The Old Ball Game
03/25/2012 12:00 AM
03/05/2012 5:31 PM
(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.
"The feeling some people have, " says Cuneo, "is that, if it's from Erie, it can't be any good."
It would not be easy, living in the shadow of Cleveland.
This is not to say that Erie has nothing to boast about. Consider the following:
* During the War of 1812, the American ships used in the Battle of Lake Erie were built in Erie. (The actual battle, however, was fought near Sandusky, Ohio.)
* Bob Hope was married in Erie. He was on his way to Niagara Falls, but apparently he couldn't wait.
* In a cemetery right next to the El Patio motel, there's a gravestone that says, in large letters, "HAMBURGER." Almost directly across the street is . . . a McDonald's. (While I was in Erie, several people told me about this point of interest.)
* According to Dave "Dr. Rock" Richards, "some tourism people claim that Erie has the second-best sunsets in the world."
But one of the best things about Erie, at least for sports fans, is professional baseball. The Sailors have been in Erie since 1890, when they played in the Iron and Coal League. Over the years they've been affiliated with a number of big-league teams, including most recently the St. Louis Cardinals and the Baltimore Orioles. They currently have a one-year contract with the Marlins, expiring at the end of this season. The basic deal is that the big-league team provides the players and coaches, and pays them; the minor-league organization provides a place to play, and gets its income from ticket and concession sales.
The Sailors play in the New York-Penn League, against teams like the Elmira Pioneers and the Niagara Falls Rapids. These are short-season, Class A teams -- the second-lowest rung on the baseball ladder. (The lowest rung is the rookie league; the Florida Marlins' only other farm team this year is a rookie- league team, called the Marlins, based in Kissimmee.) From short-season Class A, the players hope to climb to full-season Class A, then Class AA, then Class AAA, and finally to the major leagues. Most will never come close. But there's always hope: Of the hundreds of guys who've played for the Sailors since 1981, 19 have made it to the majors. None of them became big stars, but they got there. That's the dream.
The Sailors play at Ainsworth Field, which was built in the early 1900s, with a new grandstand added as a WPA project in the 1930s. Future superstars Pete Rose and Tony Perez played there as minor leaguers, and old-time Sailors fans will tell you about the 1932 exhibition game at Ainsworth in which Babe Ruth hit a home run so hard that the ball came down in approximately 1934.
So Ainsworth is a semi-historical landmark, but it's also a headache: Major-league officials have decided that it's below minimum stadium standards. Unless Erie builds a new stadium by 1994, the Sailors will be unable to affiliate with a big-league team. Cuneo is part of a group trying to get a new stadium built, but there's a big political hassle about where to put it and how to pay for it. So the Sailors' fate is up in the air, like a high fly ball on a gusty day.
Speaking of weather, the game is rained out the day I arrive, so Cuneo takes me to Hector's, a legendary local Italian restaurant named for the late owner, Hector DiTullio. Kevin tells me that back in 1967, when the Sailors were a farm club for the Detroit Tigers, Hector and his wife, Angie, played an important role in keeping the team going when the Sailors' owner ran out of money.
"He couldn't afford to pay the players, " Cuneo says, "so he made Hector a partner. What this meant is that for a month, Hector and Angie fed the players for free."
Hector died in 1991, but his spirit lives on in the form of pictures of him on the wall with celebrity patrons such as Perry Como and Vic Damone. Cuneo tells me that another famous Hector's patron is Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda, who is especially fond of a dish called "tripe, " which I believe is the stomach of a cow.
Cuneo says that during the 1988 World Series between the Dodgers and the Oakland A's, he reminded Lasorda that they had met at Hector's, and Lasorda said, "Tell that s.o.b. Hector to send me some tripe!" And so Hector did, express-shipping 50 pounds of it out to California. Perhaps this is mere coincidence, but the Dodgers went on to beat the A's in four straight games. Cuneo says that in the triumphant world-champion Dodger locker room, Lasorda was drinking champagne and eating Hector's tripe. It was major-league tripe.
I myself would rather eat old linoleum than the stomach of a cow, so I order ravioli with Italian sausage. It comes in a huge portion, and it costs less than you pay for a small salad at many restaurants in Miami. As we're eating, Angie comes out from the kitchen to check on the customers. She seems to know everybody in the restaurant. The ravioli is delicious. I'm starting to like Erie a lot.
Saturday is beautiful -- the sky bright blue, the temperature in the 70s, a perfect day for baseball. I spend the morning driving around Erie. Most of it doesn't seem to have changed much since the 1930s or 1940s -- neighborhood after neighborhood of tree-lined streets with rows of neat wood-frame and brick houses, American flags fluttering over carefully tended little yards. People are washing their cars, mowing their lawns, walking to the corner store, sitting on their front porches; kids are playing catch, riding their bikes. The whole town looks like a commercial for something extremely wholesome.
At noon I head for the West Erie Plaza, where a Sailors promotional event is scheduled. The plaza is a nonenclosed, strip-type shopping center, and when I arrive, two figures are sitting behind a battered green table set up outside Watson's Men's Wear. One of the figures is a person wearing a well-worn sea gull costume, with a large droopy yellow bill sticking out the front, a tail in the back and a sailor's cap on its head. This is the Sailors' comical mascot, the Sea Gull.
The other figure is Sean Gousha, a 21-year-old catcher from Escondido, Calif. He's your white-bread, all-American boy: tall, lanky, red-haired and freckled. He looks exactly like a flesh- and-blood version of Archie, from the comics. You expect Betty, Veronica and Jughead to show up at any moment.
Gousha is not exactly a hot prospect. He was picked in the 39th round of the 1992 draft, and has played in only nine of Erie's 44 games so far. He's batting .138. He's a long shot in a long-shot league. But you'd never know it to talk to him: He's cheerful, friendly, smiling, positive. He has been sent to the West Erie Plaza to promote the Sailors, and by gosh he is promoting them.
No crowd has gathered for this promotion, so Gousha corrals shoppers as they walk past.
"Hi!" he says to a man with two boys. "You guys baseball players?"
"No, " says the man. "Soccer."
"I'm with the Sailors, " says Gousha. "My name's Sean. I'm the catcher. One of the catchers. You guys want a bumper sticker?"
"OK, " say the boys.
Sean signs a bumper sticker, and so does the Sea Gull, who writes "Mr. C-Gull."
Sean gives the sticker to the boys. "You want to come see us play tomorrow night?" he asks. "They're giving away tickets in the men's store."
"OK, maybe, " says the father. They go into the store.
A little boy, maybe 9, walks up.
"Hi!" says Sean. "You a big Sailors fan?"
The boy says: "My mom saw in the paper? That there was Erie Sailor tickets?"
"Sure!" says Gousha. "They'll give 'em to you inside. Tell 'em how many you need. You want me to sign a bumper sticker? My name's Sean. I'm a catcher on the team."
"OK, " says the boy.
Gousha, like the other Sailors, makes $850 a month, plus $16 a day for meal money. Bear in mind that, in the major leagues, the average salary is $1.1 million a year. The superstars make much more, of course: $5.4 million a year for Jack Morris; $5.8 million for Bobby Bonilla; $7.1 million for Ryne Sandberg. (When Sandberg signed his contract, Jose Canseco, scraping by on $4.7 million a year, was quoted as saying: "They can't complain about my contract. I'm one of the poorest guys in baseball.")
And of course you do not see these highly paid players spending their afternoons at shopping centers, chatting with people, signing bumper stickers, hustling tickets. Some major leaguers don't like to give autographs, or even get near the fans. Some of them seem to view the public as nothing more than a pain in the butt.
I ask Sean Gousha about this.
"I can see how dealing with the fans all the time would become tedious, " he says. "But you have to realize that these people look up to you. They're putting out an effort to support you."
A man walks past.
"Hi!" says Gousha. "You want to see the Sailors play tomorrow night?"
"I'm a truck driver, " the man says. "I'm on the road."
"Too bad, " says Gousha.
Gousha's plan is to stick with baseball as long as he can, see how far he can get up the ladder.
"When else can you do it?" he asks. "If you're not good enough, you get on with your life, get a suit and tie, a 9-to-5 job. But right now, I'm happy. I'm playing baseball every day. It's my job."
He shakes his head, amazed by this stroke of good fortune.
Sweating inside the Sea Gull costume is Steve Factor, 26, who, when he's not being a comical mascot, is a computer specialist and woodworker. He doesn't talk when there are civilians around -- that would be contrary to Standard Mascot Procedure -- but he opens up when it's just the three of us.
He says it isn't all fun and games, being the Sea Gull.
"I get called a duck, a pigeon, an eagle, " he says. "And they pull my tail constantly. But basically, everybody likes the Sea Gull. Except when I beat a kid in the Base Race."
The Base Race is a promotion at Sailors games wherein a fan races the Sea Gull around the bases, hoping to win a $25 gift certificate.
"The players are always telling me to win, so if I lose, the players hate me, but if I win, the crowd hates me."
Gousha looks sympathetic. "It's a Catch-22, " he says, seemingly without irony. "A no-win situation."
"Yup, " says Factor, nodding his Sea Gull head.
I ask Factor who his major professional influences are.
"The San Diego Chicken is the best, " he says. "Also the Pittsburgh Pirate. I've learned a lot from both."
He stops talking as a man approaches.
"Hi!" says Gousha. "You a Sailors fan?"
"Not this year, " says the man, walking past.
Factor continues: "My dream is to go to the majors, too, " says Factor. "That would be neat, if the Marlins would ask me to be the mascot."
Everybody wants to make the big leagues.
As I leave, Sean Gousha, professional baseball player, is explaining to some fans that they should clean off the bumper before they put the sticker on.
I drive all the way across Erie, to the east side, where another Sailors promotion is under way in the parking lot of A. Duchini Inc., a hardware store. Set up around the parking lot are displays of various types of merchandise, including a nice selection of toilet seats. Over to one side, representing the Sailors, are two pitchers, Jerry Stafford and Pat Leahy, both big, blond guys. Like Sean Gousha, they're sitting at a beat-up table; in front of them are little paper cups filled with paint, so they can do face paintings on any fans who are interested.
I ask Stafford and Leahy if anybody told them, when they got into professional baseball, that they'd need to know how to paint faces.
"They forgot to mention that, " says Leahy.
"But we're pitchers, " says Stafford. "We can adjust."
On hand is a crowd of a few dozen people, but they're not paying any attention to the Sailors. They're more interested in four cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills pro football team, which is in Erie today for a scrimmage. The cheerleaders, called the "Buffalo Jills, " will also be appearing at the Sailors game tonight. Their shorts are so tight that it's hard to imagine anybody wearing them and breathing at the same time.
The other big attraction is the Rocket 101 booth. Rocket 101 is a radio station doing a remote broadcast from the parking lot. The crowd has lined up to spin a carnival-type wheel; depending on where it stops, people can win six-packs of Pepsi, hats, T-shirts, Sailors tickets, or -- if they're lucky -- a chance to get inside the Money Machine.
The Money Machine looks like an oversized telephone booth. Inside, scattered on the floor, are a few dozen dollar bills. When a contestant gets inside, a powerful fan is turned on, causing the bills to swirl wildly around while the contestant tries to grab as many as possible and shove them through a slot before the fan shuts off. Contestants get to keep whatever money they push out.
Emceeing the promotion is a disc jockey who identifies himself as "The Weasel."
"It's my given name, " he announces.
The Weasel strides around the parking lot with a wireless microphone, schmoozing with the crowd, doing a play-by-play of the wheel spins, announcing the prizes. A cheer goes up when a large woman named Eileen wins a chance in the Money Machine. She puts on a pair of safety glasses, then climbs into the booth. The Weasel turns on the fan. The dollar bills fly up and flutter violently around Eileen, who tries frantically to snatch them, waving her arms wildly, looking not unlike Tippi Hedren being attacked by the birds in Hitchcock's The Birds. The crowd, encouraged by The Weasel, cheers.
In a few seconds the fan shuts off and Eileen gets out. The Weasel dramatically counts out her winnings: ". . . nine, 10, 11, 12 DOLLARS!" The crowd applauds. So do the Buffalo Jills. So do professional baseball players Jerry Stafford and Pat Leahy, sitting alone at the face-painting table.
I leave and drive over to historic Ainsworth Field, home of the Sailors. It's in a neighborhood of small but well-maintained
homes. There's no parking lot; the grandstands are right across a narrow street from the houses. The fans park on neighborhood streets. Ainsworth also has no locker room: The Sailors change and shower in a junior high school next door. In fact, the school is a little too close, occupying an area where a good chunk of right field should be. The result is that the right-field fence is a very short 290 feet from home plate; this is a big reason why major-league baseball is unhappy with Ainsworth. It was good enough for the Babe, but times change.
I enter the stadium through the Sailors office, a tiny, cluttered room with boxes of fruit on the floor (for the players). I walk out onto the field and look up at the grandstands, which hold 3,500 people. They're old and dingy, but they're close to the field, wrapped around from first base to home to third; not a bad seat in the house.
The field looks like it's in pretty good shape, the grass lush from all the rain. The outfield fence is covered with advertising signs, including one for Choo-Choo's ("Wet Your Whistle"). In center field there's a small electric scoreboard. In left there's a big old scoreboard, the kind where somebody has to put up the numbers by hand. Painted on it, in large letters, are the words "WASTE MANAGEMENT."
I walk across the infield, out into right field, and turn to look back toward home. My mind fills with boyhood memories. All of them are bad. I played Little League baseball in Armonk, N.Y., and spent many an inning standing in right field, where I was supposed to catch the ball if, God forbid, anybody ever hit it to me. I prayed that this wouldn't happen, because I never, not once, caught an airborne ball. Defensively, my team would have done just as well to put a floor lamp out there. Most innings I had nothing to do, but every once in a while there'd come a sickening moment when the batter would swing and the ball would come flying in my direction, way up in the air, and people would be yelling at me, and I'd start running, not necessarily in any specific direction, just running, and, whump, the ball would land somewhere, never where I was, and people would be REALLY yelling at me now, and I'd run over and pick up the ball and throw it as hard as I could in the general direction of the yelling people, but by then the other team had scored eight or 10 runs.
I never dreamed about playing in the major leagues. I just dreamed that Little League would be over.
I walk through a door in the outfield fence, directly behind which is the massive wall of the junior high school, and another door. I enter the school and climb some stairs, then find myself in the Sailors locker room, which is actually the school gym, with temporary lockers set up in the middle of the basketball court. It's a spacious arrangement.
Off to the side is the door to the girls' locker room; over the door are some strips of tape, on which is written:
Fredi Gonzalez is inside, sitting at a desk, looking at a page of names and numbers. He's listening to something through earphones. I figure he's checking out the stats for tonight's opponent, maybe listening to a scouting report. But he laughs and tells me he's just browsing through a book listing all minor-league players, seeing what happened to guys he has known over the years. He's listening to a Santana album.
Gonzalez, 28, is an easygoing guy with a stocky build. Born in Cuba, he came to Miami at age 3 and became a star catcher at Southridge High. He was drafted by the Yankees and spent six years in the organization, but he never got out of Class AA ball. Couldn't hit. He went into coaching, first at the University of Tennessee and then for the Miracle, an independent Class A team based in Pompano. And now he's in the Marlins organization, with another shot at the big leagues.
But he has no complaints about being in Erie.
"The people here are great, incredibly friendly, " he says. "When we first got here, we got off the plane, and right there at the airport people were offering the players places to stay. They'd say, 'I got an extra room, $50 a month, and you get meals.' It was amazing. These people really love this team."
I ask him how he likes Ainsworth Field.
"It has a LOT of charm, " he says, laughing. "Really, look at this view."
He opens his office window, and we both lean out. We're looking down onto right-center field, with the infield and grandstands beyond. A nice breeze is blowing toward us. The sky is a brilliant blue, the ballfield grass a deep, glistening green. I'm expecting to see Kevin Costner out there playing catch with his dad's ghost.
"How many managers have a view like this from their offices?" Gonzalez asks. "This is great. This is minor-league baseball. I'm in a profession that's fun. How many people can say that?"
As I leave, Gonzalez is settling back at his desk in the girls' locker room, picking up his players book, checking on guys he's known, seeing who ended up where in baseball.
* * *
Tonight's Sailors game is a doubleheader against the Geneva (N.Y.) Cubs, scheduled to start at 6:05. By 5:30 a couple of hundred people are lined up outside the Ainsworth Field ticket booth. Grandstand seats are $3.75; reserved grandstand seats are $4.50. The bleachers are $3.
It's a cheerful, family crowd; there are a lot of kids. There's a high percentage of guys with pot bellies and baseball- style caps that they probably never take off except maybe to attend the funeral of somebody they really liked. A lot of the people seem to be regulars, very comfortable with this ballpark, their ballpark. Many wander over to the fence to watch the Sailors warming up on the field.
Just inside the stadium entrance is a guy with a grill selling hot dogs for $2. Two kids walk past.
"Two dollars for a hot dog?" one is saying. "No WAY."
Up in the stands, in a little alcove, is the official card table of the Erie Sailors Boosters. Overseeing the table, as she does every game, is Club President Mary Shchouchkoff, 27, who is a billing clerk in a hospital pharmacy and a true Sailors fanatic. She's selling club memberships for $5; members get to take bus trips to away games, choose the Player of the Week, hold a picnic for the players, and bring them cards and cakes on their birthdays. Shchouchkoff also helps the team find Erie residents willing to house players.
As I pass by, she's talking to some fans, promoting an upcoming road trip.
"If we get the same bus driver as last time, " she says, "we may stop at Niagara Falls on the way back."
I head up to the press box, at the top of the grandstand behind home plate. There I find Skip Weisman, who's the Sailors' president and general manager, which means he's responsible for nine billion details: the tickets, the programs, the lights, the press, the field, the souvenirs, the Sea Gull, the hot dogs, and whatever else is needed. During games, he's in constant motion, talking to people, checking on things, handling problems, always calm.
To keep the fans entertained, Weisman runs a lot of special promotions: Batting Glove Night, Bob Uecker Night (really), Umbrella Night, Fanny Pack Night, etc.
"In June we had Beach Towel Night, " he says. "It was 55 degrees and rainy. That didn't do so well."
Tonight is Buffalo Jills Night, and there's a good crowd on hand, nearly 3,000 people. The promotion coming up Monday (it kills me that I'm going to miss this) is The Dynamite Lady.
"Her big thing, " Weisman says, "is she builds this little Styrofoam Coffin of Death. Then she goes inside, closes it up, sets it off, and KABOOM, there's a real loud noise and it blows apart. And then hopefully she walks away."
Weisman's goal is to own his own minor-league team.
"Everybody always assumes I want to get a job with a major- league team, " he says. "But if I ran a team in the majors, what would I do? Argue with players' agents all the time? Write checks for $7 million? Here, I get to do everything."
One thing he gets to do is carry the ballpark organ up to the press box. The organ is actually one of those plastic electronic keyboards, which gets plugged into the PA system. The official organist is Margo Wright, Erie native and first-grade teacher. She also sings the national anthem. She's been doing this at Sailors games for seven years, and has developed a loyal fan following. She sings the anthem from the press box, holding the PA microphone. The crowd cheers her as she hands the microphone back to the announcer, Bob Shreve, who tells the fans that tomorrow afternoon, they might want to drive down to Pittsburgh, because Wright will be singing the anthem at the Pirates-Cardinals game. This elicits a big hand and shouts of "Yayyyy MARGO!" An Erie talent, making it to the big leagues.
Wright tells me that she had to try out for the Pirates, along with 75 other people, which meant she listened to 75 versions of the anthem.
"They told everybody to keep it short, " she says, "but one woman went four minutes and 27 seconds." Wright says she tries to keep it under 1:15. You young would-be anthem singers out there would do well to bear this tip in mind.
Meanwhile, on the field, the actual baseball game has started. I understand that the quality of play is not quite up to major-league level, but the difference is hard for the untutored eye to see. Guys are throwing, catching, batting, running, scratching, spitting, adjusting their supporters and making mysterious signals to each other; the umpire is indicating strikes by pointing violently to his right, as if he's angry at some imaginary person over there, at whom he yells "ZHREEEEEEEEEEIIIIICHHH!" To me, it looks just like the major leagues, except that (a) you can see everybody a lot better, because the grandstands are so close to the field, and (b) the players look absurdly young. An alarming number of them were born in 1970.
I could already vote in 1970.
I'm sitting in the press box between sports writer/rock critic Dave "Dr. Rock" Richards and the official scorekeeper, Les Caldwell. Caldwell has several complex scoring forms in front of him, covered with little boxes to be filled in, and a lot of abbreviations. I recognize some of these, such as "AB, " "R, " "H, " and of course "RBI, " but I'm stumped by others, such as "GDP" and "CI."
I ask Caldwell about these.
"Ground Double Play and Catcher's Interference, " he says, writing busily.
"Do you do your own income taxes?" I ask.
"Yes, " he says.
In the bottom half of the first inning, Sailors shortstop Tony Sylvestri gets up to bat. Caldwell informs me that Sylvestri just joined the team; he had been playing in the San Francisco area for a semi-pro team called the "Galoob Fog."
"He's staying at my house, " Caldwell says. "C'MON TONY!"
Sylvestri hits a double.
"ALL RIGHT, TONY!" shouts Caldwell. Then, switching smoothly from rooter/landlord to official scorer, he records the hit.
A short while later, Caldwell glances at the electric scoreboard.
"Hey Jerry, " he says to official scoreboard operator Jerry Pryber. "Why do they have six runs?"
That's what the scoreboard says, even though Geneva in fact has only two runs. Nobody else in the stadium appears to have noticed this.
"Whoops, " says Pryber, fixing it.
The press-box atmosphere is loose. In addition to official press-box activities, there is a great deal of eating, bantering, and professional-level scouting of the crowd for previously undiscovered talent.
"On the right!" somebody will say. "Second section, second row! Red hair, blue halter top!"
Instantly, regardless of what is going on in the game, several pairs of binoculars are snatched up and aimed at the stands.
"I dunno, " a voice says.
"Kind of old, " adds another.
Clearly this is not Political Correctness Night.
Announcer Shreve informs the crowd that the Buffalo Jills are here. There are four of them; they dance along the aisle below the press box, followed by the Sea Gull, who is holding his bill down so he can get a good view out his eye holes.
"Did you play Tequila?" asks General Manager and President Skip Weisman, arriving in the press box.
"I just did, " says official organist Margo Wright.
"Well, did they dance?" asks Weisman.
"The first one was really boogie-ing, " observes announcer Shreve.
"Maybe we should play it again, " says Weisman, making a management decision.
The Jills dance back the other way. They have the full attention of the press box.
"I love spandex shorts on a woman, " states official scorer Les Caldwell.
In minor-league double-headers, each game goes only seven innings. This game goes into the top of the seventh with the Sailors leading 6-4. But the Cubs threaten to rally, getting a man on base.
"Turn the lights off, " I suggest to Weisman.
"We already did that once this year, " he says. "We had a 30-minute blackout delay."
The Cubs rally never materializes, and the Sailors win, 6-4, their sixth straight victory. Between games:
Margo Wright leads the crowd in singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
One of the Buffalo Jills suffers a bee sting. It is not a career-ending injury, but she is out for the night.
The Sea Gull races a kid around the bases and loses big when, rounding third, he is tackled by the remaining Jills.
The Jills perform a cheer for the fans, shouting:
"Hit 'em high!
"Hit 'em low!
"Go, Sailors, GO!"
This seems to be a football cheer, but the fans don't mind. As the Jills prance off the field, a voice in the crowd says, "How do they get those shorts off?"
The Sailors also win the second game, 7-0. Sean Gousha, the catcher who was hustling tickets in the shopping plaza, plays the entire game (he didn't play in the first one) and hits a double, raising his batting average to .156. I'm happy for him. In fact, I'm feeling pretty good in general, walking out of the stadium after more than four hours of pretty good baseball and various other entertainments, not to mention a couple of beers, a hot dog and a bag of peanuts. Including a reserved-seat admission ticket, the evening cost me a total of $11.
I pass through the gate behind a man who is complaining to his companion. "Double-headers, they only play seven innings, " he says. "They don't give you your money's worth."
Tonight's game is against the Batavia (N.Y.) Clippers, who last night played at home before an announced attendance of 434. But tonight in Erie -- possibly because of those free tickets the Sailors gave away yesterday -- there's another good crowd, 3,400 people. This is the best attendance the Sailors have had since the home opener June 15. On that night, both Miami and national media were on hand, not to mention Marlins owner and bazillionaire Wayne Huizenga, who flew up with other high team honchos on one of his various jets. The VIPs sat in a temporary plywood box erected along the third-base line and draped with bunting. The night was cold, and the Sailors lost in 13 innings, and that was pretty much the end of the out-of-town hoopla.
But this is another perfect baseball night, and a lot of fans have come early to lean against the low chain-link fence next to the outfield and watch the players warm up. The Clippers wear uniforms with a big letter "P" on the front; these are hand-me-down uniforms from the big-league affiliate team, the Phillies.
Up in the press box, the regulars are assembling; they applaud when Margo Wright arrives, fresh from her successful anthem performance at the Pirates-Cardinals game. She tells me she got through it in 58 seconds, a personal record. She also asks me if I can put in a good word for her with the Marlins.
"If I could sing in Miami, that would be so cool, " she says. "I KNOW people from Erie would go."
So, if there are any Marlins executives reading this: Give Margo a shot. She has a strong voice, good speed and a nice range, and if your starting organist tires in the late innings, she can step in and do the job.
The Sailors' starting pitcher tonight is Jerry Stafford, one of the players manning the face-painting table yesterday in the A. Duchini Inc. parking lot. The starting catcher, once again, is Sean Gousha, starting to get some playing time. He doesn't have a good first inning: With Clippers on first and third, the man on first attempts to steal second, and Gousha's throw goes into center field, allowing a run to score.
"Throwing error, " rules official scorer Les Caldwell. "Unearned run."
The top half of the inning ends with the Clippers up 1-0. The electronic scoreboard, however, reads 0-0.
In the bottom half of the first, the Sailors face starting Clippers pitcher Larry Mitchell, who throws the ball 93 miles an hour, which is fast for any league. The Sailors fail to score, and the inning ends with the Clippers still up 1-0, and the scoreboard continuing to read 0-0.
At this point, some fans yell up to the press box: "HEY, WHAT'S THE SCORE?"
"Whoops, " says official scoreboard operator Jerry Pryber, putting up a "1" for Batavia.
"Way to slide that '1' up there, Jer, " says Len Fatica. He's broadcasting the game over radio station WERG-FM, which is affiliated with Gannon University in Erie. Fatica asks me to sit in and do color commentary for an inning, which I do. I announce that the Sailors are running a number of promotions tonight, including Poison Reptile Night, Igneous Rock Night and Urinal Deodorant Night. I'm lying, of course, but nobody seems to care. I'm not sure that anybody outside the press box is actually listening.
General Manager and President Skip Weisman stops by the press box, and I ask him how much it would cost to buy the Sailors. He says the current owners -- a group that includes actor Bill Murray -- bought the team a year and a half ago for $700,000; he figures that the Sailors are worth about $1 million today. He says there was a time, not too long ago, when you could buy minor-league franchises in some areas for $10,000.
"I got into this just a little too late, " he says. Then he's off to check on something.
Clippers' pitcher Mitchell continues to throw hard, and although my man Sean Gousha goes three for four at the plate -- upping his average to .222 -- the Sailors lose, 5-0. The seven-game win winning streak is over, but the fans drifting out of the stadium don't seem to mind much.
Just outside the gate, three men, probably in their 60s, are talking about an upcoming away game:
FIRST MAN: Is it cheaper if I go on the Booster Club bus?
SECOND MAN: Well, you get a snack.
FIRST MAN: What kind of snack?
SECOND MAN: You get a diet pop.
THIRD MAN: And chips.
FIRST MAN: I gotta think about it.
I leave Erie in another bouncy little plane. It's raining again. Tonight's Sailors game is canceled, along with the performance of The Dynamite Lady.
The 1992 Sailors season ended Sept. 1. As I write this, the Marlins haven't decided whether to remain affiliated with the Sailors for the 1993 season. And if Erie doesn't solve its stadium problem by 1994, the Sailors won't be affiliated with any big-league team.
Of course by next year, South Florida won't care about Erie: The Marlins will be playing here. We'll have a big-league team to follow, with big-league stars making big-league money, playing in a big-league stadium in front of big-league crowds. Everything will be bigger.
Although not necessarily better.
(c) Dave Barry
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