McDonough Stadium, in Geneva, N.Y., is an unprepossessing little ballfield -- not easy to find, stuck away as it is in the back reaches of this Finger Lakes college town. McDonough's roofed, screened grandstand -- a green-painted structure that speaks eloquently of an earlier, more leisurely time -- and the sprawl of wooden bleachers that flank it can accommodate 3,000 fans. Thus the 765 of us who had come on a temperate, verdant, breezy July evening to watch the Newark Orioles take on the Geneva Cubs had room to spread out.
These teams play in the New York-Penn League -- a "short season" Class A circuit (with games starting in mid-June, rather than the usual mid-April), about as low as you can go in professional baseball. In the hierarchy of the minors, only a trio of Rookie Leagues -- the Appalachian, the Pioneer, the Gulf Coast -- are lower.
Yet this was good baseball. Among many millions of boys playing on countless thousands of diamonds across the country, only the tiniest elite minority make it to professional baseball at any level. These Cubs and Orioles -- themselves just kids, on average only 21 years old -- when seen from middle age and the bleachers were unimaginably gifted young paragons with rifle arms who fielded with grace and hit for distance.
The minor leagues are my summertime passion; no summer goes by that I don't abandon the "bigs" and travel to the minors, hoping to get closer to the sights and sounds of the summer game, to its inherent rhythms and beauties.
But a recent weekend in Geneva recalled that game of two years ago, just a fragment of an extraordinary pilgrimage. With a fellow baseball fanatic, I was at second base on a five-day, six-stadium minor-league marathon through Upstate New York, among the richest areas in the country for baseball, with 15 teams in four leagues: the Triple A International League and American Association and Double A Eastern League, along with Single A New York-Penn.
Thus I had come to McDonough Stadium, that comfortable old shoe of a ballpark, very much on purpose. Discouraged by million-dollar salaries, beer-fueled fights in the stands, artificial turf, domed stadiums, "Big Brother" electronic scoreboards throbbing and flashing instructions to clap or cheer, and the tyrannical effect of television on major-league baseball, I was looking elsewhere for the sport I remembered.
With me on this odyssey I carried a baseball vision I'd conjured from somewhere, half recollection, half invention, of a diamond paradise where ballplayers were young and eager, where I could sit close enough to the game to follow the logic of manager's argument with umpire. The vision was mid-American, rural. By and large it held up well.
In Geneva, sitting right behind home plate, I watched Jeff Ballard, the Newark pitcher, breaking off curve balls and serving up heat, retiring the Cubs in short order. The satisfying "thwomp" of Ballard's fast ball in catcher Jeff Tackett's mitt, the umpire's understated, offhand "bah" -- he looks away, as if in disgust -- and histrionic, athletic "stee-rike," the crack of the bat, encouragement called from the third-base coaching box by manager Art Mazmanian: These time-honored sounds of baseball came to me as loud and clear as if they were in my own living room.
But here the sounds and sights -- and smells, like the freshness of grass just watered, old wood, hot dogs, dust, a whiff of an old man's cigar -- were liberated from the diminishing, demeaning box that does literally bring baseball into our living rooms, between commercials.
"I've got it!" shouted Oriole first baseman Bob Santo, drifting in for a pop-up, arms waving a warning to teammates to stay away, spikes crunching the turf -- and I felt it could be me he was calling off.
At the venerable stadium's gate, we'd paid our $1.75 admission. Just inside, from a battered blackboard with the starting line-ups chalked in, we'd filled out our scorecard; then, at the concession stand, we'd stocked up on Italian sausage with peppers, french fries and foaming cups of cold, fresh Genesee beer. (Food and beer at minor-league parks are far better, more varied and much cheaper than at major-league stadiums.)
We'd found seats in the grandstand -- plenty of choices -- and watched the Cubs finish infield practice, as the sun dropped and the lush green of outfield turned golden. The crowd had filtered in to the background music of wood on leather, leather on leather. In front of us, in the first two rows (the box seats), lined up like birds on a fence, sat a flock of frail, wizened, grizzled old men in suspenders of bright red or green, and baseball caps.
In the minors, more games than not involve some sort of homespun promotion, with a sponsor generally handing out free or discounted tickets. It was Horizon Bank Family Night at Geneva, so Horizon's president had thrown out the first pitch -- wildly, in the dirt. (The visitor from out of town is not likely to have access to these freebies, but with tickets priced at $2 to $5, it matters little.) Alternatively, some souvenir item, generally inscribed with both team and sponsor's name, is given away: a mug, Frisbee, helmet, cap, baseball or jacket.
The direction of the game had been set in the top of the first when Pete Stanecek and Scott Khoury had hit back-to-back solo home runs for the Orioles, further silencing the already muted home-town crowd. Sheer lack of spectator numbers give minor-league games, even tense ones, peaceful mien. Cheering and heckling sounds personal, conversational: a chattering, rather than a roar. And fans talk to each other; mere presence at the game assumes a bond of commonality and camaraderie.
Beyond the left-field fence, where Khoury's shot had carried out over billboards advertising local stores and services, the sky slipped from golden to orange, then to pink and to deep purple.
"Groundskeeper, lights please," came the announcement over the P.A. system, just about the time the outfielders were fading into the gray summer dusk. Suddenly the field grew modestly brighter. On our baseball odyssey, we would learn to recognize lighting as one sure sign of hierarchical ranking in the minors: Both the number of bulbs and the degree of darkness required to trigger their grudging illumination by a penny-pinching general manager. The low minors are low-budget operations, no doubt, but we found that earnest, often threadbare frugality to enhance rather than diminish their charm.
Actually, minor-league baseball has been enjoying something of a revival, though it's still but a shadow of its former self. Last year, 162 teams in 17 leagues played before more than 15 million fans. In comparison, at the high-water mark in the late 1940s, 40 million spectators watched 448 minor-league teams; but by the mid-1960s these summers had plummeted to 10 million fans and just 132 clubs, as nationally televised major-league games lured home-town fans away from little ballparks all across America.
Today professional baseball is played in 43 of the 50 states and four Canadian provinces. The only states without teams are New Jersey, Delaware, New Hampshire (which lost the Nashua Pirates just this year), the Dakotas, Wyoming and Alaska. Particularly well supplied with minor-league teams are Florida with 26 (if you include the 10 clubs in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, all playing in Bradenton, Saratoga or Port Charlotte), New York with 15, California and Virginia with nine each, South Carolina with eight, North Carolina and Tennessee with seven each, and Iowa with six.
Given this geographical diversity, the baseball-hungry traveler may well get on base simply by checking for minor-league teams in cities already on a summer itinerary. But for the sufficiently committed fan, a trip with the primary raison d'e~tre of baseball is perfectly possible and as good a reason to travel as any.
Figuring Rochester as home base, I had plotted just such an outing, to wit: Wednesday, New York-Penn League's Little Falls Mets at the Utica Blue Sox; Thursday, an American Association game, the Omaha Royals at the Buffalo Bisons; Friday, back to the New York-Penn League for the Batavia Trojans (now the Clippers) at the Niagara Falls Sox (a team that no longer exists); Saturday, the International League's Columbus Clippers at the Syracuse Chiefs; and finally, on Sunday, a "doubleheader" -- another International League game, with the Rochester Red Wings at home at Silver Stadium for an afternoon game against the Toledo Mud Hens, then to New York-Penn that evening for the Elmira Pioneers vs. the Newark Orioles.
Totals, as projected: five days, six games, six stadiums, three leagues, 12 teams -- a sufficiently breakneck program to boost us to the highest level of fandom, we felt. As things turned out, we lost a league and a team, but the other numbers held up.
Murnane Field, Utica, was our first stop, on a brilliantly clear July evening. (Rain, which could have devastated our plans -- no domed stadiums in the minors -- never threatened all week.) The Utica Blue Sox had recently achieved a kind of fame as symbol of the delicious lowness of the minors. Baseball chronicler Roger Kahn had bought the team in order to write about them. (His "Good Enough to Dream," a lively account of the Blue Sox' 1983 season, is an engrossing primer on life in the low minors.)
The minor leagues at all levels run mostly on money from the bigs; all but a tiny handful of teams are affiliated with one of the major-league clubs, which provide the players and pay their salaries in the interest of "player development." The 1983 Blue Sox -- and this remained the case when we saw them two years later -- were among the few "independent" teams, with no affiliation. Thus, theoretically, on their rosters were only players no one else wanted. But the seemingly ragtag team assembled by Texas Star Baseball, talent scouts of the diamond, had provided Kahn a proper plot by winning the league championship in 1983 in an exciting playoff series against the Little Falls Mets.
By 1985 Kahn had left, with his story in his back pocket (where his young players carried batting gloves or, in the thrall of an old tradition, their tins of smokeless tobacco, given away by circular bulges in double-knit uniforms). But much-traveled former big-leaguer Ken Brett, brother of George, had signed on as manager, a promotional coup triggered by Brett's punch line -- "Utica?" in a television commercial for Miller Lite beer.
On the night of our visit to Utica's Murnane Field, however, there was a popular draw even more compelling than Brett, a promotion that was a general manager's dream: The Famous Chicken was in town, a good bet to fill seats. After beginning life as the San Diego Chicken, cavorting at Padres games, this enterprising bird flew the coop, gave himself the new forename "Famous" and became a for-hire mascot, cheering for himself.
The chicken had been expected to draw an overflow crowd, so a section of the outfield had been roped off. The mimeographed program notes explained: "An added attraction for tonight's game is the 50
lawn chair seating in the outfield. To the best of knowledge, this is the first time for this type of seating in the league." It will probably be the last, too, as only two or three fans turned up with lawn chairs to sit in the outfield. A few innings into the game, they and the ropes quietly disappeared, thus ending an experiment reminiscent of baseball's early days, when crowds were routinely packed into roped-off fringes of outfields at important games.
On Murnane's dugout roof, in the stands, on the field between innings the chicken capered, abusing the umpires, amusing the fans. "The chicken will honor all requests tonight," the P.A. boomed ambiguously but repeatedly, presumably referring to autographs. Amidst these antics a game was played -- against the Little Falls Mets, a rematch of the 1983 championship series -- but it was hard to sort it out from the tomfoolery. After striking out the side in the third inning, Blue Sox ace Bob Sudo began a slow fade that ended with Brett's trudging to the mound to yank him in the midst of a four-run eighth. Final score: Mets 5, Blue Sox 0.
The chicken's routines were funny enough -- but dangerously close to the sort of distraction from baseball for its own sake that we were hoping to leave behind by turning to the minors. Thus it was without pleasure that we recognized the possibility of the chicken's itinerary paralleling ours. A call to the Buffalo Bisons' box office brought the bad news, proudly delivered: "Yes, indeed, the Famous Chicken will be appearing tonight."
A panicky search through schedules turned up the Orioles vs. Cubs at Geneva's McDonough Stadium -- which we would eventually look back on as the most quintessentially, beautifully bush-league of our pub-crawl of ball parks. (Still, I had died hard on the Buffalo game, because it was our only shot at the Triple A American Association, and because the Bisons played in War Memorial Stadium, the classic if run-down and cavernous park where the movie "The Natural" had been filmed.)
Sal Maglie Stadium at Niagara Falls, our next stop after Geneva, was a ballpark not worthy of the famous native son to whom the blue-green concrete mass of crumbling art deco detailing had recently been dedicated. A municipal swimming pool was part of the complex, and foul balls lofted over the grandstand often ended their trajectories with a splash. This sad stadium is without professional baseball today, and probably should be; the franchise, now affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays, was moved to St. Catherine's, Ont., after the 1985 season.
But some random notes, scrawled at odd angles around the edges of my scorecard, help me remember fondly the Niagara Falls Sox' 6-3 win over the Batavia Trojans. An arrow points to No. 15, Jorge Alcazar, the White Sox catcher, with this notation: "Parents at game, sitting right in front of us; his birthday." The birthday boy struck out three times -- but hit a home run in between.
And the scorecard's ninth-inning column for Batavia listed just three "K's" -- which I'd circled, annotated with a pair of exclamation points, and inscribed "Thigpen." One of the pleasures of following minor-league ball is catching stars-to-be on the way up, and White Sox short reliever Bob Thigpen, who had racked up those three strikeouts to close the game, turned out to be the first of "our" crop of New York-Penn players to hit the bigs. The teams are naturally proud of their alumni who make it, and a standard feature in the programs is an impressive list -- at Geneva, for instance, full page, small type, headed "NY-P Grads in Big Leagues," running from Don Aase to Robin Yount.
We needed no convincing about the high quality of the baseball we were watching, even in short-season Class A. But after the game we hung around the refreshment stand and watched the players spending their meager meal money on hot dogs and potato chips, mingling with the fans because that was the only place to eat -- a far cry from the lavish buffets laid on in postgame clubhouses in the majors. Here in the minors, pretty teen-age girls, the baseball groupies, hung around, giggling adoringly, the dimming whiteness of stadium lights doused. Thus we recognized with melancholy certainty the youthfulness of these men, who had seemed so much older on the field.
Next on our list were a pair of Triple A games: on Friday night, the Columbus Clippers at the Syracuse Chiefs' MacArthur Stadium, and on Saturday afternoon, the Toledo Mud Hens vs. the Red Wings at Silver Stadium in Rochester. Both of these are handsome, venerable, substantial parks, their ambiance reminiscent of old-fashioned big-league stadiums somewhat miniaturized. At this level you routinely see players on the edge of major-league stardom -- or in some, sadder cases on the way down from there. At MacArthur, former big-leaguer Willie Aikens hit a pair of homers, the second over the clock in center field, in the bottom of the eighth, to win the game 5-4 for the Chiefs.
We ended our Upstate New York baseball binge on Saturday evening in Newark, just a few hours after the Red Wings had overtaken the Mud Hens in the bottom of the ninth at Silver Stadium to win, 6-5. Newark's dowdy little Colburn Park -- its box seats (relics of some grander, long-gone stadium) and dugouts painted Orioles orange, its left field light stanchion out in the middle of "live" foul territory and thus well padded against careening outfielders -- proved the perfect place for our finale.
The game was exciting. The Orioles -- for whom we'd developed a liking while watching them beat the Geneva Cubs earlier in the week -- came from behind with a five-run seventh to tie the Elmira Pioneers, then won 6-5 in the bottom of the ninth (instant replay of the afternoon game in Rochester). In the early innings, we'd wondered why the Elmira catcher was so busy in the dugout taping his mask, until we realized that he was fabricating an impromptu visor against the glare of the sun setting behind the fence in left-center. We'd enjoyed "salt potatoes," a tasty local concoction awash in melted butter.
After the game, we bumped into General Manager Nick Sciarratta -- an encounter that certainly wouldn't have happened in the majors. He told us things of interest, the inside scoop: that Josias Manzanillo, the Pioneer reliever who had taken the loss, had been signed as a 15-year-old from Puerto Rico and was now in his third year in the league; that only about half of the Orioles' annual attendance was paid admissions, the balance coming in during one of the 11 park "buyouts" by sponsors; and that clubs in the low minors have housing coordinators to arrange for local families to "adopt" players for the summer, the only way they can survive on their modest salaries.
Of the 25 players who had been on the Orioles' roster the previous year, Sciarratta said, five were back at Newark this year, two had jumped to the Double A Charlotte O's in the Southern League, 12 made the expected, orderly progression to the Hagerstown Suns in the "full-season" Class A Carolina League -- and five were released, ending five dreams.
So life in the low minors was indeed fraught with possible failure. Pay was low, the odds against you. But perhaps that's a more realistic, empathetic metaphor for life than the glitzy, seven-figure mode of the major leagues -- and maybe that's yet another source of the bush leagues' appeal.
Karl Zimmermann is a free-lance writer. WAYS & MEANS
DIRECTORY: The invaluable tool for seeking out minor-league teams is the annual "Baseball Directory," which lists not only all schedules for both majors and minors but also such useful data as telephone numbers and park locations, along with interesting esoterica: stadium name, capacity and outfield distances; previous year's record, position in the standings and attendance; number of years in the league and major-league affiliation. Don't leave home without this book, which can be ordered by phone from Baseball America, (800) 845-2726, for just $6.95. The directory even lists the hotel in each city used by visiting teams, with address and telephone number, thus in effect offering lodging suggestions for the traveling fan.