Absence of minor league games leaves a hole in baseball’s soul

I wasn’t a baseball guy, honestly. My first five years in the business of sportswriting, I mostly covered college sports — heavy college hoops, and then college football, both the University of Arkansas and West Point. That wasn’t a choice I’d made necessarily, it was just how things had shaken out.

Then, in the spring of 1994 arrived a gift I never saw coming. I was working for the Middletown Times Herald-Record newspaper in the mid-Hudson Valley, and into our midst dropped dueling gifts: two affiliated baseball teams and two brand-new stadiums. The Hudson Valley Renegades, a Texas Rangers affiliate, were setting up shop in Fishkill, N.Y., just across the river. And the New Jersey Cardinals, with St. Louis as their parent, were moving to Skylands Park, in Augusta, N.J.

And it couldn’t have happened at a better time. MLB’s owners and players were on a collision course of self-immolation, which would culminate in a strike on Aug. 12. Baseball fans were disgusted with those warring parties but not with baseball: night after night that summer, 4,000 or so folks packed both ballparks. They came for the kitschy stuff, sure: the scoreboard sound effects (a crashing windshield was always a big hit) and the weird races every night in which two fans would spin around a bat until they were dizzy and try to beat each other to first base without collapsing first. It sure seemed a lot of people were having a lot of fun every night.

And, man, I was at the front of the line. Writing baseball was more than I ever imagined: the everydayness of it, the rosters busting with stories, the managers willing to talk until you ran out of tape and notebook pages.

Bump Wills managed the Renegades. Years earlier Bump (Maury’s son) had been a Sports Illustrated cover subject as a hot young phenom, and I remember asking him one day in the dugout how many copies of the magazine he kept at home. He looked at me like I’d asked about the antennae slowly growing out of his neck, then smiled.

“Son,” he said, “you gotta save that one for a rainy day. You’ll need that one some night when it rains and you got [bleep] to write about.”

Who can argue with sound, practical advice like that? But every day was a new adventure like that.

One night, my buddy Pete Caldera, who now covers the Yankees for the Bergen Record but was on the Renegades beat that summer, was asked by the team’s radio man, Bill Rogan, to sit in for an inning — but not in his own voice. Pete does the greatest Bob Murphy imitation you’ve ever heard. Well, this was after the strike hit, so there had been some big-league ballwriters who’d made the trek that night but had started to head home after getting what they needed. They had the game on the radio and, Holy wow, Bob Murphy is doing the game and my office will kill me if I miss that story. And as they came roaring into the radio booth they saw no Murphy.

I told Pete that was probably the happiest recap, ever.

But every day was like that. Most of these players knew they’d never sniff the bigs, but they were OK with that, they appreciated the shot. The Cardinals started the season with a first-base platoon of Sal Bando Jr. (son of the old champion A’s captain) and Mike Taylor, who was Stan Musial’s great-grandnephew. They were also both great storytellers, with some wonderful stories to tell. I latched onto the Cardinals and covered them on their triumphant road to the New York-Penn League title. I covered a playoff game in Jamestown from an overhanging press box that drew foul balls like mosquitos, spending a full steamy night like Max Mercy in “The Natural” avoiding one sniper shot after another.

The Cardinals didn’t have to travel in the final round against Auburn because the Astros’ field was scheduled to be torn down and replaced, and they couldn’t put off the wrecking ball a week. So the Cards won the title at Skylands, and the celebration was every bit as raucous as any big-league clubhouse I’ve covered since.

Funny, though: A few days later, I got a call from Tony Torre, the Cards’ GM. He wanted to know what my ring-finger size was. I had to explain, as graciously as possible, that it would be inappropriate for me to walk around with championship bling on my finger. But I did appreciate him asking.

That’s one man’s story, from one season of minor league ball. There are so many thousands of others, none of which will be told this summer with the minor leagues shut down thanks to the coronavirus. That was a piece of news that hurt my heart when it came down last week — and really makes me equal parts sad and furious when I realize that Rob Manfred wants to make more and more of these stories disappear forever.

The minor leagues nourish baseball’s soul. And baseball’s soul is something that could use as much attention as possible these days.

Vac’s Whacks

If you want a full understanding of baseball’s century-long labor strife — and it seems a good time to explore that, frankly — it is worth a read — or a reread — of John Helyar’s “Lords of the Realm,” which takes what could be a dry subject and gives it amazing amounts of life, depth and, most important, context.

Every now and again, we check in with our pal Jay Horwitz’s podcast, and this week is a goodie: Jay and ardent Mets fan (and, oh yes, by the way, top-shelf basketball broadcaster) Mike Breen.

Go get ’em at Michigan, Dan Villari!

My father played the record of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks doing their 2,000-year-old man bit so often the grooves wore smooth. Nobody ever made my dad laugh harder, even when he played a straight man. Godspeed, Mr. Reiner.

Whack Back at Vac

Pat Proietti: I agree with you on personalizations on the backs of Yankee replica jerseys, especially No. 3 and No. 4. I firmly believe that, when the Second Coming occurs, He will have only the No. 1 on the back of his robe.

Vac: If I make a Billy Martin joke here, does that buy me an extra million years in purgatory?

Frank Giordano: I don’t understand how there is not more outrage over the NL using the DH. I, for one, will not watch baseball any longer. This is not real baseball. I have been shaking my head since 1973, when Ron Bloomberg stepped into the batters box. Where are all the NL fans?

Vac: I used to be right there next to you, Frank, but watching an endless string of useless and hapless pitchers try to hit … we don’t require everyday players to take a turn on the mound, a job for which they don’t have even a minimum of skill. Why should it be the other way around?

@drschnip: As a University of Pennsylvania alum, I’d have to say Whartongate was our finest moment since Ben Franklin founded the school in 1740.

@MikeVacc: If Andrew Marchand’s retelling of that story in The Post this week didn’t make you wistful for the anything-can-happen-today-and-probably-will Mets of Bobby Valentine, you are lacking a certain adventurous gene.

Slip Mahoney: In your column last Sunday on truncated seasons, you forgot the 1919 Stanley Cup finals, canceled after five games due to the flu pandemic. The Seattle Metropolitans of the PCHL and the Montreal Canadiens of the NHL were tied at two games (with another game ending in a scoreless tie) when the series was called.

Vac: And Seattle has had to wait all these decades to get another crack at the Cup. Now all we need is the name of the new expansion team there and we can assign our rooting interest accordingly.

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