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
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),
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?
Posted: August 27, 2001 at 05:00 AM | 0 comment(s)
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