When big Hunter Haworth took the mound at Edward A. LeLacheur Park in Lowell and fired a fastball just inside at the knees to Staten Island Yankees shortstop Eduardo Torrealba, the final cog in the cosmic wheel of Red Sox baseball was finally engaged. The Lowell Spinners, the New York-Penn League Class A short season affiliate, began their soggy slog to win the home opener, 5-3.
The game on June 18 inaugurated the 20th season of play at this handsome minor league facility, voted “best short season ballpark in America’’ by Ballpark Digest. Addressing the fans before the game, Spinners owner Dave Heller raved about the new field and the new LED lights. “We love Lowell and we love the Sox. We want the Sox to develop talent under the best conditions.’’
Lowell Mayor William Samaras chimed in: “It doesn’t get any better than being at LeLacheur Park getting ready for Spinners baseball. We’re going to have a great season.’’
Even with towering thunderheads on the horizon that led to a pair of rain delays, hopes were running high. Sure, everyone was hoping for a winning season. Many — maybe most — of the players were hoping for more. As a banner beneath the electronic scoreboard proclaims, “100 Major Leaguers and Counting.’’
Red Sox fans are unusually blessed with baseball riches, and not all of them involve the high temple of Fenway Park. Although the Sox have a pair of Class A affiliates in the South Atlantic and Carolina leagues, the organization also boasts baseball at three professional levels within reasonable driving distance of Boston. The Lowell Spinners, Portland Sea Dogs, and Pawtucket Red Sox are stitched to the Boston Red Sox with the waxed red thread of true hardball religion. It seemed so obvious: After an early season game at Fenway, we could hit for the cycle by touching base at the Single A, Double A, and Triple A levels.
Because minor league tickets are often less expensive than going to the movies, it’s easy to take the whole family for an afternoon or evening of the greatest game ever invented. It’s never too early to introduce offspring to the agony and ecstasy of being a baseball fan. In Lowell, we ran into one mom of four who had them all in tow, including the 10-week-old.
As they announce before games at Hadlock Field in Portland, Maine, “This is a family-friendly ballpark, so please watch your language.’’ Unlike so much of public life these days, a relaxed comity — and a shared sense of community — generally reigns at minor league parks.
There was no reason for the Double A Sea Dogs or their followers to get too worked up during the Thursday midday game we saw against the hapless Hartford Yard Goats, a Colorado Rockies affiliate. Teddy Stankiewicz threw strikes for seven innings. When third baseman Jantzen Witte and first baseman Josh Ockimeyeach smashed a three-run home runduring the 12-3 romp, a lighthouse popped up from the center-field fence.
All the minor league teams embrace local color, perhaps none so cleverly as the Sea Dogs, now in their 25th year. One between-innings contest featured a race among four kids costumed as a Maine blueberry, potato, pine tree, and lobster. In another interlude, team staff in yellow slickers used lacrosse sticks to fling rubber lobsters at contestants who tried to catch them in wooden lobster traps. As they say in Maine, that’s the honest God truth.
Lynn Lackoff and her husband drive more than 60 miles down the coast from their home in Waldoboro, Maine, to watch the Sea Dogs. She admits that she’s particularly charmed by the excitement of the kids competing in the quirky contests. (Twenty-six yellow school buses brought pupils on field trips when we were there.)
Then there’s also the “we knew him when’’ bragging rights. Lackoff recalls attending “the first game when Mookie Betts played the outfield.’’ Originally a second baseman, Betts is one of 284 Sea Dogs who have moved on to play at the Major League level (through 2017). About half the starting lineup of the current Red Sox played at Portland at some point.
But of all the minor league parks among the Red Sox affiliates, McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I., feels the closest to Fenway. Larger than life photos of Red Sox stars, including Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, seem plastered everywhere. We went to one of the Evil Empire Weekend games, in which anyone named Joe or Kelly got in free and any fan who admitted to being named Tyler or Austin was banned from the park. (An exception was made for rehabbing relief pitcher Tyler Thornburg, who made a scoreless appearance late in the game.) “Joe Kelly Fight Club’’ T-shirts were for sale, and the fireballing reliever’s wife, Ashley Kelly, was a guest of honor. She was promoting the Mission 108 anti-human-trafficking charity started by former Sox reliever Robbie Ross, Jr. and his wife, Brittany Ross.
The Kellys have fond memories of Pawtucket. “Joe liked it here a lot,’’ Ashley told one of us. “The vibe was so cool. Anytime he pitched here, he did well.’’
Built in 1942, McCoy Stadium, home of the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox, may not have the little-brother Green Monster of Hadlock Field nor quite the wide-open sight lines of LeLacheur Park, but it exudes its own slightly time-worn character. Moreover, we found we could afford to sit close enough to hear the ball pop in the catcher’s mitt when winning pitcher Chandler Shepherd occasionally hit 95 with his fastball. Familiar face Robby Scott got the save in the 2-0 deflation of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, a Yankees affiliate. The win made the impressive post-game fireworks even better.
Whatever order you touch the Sox Nation bases, the home plate of hitting for the cycle is Fenway Park. Although only a small number of players will make it to The Show, every one of those Spinners, Sea Dogs, or PawSox imagines himself playing for the Boston Red Sox. The game is somehow more riveting at the Major League level. We caught the second home game of the season and saw J.D. Martinez’s first home run in a Red Sox uniform and watched Xander Bogaerts smash a grand slam in a 10-3 pasting of Tampa Bay.
Of course, not every game at any level is so dramatic. In the immortal garble of Ebby Calvin “Nuke’’ LaLoosh near the end of the movie “Bull Durham,’’ “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains.’’
If you go . . .
Edward A. LeLacheur Park
450 Aiken St., Lowell
Adult tickets start at $7
Portland Sea Dogs
271 Park Ave., Portland, Maine
Adult tickets start at $9
Pawtucket Red Sox
1 Columbus Ave., Pawtucket, R.I.
Tickets start at $9
Boston Red Sox
4 Jersey St., Boston
Tickets start at $20 (bleachers), $10 (standing room)