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Minor League Baseball All the Rage in Gary

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Minor League Baseball All the Rage in Gary

Opening Night at the U.S. Steel Yard, home of the Gary Southshore Railcats. (Photo by Michael Puente/WBEZ)

With both the White Sox and Cubs playing well enough to be in first place in their respective divisions right now, it’s shaping up to be an exciting baseball summer in Chicago. But actually attending a Major League game can cost a pretty penny. Minor league professional baseball, on the other hand, can offer an alternative with a much smaller price tag, and lots of hometown pride.

Retired Gary steelworker T. J. Allen is what you’d call a diehard fan of Railcats’ baseball games.

ALLEN: I’ve been to all of them. Rain or shine, I’m here.

With temperatures around 40 degrees last Thursday evening, the Gary Southshore Railcats 7th season opened in weather more fit for football than baseball.

ALLEN: Yes it’s cold. Feels like Bear weather.

Allen says although he’s also a Chicago White Sox fan, a Railcats ticket is a mere 7-bucks, way cheaper than a ticket to Sox game.

Allen’s baseball buddy is Ray Spencer, also a retired steelworker. Spencer says he got to see almost every game at U.S. Steel Yard last season.

SPENCER: I only miss three games last year.

And what a season it was.

The Railcats claimed its second Northern League championship in the last three years.

This year’s Railcats have some potential to repeat as champions, although some the team’s better players have moved on to other teams.

Either way, T.J. Allen says, the Railcats,

ALLEN: They’re a winner.

But fans like Debbie Elser, who’s wrapped in a blue Indianapolis Colts blanket, says minor league baseball isn’t so much about winning or inflated salaries or egos, it’s about the game.

ELSER: Oh my gosh, these guys play the way my old Cubbies used to play, for the love of the game, you know. They don’t get paid big bucks.

And, unlike at Major League games, fans can get close and even talk with players like pitcher Matt Brinkmann.

Brinkmann’s a 23-year-old from Evansville, Indiana who still has those big league dreams.

He’s beginning his second season with the Railcats.

BRINKMANN: It’s pretty exciting. I’m glad to be back this year again. We have one of the best baseball fields in America.

Baseball America magazine agrees with Brinkmann, listing U.S. Steel Yard in its 2008 Great Parks calendar.

On this night, however, the 6,000 seat stadium is half full.

Some of that was weather-related, no doubt.

But drawing more fans to games has historically been a challenge for some minor league teams, including those in the Northern League.

These days, getting more fans to come out and see young pitchers like Brinkmann is the problem of Pat Salvi, an attorney from Lake Forest, a northern suburb of Chicago.

Salvi purchased the Railcats in January. A sports fan, Salvi said he always noticed the beauty of the ballpark from the Indiana Toll Road on his way to his son’s college, the University of Notre Dame in South Bend.

SALVI: We would pass the Steel Yard all the time always admired it somewhat from afar. This is a beautiful venue. I think one of the best in the United States.

With five sons, all being sports fans, Pat Salvi says he dreamed of owning his own sports team. Although some in Northwest Indiana worried that Salvi would move the team out of Gary, Salvi says he’s staying.

SALVI: We’re committed to Gary, Northwest Indiana. The substantial number of our fans are from the wonderful towns that surround Gary. I would like to generate some more enthusiasm from the residents of Gary here.

One major hurdle in getting more fans to the stadium, Salvi says, is Gary’s perception as being an unsafe city.

SALVI: They just need to come here to see that it’s safe, that it’s fun. Then the word kind of spreads that this is a good experience.

But attendance at games isn’t just a concern for Gary. Last season, the Winnipeg team ranked near the bottom of the Northern league in attendance and some teams have left for other leagues. For those who do come out, the Steel Yard features a huge scoreboard, fireworks on most weekends, skyboxes, two loveable mascots in Rusty and Rascal, a playground and even a hot tub for fans on those warm summer nights. Salvi says he hopes those features and more promotions, if not the tasty hotdogs and nachos, will get more fans to Railcats games.

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