It's the home opener of the independent Frontier League's Erie Sailors, in for one year only since last year the Rangers picked up and drove off to Connecticut or Maryland or somewhere, and the year before that it was the inaugural game and season of the Florida Marlins' expansion organization and sometimes history just flies around like crazy trying to get where it's going. We're all strangers here today, the players wondering who we are and what we want and not knowing yet we'll set a league season-attendance record for them; sell out the last game with the largest crowd ever in seventy-four-year-old Ainsworth Field; yell and scream and lend them our town, the streets and character and ethnic food and bars on every corner and the women... (and the women will have their own row of seats, at every game with their cameras and terms of endearment—"C'mon A.T., hit that ball baby!" "Throw strikes Derek dammitt!"—and in awhile we'll all recognize them and know who loves who.)
A few years back Ainsworth is surprisingly on ESPN's Baseball Magazine, a segment of "Ted and Sue's Excellent Adventure,"—touring every major league and minor league park—and they point out that they like us! they like us! and "it's the only place where the players walk off into the outfield and disappear through a door in the centerfield wall," and up a Junior High School stairwell into a locker room with facilities designed to handle 93-pound 4'11" thirteen-year-olds (like me, almost thirty years ago!), and suddenly here's all these lumberjacks and mountainmen setting their enormous musculatured buttocks on benches four inches wide, bruises on their chests and cuts on their chins from those damned showerheads, lockers with handles way low and inside, beyond the zone, all these guys bemused.
And this is why the NY-Penn League left us, because they were not bemused, because this will not do, not for our boys. So they broke ground for the new stadium here a few weeks ago, NY-Penn running back into our accommodating arms next Spring, they promise: give us ballpark, we give you team. This a reality now, sod by late October, despite the worst efforts of naysayers and councilfolk and a truckload of other dim bulbs, all hell-bent on keeping us ever in mind of the importance and power of the Lowest Common Denominator in the worlds of both mathematics and politics. No dreaming here, no embraces, no heart or poetry or any of that nonsense. ...I'm sorry, I digress.
So it's Game One 1994 and they send the Seasoned Vet to the mound, "two years in the Tiger organization," and he throws wobbling sacks of warm, fresh-baked bread toward homeplate with all the efficacy of a badly wounded paperboy, and the many wild ones put men on and the uncommon strikes come back and kill a few infielders on their hurried course. Two innings in and they call in the choppers, and "Jim Knight" is announced as reinforcements. Six innings. One hit. Sailors win.
Another beautiful day at the park.
Jim "Mad Dog" Knight
Photo by Jack Hanrahan
Pictures of the future stadium make the paper, the architectural drawings, and I think my god they're giving us a little Camden Yards, a little Pilot Field, a little Jacobs Ballpark of our own, all places I've swooned in. When I drive past the day of the groundbreaking it occurs to me that this structure is going to become an integral aspect of my growing old here, a part of my only half tongue-in-cheek dream of becoming "some big fat man that sits in the same seat every year." (Imagining all the kids pointing and whispering: "'Ey, there's that crazy Lopez guy...") And I remember a monologue I loved about being born in a single room and soon we roam the house and then the neighborhood, the city and then the world as we mature, the concentric circles we move in first widening and then folding back into themselves, until finally we begin to settle and return to the city and the neighborhood, the house and then the room... and I know that this place will become a sort of porch for me, a dramatic seating area just outside all those enclosing spaces I'm to grow old in, it's mortar and columns a support for this structure I'm throwing up, the one whose windows you're all peering into.
Game Five 1994 and they send the Seasoned Vet... (My wife says "he used to be a pitcher, now he's just a rough sketch...") I think it's the third inning this time, Jim Knight to the rescue, and he gives up his first run before it's over, and Sailors win.
Babe Ruth hit a big dinger here during an exhibition game, the legend goes... hit that ball so hard it cleared the monumental smokestack on the roof of the looming brick schoolhouse in right field, clear across the street some fourteen miles upwind and into several hundred backyards, in pieces now we must suppose, and came to rest as a whole in a sort of blanketing configuration, all the lawns crisscrossed with its rainbow of string, that hard rubber center now a spray of clay-colored dust peppering the low-slung clouds.
As the season progressed they went towards game 20 as a .500 club, gaining respectability with each earnest and youthful breath, and the folk around here began to give themselves away, acting up and acting out as fans can do, and the young fellas on the team, they caught this subtle yet steady drift and began to make breathtaking plays now and then, hit multi-run homers when down by a run late now and then, play solid with the big boys now and then and show real promise, real hope, real talent. Then things got crazy.
"We was down by a couple there and when Robbie hit that homer in the 7th we all just knew, I mean everybody in the dugout just knew..."
Now you may think that this is just baseball my friends, but let me tell you how important that kind of knowing is. Let me just tell you...
Meanwhile, the seasoned vet gets shipped to Boulder Junction and points west in several small unmarked boxes, air-freight.
Jim Knight now, the guy who steps into this pitching rotation vacuum, is scripted into this by whatever gods you got. And he has panache besides, I mean he has this animal persona which is set loose with the call of every opponent's third out of each and every inning, for at that moment Jim Knight goes tearing off the mound full-tilt towards the dugout, growling and snarling and spitting and punching the air and looking like he needs to find someone to kill. (And you wonder back to that first time—did his teammates all run whimpering for cover?) By late season the Erie Sailors have the second-best record in the league, behind powerhouse favorite Ohio Valley, and Jim "Mad Dog" Knight has nine wins against one loss. Best of show.
Siddown, make yourselves comfortable. We're about to win this thing.
We move inexorably to the "last professional game ever at Ainsworth Field," with sidebars appearing daily: Oh, by the way, if the Sailors win that game that night they clinch a playoff spot. Oh, by the way, last night they won 5-4 on a three-run-homer with two out in the bottom of the ninth and the count two-and-two. To set all this up. Oh yeah, and by the way, Jim Knight is pitching.
Who is holding the pen here? A wide-eyed crowd of 4,895 inquiring fans, the most ever in this park's decades-old tenure, wish they knew.
A classic pitcher's duel ensues, scoreless until the top of the eighth, whence two Zanesville Greys' scrubs slam back-to-back doubles, the latter scarring the high sky before banging off the center-field wall. Sailors down 1-0. Time stops. Give us a second to figure out where we are.
Sailors bat in the bottom of the eighth. Koester bounces the first pitch off the wall in center for a double. He comes in to score on a ground-ball out moments later.
We go to the ninth tied 1-1. Knight, the weight of the world resting comfortably on his shoulders, gives up back-to-back singles with one out, just to keep us nerve-wracked. Mikey Rohr gets the call, threatens to load the bases by going 3-and-0 on the first batter for the same reason, then unceremoniously strikes out two to send us to the home ninth.
Further testing our capacities, the Sailors work up two outs to start the inning, then Grubb patiently waits out a base-on-balls.
"Everybody ready?" it all seems to say, as Polson steps up and delivers the game-winning hit.
First round of the playoffs six days later, first game against highly favored Ohio Valley, yeah yeah right Knight is pitching again and the Sailors win the game 4-0, and the best-of-three series the next night. La-de-dah. The Labor-Day weekend rolls around and I need to take a few carloads of loved ones and I opt for the Saturday night game, assuming they'll win Friday's game and so will win the first pro-ball championship in Erie since 1957 at the new, improved, "last-pro-game-ever-at Ainsworth Field." I mean I've read a lot of novels and I have a good working knowledge of PLOT DEVICES, so it hardly fazes me when the Sailors take the first game from the overmatched Lancaster Scouts, 12-4.
Hurrying right along, Jim Knight is of course our starting pitcher for The Championship Game on Saturday. It is a glorious mess, with Lancaster power-hurlers putting men on first and second and balking and wild-pitching both all the way home while striking out the side; little slo-mo skipping-stone infield singles that drop perfectly between everyone; with all manner of wild parties on the base-paths, and we win it easily, 9-3.
All over town, hearts explode. What incredible fun, and who could have asked for or imagined a more perfect narrative flow.
"I call 'crystallisation' that action of mind that discovers fresh perfections at every turn of events."