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On Replicas, Borrowed Heritage, and Minor League Baseball

Minor League Baseball (or MiLB for short) could rightly be considered a American heritage institution.  Although it would appear that football is America’s passion, baseball remains a pastime – and, perhaps, no where is this more apparent than at the minor league level.

If you are not familiar with affiliated minor league baseball, this may offer a short primer.  Basically, each major league (or MLB) team has a large system of developmental teams at different levels – from Rookie and “A” leagues (essentially, recently drafted teenagers who are a long ways from making a major league roster – if at all) through to Triple A leagues (the proverbial “one step away” from the big leagues).  However, as this list shows, MiLB has a presence in virtually every part of the US.  Where I live in South Carolina, there are a half dozen MiLB teams of various levels and affiliations within a three hour drive of my front door – and, I would suspect, this is a typical proximity for many people in the US.

The thing about attending an MiLB game is, strangely, going to a game is only partially about watching the game itself.  Sure, you hope the home team wins and “if they lose it’s a shame,” and die-hard fans of the team want to see “tomorrow’s superstars today” etc., but it really is more about having a beer, hot dog, and ice cream, having the kids chase foul balls, and seeing some of the truly inventive promotions for which MiLB is famous. Tickets are normally very inexpensive (even Triple A tickets are often no more than $15) and stadiums are normally small, so almost all tickets are close to the action (depending on the league, location and calibre of play, many MiLB stadiums seat fewer than 5,000 spectators).

This past Saturday, my family and I went to see a Greenville Drive baseball game.  We go to probably about a half-dozen games in Greenville each year, and sometimes sprinkle in some visits to other regional teams – such as the Asheville Tourists – throughout the summer.  As per usual, our visit included a trip to the in-stadium kids play park for our son, a line-up for a balloon animal (the promotion that night was the team mascot’s birthday – so there was balloon animal makers, face painting, cupcakes, etc), the obligatory beer for dad and ice cream for mom and son  – and, we even watched a little bit of baseball!  But, these elements are traditional – if not expected – at MiLB games, so not seeing much of the game was, in fact, part of the event.

One of the additional selling features of Greenville games are that they are affiliated with the Boston Red Sox  – one of the oldest (and perhaps most heritage-laden) franchises in American sport – and, as such, much of the game “experience” attempts to replicate (albeit on a small, and more self-conscious scale) what a game would be like in Boston.  For example, in Greenville they sing the Neil Diamond song “Sweet Caroline” – just as they do in Boston. The stadium itself, Fluor Field, is even a quasi-replica of Boston’s Fenway Park – right down to the “Green Monster” in left field, the “Pesky Pole” in right field, and the manual (rather than electronic) scoreboard. More than just being a retro baseball stadium – of which there are many in the US – going to a Greenville Drive game is meant to be “like” going to Fenway, along with all the traditions, rituals, and heritage markers.

Recently, an article of mine was published that discussed the idea of borrowed heritage, specifically arguing that some sport locations have to “borrow” heritage markers from elsewhere until such time that they can develop their own stable, recognizable, and (perhaps) commodifiable heritage. Thing is, Greenville has a long  and recognizable baseball heritage.  The city and region were one of the hotbeds of baseball’s textile leagues (known as the “Mill Leagues” where textile mill teams played one another, often on Sunday afternoons).  In fact, the home of one of the most well known players in baseball history – “Shoeless Joe Jackson” – is right across the street from Fluor Field and is now a privately operated museum (though, unaffiliated with the Drive baseball team).  There are a few photos of mill league teams and players, as well as ol’ Shoeless himself, at Fluor Field, but much of this heritage is largely ignored.  Ultimately, it would seem that the baseball heritage imported from Boston is more salient – and marketable – than the homegrown variety.

PS – There are some really interesting chapters/articles about Fenway Park’s relationship to heritage, tourism, and sport management here and here.