On a recent night at Busch Stadium, 40,000 fans watched the Cardinals beat the Minnesota Twins. On the same evening at T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O'Fallon, Mo., 3,600 watched the Frontier League's River City Rascals lose to the Springfield (Ill.) Capitals. It's hard to say who had more fun.
The home of the Rascals is a cozy little ballpark with no bad seats-- imagine the best 5,000 seats at Busch Stadium, with the rest chopped away. The cheapest ticket at T.R. Hughes is on the lawn -- for $4, you can bring a chair or blanket and sit low behind the bullpen. The very best seat is just $8. Regardless of where you sit, the view is fantastic -- and the hotdogs cost just $2.
If it's minor-league baseball, there must be some sort of wacky promotion going on. Past gimmicks include professional wrestling at home plate, "Toilet-Paper the Park Night," a Harry Caray imitator, a cowbell giveaway, the "Salute to Duct Tape," fans jousting with padded pugil sticks and bed races. Sometimes the stadium and radio announcers climb atop the press box and dance to "Y.M.C.A." During a recent game, two fans endured a contest in which they spun in circles until they were dizzy and then raced to a finish line. One of them was so disoriented, he sprinted into the Rascals dugout and had to be redirected by the players.
At a recent bobble-head-doll giveaway, team management discovered too late that the dolls bore the moniker "River City Bascals" and that nearly all of their little ceramic bats had broken during their journey from a Chinese factory. "We were prepared for it," says Rascals general manager Pat Daly. "That's why we had the guy there with the Super Glue to fix them."
On the same night, it became evident that there was no phone link between the dugout and the bullpen. When a series of hand gestures between Rascal players failed, one of them just gave up and trotted across the field.
This is the sort of low-budget charm that wins fans who are pleasantly surprised by "Baseball From Another Era," to quote the Rascals' promotional tagline. The fact that the ratio of foul balls to customers is much higher than that of the big leagues doesn't hurt, either.
After that well-attended Cardinals victory over the Twins, a huge throng of people, many of them inebriated morons, slowly moved toward the pedestrian bridges stretching from the stadium to the overpriced parking garages. As their cars inched down the corkscrews of the garages to freedom, half of the fans gleefully honked their horns for a full 45 minutes; the other half endured headaches and wished they were anywhere else.
On the same night, when the Rascals eventually lost to the Capitals, the PA system at T.R. Hughes played Frank Sinatra's rendition of "That's Life." A smaller, calmer crowd walked across a pedestrian bridge to a large, free parking lot. They had a bit of traffic to contend with, but after 10 minutes at most, they drove away. Baseball from another era, indeed.