Baseball-Starved Fans Turn Out To Watch Middle-Aged Men Play
Walking into Regions Field, home of the Birmingham Barons, Michael Whitten stops to gaze out on the lush green grass, and sees two baseball teams warming up.
Neither is the Barons. Its Minor League Baseball season had been cancelled due to the coronavirus.
Instead, the teams on the field are part of a local amateur league for men age 35 and over. Which doesn't matter to Whitten and his family.
"We haven't been able to go to any sporting events in a long time," he says. "So we wanted to get out and do something fun and be outside."
Major League Baseball fans have something to look forward to, now that games are scheduled to begin July 23. Even so, because of COVID-19, the games can only be watched on TV, which for a lot of people isn't nearly as good as catching a game in person.
This is the widely-held belief of many Minor League Baseball Fans in 160 cities across the country, who go for the entire experience of the game, if not with a burning, diehard allegiance to their team. The tickets are cheaper, and the stadiums are just small enough that no matter where fans sit, they can see all the plays — without a pair of binoculars.
Birmingham has a long association with professional baseball. It has fielded a professional team since 1885, including the summer in 1994 when basketball legend Michael Jordan wore the Barons uniform.
But the cancellation of the April through August season — and losing the warm summer nights, and popcorn, hotdogs and beer — was yet another blow in this year of deprivation.
Then the idea came up to have the Central Alabama Baseball Association, the local amateur league, play at Regions Field.
"There are so many people that just yearn for some sense of normalcy, and coming out to the ballpark having a beer, having a hot dog, having a Coke, hearing the crack of the bat," says Barons General Manager Jonathan Nelson. "We hope that we're being able to satisfy in some fashion."
Bringing baseball to the people, even in a pandemic, is an idea that's catching fire. In Michigan, the Lansing Lugnuts have put together something they're calling a Lemonade League, which will bring in college baseball players to play in their stadium. The Pacific League in California is working on something similar. If it continues to spread, more and more fans all across the country won't have to go an entire summer without baseball.
Here in Birmingham, there's also an under 35 league. On a recent night in the over 35 league, the two teams playing are named after pro teams — the Red Sox and the Yankees. And the couple hundred fans who turned up — a significant increase from the league's usual crowd — don't seem to care that it's not a Barons game.
"The atmosphere, the people," says Vernon Brown, who is in the stands just behind home plate, "that's what makes the game."
Face masks are required for entry into the stadium (though some people pull them off once they sit down) and many seats have been blocked off to make sure everyone social distances.
Most of the players had never scooped up a ball on such a pristine field or seen their name in lights, and they seemed thrilled to be in such a beautiful stadium.
"I haven't played in a venue this big," says Adam Crane, who's 40. "So this will be nice. Even past the Jumbotron, just the field conditions, how well the grass and dirt are dirt are manicured. It should be a great experience."
Almost like making it in the majors. "Almost," Crane chuckled. "Little late, but better late than never." Crane played in college; a couple teammates even had their day in the minor leagues.
Jimmy Williams, 54, has seen his name on the Jumbotron before, and even has a couple of his own baseball cards. He played 18 years in the minors. He's a hulking 6-foot-6, and is still hurling fastballs.
"It takes a little longer to warm up now," he laughs.
The oldest player on the team — nay, the league — is Gary Broach. He's 73, and has been playing his whole life and there's never been a time when he wasn't playing baseball.
"I've always done it," he recalls. "I've been playing for years and years and years and I've enjoyed it and will enjoy it till the day I die."
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.