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Imagine this: you're in an old wooden ballpark where the action is so near at hand you can sometimes hear the batter talking to the umpire. If someone tries to start a wave, the fans in the next section generally have the taste to let it die. The players exert themselves ceaselessly, sprinting toward first on every routine pop-up, chasing every impossible foul fly. After the game, the players linger behind the dugout and greet the kids in the park with autographs and pats on the head.
If this is your idea of baseball heaven, you ought to visit Wahconah Park, in Pittsfield, Mass., where I watch as many as 30 games every summer. There you will see why I would rather attend a Class A New York-Penn League game between the Pittsfield Mets and the Oneonta Yankees than a World Series game between their big league brothers. At Wahconah, you get your baseball pure.
You say the quality of the play on display there isn't good? Well, maybe you can tell the difference between A ball and the big league variety if you are a pro scout, but I can't, and I used to watch baseball games for a living. Nine plays out of 10 are as crisp as any you see in the majors. And anyone who has ever paid big league prices to see Juan Samuel play centerfield or Craig Biggio try to throw out a base stealer really shouldn't cast stones.
Nor should you dismiss what happens on the field as unimportant. What goes on at Wahconah may not determine who will win the National League East this year, but I know few baseball thrills greater than seeing a distinguished career at the moment of its birth. Chicago Cub fans may feel they own Mark Grace, but my family and I know he really belongs to us. Three seasons ago, when Pittsfield was still a Cub farm team, we watched Grace find his bearings at Wahconah, as he developed the grooved swing that took him to the National League playoffs last year. We knew him "when," just as we knew Rafael Palmeiro, Cory Snyder and a host of other kids who became major league standouts. Only a few weeks ago, I saw a Pittsfield speedster named Eric Thornton tear down the first base line on a dropped third strike, beat the throw and make it possible for the next batter to hit a game-winning home run. Thornton will leave Wahconah soon, but my memory of him won't.
The joys of the minors aren't confined to the playing field either. Wahconah, like many minor league parks, is a cozy structure that entertains by its very presence. Effigies of owls dangle from the grandstand overhang, scaring away pigeons and amusing the kids below. Few moments have given me more pleasure than the day in 1989 when the owners took down a temporary outfield fence and returned straightaway right to its former glory: a chasm 430 feet from home plate, jutting improbably out from a 330-foot foul line and veering back in to a 374-foot center. And what a fence! For those of us who never saw the advertising signs on the walls of Ebbets Field, Wahconah more than makes up for that deprivation. Who could resist the sign that proclaims the Berkshire Medical Center as THE OFFICIAL HOSPITAL OF THE PITTSFIELD METS?
But the greatest pleasures of being a fan at Wahconah are the human ones. In scores of games there, I have never heard an obscene chant, and flagrant drunkenness is virtually unknown. The loudest voice in the stands belongs to Jose, an engaging denizen of the third base seats who employs his booming baritone to invite visiting Latin players to his house for dinner. Or catch the act of the guy who lives in the house beyond the wall behind the bleachers down the rightfield line. Twice I have seen him climb onto a truck in his yard and, one by one, throw 50 or 60 balls onto the field—the same balls that for weeks had been popping his windows and tattooing his roof.
And though the women who hang around Wahconah don't look anything like Susan Sarandon did in Bull Durham, they are just as appealing. Take Ellen, who acts as a sort of den mother (rooms for rent, hot meals, uniform mending) to the 19-and 20-year-olds who find themselves in western Massachusetts for the summer. Ellen attends every game, and because she sits in the same section we do, she has become our friend. Each year, my family says goodbye to her at the end of the season, and we greet each other the following Opening Day as if we were relatives, catching up on the news of the cold months past. I find it hard to imagine developing such a relationship with the people in the next row at Yankee Stadium.
I don't know any other minor league parks nearly as well as I know Wahconah, but those I have visited all have some of the same charm, the same intimacy, the same innocence. Try visiting one someday, and if Wahconah's your choice, look for me: I'm the guy with his wife and kids about eight rows up from the home team's on-deck circle. I could say that you will know us from the blissful smiles on our faces, but then everyone else at Wahconah looks that way too.