Opinion: Minor league baseball continues to provide affordable, fun ... - The Star-Ledger -

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Opinion: Minor league baseball continues to provide affordable, fun ... - The Star-Ledger -
Mar 30th 2012, 11:10

By Gene A. Budig

Minor League Baseball now runs with the bankers, car makers and retailers in experiencing economic recovery and growth, and for good reason: It offers family entertainment at a bargain-basement price.

Very soon, 176 stadiums in 15 different leagues will be awash in the smells of grilled hot dogs and mustard, buttered popcorn and boiled peanuts, Cracker Jack and chilled beverages — an olfactory delight.

Minor League Baseball has a good chance of posting a record year, with some 43 million men, women and children projected to fill the stands.

As co-owner of the Class-A Charleston RiverDogs (affiliated with the New York Yankees in the storied South Atlantic League), I can tell you that we are committed to an enjoyable fan experience both on and off the field — hence the unannounced visits from famed actor Bill Murray, one of my partners, who is from Charleston and carries the apt title "Director of Fun."

One reason for the optimism is the recovering economy, which provides fans, young and old, a viable option for lively entertainment.

Additionally, five or six of our graduates will have roster spots on the parent Yankees of 2012, rewarding those fans who can proudly say, "I saw him when ... ."

"Most families can afford what we offer," Pat O'Conner, president of Minor League Baseball, has said. "And we offer a lot: reasonably priced tickets, special games and giveaways for youngsters, ballpark food and beverages, and exciting professional baseball. We entertain on and off the field."

Those things allowed attendance to grow last season despite a staggering economy, devastating floods, savage tornadoes and late-season hurricanes.

The 2011 attendance level was a remarkable achievement, but the men and women who work for these clubs aren't done yet. They have an outstanding record of keeping the focus on their customers, and they work overtime to attract parents and youngsters with non-stop fun at the ballpark. For example, new and creative between-inning skits have become a central part of a night at the park.

So many of us remember our first baseball game, most likely seen with parents or grandparents or friends. We recall the smell of freshly cut grass and the carpet-like appearance of the field and eating too much food. We were hooked, anxious to return.

I attended my first Major League game with my dad, who scraped up enough money for train tickets from McCook, Neb., to St. Louis and back. I had written St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck (whose son, Mike, is the current president of the RiverDogs) and asked for a tryout. Since the senior Veeck had already hired a dwarf, and given the Browns' abysmal record, I seriously thought I had a chance to play professional baseball. Needless to say, I was wrong.

But Veeck did promise me a tryout after high school graduation, and he arranged for us to see the Yankees and the Detroit Tigers. I actually shook hands with Mickey Mantle and Casey Stengel. I was hooked for life.

Without question, the minors have done much to reach out and grow the game for Major League Baseball and organized youth leagues. Amazingly, Major League Baseball draws more fans that the National Football League, National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League combined — some 78 million.

"Minor League Baseball is central to the being of the game," Commissioner Bud Selig told me. "We must grow together."

Gene A. Budig was president of Major League Baseball's American League from 1994 to 2000. He was also a university president/chancellor for 23 years at three major state universities.

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