Diamond in the rough

Strike-weary fans opt for minor-league baseball

MARY NEMETH September 5 1994

Diamond in the rough

Strike-weary fans opt for minor-league baseball

MARY NEMETH September 5 1994

Diamond in the rough

Strike-weary fans opt for minor-league baseball

Anthony Sanders steps up to the plate, stares hard at the pitcher, adjusts his stance, then takes a futile rip at the first pitch. “Nice swing,” yells a fan—earnestly, without sarcasm. This is a forgiving crowd.

And when, on his next pitch, the right-fielder for the St.

Catharines Blue Jays hits one down the line and off the glove of the Welland Pirates third baseman, local fans go wild—hooting and cheering and stomping on reverberating metal bleachers. Now standing on second base, Sanders is probably too far away to read the sign on the outfield fence. But he, like every other player, can see it in his mind’s eye: the list of such players as Toronto pitcher Pat Hentgen and New York Mets infielder Jeff Kent who called this field home before going on to major-league glory. More than any star-studded baseball shrine, the Single A diamond is a field of dreams. “If they don’t expect to make it to the major leagues, they’ll fail,” says J. J. Cannon, a former Toronto Blue Jays outfielder who

now manages the St. Catharines farm team. “But the odds are very, very, very slim. Out of 25 guys, maybe one or two make it all the way.”

For fans, the bobbles and errors, the occasional brilliant catches and the chance to watch that rare future bigtimer in his formative years are all part of the attraction. So is watching baseball at all during the majorleague strike: as the walkout entered its third week, owners and players met face-toface in New York City but reported no progress. Meanwhile, the walkout was boosting attendance in St. Catharines—to more than 1,100 for the Welland game from just over 600 on an average night. “We’re getting a lot of calls—even some from Toronto,” says the team’s general manager, Ellen Harrigan. “So the strike worked out all right for us.”

The strike, though, has annoyed the baseball fans who prefer their game uncluttered by big business. “It bothers me that they make so much money and still have

to dicker about it,” says Richard Parker, a 39year-old father of two who drives the hour and a half from St. Catharines (population 129,000) to Toronto’s SkyDome a few times each year. He prefers local ball anyway, he says, partly because the best ticket in the house costs just $5—but also because of the minor-league spirit. “You get to see that extra stride to get the ball,” he says, “that extra jump, because these kids are still trying to make it.” They are also accessible to local kids. “At the SkyDome, you don’t get to meet the players, because they’re gods up there,” says Parker. “Here, they’re regular Joes living with regular people.”

Single A is on the second rung of the professional ladder, just up from rookie ball. The major-league teams who draft these players award some of them signing bonuses, from $1,000 to several hundred

thousand for the rarified few. But most players in their first professional season get by on their $l,200-a-month salary. And most rent rooms from local families. “It’s not nearly as glamorous here as in the majors,” says Matthew Spade, 21, who pitches for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm team in Welland, a town of 48,000 just south of St. Catharines. “This is where you struggle to get by. But everything gets better as you go up.”

And going up is a constant

preoccupation. ‘You have to be mentally tough,” says Brent Bearden, a 22-year-old St. Catharines pitcher from Texarkana, Ark., who has already mastered majorleague jargon. “We have to

give our 110 per cent every day or we could

be out of here. It’s a do-or-die situation.” And

Jeff Leystra of Corunna, Ont., the Jays’ only

Canadian, says that he and the other

pitchers all talk about it in the bullpen. ‘You

kind of compare everything—figure out what

the big leaguers do different, and try to do

that,” says Leystra. ‘That’s what the minor

leagues are about.”

The minors are also about community

involvement and local loyalties. Barb Mulder, 55, and Claire Pelletier, 54, have had season tickets since the Jays came to St. Catharines in 1986. They follow the careers of former St. Catharines players—guys like Toronto’s Rob Butler and Woody Williams— and they are friendly enough with a pair of umpires to bring them homemade jam. “My sister usually comes out, but she had a heart attack yesterday,” says Mulder. “She’s OK— and she told me to cheer for her.”

On this night, the St. Catharines’ fans are rewarded for their loyalty—a 7-2 victory over Welland. Afterward, kids swarm the players as they leave the dugouts. For first-year pros like Matt Amman, a 21-year-old Pirates leftfielder from Cocoa Beach, Fla., it is the most attention they have attracted in sports. Amman says that he misses his girlfriend and his family back home. And he has had to sacrifice his football ambitions. “I guess you give up a lot,” he says. “But down the road, if you can make it to the big leagues, it’s all worthwhile.” In the meantime, the autographseeking youths help ease the struggle. “It’s neat to have kids come up to you after the game,” says Amman. “Even if you haven’t had a hit all season, they’re still standing there with an old beat-up ball and a pen—and I guess it brings your spirits up a bit.” In return, the players offer their fans unvarnished baseball, and a share of a dream.

MARY NEMETH in St. Catharines