(This Dave Barry column was originally published September 13, 1992)
You know that next year South Florida will have a major- league baseball team, the Florida Marlins. But what you might not know is that this year, the Marlins have a minor-league team, the Erie Sailors. A fortunate few of the hopeful young players playing in Erie this summer could some day realize their ultimate dream -- to make the big leagues, and to step onto the field at Joe Robbie Stadium. Of course, they'll probably drown, inasmuch as the field will be under eight feet of water from the usual frog-choking South Florida summer thunderstorm. But that's part of the excitement that makes us love the game of baseball.
In fact the editors of Tropic magazine love baseball so much that they decided to take the time out from their busy schedule of playing golf during work hours to send me up to Erie to check out the Sailors. I was the logical choice for this assignment, because I am known to be a real baseball "nut." I'm always talking about the game with my assistant and fellow fan, Judi Smith:
JUDI: "Did you believe Lemke last night?"
JUDI: "The second baseman. For the Braves. In the World Series."
ME: "They're having the World Series?"
And so, after doing some preliminary research to determine exactly which state Erie is located in (Pennsylvania), I set out to find the Sailors. Here is my Scouting Report:
I arrive in Erie on a connecting flight from Detroit aboard one of those bouncy propeller planes that are always flown by what appear to be teenagers. Although it's August, the Erie weather is cold and rainy, possibly because of a nearby lake, which by an "eerie" coincidence (rim shot) is also named "Erie." It appears to be quite large.
I rent a car and tune the radio in to a station broadcasting a Cleveland Indians pre-game show. The announcer is interviewing former major-league pitcher Mel "Chief" Harder, who pitched against Lefty Grove 60 years ago in the first game ever played at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. The announcer is asking the kinds of questions that only sports announcers are capable of asking.
"Were you cognizant of the thrill, Mel?" he asks.
Mel acknowledges that, yes, he was cognizant of the thrill, but mainly he was cognizant of trying to get guys out.
A few minutes out of the airport I become cognizant of reaching my motel, the El Patio. It's on the west side of Erie, just down the road from a place called the Lager Cafe, which has a sign that boasts "All Legal Beverages."
The El Patio motel is getting on in years, but it's clean and the staff is friendly. I check into my room and head for the lounge, which is called Choo-Choo's and has an electric train running around on a track up by the ceiling. Choo-Choo's is filling up with a happy-hour, TGIF-type of crowd, keeping the waitress busy.
"I need a bourbon and cranberry juice," she is saying to the bartender.
"A bourbon and what?" he says.
"Cranberry juice," she says.
"Yuck," observes the bartender.
Meeting me in Choo-Choo's are two journalists from The Erie Times: Kevin Cuneo, who's the sports editor and an Erie native; and Dave Richards, who's a sports writer AND the paper's rock critic, writing under the name "Dr. Rock." They describe Erie as an ethnic, blue-collar, wings-and-pizza, neighborhood-tavern-on- the-corner kind of town. They say that although Erie is the third-largest city in Pennsylvania (the metropolitan-area population is close to 300,000), it tends to have an inferiority complex, living in the shadow of Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Cleveland, all of which are about 100 miles away.