Last summer, when I greeted the 2- to 5-year-olds who came to the camp where I have worked each summer for the last eight years, I noticed that a number of them were wearing Baltimore Orioles paraphernalia. I am from Baltimore, so this shouldn't be that surprising, except that children in Baltimore start playing lacrosse around the age of 4. Most of these children will never play baseball because their parents will use lacrosse as a way to send them to good colleges on partial or full scholarships.
So why do they wear Orioles shirts when their future is in lacrosse? Major League Lacrosse is a growing industry, but the campers told me they loved going to Orioles games with their parents.
One of them started rattling off the names of his favorite players. Another one said Miguel Tejada once hit a foul ball near him, and the man next to him caught it and gave it to him. For kids who will start playing lacrosse year-round by the age of 10, going to Orioles games offers them the chance to learn to love baseball, even if they don't play it themselves.
When I lived in Richmond, many of my classmates played soccer in the fall and spring, but we could appreciate baseball because we could watch the Richmond Braves play at The Diamond.
But after this season, the Braves will relocate to Gwinnett County, Ga. When I first heard this in mid-January, I realized I didn't remember much about the games I attended when I lived in Richmond from the ages of 6 to 11.
I decided I wanted to watch them play one last time and my friends and I bought tickets for last Friday's game against the Rochester Red Wings. I wasn't sure what to expect, but as I took in the excited atmosphere at The Diamond, I almost forgot that this was the last season the Braves would play there.
When we got to The Diamond, I looked around the stadium at the fans and noticed that of the 1,091 people at the game, most of them were parents who had brought their children.
Families have been going to see baseball games for decades and they will suffer most from the Braves' relocation. Overall attendance at minor league games has reached record numbers in each of the last four years, and it's unfortunate that families in Richmond will no longer have the chance to add to those numbers.
The Diamond, which seats 12,134, wasn't close to being filled on Friday night, but most of the audience seemed to be having a great time. Some teenage boys realized their voices would carry across the field because of the scarcity of fans, and they tried to distract Red Wings players by yelling when they were up to bat.
The lack of fans also set up an unusual situation when players hit foul balls. Each of us had a much better chance of catching one because we were the only four people in our row. But the boys at the game, like the boy I talked to at camp, were determined to bring home a game ball.
At one point, a boy who looked about 7 years old and a man who looked as if he were in his 50s both ran toward a foul ball. The man was either too slow or felt bad beating someone a fraction of his age, because we saw the boy grab the ball triumphantly and run back to his seat. Three boys, none of whom looked older than 10, raced each other for another foul ball. The boy who reached it first actually dove onto the concrete bleachers to get it.
After watching fans' enthusiasm, it's hard to understand why the team is leaving. But when I looked at "The Diamond timeline" on the Richmond Times-Dispatch Web site, it became clear that The Diamond was not quite the fun family environment it had been when I lived here.
In 2000, the appearance of rats in the visitors' dugout brought exterminators to The Diamond. In 2003, a piece of concrete fell off the roof into the stands, but no one was hurt. In August 2004, poor field drainage led some games to be relocated or postponed.
From the comments I've read from Michael Plant, the Braves' executive vice president, it seems that the team wasn't considering a move until the city failed to meet multiple deadlines for making plans for a new stadium.
In 2003, a plan to build a stadium downtown was officially canceled. Things started to look up in 2005 when The Diamond got a new playing surface and when the lease was extended until 2010 last year, but it was too little, too late.
Now, the Richmond Braves are playing this season before they head south to Georgia, and nights like the one I just described will become distant memories of a time when the Gwinnett Braves played in Richmond.
I can't blame the Braves for not wanting to wait another five years for Mayor Doug Wilder to move them to a better location, but I still wish the two sides could have figured something out. I love watching the Braves and particularly after last week's game, it's hard to accept that I can't continue that tradition in my last two years here.
Minor league teams don't draw as many fans to games as major league teams do, but baseball is still America's pastime and watching sports live is always so much more fun than watching them on television. The Richmond Kickers professional soccer club is just about the only team left to watch in person in Richmond, but even its fans are complaining about the conditions at the University of Richmond Stadium, just as Braves fans complained about The Diamond.
It doesn't make sense to me that Richmond teams have had to play in inadequate facilities. It helps the players to have a large crowd of people supporting them, and it's much harder to attract fans to watch three-hour games when the bleachers are uncomfortable, there's a rat infestation and the roof is falling apart.
Attending sporting events brings families together, provides role models for younger fans and instills in them a passion for sports that lasts for years, whether or not they start to play the sport themselves. It's fun for fans of all ages, and I hope Richmond city officials will find a way to bring another baseball team to Richmond in the near future.