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Monday, August 27, 2001

Hey, Isn?t That Annie Savoy Over There?

Not every player and owner makes big dollars.

In Johnstown, watching independent league baseball is like stepping back in
  time

Are you one of those people who always whines about how great baseball was   in the good old days? You know, the kind who endlessly complains about how ballplayers   make too much money, and how these players nowadays couldn?t even carry ol?   Stubby McLean?s jockstrap?

Well if you are, do yourself a favor. Go to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and watch   a Johnstown Johnnies game at Point Stadium. The Johnnies are reigning champs   of the Frontier League, perhaps the shakiest of baseball?s five independent   minor leagues. These guys are professionals, but just barely. It?s small-town   baseball right out of the 1950s, and even if you?re not a grumpy old curmudgeon,   watching a ballgame at Point Stadium can restore your faith in the National   Pastime. Yes, it?s that good.

In case you haven?t noticed, minor league baseball is big business now. Most   teams are owned by out-of-town corporations, and cities like Sacramento and   Brooklyn and Altoona are building fancy stadiums with luxury boxes and expensive   tickets. Not so in Johnstown. Here general admission is four bucks, and there?s   one luxury box. Yes, that?s right: One. It sits out in the left field bleachers,   lonely, sticking out like a sore thumb, and on the day I was there, it was empty.   Of course, the rest of the park isn?t exactly full, either. There are only about   800 people here, but they?re a great fans. They know all the players? names,   they know their baseball, and they know how to enjoy themselves. Here there   are no gates blocking fans from the playing field, only an open stairway near   each dugout. After all, who would want to run onto the field to disrupt a Johnstown   Johnnies game? Kids sit gleefully on top of the home team dugout, and nobody   shoos them away. There are no policemen, no ushers eager to wipe down your seat,   and no legal disclaimers about foul balls. The concession prices are great,   too. Hot dogs are a buck, and they?re bigger than the ones usually sold at major   league stadiums. Beer is $2.50. And at a candy table under the grandstand, a   sandwich bag full of Smartees costs a dollar.

Aside from the charm of small-town baseball, what makes the Johnnies so appealing   is the stadium they play in. It?s simply a beautiful place to watch a baseball   game. Johnstown is in the middle of a valley surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains,   and the quaint brownstones of this old steel town are visible beyond the outfield   fence. Point Stadium is so named because it sits on a narrow point of land downtown   where the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers converge. They?ve been playing   baseball on this site since the Civil War, but the current structure dates back   only to 1925, making it the oldest stadium currently used for minor league baseball.   Though some changes have been made since it opened, the brick fa?ade and classic   steel grandstand are ever-present reminders that Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige   once played here (but, alas, not against each other). Like other ballparks of   its era, Point Stadium?s dimensions are dictated by its surroundings. It?s squeezed   onto a narrow peninsula, and the result is a ballpark shaped like a football   field, similar to the Los Angeles Coliseum. The left field wall is tantalizingly   close. There are no distances painted, but the Johnnies? website says left field   is 250 feet away, a number that?s about as reliable as a Cuban pitcher?s birthdate.   Anyway, it?s so cozy that a batter who hits a ball off the wall is usually held   to a single, and there?s a towering 70-foot screen to make sure home runs don?t   come too cheaply (and to minimize broken windows on John Street, which runs   right behind it). Right field, though, is another story. Straightaway right,   which measures about 350 feet in most big league parks, is at least 400 feet   in Johnstown. A well-placed hit down the right field line is an inside-the-park   home run waiting to happen. On this night, Point Stadium plays like a pitcher?s   park, as Johnstown shuts out the visitors from London (no, not that London),   2-0.

This is the stringiest of shoestring operations, as might be expected from   a franchise that draws 800 fans on a Friday night. When I walked up to buy a   ticket, the cashier couldn?t change a 20 dollar bill. The budget is so tight   that the Johnnies don?t even spring for paper towels in the restrooms. There   are two clocks, one that says 8:46 and one that says 9:46. (So they don?t have   to change it for Daylight Savings Time, I?m guessing.) The aluminum bleachers   appear to be hand-me-downs from some football stadium, and they have spray-painted   number sequences like 210-211-212-46-45-44-43. Must make things interesting   in the ticket office. (Then again, maybe that?s why they can?t change a 20.   All those big numbers just get too confusing.) One section in the middle of   the bleachers is off limits because it?s home to a bee?s nest. Really.

Relief pitchers get the best seats in the house. The home team?s bullpen, called   the Crow?s Nest, is a nifty elevated perch in dead center field. Batting back-to-back   in the Johnnies? lineup tonight are right fielder Dirk Diggler and third baseman   Save Ferris. (At least, that?s what I heard; later I found out their names were   Kirk Taylor and Dave Ferres.) I?m sitting up close, but it takes me until the   seventh inning to figure out what the scrawl on the visitors? uniform says.   Werewolves. (Aha! London Werewolves, I get it.) Soon after I decipher the uniform,   I notice something else. Everybody on the field ? every player, every coach   and manager, every batboy and umpire ? is white. Not a black or Latino face   in sight. I suppose there are reasons for this, with a big one being that teams   in independent leagues don?t have the budget to scour Santo Domingo or Chicago?s   Southside for talented players. It?s distressing, but then again, segregation   is what apple-pie America was about too, wasn?t it?

Eric Enders Posted: August 27, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 0 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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