My favorite time of year is here (just in time, again!) Spring Training. Technically, it's not a separate season, we already have four (plus the winter of our discontent) but emotionally it's a season of hope and unbridled optimism. My current favorite example would be Tampa Bay Rays fans of years past--how futile and forlorn were they until last season? And how wonderful was that ride for everyone who'd ever rooted for them?
No, they didn't win the World Series (and how arrogant are we in the Land of the Round Doorknobs to call it that? Just look at the World Baseball Classic and, more on point, look at which country didn't win it. Still think what we do around here in the fall should be called the World Series?) but maybe a better story, the Philadelphia Phillies, representing (after fish and what they do in water) the best W.C. Fields's line ever, did. And now we've gone round and round in The Circle Game and it's time once again for brave beginnings.
Here down the Interstate from Muddville, in Norwich, CT, the joy of the approaching minor league baseball season is leavened with the bitter realization that we probably only have seventy-one home games left in the history of the Connecticut Defenders. The latter part of last week, both local newspapers were buzzing with news stories on a possible purchase and relocation of the team to Virginia, and for me, the eye-opening part of the online reports became, far too frequently, the curt comments of purported readers and fans.
Inside the body of this nearly fifty-seven year old man (and there's certainly plenty of room in here, believe me) is a seven year old boy who doesn't want to accept that baseball, as all professional sports are, is a business for everyone involved in it, on and off the field. Last week, Alex Rodriguez became the latest poster boy for 'those cheating ba$tards', but some small part of me still thinks him and me could still have a game of catch, or shag fly balls if I could just talk my way past the security guards and the chain link fence.
And it's the business, at least at the minor league level, that has caught up with our Eastern League Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. Hand on my heart, it's always seemed to be a match made in Secaucus, so to speak. After spending about half a decade after moving from upstate New York as an affiliate of the New York Yankees, the team ended its association with the Bronx Bombers the day after winning their (so far) only Eastern League Championship (with Luis Sojo as manager). To be candid, the night the team captured the championship, there were probably close to two thousand empty seats at Senator Thomas Dodd Stadium--interest in, and attendance at, ballgames had already started to slide within three years of the team's arrival.
Perhaps young men pursue a major league career for the love of the game--but it's unfair to those who own a piece of those farm teams that are rungs on the ladder of that career progression that they can't break even. And as one, and then another, ownership group learned, being a professional sports team in the smallest market of your league can deal a body blow to your cash flow. "Now I don't understand what happened to our love. Now baby, gonna get you back. Gonna show you what I'm made of..."
And it's the business part to which we fans often turn a blind eye. Around here, where we've elevated 'It's not my fault' to a mantra, we've got more excuses than Tall Ships at Fleet Week.
We spent years blaming the Defenders' affiliation with a West Coast National League team for why we stayed away in droves (to include the night Willie Mays, my childhood hero, was at Dodd Stadium and it wasn't even half filled) except the seats are still empty when the Portland Sea Dogs and the Trenton Thunder (affiliates of the Red Sox and Yankees, respectively) come to town despite our insistence that if only the Defenders could get a Player Development Contract with one or the other we'd all go to the games.
We also blamed where the stadium is located--sometimes I think just me and Uncle Bob liked where it was, though it was less than a half hour from just about anywhere (or so it seemed). I always find it interesting that the same bozos who'll drive for two and three hours, one-way, to Fenway or Yankee (or Shea) Stadium and spend hundreds of dollars on tickets and warm beer and cold french fries and hot dogs, whine so much about the drive to Dodd and paying two bucks a car load to park (after I spent closer to forty dollars for a Yankees-Rays game in the Bronx) and eight bucks for box seats where you can order food and drink from your seat. Please....
And now, we're sort of angry with the team itself, for even thinking about jumping ship as if we had really noticed. Not that I would have wanted to have seen it happen, but if the local newspapers didn't start reporting on possible deals and, assuming one is consummated, don't report on any more activity, how many years might go by before people noticed the team wasn't at Dodd Stadium? "Hey, Dave--when was the last time anyone saw what's-his-name, the mascot? You mean 'Tater', Bob? Nah, the other one, 'Cutter', I think..."
"Well, I taste the honey from a flower named blue/Way down in California/And then New York drowns as we hold hands. Cause I'm a voodoo chile/Lord knows I'm a voodoo chile. Yeah!"