. But I’ve been to a few, and it’s a marvelous place to watch a game.

But I realized that I was missing out on an essential baseball experience: minor-league baseball. This developmental system, in which players train in lower levels and rise through the ranks to the majors, is a distinctly American structure for athletic leagues. Everything is on a smaller scale (except, of course, for the game itself). So, before I left Minneapolis for Alaska, I had to take in our local minor-league ball club, the St. Paul Saints.

The Saints are renowned for their offbeat promotions. They once sponsored a pregame event called the 0K Race, in which the “racers” sat in recliners. For another game, all the Saints players wore the same number to promote a new energy drink. They have one of the few female costumed-character mascots in sports, a pig called Mudonna. They also have a live mascot, a pig named Stephen Colboar.

Last night was no different. The game was sponsored by Minnesota Atheists, an organization I’m not directly affiliated with but I have friends who are. For the night, the team changed its name from the St. Paul Saints to the Mr. Paul Aints (as in, ain’t no saints, ain’t no gods). The players wore hats and jerseys bearing the name Aints, the A being taken from the Minnesota Atheists logo.

I took the bus to Midway Stadium. This ballpark was not smartly placed. The land was cheap, I figure, or they thought the ballpark would attract businesses to the area. But Midway Stadium is in the middle of an industrial zone, with the train yards just a few blocks away.

I arrived about 6:30 pm. As I bought my tickets through the Minnesota Atheists group package, I received a free Saints ballcap and a coupon for a free hot dog and soda. So I went picked up my free goodies and made my way into the stadium.

Suddenly, I was no longer in a metro area of 3.5 million people. More like 35,000.

Everything about Midway Stadium, and the game between the (S)aints and the Kansas City T-bones felt small-town. I couldn’t see much of anything outside the ballpark, so I may as well have been in a small town. There were bleachers, not seats. All during the game, trains ran along two tracks adjacent to the stadium, drowning out the announcers. The concessions were so cheap that I went well past my free hot dog and soda. Between innings, we were entertained with games on the field, mostly involving fans running races and/or being spun in circles and made dizzy and/or donning funny costumes.  The fans cheered on for players you’ve never heard of and may never hear of.

I think, after my experience, it’s a shame that the Saints are moving to a sparkling new ballpark in a hipster neighborhood of downtown St. Paul. Regardless, last night, I was in my own little baseball heaven.

An atheist heaven. How do you like that?

I left the game tied up in extra innings because the busses only run once an hour late at night. (I found out St. Paul won 3-2 in the 11th.) On my way out, two extraordinary things happened.

First, I saw a group of men standing together. One of them was wearing a sweater featuring the University of Alaska-Fairbanks wordmark. As I thought it an astounding coincidence, as I begin school there in a few short weeks, I approached the group, then noticed that everyone was wearing UAF paraphernalia. It turns out it was a reunion of Minnesotans who had played for the Alaska-Fairbanks hockey team. In an odd way, they were a bridge between my present and future home. Continuity.

Fairbanks is home to the Alaska Goldpanners, a member of the Alaska Baseball League, comprised of college baseball players honing their skills during the summer. They’re best known for the Midnight Sun Game, played at 10:30pm on the longest day of the year – using only the power of the sun to light the field. A number of big names got their start with the Goldpanners. And I’ll be sure to watch some games.

Continuity.

The other astounding event was that, as I left the stadium, I noticed a solitary protester carrying a placard with a Bible verse printed on it. And I felt so sorry for him.

Never mind that baseball doesn’t bear the stamp of Jesus or whatever other religious figure you choose.

Never mind that he could come out Sunday for the Saints’ Faith and Family Night. He wants baseball only for his kind.

Never mind that the communal experience of a ballgame – the ritual, the ecstasy, the shared purpose – is about as close as I get to a religious experience these days, meaning he and I have something in common.

This is about shared humanity, about replicating culture and experience going back aeons and oceans. It’s no wonder that in that ballpark, I felt an affinity with the fans of Little Leaguers and adult-softball old-timers across the country.

And the fans of seventh-division soccer fans in Europe.

And the fans of rugby and cricket teams representing nations that could easily fit inside the city I live in.

So we connect. So we continue.

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About Whittier Strong

Whittier Strong is an MFA student in creative writing at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, with a focus in nonfiction. He graduated from Metropolitan State University with a BA in creative writing. He has special interests in sociology and philosophy.

Posted on 12 July, 2014, in Commentary, Narrative, Personal life, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m really glad you got to go to that game. It sounds like it was very enjoyable and meaningful for you. It’s great that you got that sense of continuity, and could appreciate the small-town feel when no doubt others avoid the Saints games for that precise reason.

    I’ve seen a trend toward bigger, flashier, more cosmopolitan *everything* as I’ve grown up. A lot of people have lost their ability to find the fun in less-than-perfect elements. Sometimes it is the imperfection in a pastime, or the ridiculous situation in which we experience it, that makes it so much fun, if we can just look for the humor. What camping trip goes exactly according to plan? Who has never gone on a fishing trip where they got eaten alive by mosquitos and didn’t catch a thing but somehow had fun anyway? Don’t the best and most memorable stories come from these experiences, as from road trips where you got lost and had hilarious and stupid adventures, rather than the ones where you arrived at your destination quickly and without incident? That has certainly been my experience, anyway. All my best stories are about unexpected things that happened in far from ideal conditions, or plans gone horribly awry, like the time J and I took a spontaneous road trip to the Grand Canyon, broke down in Albuquerque, realized *then* that we had brought no cash, and were unable to find even a cheap dive hotel room because it was the weekend of the Hot Air Balloon Festival – the ONE weekend a year you can’t find a room there. We never did make it to the Grand Canyon, but met lots of kind people who gave us jump starts at rest areas all the way home, and though a lot about the experience sucked, by the end, we were laughing about our Grand Canyon trip turning out in a National Lampoon’s Vacation fiasco sort of way. My husband and I still snicker about it. I can envision you being able to do the same.

    That Aints game sounds like a good experience overall (annoying train aside), and you got a free hat and a snack for the outing. Not a bad deal at all, IMO. 🙂 I hope you have many opportunities to go to games in Alaska as well, and I hope you find other students to go with; such experiences are often more fun when shared. I know you’ll appreciate the games even if you attend alone, though. You have the ability to see and appreciate the elements that are important and meaningful, even when others lose sight of them because these elements come in less-than-perfect packages. I’m so happy for you.

    • I don’t know if it’s my sense of humor – I’m probably a rather humorless person overall. But I have worked to cultivate a sense of wonder. And I’m learning the value of getting out of my damn apartment from time to time. 🙂

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