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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

Hitting the Trifecta
By David J. Ginzl

There is something about old baseball parks. It's hard to describe, but there is a certain mystique. They have that tired, worn look and that old, musty smell in the dark passageways beneath the stands. The seats are sometimes small and uncomfortable, with poor or partially obstructed views of the field. And yet . . . this is where heroes of yesteryear played and where games from distant times took place. There is a real sense of baseball's past in these places, and all true baseball fans have a love for the history of this great game.

Unfortunately, the old ballparks are dying off fast. In 1999 alone, five parks—one very old, and the others only relatively so—were scheduled for the mothballs. Milwaukee's County Stadium got a reprieve, spared for an additional year by a tragic construction accident. Seattle's Kingdome closed in mid-year, and Houston's Astrodome, famous for being the first domed stadium and little else, at year-end. I had been to neither, and felt little remorse for having missed them. San Francisco's wind-swept Candlestick Park (I refuse to use its more recent corporate-sponsored name) also closed, and everyone should have experienced going there once. I did, and remember little about the game except that I wished that I had been smart enough to have brought a parka and heavy blankets to that July evening contest. And then, of course, there was Tiger Stadium, closing after hosting big league games for eighty-eight seasons, only ten less than the other three modern parks combined.

Baseball may be the only sport where the fans actually care about the field of play. Unlike football, where all gridirons are the same size and the only differences are grass or turf, open or domed, baseball parks have personality. Or at least they did. There was no dictated uniformity of size, but rather unique dimensions and character that often shaped the make-up of the teams and the outcomes of games—the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium; the Green Monster at Fenway Park; the massive center field at the Polo Grounds.

We fans can get nostalgic about these old parks, and still reminisce about long gone (but not forgotten) Crosley Field in Cincinnati or Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. I still have vivid memories of going as a young boy to watch the Senators at Griffith Stadium, the Pirates at Forbes Field, and the Mets at the Polo Grounds.

I also remember when the Mets moved into Shea Stadium for the 1964 season. Now Shea is considered a relic that needs replacing, and the Mets are angling for a new stadium, just like their cross-town rivals who want to abandon the most famous ballpark ever, Yankee Stadium. It does make one pause and assess their own station in life: if Shea is obsolete and ready for the wrecking ball, what about those of us who remember it when it was young and considered state-of-the-art?

The rush to build new stadiums is all about money, of course. The owners want luxury boxes and other revenue enhancements; the players want the new facilities so that they can share in the wealth as more "big revenue" teams emerge to bid up even higher the value of their already over-inflated salaries. The fans? Well, like everything else in baseball, our wishes are secondary. Efforts to save the old ballparks are doomed, overwhelmed by the economic realities of today. Just ask those in Chicago and Detroit who tried to organize efforts to save Comiskey Park and Tiger Stadium. All that one can do in the face of the inevitable is try to get to the old ballparks before its too late, and then keep their memories alive.

By the early 1990s, after the wrecking ball had gotten old Comiskey, only three venerable, and much endangered, ballparks remained from pre-World War I days—Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Tiger Stadium. I had missed out on Comiskey (although I did get an old bleacher chair with chipping green paint as a memento of the park), but vowed to get to the others before the grim reaper did.

I made it to Wrigley first. It was the summer of 1993 and five of us from our Rotisserie league decided to take a "field trip" to Chicago. One of our fellow team owners had moved from Jacksonville, Florida to Chicago for employment reasons several years earlier, so we free-loaded off of him. Carter got us tickets in the center field bleachers on a beautiful Saturday afternoon for the Cubs and Giants. The Giants were having a great year—they would win 103 games, yet still finish second to the Braves—but the Cubs, as usual, were dreadful. They did have a youthful, exuberant center fielder who captivated the bleacher fans with his animated hand gestures and blowing kisses in our direction, but it is doubtful that many of the bleacher faithful thought that twenty-four-year-old Sammy Sosa, then batting .267, would ever amount to much.

A party atmosphere ruled, both inside the park and out. On Waveland Avenue, bands played, vendors shouted, and the crowd mingled. Even after the game started, the festivities continued and you could hear the music of the steel drum bands above the murmur of the crowd. Across the street, you could see the rooftop fans, sitting on bleachers that enterprising landlords had constructed to compete with the official in-stadium seating. And the rooftop fans seemed to be having as much fun as those of us inside the park.

The real charm of Wrigley's bleachers is being part of the crowd—a young, noisy, beer-drinking group that enjoyed itself immensely. Many of the young men in the bleachers (and to me, then in my mid-forties, they all seemed young!) went shirtless while soaking up the bright sun, as did a number of the well-endowed female fans, adorned only with skimpy bikini tops. The two seated directly in front of me proved quite distracting, but even more impressive was their enormous capacity for drinking beer, far outperforming my friends in this all-important bleacher activity.

While seemingly self-absorbed in having fun, the bleacherites still followed closely the game on the field. This became apparent, with amusing consequences, in the ninth inning. It was Randy Myers Poster Day, Myers being the newly acquired relief ace on his way to a National League record fifty-three saves that season. Each of us had received a Randy Myers poster when we entered the park, and by the ninth inning most were rolled up under the bleacher benches, a little frayed and damp with spilled beer. When Myers came into the game to protect a 2–0 Cubs lead, the bleacher fans cheered their hero. When Robby Thompson doubled and then Barry Bonds worked Myers for a walk, the beer-emboldened masses began to turn hostile. After Willie McGee moved up both baserunners by grounding out, first baseman Todd Benzinger tied the game with a two-out single.

Then a lone fan in the bleachers stood. Holding his Randy Myers poster high above his head and yelling loudly his beliefs about the pitcher's ancestry, he hurled his poster over the wall. Inspired, the multitude stood as one, each brandishing his Randy Myers poster, and proceeded to throw, almost in unison, their posters on to the field below.

It was then that I discovered the purpose for those serious looking young men in matching collared golf shirts who had stood at the outfield wall, their backs to the playing field, watching the crowd all day long. They were the security forces, who now sought retribution for this breach of the peace. They began to identify the leaders of this revolt while reinforcements arrived. They then seized, I suspect at random, those who appeared the loudest and most intoxicated, and physically escorted them out of the bleachers, accompanied by much cheering for our condemned heroes from those of us not selected as instigators.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2001 issue.

—EFQ



DAVID J. GINZL is a former banker and historian who lives in Jacksonville, Florida. His next book, Barnett: The Story of "Florida's Bank", will be published in October, 2001 by the University of Tampa Press.

© 2001 David J. Ginzl

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