August 28, 2007

Bennett Explores the Stories Behind the Games

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This past summer, I went to a White Sox game with some of my friends from high school. Perched in the cheap seats (can you really call $23 bleacher seats the cheap seats any more?), I swapped stories and ideas with my friend who writes for the sports section of Michigan’s paper. While I watched the Indians B-Team knock out a wild Mark Buehrle after four innings (not really to my chagrin — observe the column moniker), my friend and I hit on a dividing force between how we view sports.
“I hate writing midweek stories,” he said. “All I end up doing is just listing stats. I never saw the argument that there’s a story within a story. What happens in the game is what happens. That’s what sports is — the game.”
I stuttered a bit, not knowing what to say. I couldn’t have disagreed with him more.
Finally, I summarized all the thoughts whirring around my head.
I love the story within the story, the culture, the human interest aspect, the political significance. To me, sports are like a giant soap opera with an infinite amount of worlds turning, general hospitals, and days of various people’s lives. Watching the actual game is only scratching the surface.
It was with this in mind that I set out to Elmira, N.Y., to catch a glimpse of the Elmira Pioneers of the New York Collegiate Baseball League (NYCBL) upon returning to Ithaca. I wasn’t drawn there by the desire to see top-notch baseball — I had no pretenses of that. I ventured 40 minutes outside of Ithaca to experience sports at its core. Independent and minor league baseball is sports in its purest form. The game itself matters only to a certain degree. The community, the relationships, the tradition — unperturbed by many of the modern distractions — are what draw my nostalgic self to places like this.
The stadium, Dunn Field, was nothing overly spectacular. Perhaps it’s most defining structural feature was that it was obviously built in the same tradition as many historic major league ballparks built in the boom of stadiums from the 1920s until World War II (Dunn Field was completed in 1939). The view from the grandstand was spectacular, however. Just beyond the outfield fence, the Chemung River wound itself lazily at the basin of tree-covered hills that reflected the sun’s fading light off amber-tinted leaves.
The ads on the outfield wall looked like they had been preserved from the 1950s. As my eyes swept from left to right, I fully expected to find an ad for “Joe’s Cod Liver Oil,” below the creepy one-eyed Homer Simpson wooden cutout that stood on top of the fence out in left center (which was most likely placed there during the Tracy Ullman days). While the stadium didn’t scream historic perfection, it did give me an indication of how this team fit into Elmira’s culture.
The small decorations around the park were testaments of the long-entrenched baseball tradition in Elmira. There was a picture of Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig in their barnstorming team uniforms (the Bustin’ Babes and the Larrupin’ Lou’s). Eight days after the Yankees won the 1928 World Series, the two teams swung through Elmira, where the Babe sent a crowd of nearly 10,000 home happy with a long home run. Another photo is a simple team photo of the first ever baseball team in Elmira, the 1889 Colonels. Ever since then, Elmira has had some sort of independent team, minor league team or summer collegiate league team, each year. It’s a long tradition filled with famous names seems to fill the Elmira residents with an unwavering pride.
I checked out the gift stand during an inning break, telling myself I was too poor to part with $12 for an awesome Pioneers shirt. My eyes fell on something far more interesting, however. Sitting on the counter was a giant baseball with googly eyes and a coon skin cap — the mascot uniform. It looked like the illegitimate love child of Mr. Met and Otto the Orange (the Syracuse mascot) — and I loved it. Even better, it was up for auction. I definitely could part with $130 to make myself the leading bettor (and eventually the $12 for the t-shirt, it was pretty bad ass).
Smugly, I commented to the man running the booth, “I feel like this is the kind of thing you think is really cool to buy, but then have absolutely no purpose for.”
After a befuddled pause, he said, almost incredulously, “But it’s a piece of Pioneer’s history.”
While I did not win the auction (certainly because they begged someone to outbid me after I let it slip to the man that my plan was to have all the guys in my fraternity to pitch in five bucks each), I was taken by how tightly he held on to the idea of what the Pioneers represent — a link to yesteryear, an untainted version of our nation’s (former?) pastime.
The number of people that share these feelings is dwindling, though. The Pioneers have been losing money — over $60,000 in 2003 — and taxpayers were growing upset while their taxes went toward operating the field and paying the manager’s salary. In response, the city cut $124,000 from the Dunn Field budget three years ago, and it looked like baseball may be done in Elmira. Done, in a city that had seen Earl Weaver manage the squad for several years, had watched my boy Lou Pinella hit three home runs in one game, Wade Boggs slap singles, Curt Schilling throw his split-finger fastball, and Don Zimmer, well, be Don Zimmer.
So, the city did the only thing it could. It cut ties with all semi-professional baseball and joined the NYCBL.
“It was rough for a few years there,” my friend at the gift shop said. “But these kids try so hard. They play hard all the time, you know? Because they know there are scouts in the stands. They’re all hoping to get drafted.”
The downside to this is that the play and the atmosphere is a clear step down from even independent baseball. The Pioneers trotted out onto the field with adjustable hats.
“Don’t they sell fitted hats in the souvenir shop?” I commented to my friends that had accompanied me.
As the game went on, however, the lack of professionalism didn’t matter. What was important about playing the game was not so much the game itself, but the fact that it was still around to be part of the Elmira community. The fact that the old man sitting three rows behind home plate, wearing a Pioneers (fitted!) hat and keeping score not in a purchased scorecard but on a separately purchased spiral notebook of scorecards, could still fill his seat for the summer months each year. Before and after the game, players conversed casually with fans, not to mention the opposing teams. Between innings, they played songs like “The Say Hey Kid,” and “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” that made me feel like I was watching a Ken Burns’ documentary on baseball. It was, to put it plainly, nice.
I enjoyed watching the game, which the Pioneers did win (in fact, the team won the championship a few weeks later, sweeping the Glens Falls Golden Eagles), but I would have been just as content watching the people in the stadium and just soaking up the atmosphere of the stadium. I can only hope that the tradition of semi-pro sports sticks around because it gives us so much more than games to watch.
Quote of the week:
“We can’t let those PETA people run this country. Someone should just go out there and beat their asses.”
-The always elegant Charles Barkley
Chicago reference of the week:
Jacques Jones’ stats, post All-Star break: .326, 3 HR, 27 RBI
Derek Jeter’s stats, post All-Star break: .287, 3 HR, 14 RBI