- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
It was like old times. There sat Red Patterson, 50 years a baseball man, in the clubhouse beneath the stands at Anaheim, his rubicund kisser scrunched like a stewed tomato, asking all about him why in the name of Marvin Grebey, or whoever, a bus driver carrying the umpires' equipment should disappear for dinner only an hour before game time. The players were on the field and the fans in the seats. Where the blazes was that bussy? Ah, here he came now. And there in the sun-baked parking lot outside San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium gamboled legions of the Southern California undressed, sipping beer, sailing Frisbees, warming up in the heat for the ball game within. What a day this one would be. And there....
Hold it a darn minute. What ball game? The players are on strike, dummy. How could there be games at the Big-A and in San Diego? Well, last Friday and Saturday nights, on the weekend of the Glorious Fourth, usually baseball's most profitable (1,137,161 attended major league games a year ago), there were games at these two stadiums—minor league games between a pair of Class A California League teams. The one on Friday night in Anaheim was the first between professional teams in a big league ball park since the players struck on June 12. With minimal promotion, 9,556 fans turned out to watch the fourth-place Reno Padres, a San Diego farm team, and the seventh-place Redwood Pioneers of Rohnert Park. Calif., an Angels affiliate. Granted, many on hand considered the ball game—won by Reno 2-1—incidental to the fireworks show afterward, but there were plenty more who were there, as fan Alan Levine of Fullerton exclaimed, "because we miss baseball, that's why."
Now for the truly extraordinary development. The next night, when these same two lower minor league teams, staffed by tyros barely out of or not quite out of their teens, traveled to San Diego. 37,665 fans showed up. As their constant cheering throughout a surprisingly good game demonstrated, they weren't there to sit on their hands until the postgame Roman candles were launched. It need not be appended that the crowd was the largest ever to see a Class A baseball game.
Credit the Padres and the Angels for establishing, albeit inadvertently, that if you've got the only game in town, someone will come out to watch it. Actually, both clubs only wanted a semi-windup for their fireworks main events and didn't quite know what to expect from a deprived fandom. The Padres had been broadcasting "fantasy" games over their radio station, KFMB, and had foreordained that on the Fourth, following a 23-game winning streak, San Diego would move into first place in the National League West. Now if that isn't fantasy, then the Brothers Grimm are courtroom stenographers. Meanwhile, Patterson, who as a public-relations man for the old Yankees and Dodgers introduced such gimmicks as Oldtimers' Games and yearbooks, was bemoaning a baseball-less Fourth from his present eminence as assistant to Angels Chairman of the Board Gene Autry. "I came up with the idea that we should bring in a Little League team, a semipro bunch, anybody." he said.
As fate would have it, the Angels' and Padres' Class A farm teams were scheduled to meet that very Independence Day weekend in Reno. It required little persuasion from the parent organizations to convince the minor-leaguers that their games should be transferred to the big parks on Friday and Saturday. The Padres and the Angels would split the cost—about $18,000—of transporting and housing the teams and reimbursing the Reno club for its loss of home-game revenue. Previous efforts to have minor-leaguers play in big league parks had been thwarted by the striking Players Association. The other promoters had simply not sunk low enough, calculating that fans in big league cities wouldn't pay to see players any further down on the evolutionary scale than Triple A. The trouble was that many Triple A players are carried on the major league 40-man rosters and, as such, are forbidden to use major league facilities during the strike. No one on either the Reno or Redwood team is listed on a 40-man roster. And so, despite rumors of picketing, no objections to the game were forthcoming from the strikers. In fact, one of them, the Dodgers' Rick Monday, attended the Friday night game in his new capacity as an L.A. television reporter.
The real winners in all of this, besides the fans, were the minor-leaguers themselves. "We first heard about it a week ago while we were on a bus to Rohnert Park," said Reno Second Baseman Steve Garcia, who is 20 and in his first full year of professional baseball. "It was a six-hour ride and you should have heard the yelling and screaming. It's incredible. I just can't believe I'm here." "It's the greatest thrill of my life," said Reno Catcher Mike Martin, 22. "I walked into the park not imagining anything could be that big. I never dreamed of anything like this."
For many of the players, last weekend's games will be their last in a big league park, a sobering fact of life all too apparent to such as Reno Manager Jack Maloof, who is himself only 32. Maloof was as impressed as his players with the 65,158-capacity Anaheim Stadium and the 51,362-seat Jack Murphy Stadium, for he never played an inning of major league baseball in his relatively brief professional career. "I was the last man cut by Gene Mauch at Minnesota in 1976," Maloof recalled. "Mauch told me he'd cut me to keep Tony Oliva. I believed him."
"You can ask him about that now if you like," said Jack McKeon, the Padre director of baseball operations. "Here he comes." And indeed, Mauch, who now manages the Angels, was descending the staircase to his box seat behind the Reno dugout, looking, with his silver hair, very managerial. "I always admired that man," said Maloof, as if fearful that his mild complaint might have been overheard.
Chris Cannizzaro, the Redwood manager, spent 13 seasons in the big leagues, most of them as a backup catcher, although in 1969 he was the first All-Star Game selectee in Padre history. He's eager to return now to the big time as a field boss. "I'd like to get my shot," he said, mopping his expanding brow after hitting infield practice to his young charges, some of whom nearly beaned him with their throws home.
The two teams were to fly as one on the Padres' charter from Reno, but the weight of their combined equipment and luggage was too much, so 10 players, some from each team, and two umpires were bumped onto a commercial flight. Air travel is, of course, unheard of in the lower minors, and eight of the neophyte passengers got airsick en route to Anaheim. One of them, Reno Shortstop Randy Kaczmarski, 22, missed the first game because of lingering queasiness. Reno Relief Pitcher Mike Coucheé, 23, was well enough to earn a save in the game, but his nose started bleeding before the last out. Was the rarefied air of a big league park too much for him? "No, it was the heat," he said. "My nose always bleeds when it's too hot."