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. That’s probably why a RockHound almost always leads the league in home runs and batting average. Too bad, then, that the team will move to the Scharbuer Sports Complex in two years.
Number of seats 5,000.
Where to sit Anywhere along the third-base line, especially behind the dugout, because of sun problems on the first-base side.
Schedule Seventy home games between April 6 and August 14. Monday to Saturday, games begin at 7:15 p.m. On Sunday, games begin at 2 p.m. in April and May, 6 p.m. the rest of the season.
Ticket prices Box seats, $7; reserved grandstand seats, $6; general admission seats, $5 for adults and $2.50 for seniors 60 and over and kids 6 to 12; kids under 6 free.
Parking Free and unlimited.
Popular promotions Dallas Cowboys Night, August 5 (one former and one current player meet and greet). At every game two fans selected at random are allowed to sit in recliners on a platform in the reserved grandstand section directly behind home plate.
Team mascots Juice the Moose and Rocky the RockHound.
Best bets at the snack bar Frito pie; barbecue sandwiches.
Manager Tony DeFrancesco, who was a catcher in the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds systems.
Players to watch Hundred- mile-an-hour pitcher Jesus Colome; slugging outfielder Eric Byrnes and third baseman Jacques Landry.
Listen to the games on KCRS-AM 550.
Web site www. midlandrockhounds.org
Round Rock Express
Founded 2000 (see “A Big Hit“).
Affiliation The Houston Astros.
Ballpark The Dell Diamond (3400 E. Palm Valley Boulevard, 512-255-2255), which was designed based on Express president Reid Ryan’s favorite parts of ten other stadiums: The outer facade is like that of the Ballpark in Arlington, the outfield bullpens are as visible to fans as they are at Camden Yards in Baltimore, and so on.
Number of seats 7,816, plus 24 skyboxes, plus room for about 2,500 people to stand on the outfield berms.
Where to sit Section 119, row 1 (directly behind the catcher) is 55 feet from home plate — closer than the pitcher’s mound. Seats 1 to 4 of sections 112 and 126 are only ten feet from the foul lines. General admission standing room at the end of the first-base-side concourse looks directly over the right field corner, à la Camden Yards.
Schedule Seventy home games between April 16 and August 30. Monday to Saturday, games begin at 7:05 p.m. Except for opening day, when the game starts at 4:05 p.m., Sundays games begin at 2:05 p.m. in April and May, 6:05 p.m. the rest of the season.
Ticket prices Box seats, $8; reserved seats, $7; general admission, $5. Active military personnel, seniors 60 and over, and kids 12 and under receive a $1 discount.
Parking $3 for a spot in the stadium’s 2,000-car lot.
Popular promotions On Thursdays, beer and soft drinks are $1. On Tuesdays, $1,000 is given away. On Fridays, a fireworks show follows the game.
Team mascot Spike the Bulldog.
Best bets at the snack bar Nolan’s Nachos, named for you-know who.
Manager Jackie Moore, formerly a catcher for the Detroit Tigers and a Manager of the Oakland A’s.
Players to watch Pitcher Eric Ireland, who threw a perfect game last year for the Class A Kissimmee Cobras; pitcher Wilfredo Rodriguez, a fireballing strikeout ace.
Listen to the games on KVET-AM 1300 or KVET-FM 98.1.
Web site www.roundrockexpress.com
Affiliation The Toronto Blue Jays.
Ballpark Veterans’ Field (2200 Santa Maria, 956-795-2350). Owned and operated by the Laredo Parks and Recreation Department, it’s a work in progress; the old backstop has been replaced this season, for instance, considerably improving sight lines.
Number of seats 5,000.
Where to sit The box seats behind home plate or in the covered grandstand farther back — but not in the bleachers along the third-base line, which are home to the rowdiest fans (unless, of course, you like that kind of thing).
Schedule Twenty home games on Wednesdays and Saturdays from April 12 to August 19. Games start at 7:30 p.m. (The remaining home games are played across the Rio Grande at La Junta Park, Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas.)
Ticket prices Reserved seats, $6; general admission, $3.
Parking Stadium Parking is reserved for season ticket holders. Parking on the street or in the nearby Laredo Civic Center lot is free.
Popular promotions Straight-A Night, June 7 (all Laredo schoolkids with perfect grades get in free); Laredo Children’s Museum Night, June 17 (petting zoo with miniature horses, llamas, sheep, and goats; kids 6 and under get in free).
Team mascot The Bud Owl, whose costume has a built-in air-cooled interior.
Best bets at the snack bar Corn in a cup (boiled kernels with Mexican sour cream, butter, and chile powder); deluxe Frito pie (with chili con carne and nacho cheese); pumpkin seeds.
Manager Armando Cabrera, who coached a Cuban youth league team that won a world championship.
Players to watch Shortstop Joel Chimelis, a University of Texas ex; outfielder Willie Arano, the Tecos’ Carlitos Hustle.
Listen to the games on XENLT-AM 1000.
Web site www.tecolotes.com.mx
Rio Grande Valley White Wings
Affiliation None; the Tex-La operates independently of major league baseball.
Ballpark Harlingen Field (1216 Fair Park Boulevard, Harlingen; 956-412-9464), which has a main grandstand that extends to the bases and bleachers along both foul lines. The fences are tight — 310 feet down the lines and 380 feet in dead center — which is why the P.A. announcer is often heard to exclaim, “¡Adiós, béisbol!”
Number of seats 4,000.
Where to sit High in the stands behind home plate, so you can catch the Gulf breezes. Or, if you’re lucky, the Bob Uecker Seat, which is eight feet off the ground in the corner by the right foul pole; it’s awarded during the game to one fan, who also receives a free meal.
Schedule Fifty-six home games from May 20 to August 28. Monday to Saturday, games start at 7:05 p.m.; Sundays, 6:05 p.m.
Ticket prices Box seats, $6; reserved seats, $5; general admission, $4. White Wings brand tortillas, available in the Valley, have proof-of- purchase stickers that can be exchanged for four tickets.
Parking $1 for a spot on the grass around the Ballpark.
Popular promotions Every other night beach towels, mouse pads, caps, and other goodies are given away to the first one thousand folks to arrive. Every night the dirtiest car in the Parking lot gets a free car wash, a lucky fan gets to toss four dice for the chance to win $10,000, and another fan can win $10,000 worth of groceries if a WhiteWing player hits a ball through the hole in the H-E-B sign on the outfield wall. Beer is only $1 on Thirsty Thursdays.
Team mascot The Wild Wing, a six-foot bird that has been known to douse umpires with a Super Soaker.
Best bets at the snack bar Fajita burgers (fajita meat on a bun); sausage wrap (sausage meat folded into a tortilla).
Manager Eddie Dennis, who was a coach for the Toronto Blue Jays in the mid-eighties.
Players to watch Sluggers Malvin Matos and Andre Johnson; Brownsville ex Andy Buitron.
Listen to the games on At present, no station carries WhiteWings games.
Web site www.rgvwhitewings.com
Ballpark Potter County Memorial Stadium (North Third Street west of Grand, 806-342-3455), which is across the street from the stockyards; visiting players say they always know they’re in Amarillo the second they step off the bus.
Number of seats 6,500 — and they fill up quickly; the defending Tex-La champs lead the league in attendance every year.
Where to sit The first four rows of box seats have waitress service. Sections I and J on the third-base side have a good, straight view of the action. Sections K, L, and M, also on the third-base side, don’t force you to look into the sun.
Schedule Sixty home games between May 4 and September 1. Monday to Saturday, games begin at 7:05 p.m. On Sundays, they begin at 5:05 p.m.
Ticket prices Box seats, $7; club seats, $6; general admission, $5.
Parking Free and practically unlimited.
Popular promotions Fireworks May 6, September 1; T-shirt giveaways Fridays and Saturdays. When a Dilla player hits a home run, fans put “green in the screen” — they stick dollar bills into the backstop for the slugger to collect after rounding the bases.
Team mascot The Dilla Dude, an armadillo.
Best bets at the snack bar Hot dogs; nachos.
Manager Daren Brown, who pitched in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system.
Players to watch Third baseman Derek Henderson, who led the league in hitting last year.
Listen to the games on KPUR-AM 1440.
Web site www.dillas.com
San Angelo Colts
Ballpark Colt Stadium (1600 University Avenue, 915-942-6587), a brand-new facility where the wind blows out; look for lots of homers and high-scoring games.
Number of seats 5,000.
Where to sit Anyplace; no seat in any section is more than twelve rows from the field.
Schedule Fifty-six home games from May 13 to September 3. Monday to Saturday, games begin at 7:05 p.m. On Sundays, they begin at 6:05 p.m. On July 3 and 4, they begin at 1:30 p.m.
Ticket prices Box seats, $8; reserved seats, $6; general admission, $4.
Parking $2 for a spot in the stadium’s 925-car lot.
Popular promotions If a Colt hits a homer through a hole in the KKCN ad on the outfield wall, a fan will win $10,000.
Team mascots Casey the Colt.
Best bets at the snack bar Homemade ice cream; barbecue plates, which are available only in the picnic area.
Manager Dan Madsen, who played in the Chicago Cubs farm system.
Players to watch Slugging first baseman Gabe Duross, who holds the league record in RBIs; catcher Robin Harriss, who was invited to spring training this year by the Cleveland Indians but chose instead to sign with the Colts so he could play in his hometown.
Listen to the games on KKSA-AM 1260.
Web site www.sanangelocolts.com