This week, our editorial board opines about the possibility of professional baseball coming to Napa (Spoiler alert: We like the idea). If you happen to detect a little extra excitement in our editorial this week, there is a good reason: I wrote the editorial and I happen to love baseball. Especially baseball of the minor-league variety.
I grew up in an area bereft of major league baseball. My baseball-crazy father had his heart broken twice by teams – once in 1960 when his beloved Washington Senators left for Minneapolis to become the Minnesota Twins, then again a decade later when the replacement Senators left for Texas to become the Rangers.
For long decades, my father mourned his beloved team and fumed as the owners of the Baltimore Orioles blocked successive efforts to get a new team in Washington even as the Orioles tried to position themselves as the team Washingtonians should root for (for the most part, Washingtonians didn’t fall for it).
The only remaining outlet for his baseball passion was minor league baseball. It happened that in 1978, a team came to Alexandria, Virginia, my home town. They played what’s known as Single-A baseball, the lowest level of the Major League farm system (the Double-A and Triple-A leagues are progressive steps up toward a coveted spot in the Major Leagues). The Dukes were, at various times, affiliated with the Seattle Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates and spent a couple of years without any Major League affiliation.
The team played at a disused city school, leaving fans sitting on uncomfortable aluminum bleachers, eating hot dogs handed through the window of an old classroom that had been converted into a concession stand.
The parking lot was immediately past the outfield fence, so every time a player hit a home run or long foul across right field, the crowd grew tense. If the ball landed with a loud crash, you could be sure several fans would go scrambling from the bleachers to see if it was their windshield that had been the victim.
The players were barely out of high school, eager young 19- or 20-year-olds hoping for their big breaks. The good ones tended to get called up quickly, making it hard for the Dukes to develop a stable roster or build momentum. But the players were kind and accessible to fans, meeting with us kids and making sure we got our share of used baseballs.
I was intoxicated by the games. My dad taught me to keep score on a professional pad and he shared his expert eye and enthusiasm as he broke down the meaning of the game for me.
Sadly, the Dukes left Alexandria in 1983 after a neighboring county offered to build them a stadium of their own (and more importantly, allow them to sell beer, which the Alexandria city school board resolutely refused to allow on their property).
For two decades I drifted away from baseball, catching a handful of games as I traveled, but not really having a team to call my own. It happened, though, that the years we lived in Philadelphia coincided with a run of greatness by the Phillies, including their World Series win in 2008. But attending a Phillies game is an expensive hassle – take the family for a game and you’re sure to be out hundreds of dollars.
So instead of blowing our paycheck for a Phillies game, we decided one weekend to travel down the road to Delaware to attend a game by the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a Single-A ball team that plays in the same league as the old Alexandria Dukes.
Suddenly I was back in my childhood. The park was better and more professional than the Dukes’ old home, but it was still intimate and small. Tickets were cheap, the food affordable. The Blue Rocks’ mascot wandered up into the stands, handing out T-shirts and recruiting fans to engage in zany stunts and contests between innings. The color guard before the game was a bunch of confused Cub Scouts, who had to be herded carefully by adults to the center of the field to prevent them from wandering off to play in the grass.
The baseball play was enthusiastic, energetic and chaotic. The Blue Rocks’ beleaguered starting pitcher lost control of one inning and gave up about six or seven runs – the scoreboard attendant couldn’t keep up – and the player tasked to relieve him promptly gave up three or four more runs before limping out of the inning.
In other words, it was delightful. It reminded me just how much fun baseball can be.
Since we’ve moved out here to the Bay Area, I have grown very fond of the Giants, but we rarely see them in person. Not only is it a long way to go for a baseball game, it turns out to be even more frightfully expensive than the Phillies were. I’ve been meaning to make it to a minor league game for years, but it is a long way to get down to Sonoma, or over to Sacramento or San Jose.
But now we have the chance to have some of that joy right here in our own back yard. As we detail in our editorial, a local business consultant is exploring building a team in the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, which has teams in Sonoma, San Rafael, Pittsburg and Vallejo. If he can gather enough money in business sponsorships by the end of June (around $250,000, he says), we could see the Napa Silverados play in 2018.
I, for one, can’t wait.