Triple-A is the only MiLB level to hold a “National Championship” game, pitting the International League winner against the Pacific Coast League champ.
The championship has gone through various iterations in the past, but is currently a one-game deal at a site chosen well before the season starts.
This year’s game was held at PNC Field in Moosic, PA, home of the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Railriders, about 3 hours from me. I knew a special ball would be used for the game, so it was an easy decision to take the afternoon off and make the trip.
My luck started a few days before the actual game when the Durham Bulls beat the Railriders for the International League title.
Had the Railriders won, I am sure 10,000-seat PNC Field would have been a mad house. It was still fairly crowded even without them, as Triple-A made this single game championship into an event with “celebrities” such as Reggie Jackson, Allen Iverson and Bucky Dent in attendance.
I got to the stadium about an hour before gates were to open at 5:30pm. One of the first things I saw was Allen Iverson showing up and entering away from the crowd.
In the picture above, Iverson is dressed all in black, between the police officers. The guy in the red shirt tried to approach him to either meet him or get his autograph, but was quickly moved back by one of the police officers.
I was the first one in line to get into the stadium. This was my view.
I had done some research and found out that it was unlikely that the National Championship ball would be used during BP/before-the-game warm-ups.
When I got into the stadium, the Memphis Redbirds (Cardinals’ affiliate) was still taking BP. A father-son got a toss-up, and I asked them to see the ball. It was a fairly beat up International League ball as I had expected. I didn’t try very hard for a ball, nor did one come near me. The Redbirds only hit for a short period of time while I was in the stadium.
With the Railriders not playing, there was a nice crowd, but the stadium was nowhere near full, as you can see in this 1st inning picture I took.
I was able to move around easily, and even get down near the dugouts.
When the Durham Bulls (Tampa affiliate) took the field in the top of the 1st, I decided to try for the warm-up ball, hoping to get a National Championship ball right away, but also knowing they might not be using National Championship balls for infield warm-ups.
I got Durham bench coach Ozzie Timmons to toss me the ball, but it was an International League ball. I gave it to the nearest little kid.
I had no luck the next few innings, but noticed the Memphis bat boy gave a couple balls away. So I headed over there in the 5th inning. The bat boy shot down my initial request, but I stayed there.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Two kids, maybe 9 years old, saw me try to get a ball and then came up and said they could get me a ball. I had brought 2 Atlantic League 20th balls, and told them I’d give them each a ball if they could get me one. They disappeared. One showed up an inning later and asked if the other had given me a ball yet. I said no. The next inning, they both come back and go to the Memphis bat boy, and they clearly knew him (I guess he was a local just wearing the Redbird uniform). They asked him for a ball, and he gave them one. They in turn gave it to me and I gave them the two Atlantic League balls, so everyone was happy.
The next inning, all the kids — the ones I had traded with and 2 others — had cleared out of the area. The ball boy had given away at least two or three more balls to adults in the 1st row. So I asked him again, not knowing if he knew the kids had traded me. I guess he didn’t, because he gave me one!
This is where I was able to get 2 Championship balls
In the game itself, Durham overcame 2-0 and 3-1 deficits with a Kean Wong grand slam to make it 5-3. That would be the final score as the Bulls took the title.
I was in perfect position for an umpire ball, and the only one asking, but the umpire shook his head no. I then asked for the lineup cards and he shook me off on that, too.
I tried to get the Memphis lineup card, but was told the manager had ripped it up. It wouldn’t have been the first ripped lineup card I got, but no one was going to help me try and get the pieces, so I gave up on
So I headed over to the Durham dugout for its celebration. I tried to get a hat, and a couple were given away, but not to me. I asked for the lineup card but as expected I got ignored. I did get the cork from one of the champagne bottles, though. I didn’t ask for it. A police officer on the field motion to me to come toward him at one point, and he gave me the cork. I wasn’t going to say no.
All in all, it worked out pretty well!