I received a refresher course on why America’s pastime is such a thrill April 24. Seated three rows behind home plate, I witnessed raw talent, an excited crowd, a dynamic atmosphere and unharnessed emotion spewing from the athletes on the field.
Located in the heart of downtown Dayton, Ohio, is a minor league Class A baseball organization – the Dayton Dragons – that has taken advantage of one of the most successful formulas a sports team could ever discover: passionate fans who love their team and a roster full of MLB hopefuls who do nothing but play hard and play to win. For the past six years, Dragon diehards have packed the beautiful baseball venue.
Walking up to the stadium, however, the naked eye might not allow the brain to immediately buy into the hometown purity of this supposed Single-A team. The team plays at a red brick baseball shrine called Fifth-Third Field. One might become somewhat skeptical as to how down-to-earth this team really is.
But between an electric guitar version of the national anthem, baby cams on the video board, mini-dugout girls dancing on the dugouts and a caped hero named “Roofman” throwing plush baseballs from atop the stadium’s structure, there truly is something for everyone and the small-town atmosphere comes to life.
Cougar catcher Raul Padron becomes the epitome of the league in the eight inning. With his team trailing 7-4, a foul ball is hit in the air behind him toward the Dragon dugout. Violently flipping his catcher’s mask to the ground, Padron makes a beeline to the spot he hopes the baseball will land. Not taking the time to view his surroundings, however, Padron has an unfriendly meeting with the fence, a chair and part of the rail extending from the dugout.
He’s down and hurt. The trainers tend to a crouching Padron. He’s clearly shaken and is asked to come out. But for Padron, there is no time for the disabled list. He knows that catchers like himself are a dime a dozen, so it is imperative that he show his toughness and remain in the game. He does just that.
Four outs later, Padron’s Cougar team suffers its third-straight defeat. But there are no tears or dramatic moments. Instead, the Cougars’ collect their things and their minds shift to Grand Rapids, Mich. – the site of their next series.
While a six-hour bus excursion with aching knees and sore arms isn’t glamorous, the players will tell you they’re just happy to be a part of the nation’s most enjoyable game.