The 5,000 baseball fans who waited patiently last Aug. 9 for the start of the first game of the 1996 Connie Mack World Series, in Farmington, N.Mex., were joined by two unusual visitors to the desert Southwest. The first was a 90-minute rainstorm, which produced a double rainbow beyond the rightfield fence. The second visitor, making the ceremonial first pitch, was Florida senator Connie Mack, grandson and namesake of the Hall of Fame manager who is memorialized in this annual tournament. But neither visitor was what the crowd had come to see. After two days of welcome hugs, a parade and opening ceremonies, the fans at Ricketts Park wanted to hear the umpire call, "Play ball!"
The Connie Mack World Series, which Farmington has hosted every summer since 1964, is the biggest event of the year in this town of 40,000. Last year attendance for the nine-day tournament topped 86,000. This year's Connie Mack, to be held Aug. 8-14, is expected once again to draw the third-biggest crowd in the state, behind the state fair and the Albuquerque Balloon Festival.
It's not just fans who love the tournament. Some 1,500 Connie Mack teams around the country vie for the seven open spots in the draw (the eighth goes to a team from Farmington), which showcases the talents of 160 players aged 16 to 18. That's why folks such as Jim Walton, of the Major League Baseball scouting bureau, are also regulars at Farmington.
"They just shut down and talk baseball for 10 days," Walton says of the city's residents. "You have to be somewhat in awe that they've been able to put this together."
Another admirer is Sam Carpenter, manager of a leading Connie Mack team, the Dallas Mustangs. "It took coming once for me to make up my mind that I was going to get a group of kids who can make it here every year," says Carpenter. His squads have made nine trips since 1985.
Longtime fans brag about big leaguers they first saw in Farmington, such as Barry Larkin, Dave Parker, Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr. Some locals who can't describe a sacrifice bunt generously open their homes to players from across the country. The host-family program, created in 1975, helps reduce the teams' costs enough for the American Amateur Baseball Congress to keep the tournament in this remote town 180 miles northwest of Albuquerque.
Not all of the 72 Farmington families who offer their homes (and well-stocked refrigerators) to the teenage amateur athletes get the chance to visit them in major league locker rooms later on, as 15-year-old Steve Lien has done with Griffey at spring training several times since 1986, after the Lien family had put the player up. Many hosts, however, get graduation announcements, wedding invitations and Christmas cards as if they were part of the players' families.
Last year the Memphis BFI Tigers reached the final of the 17-game double-elimination tournament with a 3-1 record as pitcher Keith Dunn won two games with a 1.75 ERA. But the team's luck ran out in the title game, against Dallas.
The Mustangs, who matched the Tigers' 3-1 record to make the final, secured their second straight championship with a 23-5 romp over Memphis. As Steve Scarborough, who led the Mustangs with 12 runs, nine RBIs and a .667 batting average and was named the tournament's MVP, said. "It's the best baseball atmosphere I've been in. The whole town is geared toward the world series. It was probably the best nine days of my life."
That's the kind of sentiment that warms the hearts of Connie Mack fans and just plain folks in Farmington.