Sunday, August 10, 2014

Take me out to the Ball Game

Dizzy and Pee Wee
Take me out to the Ball Game
Southwest University Park
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            Sticker Stadium was the scene.
With all his great bulk, Andy Denham was shoe spooned into a cage built into the fence between home plate and the first base line dugout. He was narrating play by play Little League baseball on KSIL, the only AM radio in Grant County. The game was being played between the Western Gas and Elks Club ball teams. Andy’s foghorn voice was elevated above the crowd noise.
“Into the batter’s box for Western Gas steps Phillip Phudley Mortensen,” he droned. “Batting .501, Phudley has been a mainstay in the Gasserd’s potent attack this season.”
Indeed, that team of friends was pretty good by local standards. In fact, in the eleventh and twelfth years of our lives, we were undefeated going 13-0-1 over two successive seven week seasons. Played on the dirt field east of town and just west of where the rodeo arena used to be, the field was bigger than Little League standards. As a result, only one home run was hit over the center field fence in those two years. Never groomed, it would produce wicked hops on hard hit grounders.
If we were polled in those days, I bet we could each recite the bat size each of us preferred. We’d retrieve the bat bag from coach’s trunk before warm-ups. That was also where the catcher’s mitt and gear were stored.
The stands were always full. The smell of popcorn and hotdogs was mixed with dust and cigarettes. There was no such thing as a smoke free environment in those days. All we knew is that we lived baseball. We could recount batting averages and everybody followed the standings of favorite major league teams.
If memory serves correctly, we ran the batting order that inning after Andy announced Phudley up to bat. As the home team that night, Phud was playing shortstop and Gary was pitching. Mark was at third base, and I was catching. J.D. Williams was calling balls and strikes behind me, and … we were baseball players.
To the Show
I’ll never forget the first time I walked into Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. It was like a dream with that soft ocean air and perfect temperature. The stadium was immaculate and the grass was like a $100 haircut.
We were new to California and it was a big, big world. I had gone to the game with Mike Kaia and Joe Lima. The three of us worked together at Superior Farming Company up in Kern County. They were superb men, great influences, and will be friends for life. A farm kid from Kerman, Mike rode the train from Bakersfield to Fresno several nights a week to law school. He earned his law degree over a several year marathon. Joe couldn’t speak any English when he stepped off the airplane in New York City from his native Azores when he was 12 years old. He not only mastered the language, he became one of the great irrigation engineers in California agriculture. He ultimately became manager of Modesto Irrigation District.
Our tickets came from Buzz Waterman’s Bakersfield Ag Chem. They were wonderful seats right over the Dodger dugout on the third base line. I know Joe got a great kick out of watching this New Mexican that night. The wonders never ceased. First, there was none other than Tommy Lasorda himself. During warm up, he was out on the field gabbing with folks in the stands and on the field alike.
“Oh, oh … the boys from Bakersfield are here tonight,” he joisted with us knowing our seats were always filled with Kern County growers. “We’ll have to make sure security is alerted.”
Then, there, in real flesh, was the golden infield … Cey, Russell, Lopes, and Garvey. They really existed and their athleticism was only enhanced when watching them in person.
Dizzy, Peewee, and Falstaff
My maternal grandfather was my early baseball influence.
He had relatives in Illinois and a trip to their farms in McComb with a side trip to Chicago had sealed the deal as a Cubs fan. We followed them from afar. We also were intermittent devotees to the Game of the Week with Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean. Dizzy’s famed seventh inning stretch when he would tip that ice cold Falstaff back and empty it in one fell swoop was as close to anything relating to beer and baseball I had before that first trip to Chavez Ravine. Pee Wee would remain smooth and Dizzy would start telling stories. It was good stuff.
The first grass I ever played on was in post season Little League World Series play when the Silver City All Stars played the ultimate New Mexico playoff champions. We were beaten 1-0 in nine innings by the neighboring All Stars from Bayard. We were so sure we could hit for those fences. The field was so much smaller than our Sticker Stadium, but their pitcher, Frank Guzman, seared us that day with a two hitter.
From that point in my sports life, it was football, basketball, and track that cornered my devotion and my time.
Baseball started becoming past tense interest when, in 1994, the World Series was cancelled because of the baseball strike. Maybe those fellows believed they prevailed but they surely lost my loyalty. Over the years, my interest declined even more. From reciting batting averages to the point player names don’t even register in recognition, I lost interest in baseball.
It has been years since a World Series had any appeal.
The Chihuahuas cometh
From afar, we watched the city of El Paso debate and fight over the proposed downtown ball park. At issue was the availability of space and the proposed plan to raze the city hall in order to make room. The lines were drawn in serious disagreement.
Then, it was learned that the deal was going forward and work began. The sledgehammers and jack hammers were brought out and city hall was reduced to dump truck loads of landfill. When word started coming from our El Paso daughter and her family that the park was finished and they wanted us to come to a game, it was all greeted with a lackadaisical response.
The cause was good. It was a promotion night for our daughter and her husband’s sports studio. They would be part of the program. I finally agreed. What was one night for the brand?
I was even given a cap to wear. The logo was some graphic art rendition of a Chihuahua … A Chihuahua?  “Now, that is exactly what El Paso needs,” or something like that was my passé response.
So, watching the clouds and hoping for rain northwest of Las Cruces on the ranch, we headed for El Paso. Road construction there is like other towns these days. It is expansive and only makes El Paso’s insane driving conditions crazier.
The familiar downtown skyline of El Paso was soon in view and the new and distinct features of Southwest University Park were part of the mix. As we turned off at the Convention Center exit, we drove by the sally port in center field with the playing field gorgeous and visible from street level.
The whole night turned out to be absolutely enchanting.
That facility is not only beautiful it fits the image of downtown El Paso and blends into those grand old Trost designed buildings like somebody with some real moxie was part of the process. Its red brick theme captures a perfect transition from old to new and from urban chic to youthful muscle. It is impressive!
It doesn’t matter the camouflaged jersey wearing Chihuahuas were beaten 4-3 by the team from Reno. What we saw was a sports complex and baseball theme that may have huge regional implications. Sitting on the western edge of downtown and across the river from Juarez, the three million folks that live in that greater basin may find a cause des célèbre par excellence. From the ground crew giving way to line dancing, the third base coach grab assin’ with the crowd and failing to wave a runner home, and to the crowd going nuts dancing with the dancing Chihuahua the whole thing was a trip.
It harkened back to the nights when Andy Denham, replete with his bow tie, called the local games on AM radio. It was the first smell of real grass on a playing field. It was the feel of the bat on a hard hit fly ball. It was the sounds and smell of a baseball crowd. It was the memory of Mark, Phud, Billy, Gary, Don, and Lex.
 I think I’ll go back. Maybe baseball again has … some appeal.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Three of those names are now gone. As friends, we were … baseball players.”

That darn Wilmeth is always writing about a person, an animal, an event, a sight, a sound or smell that opens up many stored memories.  In this case, Dizzy Dean calling the Game of the Week.  Loved it when he'd rare back and sing The Wabash Cannonball or when he'd announce a runner was out "by a heifer's step."  And then there is the great pitcher Dizzy Dean with one of my favorite quotes, "Son, just which pitch do you want to miss."

Here's a four minute highlight video of Dean shown at the 2010 St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame Enshrinement Dinner:

And the mention of Falstaff beer brings back memories of those "Old Pro" Falstaff commercials:

Enjoyed the memories, thanks to Steve & Dizzie.

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