Baseball Ink

Baseball The Way It Was Meant To Be

Magic in Rohnert Park

by Jane Richard

'Hmm, there aren't many people here yet,' I say to myself, 'but then I am about two hours early.' I whip my car around in a u-turn on the quiet side street to snag a spot across the road from the ballpark. No parking meters, no traffic. What bliss. The Giants are at home today, playing Pittsburgh, but a Saturday day game in their new home on the Bay—not the chance of a hot dog in Antarctica of getting a ticket. Could've had a spot third row behind the dugout in Oakland, but the A's have the temerity to be in Chicago. Denied a big league fix, this junkie ends up in Rohnert Park —a minor league sanctuary just twenty road miles from my home in northern Sonoma County, California, but a thousand baseball miles from the major leagues.

I check my cap, grab my backpack containing all the baseball-going essentials: scorebook, mitt, water bottle, sandwich (so as not to have to leave the stands during the game), jacket and fuzzy warm gloves (cold nights are a reality of northern California baseball), and radio—and head across the street to experience the world of minor league ball.

It's mid-afternoon in early August, and the sun is hot on my back as I make my way to the small wooden hut at the front of the stadium. The ticket window is unmanned, so I tap the knob atop the little stainless steel bell. There are only a few people around, but the quietness is illusory, like the calm outside a circus two hours before show time. The ticket window is at one end of the Crushers' main office; as I look in I sense an air of frenzied but controlled activity. The young man who comes to serve me is graceful in his efforts to ensure that I am completely happy with my seat for this performance; I leave feeling like a queen. As I walk back across the parking lot to wait out the hour before the gate opens, the understanding begins to glimmer that this is something special, more than just baseball. If the major leagues are "The Show," the Barnum & Bailey or Cirque du Soleil realisation of the dream, then this is the travelling summer fair where the dream begins.

And this is not just minor league baseball, this is independent minor league ball. Playing without the financial safety net of Major League affiliation, this child doesn't have rich parents to pay the salaries, cover the travel expenses or hotel rooms, or to provide meal money. This child has to sing for its living—sing and dance and charm the world around it until it has brought under its enchantment a cadre of spellbound abettors.

As I sit on the grass under a tree, I meet one who has been bewitched. Bob Bennett is the recently-elected president of the Crusher Booster Club. Chatting with me in the shade, he tells me that, for him, the independent Western Baseball League is a magical world of baseball played with hustle and desire, of professional ballplayers who love to sign autographs and are genuinely impressed by the attention they get from fans. It is a world of gathering with equally entranced companions to host Saturday afternoon tailgates in the stadium parking lot, to which the players come after practice for a good meal before the game.

It's Saturday, and the barbeque is ready. The players stroll towards us across the concrete in their warm-up gear: black shorts and white, grey or black t-shirts, and pounce hungrily on the feast blanketing the trestle tables. Some have been warming up—jogging back and forth along the warning track which spans the outfield, sprinting again and again up the steps of the tall wooden bleachers, throwing (or receiving) in the bullpen, stretching, playing catch, diving after ground balls in infield practice, swinging for the fences (or, sometimes, practising situational hitting) in batting practice—since noon. It's now 3:30, and they still have a game to play tonight. A game, which, not inconceivably, could stretch on for four hours or more.

As I watch Bob and his companions entertain their ball-playing guests, I decide that this league could be renamed Anonymous Ball. Former San Francisco Giant, Kevin Mitchell, is not at the feast today. Nor has manager Jeffrey 'Hac-Man' Leonard (one-time Giant teammate of Mitchell) come out. There is no universally recognisable face to attract the curious or the autograph seekers to the rows of players, seasoned and raw, who sit enjoying the breeze, the sunshine and the shade, and a little gentle conversation with the Booster Club members who form a surrogate extended family for these young performers. To the casual observer, the only clue that this gathering is something more than just a group of friends having a pre-game barbeque is the matching, duotone attire of half of the participants.

As game-time draws nearer, the volume of fans arriving for this evening's entertainment increases. Adults bear in their arms blankets and coolers and children. Older siblings run across the lot, chasing each other, playing catch with pint-sized gloves and real-sized balls. There is excitement in the air: their Crushers are in first place. Tonight is also Grateful Dead Night, which explains the preponderance of tie-dye drifting by. Red, yellow, purple, blue and green in swirls and spots; Jerry Garcia ties for those who wish to be more discreet. There is no escape: the Crushers will take the field in tie-dye uniform jerseys. One, number 43, pitcher Scott Rivette, has been wearing his since two o'clock, deciding it would be a very cool shirt to don for game prep.

Inside the stadium, the visiting Scottsdale Valley players finish their warm-ups. In contrast to the home team's garb today, the Vipers' uniforms are soft, evocative of an earlier time. The effect is mesmerising. Lines of muted orange dissect caps of pale cobalt blue into hexagons. Dusty-cobalt pants, with orange piping running the length of the leg, are worn baggier than has been the custom in recent decades. Soft orange piping also details the wide belt loops, and several players have pulled their pant legs high to reveal matching blue socks topped with a wide orange band framed by thinner white stripes. The jerseys echo the trousers in colour and detail, while 'Vipers' splayed across the chest proclaims their intention to strike to kill. A blue, orange and white viper head adorning the left sleeve emphasises the point. It occurs to me that this particular combination of hues is probably not one which leaps immediately to the minds of those who want team colours which will strike fear into their opponents and inspire their fans. I am, however, entranced.

There is a buzz in the stadium tonight. This is one of the largest crowds since Opening Night, and the primary topics of conversation, in ascending order of passion, are: utility player and five-year Crusher, Scott Hopgood's eighth inning home run (just his fourth this season) in last night's 10-2 win over the Vipers, and the fact that the Crushers are in first place and have gone 7-3 in their last ten games. The chief subject of impassioned discussion, though, is the now infamous 'Mitchell Incident,' in which former big leaguer and Sonoma County favourite, Kevin Mitchell, had a full-contact run-in with the owner of the Solano Steelheads, Bruce Portner, when Mr. Portner came onto the field during a game in Solano just five days ago. It seems that there just might have been a wee bit of provocation on the part of Mr. Portner, who has been fined by the Western Baseball League. The much beloved number 7 for the Crushers was at first suspended, then expelled from the League, pending an appeal, and these Sonoma County fans are not happy.

Ten minutes to game time and here come the Crushers, in all their tie-dyed glory. One of the rookies, fresh out of college, has a self-conscious but excited grin on his face as he walks by. "This is the weirdest uniform I've ever worn!" he exclaims with a laugh. And, they certainly do look strange—whirls and eddies of red, purple and white produce a kaleidoscopic effect. It is hard to tell whether the design on the front is the Crusher 'Abominable Sonoman' footprint or an optical illusion. The strong black numbers on the back at least have a slightly calming influence.

Tonight's game is one of eight this season being televised by Cable One on their local channel, and, scanning the stadium, I play 'find the cameraman.' The first one is easy—he's right next to me, in the niche between the end of the third base field-level bleachers and the Crusher dugout. Another occupies the matching spot on the first base side. Poking his head over the left-centerfield wall is a third, while the fourth stands atop the grandstand roof, silhouetted against the setting sun. This is the dancing cameraman. During breaks in the action, when music is being played, and the spectators below are transfixed upon 'tot racing' or 'sumo football' or other of the wild and wacky between-inning entertainments, he moves and grooves on his dance floor in the sky.

The first two innings of this game last nearly an hour. The next six and a half innings take only two. Crusher pitcher, Steve Cardona, is in a zone of his own tonight. Viper batters are turning and heading back to the dugout in a marching line of frustration. Not so much as a single hit have they managed, let alone a run. By the sixth inning, the Sonoma County boys have scored only twice themselves—a crowd-roaring home run to left in the second, and a 'manufactured' run started by a Viper error, in the fourth, but now the murmurings amongst the crowd are beginning to grow into a rumble: Cardona has a no-hitter going. An uncommon feat in baseball history; non-existent in Crusher history. I check with my cameraman, who has a view into the dugout: "Is anyone sitting with Cardona?" "Nobody's gone near him for a long time." I nod my head in agreement. A pitcher who is 'in the zone' is sacrosanct: nobody wants to be the one to break the spell.

Middle of the seventh, and time for the 'seventh inning stretch.' Of all the crowd traditions in baseball—organ music, rhythmic claps, and chants—this is my favourite. Time to stand, stretch the arms wide over the head, then, as the first strains of music wend through the loudspeakers, straighten and sing. "Take me out to the ball game. Take me out to the crowd. Buy me some peanuts and Crackerjack; I don't care if I never get back. 'Cause it's root, root, root for the home team, if they don't win it's a shame. For it's one, two, three strikes yer out, at the old ball game!" As we start spontaneously on another round of the lilting melody, the stadium announcer booms out: "Will the Jerry Garcia look-a-likes please report to the area behind the third base bleachers." The gentleman next to me, who has brought his almost-thirteen-year-old son to the game, leans over to remark, "I bet Jerry Garcia's grateful he's dead, now."

Cardona's magic is wrapped around him like a skin tonight. Even his team's defence, which can be prone to making the odd error or three, seems to have fallen under the enchantment, making running, diving catches in the outfield, dazzling plays in the infield. The final lines of this spell, however, must be chanted by the pitcher himself.

One out in the top of the ninth, and still no hits on the Viper half of my scorecard. The number nine batter in the Valley lineup, shortstop Richy Leon, hits a high, high infield pop-up towards the third base line. The player with the best angle to catch the ball is Cardona. He runs down off the mound, staring up into the darkening sky, weaving a little as he judges the ball's place and rate of descent. Time seems to stop for those of us in the crowd; the noise level, which had grown quite considerably as the game went on, drops to a hush as everyone holds their breath, praying, hoping—finally, the ball plops into Cardona's glove. A roar that is half cheer, half sigh of relief breaks from the stands.

Two down. One out to go. First pitch, ball one. Second pitch, a strike. Leadoff batter Jake Sampson hits Cardona's next offering sharply on the ground through the infield. It looks like it's a sure base hit. Suddenly, out of nowhere, first baseman, Eric White, has appeared to knock down the ball halfway to second base. But the runner is one of the speediest guys on the team, and White has still to recover himself and throw to first. I check the base: is the pitcher covering? Yes, he's already there, as White scrambles to throw the ball. It's going to be a bang-bang play, but Cardona stretches all six-foot-three of himself to glove it, his back foot barely reaching to keep contact with the bag as Sampson thunders across. No one breathes for half a second as we all wait for the umpire's call—the closed fist pumps once. YES!! He's out!! He did it!! Cardona just threw a no-hitter!! The team erupts out of the dugout to hoist him on their shoulders as we jump and scream in jubilation. Steve Cardona has just thrown a nine-inning no-hitter, the first in Sonoma County Crusher history.

Slowly, the euphoria dies down. The players filter through the dugout, collecting their gear, and people around me begin to gather their belongings and children. Nobody really wants to leave; the magic has woven through us all. I see the same young rookie make his way over to some friends at the bottom of my section. His eyes shine with an entrancement his body will barely contain. His words tumble out as he reaches the seats, "I've never been a part of anything like this! Never!! Never!!"

Jane Richard is a New Zealander living in Sonoma County, California. She was introduced to the grand old game in 1993 via the San Francisco Giants. Something mysterious happened at Candlestick Park during that magical Giant season: Jane's heart metamorphosed into a baseball.