Play ball!


“And is there anything that can tell more about an American summer than, say, the smell of the wooden bleachers in a small town baseball park, that resinous, sultry, and exciting smell of old dry wood.” – Letter from Thomas Wolfe to Arthur Mann

link to letter here

Summer continues to be a fickle mistress here in Minnesota, placing hot steamy kisses on our lips one day, then disappearing for weeks without so much as a phone call. Following our 103 degree day, we’ve had nothing but sweatshirt weather. I like sweatshirts. In fact, about 30% of my wardrobe is composed of nothing but old sweatshirts, but it’s time for summer. It’s kinda sad seeing parents huddle under blankets at our little league games. Baseball is supposed to be a hot weather sport. A sport for fanning yourself with a program, and sipping a cold beer. A sport that is as much a part of summer, as the mosquito.

One of the most integral parts of childhood in Batavia was our minor league baseball team.  From age 3 to 20, no summer would have been complete without at least one trip to a baseball game. When I was growing up the team played in an old wooden stadium about a mile from my house. When I was little my Mom and Dad would walk to the games with me. I can remember being 5 years old, eating peanuts with my Dad, and watching the game from the old wood grandstand. I couldn’t crack the shells myself, so I would just eat them shell and all. The crowd would stamp their feet on the floor boards during a Batavia rally, the chicken wire backstop would shake, and dust would settle down from the rafters.

June bugs would  swarm the transformers on the light poles, drawn by the heat and glow of the mercury vapor lights, as the sun set over the left field fence. Dad would buy a program for 50 cents, and I would wait for the drawings to be announced between innings, hoping that I’d be the lucky kid to win a baseball, or free ice cream at the Dairy Queen. More often than not, it was a free car wash, or something of much less value to a 5 year old boy.

The homes on either side of 20 Prospect were owned by elderly women who belonged to a time of doilies and fringed lampshades. Born near the turn of the century they had raised their families, and buried their husbands long before we moved onto the street. Their large four square homes had more room than they needed, and in the summer they would lend out their spare rooms to the ball players.

Being just a short season Class A team, the players on the club were just kids of 19, 20, or 21, who were starting late after finishing up high school, or college ball, catching on to a minor league club after going late in the amateur draft. In the 70 year history of the club, there have been only a few big names to come through our little town. But growing up these kids were big leaguers to us. They were young, and muscular, and carried exotic names, accents, and skintones onto our little street. We’d see them in the early afternoon, walking down the street from the corner store with a Pepsi, and some chips on their way to the ball park for a game, and we’d pause from our games to watch them go by.

1981 Batavia Trojans
1981 Batavia Trojans

In those days before cable TV super-stations, professional baseball was something you either saw in person, or watched on Saturday afternoons. To little kids like us the distance between Dwyer Stadium, and Yankee Stadium was hard to understand. We knew that these players had a long way to go before they’d play in the major leagues, but we had no concept of what long odds they faced.

On the annual kids night, the stadium would be overrun with hordes of wild children. But except for a few nights when I went with my little league team, I always had to sit with my folks. I didn’t mind. They let me pick the seats in the last row of the grand stand where we could look back to watch foul balls hit the cars in the parking lot. Whenever a foul made it out of the park, which was almost every foul ball in Dwyer, a scrum of pre teens would go scrambling after it. Some nights the action in the parking lot was more entertaining than the game, as long haired “Jackie Earle Haley” types on ten speeds tried to impress the Farrah Fawcett haired girls in knee high tube socks and short-shorts.

The team rarely won during those year’s. They were the woeful Class A affiliate, of the woeful Cleveland Indians, and wins were few and far between. The stands and the field were in tough shape back then. Gaps in the plywood outfield fence would let balls through for ground rule doubles.

 

Old Dwyer Stadium - 1998
Old Dwyer Stadium – 1998

As I got older, the games became a regular hangout for me and my friends, as well as half the kids in town. (The other half were presumably hanging out in the Pizza Hut parking lot, or drinking at the end of a dirt road somewhere.)

 

 

The Old Wooden Grandstand
The Old Wooden Grandstand

In the 80’s the team lost the Cleveland affiliation and came close to folding. They reverted back to an independent organization for a few years and struggled on. When the Trojan Manufacturing Company was sold to a German conglomerate the club dropped the “Trojans” nickname, to the chagrin of teenage boys. They resurrected the Clippers name from the early days when the team was sponsored by the Massey-Harris Company whose factory on Harvester Avenue was the city’s prime employer. By the 1990’s they landed the Philadelphia Phillies affiliation, and their prospects began to improve, both literally and figuratively.

But when Major League Baseball put strict new regulations into place regarding the dimensions and amenities that would be required to maintain minor league affiliation, the clubs days seemed numbered again. Miraculously, local government came through and secured state funding to tear down the old wooden stands, and replace them with a concrete and brick park, with a brand new field and clubhouse.

The new ball park
The new ball park

 

The New Dwyer Stadium
The New Dwyer Stadium

They changed their name to the Muckdogs for reasons that are still hotly debated around town, and the team survived. Not every New York Penn league town was so lucky. At some point in the last 20 years, the costs of running a minor league club, even a Class A one, have soared, and one by one the small upstate towns like Geneva, Elmira, Oneonta, and Olean have seen their clubs move on to bigger cities with deeper pockets.

Despite losing money for years the club has somehow managed to hang on. Who knows how much longer they will last, but for now the crack of wood bats will still be heard on the corner of Denio and Bank. Teenagers will still flit like sparrows through the parking lot in mating rituals as old as the game itself, and for the cronies on the First base line, the peanuts will taste as salty, and the Genny as cold as it always has. Blocks away on Prospect avenue, people will sit on their porches in the flickering light of citronella candles, while the far away sounds of the PA mixes with the soft buzz of mosquitoes.

Welcome home summer. Welcome home.

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58 thoughts on “Play ball!

  1. I’ve really got to stop reading your posts first-thing in the morning, because they leave me wishing I wasn’t at work, I wasn’t an hour from home, and I wasn’t all grown up.

    At least the grown-up part is debatable.

  2. I know.
    Never has the urge to put on my G.A.S.S. earth shoes or the mary janes paired with kneesocks been as great. One good Descripto shift in era and I’m right back into whatever slice of time from the mid 70s through the late 80s he serves up.

  3. I played softball. For three years. I know,if there weren’t pictures of me in a Green Hornets jersey on the field and the memory of my father screaming ” Pay Attention HELLISH!” I wouldn’t believe it either.

    My attention span is too short to handle baseball. Perhaps I’m not drinking enough. Anyway, you make me want to head out to the ball park!

    You really should write a book or a screen play about this stuff! I’d pay good money to see it!

  4. What a great piece. I love baseball, especially small town/minor league stories. The parks are intimate and you feel like you know the players and the background. I’m a sports fan myself and recently wrote a baseball piece as well about Cal Ripken Jr. and the Baltimore Orioles. Hope you’ll check it out when you get a minute.

    http://sportsjim81.wordpress.com

    • Here in Minnesota & Wisconsin, we have an awesome summer Collegiate League. All amateur college players, playing minor league style ball with wood bats, in little historic old parks. Just the way it used to be.

      Check our Northwoods League: http://www.northwoodsleague.com/
      Better yet, drive up here and take in the cool weather, and some games.

  5. hello, Tom!

    you have a way of telling your story… 🙂

    when i was little, there were still cornfields in our village. in between harvests, the local folks would convert one of the biggest parcels into a softball field. most grown men would participate in the game that usually lasted for one and a half months. for us, children, it was a time to watch, loaf and wonder – where do those beefy young men come from (most of them were farmers, carpenters or construction workers)? 🙂 it was fun time.

    there are no more cornfields in our place, just new houses. :c but your post just brought back memories of an earlier era when people were not yet glued to tv screens, pc monitors and gadgets. when outdoors meant really that -outdoors.

    many thanks and congrats on being FP! 🙂

      • hey, tom. thanks for dropping by at our place. i hope you understood a few of the tagalog words in the site, lols.

        my site is about rural living actually – DPSA which means “where i come from.” i live in the city, though and the rural scenes i usually paint in my posts have been drastically altered, am afraid. oh, well…

        btw, this post of yours remains one of my favorites in the WP english…

        i hope you and the family are doing well. 🙂

  6. Absolutely lovely post! I love baseball although its not a very popular sport in central Mexico. Right now I live in Toluca (about 50 miles away from Mexico City) so I guess I will drive during the weekend to watch a ballgame, have an ice-cold beer and some tacos (Yes, we have tacos at the ballpark, but we also have hotdogs and other stuff)
    Congratulations on being FP!

  7. Excellent. I grew up in a town adjacent to one that had a couple of minor league teams stationed there for a stretch of time. Went to college in Oneonta. You definitely captured the atmosphere.

  8. I always love looking at minor league baseball cards. You’ll see players you’ve never heard of, designs you’ve never seen, and learn a thing or two about the place they play at. For instance, for me it’s “Where in the world is Batavia?”

  9. When first to Nashville several years ago, the Nashville Sounds playing at Greer Stadium was quaint and almost cozy with not a really “bad seat in the house as compared to Yankee & Shea stadiums that I grew-up going to watch the big-timers play. When we razzed the opposing team batters, they could REALLY hear us for a change! lol
    Now that a Japanese firm has taken over the place, they put up higher walls, raised beer prices, added unnecessary increased security and made it more difficult for media-related types like me to get free tickets. The bloom is off the rose and I have little desire to go see them, when I can hear and see the fireworks display from my front yard (when they win) which is only two miles away.

    • If there’s one downside to minor league baseball, it has to be the increasing “corporatization” of it by MLB Inc. I ranted a little about it once before: https://20prospect.wordpress.com/2009/07/08/manufactured-individuality/

      That’s why I have become so enamored with the Northwoods League. It is summer collegiate baseball, played in podunk towns, in all the old parks that MLB Inc. deemed beneath them, by players that are there for the experience, and managed and run by people who love the game.

  10. As a young girl in a Canadian school the one thing I could not do was swing a bat. Run like the win and always come in first to represent my school I could do; but, swing a bat? No way, and I was sad about this ’cause the girls seemed to want me to succeed I suppose because I could run fast. “Bunt! Bunt the ball,” they’d yell. I couldn’t even do this. Soon I stopped playing. I won many awards for running. As a married woman I loved visiting Dunedin’s tiny ballpark. The Toronto Blue Jays spring train in Dunedin. Boy, did I love seeing the Blue Jays. Loved your post!

  11. Nice post. I personally love summer. I’ve been teaching for 27 years and never worked during the summer. I have great memories of summer and baseball. Here we always have sweatshirts on. Baseball games at night are downright chilly all summer long. This is redwood country and the fog rolls in off the ocean when it warms up inland.Our local baseball team is the Humboldt Crabs and they play in the Arcata Ballpark. Not as nice as your stadium but they’re fun games to attend.

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