Like Annie Savoy, Susan Sarandon’s wised-up voice of wit, wisdom and womanhood in Bull Durham, I fervently believe in “the Church of Baseball.” Unlike her, I’ve never paid attention to minor leaguers—till this past Thursday, that is, when I went on a company outing to Richmond County Bank Ballpark, home of the New York Yankees’ Class A minor-league organization, the Staten Island Yankees.
Bull Durham depicted how minor-league players pass the time, on and off the field, as they await what is all but certain to be a fleeting chance at “The Show.” At times during the Bronx Bombers’ recent struggles with the bat, I’ve speculated that it might be time to send some of the more maddeningly inconsistent miscreants back down to the farm team for some repentance and remedial work. (Moving runners around the bases without benefit of the long ball would be an essential place to start.)
After watching the so-called “Baby Bombers” in action in their Staten Island home, though, I’ve reconsidered. It’s not simply because the Eighth Amendment outlaws cruel and unusual punishment. More to the point, it would mean banishing the pampered, well-paid players to one of the most Stygian regions in all of professional baseball.
But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, a good word (I told you it wouldn’t take long!) about the minor-league experience in general, and the Staten Island Yankees in particular.
Let’s start with the location. You can get to the ballpark by car, if you’re so inclined, but on a sunny day I recommend the way that most of my co-workers and I took: boat.
The stadium is only a half-hour ride from lower Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry. Even on the hazy day we experienced, the sight of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor—distant, regal and resplendent—is one of the continuing glories of America. And once you’re off the ferry, the park is within easy walking distance.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you differently: Yankee Stadium is the cathedral of sports, the closest that any franchise can come to duplicating the vast hallowed Gothic structures of Europe, with a frenzied playoff crowd emitting a sound as mighty as an organ leading a chorus and congregation at Christmas or Easter. But, especially if you’re in the farther reaches of the stands, you’re lucky to get a good look at players.
The atmosphere is much more intimate at Richmond County Bank Ballpark. The players are life-size, not ant-like, and you have an excellent view not only of the stadium but also of lower Manhattan off in the distance.
The players act as well as look more human here, too. Fans are permitted to get autographs from their heroes up to a half hour before game time. While fame and free agency may have inflated the egos or the assessment of the value of their signature of some in the Bronx, there’s no earthly reason why they won’t honor a request to sign a ball or program in Staten Island.
The way they’re going, though, there seems little chance that many of these “Baby Bombers” will ever have to be begged for their scrawls, let alone become a unit in any future major-league “Core Four.” At the game I watched—painfully—the Baby Bombers looked as if their energy were oozing with every passing minute in the noonday sun. They flailed helplessly at pitches, failed to hold runners close, misjudged fly balls that promptly sailed over their heads for extra bases, and misplayed relay throws from the outfield.
The result: an 11-3 loss to the Auburn Doubledays, the farm team of the Washington Nationals—their sixth straight defeat, and ninth out of their last 10.
In the past, such present or past Yankees as Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, and Francisco Cervelli got their start in Staten Island. But one of the stadium workers acknowledged to me the obvious: that this was not one of the Baby Bombers’ better teams in recent years.
The Doubledays proved how the Nationals’ scouting operation has produced the likes of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, young players with the potential for major impact over a long period of time. The Baby Bombers have to be making Hal Steinbrenner wonder whether his strategy of clamping down on costs by refusing to pay top dollar for every player testing the free-agent market is going to lead to dog days in the Bronx in the next few years.
As the game dragged on, so did the attention of myself and my co-workers. Many—the saner ones—stayed out of the sun under the tent in right field, where the food (all you could eat!) was being dispensed. The rest of us, who decided to get a better view of the proceedings, roasted as the heat and humidity began to climb inexorably.
Throughout the game, I snapped dozens of pictures meant to capture game moments, or at least slices of life in the stands. But when I enlarged the images on my computer later, what stood out were all the empty seats.
There are a few ways of regarding that dismal sight:
*It’s a minor-league game, for God’s sake. Relax.
*Nobody’s going to take a personal or vacation day to spend hours on Staten Island. The real attendance figures to watch are the night games. If these are a problem…
*The Yankees have to come up with more creative promotions. Maybe they could take a page out of George Steinbrenner’s playbook and do something outlandish, like leaking to the media a denunciation of the manager, or threaten not merely firing the poor fellow but beheading him to bring out a crowd.
*With soaring temperatures and relentless humidity, be happy that anyone turned out on one of the dog days of summer to see how a team mired in last place in the New York Penn League McNamara Division (15 games under .500, 14½ games out of first place) proved how it got that way.