This month we’re profiling Minor League Baseball fans across the country. These fans go to impressive lengths to show their love of the game in creative ways, staying connected to their favorite teams even when the action on the field is on hold. Do you think you can stake your claim as “MiLB’s Biggest Fan?” Tell us why at the MiLB Fan Lounge, created in conjunction with MiLB partner Brand Activation Maximizer, for a chance to be a special guest and share your story on our official podcast, The Show Before the Show.
Minor League Baseball fans show their fandom in all sorts of ways, from collecting caps and tattoos to baseball cards and autographs. For others, there is a medium of collecting that marks a place and time and in-person experience, putting stamps in a Minor League passport of sorts.
These are the souvenir cup collectors.
Alan Hand and his family had just moved from Oregon to Mooresville, North Carolina, in 2002 when his daughter, Elliot, made a friend, Olivia, at summer camp. Three weeks later, the girls started second grade and happened to be in the same class. Their friendship helped start another.
The girls’ fathers met and hit it off nearly instantly. What made it so?
“Baseball,” Olivia’s father, Ron Higdon, said without hesitation.
“As a coincidence, Ronnie grew up in Bardstown (Kentucky), just outside of Lexington,” Hand said, “and I grew up in Cincinnati, so we’re both big Cincinnati Reds fans. We both grew up right in the Big Red Machine era.
“So it was really baseball that brought us together.”
“Big fans” might be an underwhelming description. After all, Elliot’s middle name is Rose after Reds legend Pete. Baseball is in each family’s blood.
The two fathers, both of whom work in education, have built a friendship around the sport they love. Being based just outside Charlotte puts them in one of the cradles of Minor League Baseball, closest to Kannapolis and its class A Cannon Ballers as well as Charlotte’s Triple-A Knights. The state of North Carolina boasts 11 Minor League teams. The border states of Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia are home to two dozen more.
“We’re in heaven,” Higdon said.
In 2008, the pair started making baseball pilgrimages, sometimes just for a long weekend and other journeys more epic, including a 13-game, 10-day excursion in 2017. They’ve covered South Atlantic League destinations multiple times and have chased baseball all across the country. At each ballpark, they find tangible memories to bring back.
When asked how their cup collecting got started, both let out a hearty laugh.
“We call that collecting swag,” Hand said.
“I’m kind of a scavenger,” Higdon explained. “My brothers and I, we all scavenge. After games are over, we’ll scavenge and pick up a few cups on our way out, kind of linger behind, and then we’ll share.”
Hand jumped in: “We’ll pick up anything that’s got a team logo. That’s how we get the cups.”
“We’re kind of pack rats,” Higdon added with another laugh.
Minor League merchandise can be purchased from anywhere on the globe, but to possess a cup is something different. Cups generally need to be acquired at a game. Bringing one home, collecting them, displaying them is to possess the experience of games attended and memories made.
“The teams that are active in it and really do something special with their cups, like Greensboro -- when they were the Marlins affiliate, they used to do player moments,” Hand explained. “My collection, mine are all displayed on my screened-in porch, so they’re out in the weather. I frequently replace them as they get older or whatever, but there’s a few that I’m never going to get rid of. One of them is when Christian Yelich hit a game-winning homer in the (2011) Sally League playoffs. The playoffs are right at the start of our school year and so we’re just getting started with school, and it was a 15-inning game, I think.
“We’re an hour and 20 minutes from Greensboro, so by the time that it got to the ninth or 10th, we were like, ‘We’re in it to win it. We’ll just be tired tomorrow.’ That moment of him jumping on home plate, we were there, and that cup is going to be with me forever.”
The process of acquiring cups is different at every venue. A 2019 trip took the pair to Birmingham, where the Double-A Barons were celebrating the 25th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s summer in the Minors.
“They had probably six or seven different cups. I don’t think I got every one they had,” Higdon said. “It just depends. A lot of the time, I’ll just go in and buy a Coke or a soft drink; sometimes, I don’t. I might have beer instead and look around and see a lot of cups that are just sitting around. It just depends.”
Collecting cups started as an unstructured fun element of attending games. For Hand and Higdon, it’s turned into something more. Hand’s screened-in porch is lined with cups nailed to the upper reaches of its walls, light bulbs inside to illuminate the room.
“I do not want to be a hoarder, so it’s all about the display case for me,” Hand said with a laugh. “I was holding on to them and I had all these boxes and was like, ‘I can’t have these.’ I was getting overrun by them. That’s when I came up with the idea of nailing them to the rim of my outside screened-in porch and then put the lights in them.”
Higdon’s Florida room likewise is lined with 50-75 mounted cups -- by his estimation -- at any time and corresponding team hats underneath. A mantel in the room that formerly sat above a fireplace is the display spot for each summer’s memorabilia. Although there were no Minor League games this year, Higdon has found honorees in 2020, including the Cannon Ballers (who would’ve played their inaugural season at Atrium Health Ballpark -- “I think it’s going to transform Kannapolis,” he said) and the Negro Leagues, which were founded 100 years ago.
Hand also has stayed in touch with the game. He’s on a cardboard cutout for Reds games at Great American Ball Park.
Hand and Higdon have followed their collecting chops into a whole community of Minor League supporters, trading cups with other collectors, meeting legendary fans like Erik the Peanut Guy in Tri-City, serving as Designated Eaters for MiLB.com’s own Benjamin Hill during a Ben’s Biz trip to Greensboro and more.
They’ve also confused people from time to time.
“We did the Pioneer League a couple of years ago,” Hand said. “When we flew back, I had this box of like cups and bobbleheads and just whatever, and I had it in a box and turned it into a suitcase using tape. It was just this box with a handle on it, and it got flagged by the TSA.
“I’m sitting there thinking, this poor (TSA) guy thought, ‘Why is he paying to have his recycling checked on an airplane?’”
Most trips are done by car, but with no baseball this year, next season could hold bigger and better things when the Minors return.
“Ronnie typically does all the planning,” Hand said. “He’ll get out what we call ‘The Analog,’ which is his notebook paper where he’s looking at schedules. We had it lined up this summer where we were finally getting out to the Midwest, the Field of Dreams, the Rickwood Classic.”
“It’s typically around Christmastime when the schedules start coming out, so we start planning,” Higdon said. “We look at the times and plan a trip and hope for no rain.”
Getting back to a time when rain was the biggest worry sounds like paradise to sports fans everywhere. Minor League pilgrimages didn’t happen in 2020. That just sets up 2021 to be the best season yet.
Tyler Maun is a reporter for MiLB.com and co-host of “The Show Before The Show” podcast. You can find him on Twitter @tylermaun.