Among my souvenirs.

In almost 35 years of watching live baseball, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever come home from a ballpark with, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

2102_1119The New York-Penn League, like Charles Ives, is one of those American institutions I endorse wholeheartedly and without reservation.

It’s a short-season Class A baseball league, the second-lowest rung on the U.S. professional baseball scale, with a scattered history going back to the 1890s (more consistently, to the 1920s and ’30s.)

Over the decades, it’s brought big-league-affiliated professional baseball to the kinds of glamour-free third- and fourth-class New York State towns that I like to bum around in when I’m off The Man’s time. Places like Elmira and Oneonta and Little Falls, and Geneva and Newark and Utica, and Batavia and Jamestown and Wellsville and Olean and Corning.

(Also Pittsfield, Mass., and Welland and St. Catharines, Ontario, and Norwich, Conn., and Burlington, Vt., and now even Morgantown, W. Va. The New York-Penn League is New York and Pennsylvania in name only, but has never changed its name to try to curry favor with its outlying territories. This is part of what makes it great.)

The New York-Penn League is a charming caucus of historic brick downtowns, and 4,000-seat ballparks surrounded by residential neighborhoods, and old commercial buildings with fading Indian heads painted on the sides, and free parking, and quiet rivers like the Chemung and the Mohawk, and Genesee or Saranac on tap at the park, and farm stands with jaw-dropping fresh produce dotting the countryside from town to town.

I’ll stop short of calling it idyllic — you’ll see a fair number of weed-rimmed old houses and down-at-the-heels commercial areas in a tour of the league’s footprint. But, as small-town America goes, you could do a whole lot worse.

The New York-Penn League also offers a nice middle ground between the college baseball I love to watch, and the major league and Triple-A ball I attend from time to time.

College ball is wicked intimate. All the seats are up close. The players come out of the dugout between games to talk to their parents and eat sandwiches their mom brought. You might find yourself tossing a foul ball back to a player, or even taking a leak next to one between games in the public bathroom. I’ve learned not to startle and look up when I hear the click-click-click of spikes on the concrete floor.

But, unless you’re watching a powerhouse team, the chances are pretty slim any of the players will go pro — and the play can be sloppy enough to remind you you’re watching nine future engineers out in the field. It sometimes fails to fulfill the side of me that enjoys professionalism.

Major-league and Triple-A ball, by contrast, is bright and shiny and professional. But the major leagues cost an arm and a leg to watch in person, while Triple-A teams rub me raw with their incessant between-pitch and between-inning attempts at entertainment. And, when you watch a guy earning $1 million a year miss a cut-off man or pop a bunt attempt foul, you question whether they’re working as hard to earn your money as you did.

Class A, then, is right in the money spot between the extremes. It’s intimate, maybe a little dowdy around the edges. If autographs are your thing, the players are abundantly available, whether sitting at a stand on the concourse …

102_0388… or approached from a front-row seat:

102_0412The play can be sloppy from time to time. But the players work hard; they aren’t jaded yet, and they’re still burning to climb the ladder.

And the affiliation with the major leagues lends a dose of professionalism. The teams of the New York-Penn League are all linked to a major-league squad, and everyone on the field has at least some margin of potential, or else they wouldn’t have a pro contract. Despite the high washout rate, there’s a decent chance that at least a couple guys on the field are good enough to make The Show.

The first two New York-Penn teams I saw — the 1992 Welland Pirates and Geneva Cubs — boasted 10 future big-leaguers between them. The 2009 Batavia Muckdogs and Jamestown Jammers had 12, including current Cardinals Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter.

I’m sure I’ll go back in five or six years and look up the Staten Island Yankees and Auburn Doubledays teams I saw play earlier this week, to see how many of them attained the dream.

The Yankees seemed most ready for prime time: They won 7-3, and looked for all the world in their Yankees-facsimile road grays like they were ready to help in the Bronx if needed. Only their youthful faces and a few details on their uniforms gave them away as minor-leaguers.

102_0576I think it was Staten Island outfielder Jhalan Jackson, a seventh-round draft pick known for his power, who was at bat early in the game as I walked back from the beer stand with a Genesee Scotch Ale. I’d considered some food as well, but the line was long, so I made a fateful decision to go back to the game.

I was minding my own and evaluating my first sip when I heard the tell-tale thonk of horsehide landing on concrete. I took about four steps to my right and there it was — a freshly fouled-off New York-Penn League baseball, sitting on the green grass between the party pavilion and the bathrooms.

The kids who inevitably chase foul balls were just getting out of their seats; there was no one with a better claim.

So I snapped it up. A tiny piece of the storied history of the New York-Penn League, the coolest professional baseball league in America, was going home in my pocket.

There is a place in hell reserved for adults who beat little kids out of foul balls in direct combat, and I am aware of this … but there was no one near this one, honest. It was just short of hand-delivered.

(One girl came up to me about 30 seconds after I picked it up and asked, “Did you just pick up that foul ball?” I thought about what a decent adult would do, and then lied: “Yeah, I’ll probably bring it home to my kids.” She smiled and said, “Great job!” and ran off. A few innings later I saw her on the field with her sister, grinning ear to ear, taking part in a between-innings promotional contest. So it worked out in the end; she got something special out of her day at the park too, and she probably hasn’t given a second thought to that foul ball.)

I spent part of my weekend going through handed-down belongings of my grandparents. Perhaps this ball will end up going down the same path.

Fifty or sixty years from now, my descendants will find it in a box, marvel at its yellowed patina, wonder if it has any worth, make a mental resolution to call a sports memorabilia dealer sometime and put it back in the box.

They can do what they want with it when that time comes. For now it is in my hands, solid and hefty. And I’d reject any dealer’s offer for it.