THE DUDLEY DOME : Even Texas Leaguers Can Wind Up as Home Runs in the Friendly Confines of This El Paso Ballpark
Is this America or what? You want baseball, hot dogs and the Stars and Stripes? How about Wall-ball, Jalapeno Burrito Dogs and the Green Wienie Flag? Forget about Disney World, this is a real fantasyland--an ancient, bright yellow, adobe ballpark where the public address announcer sounds like Bob Barker, the fans act as if they’re on “Let’s Make a Deal,” the pitchers complain about bum arms and sore heads and the hitters--wow, the hitters!
Wait . . . The owner’s on his feet in the press box. Could it be? Yes! He shoots his hands up in the touchdown signal as the home club scores its seventh run of the inning. And the bases, as they say again and again, are still F-O-D , Full of Diablos.
Come on down to the Dudley Dome, also known as the House of Thrills, home of Your El Paso Diablos, the Class AA farm club of the Milwaukee Brewers and defending champions of the most colorful league in the bushes, the century-old Texas League.
When people here say they are going to the circus, this is where they end up, for an evening of sights, sounds, smells and surprises.
Whack! George (Panama) Canale, an All-American first baseman from Virginia Tech just called up from Class A ball, hits a grand slam home run. He rounds third, toes the plate and heads directly toward the box seats, where he holds out his helmet as little kids fill it up with dollar bills, an El Paso tradition.
What’s that odor? It must be Mona the Elephant across the way in the zoo. Sometimes, when the Diablos really need a comeback, the fans start their “Wake Up Mona” chant. Sometimes Mona wakes them up. Whiff. Or maybe it’s the nearby sewage-treatment plant. Depends on which way the wind blows.
Who’s that old codger up near the press box waving the Green Wienie Flag? That means a rally is in progress, good for at least two more runs. The whole place is vibrating with the shrieks of an old-fashioned Diablos whistle rally. Annie (the Fanny) Tudor, the Yugoslavian baseball nut, can really make a lot of noise from her seat along the third base line.
Left fielder Lavelle Freeman, who sports a modest .401 batting average, slaps a double off the wall. Up steps Ernie Riles, the Brewer shortstop sent to El Paso for injury rehabilitation. He pokes one to the top of the Green Monster, the 36-foot wall atop a centerfield slope that keeps the canal there from flooding the field. Ever seen an outfield fence like this one? Forty-two wall ads, double-deckered from left to right, all hand-painted in bright colors against a garish yellow background.
Time to gaze into the visitor’s dugout, the one with “ENEMY” painted on top in big bright letters. There goes the San Antonio Dodgers’ manager out to the mound. His pitcher has just given up five doubles, a triple, a grand slam, two walks and eight runs in two-thirds of an inning. Not a bad outing, here.
The public-address announcer urges fans to listen in as the Dodgers congregate on the hill. Then he plays the Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First” over the sound system. As pitcher and manager depart, 2,000 fans pull out white hankies and wave them to the accompaniment of “Bye-Bye Baby.”
After three innings, the home club leads, 19-3, but there is no comfortable margin in the Dudley Dome. Just last week against the Midland Angels, one of the promising young arms in the Brewers’ chain took a 14-3 cushion into the late innings and failed to gain a decision. Isn’t that the same guy pitching again tonight? Yes!
Yogi Berra must have been to El Paso before he said it ain’t over till it’s over. And that’s usually a long time from now. In the Midland series, a Texas League record was set for longest nine-inning game: 4 hours 15 minutes.
The air is dry and light here, and the outfield fences are no more than 330 feet away in the power alleys of left- and right-center. That explains part of the zaniness of the hard-ball devils. Devils is English for Diablos, and about 65% of the fans are Hispanic. All of the fans are bilingually loony, none more so than Jim Paul, the team’s owner.
He bought the club in 1974 for $1,000 and $52,000 in debts to 72 creditors. Then, he said, the most important employee was the groundskeeper, who had to wake up a few hundred dozing fans each night when the game ended. The essence of Paul’s personality is that, more than anything else, he hates to be bored.
Baseball was an odd selection for someone with Paul’s attention span, but he did not have many choices. Paul started his jock career in the early 1960s as a guard on the Texas Western basketball team that eventually won the NCAA championship. He made it through the first year only because the administration assumed that anyone who couldn’t jump, run or shoot must be a good student, he joked. His scholastic average was 0.6, but no one checked. Finally, after three consecutive lousy sets of grades, Paul flunked out, joined the Army and saw Vietnam.
He returned sober and serious about school, if nothing else, and worked in the sports office during his second time around at the university, which by then had changed its name to the University of Texas at El Paso. He eventually graduated on the dean’s list. Then Paul began working as assistant sports information director at Kent State University, the year after the infamous National Guard shootings, and from there moved to a citadel of scholar-athleticism, the University of Southwest Louisiana, also known as the Ragin’ Cajuns. At the time, they had cheated so much that the NCAA abolished their basketball program for three years.
“They were hit with about 2,000 violations, but only 1,000 of them were true,” said Paul, whose wit is styled after writer Dan Jenkins.
Paul returned to El Paso when USL refused to make him an assistant athletic director. Friends had bought the ball club but bailed out after a year and left Paul holding team and debts. He turned it around in two years, jacking up attendance from 60,000 to more than 200,000. He used every trick in the book. He held promotions every night, giving away everything from pizzas to caps to television sets to cars. He brought in cheerleaders to dance on the dugout. He recruited The Chicken from San Diego. He hired the loudest, craziest announcer he could find to lead the fans in cheers. He made it fun to go to the ballpark for everyone except the visiting teams.
Paul recalled a year in the 1970s when Joe Frazier, who later managed the New York Mets, was here as the manager of a visiting team and became so enraged at the announcer’s antics that he climbed the fence and started bulling his way toward the press box before being restrained by an officer of the law.
“We were called bush leaguers, among the nicer things,” Paul said of those early years. “One team complained to the Texas League commissioner, who then was Bobby Bragan. He helped us by saying two things to them. He said: ‘Do you anticipate your stars being bothered by the noise at Shea Stadium?’ And he said: ‘Why don’t you tell your GM to try some of that stuff. It might help you break even.’ ”
There remain a few purists who believe that Paul and other gimmick-masters have hurt the game, but they are in the minority. Last year, the Diablos won the President’s Trophy as best-run franchise in the minor leagues, and Paul’s ideas have been at the forefront of a bush-league revival that, in the last 10 years, has seen about two-thirds of the 144 teams turn into money makers. Paul does not worry about how it might play in New York or Boston. It plays in El Paso.
In recent times, the Diablos have been affiliated with two major-league clubs: the Angels and the Brewers. The main reason for the switch was Harry Dalton, who moved from general manager of the Angels to join the Brewers and, as quickly as possible, brought the El Paso club with him. The Brewers believe that the pluses here--weather, crowds and management’s enthusiasm--outweigh the one big minus: the pyschological damage inflicted on young pitchers.
A few years ago, Dalton visited El Paso specifically to assess the pitching staff. The Diablos were playing the Beaumont Golden Gators and, in honor of the visiting dignitary, they put on a real Texas League show. The final score was Your El Paso Diablos 35, Beaumont 21, a league record for runs scored in one game. In the ninth inning, when Beaumont scored its final run, some people in the press box expressed puzzlement as Dalton clapped and cheered.
“Why are you cheering?” someone asked.
Dalton replied: “Because 35 to 21 is a better football score.”
In fact, when the score was transmitted on the sports wires that night, it was followed by the parenthetical note: “(NOT A FOOTBALL SCORE).” They have to use that phrase a lot in El Paso.
Everybody gets a kick out of the whole thing except the Diablos’ nine pitchers. “Pitching for this team is tough,” General Manager Rick Parr said. “If you can pitch here, you can pitch anywhere.”
If you can get out of here, that is. One of this year’s pitchers is Alan Sadler, 25, who went to Crossland High School in Temple Hills, Md., before starring in football and baseball at the University of Maryland.
What’s it like to pitch in El Paso, Alan?
“Terrible,” Sadler said. “It just screws you up totally. You jam a guy inside, a good pitch, and the wind blows it out. Every day, I look in the papers and see that somewhere there are scores of 2-1 or 3-2. Not here. I can’t think of another place worse to play, for a pitcher. The hitters love it here. You get a home run, and they give you dollar bills. You pitch a shutout and they say the pitcher can pass his hat, but who’s gonna be around to give him money after the game? I’ve never seen a shutout anyway.”
Sadler is on the disabled list now with a sore elbow. He has a 1-5 record with an earned-run average of 8.37. His worst outing? “I got them out 1-2-3 in the first but never made it out of the second. You can’t walk anybody down here. The wall is so close. I gave up three and left with the bases loaded, and a guy hits a double off the wall and clears them. I still haven’t gotten over it. I don’t know if I ever will.”
The Diablos’ manager, former Mets’ catcher Duffy Dyer, said he has a long talk with his pitchers before the season. “I tell them, look, you’re going to have to eliminate the walks. They hurt you anywhere, but here they kill you. Anybody’s got the power to hit one out, from the leadoff man on up. A 4.00 ERA here is very good. Even 4.50 or 5.00 is good.”
Everything is topsy-turvy in the Dudley Dome. It was named in 1978 when, night after night, rain fell on every section of the city except within the friendly confines of Dudley Field.
Whenever a rainstorm approaches, the announcer says it’s time to put on the dome, and he makes weird noises as an imaginary roof closes overhead. It works. Twice during the San Antonio series, rain pelted everywhere but inside the dome. Play had to be stopped twice because of sandstorms blowing from left field, but the rain never fell, and the hitters never stopped hitting.
One night, the Diablos scored three “touchdowns,” kicked two “extra points,” made a two-point “conversion” and booted a “field goal” for 25 points. The Dodgers scored a “touchdown,” an “extra point” and two “field goals” for 13. 25 to 13 (NOT A FOOTBALL SCORE).
How would you like to score 13 runs and lose by 12? But you know what they say about it at the Dudley Dome: You can never get enough.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.