As Commonwealths go, I obviously prefer Pennsylvania. Ninety-six percent of my immediate family was born in Western Pennsylvania, and I’m planning a return trip to Pittsburgh in two weeks to bear witness to as the Pirates somehow maintain relevancy in the slime bucket that is the NL Central division. In the meantime, to pass the alleged dog days of summer, I headed for another Commonwealth just over an hour from my house in upstate New York.
The plan was to watch the Pirates against San Diego at home, then drive northeast for some NCAA independent summer league baseball in Pittsfield, MA. The Bucs blew a late lead and extra-innings forced me to hit the road listening to the game via the MLB cell phone application. The app feeds are often hampered by delays of up to 90 seconds or more from the live action, so I’d had a spoiler victory text from home as I crossed the border into Massachusetts from the vast environs of New York’s Columbia County.
Sean Rodriguez, a beloved utilityman from a few seasons ago just traded back to Pittsburgh, hit a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 12th for some high-end drama on the North Shore of the Allegheny. A jittery, well-scripted Bucco win prepped me for watching the Pittsfield Suns of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League. They were playing their final game of the 2017 short-season campaign at their western Massachusetts home, the historic Wahconah Park. It was a Sunday night game with fireworks to follow and the team hoping to make the old-school NHL style “everyone is in” league playoffs. Both Pittsfield and the visiting Worcester Bravehearts were hovering around .500 in the standings of the nine-team circuit. How could you not attend?
The Mets had a minor league affiliate in Pittsfield for a long time so I avoided it like most things New England. With Wilpon’s disgusting junior charges no longer in residency, I was clear to visit the tiny ballpark that boasts “organized baseball since 1892.” Baseball historian Daniel Okrent used Sports Illustrated to claim Wahconah as his local park, and there’s plenty of wood slats and corrugated metal to go around. It has that stubborn-angled, utilitarian feel of a park reluctantly renovated by town skinflints. Upon arrival and seeing all the turn-of-the-century plaques and history and what-not, I dubbed Wahconah Park “the Dame Darcy of ballparks.” Pittsfield, it should be noted, is also the home to one of my favorite living writers: Jessica Willis, whose byline also appeared in the pages of the weekly New York Press back during those same go-go 1990s that brought Dame Darcy, an Idaho-born reverse-Goth, into the cultural foreground of New York City’s pre-millennial comix scene.
Oddly enough it was a relief pitcher named Willis who came in for the Worcester Bravehearts to shut the door on a 3-1 win on Sunday night, also giving his squad a share of the FCBL playoff spoils. Justin Willis is out of North Bergen, N.J., and is coming off a shoulder injury from a baserunning collision during his high school days. He’s building up his arm strength to meet his four-year commitment to Vanderbilt University. The kid looked great shutting down Pittsfield for five hitless innings, so the Commodores can look forward to a feisty right-hander for their 2018 pitching staff.
Wahconah Park is one of two professionally-used facilities with a home plate facing west. This means a 20-minute “sun delay” is not unusual as umpires have mercy on the batters as the sun sets beyond the outfield fence. It really is blinding. At 7:15 pm, 10 minutes after the first pitch, third base is invisible to fans staring into the bright orb. Forget left-center unless you want to be blinded for the next three innings. Visiting the Pittsfield Suns is good practice for the upcoming solar eclipse, I suppose, but even the old-school rotund home plate umpire as well as catchers for both teams were equipped with expensive sunglasses for the first few innings. Despite a quality Suns cap giveaway by a local bank, there were several uninitiated types in the front rows who had to do the improvised hand-visor move over their brows to take in the action.
Before the game in charming fashion the lanky righthanded starter for Pittsfield wandered through the stands and greeted some families on his way to the PA booth. He was Gage Feeney from Cutler, Maine, who tosses for the University of Southern Maine and has the perfect name for a strapping fellow from Maine. With his historic baseball surname, he is listed as six-foot-three and is a mechanical engineering major. During the early innings of the game Gage would bark at the home plate ump on balls-and-strikes calls, implore his manager to take up his cause, and face off against University of Maine Black Bear Kevin Doody wearing the luxurious Worcester uniforms with the actual names on the back of the jerseys.
It has been awhile since I have watched a sport live with jersey names on display, I realized, as Doody pulled off a successful sac bunt. Feeney had a 1-0 lead thanks to hard work from Pittsfield’s lead-off man, an undersized hometown lad named Kevin Donati who plays his ball at SUNY Albany and was hitting around .360. Feeney had transferred from the University of Maine to the University of Southern Maine in Portland after almost a year in Orono. Following Doody’s bunt was a kid from Marist College out of central New Jersey (now you’re singin’ my song) who would tie the score at 1-1 with a gap shot, putting a Poughkeepsie end to all this lobster roll nonsense, at least for a few minutes or so. The FCBL emphasizes the New England population of its rosters, drawing from the widespread collegiate talent base in the region. But it was a Floridian who would bring Feeney’s ultimate undoing. Rafael Bournigal, son of the former Major Leaguer of the same name, lashed a double to put Worcester up 3-1, a lead the aforementioned Willis would make stand for the duration.
After Bournigal’s double, the staticky PA announcer let the crowd know the Suns had qualified for the playoffs. Light applause from the faithful behind the plate. The fans surrounding me in the fancy seats were witty and charming and quite a mixed bag. A little kid made everyone nervous by swinging a tiny souvenir bat wildly in the aisles during the game. A Roseanne Barr type led a vocal campaign to get the lazy home plate umpire to dust off home plate, for crying out loud. I joined in the heckling. After a few batters, the ump sighed and produced a small brush and dusted off the plinth to great applause from our section. Behind the front rows of box seats are wooden bleacher benches extended up into the corrugated guts of the ballpark. Single-bulb coal mine style lamps dangle above, giving a Max Mercy fedora noir to the setting. Elderly couples were holding hands in the back rows, looking like they were aboard some twisted old roller-coaster with a Victorian industrial theme. If Dr. Who was exploring American baseball, the Tardis would definitely make several stops at Wahconah Park. If there were more hipsters in the front office, a “Steam Punk Night” would be a given at this ballyard.
In contrast to the Caleb Deschanel art-directed stands behind home plate was the usual anarchic right field general admission “picnic area.” It’s part Wonderland racetrack and part professional rodeo green room. Hay bales are scattered in a redneck amphitheater attempt. Picnic tables are wedged up against very flimsy netting separating the partying hordes from the right field foul line which runs dangerously close. There’s a reasonably-priced “1892 Grille” operation out there, and some chafing dishes in the distance which may or may not be a private event. There are random flea-market style marquee tents erected. There’s a “bouncy castle” in constant shrieking motion deep beyond the right field fence. There’s a roughed-up and abandoned Kegerator cowering in a corner, cobwebbed along with a few broken folding chairs and some caved in trashcans. Couples stand hording Bud Light aluminum bottles, their backs to the baseball action. Kids dart in and out of the standing room punters, yelled at for knocking over the stray beer. (“Good thing it was empty!”)
Typically, the demographic is am oversized married couple with inexplicable avian tattoos on their lower legs in conversation with a recently-divorced guy about how he was scammed by his ex. This are not Northeastern Elites. American Legion shirts ride up above beer bellies, knock-off Red Sox and Tom Brady paraphernalia is rampant, and everyone seems slightly sharped-toothed in this section. The Tanglewood Shed it ain’t.
I’ve been in many of these sections in my lifetime and never have I seen one like the one at Wahconah Park where no one—not a single fan—yells “heads up!” as a foul ball comes raining down into the crowd. A woman got nailed in the shoulder by random horsehide off the bat of a Worcester player that at least 58 people saw coming, and not one uttered a word of caution in her direction. The New England baseball version of Kitty Genovese? Still sunblinded from the early innings?
If you pay attention, you see pretty good baseball in Pittsfield. A double-play decoy cut down a runner at the plate, a leftfield dove full-out to snare a gapper in front of the ultra-violent Price Chopper hatchet logo that I love so much. Despite just two umpires working the game, the overweight fellows handled run-down plays flawlessly, hustling to cover a far stray base with stoic and unacknowledged professionalism.
The Pittsfield Suns are operated by an aggressive sports marketing outfit called the Goldklang Group. They’ve got the Brockton (MA) Rox, also in the Cape Cod League wannabe circuit that is the FCBL, the Fort Myers Miracle (class A reps in the Florida State League for the Minnesota Twins), Hudson Valley Renegades and St. Paul Saints (Independent League). Bill Murray, the Cubs fan and comedic actor, sits on the Goldklang ownership dais. They tend to use the same promotional slogans for each franchise (“Be your own fan” is one enigmatic entry still employed). “Take me out with the crowd” is another borrowed line peppering radio promos for the New York-Penn League Hudson Valley Renegades in Fishkill, NY, a class A affiliate of the God-forsaken Tampa Bay Rays. The Renegades are a good 25 minutes closer to my house by car, but after visiting Wahconah Park, I’ll take the Pittsfield experience over the generic Fishkill facility any day. With a 1970s sound system, Pittsfield thankfully does not pipe in Top 40 radio interludes during every silence or employ overly cornball sound-effects on foul balls and the like. They have some recorded organ and trumpet calls, but they don’t overdo it like most minor league ballparks.
I got a good front-row seat online the night before this game, which had an excellent turnout for baseball at this level. The parking lot is a swamp, but is free. The one hustling “operations” guy makes sure his concessions stands are stocked and then goes out and sings a pretty darn good version of the National Anthem. I played “Where’s Okrent?” for a while during warm-ups but surrendered after every fifth guy in the good seats under the corrugated roof resembled New England professorial types who value bunting, moving the runners up, hitting the cut-off men, etc. They wore sensible shoes, carried sweaters for later and wore ill-fitting hats from dull resorts as they sheepishly absorbed the half-a-beer liberty issued by their semi-retired librarian wives whom they secretly call “the warden.” These are the kind of guys who keep $2 bills in their wallets to use as icebreakers with standoffish clerks. They also know better than to attempt viewing a solar eclipse without proper eye protection, so they can live to see another ballgame, such as the Pittsfield nine in the postseason against the Nashua Silver Knights. God bless them all.