Sitting at picnic table above the ballpark's left field wall, Susan Schaffer munched on sweet corn and a chocolate chip cookie. Her five boys stood along the fence hoping to catch a home run ball and cheering on the minor league's Toledo Mud Hens.
"The seats are cheap enough that it's one of the few activities we can do as a family without going broke," said Schaffer, of Toledo. "It's just a good time."
A building boom over the last decade has turned drab minor league ballparks into showplaces of America's pastime. Combining brick facades and architecture that blends the ballparks into their urban settings, they are far cry from their concrete and steel predecessors.
Many have the same fan-friendly features found in the major leagues without the high prices. And combined with nearby attractions, a trip to the ballpark can be part of a perfect getaway.
Oklahoma City's ballpark is the anchor of the town's entertainment district. Louisville Slugger Field in Kentucky is a short trolley ride from the bat maker's museum. And Brooklyn's KeySpan Park is steps from New York's famed Coney Island boardwalk.
"When it's done right, you can make a weekend out of it," said Charlie O'Reilly, of Rutherford, N.J., a baseball fan who has visited more than 300 ballparks.
Tickets at minor league parks average about $9 although food and drink prices are sometimes more in line with those at most major league games. A number of new parks have playgrounds or grassy areas where the kids can play if they get antsy.
Movies such as "Bull Durham" and the season-ending major league baseball strike in 1994 have helped renew interest in the minors, O'Reilly said. So have the new urban ballparks.
Among the best are those nestled into downtowns and close to other attractions.
Auto Zone Park in Memphis, Tenn., is steps from the renowned Peabody Hotel and two blocks from the music clubs on Beale Street. The ballpark serves up barbecue nachos with pulled pork from a nearby rib joint. The smell of grilling ribs sometimes makes it way into the seats, said Kyle Parkinson, a spokesman for the Memphis Redbirds.
AT&T Bricktown Ballpark, home of the Oklahoma Redhawks, sits next to a canal where visitors can ride a water taxi. There's also plenty of shopping, outdoor dining and nightclubs. "The whole neighborhood has become a destination," O'Reilly said.
Picnic at the game
Louisville Slugger Field is close to not only the baseball bat museum but also the Fourth Street Live entertainment district, featuring a comedy club, music clubs and a Hard Rock Cafe.
"People just pour over there after the game," said Louisville Bats spokesman Svend Jansen. "Most of the people who come here aren't coming to see the players. It's the attractions, the promotions."
Toledo's Fifth Third Field has picnic tables beyond the outfield and a view of the downtown skyline from most seats. The view surprises most out-of-towners, who don't expect to see skyscrapers in a midsize city, said Joe Napoli, general manager of the Mud Hens.
Next to the stadium is a new Tony Packo's restaurant that serves up Hungarian hot dogs made famous by Toledo native Jamie Farr on television's "M-A-S-H." The baseball-themed eatery has ballpark seats in its lobby.
Jeff Parthum, of Detroit, plans a two-day trip with his family to Toledo for a day at the ballpark and the zoo in late July. "My son is an absolute baseball nut," he said.
Two years ago, the team surveyed fans and found it had visitors from every state except Hawaii.
"You would be surprised at how many people actually do plan to see different ballparks on a driving vacation. I hear from them all year-round," said Joe Mock, who runs a Web site called http://www.baseballparks.com/ and has traveled to 42 parks just this year.
Among his favorites are The Dell Diamond in Round Rock, Texas; FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading, Pa.; Isotopes Park in Albuquerque, N.M.
He also was impressed with West End Field in Greenville, S.C., which opened this season. The ballpark is a mini-version of Boston's Fenway Park and is an anchor of the revitalized neighborhood now filled with art galleries and restaurants.
Some ballparks are worth visiting for the view alone.
All three minor league parks in Utah -- Salt Lake City, Ogden and Orem -- have stunning views of the Wasatch Mountains.
The Richmond County Bank Ballpark, home of the Staten Island Yankees, overlooks New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan. Getting there can be half the fun as it is near the Staten Island ferry.
The Atlantic Ocean and Coney Island are the backdrop at Brooklyn Cyclones games. Fans making a trip to the game can add a stop at Nathan's Famous for a hot dog or a ride on the Cyclone roller coaster. There's also the beach and the New York Aquarium.
"A lot of people make a full day of it," said Dave Campanaro, a spokesman for the team. "Everything is within walking distance."
Plus, the $14 seats behind home plate for weekend games are still cheaper than upper deck tickets at Yankee Stadium. Outfield bleacher seats are $7. "It's such an inexpensive way to have a great time even if you don't love baseball," Campanaro said.
If you go
Tickets: While tickets are almost always available on game days, a few of the most popular ballparks do sell out, especially on weekends. Call the team or order tickets in advance.
Tips: Arrive early and explore the neighborhood around the ballpark or take in batting practice. Get up and wander around. Many new ballparks have concourses that allow fans to walk around the entire stadium.
T-shirts and hats: Creative team names and logos have helped minor league merchandise sales boom in recent years, making for a unique souvenir.
Ballparks: To find a ballpark in your area, Minor League Baseball has a clickable map at http://www.minorleaguebaseball.com/app/milb/info/geographical.jsp.