By the

April 19, 2001

As Pedro Swann stood on deck last Saturday night, a fan voiced his support to the stocky outfielder. Down 1-0 with one out and a man on second, the Richmond Braves had a chance to tie the game.

“You be the man now, Pedro,” the fan yelled.

Swann turned, grinned and replied, “I’m trying, man, I’m trying.”

In the International League of AAA baseball, it probably doesn’t matter if Swann drives in the tying run or even if the Braves win. It’s minor league baseball, and everyone wants a chance to make it to “the show.”

Yet as I saw the Richmond Braves take on the Indianapolis Indians over Easter weekend, I realized that in spite of each player’s big-league hopes, minor league baseball really does represent a pure version of America’s pastime. The fans, in podunk baseball towns from Winston-Salem to Pawtucket, come out to the ballpark to see the game itself, without pretense.

Try to picture the Richmond Braves, a step down from their Atlanta big-brother, swinging away throughout the summer at their downtown home, The Diamond. As you look out across the grass outfield, you see billboards for personal injury attorneys and pest-removal services. No GAP. No Qualcomm. The most expensive tickets are $8, the cheapest are $3. You see rednecks and yuppies in the bleachers and box seats, pickups and BMWs in the parking lot.

My family and I sit front row, between the dugout and home plate along the first base line. There’s a guy with only one tooth across the aisle from me, and he’s wearing a Ricky Rudd NASCAR shirt from 1995. Beside him is a dad resting his arms across his bulging belly while his sons eat hot dogs and smear ketchup across their faces.

As the game goes on, the lack of money and superstars is evident. Yes, there are socialites and baseball-ignorami, but there are just as many fans. No one ever gets booed excessively, except, occaisonally, for the umpire. Apparently the high strike wasn’t being called that night, especially when Braves’ fans wanted it.

So why, then, are these fans here night in and night out? Why is centerfielder Jason Ross still around, even though he knows Andruw Jones has that Atlanta job locked up for the next 15 years? For people like this, it has to be the game that attracts.

The fans get to see strategy up close, especially when Richmond manager Carlos Tosca comes out to play third-base coach when his team is at bat. The fans get to see foul balls sliced off into the stands, narrowly missing a small girl’s face. The fans get to heckle, and the umpires can actually hear it.

Any summer night at The Diamond will be the same, and loners and families alike can go to see baseball, not a show. The hot dogs are pretty cheap, and there’s no Alex Rodriguez or Gary Sheffield milling around, waiting to hop in his Range Rover and head back to the mansion. Each player has his own music when coming to bat, and you hear everything from Dwight Yoakam to Trick Daddy. The Baha Men didn’t make the cut.

So that’s what the Richmond Braves are?baseball players trying to play the best ball they can, and fans looking for an alternative to million dollar pansies. What’s so great about this phenomenon is that it occurs in minor-league stadiums across the country.

Over the summer, when I worked at a North Carolina summer camp, my friends and I would use our nights off to drive an hour and see the Kinston Indians play at Grainger Stadium. The K-Tribe, as they are known, play in the Carolina League of Bull Durham fame. This is single-A baseball, with career-minor leaguers and college-age prospects all riding the same bus.

These games had the same atmosphere, the same cheesy contests, the same tobacco-spitting managers. We gave third baseman Henry Calderon a hard time one night after a bobbled grounder (“E5! E5!”), but after the game we called him over to tell him that we were just joking. He laughed, too, and even gave us a signed ball. That ball will most likely never be worth a penny, but the memories attached to it are as invaluable as baseball itself.

I’ve had the same experience in Greenville, South Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee. Minor league baseball endures, keeping baseball alive in a real sense for those people who will never get to see a Major League game. The thing is, though, in this era of stats, agents and money, the minors also keep baseball alive for those of us who enjoy the major leagues as well. And every time we get disgruntled when an all-star whines about his signing bonus, we can turn to Kinston or Richmond and see someone who still cares about the game.

The day after we saw Indianapolis fall to the R-Braves, Richmond second baseman Marcus Giles got the call from Atlanta. A career .320 hitter, Giles may not see the same success down at Turner Field.

But if he does, and one day signs a mega-million dollar contract, people in Richmond will always be able to remember the time that they complemented Giles on a nice bunt instead of his most recent NIKE ad.

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