Thursday, July 15, 2004

Trip to Wahconah, part 2...

I took a seat in the boxes on the third base side, just past the edge of the screen behind home plate. The small grandstand was filled, the bleachers on both outfield foul lines were filled and fans were standing or sitting in lawn chairs all around the foul lines and out onto the outfield warning track.

A parade started to bring the Hillies out on the field. A procession of local Little Leaguers lead the way, followed by a line of antique cars which took the players out onto the field. Many of the cars appeared to be from the era in which the original Pittsfield Hillies played, during the 1920’s.

The game was being televised on ESPN Classic and the color analyst was none other than the Spaceman himself, former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee. Lee is a big vintage baseball fan, and plays himself on a team at his home in Vermont. The Spaceman was all decked out in a vintage Boston uniform shirt and hat. I managed to get a great picture of him slugging down a beer between innings.

A barbershop quartet sang the Star Spangled Banner and the game was finally ready to get underway. The game was played under the rules generally used in 1886, which meant that the game, although certainly recognizable as baseball, had quite a few differences from today’s game. Some of the primary rules differences were: the batter can call for a “high” strike zone or a “low” strike zone; it take 7 balls to walk a batter instead of 4; there is only one umpire, who stands 10-15 feet off to the side of the batter. He must be addressed as “sir” at all times, and is allowed to smoke a cigar; a hit batter just causes a dead ball, he doesn’t get to take first base; a foul ball doesn’t count as a strike; a foul tip caught by the catcher was an out, regardless of the count. There are lots more, but those are a good sampling.

Likewise, the equipment was somewhat different from what we see today. Uniforms had no names or numbers on the back. The ball was quite a bit softer than today’s model, making it difficult to hit as hard. This was a good thing, because the players used the small gloves of the era. They were little more than large leather gardening gloves, which led to some interesting defense. The catcher had a bit more protection, including a padded glove, mask, chest protector and shin guards. The bats were the most similar to those in use today, although they tended not to have the big knob at the bottom.

The game itself was fun to watch. Both teams used accomplished amateur players, and it was obvious that the guys knew what they were doing. The only problem was that the small gloves led to some sloppy defense. There were about 12 errors between the two teams, and it made for a long game.

In the bottom of the first, with Hartford leading 2-0, the setting sun caused the first sun delay I’ve ever been witness to. They just stopped play until the sun fell behind the trees in the outfield, then picked up where they left off. The local crowd seemed to be having fun during the delay, which lasted about five minutes. They seemed to be reveling in this unique feature of their antique ballpark.

The game picked up again and proceeded at a fairly slow pace. It got to 10 PM and we were still in the sixth inning. As much as I hated to bail out, I did have a two hour drive home ahead of me, and it looked like the game still had at least an hour to go. So, I reluctantly started to make my way to the car. I spotted Chip on the way out and congratulated him on the wonderful success the evening had been. Then I spotted Jim Bouton in his Hillies uniform coming out of the clubhouse and heading for the dugout. I stopped him and introduced myself and he said hello. I later got an email from him apologizing for not being a better host, but I certainly understood how busy he was during the game.

I got back in the Element, hooked up the iPod and stopped at a convenience store to stock up on Diet Coke on my way back to the Mass Pike. I was exhilarated. The evening had been a huge success, with crowd estimates running between 4,500 and 6,000. The game had been fun to watch and pretty much everyone I saw seemed to be smiling and having a good time. The whole experience seemed to validate the idea that minor league baseball in a refurbished Wahconah Park could be a huge success. I can’t wait for the 2005 season to start and for Jim and Chip to put all the great ideas outlined in “Foul Ball” into action.

Reviews of the game were almost universally positive. Interviews in the local Berkshire Eagle and the Albany paper had fans talking enthusiastically about what a great night it was. Friends back home who had watched the game on ESPN Classic told me how much fun it was. The one bit of cold water poured on the proceedings came from Jim and Chip’s nemesis in “Foul Ball”, the Berkshire Eagle. They had no choice by to acknowledge the success of the event, but they went on to complain about all the old stuff that came up in the book. They still beat the drum for a new ballpark - they haven’t seemed to get over the fact that the people of Pittsfield DON’T WANT a new ballpark,. They’re very happy with the one they have, thank you very much. They also went off on the old, tired refrain that somehow independent baseball is inferior to the affiliated baseball played in the NY-Penn League. Of course, anyone who has watched the independent league product knows this is a crock. While the short season Class A players in the NY-Penn League are generally just drafted rookies out of high school or college, most of the independent league players have been just released from AA or AAA ball, and some have big league experience. The level of play is noticeably superior. Now, is there a better chance you’ll see the next Barry Bonds or Pedro Martinez on the affiliated team? Sure, but probably two or three of the kids on the roster will ever even get a sniff at the Major Leagues, and maybe one out of a hundred becomes a star player.

We’re already talking about plans to go out to the Berkshires for a weekend family trip to catch a game next year, and I have every intention of being there for Opening Day at Wahconah. I’m hoping this experience will continue to be as good as it has been so far.


Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker