THE GOLDEN ERA OF BASEBALL SUPPOSEDLY OCCURRED FIFTY OR sixty years ago. Don't try telling that to fans in Texas, where the minor league version of the sport is enjoying unprecedented popularity. Forget the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers; meet the San Antonio Missions, the El Paso Diablos, the Midland RockHounds, and the brand-new Round Rock Express, of the Class AA Texas League; the Laredo Tecos, of the Class AAA Mexican League; and the Amarillo Dillas, the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings, and the just-sired San Angelo Colts, of the Texas-Louisiana League — eight teams that are turning America's pastime into a full-tilt party. You want dizzy bat races that pit kid against kid? You want raucous music? You want Jerry "the Beaver" Mathers signing autographs out by the right field pole? You want a total tab of about $25 for a family of four? And you want a reasonable approximation of good hitting, pitching, and fielding? You got it — and for good measure, every seat is close enough to the action that you can razz the opposition without raising your voice.
What's behind our love of the game? Blame history: The Texas League, Founded in 1888, is older than major league ball's American League and more storied than most farm systems. "There are fanciful references in nineteenth-century literature to cowboys shooting fly balls out of the sky," says league president Tom Kayser, who takes great pride in the term "Texas leaguer," which describes a fly ball to the shallow part of the outfield that falls in for a hit. Or blame Jim Paul, who in the mid-seventies revived the El Paso franchise — and got Texas jazzed about the minor league phenomenon — by painting the grandstands a screaming shade of yellow, blaring sound effects over the P.A. system, and staging creative promotions like 25-cent hot dog night.
Whatever the reason, the action is bigger than ever. Before a single pitch was thrown, thanks to advance tickets sales, the Express approached the Texas League's single season attendance record of 411,000. No wonder teams in Texas and elsewhere are worth millions of dollars today.
Herewith, a guide to what to see, where to see it, when, and why. Play ball, y'all.
San Antonio Missions
Affiliation The Los Angeles Dodgers.
Ballpark Nelson W. Wolff Municipal Stadium (5757 U.S. 90 West, 210-675-7275), which has two distinctive mission towers at the entrance and a spacious layout inside, with few obstructed views. The upper part of the main grandstand is covered. Box seats extend along the foul lines into the outfield.
Number of seats 6,300.
Where to sit Anywhere behind the plate, where scouts with radar guns size up major league prospects.
Schedule Seventy home games from April to late August. Most games start at 7:05 p.m.; Sundays and holidays, 6:05 p.m.; April 16, April 23, May 7, 4:05 p.m.; April 19, May 11, 12:05 p.m. "businessperson's special."
Ticket prices Field boxes, $8.50; reserved seats, $4.50; standing room only over the left field fence, $4 for adults and $2 for children.
Parking $3 for a spot in a lighted, patrolled lot adjacent to the stadium.
Popular promotions Used Car Night, June 23 (fourteen cars were given away last year); Kids' Clinic, May 5 (players and coaches work out with youngsters before the game); Independence Day, July 4 (fireworks and Jerry Jeff Walker after the game); fireworks after every Saturday game.
Team mascots Henry the Puffy Taco and, new this year, Ballapeño, a hot pepper with a baseball for a head.
Best bets at the snack bar The Catcher's Mitt sandwich (a hamburger patty, sausage, and nacho cheese stuffed into a pita pocket); the pregame picnic deal (all-you-can-eat hot dogs, hamburgers, and soft drinks and a reserved seat for $12; kids twelve and under, $10).
Manager Former Boston Red Sox shortstop Rick Burleson.
Players to watch Outfielder Chin-Feng Chen, a Taiwan native and onetime Little League world champion; pitcher Randey Dorame and catcher Will McCrotty, who starred in 1999 for the Class A California League champion San Bernardino Stampede.
Listen to the games on KKYX-AM 680.
Web site www.samissions.com
El Paso Diablos
Affiliation The Arizona Diamondbacks.
Ballpark Cohen Stadium (9700 Gateway North, 915-755-2000), a spacious field with a 21-foot-tall centerfield fence 410 feet from home plate. But El Paso's thin mountain air makes the ball carry, as does the wind blowing out, so there's always the potential for a high-scoring game.
Number of seats 10,000.
Where to sit Section M and N, right behind the Diablos' dugout; sections 0 and P, on the third-base side; in the first row behind home plate, which is only about 50 feet from the backstop.
Schedule Seventy home games between April 6 and September 3. All games in April and May start at 6:30 p.m., as do all Sunday games and all games with fireworks. All others start at 7 p.m.
Ticket prices Box seats, $6; reserved seats, $5; general admission, $4.
Parking $2 for a spot in the stadium lot.
Popular promotions Twenty-five-cent hot dogs every Sunday; fireworks on May 14, May 29, June 18, July 2, July 3, July 29, September 3. The Cohen Concourse Carnival provides nightly diversions for kids (face-painting, clowns) during the game.
Team mascots Kasey the Chicken and Chili-D, a peripatetic pepper.
Best bets at the snack bar The half-pound Jimbo Burger; barbecue plates at the Hardball Cafe.
Manager Bobby Dickerson, a former New York Yankees prospect who was the Diamondbacks' minor league fielding coordinator.
Players to watch Slugging left fielder Jack Cust, the Diamondbacks' minor league player of the year in 1999; third baseman Ryan Owens, who hit .398 in 26 games at the end of last season.
Listen to the games on KHEY-AM 690 or KAMA-AM 750.
Web site www.diablos.com
Affiliation The Oakland A's.
Ballpark Christensen Stadium (4300 N. LaMesa Road, 915-683-4251), which is a hitter's park: The fences are close in and the wind blows out.