ALLENTOWN – As I put down my camera and walked around to experience the event that is the Triple-A All-Star game, I could not imagine a greater moment than the spectacle before me at Coca Cola Park.
Then, it all changed. As the eighth inning wound down I found myself face to face with a baseball legend in Branch Rickey.
No, I am not talking about the late baseball legend associated with Jackie Robinson being the first African American in Major League Baseball. That would take super natural powers.
This Branch Rickey is the President of the Pacific Coast League and the grandson of the more famous and revered name holder.
"It wasn't always that way," Rickey said about his name, referring to the racial tension associated with Robinson's entrance into the majors.
The Rickey name has been in professional baseball since 1905 and all Rickey has done is continue the family trade.
After a brief career with the St. Louis Browns and the New York Highlanders, the elder Rickey moved into the front office. He managed the Browns and the St. Louis Cardinals before becoming a full time General Manager. As a GM he started what is now known as baseball's 'farm system' – the minor leagues. His father was the Farm Director for the Dodgers and the Pirates.
At the age of 17, this Rickey got his start as the business manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates rookie league team at Kingsport in 1963. After college and a stint in the Peace Corps, he spent a lot of time in player development with the Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Cincinnati Reds.
"I used to think that player development was the 'cat's meow," Rickey said. "I find more pleasure in seeing families out at a game. How can you go wrong?
As the President of the Pacific Coast League, Rickey has tried to do what he can to make the ballpark as fan friendly and a great experience for all.
"What we are trying to do is upgrade our facilities to create family affordable entertainment," Rickey said.
So far, the efforts of Rickey as well as many others have been successful. Once again, the attendance at minor league games has risen. The latest figures place total minor league baseball attendance to be nearly 1 million more fans than last season's record pace.
International League's prized jewel, Coca-Cola Park, have drawn more fans than any other park. The Pacific Coast League has the new Reno Aces Ball park that draws comparisons to the IL counterpart.
"What adjectives can I say that haven't already have been used," Rickey said of Coca Cola Park. "When you have seen as much baseball as I have, this is always good."
"This" meaning the energy and excitement that has been created in the Lehigh Valley attraction. Like his grandfather, who looked to improve the game through starting the minor league system to introducing the protective helmet, to new ways to teach and train ball players, Rickey is looking for ways to increase popularity among fans and grow the game to greater heights.
"If you can get them out to the ball park you can create more baseball fans," Rickey said.
While talking to Rickey, part of me was a student to history while part was a giddy fan as he was gracious in sharing quite a few stories about his grandfather and Jackie Robinson. In my twenty minute conversation with Branch Rickey, It was impossible to distinguish the difference between the legend from the history books at school to the man standing before me.
Both are great men who love the game of baseball and spent their life trying to do nothing more than to improve the game and share that love with anyone that comes to the ballpark.