Rejoice and be glad, oh ye Chicagoans, for a miracle has occurred: for the first two months of the season, both the Cubs and the Sox were in first place! And in honor of that miracle, ticket prices have gone up, so that a day at Wrigley Field could, hypothetically, set a family of four back $400. (A day at U.S. Cellular Field costs less, but find one die-hard Cubs fan who'd rather watch the Sox just to save a few bucks.) Hey, nobody ever said witnessing a miracle was cheap.
But if you're willing to settle for baseball that's less than miraculous—or, if you want to get sentimental about it, baseball that's about the fundamentals, a sunny day, hot dogs and beer, and people hitting a ball with a stick, there's plenty of minor league baseball within driving or biking or Metra distance. It's also an excuse for a spontaneous trip out of town for an afternoon or an entire weekend, because in the minors, there's seldom any danger of getting caught unawares by a sellout.
Chicago Bandits Technically located in Rosemont, the Bandits are the reigning champions of the National Pro Fastpitch League. That's right: all the hype for the Cubs and Sox this year is about what they could achieve, but the Bandits are actually champs. And if you think that maybe the quality of their game is lacking because they're women, consider this: their record against male pro baseball teams is currently 7-1. (This year, they'll face off against the Windy City ThunderBolts of the Frontier League in the third annual Battle of the Sexes game on June 20. The ThunderBolts note hopefully on their website that they are poised for their first win.) Their greatest player, Jennie Finch, is now the manager of the Bridgeport Bluefish, the first woman to manage a professional men's team, but there are still plenty of Olympians on the roster. Rosemont Stadium, 27 Jennie Finch, Rosemont, 877-722-6348, chicagobandits.com.
- Jennie Finch
Schaumburg Boomers The Boomers, named for the mating call of the prairie chicken, are currently in last place in the independent Frontier League. The team's general manager is quick to reassure a reporter that Boomers Stadium, with its grassy seating area and ample standing room, was not designed for sellouts. There's not much glory here, but there's no pressure, either, except during the Midwest Aerosol Association Continuous Spraying Can Race in the middle of the sixth inning. (Who will it be, Shaving Cream, Sunscreen, or Insect Repellent?) Lawn tickets are $8. It's the perfect place to take someone, say a small child or a dog (but only on Bark in the Park day), who has never been to a baseball game before and may not have the interest or the patience to sit through all nine innings. Schaumburg Boomers Stadium, 1999 S. Springinsguth, Schaumburg, 847-461-3695, boomersbaseball.com.
Kane County Cougars It's a sad fact of life that not everyone likes baseball. Some philistines find it slow. And boring. The management of the Diamondbacks' level-A affiliate in west-suburban Geneva is well aware of this, and they've resolved to make sure everyone is entertained, even people who'd rather be at home with their Netflix. There's Frozen night, and Star Wars night, and WWE night. There are special appearances by Jimmy Buffett and Dennis Haskins, who played Mr. Belding on Saved by the Bell. There's a postgame helicopter candy drop. There's even Hockey Night, complete with complimentary ice packs, for people who hate baseball so much they have to pretend they're watching a completely different sport. It's the quintessential minor-league experience. How could you not enjoy yourself, especially since you won't have to listen to somebody whine about how boring it is? Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, 34W002 Cherry Lane, Geneva, 630-632-8811, kccougars.com.
Gary South Shore RailCats Gary isn't exactly a tourist destination, it's true. But if you feel like giving it some love, you could do worse than hop on the South Shore Line for an afternoon or an evening at the U.S. Steel Yard. The RailCats play in the independent American Association, which has some of the best team names in all of sports: the Sioux Falls Canaries, the Wichita Wingnuts, the Laredo Lemurs. The promotional schedule is less, shall we say, frenetic than Kane County's (though, like the Boomers, the RailCats sponsor a Bark in the Park day and also a Christmas in July white-elephant gift exchange), so there's more purity to the baseball-watching experience. U.S. Steel Yard, One Stadium Plaza, Gary, IN, 219-882-2255, railcatsbaseball.com.
Beloit Snappers When you think of Wisconsin, you think of beer. Is it any accident the state's major-league team is the Brewers? And thus the promo schedule for the single-A Oakland A's-affiliated Beloit Snappers is dominated by many different terms for barley, malt, and hops. Forget theme nights, Pohlman Field has Thirsty Thursday, $2 Leinie Bottles, Craft Brew Night, and Suds and Spuds every Wednesday, featuring a different brewery and unlimited potato chips. As you sit and sip, in a seat you can reserve for as little as $2, ponder why a baseball team would choose a snapping turtle as its mascot. Maybe it'll make sense by the seventh-inning stretch. Pohlman Field, 2301 Skyline, Beloit, WI, 608-362-2272, snappersbaseball.com.
- Bill Keaggy/FlickR
- Baseball's Best Burger
Gateway Grizzlies The Wrigley Field bleachers may have Hot Doug's now, but is that any match for Baseball's Best Hot Dog, served exclusively at GCS Ballpark in beautiful Sauget, Illinois, right across the Mississippi from Saint Louis? We think not. Where else can you get a hot dog smothered in sauerkraut, grilled onions, two strips of bacon, and nacho cheese? As if that's not enough, GCS Ballpark also has Baseball's Best Burger, topped with cheddar and bacon and served on a glazed Krispy Kreme. With attractions like that, you don't really need Superhero Night, but the Grizzlies provide it anyway, because that's the kind of full-service organization they are. GCS Ballpark, 2301 Grizzlie Bear, Sauget, 618-337-3000, gatewaygrizzlies.com.
Iowa Cubs If you're truly serious about Cubs baseball and eager to see what the future holds, head out to Des Moines and take in a game at Principal Park, home of the AAA Iowa Cubs and, just a year ago, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber. See? Theo Epstein's master plan is working! (Well, OK, these Cubs are languishing at the bottom of the Pacific Coast League standings at the moment, but it's still early.) Then in two years' time, you'll be able to look at the Chicago Cubs' hot young rookie and say you always knew he was going to be a star. Extra bonus: an entire weekend in Des Moines will probably cost you less than an afternoon at Wrigley. Principal Park, 1 Line, Des Moines, IA, 515-243-6111, iowacubs.com. v