GREENSBORO, N.C.—Greensboro Grasshoppers (South Atlantic) president and general manager Donald Moore still remembers the first baseball game he attended as a child. It was right here in Greensboro, back when the team was called the Yankees and before it moved into its modern new park on Bellemeade Street.
He was 6 or 7 years old, accompanied by his father, his brother and sister to the old Memorial Stadium. Future Yankees righthander and author Jim Bouton was on the team, as were a handful of other future major leaguers. The outcome wasn't memorable, but the experience has stuck with Moore through the ensuing decades.
Since taking over the reins of the Greensboro franchise in 2001, Moore has set aside a pair of days each year to give local children a chance to spend a game watching the Grasshoppers. That's not unique; kid days are a staple of every minor league team. But Moore and Greensboro take it one step further by making those crowds almost exclusively children.
All tickets for those games are donated to local elementary schools, with none made available to the public. About the only adults in the stands that day are Hoppers staff, chaperones, scouts and reporters. Other than those exceptions, First National Bank Field is a kids' haven for two days a season.
"The way I look at it," Moore said, "every child remembers their first baseball game. For a lot of these kids and the background that they come from, they've never been to a game and they've never had an opportunity to go to a game. To me, it's a very small gesture that we can make to let a kid come to enjoy baseball. And who knows, they may fall in love with it and become a baseball player."
As it happened, this year both of these special days fell on the same homestand. The first game was on a Wednesday against Lexington, and the sequel was played the next Monday against Rome.
More than 100 buses filled with second-graders started filling the stadium's parking lots and surrounding areas well before the game's 10:45 a.m. start time and continued until all of the roughly 5,600 children were in the stands.
The stadium operators feted the crowd with a medley of kid favorites. From "Spongebob SquarePants" clips to dance instructions from Silento and Psy, the stadium sounds were specially formulated to entertain for nine innings.
Free for All
The previous kids' day this year welcomed sixth-graders, which kept with the same tradition Moore and the Grasshoppers have followed since they first tried the promotion in 2001. Moore doesn't remember why he chose those two age groups, but he does notice differences in the respective crowds.
"Second-graders, they're so little that they do everything together as a class," Moore said. "Sixth-graders are much more mobile and much more independent."
And even though all the tickets for the games are donated to the schools and the classes are allowed to bring food and drink to the park (normally prohibited), the days aren't total losses at the till for the Grasshoppers, especially when the older children fill the park.
"We actually do pretty well in the store and at the concessions for the sixth-graders," Moore said.
After 16 years of putting together these games, Moore and his staff have gathered lots of memories, though one game in particular stands out.
"We were playing Hickory and Hickory was killing us. Hickory had a lot of big leaguers on that team," he said. "It was 19-8 or something, and one of our position players ended up coming in and pitching the last two innings. The game obviously took forever and was really lopsided, but it was a star-studded game and a terribly long game. So that game stands out."
It's The Experience
Children at baseball games obviously isn't a unique phenomenon. When the equation is changed and the crowd is almost nothing but children, however, things are different. For one, it's very loud.
Whether it's chanting for free biscuits, singing along to their favorite songs or just screaming with the joy of being out of school for a few hours, the decibel level in the stands is high from the first pitch to the last.
The result of the game is also the least important thing going in the stadium. The kids seem genuinely excited at every pitch and play, no matter if it helps or hurts the home team. Every fly ball might be a home run. Every fastball is eye-popping. Every catch or throw is worthy of awe.
And on these days, far more attention than normal is paid to the between-innings activities because, at 8 years old, most of the kids haven't seen anything like them.
Seeing Greensboro bat dogs Miss Lou Gehrig and Master Yogi Berra do their jobs elicits thousands of cheers because, well, there's a dog on the field. The sausage races are nail-biters because there are giant boxes of sausage racing around the bases. And of course, watching their teachers try to put together giant hamburgers or fight each other in oversized sumo-wrestling outfits is something that they just won't get to see during a normal school day.
And that's the ticket for Moore and his staff. The two days a year when First National Bank Field transforms from a normal ballpark into a student play land isn't about whether the team won or lost or how many peanuts and Cracker Jack were sold. It's about giving the youngest generation their first look at the national pastime.
"It's about exposing them to something they'll remember," Moore said, "that they otherwise wouldn't be able to enjoy."