Living in an area with a Major League team I didn't get a chance to see any form of minor league baseball for a long while. There were times we would pass by minor league parks on vacation but they were never playing games the days we were visiting. I remember being roughly 16 and one trip getting to see where the Savannah Sand Gnats and Charleston River Dogs played and being mesmerized. It was the same field size as the majors but in something smaller in scale than an average Texas high school football stadium. These minor league parks had a character that appealed to me in a way that I couldn't describe then and even know I don't quite know why I like them as much as I do (much like my love of baseball).
I didn't get to see an actual minor league game until I was 22 and it was with the independent Fort Worth Cats at the rebuilt LaGrave Field. The Cats were a franchise with a long and storied history with players such as Rogers Hornsby, Duke Snider, & Maury Wills wearing their uniform and in the 1920's the Cats had a Texas League dynasty with many people of the day proclaiming them the equivalent or better of most Major League teams (definitely expect more stories on the Cats from me in the future and a SABR Bio on Jake Atz due some point this spring). And while the team has floated in and out of various independent leagues the past decade, it's hard to beat the view of the Trinity River and Ft Worth skyline you get sitting on the 3rd Base side of LaGrave Field and I have seen dozens of good baseball games.
Over the years I saw a few players from my youth playing a few more years at a pro level before retiring, like former Ranger Jose Guzman pitching a 1-hitter in his last pro appearance ever. However, in the mid part of the decade the Cats developed a reputation of signing players that were drafted but failed to sign with the team that drafted them. I saw Luke Hochevar go from pitching on the LaGrave Field mound against teams with names like the Saltdogs, Airhogs, and Canaries to getting drafted first overall by the Kansas City Royals in the 2006 MLB draft. The following season the highly touted but still unsigned Arizona Diamondback draft pick Max Scherzer began the year in Fort Worth's north side.
I caught his first appearance and it was a spectacle like I had never before seen at a game. The bleachers were full of the sorts of people that you normally do not see at independent level games and with who knows how many dozens of scouts sitting in the area behind the plate. Even with my untrained eye, it was obvious there was something different about Scherzer. A higher level of talent that was evident, something he was doing right that few others could match. I talked to 2 scouts from the Mariners and they quit taking notes halfway through the 1st inning because they had seen enough to know that if he was available to take him no matter what. As a professional courtesy I will not tell you if they spent the remaining 8 innings drinking Rahr & Sons beers on the concourse. Scherzer pitched 3 games total for the Cats and in 16 innings he 1.5 strikeouts per inning and only allowed 1 earned run. He soon signed with the Diamondbacks for over $4 million shortly before the MLB draft. The talent Scherzer displayed on the mound only a long throw from the Trinity River Levee last year has continued dazzling scouts and fans. Last year, in his 6th Major League season, Scherzer had one of the most dominant seasons in years, going 21 -3 for the Detroit Tigers with 240 strikeouts. He ran away with the American League Cy Young votes, garnering 28 of the 30 first place votes.
An excellent NY Times article on Scherzer and the Scott Boras/Ft Worth Cats relationship.
One of my favorite books: When Panthers Roared: The Fort Worth Cats and Minor League Baseball by Jeff Guinn and Bobby Bragan