Far From Home: A British Perspective on America's Game
Widely known as America's pastime, baseball is the greatest sporting embodiment of Americana. But what does the sport look like to British eyes more used to football and rugby than home runs and minor leagues?
All images by Ben Halls
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
It's a tough year for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. When I go to see them on a Saturday in late summer, their season is already over. They sit 23 games behind the division leaders, a deficit they'd need to overturn to reach that mecca of all American sports, the playoffs, but as there are only 16 games left the team are dead in the water. Their opponents for the third night in a row, the Tacoma Rainiers, are in a similar boat.
Minor league baseball is a strange beast, completely alien to anything we have here in Britain. For the Sky Sox, there are no dreams of promotion. There's no way to move up to the global marquee Major League Baseball (MLB); their home will forever be the feeder Pacific Coast League. They don't even get to sign their own players, with their roster provided by their parent major league club, the Milwaukee Brewers.
We're used to seeing small football clubs crave promotion, or at least find that local lad who they can build a team around. While the Sky Sox fight hard to win in their league, it's strange not seeing promotion as a reward. Even stranger is the understanding that their players aren't their players, they just play for the club as a part of their development, and could be whisked away at a moment's notice.
Strangest of all is why, despite a dead season and uninspiring opponents, nearly 5,000 people headed to Security Services Field — conveniently placed in a strip mall, behind a Kum & Go petrol station and across from a Walgreen's pharmacy — to see them play.
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Just showing up at the stadium is an experience. As one of the first 1,000 people there, I get presented with a bobblehead doll of Craig Counsell, the current Brewers manager and a Sky Sox alum. The dolls are sponsored by the American National Guard, who also have a recruiting booth at the game and are giving away tickets to a local festival to the person who can do the most push ups. On the field, a local group of high school-aged gymnasts, the Colorado Aerials, are getting ready to put on a pre-game display. Rather than the bar, the biggest pre-game attraction is instead the Fun Zone, where games and a giant inflatable obstacle course pull families in.
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To help make sense of it all, I speak to Tony Ensor, the President and General Manager of the Sky Sox.
"I think that what makes minor league baseball so appealing is that baseball is America's sport," he explains as the Aerials get their display underway. "It's a sport we invented, it's a sport that most children, boys or girls, have played growing up so everybody has an understanding of the game. It truly is America's Game."
Esnor and his family have been involved with the Sky Sox for 30 years, and as such he understands what brings people out to his team's 71 home games — that's right, 71 — each season.
"Minor league baseball is ingrained in America, in our communities, because they're still rooting for that home town team. Yes, all of these players are drafted and signed by the Milwaukee Brewers, but they all are Colorado Springs Sky Sox players," he says.
You can see the pride as he talks about one of their most recent graduates, Domingo Santana. The outfielder had been playing for the Sky Sox before the Brewers called him up overnight. A day after playing in front of a few thousand in Colorado Springs, he hit a home run on national television during his MLB debut.
"You get that relationship between the players and the fans and the front office and our community. That makes a difference," he adds.
From his point of view, it starts to make a little sense. Obviously the team wants to win — he makes that abundantly clear — but you can tell that there is so much more to his club, and minor league baseball, than that.
"[Our players'] ultimate goal is not to get to Colorado Springs," he says bluntly, "and we know that, their ultimate goal is to get to Milwaukee or to the major leagues... But, a lot of the joy of minor league baseball not only comes from winning, but also seeing these young men who've had a dream since they were 10 years old of getting to the major leagues; it's watching them and assisting them in fulfilling that dream and getting to the majors."
There are many levels of minor league baseball in America, and the Sky Sox are a Triple-A team. This means that they're the final stop before a player gets called up to MLB. They're good at bringing players up, and Esnor tells me that over the last 27 years they've had 73% of their alumni make it to the majors. It's this that makes the ball club tick, almost on the same level of motivation as winning.
"We take a lot of pride [in players like Santana], this community takes a lot of pride in that... We get to know them, meet them, enjoy them, see them craft their skills at the minor league level, then see them reach that major league success, and we take a lot of pride in that. We're kind of along the journey with them."
The way that Esnor describes it is, frankly, beautiful. His club aren't dealing with kids here, either. Most players have "already been professional baseball players for three, four, five, six years." They're in development, yes, but in such a bigger way. This is the players' finishing school, and the team takes great pride in seeing them graduate.
In British sport, clubs are only driven by success; managers will get sacked if it doesn't come, and more often than not players will ride it to a bigger pay packet at another club. There's a wonderful purity in organisations like the Sky Sox that comes from being so completely devoted to nurturing talent and getting them ready for life in the majors.
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By the time I'm done talking to Esnor, it's time for the pre-game ceremonies. The anthem is performed by the Harrison High School band, and the local Boy Scout troop are on hand to present the colours. Children who'd signed up before the game went out with a National Guard soldier and took turns in throwing pitches to kick things off. The Rainiers are batting first, and their opener pops a ball up for an easy catch at short stop. The fans give the play a polite clap as they settle down to watch the game.
For the most part, the crowd is subdued during the action. The biggest cheers from them come during the entertainment between innings, where t-shirts are thrown into the stands and the Sky Sox's mascot, Sox the Fox, dances around the home team dugout.
The crowd picks up in one moment, when a Rainiers batter is caught in a run down between third base and home. Against the odds, he manages to fake running to the home plate before darting back to third. The ball gets there, but not in time as the umpire calls him safe. It's a questionable decision, and the crowd find their voice to give him hell. Leading the jeers are stalwart Sky Sox fan Christopher Sweeney and his family.
"We've actually been coming since 1993, since we moved here," says Christopher on what brings him out to the games. "I'm with my mom and my kids, and I came as a kid; I'm bringing my family now with my wife, so we're just kind of passing along the tradition of baseball to the next generation."
He goes to "at least 30 or 40 games per year" and you can tell he cares about his hometown team. Like Esnor, he finds joy not only in seeing the team succeed, but in watching how the players grow during their time in Colorado Springs.
"Seeing some of these players develop, then seeing them make it, it's special to see a player come real young and then make it. Craig Counsel, who's now the manager of the Brewers, we saw him play down here for the Sky Sox when we won our championship in '95. It's exciting to see how the game changes yet still stays the same."
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Although not many other fans shared Christopher's passion for the Sky Sox as a team, he wasn't alone in enjoying the action with his family.
"We used to go see the Pawtuckett Red Sox regularly in Rhode Island," says Tony. He's new to Colorado Springs, and is at the game with his two sons. They're all wearing matching Boston Red Sox caps.
"We've been in Colorado Springs for about five months," he adds, "been busy getting settled in, but we would probably come out six to eight times a year I'd say."
The affordability of seeing a Sky Sox game is something which Tony Esnor is proud of. The cost of going to events is calculated on the Fan Cost Index. According to Esnor, the cost to a family of four going to an MLB game is $180 to $200.
"At the minor league level that same family can go and enjoy parking, four tickets, four good seats, merchandise, game day program, something to eat and drink, all for about $60. It's a great night out for families to come out to a ball park and get to enjoy being out in the community.
"It feels like you're doing something good for your family, rather than spending another $80 to go to a movie theatre, where you're watching a big television screen," he adds.
Esnor loves to speak about the Sky Sox and their role in the community, and it's apparent that it's a big part of the club. At the stadium tonight are the local chapter of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, one of the world's largest breast cancer charities in the world. Ever see a pink ribbon? That's them. They've got a table at the game, right in front of the main entrance (just behind the bobbleheads) to help fundraise. They've also got a section of the stands just for them, as made obvious by the sea of pink shirts that are sitting there.
"Over the years the Sky Sox have had games like this for us," explains Nancetta Westcott, the Executive Director of the local chapter, "and had survivors walk, had a section of pink, and all of it to support the awareness of breast cancer."
They're a big part of the evening. Before the game the survivors on hand are applauded as they walk around the stadium, and Sox the Fox wears a pink tutu in support.
"I think they do a great job [in the community]," adds Westcott. "My father and I come out to games, and it seems like every single game there's at least one non-profit or local community group who are here and celebrating, or manning the food booths, and they get money from that, so they are a great asset."
By only the third inning people start trickling out of the arena. Not because the weather's turned or the game's a blowout, but because they've got young children and, quite simply, it's bed time. A fair few people there are friends or family of one of the many local groups involved with the game too, and they don't stick around that long either. Once people start to head out, though, it becomes apparent why people go to and watch minor league baseball.
It isn't actually about baseball at all.
The atmosphere at the ground isn't one of a sporting event. Apart from a handful of avid fans like Christopher, I don't know if anyone in the stands particularly cared if the Sky Sox won or lost. People didn't go for that. Instead, being there was more like being at a big community event: a school play or a village fete. People went there to make memories.
Everywhere you look around there are families and couples just enjoying being together. Some young couples, just starting dating, others with smiles as they wrangle young children. There are grandparents, either to watch the game with the younger ones in their families, or to see their grandchildren in the pre-match festivities.
"We hadn't been to a game yet this summer and just wanted to go," said one middle-aged couple, sat beneath a blanket together.
The game is a mechanism which helps people relax and have fun. It's the common experience that brings people together. It isn't so much about which team wins, it's America's way of cementing the bonds. It isn't about a big, expensive, stressful day out in the city to see an MLB team, traveling for hours to get to a huge stadium and all of the pressure to have fun that comes with it.
It's about sitting out under the floodlights with your dad watching a game. It's about sharing a bag of popcorn with your mom. It's about hearing your grandfather tell you stories about when he went to games like this – small ballparks in middle America – when he was young, and the players he saw. You could tell that people wanted to come away being able to say, whether it be months or years down the line, 'Hey, remember when we'd go to see the Sky Sox and...'.
I'm sure it would have been slightly different had the team been in the playoff race, or if a big-name Brewer had been on the team to rehab an injury. But even without those things, people came to experience a night at the ballpark together. Anything that happens on the field isn't going to be the reason they remember that night, it'll just be a nice add-on to it. What they'll remember is the time spent together.
As Esnor said before the game started, "This is Americana."
It starts raining in the seventh inning and, even though play continues, most fans take their leave. The Sky Sox are attempting to make a comeback, gradually loading up the bases as the big hitters come up, but the crowd have made their memories and are happy to head home.
The Sky Sox's comeback is a non-starter. They slump to a 7-4 defeat. For the players and coaches, it's another disappointment in a rough season. But just by existing, by giving families a place to make memories together, they've sent the fans home happy.
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