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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
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
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?
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