SUMMER TRAVEL 2022 – When John McGuirk, 72, first began taking his now 27-year-old son to Tri-City ValleyCats games two decades ago, there was one usher who was always particularly kind.
So as the father and son spent years attending the baseball games together, with young Seamus spending most of his energy on collecting pages and pages of scribbled autographs from eventual Major Leaguer players such as Hunter Pence, Ben Zobrist and others, McGuirk always thought he might like to be a ValleyCats usher someday.
Last year, during the team’s inaugural season as an independent franchise in the Frontier League, McGuirk got his chance. This year, the team’s 20th overall season — and the first since the onset of the pandemic that people are starting to breathe a little easier — McGuirk is ready for baseball.
“You get to meet a lot of people, and I think that’s really the best part about it,” McGuirk said. “Baseball seems the same almost at any level. There are the same amount of good plays and bad plays. And you can’t beat [Joseph L. Bruno Stadium] as a place to watch baseball. There’s not a bad seat in the house.”
I met McGuirk during a ValleyCats exhibition game, where my 4-year-old daughter, Ria, and I got to take in the team’s final tune-up ahead of the regular season, which began earlier this month. Sure, Ria was more focused on the whereabouts of SouthPaw, the team’s mascot, than she was on at-bats — she was even more interested in her pack of Skittles — but that’s all part of the scene at Minor League Baseball games.
The casual, family-friendly atmosphere at the ValleyCats’ stadium on the Hudson Valley Community College campus in Troy is a large part of what kept McGuirk coming back with Seamus year after year. It’s the same vibe that families across the country appreciate about Minor League Baseball. The smaller parks offer the chance to watch — and even meet — future stars of the game in intimate, sometimes historic, ballparks that provide a fan experience that rivals the big leagues — and maybe tops it, if you factor in price.
In upstate New York, you can knock out several great minor league parks in a single road trip with shorter or equal drive time — and less than or equal cost — compared with a trip to see a single Major League game in New York City or Boston.
“For Yankees, Mets and Red Sox fans in the Capital Region, it would take a solid day to go there and have that experience,” said Jess Guido (Kaszeta), ticket sales and operations manager for the ValleyCats. “But right in your backyard, you have professional players that could someday end up on those teams.”
Leaving from the Capital Region, travelers could string together a very doable road trip to see upstate teams such as the Amsterdam Mohawks, the Rochester Red Wings, the Syracuse Mets and the Binghamton Rumble Ponies.
“There’s a lot of good baseball in upstate New York,” said Jon Sargalis, spokesman for the Mohawks. “If you want to see these guys before they become professionals at a very affordable price, this is the place to go see it.”
Part of the beauty of Minor League Baseball is that you can interact with players. We saw this firsthand at the ValleyCats exhibition game, where one fan had a conversation with a player from the stands between innings.
“You almost got that one. It was close!” the fan said from the seats.
The player smiled and thanked him before heading into the dugout.
Minor league franchises often build in fan and player interactions. For instance, the Amsterdam Mohawks offer several opportunities a week — from Meet and Greet Mondays to Fistbump Fridays to Selfie Saturdays. During non-COVID times, the Rochester Red Wings offer an autograph booth, giving fans the chance to collect what could become a valuable piece of memorabilia.
The Red Wings, who are now a Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, used to be part of the Minnesota Twins organization, meaning the likes of Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios and Justin Morneau have relatively recently graced the diamond at Frontier Field.
In addition to seeing future stars, travelers can visit some historical gems of ballparks. Look no further than Shuttleworth Park, home of the Amsterdam Mohawks nestled near the Chuctanunda Creek. Dating to 1914, Shuttleworth is only two years younger than Boston’s Fenway Park, and has some legendary lore attached to it.
Perhaps most notable, Shuttleworth famously burned down in July 1942, eight days before the New York Yankees were set to play an exhibition game there against the Rugmakers. Banding together, locals were able to rebuild the stadium in time for the game.
But even if a Minor League Baseball park isn’t historic, it often leads to a great fan experience. For starters, stadiums are smaller than their big league cousins, meaning you’re near the action no matter where you’re sitting. That includes off-the-field action at Rochester’s Frontier Field. The 1997 stadium is in a walkable urban setting situated across the river from restaurants and bars such as the Genesee Brew House and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.
But the food inside Frontier Field’s gates is good enough to keep fans satisfied while they watch the game.
“Our cuisine is one of the things that makes us special,” said Dan Mason, the team’s general manager. “When you think of going to a ball game, you think of hot dogs.”
The Red Wings offer quality Zweigle’s hot dogs made blocks from the stadium. “But it doesn’t stop there,” Mason said.
Macaroni and cheese, deli sandwiches, salads or even the Home Plate, which is the Red Wings’ version of a Rochester garbage plate (meat such as hamburger, sausage or chicken served on top of home fries, french fries, baked beans and/or macaroni salad).
Adults can wash it all down with a craft beer from Frontier Field’s 10th Inning pub.
If you’re at “The Joe” for a ValleyCats game, visit Buddy’s Grill to enjoy a pint along the first-base line along with Lupo’s chicken spiedies, angus burgers, salt potatoes and pulled pork sandwiches.
While adults can clearly enjoy themselves with the food and drink offered at minor league parks, children will find plenty to keep themselves entertained as well.
From bounce houses at “The Joe” and Shuttleworth, to a new sensory suite at Frontier Field designed specifically for families with members with Autism Spectrum Disorders, minor league parks strive for welcoming, fun atmospheres — especially for young fans.
Kids are usually fond of the between-innings entertainment, too. At Mohawks games, children are sometimes invited onto the field for dance parties during breaks.
“Other teams call it a zoo, but we’re just trying to bring in the entertainment value,” Sargalis said with a laugh. “Sometimes our between-innings activities take a minute or so longer, and the opposing team will be there ready to go and we’re still clearing the field.”
Still, despite the sound effects, games and celebratory spirit at minor league parks, baseball has a way of taking center stage.
As my 4-year-old and I settled into our seats ahead of the exhibition game, she was curious about the players tossing the ball back and forth across the diamond. On the mound, the pitcher threw his final warm-up tosses, and in the outfield players twisted their torsos and touched their toes .
“They’re getting ready,” I told her, John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” humming from the sound system.
“Put me in coach,” the song goes. “I’m ready to play.”
Check the calendar
- If you’re planning an MiLB road trip, you might want to schedule it around promotional nights, which won’t be hard to do. Fan-focused, Minor League Baseball parks seem to specialize in such events.
- Post-game fireworks nights are a staple at parks across the region. On Sundays, kids often have the chance to run the bases at many parks. And if you’re traveling with your family’s best friend, consider a Bark at the Park night.
- Maybe Craft Beer Friday at the Syracuse Mets games is more your taste? Or perhaps Hawaiian shirts are more your style? In that case, plan on the ValleyCats’ Hawaiian Night on Sunday, July 3.
- No matter your interest, a Minor League Baseball team’s calendar will have a promotional night to suit your needs — even if you head to the game straight from the office in your suit. In fact, if you are work-minded, consider attending the Red Wings’ “The Place Where People Go To Work Night,” featuring an appearance from Kate Flannery of “The Office” on June 29.