It was the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Fresno Grizzlies were losing 6-5 to the Sacramento River Cats, their Central Valley rivals in the triple A Pacific Coast League. Neither team had scored in a couple of innings, and the Grizzlies were coming up for their last at-bats.
As Grizzlies outfielder Bryan Horwitz stepped to the plate, Parker, the Grizzlies' outsized yellow and green mascot, climbed on top of the home team dugout. Facing the stands and with a painted toilet seat in hand, Parker started the rhythm for a rally chant -- clack, clack, clack-clack-clack, over and over again, slamming the lid on the seat like a massive castanet.
What, I thought, they couldn't afford a monkey?
This is part of the charm of minor league baseball. It knows that a game lies at the heart of the business and that a little self-mockery can go a long way. Where the majors have their rally monkeys and rally towels and rally caps, here in the minors it's a rally toilet seat, sophomoric symbolism be damned.
And it makes for a fun little road trip.
Ticket prices for professional sports events long ago slipped from the realm of everyman affordability. Parking alone can dent the evening's budget, which gives rise to yet another of the many charms of triple A baseball: It's budget-friendly in these tough financial times.
In a system that dates back more than a century, minor league teams are the top feeders to the majors, and triple A is the final stop for players before the bigs. No better baseball is played than in the major leagues. But triple A offers a subtle sense of drama, the teams filled with players competing for a chance at "the show" -- getting called up to the marquee teams -- and former major leaguers holding on for a few more seasons and another shot. So the game is played with a hunger different from that of the majors.
My wife, Margaret, and I traveled recently from our home in Irvine to San Francisco and then Fresno, in part to visit the San Francisco Giants' ballpark, generally considered among the best of the new generation of major league stadiums, and then to take in a triple A game in Fresno, home to the Giants' top farm team, which plays at Chukchansi Park, an intimate ballpark at the edge of downtown.
Whereas San Francisco's ballpark is a great addition to a city overflowing with interesting sites, Chukchansi Park is the anchor gem in a city with few to offer. Yes, Fresno is the hometown of writer William Saroyan (plaques adorn buildings where he spent moments of his life) and Baldassare Forestiere's Underground Gardens, but many tourists hit Fresno only as a stop on the way to Yosemite, several hours to the east.
We could have entertained a whole row at Chukchansi Park for what we spent in San Francisco. Our outlay for the evening at the Giants' ballpark was about $150, including the seats ($48 each), a couple of beers (nearly $9 each) and a bag of peanuts -- and we still had to find a place for dinner afterward.
Our prime Fresno Grizzlies seats were $16 each, six rows behind the visitors' dugout near third base, and close enough to eavesdrop on the players on the field. Granted, the view over the outfield wall wasn't as nice -- Luftenburg's Bridal shop anchoring the downtown Fulton Mall. But there are two hotels -- a Radisson, where we stayed, and a Holiday Inn -- within walking distance.
As luck had it, our visit was on a Thursday -- Thirsty Thursday, to be precise, part of an occasional promotion in which a 12-ounce draft Tecate beer, usually $5.50, sells for $1 through the fifth inning. The stadium's terrace, behind the seats edging left field, turned into a twentysomethings' singles mixer.
But it's the minor leagues' relaxed atmosphere that make the games so enjoyable. At the Giants', Dodgers' and Angels' stadiums, the noise can overwhelm, with rock-concert volume for between-batter songs, endless streams of vendors hollering and blocking the view, and the incessant scurrying of 40,000 or more fans.
At Chukchansi Park, the game we attended drew about 6,500 fans, and while they cheered the home team and jeered the visitors, even the heckling was more a display of comedic one-upmanship than heartfelt jeering.
Recent law school graduate Ryan McMath acknowledged he's not much of a Grizzlies fan and hadn't looked at the standings all season. That's just as well: The Grizzlies were in third place in their four-team division. And that, McMath said, reinforces why he was there. He just likes to go to the ballpark with friends, have a couple of beers and a hot dog and heckle.
He prefers minor-league games to the majors, he said, because of the cost and the low-key atmosphere. "It's about getting out and having fun as opposed to [who wins] the game."
And in Fresno, where summer afternoon temperatures often hit triple digits, a cold beer in the cooling night breeze -- and a well-timed insult tossed in defense of the home team -- can put a pleasant cap on the day.
"This," McMath said, no self-mockery intended, "may be the best part of summer nights in Fresno."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
If you go
Fresno Grizzlies,Chukchansi Park, 1800 Tulare St.; www.fresnogrizzlies.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Radisson Hotel & Conference Center, 2233 Ventura St.; (559) 268-1000, www.fresnoconferencehotel.com
Holiday Inn Fresno Downtown, 1055 Van Ness Ave.; (559) 233-6650, www.holidayinnfresno.com.
WHERE TO EAT
There are a handful of small eateries near the ballpark, including the newer sports bar, Hero's Sports Lounge & Pizza Co., 820 Van Ness; (559) 233-8866. But you know you're going to be stuffing yourself with hot dogs at the stadium.