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Kiss the ball goodby
Ron Rapoport
July 01, 1974
In Sacramento it is a mere 233 feet down the line to homer heaven, and nobody leaves a 22-5 thriller
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July 01, 1974

Kiss The Ball Goodby

In Sacramento it is a mere 233 feet down the line to homer heaven, and nobody leaves a 22-5 thriller

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After a separation of 13 years, minor league baseball and Sacramento, Calif. were reunited this season. Fans greeted the return of the Solons with warmth and exuberance. Attendance on opening day was a rousing 17,318, and since then the Solons have averaged 3,750 fans a game, tops in the minors this year even though the team has the worst record in the Pacific Coast League—18 games below .500.

Why all the fans? Just this: the Solons play in Hughes Stadium, a structure in its fifth decade of service to football and track. That it was never meant for baseball is what makes the game so entertaining—or at least different—there. Rising high in left field to thwart home-run hitters is a 40-foot screen, but it is only 233 feet from home plate. The outside stadium wall behind the seats behind the screen is just 311 feet away, four feet nearer than the fabled short left-field wall in Boston's Fenway Park. The right-field fence is 300 feet off and a poke of 390 feet can clear the farthest wall, an eight-footer in right center. Result: an average of seven home runs a game. The season's 250th home run was hit at Hughes Stadium not long ago and a grand total of 500 for 1974 seems well within reach.

It need hardly be said that some remarkable games have been played. There was the time Sacramento led Tacoma 9-3 with two out and a man on in the ninth. The visitors then hit four home runs in a row, a double and finally another homer to win 10-9. Two nights later the Solons had their revenge with a 22-7 win, a victory notable in that Sacramento scored 11 straight runs without benefit of a homer. Twice there have been a dozen home runs in a game and last week Spokane and Sacramento combined for 13. Once, two Solons hit grand-slam homers in the same inning.

Sacramento hitters are understandably defensive about their power production in the park and most of them have taken to dividing their home runs into two categories—those that would be good anyplace and cheapies. "It's downright embarrassing when one of my routine pop flies goes for a homer," says Third Baseman Bill McNulty, who has hit 23 so far.

And Solon pitchers are understandably offensive in their comments about their ERAs. The team ERA is 6.46, worst in the league by nearly a full run. However, big-league scouts make allowances for pitching performances in Sacramento. When Salt Lake City visited Hughes Stadium recently, John Cumberland held the Solons to eight hits. Two were infield singles, six were home runs. That was good enough for the California Angels, who called Cumberland up.

The manager of the Solons is Bob Lemon, the former pitching star of the Cleveland Indians. Though he feels a professional empathy for the plight of his pitchers, Lemon thinks they should feel sorry for him, too. Managing at Hughes Stadium is a drag.

Because of the tiny outfield, it often takes two hits to score a runner from second base. Thus the Solons seldom bunt, almost never hit-and-run and have given up trying to score from third on fly balls to left. Hughes Stadium is still waiting for its first triple.

Runners on first have been forced at second on clean singles to left. Runners have been unable to advance from second to third on singles to left. Four or five runners have been doubled off first on flies to the outfield.

"It's like pro basketball," says Lemon. "You call a time-out in the last two minutes and that's when the game is won. I let them play for eight innings and then try to win it. You never have it won and you're never out of it."

In a recent home game a 19-year-old Sacramento pitcher named Roger Miller became a hero of sorts by not giving up any home runs. He was the first Solon hurler to achieve this feat. Miller said his next goal was to pitch the first Hughes Stadium shutout.

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