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THE STATE OF THE GAME

In the Shadow of the Sandias
By Sim J. Ramirez

It has been a quiet summer here in Albuquerque. There is no baseball being played this year. The Albuquerque Dukes, the Triple A team, have left the city and the silence seems especially loud. We have lost our baseball team of the high desert to the lush green of the Pacific Northwest. The big business of baseball has swallowed up our minor league franchise. From the distance of cable, fans see teams move, stadiums re-named, and salaries are top news stories. In Albuquerque's naivete, however, there was a sense of isolation, a sense of immunity from the business of baseball. But one morning the city awoke without professional baseball in the landscape. The stadium was vacant.

My daughter is three and has attended numerous Dukes games, even to the point of equating all baseball games with the "Dukes." I am raising her to be a Dodger fan—though I am now questioning my choice—but her mother is, alas, an American Leaguer, a Tigers fan. Harmony is a tenuous existence. My wife remarks that our daughter is definitely "daddy's girl," given her exuberance for the game, but in truth, her enthusiasm is probably for nachos and ice cream in little baseball helmets. Still, I looked forward to sharing baseball with her. I taught myself how to score games watching the Dukes and I looked forward to teaching my daughter. My upbringing consisted of the Dodgers of the '70s: Garvey, Lopes, Russell, and Cey. I grew up with those heartbreaking losses in the World Series of the seventies, Fernando-mania, and winning it all in 1981 and 1988. How easily it all slips into past tense.

The Albuquerque Dukes are, were, the top tier of the farm system for the Los Angeles Dodgers. None of that remains now. The Dukes were the final stepping-stone for numerous big leaguers and we (note the possessive, "we") had a spate of Rookies of the Year, including Eric Karros, Mike Piazza, and Raul Mondesi. Hideo Nomo was also a Rookie of the Year but he was never a Duke. Ron Coomer, Paul Konerko, Ramon and Pedro Martinez have all played in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains. Darryl Strawberry was here, as was Kirk Gibson. Tommy Lasorda would often be in town. I got Joe Black's autograph on my worn copy of The Boys of Summer. Sandy Koufax, the Sandy Koufax, has also been here. But none of that remains now.

There is something to be said for seeing a player develop in the minor leagues and then watching him make "The Show." We want the best for them, and wish them well, yet we are saddened by their departure. We minor league fans convince ourselves that the minor league baseball experience is superior to the Major Leagues, and there is no denying the hustle and desire, the allure of the big leagues that kept the Dukes running. The major leagues were a mere phone call away, but of course, none of that remains now.

There is a comfort and familiarity in our minor league park, the Sports Stadium. There is, was, a drive-in section. There was the recent addition of the electronic scoreboard that seemed so wasteful and gaudy then (and especially now). There was the goofy-looking mascot that seemed to frighten more kids than enchant. And now there are hopes of luring another Triple A franchise to Albuquerque; apparently the city wants to reciprocate the kind favor that befell us, but it does not sit well. We are victims now, which is bad enough, but to become a participant in despoliation? The thought disturbs me; we have become the enemy.

There is also an ongoing discussion on whether to build a new stadium or to renovate the old park. I hear the talk but I do not listen. I miss the Dukes: A new team will not replace them. I pay attention to baseball from a distance. The arguments both for and against ring hollow. This is our first summer without baseball. Like the canceled 1994 World Series and the strike/lockout, nothing can replace what was taken away.

I was never a season-ticket holder although that was always the dream. (The irony is that now I could afford to be one.) I used to average about ten games a season, almost always Opening Night and most, if not all, of the Hot Dog Nights. With the arrival of my daughter and now, son, we (the individual becomes a collective) averaged about three games a season. Nevertheless, in our household we speak of baseball as more than a game, and the birth of my children has made me all the more sentimental for what has been lost. And yet, I am not a rabid fan: I cannot list stats or remember details. I do not dwell over the minutiae of box scores or batting averages; I review them but do not store them. But I am a fan of the game, even though the purveyors of our national pastime seem intent on changing that fact. I lament the many "improvements" in the game, but know that change is inevitable. I know baseball is a business and that there is more concern for the green of a kind different from the field of play. My daughter will probably forget about the Dukes, but how can I? More so than the players and the many games that dwell within me is the betrayal by a faceless foe who removed an Albuquerque institution for the sake of skyboxes and underground batting cages to be provided somewhere else. There are no easy answers. I do not understand, nor wish to, the complex mechanization of the business of baseball. I am rueful that there will never be baseball in Albuquerque again—and that there will be. Baseball is a business, a big business. It is a microcosm of the world at large and it is tainted. All of it is tainted.

The Sports Stadium, home of the Dukes, sits empty. The stadium stands in the quiet echoes of games played in the high desert sun and in the silent voices of friends taking in a contest. Like loves long past, the stadium reminds us of what once was and what might have been. All that remains are moments of sadness and betrayal surrounded by the emptiness of promises. With no baseball being played and autumn approaching, we are left to taste the melancholy alone.

My daughter still asks about the Dukes. I tell her they are no longer here. —EFQ

Postscript: In a special election held in May, residents of Albuquerque voted to renovate Sports Stadium. Lawsuits are pending regarding improprieties and conflicts of interest alleged to have occurred during the stadium ballot process. The Calgary Cannons are now slated to become Albuquerque's new Triple A club next season. No one seems concerned about Calgary's baseball fans.

SIM J. RAMIREZ lives in New Mexico with his wife Karen and their two children, Janie and Dante. He remains a Dodger fan.

© 2001 Sim J. Ramirez

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