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There’s Nothing Minor About the Scope of This Baseball

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sure, the major leaguers are on strike, but does that mean baseball is dead? Uh-uh. Baseball lives. Baseball and lots more, deep in the minors.

It figured to exist in the dense leagues and small-town pride of the South. It did.

There figured to be oddities in California’s leagues. There were.

And not only in California. There was the tale of a moose in Texas that lived atop a press box roof for seven days during a playoff drive. And the contest in Canada that left a cat home alone for several days.

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But these, after all, are the minors.

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For “Pack Your Bags Night” with the Lethbridge Mounties in Lethbridge, Alberta, fans bring packed suitcases to the game. In the sixth inning, a winning fan or couple is called to the field.

A limo picks the winners up at home plate and takes them to the airport, from which they fly first to Calgary, two hours north, then to Toronto, where they spend a weekend watching Blue Jay games.

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One year, the limo had to rush to the house of the winner, where the lucky fan promptly dumped four days’ worth of cat food into the bowl of the cat she was caring for. Then, with a “Good luck, Felix!” she was off.

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The Charleston River Dogs in South Carolina claim to be the only canines in baseball, and mascot Charlie the River Dog had his first birthday celebration Sunday.

“The Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs are actually kind of like an otter,” said Charleston’s Alicia Kearney. “Charlie lives in a doghouse up right field. He comes out to get the crowd barking for candy.”

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Lee Pye, a Charleston season-ticket holder, wrote Charlie a two-page birthday poem extolling the fun of being a River Dog fan.

Included was this stanza:

Wherever he is

All over the place ,

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Just a lift of his leg ,

There’s a smile on your face!

Charleston’s new stadium will have a concave center field wall, resulting in baseball’s most wicked ricochets. And Charleston recently packed the house on “Rush Limbaugh Night,” though no one remembers if there were more homers to right or left.

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Standing on the infield of the Nashville Sounds is a fan who has been dragooned into the loneliest moment of his life.

The Sounds, where the likes of Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks have been spotted in the stands, occasionally recruit an unsuspecting spectator to try to catch three infield pop-ups.

If the fan catches them all, there is free pizza for everybody at the game.

Now, that’s pressure.

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The Frederick Keys in Maryland draw their name from Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem.

Key is buried in a cemetery across the street from the stadium.

What promotions does the team employ to honor its namesake? The Keys have had a couple come out in a vintage horse and buggy, dressed as the Keys.

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Perhaps a bit tame by minor league baseball standards. Maybe, but the Keys point out that they play his song before every game, home and away.

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The Augusta, Ga., Pirates could never dent the local market after their arrival in 1988.

So they became the Augusta Greenjackets, after the traditional sportswear accorded members of the Augusta National golf club and the winner of the Masters played there.

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The Greenjacket cap became the best seller in the minor leagues at one point, and attendance has jumped.

“We’re not trying to infringe on (the Augusta National), but we wanted the affiliation,” said team spokesman Jim Whisler. “We’re being careful with how we tie in because they’re real sensitive. Next year we want to try a hole in one-type of promotion, but we’re holding off on that.”

Already available in the Greenjacket gift shop: golf balls, tees, club covers and towels with the Greenjacket logo.

“The only problem is that we can’t take advantage of the actual tournament,” Whisler said. “We tried one year, but the visiting team couldn’t find a hotel room within an hour of town.”

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The Las Vegas Stars boast the glitziest national anthem roster this side of Frank Sinatra’s 1977 Dodger Stadium appearance. Robert Goulet, the Four Tops, the Beach Boys, the casts of Starlight Express and Splash have sung to open Vegas games.

And, of course, there was an Elvis Night. With an Elvis impersonator convention at the Riviera, Elvis Night drew more than 6,000 in 110-degree heat July 26.

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“Quality preowned vehicles,” Billy Johnson is saying. “I would not be ashamed to drive, on average, five of the nine.”

Johnson is the assistant general manager of the Chattanooga Lookouts in Chattanooga, Tenn., and he is talking about the nine cars his team gives away--one an inning--on “Used Car Giveaway Night.”

“You got a couple that are on the ’73 Pacer level,” he says. “But we have, you know, ’88 Cutlasses and that kind, too.”

The Lookouts have existed, in one form or another, since 1885, and hold the record for the baseball nickname in longest consecutive use.

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In the proud history of the Lookouts, one year stands out, 1935. In an exhibition, local pitcher Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig consecutively.

“We have a picture of Gehrig swinging at one of Mitchell’s pitches,” Johnson said.

Impressive, because Mitchell was 17.

And a girl.

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Many historians, however, believe Ruth and Gehrig struck out intentionally.

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Grand Rapids, Mich., had a new stadium.

So the Madison Muskies moved from Wisconsin to Grand Rapids and became the Western Michigan Whitecaps. They lead Class A in attendance this season.

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But that left Madison without baseball--for three months.

Then the Springfield Cardinals moved from Illinois to Madison and became the Madison Hatters.

But that left Springfield without baseball--for two months.

The Waterloo Diamonds left Iowa for promises of a new park, and became the Sultans of Springfield.

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“We’re trying to capitalize on the ‘Aladdin’ craze,” a spokesman said.

Five months, four cities, three teams, two new stadiums, and one void at Waterloo.

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Mascots on parade:

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--Asheville’s Ted E. Tourist, a large black bear, wears a colorful Hawaiian shirt and carries a suitcase with him through the stands.

--The San Antonio Missions’ Henry’s Puffy Taco stands more than 6 feet, is stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, etc., and has jalapeno peppers for feet.

--When the El Paso Diablos and the Midland Angels, Texas League rivals, played recently in Midland, the team gave away T-shirts featuring dueling cartoon characters and the inscription: “The Ultimate Confrontation.”

But the Angels’ mascot is no angel.

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As the team stumbled toward the playoffs a year ago, Angel mascot Juice the Moose lived atop the Angel Stadium press box for seven consecutive days, refusing to come down until the pennant race was won or, as it turned out, lost.

Midland fans brought Juice cookies and sandwiches and flowers for good luck and sustenance during his vigil.

But the Juice was living a lie.

“We haven’t shared this with anyone, but we actually came down at night,” said Angel General Manager Monty Hoppel, who said that all front office personnel, himself included, had taken a shift as Juice. “From midnight to about 6, we came down.”

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When it comes to the minor leagues, one conclusion is inescapable: The reigning capital of the baseball world is a state more recently known for its love affair with major league baseball, Colorado.

The Colorado Springs Sky Sox play in the park with the hot tub.

The hot tub is so silly, so nonsensical, so baseball-is-fun-so-smile.

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But more on the tub later. First, the fireworks.

Fireworks after the national anthem. After every Sky Sox home run. After every Sky Sox victory.

Umpire lineups are sponsored by a local optometrist. If its Friday, there’s karaoke in the left field stands. There are dizzy bat races nightly, cutout dogs on poles “racing” across center field as the crowd wagers. There are two hit-it-here home run markers on the outfield walls.

A Mr. Trash character once roamed the aisles in a tuxedo. Now it’s Ms. Clean.

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And every night a fan tries to chip a Whiffle golf ball from the visitors’ dugout to a cup at home plate, 25 feet away.

If someone makes it, he or she drives home in a new sports car.

“I don’t feel a professional golfer could do it,” a Sky Sox spokesman said. “It’s a can covered with a lid with a little hole in the lid. But three home games ago, a guy hit the pin. You never know.”

The Sky Sox stadium holds the twin distinctions of being the highest professional baseball stadium above sea level (6,800 feet) and the farthest Pacific Coast League stadium from the Pacific Coast.

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Lake Michigan, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico are all closer.

And the hot tub tops even the San Bernardino Spirits’ mock-up living room “box seats” as the best seat in all of baseball.

Down the right field line, about 10 yards past first base, is a deck with a luxury hot tub.

It is rented to groups of eight each game. The tub holds six, with seating on the deck for any who want to alternate between bubbles and baseball.

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Champagne is included in the cover charge, along with choice box seats in case the game gets tight and the party wants to move to the stands for a dramatic ninth inning.

Total price: $80. Or, $10 per person. Or, one dollar less than field boxes at Dodger Stadium, where there is no champagne. Or fireworks. Or bubbles.

Or baseball.


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