LIKE IT OUGHTA BE
The BEAST will be keeping a full-season diary throughout the summer of the Batavia Muckdogs, a single-A farm club in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. Forget the big leagues. Forget the upcoming strike. This is sports the way it should be.
"God, I'm so fucking glad to be back here," Mike Nacey says. He's a youngish guy, around thirty, thin and with a red goatee and a baseball cap. He's standing serenely at the beer booth like it's his own personal barcalounger. It practically is. He lives around the corner from Dwyer Stadium in Batavia, home of the single-A Muckdogs, and has been coming to games for over twenty years. He's run the full fan cycle; he worked the scoreboard when he was seven, now he works the brew stand. He's seen it all here.
"John Elway's first professional home run," he says. "I was here. He hit it right out there to left." Elway played for the Oneonta Yankees back in the early eighties. Another future football star had a cup of coffee with the Muckdogs a few years back, and Nacey remembers him, too. "Yeah, Ricky Williams was here, I remember him," he says. "He was good. I kept waiting for him to have a play at the plate, so that he could wipe out the catcher. Never happened. He was fast, though. He stole some bases."
Maybe things were different back in the days of the Polo grounds, but no one can possibly feel the way Nacey feels about Dwyer Stadium in a major league park these days. Dwyer park is his house, you can see it. Big league parks, with their luxury boxes and their impossibly complex leases and building deals, manifestly belong to nobody, not even the teams they house.
Muckdog ball is different. "Simple pleasures, man," Nacey says, looking around. "That's what it's all about."
This is probably what baseball was like way back when, when America fell in love with the game. The local ballpark was an extension of your front yard. The players were talented kids who toughed it out every night and made as much playing ball as you did pouring concrete or doing frame work, if not less. You could catch the manager hanging around the hot dog stand before the game and ask him how the new lefthander was coming along. And you cared who won because you knew these kids and felt like you were part of the team—not because they wore the same name as some dot on a map.
And the players are still damn good. They're throwing one-hop strikes to home from deep right field every single time. They're laying off sliders down and away. And they don't have millions yet. They're regular guys like us—only much better at baseball.
It's the day before opening night. It has been rainy all afternoon and the tarp is on the infield. The team's press guy has mud on his pant-legs from working the grounds. The opening-night starter, a promising 6'7" Venezuelan named Erick Arteaga, is throwing heat off the bullpen mound. You can hear the ball popping in the catcher's mitt all the way out in the parking lot. A few other players are long-tossing in left field, but most everybody else is already in the clubhouse. It's pretty quiet out there.
The team has only been together for a few weeks. About half of the players were only just drafted, and three or four only signed a few days before. The guys are just getting to know each other. Inside the clubhouse, a brawny Florida St. infield prospect named Ryan Barthelemy is crossing vocational lines to play Spades with three pitchers. They're useless when the conversation turns to bat trends.
"Hey, who else makes the maple bats?" he asks.
Bobby Korecky, a righthander from Michigan, winces in mild disgust. "We don't know," he says.
Beau Richardson, a lefthander from Tulane, points in a circle. "Pitchers," he reminds us. Spades is a team game and he seems mildly annoyed that Barthelemy, his partner, is not paying full attention. Worse, Barthelemy is showing me his hand, which I make no sense of. I'm going to have to learn this game.
Ryan's a genial, laid-back guy who I was told was one of the team's best prospects. He doesn't know it yet, but he's going to be batting clean-up on opening day tomorrow. He's only been with the squad a few days. I grew up playing catcher and as such can spot one from a hundred yards off—all catchers can, for some mysterious reason—but it isn't until I see Barthelemy's trunk-like forearms that I can tell he's a first baseman. I ask him if he's a Marlins fan, being from Florida.
"I'm an East coast fan," he answers diplomatically.
The Muckdogs are a Phillies organization.
"How would you feel about playing in Philly?" I ask.
He doesn't miss a beat. "I would feel outstanding about playing in Philly," he says. "There's no such thing as a bad big league destination."
He asks me where I'm from. I tell him I've just moved back to the States from Russia. "Russia? Damn," he says. "So you speak Russian?" I tell him I do.
"Well," he says. "I'm trying to learn Spanish. I'm going to have to." He points over at a Dominican pitcher named Carlos Cabrera, who's standing over in a corner next to Arteaga, who's just walked in. "These guys are going to teach me. Right?"
Cabrera turns his head, nods. They've got 78 games to get the language thing right. I make a note to get Cabrera to test Barthelemy's Spanish before every issue.
Opening night. The hour before the game belongs to the people working the various concession stands and attractions inside the gate. There's a reading center for kids, a table belonging to the local newspaper, The Batavia Daily News, and a merchandise stand where I buy a Muckdogs dog bowl, a quality item, for five bucks. A 10th grader named Andy Rock is working the speed-pitch game; guess your speed on the radar gun, and win a free helmet. Andy's making minimum wage, which is a promotion from his previous Muckdog profession; turning in foul balls for hamburgers.
"I got eighty last year," he said. I lose the radar game and give him a dollar.
Hunting down foul balls is a big deal around here. It makes sense; fewer fans, just as many foul balls. Everyone you meet has his career numbers ready. Two kids named Nick and Steve, who are in a band together ("We're the next Staind") and are inside the gate here working an amusing gig in which a sign invites you to ask them for their worthless autographs, both have a good figure from last year.
"I got about a hundred," Nick says.
Nacey has never turned his in for burgers. He's got twenty years' worth. "I've got a whole trash can full of them," he says.
You can tell a foul ball is coming in this park even if you're behind the stands. The announcer cues up an ad for a detail shop called Select Collision that features the sound of a baseball hitting your parked car. "Select Collision, Route 33, Batavia," he says, as the ball flies over your head. "They'll make your worries and dents disappear."
The Muckdogs used to be the Batavia Clippers. Five years ago they changed their name. Local fans voted on the new title. The team is named after a nearby field that has a lot of muck in it; the vicious dog was apparently an afterthought. Before the game starts, there's a strong smell of manure around the field, but by the second inning or so, it goes away.
The game is a heartbreaker. Arteaga pitches a gem; seven shutout innings, only one walk. The team is winning, 1-0, going into the ninth, but a series of defensive miscues lets the Jamestown Jammers tie it up in the last inning. After a close play at home that would have won it for the Muckdogs in extra innings is called an out, the Jammers come back in the twelfth and rough up Mexican reliever Maximo Reyes for two runs.
The crowd got ugly toward the end of the game. The blown home plate call clearly made the 62-degree evening feel a lot colder all of the sudden.
"Damn it, its freezing, the game goes on an extra hour, and we're going to lose!" a fan shouted as Reyes gave up his second run.
A full inning after the blown call, a fan on the first base side was still giving it to the umpire. "That's the jerk play of all time!" he shouted. "Of all time!"
Ryan had a rough night at the plate, although he drove in the only Muckdog run with a sacrifice fly. Other than that, he was 0 for 4 with four groundouts to second base, plus a booted foul popup in the ninth. I try to find him after the game, but instead run into Warren Brusstar, the former Phillies reliever, who's in his first year as the Muckdogs' pitching coach. He shrugs over the tough loss.
"It's a learning experience for them," he says. "They'll get better."