A Younger Game
I may just be getting older, but it certainly seems like baseball’s stars are getting younger. A necessary reality check came last year when the first baseball player younger than I debuted in the Major Leagues at a point in my life when I was a clean four years removed from competitive baseball, thus without a realistic path to the professional career of which I once dreamed.
But that threshold was going to be crossed one way or another. Far from guaranteed, though, was the game’s abrupt change of command from seasoned veterans to barely post-adolescent prospects.
The Washington Nationals struck gold two years in a row by using the first overall pick to draft Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Their rapid ascensions to the big leagues were so publicized that the average fan knew of their stardom long before they ever played a pitch at the Major League level. But theirs were hardly isolated cases.
In Strasburg’s year, we also saw Mike Stanton and Jayson Heyward debut to similar hype. Recently? The names Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, George Springer, and Gleyber Torres were headliners as they approached the show.
This isn’t a bad phenomenon, by any means. And you can point to a number of factors (advanced statistics, social media, enhanced amateur competition, etc.) to explain. But undeniably, this makes baseball’s minor league games far more enticing given the ability to watch known world-class players in a far more intimate venue.
Out in my new home of Del Rio, Texas, we have no home team. This month’s Mexico Series games held in Monterrey were the closest a Major League game will be played to my dwelling in 2019. So a four-hour drive to see the Round Rock Express was a welcomed weekend proposal.
Given the fact that two of MLB’s top 10 prospects play in Round Rock, Houston’s Triple-A farm, I was further convinced.
Forrest Whitley, who sounds more like the star of an HBO documentary chronicling the heroic time management of a college sophomore double majoring in business and alcoholic studies than the Astros’ top pitching prospect, is slated to make his MLB debut this season. At 6’7″, he was considered the top high school arm in the 2016 draft and made substantial strides in the 2018 Arizona Fall League season.
Kyle Tucker, who in an alternative life is the subject of a twangy song about a tractor, a dog, and drinking chilled beer in the twilight hours, or perhaps all three, made an underwhelming debut in Houston’s outfield last year and is still perfecting his game in Triple-A until the Astros give him the call again. But for now, he’s Houston’s top hitting prospect.
Another cozy attraction of Minor League Baseball games is the jovial nature of a community coming together in an embrace of local culture. Fans are jovial because no one is paying more than $10 a ticket for a night of entertainment surrounding a game whose results really don’t matter. And as far as local culture goes, perhaps no Americans embrace theirs any better than Texans.
If you’ve ever met a true Texan, you’re likely well aware of their state pride, perhaps even expressed through a quintet of syncopated claps before an exclamation of “deep in the heart!”
The natural beauty of the state does round out, figuratively and geographically, deep in its heart. There, free from the encroachment of the Rio Grande or Bayou, where the conservative roots are still clinging whilst a progressive tide rolls, where the lush viridescence of the hill country is just rugged enough to warn of the proximous wild west, a temperate spring breeze caresses the chromatic wildflowers that dare to reveal the sentimental side of this independent state–an image that, when juxtaposed with locomotives or baseball, is worthy of All-American status.
Both of the latter two images of Americana framed my journey up to Round Rock, although I failed to capture photographic evidence of a burly train engine chugging along the Texas plains, silhouetted against the setting sun. Nearly as picturesque in the spring are said wildflowers that emerge throughout central Texas like roadside weeds, though much more welcome to the aesthetically-minded traveler.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, just south of downtown Austin, is a conscientious conservation center of these plants. If you’re like me, and want to be educated on an array of endemic flora in an intimate environment, this is a worthy stop on a central Texas roadtrip, which, given the climate and the plumage, I highly recommend planning for a spring.
Texas’ wildflower season is safely from mid-March to the end of April, headlined by the bluebonnet–the state flower. I found out that the bluebonnet will not in fact grow outside the unique climate of the Lone Star State. Texas’ dry, temperate winters allow for a vibrant bloom in the spring.
Like the longhorn, the bluebonnet is a Texas posterchild, an Instagram pic just waiting to happen. In fact, if you somehow manage to photograph the former steer grazing among the latter flower, well you’ve just found the golden snitch of social media.
Naturally, the canned photo spot at Dell Diamond, home of the Round Rock Express, features both images within an equally-loved icon of social media users–the postcard wall mural.
Dell Diamond, named by Dell Technologies, one of the many corporations turning Austin into the south’s Silicon Valley, opened way back at the turn of the millennium in April of 2000, but certainly competes with the best of the nation’s minor league parks.
The main concourse is at ground level and provides mostly unobstructed views of the playing field all the way around, leading straight down into the lower bowl of seats that is about 20 rows deep on the infield.
In the left field corner of the concourse is the aforementioned postcard mural right next to a staircase that leads up to the Home Run Porch–a unique, by minor league standards, raised seating level beyond and above the left field berm. The porch is indeed in home run territory, but it would take quite a shot to actually reach the seats.
Just behind the left field berm is a row of wooden rocking chairs, available for single game ticket purchases, for any fan who wants to feel like they’re waiting for a table at Cracker Barrel while watching a game. Unfortunately, the seats will not include three sides and free biscuits.
As fun as left field is, right field may outdo it. Another ample grass berm gives way to a wide concourse backed by the Bullpen Bar–a modern-looking indoor sit-down with alcohol aplenty and a food menu–and the Home Run Dugout–a virtual reality zone where Top Golf meets MLB 2K9 allowing adult men to drink and hit softly-tossed balls into a screen projecting the baseball park of their choosing as the computer program announces the highly optimistic projected distances of their “home runs.”
Outside, on the foul pole side of the described Caucasian fun zone is the HEB “Texas Backyard,” which is a fenced-in recreation area featuring a turf patch, playground, swimming pool, and hot tub. On this night, it was 60 degrees and windy, so the pool looked more like a nefarious blue lagoon than a refreshing oasis. But I imagine the Backyard gets rented out frequently in the summer months.
Austin is becoming quite the destination in its own right, which is part of the reason why Dell Diamond was built in Round Rock rather than the state capital itself (a better financial deal for the team). But the immigration of hipsters, techies, and other such yuppies is leading to a fascinating human geographical phenomenon that is being replicated in plenty of cities nationwide, particularly elsewhere in the sunbelt.
As the population increases more rapidly than the city’s infrastructure can handle, and technology companies grow in an age where connectivity is much more valuable than physical proximity to clients and partners, new urban centers are springing up well outside the central business district of a city, which itself is becoming both anachronistic and somewhat irrelevant. But, especially in places like Austin, these new, canned cities with their squarely modern architecture invariably featuring some artisanal eatery below residential space are creating millennial utopia that in fact detract from the individualist flavor of urban locales for which these same young people presumably migrated to experience.
Ironic, isn’t it?
Something Austin has done, however, for the betterment of humanity is constructed a pristine, seven-story downtown public library that is certainly a celebration of human flourishing in its architectural and educational beauty. For anyone with any faith in education (so hopefully everyone), a trip to Austin is incomplete without at least a stop in the lobby of the central library.
Texas may boast of its solitary star in the night sky, but infinitely more gems shine on its vast, varied land. And as I continue to discover each of them, my aging is almost palpable with the trendy becoming younger by the day in both baseball and culture in this big state I call home.