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INFIELD CHATTER: Midwest League experience unrivaled for intimacy

After treating my sons to three Major League Baseball stadiums over the past three seasons, last week we put a new spin on the pro ball experience by venturing to a Class A Midwest League contest in Davenport, Iowa.

The atmosphere was a far cry from our Cubs at Busch Stadium experience, but the Quad Cities are a far cry from Houston, the parent organization of the River Bandits, who play their home games at historic Modern Woodmen Park. (An even farther cry is the difference between Clinton, Iowa, where I lived and worked before moving to Ottawa and home of the visiting LumberKings, and that squad’s MLB affiliate, Miami.)

But for getting up close and personal with real pro ballplayers, you simply can’t beat a Class A game. Sure, it’s August and the season is nearly over. Most top prospects are promoted. But there’s still an amazing amount of raw talent on the field. The smaller ballparks of lower level leagues — especially at sparsely attended contests — allow an up-close view of the players and action that strips away the slick polish of broadcast-ready stadiums, revealing the sights and sounds of young men trying to make their mark on the game.

This was most evident to our family as we stood along the first base line, my kids’ arms literally hanging over the chain link fence into the LumberKings’ bullpen as Tyler Kolek warmed up before pitching the bottom of the eighth inning.

Miami drafted Kolek second overall in 2014. The No. 2 pick in 2013 was the Cubs’ Kris Bryant. In 2015 the Astros spent the No. 2 pick on Alex Bregman. To say Kolek’s career hasn’t followed a similar trajectory is an understatement.

In his senior year at Shepherd (Texas) High School, Kolek posted a 5-2 record, a 0.35 ERA and collected 126 strikeouts. Gatorade named him the Texas Player of the Year, and according to the team website he’s hit 102 mph on the radar gun. He went straight to rookie ball after the draft and struggled in his first full season in 2015, starting 25 South Atlantic League games for the Greensboro Grasshoppers (4-10, 4.56 ERA, 81 Ks in 108.2 innings). He missed all of 2016 and half of 2017 thanks to Tommy John surgery, then another year-long disabled list stint stretching into July 2018.

Through 64 appearances in parts of five pro seasons Kolek has 134 strikeouts and 124 walks. Still, he’s only 23. His 6-foot-5-inch frame is impressive on the mound from a great distance and even more so when you’re watching him get loose from close enough to carry on a conversation between pitches. (We didn’t — the guy was at work, after all.) And as the parent of young ballplayers, being able to watch my kids watch Kolek throw was worth the trek to Iowa, to say nothing of all the other players fighting for their future in the heat of a Midwestern summer night.

Everything is developmental in Davenport — even the umpires. The public address system didn’t carry well to our seats in a right field party deck. The video boards are due for an upgrade. The venue is beautiful and certainly a great place to play and watch, but there’s very little glamor in Class A ball. The Clinton players commute to every game in Davenport, and some of the other bus rides are nearly unbearable.

None of this is meant as criticism. We absolutely loved our night at the ballpark. As with most minor league yards the parking was cheap, the lines were short, the crowd was light and kids could be kids. Almost anyone with even a mild interest in baseball should be able to enjoy a night at a Midwest League game, but there’s something special about getting kids to see the sport from a different perspective.

For all the thrills of the collective energy of 40,000 fans, seeing an MLB game in person still is several degrees removed from the action. The Class A experience especially is almost personal, and even without knowing the players, it makes the game feel more real. We’ll definitely be checking more minor league parks off the list in years to come.

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