"He probably wants to talk about steroids," says Bill Murray, the actor and baseball owner, sizing up a writer from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. But in fact the writer, like Murray, has an even unhealthier interest at heart: the Chicago Cubs. "In seasons when the Cubs or Bears are out of it early," says Murray, "I spend a lot of time cleaning my garage." That garage is—now more than ever—the Carport of Dorian Gray, for it gets neater with each new Cubs catastrophe. "I'm getting worried," says Murray. "I'm worried that my garage, by the end of the summer, will be spotless." He sighs and looks momentarily stricken: "I might even repaint it."
Murray is idling away a rain delay at the home opener of the brand-new Brockton (Mass.) Rox, an independent minor league team that he owns with many other men, including Mike Veeck, whose father, Bill, invented Bat Day, Nickel Beer Night and the midget pinch hitter. Murray is officially the club's Director of Fun, a title bestowed on him by Veeck, who is Director of Titles. "My job is to walk around drinking beer," says still another Rox owner, Jimmy Fallon of Saturday Night Live, while dutifully nursing a 16-ounce silo of Budweiser. Looking from the can to his inquisitor and back again, Fallon says defensively, "I only own one percent of the team."
The Rox' inaugural home game was to have begun, on this Friday night, at an auspicious hour—7:11. But at precisely that moment, lightning veins the blackened skies above Brockton, and a Biblical deluge ensues. "We were assured this storm would bypass us," says Murray, sounding fairly Biblical himself, "but the locals, they weren't fooled, they could feel it coming from the northeast: These people, they've seen the Perfect Storm; they're out there praying in Portuguese...."
Thus begins a rain delay so delightful that one prays—in Portuguese—it is never interrupted by baseball. "Our management philosophy comes down to one principle," says Veeck. "A community doesn't need a ballpark, but a ballpark needs a community." And so, as 4,700 Brocktonians huddle beneath the grandstand roof, Murray leads a high school marching band into slanting rain. A white-haired man in the press box, noting the angle of precipitation, says sagely, "Nights like this, you don't wanna be playing tuba."
Meanwhile on the concourse Veeck is greeting every usherette by name, which is easy, as every one of their nametags reads ROXANNE. Because he inherited all of his old man's whimsy, Veeck has conceived a Seat Cushion Night for his St. Paul Saints in which one side of the giveaway cushion will bear the mug of Bud Selig, and the other side the face of Don Fehr. Fans of the Saints shall, by the seat of their pants, take sides in the forthcoming big league labor dispute.
As for Brockton, the Rox will devote a theme night this summer to Jack Kerouac, who is interred in nearby Lowell. "Thirty years after his death," says Veeck, "his family still maintains the residence in St. Petersburg. So tomorrow you can call Jack Kerouac's house in Florida and his phone will ring. I just think that is so cool." The Rox are surely the only team in baseball whose beat writers are Beat writers.
This is random rain-delay conversation of the highest order, a dying art in baseball. But then Veeck and Murray revere ancient verities like Kerouac and cheap beer and (in Murray's case, anyway) blue-canvas Chuck Taylor hightops. "They don't grow 'em like that anymore," Murray says of his friend Mark Grace, the former Cubs first baseman now with Arizona. "No batting gloves, no weightlifting, just a real competitive streak."
"I owned him," Murray adds, two hours into this epic rain. "I owned Mark Grace. Mark Grace was his slave name, and I've allowed him to keep it. But I owned him with the Pittsfield Cubs." Indeed, in 1987 Grace played for the Double A team owned, in part, by Murray. "We won the pennant by a load," says Murray, "but then partied too much in the playoffs." The resulting collapse scarcely upset him, for Murray seems concerned—above all else in baseball—with simply adding to the sum of human happiness.
The same goes for his partners. "I grew up one of nine kids," says Veeck, whose dad planted the ivy at Wrigley. "And it was like we had Gepetto as a father, in this house that was always full of joyous, raucous yelling." It's a sound that he hopes to hear echoed in his ballparks.
Marvin Goldklang, a partner in four teams with Murray and Veeck, recalls a recent promotion in St. Paul. "The park was filled with 6,000 kids," he says, "and adults weren't allowed in unless chaperoned by a child. All game we kept hearing these cheers that we hadn't heard in 30 years, like, 'We want a hit! We want a hit!' I mean, when's the last time you heard 'We want a hit!' in a ballpark? It was beautiful."