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Independent Leagues Now Feature Affordability Once Common in MLB

With Major League Baseball growing more financially restrictive, baseball in the independent leagues is thriving thanks to affordability once common to the Big Leagues.

Schaumburg (Ill.) Boomers GM Andy Viano and owner Pat Salvi show off their Frontier League organization of the year plaque, just above their league championship cup trophy.
Schaumburg (Ill.) Boomers GM Andy Viano and owner Pat Salvi show off their Frontier League organization of the year plaque, just above their league championship cup trophy.

Schaumburg (Ill.) Boomers GM Andy Viano and owner Pat Salvi show off their Frontier League organization of the year plaque, just above their league championship cup trophy.

I’m not sure I’d become a baseball fan today under the hefty pricing structure and restricted access offered at big-league ballparks today.

That thought crossed my mind the other day when I visited Pat Salvi, owner of two independent-league teams in the Chicago area: the Schaumburg Boomers of the Frontier League and Gary SouthShore RailCats of the American Association. With Boomers GM Andy Viano in tow in a suite in Boomers Stadium in Schaumburg, a prosperous northwest suburb of Chicago, I heard of tickets and concession prices that have long receded into the past at the Major League level.

Flash back about 45 years. I could wake up the day of the game and decide to go to either Wrigley Field or Comiskey Park, paying 45 cents, including transfer, for bus and “L” transportation. I could gain entrance for as little as $1, for a Wrigley bleachers seat, which was first-come, first-served – none reserved in advance. I could splurge up to $1.75 or $2.00 for a grandstand seat.

Concessions were real cheap and thus quality reflected the price. The joke was the beer was so foul and watered down it tasted like — and I quote the fans of the day — “panther piss.”

So most of my goodies were imported into the ballpark via a couple of jumbo hot dogs from Franksville (somehow 74 cents rings a bell) and a Thermos full of ice tea – I had never tolerated a capacity for alcohol, which obviously saved me decades down the line. The fried chicken might gain my purchase at old Comiskey Park – after all, it was a “dinner” item, which you did not have at lightless Wrigley Field. A must-purchase might have been 30 cents-something for a Frosty Malt chocolate malt cup at Wrigley. Scorecards, another must, were as little as 15 cents. It was possible, if you planned well, to go to either ballpark with $5 in your pocket and return with some pocket change.

In another millennium, we’ve seen $50 and up bleacher tickets in Chicago, $50 parking that started to go begging in 2009, and prohibitions against toting in personal stuff, especially those innocent, non-alcohol-bearing Thermoses. Somewhere, Walter O’Malley is smiling. The most hated man in Brooklyn history built Dodger Stadium without water fountains, all the better to encourage paid beverage sales. O’Malley soon relented, but you get the philosophy.

Baseball once sold itself as inexpensive and accessible. A college student making $4.60 an hour for two 7 ½-hour shifts per week, when the minimum wage was $2.30 an hour, could afford to get to as many as 55 Cubs games and 15 White Sox contests in the same season with the above-mentioned ticket and concession prices.

Better yet, for the low cost, you could watch all of home batting practice – the gates were opened three hours prior to first pitch – and you’d see a bevy of future Hall of Famers both home and visiting. Loyalty and passion was imprinted in you because baseball did not mind flinging its gates open at affordable cost.

Baseball did not have a lot of competition for a kid’s attention and entertainment dollar in a seven-channel, seven-AM radio station, four-newspaper universe. We were lucky in Chicago to get about 275 Cubs and White Sox games, home and road, on free TV each season, the biggest number in any two-team big-league market. Baseball had the prime exposure.

Meanwhile, Bears and Blackhawks games were virtually sold out, but the nervous management of the time in both sports –fearing TV would hurt the gate — blacked out home telecasts. The startup Bulls were the latest NBA entry in Chicago in a string of failed franchises. They had plenty of tickets, as low as $3 for the upper balcony at old Chicago Stadium. You could journey on two buses and the “L” to watch the Lakers’ Wilt Chamberlain draw his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter. That was the signal for the Big Dipper to toss around Bulls bodies with impunity because the refs would never call that sixth foul and break his non-disqualification streak.

Thus we circle back to Salvi and Viano. It was an enlightening talk about how Salvi, a prominent personal-injury litigator in Chicago, fulfilled an ambition by buying not one, but two independent teams some 70 miles apart near opposite ends of the metropolitan area.

The Boomers were an especially surprising success story. They succeeded a failed independent team, the Flyers, in Schaumburg, which had left behind the bad taste of unpaid bills and rent in the stadium. But the fans are coming back to see the Boomers, who won the Frontier League championship in 2013 in only their second season. The RailCats, a consistent winner since setting up shop in 2002, won the American Association title. Thirty miles south in Joliet, a Boomers rival, the Slammers (named after the old Joliet state prison) are also doing well as a successor franchise to yet another failed independent team, the Jackhammers.

Independent baseball has often thrived in the suburbs of metropolitan areas because it offers outdoor family fun at prices way undercutting MLB franchises, and competitive with movies and amusement parks. At Boomer Stadium, all fixed seats are $10, including the first row. If you choose a place for your posterior in the outfield lawn area, they’re $7 per person. Management encourages advance sale due to the $1 day-of-game surcharge.

A hot dog and 20-ounce draft beer combined can be purchased for as little at $7.75; one beer at a big-league ballpark often runs $7.50, some $1.50 more than a six-pack of Miller Genuine Draft at the supermarket. Parking, across the street from Boomer Stadium, is plentiful and free. Of course, the $4-plus-per-gallon summertime gas costs and hassles of dealing with choking traffic going into the big city for a big-league game are dramatically cut down for potential fans within, say, 15 miles of the Boomers.

Boomers official Jeff Ney, a two-decade-plus veteran of minor-league front-office work, revealed to me that the team has dropped its two-foot-long bratwurst offering. Geez, I wanted to tackle the gigantor sausage. I recall covering the Sammy SosaMark McGwire home run chase in Sept. 1998 that I had three brats with the Secret Stadium Sauce in the cramped press lunchroom at old County Stadium in Milwaukee, and lived to tell the tale of gastronomic satisfaction. In the same breath, I was told record brats consumption in one game at County Stadium was nine during the 1982 postseason. I also saw Chicago columnist Rick Telander consume 11 hot dogs, including buns, at U.S. Cellular Field a few years back just because the broken-down old Northwestern safety wanted to see if he could do it.

I hope the Boomers find a replacement monster munchie and make a contest out of it. They’d be following Salvi’s ownership philosophy that often has been lost in the mad dash for billions in TV money and corporate sponsorship at higher baseball levels.

“You want (ballpark staff) to be very positive, very customer-friendly, and try to have a culture where the fans are treated as gold,” Salvi said.

I don’t doubt families facing finite entertainment budgets and soured by the upward spiral of fan costs at the big-league level – and what are you really getting for your big bucks? – will like the Boomers and their independent and affiliated minor-league counterparts. Let those kids run around and let out their energy on the lawn areas while all watch interactive promotions that would have made Bill Veeck proud.

Me? I’m out of my time. Oh, I’ll take in some Boomers and other non big-league games as a journalist, looking for unique angles. But you won’t find me out on the lawn on a cool day or a red-hot night.

I crave the temperate zone between 60 and 80, probably seen regularly only on the West Coast in pro baseball. I was notorious for seeking air-conditioned refuges in the Majors on tropical nights, such as the Sunday evening in 2007 when Tom Glavine won his 300th game at Wrigley Field. I saw no shame in joining Marty Noble in the cooled-down lunchroom while so many colleagues stolidly sat – there’s no genteel way to say this — swamp-assed in the nearby pressbox.

I don’t know how a modern-day teenage version of myself would develop as a fan and student of baseball restricted by costs to far fewer big-league events and seeking refuge in the affordable lower rungs of pro baseball.

After all, the “Show” offered a dynamite package back in the day. They waved you through the gates even if you were budget-conscious, and you could witness the greatest players of all time in dozens of games per season. In independent ball, the post-college players and former big-league prospects trying to jump-start careers put on an earnest, hustling show as they’re paid under $3,000 a month for a four-month season. But it’s not the same.

Maybe that shows how baseball has been transformed from a national pastime to just another entertainment option in a crowded, short-attention-span galaxy. And if that’s what it takes for the game to survive, so be it.

Too many other connections to the game of my youth are gone. Many of the newspapers that covered it and provided the daily elixir of play by play and box scores have folded or cut back expensive baseball coverage. The local department stores that sponsored baseball radio broadcasts faded away, never replaced by the big boxes. You don’t find “Leadoff Man” pre-game TV shows where players are being interviewed live 20 minutes before the first pitch.

I’ll look closely when I’m at a Boomers game for hints of the bygone times. If I find it, I’ll take some small comfort that something that locked you into the game for life has been preserved.

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