Every summer I go see some amateur baseball in the Finger Lakes. Then I come back and write a ponderous Kuraltian musing on the American Game In Its Purest, Dustiest Form. And everyone goes home happy.
I was just about ready to skip the tradition this year. Then the Elmira Pioneers of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League put together a surprising little run of wins in the playoffs, just in time for my visit to central New York.
And so I found myself at Dunn Field, at the end of Luce Street on the banks of the Chemung River.
Dunn Field is a wonderful little park, as little parks go. Its brick facade gives it a more impressive air than most other facilities its size.
And the historic photos and displays along the concourse highlight the eight-plus decades in which Elmira hosted affiliated minor-league teams. Curt Schilling, Sam Horn, Don Baylor, Jim Palmer, Pete Reiser, Mort Cooper and the wonderfully named Irish Meusel (it always sounded like some sort of dessert to me) all suited up for Elmira at one point or another.
Now college kids own the ballpark. Kids from some far-off schools, too — places like Samford and Old Dominion. That’s kind of a change of pace from other teams in other leagues, which seem predominantly to draw from schools in the immediate area.
The visiting team, the Watertown Rams, showed themselves first. They were decked out in nondescript gray-and-black uniforms that reminded me of the road-company Yankees of my youth, and I took a loathing to them immediately.
When the Pioneers emerged, they were the first team I could ever recall with visible ads on their uniforms. After adjusting, I found them not at all bothersome; I think I may have gotten a glimpse of the future at the well-worn old ballpark.
A win this night for the Pioneers would clinch the championship of the Western Division of the PGCBL.
To pull it off, the lads in blue would have to overcome some significant obstacles, including:
– The starting pitcher gifting Watertown a run in the second inning when a pitch slipped out of his hand and wobbled to the backstop, a good 10 feet away from the plate.
– A hotly debated umpire’s call (a fair ball somehow turned foul) that rolled back two runs in the bottom of that same inning.
– An even more hotly debated call on a home-plate tag play that resulted in catcher Dave Hoffman and manager Matt Burch getting thumbed for the vigor of their dissent. (Hoffman kicked his catcher’s helmet to the backstop, while Burch’s last defiant act before surrendering the field was to “eject” the umpire.)
– A series of Watertown relievers who proved close to unhittable in the middle innings.
– A series of threatening mini-rallies by Watertown’s hitters that chipped away at the lead with a run here and a run there.
– A PA announcer whose entire repertoire consisted of the unvarying phrase, “Let’s make some noise!” (I take that back: On at least two occasions, it became, “Get on your feets and let’s make some noise!”)
– The world’s worst “country-and-western” song as warmup/background music. I call it country because it called itself country, but it was really boneheaded, cliche-ridden arena-rock sung in redneck patois. I’m not gonna tell you what it was … well, OK, I’ll tell you what it was, but I’m not going to link to it.
– The arrival of every single moth in the Southern Tier to watch the last couple innings, as shown in the video clip below:
The threats didn’t stop until the very last inning, when Watertown loaded the bases with one out.
But Elmira’s last pitcher. a composed lad with good breaking stuff, induced a foul fly to left, then got a swinging strikeout on a 3-and-2 count.
The Pioneers were PGCBL Western Division Champions. And everyone stormed the field — the players, the coaches, the batboys, even Stitches the mascot — while the few hundred fans in attendance got on their feets and made some noise.
Except for a small clutch of Watertown friends-and-relations seated behind third base, everybody, including me, went home happy.
(OK, I imagine the home-plate umpire went home seething after taking nine innings of increasingly intense smack from the home fans. I could easily imagine him back in his modest home that night, standing in his underwear, brushing his teeth, unable to make himself stop thinking, “Fuck that ballpark and every single jackass in it.” Such is the lot of the underappreciated and questionably competent volunteer.)
But for most of us, even the one-night visitors, pennant fever was the order of the day.
And, maybe, still is.