Some Opening Day

by Brule Eagan

whitewings

God, I love baseball.

Here in south Texas, it used to be if you wanted to see a ball game in the summer, you had the following options:

Drive half the day to Houston to see the Astros, drive all day and into the night to see the Rangers, drive across town to see a Little League game on Saturday mornings, or do what the local baseball cognoscenti did — head south of the border.

This was a routine trip in those thrilling days of yesteryear, before 9-11 forced everyone to get passports to cross into Mexico and before the drug cartels turned an easy drive into a gauntlet of death. You could always count on seeing a first-rate game there. Chances were, you’d see a scout for some major-league team in the stands, taking notes on several players.

Then in 1994, we local folks got a league of our own.

A couple of money men from upstate started up an independent minor league. The Texas-Louisiana Professional Baseball League drew over half a million fans in its Inaugural Season, with eight teams sprinkled around Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama. One of them was our local team, the Rio Grande Valley White Wings.

And boy, they were serious.

Their general manager paid a visit to the radio station I was working for at the time to buy an ad schedule and maybe get our AM station to carry the games, which he did. He already had a play-by-play guy lined up, but he asked me if I’d like to be the public address announcer, offering free baseball, free food from the concessions, and the whopping sum of 25 dollars per game. Since it didn’t conflict with my job, and since my boss liked the idea, I said I was in.

The league spent a lot of money to do things right. They had a mascot — a guy in a bird suit with a giant baseball cap — and they hired the San Diego Chicken to train him and all the other league mascots in the finer points of whipping up the crowd, entertaining them between innings, and being a general nuisance to the fans in the stands while the game was underway,

They hired former major-league players as managers. Ours was former Astros catcher Alan Ashby, whose credits include catching a Nolan Ryan no-hitter. He was a good guy, and not a bad manager at all, considering he was working with unknowns, many of whom tried out for the league only a few weeks before Opening Day.

They maintained the city-owned ballpark beautifully, keeping the field of play spectacular, and installing at their expense, an electronic scoreboard. They had tons of sponsors lined up, they had giveaways for every game, and insisted on keeping ticket prices low to make it affordable for whole families.

Their ad blitz for Opening Day was immense. You could not live here and not be aware that the Rio Grande Valley White Wings were about to take the field.

Came Opening Day. I flashed my employee badge at the parking attendant, who showed me to a great tree-shaded spot. The gate attendant waved me in with a big smile. Hundreds of people were lined up, and were just starting to enter the ballpark when I entered the press box. High school bands were playing. I introduced the color guard and the young lady who sang the National Anthem. I mentioned the dignitaries in the stands, including the Mayor of Harlingen and his wife, the president of the league, and whoever else’s name was on the page. I introduced the mascot, who was driven onto the field in a stretch limousine. I read the starting lineups, introduced whoever it was that threw the ceremonial first pitch, and was ready to see a real, bonafide professional baseball game right here in Our Fair City.

Since the visitors had the first at-bat, the White Wings took the field.

The first pitch was a pop-up. The ball hovered right over the third-base line. The third baseman came in to snag this can of corn. He would have, too, if the pitcher hadn’t tried to do it. And the catcher. All of whom collided as the ball hit the ground with a dull thud. It was a fair ball, so the batter ran to first. He could have crawled if he wanted to, what with half the infield knocking each other unconscious.

The scorekeeper told me “put that up as a hit on the scoreboard.”

“Me? I have to do that?”

“Yeah, that’s what the GM told me.”

“Well, he sure as hell didn’t tell me. How do I do that?”

“How should I know? I don’t run the scoreboard!”

“Well, I ain’t touching it!”

GM comes flying into the press box. “Why isn’t that hit up on the board?”

I said “Tell me how and I’ll put it up there.”

Meanwhile, I still have to tell the crowd who’s up next, and to say “that was a hit, and we’re going to post it on the scoreboard momentarily”, momentarily being the ten minutes it took the GM to figure it out and tell me.

The intrepid White Wings and I limped along until the third inning, by which time they’d gotten their sea legs and gotten a few hits, a couple of nice plays in the infield, and I figured out the scoreboard.

About then, someone who’d had more beer than the summer heat would let him safely absorb staggered his way to, presumably, the men’s room, or, more likely, to get another beer. He bounced like an obese pinball down the aisle behind the box seats, when he caught a gust of wind (I guess) and tumbled into the Mayor’s box, flattening Mrs. Mayor. A couple of ushers raced to help, and tried to pry Mr. Fan off Mrs. Mayor, who was invisible beneath this guy. A couple of beefy cops managed to raise him, and immediately called paramedics. The game had long been forgotten by this time; play had stopped, and everyone, including the players, were watching the drama in the stands. Finally, Mrs. Mayor was placed on a gurney and taken to a hospital. Luckily, she checked out fine. The drunken varlet was escorted to another local facility as the guest of the city.

The game went on, the White Wings went back to their first-inning style of play, Ashby got into three arguments with the umpires for appearances’ sake, and the White Wings went on to a glorious inaugural game defeat.

They got better, though, the White Wings did, winning a championship before the League ran out of steam and out of money a few seasons later.

So no one can accuse them of not aspiring to provide a big-league quality product. The White Wings did. In the fashion of the ’62 Mets.

God, I love baseball.

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