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League leaders
The Red Sox may be the main attraction, but when it comes to minor-league baseball, New England is spoiled for choice
BY MIKE MILIARD


WORKING A FEW blocks from Fenway Park has its benefits. Or it used to, at least. Several years back, during the halcyon Jimy Williams era, when Nomah was still our do-no-wrong shortstop and Troy O’Leary, Brian Daubach, and Jose Offerman were batting several points above their weight, my co-workers and I would just stroll up to the ticket window after work, pick up some $15 standing-room tickets for that evening’s game, and then spend the rest of our money on beer.

But those days are long, long gone. Getting into a Red Sox game is nowhere near as easy as it once was. Winning a world championship is a double-edged sword; it’s an experience neither I nor anyone I know would trade for the world, of course, but an achievement like that tends to increase interest in a ball club. And it’s tough fitting all those new fans into a thimble-size park like Fenway. These days, if you haven’t bought tickets months in advance and aren’t willing to shell out beaucoup bucks to scalpers and ticket agencies, best of luck getting into a game. If you don’t want to get stuck behind a steel pole in the right-field grandstand or sit by yourself five sections away from your date, it’s probably not gonna happen. But that’s okay! The six New England states that make up the heart and soul of Red Sox Nation play host to more than a dozen minor-league teams — three of them directly affiliated with the Red Sox themselves — that offer as much great baseball at a fraction of the cost.

INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE (AAA)

Pawtucket Red Sox (www.pawsox.com)

McCoy Stadium, Ben Mondor Way, Pawtucket, Rhode Island; (401) 724-7300

The Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate since 1973, our beloved PawSox are the gold standard for minor-league baseball in New England, and the next-best thing to the big club. Indeed, with many players (Kevin Youkilis, Lenny DiNardo, Mark Malaska) bouncing back and forth between Lil’ Rhody and the Fens over the course of the summer, the team offers the chance to see major-league talent up-close and cheap, all just an hour’s drive from home. And the 10,000-plus-capacity McCoy Stadium, the oldest in Triple-A — it was built in 1942 and renovated six years ago — is a gem: old-fashioned, but outfitted with modern amenities. It was there, of course, that the longest professional-baseball game in history was slugged out in 1981, with the PawSox finally defeating the Rochester Red Wings after 33 grueling innings of play that spanned eight hours over two days. Pawtucket had 114 at-bats in its eventual 3-2 win, and future superstar Cal Ripken, playing for the Red Wings, had an eye-popping 15 plate appearances. Future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs was there, too, as were soon-to-be Red Sox Bruce Hurst and Rich Gedman (the three would play together in the World Series just five years later). "I remember striking out Cal Ripken on a three-and-two breaking ball at four o’clock in the morning," Hurst once said, "and I don’t think he ever forgave me." Pawtucket’s ticket prices are a good deal less dear than Fenway’s. But let’s just say that if you happen to find yourself sitting through another game like that, you’ll really be getting your money’s worth.

EASTERN LEAGUE (AA)

Portland Sea Dogs (www.seadogs.com)

Hadlock Field, 271 Park Avenue, Portland, Maine; (800) 936-3647

When it was announced in 2003 that the Portland Sea Dogs would join the Red Sox farm system, there was much rejoicing in the Pine Tree State. Securing the affiliation was a stroke of genius for Red Sox ownership (who have evinced quite a knack for strokes of genius). Since their creation in 1994 — bringing baseball back to a state that dearly missed its late, lamented Maine Guides — the Sea Dogs had been affiliated with the Florida Marlins, a relationship that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. (At one point or another, current Sox players Kevin Youkilis, Kevin Millar, and Edgar Renteria have played in Portland.) This brings it all back home, ensuring that the three primary Red Sox farm teams are within a two-hour drive of the big club, and that folks in Maine, the northern outpost of Red Sox Nation, can root for their own. And there’s something to root for. The Sea Dogs have made a splash so far this season, starting with a scorching 10-0 record, and as of press time they remained in first place in the Eastern League’s Northern Division. A lot of that success has to do with crackerjack prospects like infielders Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia, and pitchers Jon Papelbon and Jon Lester. Get there soon, because a lot of these guys will be in Pawtucket — maybe even Fenway? — before too long. The Sea Dogs will be hosting the 2005 Eastern League All-Star Game at Hadlock Field on July 13. But be prepared to pay scalpers’ prices if you want to attend; as is the case with nearly every game played by the Dogs’ big brothers in Boston, it’s completely sold out.

New Britain Rock Cats (www.rockcats.com)

New Britain Stadium, 230 John Karbonic Way, New Britain, Connecticut; (860) 224-8383

What is a rock cat? Not quite sure. What is a Rock Cat? He is a baseball player, on the roster for the best damn baseball team in New Britain, Connecticut. The Rock Cats are the farm team for the Minnesota Twins, but their Red Sox connections run deep. Smack-dab in the middle of the Nutmeg State, on the fault line of Sox-Yanks fandom, the squad — dating back to its earlier incarnation as the Bristol Red Sox — was the Olde Towne Teame’s Double-A affiliate from 1973 until 1995. And if you’ve been to Red Sox spring training in Fort Myers more recently, you might recognize some of today’s players from the six games the Sox play down there against their cross-town rivals, the Twins. Over its three-decade-plus existence, the team has counted future Sox like David Ortiz, Doug Mientkiewicz, Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, and Ellis Burks among its ranks, and recent years have seen Twins bashers including Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, and Jacque Jones on the Rock Cats’ roster. Which future superstar will take the field when you’re there?

New Hampshire Fisher Cats (www.nhfishercats.com)

Fisher Cat Ballpark, 1 Line Drive, Manchester, New Hampshire; (603) 641-2005

The Fisher Cats recently kicked off their second season, playing in a spanking-new, state-of-the-art stadium on the banks of the Merrimack River: the sensibly named Fisher Cat Ballpark. The double-A affiliate for the Toronto Blue Jays, the Fisher Cats were formerly known as the New Haven Ravens. Last year, the first of their present incarnation, the team won the Eastern League championship. So they’re good. Other than that, I can’t claim to know a whole lot about their line-up or their rotation. I will say, though, that with a roster including names like Bubbie Buzachero, Lee Gronkiewicz, Jamie Vermilyea, and Vito Chiaravalloti, the poor sap who stitches the surnames on the back of their uniforms has his work cut out for him. (Bring your wide-angle binoculars when you come to the game.) Tickets are cheap, and if you take advantage of the team’s "Hot Diggity Dog Packs" — from $7.50 for the bleachers to $15.50 for premium box seats — you get a hot dog, chips, and soda included in the price of your ticket. They’re not Fenway Franks, but man-oh-man, what a deal!

Norwich Navigators (www.gators.com)

Dodd Memorial Stadium, 14 Stott Avenue, Norwich, Connecticut; (860) 887-7962

Affiliated with the San Francisco Giants, the ’Gators are far, far away from their parent club. But that’s okay. Not only does it make them stronger and more independent-minded than your usual minor-league team, but it’s better than in the old days. Prior to 2003, the Navigators were the Double-A farm team for — gulp! — the New York Yankees. The team might be playing under-.500 ball at the moment, but no one can say they don’t know how to show the fans a good time. The 6270-seat Dodd Stadium regularly hosts post-game fireworks displays. Furthermore, while the Red Sox may be inviting the Stones to their house this summer, the Navigators will be hosting a couple of music legends of their own, as Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson plan to drop by Dodd on June 21.

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Issue Date: June 10 - 16, 2005
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