Monday, March 30, 2009

Baseball Place No. 40: Centennial Field, Burlington, Vt.; and No. 40A: Community Field, Burlington, Iowa

Centennial Field in Burlington, Vt. is one of the oldest parks in the minors, cozy and reflective of the small town it calls home.

Community Field in Burlington, Iowa, is also a pretty small park in a rural state.

I’ve been to Vermont, but not to Burlington. I’ve been to Burlington, Iowa and went to the ballpark, but couldn’t get into a game.

But stories of this week’s flooding in Fargo, N.D. and Josh Pahigian taking us to Vermont remind me of one of the great adventures of my reporting career.

Josh taps Centennial Field in Burlington, Vt. as place No. 40 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

I offer up the other:

Alternative Place No. 40: Community Field, Burlington, Iowa

Community Field is a neat story all to itself.

The home of the Bees was built in 1947 and rebuilt by community volunteers after a 1971 fire. The stadium was upgraded in 2004, but was in is small, older self when I visited in 1993.

Put on the plus side, it wasn’t underwater.

Here’s a tale from the archives. I spent time with a Red Cross team as it brought aid to communities in Missouri, Illinois and Iowa ravaged by floods.

I was finishing a travel story in St. Louis when I got a call from the editors to send my wife home, rent a car and catch up with a team of volunteers from Flint who were headed to Iowa.

The flooding was national news, and there was plenty of evidence in St. Louis, where the Mississippi was climbing the steps to the Arch.

But I was amazed by the size of the devastation on the outlying farmlands I saw while driving north on U.S. 61 through Quincy and Alton and Keokuk. Take away an occasional tree top, power line or silo, and I would have thought I was passing Lake Michigan instead of miles of crops.

The water level had already started to slip back by the time I reached southeastern Iowa. I’ll never forget the stench of the water, which smelled like rotting garbage. And there were flies everywhere.

Just touching the water was considered dangerous, and tetanus shots were dispensed like breakfast.

It was in this kind of environment that I caught up with the volunteers. Some were based in high schools, helping people get their lives back in order and providing a shoulder to cry on.

I was amazed at how much the Red Cross provided — clothes, food, cleaning supplies, mattresses and even hotel space until homes were livable again. All of which is provided through donations from folks like you and me.

The goal is to get people out of the shelters as quickly as possible, because there is nothing dignified about sleeping on cots in a high school gym with your possessions stacked around you.

Other volunteers hit the road, bringing meals to National Guard members and ordinary folks stuffing sandbags along the swelling Des Moines and Mississippi rivers.

Volunteers are asked to stay about three weeks, which is about as long as a person can last before enthusiasm and energy dissolve into depression and exhaustion. And they were largely the kind of people who can take three weeks off from work, a lot of good-hearted retirees, teachers in the summer and people with home businesses.

A helper named Norma was dubbed "The Sandwich Queen" for her ability to quickly turn 80-pound stacks of turkey and seven racks of bread into meals.

The paper let me take own photos in addition to reporting the story about the Red Cross and the flood.

Others are kind of colorful. One volunteer from Colorado was teamed with the Flintites, and wanted to talk about writing. He said he made good money writing for a particular kind of magazine — the kind with a lot of pictures and very little writing, if you know what I mean.

The impact on these close-knit small towns is hard to describe. One of them, Wapello, was so small that people not only don’t lock their house, but they leave their keys in their cars.

It was so small that my arrival was news, and it was known that I had touched water and not yet had a tetanus shot. A nurse from the local public health department tracked me down and gave me the shot.

The scariest thing happened when I was driving back to St. Louis, crossing a two-lane metal bridge somewhere near Keokuk. It was one of those bridges with the metal grates for a road, and if your car is stopped you can look straight down into the water.

And I was stopped for a while because a backhoe was stretched over the guard rail to dislodge fallen tree trunks and utility poles that had washed downriver and was stuck against a support pillar.

The water was rushing quickly, and was so high that it seemed to be only about five feet under the bridge. And at one point I looked upriver and saw something dark bobbing in the water.

As it got closer, I realized it was a tree — not a branch, but a full tree. As it got closer I realized there was nowhere I could go, with traffic stopped in both directions.

The tree finally struck the bridge with a large KLANG, and it seemed to shake for a second, but that was it, and I could exhale.

Naturally, I attempted to work some baseball into the trip. O’Donnell Stadium in the Quad Cities — not too far north of Wapello — was famously under water.

But Community Field was on high ground and not affected. It was locked up tight on the day I had some time to explore. I already had a cool Bees cap anyway.

But as I was headed out of town I saw the stadium lights on, a sign that life for these folks was slowly returning to normal. As long as there is baseball, things were looking a little better.

Baseball Place No. 39: Ozzie's Restaurant and Sports Bar

I’m not sure a restaurant counts as a baseball place. I suspect there are a lot of them where the athlete is paid by some folks to throw his name on the sign as a lure.

But Josh Pahigian seems to like them, and we’re going to start hitting some food spots as we continue our tour through his “101 Baseball Places to Strike Out.”

Josh picks “Ozzie’s Restaurant and Sports Bar” in St. Louis as spot No. 39, and, for the second post in a row, I can happily report there is no alternative.

And the occasion for our visit was indeed a happy one, and had nothing to do with the Cardinals’ Hall-of-Fame shortstop.

Ozzie’s is located in Westport Plaza, a sprawling shopping, dining and hotel area

Ozzie keeps his Gold Glove Awards on display at his restaurant.

Tony, my long-suffering, exceedingly patient college roommate, was getting married in a hotel in the complex. I had the honor of being in the wedding party.

How special is Tony? There is a slight chance I was a high-maintenance roomie.

I fully recognize that had I been paired with a lesser person, I would have come home to the dorm one day and found my Mets jerseys, New York posters, Twisted Sister tapes and bike out in the hall with a note saying “scram.” No one would have blamed him.

I think God puts people into our lives at certain points for a reason. Tony was and is a quiet role model and spiritual adviser. Which is not to say that there was not mischief coming out of Floyd Cramer Hall Room 4.

When my son was born in 1992, I could think of no better person to be his Godfather.

So that weekend in January, 2000 was a special one.

And an unusual one, too. Missouri is not really a snowy place, at least not in the time I went to college there.

But that weekend it was positively dumped on. And unlike Michiganders, St, Louisians don't deal with it well.

It was also the week that the Rams were to appear in the Super Bowl for the first time.

St. Louis is every bit the baseball town you’ve heard it is. The football Cardinals left after the 1987 season, and I think it was two seasons before anyone noticed.

But having a football team head to the Super Bowl got people semi-excited, and I remember one of the hotel ballrooms was converted into a Super Bowl store.

There is always a little down time before a wedding, and the snow prevented my usual pilgrimage to the glorious Arch. So my wife and I walked around Westport Plaza, and there was Ozzie’s.

I don’t recall much about it, other than seeing the massive display case with his 13 Gold Glove Awards. That sight alone makes for a worthwhile visit.

I didn’t see any of Ozzie’s World Series rings, but we did get to see some other rings exchanged that day, which was much more exciting.

Tony and Cathy, his beautiful bride.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Baseball Place No. 38: Crosley Field Replica

Finally, Josh Pahigian and I are on the same page.

We’ve had alternative places going all the way back to the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore, spot No. 18 in the “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

I actually like most of my places more than his, but that’s OK.

But here we are, enjoying the same place once again, No. 38, The Crosley Field Replica in Blue Ash, Ohio.

The Reds abandoned Crosley midway through the 1970 season, and only a plaque and some seats mark its location at the corner of Findlay and Western.

But folks in the suburb of Blue Ash decided that just wasn’t going to do. The Blue Ash Sports Center includes a field created to Crosley’s dimensions, even adding the famous 4-foot incline along the outfield wall.

Created in 1988, the park has some real Crosley seats to add authenticity. But what seals the deal is the five-story scoreboard, an exact replica of the original.

It’s got the ads and Longines “official watch,” but also the lineups and out-of-town scores from June 24, 1970 when the Reds beat the Giants 5-4 for their last game there.

The original, from Opening Day 1957.

The lineup that day included Johnny Bench and Pete Rose, and the Giants fielded Willie Mays and Willie McCovey.

And the scores show the Mets forever beating the Cubs, in a doubleheader, with Tom Seaver getting the victory in the first game and Nolan Ryan in the second.

Only the line score changes, because this is a working scoreboard for recreation leagues. What I wouldn’t give to trot my coed softball team out there!

The park also is recreating a field that mirrors Riverfront Stadium’s specifics, too. But that’s not as quirky, and there no way they could recreate the electric message boards, though some might pine for the dot races.

I do confess that the closest I’ve gotten to this marvel is in the car, catching a glimpse as Will and I headed to Reds games. But I’m sure we’ll head back, and next time we’ll be sure to check out the park – maybe even bring the Wiffle Balls!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Baseball Place No. 37: Joe Engel Stadium; Alternative Place No. 37A: Vonachen Stadium, the new Shea

Unlike glorious major league stadiums we know and love, minor league parks tend to stick around after their teams move on to newer, fancier digs.

Josh Pahigian takes us to Chattanooga, Tenn., where historic Joe Engel Stadium is named spot No. 37 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

The former home of the Chattanooga Lookouts was built in 1930 after Senators owner Clark Griffith sent Engel, a former pitcher and vaudeville entertainer, to construct a park for one of Griffith’s farm teams.

Engel stayed with the team, and filled the stadium with stunts learned from his years in show business. Perhaps his most famous was to place Jackie Miller, 17, on the mound against the Yankees for an exhibition game. She struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Ever-inclusive Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis then banned women from the game.
The stadium also was famous for its deep outfield, with centerfield stretching back 471 feet.

The Lookouts fled for a modern stadium in 1999, and Engel has since been used for high school games.

I’ve passed through Chattanooga just once, and didn’t stop at the stadium. But I do know of another unconventional and abandoned minor-league stadium that’s seen some great players. That would be:

Alternative Place No. 37A: Pete Vonachen Stadium – now called Shea Stadium.

There’s a charm to unusual ballparks. And Vonachen Stadium was charming.

Built in 1968 for Bradley University’s baseball team, my guess is that the stadium was little more than one short level of bleachers and a press box until the Peoria Chiefs came in 1983.

It’s more of a ballpark campus, with concessions, a store and picnic areas all in separate buildings away from the seats.

The seats seemed to hang right on top of the field, which led to another quirk. The screen behind home plate stretched all the way to the opposite side of the dugouts. So unless you were sitting beyond first and third bases, you were watching the game through mesh.

Like Engel, there were some goofy promotions. I’m not sure why, but a giant loaf of bread was running around all over the place.

Despite the giant screen, it was a fan-friendly park. We had a good time visiting in 2001 with my son and brother-in-law Jeff. My son even made it atop the dugout to dance.

Also like Engel, Vonachen Stadium saw some big stars. Raphael Palmiero played there when the team was affiliated with the Cubs, and Albert Pujols was there the year before we arrived.

Not that anyone too exciting played in our game. Looking back at my scorecard, the only player of note was Chiefs’ hurler Matt Vriesenga, and that’s only because he was from Grand Rapids.

Alas, the Chiefs moved to a new downtown stadium in 2002, abandoning Vonachen.
But Bradley University gave the yard new life with a glorious name for a not-so-glorious use.

It’s now been reconfigured as a soccer-only stadium, named after a Bradley alum and local businessman – Tim Shea.

That’s right, Shea Stadium lives, and they play in Peoria.

I just hope a giant apple rises out of a hat when the Bradley team scores a goal.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Baseball Place No. 36: Joe Jackson statue; Alternative Place No. 36A: Roberto Clemente statue

Joe Jackson might have been banished from baseball, but folks in his hometown of Greenville, S.C. are still proud of the White Sox slugger.

Banned rightly or wrongly for his role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Jackson played semi-pro ball for several years under assumed names before returning home to Greenville in 1929.

He opened a liquor store, running it until he died in 1951.

Greenville remembers Jackson in several ways, and Josh Pahigian takes us there for spot No. 36 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

There’s the Shoeless Joe Jackson Memorial Ballpark on the site where he played his first semi-pro game.

Not far away, at West End Market has a bronze statue of Jackson, showing him after taking a swing.

It’s an interesting statue. Doug Young sculpted it in the lobby of the Greenville City Hall in 2002 while folks looked on, and the base is made of bricks from old Comiskey Park, where the White Sox played.
Bricks that make up the base of the statue came from old Comiskey Park.

I’ve never been to South Carolina, and the Field of Dreams site is as close as I’ve been to a Joe Jackson memorial.

But I have seen an interesting statue of a great hitter that includes remnants of former stomping grounds. That would be:

Alternate spot No. 36A: Roberto Clemente statue, Pittsburgh

Clemente is an undisputed hero both in Pittsburgh, where his Hall-of-Fame career played out, and his homeland of Puerto Rico.

I was in Pittsburgh for the All-Star Game FanFest in July, 1994 in the days after the 12-foot bronze statue was unveiled.

Created by Susan Wagner, the statue shows Clemente coming out of a swing, about to drop his bat.

Here’s where things get really cool. The base of statues is a baseball diamond, and each of the bases contains dirt from three of the fields where the legend played: Forbes Field, Three Rivers Stadium and Santurce Field in Carolina, Puerto Rico.

Pittsburgh was one of our stops for Executive Game V, first checking out what remains of Forbes, then taking in a game at PNC Park. We parked across the river, then walked across the river on a neat yellow bridge, named after Clemente.

And on the other side, I was happy to see Wagner’s statue, moved from Three Rivers when the Bucs moved to their beautiful new yard.

Scott and Will crossing the Roberto Clemente Bridge in 2005.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Baseball Place No. 25: Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory; and Alternative Place No. 35A: Wiffle Ball Factory

Credit Pete Browning’s slump for the birth of the Louisville Slugger.

Browning was star of the 1884 Louisville Eclipse, and one day young Bud Hillerich brought him something the apprentice carved up in his father’s wood shop.

Browning started slugging, word spread about the bat and a legend was born.

Josh Pahigian tells that story as he describes spot No. 35 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory sounds like a neat place, with its 120-foot steel bat leaning against the building, and near exhibits inside about great hitters and their lumber.

Alas, this location, too, eludes me. But I can offer a spot just as important to baseball fans everywhere, but much more humble.

Of course, I refer to:

Alternative Place No. 35A: Wiffle Ball factory, Shelton, Conn.

Here’s one of my favorite tales from the archive.

For the unaware, Wiffle balls are plastic baseballs with eight oblong holes on one side that allow even a Little Leaguer to break off curve balls like Bert Blyleven.

You already know from places No. 14, Doubleday Field, and No. 20A, Wrigleyville Wiffle Ball Spot, that the white plastic ball is an object of great affection, and even inspired deep, deep thoughts.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was on one of my first days as a real, full-time reporter when I saw a small factory on Bridgeport Ave. in Shelton, Conn. with the Wiffle Ball sign in front.

The epicenter of all things Wiffle was right there, down the street from the suburban bureau I was calling home.

And the factory existed in relative secrecy, too. I could never understand why signs at the city limits didn’t read, "Welcome to Shelton, home of the Wiffle Ball."

That area of Connecticut is home to Sikorsky helicopters — in Stratford — and Bic pens and razors and even Subway sandwich shops — both in Milford — all of which have a higher profile, and all of which pale in importance to the Wiffle ball.

The plastic spheres were an essential part of my youth. There aren’t too many places to do more than play catch with a real baseball in suburban New York.

But we could take full hacks at a Wiffle ball anywhere in our small yards without fear of injury to person or property. We played Wiffle Ball everywhere.

And the make contingent of the Valley Bureau took our Wiffle Ball seriously. We even mounted a poster for a community production of "Romeo and Juliet" on a back wall just low enough to serve as a strike zone.
Since I covered Shelton planning and zoning, I immediately started plotting for any excuse to write about the factory. I eventually came up with something flimsy, placed the call and secured my invitation.

I was greeted by David Mullany, grandson of the inventor, who gave me a quick tour of the machines that pump white plastic into molds. The yellow bats and cardboard packaging were made somewhere else and shipped to Shelton.

I then dropped the burning question: What makes the balls curve?

And I couldn’t believe the answer: "We have no idea."

It was time for the creation story. Every culture has one.David told me how his father, also named David, and his brother would play baseball with plastic practice golf balls and broomsticks in their backyard.

The boys were trying to break off deuces all day, and the grandfather — he, too, was named David — was once a semi-pro pitcher and worried the boys would hurt their young arms.

So he bought a bunch of the plastic golf balls, sat down at the kitchen table with a steak knife and started cutting patterns into the balls.

For some reason, and the family doesn’t know why, the version with the eight ovals on one side easily curved. Hold a ball so the ovals are on the right, ball curves right. Ovals on the left and you can guess what happens.

The company made a baseball-sized Wiffle ball, and if you look hard you can find softball and mini-sized balls, too.

Then it was time for some inside information. Our office games were important, especially when the weather warmed up and we took our competition to the driveway across the street. I needed a strikeout pitch, and I had an audience with a master.

At that point, he bestowed upon me a private lesson on the Wiffle knuckler. And gentle reader, I pass this knowledge on to you.

Hold the ball so the ovals face your palm instead of right or left. Place two of your fingertips at the base of the holes, and push off with those fingers as you release the ball. The ball should float in without spinning, and the batter will either be mesmerized by the beauty of the whole thing or flail hopelessly when he realizes too late that no curve is coming.

My co-workers got a little out of hand when our lunch-hour games started stretching well into the afternoon, and then when we started challenging the Stratford Bureau.I think about the story of the Wiffle Ball when I ponder some of life’s big mysteries.

The Mullany family built their business on a product without knowing how it worked, but accepted that it just did and always would. Blind faith.

And we can’t explain why some things happen. They just do.

We must remember that God is in control, not us. Accept that curves in life are coming for reasons we can’t — or aren’t meant to — understand.And once in a while, expect a knuckleball.

I shared this story with students in my journalism class. I wanted to show them an example of the interesting people we get to meet as reporters, but also about placing our trust in the creator whose timing and methods we don’t always understand.

I gave each of them a Wiffle Ball, too, as a reminder.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Baseball Place No. 34: jackie Robinson's resting place; and Alternative Place No. 34A: Billy Herman's resting place

The epitaph on Jackie Robinson’s headstone is as eloquent as the man himself: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

It doesn’t speak of Robinson’s heroics in baseball or society. A person seeking the resting place at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn already knows those things anyway.

Josh Pahigian takes us there as spot No. 34 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

Jackie doesn’t need a flashy tomb to be remembered, of course. The Mets are seeing to that with the monument that is the Jackie Robinson Rotunda at Citi Field.

I’ll get to Citi Field, but I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to Cypress Hills. But I have visited the resting place of one of Jackie’s fellow Brooklyn Dodgers, and also a Hall-of-Famer.

Alternative Baseball Place No. 34A: Billy Herman’s resting place

Herman might be a debatable selection, tapped by the tapped by the Veteran’s Committee in 1975, long after his career ended in 1947.

But he’s an interesting guy.

His full name is William Jennings Bryan Herman, born in Indiana a year after the famed orator was defeated by in his third bid for the presidency.

Herman broke into the majors with the Cubs in 193, and became a regular .300 hitter and a 10-time all-star.

Not a power-hitter by any stretch, he launched only 47 homers in his career. But his Hall of Fame plaque calls him a “master of the hit-and-run” – striking out just 428 times -- and he was famed for his soft hands. He led the league in putouts by a second baseman seven times

Herman was traded to the Dodgers in 1940, and had his best season at the plate in 1943, when he hit 330 and drove in 100 runs.

He lost the 1944 and 1945 seasons fighting in World War II, came back to Brooklyn in 1946 and was traded to the Boston Braves mid-season.

Herman was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947, playing only 15 games as he was also the team’s manager. He returned to Brooklyn as a coach in 1952, staying through the championship and then the defection to Los Angeles.

Herman later managed the Red Sox for two seasons, and then held a variety of coaching and player development jobs, even taking a spot on Roger Craig’s San Diego Padres’ staff in 1979 at age 70.

He has some spots in the record books, claiming the National League records for most putouts in a season by a second baseman. He also shares the major league record for most hits on Opening Day, with five, in 1936.

And if his full name indicates a parental interest in politics, it was a trait apparently passed down. His granddaughter, Cheri Daniels, is married to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Herman retired to the West Palm Beach area, and passed away at the age of 83 in 1992. He rests in a mausoleum in Riverside Memorial Park in Tequesta, Fla., not far from Perry Como. Like Robinson’s marker, it’s simple and dignified. His name also is on a bench nearby.

I know this because it’s a special place. My nephew and two of my grandparents rest a shot walk away.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Shea skyline lives!

My brother-in-law Steve sent some awesome photos of the "Superflush" at Citi Field. It was nice to see some pieces of Shea made it over.

Looks like skyline from atop the scoreboard is now over a concession area.

The Home Run Apple looks nice in its new home.

The front of the scoreboard says, "Let's Go Mets," and the back says "Home of the Mets."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Good books and impressionable kids, a Mets fan's choices for March is Reading Month madness

These first-graders could have been Mets fans by time I finished reading -- if I came with the proper book.

I was a celebrity reader at a Grand Rapids elementary school today, which might prompt some to say that they need to raise the bar on who qualifies as a celebrity.

But that’s OK, because I had a wonderful time with the first-graders.

Of course, you can’t just show up and start reading. You have to approach this in the proper fame of mind.

These are young, impressionable students.

They might not have been exposed to Yankee hype.

This was an opportunity to offer them a glimpse of the promised land that is Mets fandom.

Luckily I had two new weapons at my disposal.

First is the "2009 Maple Street Press Mets Annual." It’s not quite a book, but it’s bigger than your basic magazine, with a thicker cover and no ads. That makes it hard to describe, other than to say it's really good to have.

It’s got a little bit of everything to prepare you for the season, from individual player profiles to features on prospects.

I liked the story about the Mets’ new Triple-A team in Buffalo, and there are even schedules for the minor-league teams.

There’s a nice interview with Keith Hernandez, and some trivia concerning Shea Stadium’s firsts and lasts — included designated hitters. Think about how that could happen. The first was in 1974 and the last in 1998 — among the many indignities inflicted on Shea when the Yankees borrowed it.

But the best part is blogger Greg Prince’s contribution, which uses a series of key words to walk us through the wondrous 1969 season — 40 years ago this year, if you can believe that.

I was thinking that would be perfect for the first-graders, enthralling them with tales of Tom Seaver and Gil Hodges, Tommie Agee and Jerry Koosman.

My wife noticed my copy of "Mets Annual" on the dining room table as I prepared to leave the house.

"You’re not going to read that to the kids, are you?"

Usually when she says something like that, the "are you?" on the end is included only to be a polite. It’s a command, dressed up nicely as a question.


Well, I did get another amazing book in mail this week. Speaking of Mr. Prince, it’s his "Faith and Fear in Flushing."

Like the blog he shares with Jason Fry, "FAFIF" isn’t just a collection of stories about the team, or even an autobiography.

Instead it’s a tale of how the team provides a common touchstone for our lives to intersect. Our lives don’t revolve around the Mets, but, like family member, they’re an important part it.

Sometimes we are angry at or hurt by relatives, and they can also provide great comfort and joy. As Mets fans, we know both hurt and joy. Yankees fans just know shame. At least they should.

Alas, Greg’s book is 320 pages of glorious history and memories, and I had only about a half hour with the kids.

My options were to read really, really quickly or just hit the highlights. Option one seemed impractical, and there are probably too many highlights to pick from. Once I started, the kids, now completely absorbed in the glory, would be begging me to keep going, and the teacher would no doubt be cursing "March is Reading Month" and I’d never get invited back.

My caring wife sensed where all this was headed and become involved in the selection process.

We narrowed it down to "Skippyjon Jones in the Dog House" and "Teammates," by Peter Golenbock, which is about the day Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Jackie Robinson at Crosley Field.

Robinson is a personal hero, must be a Met in some way since Citi Field has a whole rotunda dedicated to him.

I was greeted at the school door by a new friend, who held a beautiful sign reading "Bienvenido, Mr. Murray" — it’s a bilingual school — and handed me off to another student, who took me to the library where some pre-selected books were on a table.

The librarian said that while she was sure "Teammates" was a fine book, she suggested the first-graders might better like something called "Hippo-not-amus" by Tony and Jan Payne.

The kids indeed laughed at "Portly," the young hippo who looked like Mo Vaughn without the limp and was tired of eating grass and laying around in the water and decided to see what it was like to be other animals.

As you can guess, hilarity ensued and Portly learned he is fine just the way he is. A nice message, to be sure.

We also talked about what reporters do, and how students can become better writers. The class was engaged and well-behaved, which is what I expected.

And I did sneak in a little baseball.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Baseball Place No. 33: Billy Goat Tavern; and Baseball Place No. 33A: New Comiskey Park

If only they'd have let the goat in the first time.

If Billy Sianis had been a Yankee fan, he would not have had any problems bringing his pet goat to the ballgame.

I’ve been to Yankee games, I’ve seen those fans. I’d rather sit next to a goat than most of the Jeter-loving hooligans that fill the place.

Alas, Sianis’s operated the Billy Goat Tavern is in Chicago, not the Bronx, and the Cubs turned him away as he tried to bring his goat to the 1945 World Series.

As the legend goes, Sianis cursed the Cubs, saying the team would never win a World Series.

Sianis was obviously a gifted promoter, because now we have to endure talk about the curse every time the Cubs are in the playoffs. And he’s opened several taverns around the city, including tourist places like Navy Pier.

Josh Pahigian takes us to the original Billy Goat Tavern, 430 North Michigan Ave., as spot No. 33 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

I’ve been to Chicago lots of times, but, like the Batcolumn, I’ve never seen a Billy Goat Tavern.

But I have seen a team that appeared to be cursed, and figured out how to break it. That would be:

Alternative Baseball Place No. 33A: New Comiskey Park

Old Comiskey was being torn down during the first season of the new ballpark.

We checked out the New Comiskey several times in 1991, the year the park opened. Will and I scored credentials for a story and went on the field before a game with the Orioles.

And I returned later with my wife to experience it from the fan’s perspective.

Frank Thomas was hanging out with Glenn Davis before the game.

Ozzie Guillen in the cage.

That's Cal Ripken Jr. talking to Ben McDonald.

I’ve come to this conclusion: There are two New Comiskeys.

If you have a seat in the lower stands, it’s a fine ballpark. A wonderful ballpark. You seem close to the action. There are plenty of concession stands along a nice, wide concourse. And there was a nice Hall of Fame.

However, if your seats are in the upper deck, you are not a happy camper.

First, there are three layers of skyboxes pushing the upper deck into the heavens.

Then, the seating is so steep that I’ve been afraid to lean forward, lest I tumble head over heels down through the section, over the rails, past three levels of people in skyboxes not watching the game then landing on the heads of some poor Sox fans who were enjoying the action from a reasonable height.

It’s just not a comfortable thing.

If you can rest your feet on the head of the person in front of you, the rows are too steep.

The Sox had bad timing. Their yard was among the first of the new wave of stadiums, and came after Camden Yards revolutionized the way ballparks are designed.

It’s been argued that Comiskey is actually the last of the old wave rather than the first of the new, fan-friendly era.

The Sox were aware of this, because the team started five years of renovations in 2001, even lopping off the last six rows of the upper deck, among other changes to give the place more of a retro feel.

Some of those changes were paid for by selling the name of the park to U.S. Cellular Field, which I recognize only on occasion.

I like New Comiskey, as long as we can sit in the lower stands. We’ve been there a bunch of times, including “Elvis Night,” which would have made former owner Bill Veeck proud.
The Executive Board: Me, Will, Scott and Jim.

The park was the location for an historical event, in addition to the 2005 World Series, of course. The first Executive Game occurred in 2000, and we’ve gathered every year since.

The Sox approved of our official ExGame I shirts.

I’m sure the Sox have a plaque commemorating the event somewhere, but it must be in the upper deck because I haven’t found it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Baseball Place No. 32: Growden Memorial Park; and Alternative Place No. 32A: Michael Jordan in Fort Lauderdale

One of the coolest caps in my collection is from the Alaska Goldpanners, who count one George Thomas Seaver among their alumni.

It was pretty obscure, snagged before the days of the Internet. I read about the team, tracked down the address, sent a letter and the Goldpanners replied with a mail-order souvenir list and all kinds of neat stuff.

The league attracts college players, and the list of Goldpanners who went on the majors include include Dave Winfield and Barry Bonds.

Josh Pahigian takes us to Growden Memorial Park, where the Goldpanners play, for spot No. 32 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

A college-aged Tom Seaver in his second-coolest uniform.

The team also is famous for its Midnight Sun Game. Fairbanks is just south of the Artic Circle, and on the summer solstice the Goldpanners host a game that starts at 10:30 p.m. and ends after midnight.

And the wildest part? The game is played without lights.

Baseball outdoors at midnight played in broad daylight is pretty unusual. But in 1994 I witnessed something almost as strange. How about the best basketball player ever trying to play baseball?

Alternative place No. 32A: Michael Jordan playing at Fort Lauderdale Stadium

I was disappointed with the photos I took that night. The lighting was rough and the crowd was huge. Jordan didn't exactly play to the fans, either.

Jordan, obviously, was an amazing basketball player. We’ll probably never really know what possessed him to leave the NBA and focus on playing for the Chicago White Sox.

He was invited to spring training in 1994 and naturally attracted crowds wherever he went.

The Sox came across the Florida to play the Yankees in Fort Lauderdale, and Dad and I were able to snag tickets.

It was one of the most unusual spring training games I’ve ever seen. The Yankees, icky as they are, had Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs and Bernie Williams – a future Hall-of-Famer and two stars. Some guy named Jeter was in camp wearing No. 70, according to my program.

But the vast majority of the people in attendance were there to see the guy who had never played in a major league game.

Jordan was cheered as he stretched, as he shagged flies and as he kind of weakly hit balls during batting practice.

To the credit of the Sox and Jordan, the fans got their money's worth. He batted leadoff, and spent seven innings in the field. Nothing spectacular happened at the plate, where he struck out looking once, and hit grounders to second in the other three at-bats.

I was as excited to see Frank Thomas, who had a typical Frank game with two walks, two hits and a strikeout.

The Yankees won 12-7, but people left happy.

Fort Lauderdale Stadium, built in 1962, looked pretty old then. In fact, it looked nicer when we saw the Mets play the Orioles there last month. Must have been the Yankee taint.