What Major League organizations boast the top Minor League farm systems? It’s time to answer that familiar question in a new way.
Instead of considering the quality of the players in each team’s system, MLB.com’s Josh Jackson and Ben Hill utilized a different approach. Jackson and Hill, veteran Minor League scribes and enthusiastic ballpark travelers, got together to draft their top farm systems based on fan experience. Criteria included ballparks, team branding, promotions, in-game entertainment, concessions and mascots. In short, everything that makes Minor League Baseball such a unique and often idiosyncratic form of sporting entertainment.
What follows are each of Josh and Ben’s top five fan experience farm systems, taking into consideration the collective gameday quality of each Major League organization’s four Minor League affiliates. Josh chose first, Ben followed, and no repeat selections were allowed. Their choices are sure to inspire debate; hopefully they will also inspire fans to plan a Minor League Baseball road trip of their own.
Josh: My first pick, the No. 1 overall pick, is the Miami Marlins system. I’m thinking about Jacksonville, moving up to Triple-A and just a fun front office with a lot of fantastic promo ideas – which you well know, Ben.
Then you go to Double-A Pensacola. There’s another creative front office there, but for me, the biggest draw there is that ballpark with the incredible views of Pensacola Bay.
Beloit has a new ballpark opening this year. That’s hard to beat, and there’s been a lot of excitement there.
Jupiter, down in South Florida … think about a summer night in South Florida, and you’re watching some baseball with some Marlins fans and eating some soft serve, maybe drinking a cold beverage, and that’s pretty darn hard to beat, too. With those four teams, the Miami Marlins system is the one I’m going for out of the gate.
Ben: Excellent pick. The Marlins were among my top five as well, and now I’ll have to adjust. Meanwhile, I’ll start off by selecting off a farm system that is stacked with singular entities.
Ben: Minor League Baseball underwent a lot of changes entering 2021, and the Twins have a big one at the top. Their Triple-A team is now the nearby St. Paul Saints, who were established in 1993 as an anti-big league, anything-goes independent club. The Saints employ both a nun masseuse and live pig mascot, it all adds up to a truly zany atmosphere and one they’ve vowed not to change.
At Double-A the Twins have the Wichita Wind Surge, marking the return of Minor League Baseball to the state of Kansas after a 14-year absence. The Wind Surge, featuring sharp logos designed by Todd Radom, are playing at brand-new Riverfront Stadium. That facility is located at the same site as the city’s previous Minor League ballpark, Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
The High-A Cedar Rapids Kernels, they’re a stalwart of the Midwest. You get to rub husks at the ballpark with corn mascot Mr. Shucks, perhaps the best vegetable mascot in the game. One of the Kernels’ concession specialties is the pork tenderloin sandwich; the pork is as big as your head and can not be encompassed by any reasonably sized bun.
Fort Myers, at Low-A, that team was long known as the Miracle but now they’re playing their first season as the Mighty Mussels. It’s exciting to see a team that prides itself on both a ripped physique and local aquaculture.
Josh: The Twins were on my list for many of those same reasons, and I’m especially excited to check out St. Paul and see how that affiliation with Minnesota grows and thrives.
Josh: To start Round 2 of our draft, I’m picking the Boston Red Sox organization. At the top, we’ve got a new ballpark for the WooSox in Worcester, Mass. That’s another front office that’s strong with a lot of years of Minor League experience coming into that new location with the team, and you’ve got rabid Red Sox fans. Every game, that’s going to be fun and lively because of the crowds.
The Portland Sea Dogs here in Portland, Maine, where I am right now – the same can be said for the fans here. You’ve also got Sea Dogs Biscuits, which is a great ice cream novelty and one of a few concession items I love at Hadlock Field.
There’s also the Maine Monster, Maine’s answer to the Green Monster.
And there’s another Minor League Green Monster down in Greenville, the next rung down, home of the Drive. And that ballpark — Fluor Field — is just all-around gorgeous.
In Salem, you don’t have a Green Monster replica, but you have a whole Fenway Park replica where kids can play. I can see myself getting caught up in that game more than the game on the big field, depending on how much fun kids are having there.
Ben: Don’t forget one of the best things about visiting the Salem Red Sox: Blue Ridge Mountain views! Speaking of mountains, I’m heading to the Mountain Time Zone for my second pick.
Ben: The Rockies’ system is comprised of a most interesting quartet. The Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes, they play at a ballpark where you can order green chiles on just about anything. The Isotopes’ team name is inspired by an episode of “The Simpsons,” and there are statues of Simpsons characters on the concourse.
The Rockies’ Double-A team, the Hartford Yard Goats, are a long way from Albuquerque. Hartford’s Dunkin’ Donut Park is one of the newer ballparks in Minor League Baseball, and it’s got a lot of interesting architectural quirks. You don’t realize how big it is until you step inside. And it’s Dunkin’ Donuts Park so, yeah: You can get donut bun burgers and other such sweet and savory concoctions.
At High-A, the Spokane Indians, who had long been one of the crown jewels of the Northwest League. The Indians are one of six teams from that circuit who now compete in the High-A West. The Indians have really interesting branding based around the local Spokane tribe, created in collaboration with them, and that extends to the signage at Avista Ballpark.
Finally, at Low-A, you’ll find a team that until this season had been at Triple-A: the Fresno Grizzlies. They were the first team to have a regional-food based alternate identity, the Tacos. The Grizzlies have always done a lot of really creative pop culture-based promos as well, whether it’s “Coming to America” or “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” And their mascot, Parker T. Bear, is an ordained minister who has conducted wedding ceremonies at the ballpark.
Josh: That was definitely a system high on my list. Love Albuquerque, and you and I have actually had some good times at Chukchansi Park in Fresno.
Josh: Opening Round 3, I’m going with the Los Angeles Angels. The Angels, of course, have a Triple-A affiliate in Salt Lake. I might not say this every single time you ask me, but I think that’s the best ballpark view in all of baseball — that view of the Wasatch Mountains from Smith’s Ballpark.
That alone, that would earn the Angels some attention in this draft, but then you go down a level and you’ve got the much-anticipated, much-ballyhooed, brand-new Rocket City Trash Pandas. If you think about how much fun they’re going to have to create at that ballpark to live up to that name and the wait for them to start playing ball, your head will probably explode.
And you’ve got another team jumping up to a full-season level, the Tri-City Dust Devils, home of your friend and one-time mentor Erik the Peanut Guy. And in extending their season by several weeks, you know they’re going to be turning up the volume in every aspect of operations.
In Low-A, there’s Inland Empire. It’s another great mountain-view ballpark with the San Bernardinos out beyond the left-field wall. I love all the former California League parks, and that’s probably my favorite one. But you’ve also got Bernie, the mascot, who’s a blast, and you’ve got fun fans and a great front office who come up with great promos, including playing as the California Burritos with a burrito-eating contest, one of the most fascinating and disgusting things I’ve ever seen in my life.
Ben: Josh, you’re a New England guy and, perhaps inevitably, you already picked the Red Sox. I grew up in the Philadelphia area, so maybe it’s no surprise who I’ve got with my third pick.
Ben: Yeah, I picked Philadelphia, but I can justify this one beyond hometown bias. The Phillies, top-to-bottom, have long had one of the most fun farm systems in baseball. The Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, a bacon-centric franchise, they feature creative concessions and creative promotions year after year. They’ve got an Aaron Nola “Karate Kid” bobblehead coming up [on Friday], if you’re looking for a recent example. Coca-Cola Ballpark is great, and being in Lehigh Valley the team’s fans are big fans of the Phillies as well.
Similarly, the Double-A Reading Fightin Phils, they’re in Berks County, Pa. FirstEnergy Stadium is 70 years old. It’s one of my favorite ballparks in the Minors. There’s a carnivalesque atmosphere on the concourse every night, part of a unique team culture that includes the Mascot Band — literally a band of mascots bashing out garage rock classics — and the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor. He’s a cult hero in Reading, riding his ostrich, Rodrigo, onto the field and throwing hot dogs into the crowd while screaming maniacally.
The Jersey Shore BlueClaws at High-A, they were previously known as the Lakewood BlueClaws. They are still based in Lakewood, N.J., but the Jersey Shore branding connects the team to the region’s classic boardwalk and beach experiences. They play at FirstEnergy Park, not to be confused with Reading’s similarly-named venue. There’s a miniature golf course on the concourse, boardwalk-style concessions and midway carnival games where you can win prizes.
Low-A Clearwater, the Threshers, they play at the Phillies’ Spring Training facility, BayCare Ballpark. The Threshers were one of the first teams in what was the Florida State League to create a unique identity away from the parent club and truly embrace a fun, Minor League atmosphere. Lots of tropical drinks and post-game concerts, and the Beach Dogs alternate identity is a dead ringer for Poochie. A surfing dog wearing sunglasses. Classic.
Josh: You know, I’ll be honest with you. I kind of left the Phillies alone because I suspected you’d take them. They are a legitimately strong organization for fan experience, top to bottom.
Josh: Round 4, I’m picking the Tampa Bay Rays. You’ve got the Durham Bulls at the top of the organization, and with the Bulls there’s a sense of history and they honor that history, but they’re also at the forefront of Minor League fun in a lot of ways. They marry those two things with the Tobacconists alternate identity, and they do a ton of pop-culture tie-ins and -themed promos. Ben, you can correct me on this one, but I believe they one of the major “Stars Wars” Night pioneers. They were also big leaders with “Stranger Things” Night. They played as the Lollygaggers in 2019 as an homage to the movie “Bull Durham.”
And moving down the system, with the Montgomery Biscuits, the logo alone is worth a trip to see that team’s home. But it’s also another waterfront stadium, and it’s got suites built into an old train terminal. That’s a special atmosphere, as far as I’m concerned.
Both High-A and Low-A affiliates in the Rays system are some of the most creative in the Minors. In Bowling Green, Ky., you’ve got a team that has a lot of fun in the Hot Rods — the whisky-based Bootleggers identity, Ben, you’ll remember well, and the Sinkholes identity of 2019 commemorated that time that the ground opened up and swallowed up a bunch of classic Corvettes.
In Charleston, you became the only person that Bill Murray knows. Beyond Bill Murray, the RiverDogs have a great front office with a lot of fun and crazy promos. My personal favorite, which I wish I’d been able to be there for, was Helen McGuckin Night, when a fan left a two-star review of their ballpark and the entirety of the text of the review said, “Just drove by,” and the RiverDogs commenced to try to get Helen to leave a more satisfactory review by dedicating a whole night to her.
Ben: The Rays, they would have been one of my picks as well. I did indeed attend one of the Bulls’ “Star Wars” promos, where they wore Han Solo jerseys and sold Yoda Soda and Vader-ade beverages on the concourse. And speaking of space-themed identities, it’s time for my fourth pick.
Ben: Like the Minnesota Twins and St. Paul Saints, the Astros have a new Triple-A affiliate in the form of a nearby, previously independent club. That would be the Sugar Land Skeeters, who have an insect-based identity and were perhaps previously best known for employing Tracy McGrady as a pitcher.
At Double-A the Astros have long been aligned with the Corpus Christi Hooks. Whataburger Field is a beautiful ballpark, architecturally unique and featuring beautiful views of the Harbor Bridge. The first Whataburger restaurant opened in Corpus Christi, so there’s a unique story there. The Hooks are now playing as the Honey Butter Chicken Biscuits on Wednesdays in honor of Whataburger’s famous breakfast sandwich.
Speaking of great ballparks, the High-A Asheville Tourists play at historic McCormick Field. It opened in 1924, a ballpark nestled into a woodsy area with hills rising up just beyond the outfield. They don’t do this anymore, but when I visited McCormick Field in 2013 I rode a zip line from beyond left field that dropped me off right at home plate. And McCormick Field is the original home of Thirsty Thursday, as the Tourists own the trademark to that term. The team offers lots of craft beer at the ballpark and sometimes plays games as the Beer City Tourists.
The Low-A Fayetteville Woodpeckers, their home of Segra Stadium opened in 2019. It’s nestled within a tight spot in downtown Fayetteville, N.C., a ballpark with a really tight footprint. There are train tracks running along two sides of the ballpark, and that really adds to the atmosphere. And the Woodpeckers serve Philly Cheesesteak Nachos, which were some of the best nachos I ever had at a Minor League ballpark.
Josh: Yeah, and you’re somebody from the Philly area who’s also a gluten-free eater, so I’d wager those nachos are kind of a revelation for you.
Josh: Here we have arrived at Round 5, the finale. For my last pick, I’m going to steal one right out of your backyard, Ben, and go with the Mets organization. We have a historic franchise in Triple-A, renamed the Syracuse Mets in 2019 to represent the tight tie-in with the parent club, which also owns the team now. And they sometimes play as the Salt Potatoes! I’ve never had a Syracuse salt potato; I’d like to try one and also perhaps buy a T-shirt or hat with a Salt Potatoes design on it. And they’ve also honored, for example, the Brannock Device. You think you don’t know what that is, but you do.
Binghamton, N.Y. — I mean, aren’t we all Rumble Ponies at heart? I did not know the fun fact I learned in your recent series, Ben, which is that in 2017 the Rumble Ponies did an homage to Binghamton native Rod Serling with “Twilight Zone” Night. It’s also less than an hour and a half drive from Cooperstown, so you could spend the day at the Hall of Fame and get there for a night game.
Brooklyn, obviously, is one of the most electric atmospheres in the Minors. It’s a huge market, and you’ve got passionate Mets fans as well as families and people of all ages and backgrounds just coming out to see baseball in Brooklyn. It’s an oceanfront stadium, but it’s not like you look out and there’s the ocean. Instead, you’ve got the namesake Cyclone and all the madness and fun of Coney Island.
St. Lucie, where the Mets have Spring Training, too… I have a distinct memory of my father-in-law eating the largest turkey leg I have ever seen in my entire life at a St. Lucie game. It’s a fun atmosphere but also feels intimate and focused on baseball. I believe that’s the last place that I did a guess-your-speed pitching game. I think I hit 58 mph and threw my arm out for a week.
Ben: Sadly — or perhaps mercifully — we’ve made it to my fifth and final pick. I’m going to close things out by heading back to the Midwest.
Ben: You just can’t go wrong with the Toledo Mud Hens, who are right up there with the Durham Bulls when it comes to the most iconic franchises in Minor League Baseball. Fifth Third Field is in the heart of downtown Toledo, Ohio, and the team owns some of the buildings surrounding it, resulting in a rollicking, sports-centric mini-neighborhood they call Hensville. Make sure to stop by Tony Packo’s before the game.
The Double-A Erie SeaWolves are nestled way up in Pennsylvania’s northwest corner. They have a really engaged front office staff that has worked diligently to improve UPMC Ballpark, getting it up to speed for a new era of Minor League Baseball. I can’t wait to see the newly-renovated Smith’s Sausage Shack.
At High-A, the West Michigan Whitecaps have long been innovators when it comes to concessions and promotions. It was actually the Whitecaps who staged the first “Star Wars” promotion in all of Minor League Baseball, which went on to become an industry standard. The Whitecaps have also consistently attracted national attention for a constantly-changing roster of food items. Standouts have included the massive Fifth Third Burger and the Baco, a taco with a bacon shell.
The Low-A Lakeland Flying Tigers have been affiliated with Detroit since 1966, tied with Reading for the longest active relationship between Minor League team and parent club. The Flying Tigers play at Joker Marchant Stadium, which is Detroit’s longtime Spring Training home. The ballpark, extensively renovated in recent years, is located where a WWII-era pilot training school had once been. Hence the team’s name of Flying Tigers.