From the New York Collegiate Baseball League Championship
If it wasn’t in Elmira, I wouldn’t even go. But the final day before the boys head back toÂ the dormsÂ is staged here, in Elmira, at Dunn Field; and Dunn Field is the center of at least one known universe. This is where my father, presumably in 1956, almost missed his high school graduation to see Don Zimmer married at home plate. These weathered stands at the bend of the Chemung RiverÂ is where Wade Boggs hit .267 while Bruce Hurst pitched the Pioneer Red Sox to a NYPEN league championship in 1976. This is where,Â two years later, Jack Maloney convinced Arnold Dunlap and myself to sneak down to the box seats in the late innings of a nothing game; and where we were quickly chased away by a scolding teenage usher.
Elmira lost its Eastern League franchise in 1973, but Dunn Field is where Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer, whose Oriole franchises would later dominate the late sixties and early seventies,Â did such a good job that the city remains fifth all time in Eastern League titles.Â Years later, the NYPEN insisted that all its franchises have major-league quality clubhouses and dugouts–this was the end of the right field bleachers. After spending five digits to meet this requirement, the Red Sox moved their short seasonÂ Single-A franchise to Â Lowell, Massachusetts Â two years later.Â After the New York-Penn League came the independent Canadian-American League. After the Can-Am League came one year of silence. Now Elmira has been five years in the NYCBL, playing twice for its championship, winning once and vying again tonight.
The match-up is Godzilla versus Bambi. The Amsterdam Mohawks, winners of the Eastern Division title, sport both the best E.R.A. and the best batting average in the league. Through the course of the brief forty-two game season, only Albany has hit as many home runs–twenty nine. The Pioneers, on the other hand, find themselves in the championship series despite hitting only six balls over the fence. The home team boasts three players in the top ten in batting average, but they are consumate line-drive hitters, the equivalent ofÂ Ossie Bluege and the ’33 Washington Senators. One more fact to set the stage: through the season, Amsterdam collected two less hits than the Pioneers–and out of those two less hits, they have manufactured an astounding sixty-four more runs. To drive the point, well, home, Amsterdam has won the opening game of this championship series 17–0. Now the day after, Saturday, the two teams travel west. If the Pioneers can win one game, the second feature of a twin-bill will decide the series tonight.
I get a hot dog and a soda and take my place amongst the pale blue, paint-chipped wooden seats. How old is Dunn Field? It has support beams, and seats behind them which some unlucky dogs would have to swivel in if the stadium was full. But even now for the championship, a full house isn’t going to come about. Mesmerized by the Majors and the Yankees, as the city is mesmerized by Manhattan generally, only us hoi polloi will suffer a spectacle so demeaning as a few college kids trying to keep their game sharp over the summer: 1,258 will fill seats intended for 3,000. There are advantages: I can drive to the park fifty minutes without a ticket in my hand, and be in no panic. When I arrive I have my choice of rows to park in. Among the general admission seats, I again can pick any view I care for.
The Pioneer’s starter tonight is Chad Simendinger (St. Joseph’s, PA). Well over six feet, the lanky left-hander with the long black hair has a 3.00 E.R.A. inÂ sixty three innings pitched,with fifty strike outs and twenty walked. Now he sets the Mohawks down one-two-three in the top of the first, sending catcher Matt Calantonio (Brown) and right-fielder Cody Kulp (Shippensburg)Â to their seats looking at strike three. The tone has been set. There will be no blowout tonight. Simendinger will hold the Pioneers in this game.
Jake Rickenbach, shortstop from Utah Valley St., punches an 0-1 single to right to lead off for the Pios. One of those line drive hitters on the list, he averaged .327 for the season. After second baseman Matt Ford (Hofstra) flies harmlessly to center, center fielder John Snyder (Marietta, Ga.), works the count to 2-2. Snyder has hit .338 for the year, and stands second on the list with twenty-six r.b.i’s. Not waiting for seventeen runs tonight, Manager Dan ShwamÂ allows Rickenbach to run, but Calantonio delivers a solid peg to Mohawk shortstop Brian Martutartus (Wagner) who applies a sweeping tag. At the plate Snyder then swings at strike three and must be put out at first after a dropped ball.
Against a setting sun, the silhouette of the stadium’s western edge has parked itself between the plate and the mound, and Simendinger is out to take advantage of the contrast. After Mohawk’s first baseman Kyle Koeneman (L.S.U.)Â squints at a third strike, third baseman Ricky Pacione (Marist)Â rolls a grounder high off the mound, straight to Ford at second, who throws for the out. As with Koeneman, designated hitter Jason Brooks (Dartmouth) sees no balls for before being rung up at the plate. A pattern is set: Pioneer’s first baseman Ryan Feguson (Temple) sends a long drive to center, where the Mohawk’s Taylor Lewis(Maine) Â catches it over his shoulder. Third baseman Carlos Lopez singles to center, but catcher Brian Erie (N. Kentucky) goes down looking at 2-2, and d.h. Casey Levens (Marietta) lines back to the mound where Mohawk starting pitcher Dan Zlotnik (Marist) Â is in position to watch the ball into his glove. Playing for the championship and battling the sun, the Mohawks are in for a tight game tonight.
The Eastern division champs go down in order in the third. In response shortstop Rickenback gounds into an inning-ending double play.Â Zlotnik cannot match Simendinger’s velocity on the mound, but again and again the Pioneers drive the ball into the grass for easy outs. In the fourth, Simendinger slips the second time through the lineup. With one out, Calantonio singles with two strikes against him. Kulp sends Calantonio to second by repeating his feat. Then on 0-1, Koeneman catches a breaking ball and smashes it to the left field alley. Calantonio scores and there are runners on second and third with one out. Now Carlos Lopez picks a hot grounder from the bat of Pacione, stares the lead runner back, and fires across the diamond to nip the batter at first base. It’s a wonderful example of keeping your head under pressure, and as if to reward him, Amsterdam d.h. Brooks grounds the first pitch he sees to Lopez again, with the same result. Only one run has crossed the plate. Will it be all the Mohawks need?
In the bottom of the fourth Ford, Snyder, and Ferguson make out. For the Mohawks in the fifth, Martutartas singles with two out, and following him, Taylor Lewis walks. But Calantonio flies to left early in the count. In the bottom of the frame, third baseman Lopez lines to short on 1-2. Catcher Brian Erie (N. Kentucky) works a count, and then lines a pitch foul right at us. The ball bangs off a back post, ricochets to the seats, bounces around and lands at my feet. I pick it up and without even thinking about it turn to give it to a ten or eleven year old running my way with a glove. The crowd is cheering. The cheers turn to boos as I pause to read the green ‘NACSB’ stamping on the hide, then to cheers again as I hand the ball away. Well, I am that old. I am supposed to be in the ‘passing the torch stage.’ I suppose I am. When I was in high school I liked attention, and now I am nervous sitting here after the applause. If I wanted the ball, I should have… but I didn’t really. It’ s just. . . nothing. Erie has gone out and I don’t even know how. Levens singles for Elmira, but right fielder Justin Lamborn flies to right. I am still sitting there, not wanting the ball so much as wanting to be young enough to want it.
For Amsterdam in the sixth, right-fielder CodyKulp, tied for the league-lead in home runs (8), forces John Snyder to the track in center before Snyder can bring down the fly. Koeneman slams a double past Carlos Lopez. Pacione flies to center. And now life pops me back out of myself.
Dunn Field has never been known for its food. You go to the the ballpark, you get ballpark food, and whadyaÂ gripin’ about, for petes’ sake? “Yeah,” the man says, sitting to my left below me, talking to his pal, “I got a spiderÂ with my dog once here. I went back down and said, ‘I got enough meat. . . .’Â I lose the rest of his words. This was apparently in the old days, and did not lead to a million dollar lawsuit. Designated hitter Brooks grounds to second to end the inning.
Well, I’ve come to a championship game, and I get a foul-ball complex and a spider story. What’s going to happen next? Simendinger starts the seventh, but after striking out five the first time through the lineup in the twilight, it’s becoming obvious he’s left his best effort behind. The Pioneers have no one better and he’s stretching it out for the team. Now it comes apart: Mohawk left fielder Luke Maille (Kentucky)Â doubles to left field. Sam Kidd(also a Wildcat)Â pinch-runs for him. T.J. Jones (Cincinnati) drills one long off the center-field fence, and Kidd should score easily, but misses third, goes back to tag the base, starts home and must retreat. Elmira brings their corners in. Martutartas grounds to short, freezing the runners. To set up a double play, Taylor Lewis is given a free pass. It almost works:Â Calantonio grounds to Ford in the hole, Ford flips to Rickenbach at second, and Rickenbach rushes his pivot and his throw, sailing the ball past Ferguson at first and into the Elmira dugout. Kidd has crossed the plate on the fielder’s choice, and now Jones scores on the error. Kulp then grounds to third to end the inning, but it’s 3-0 Amsterdam, and the fans know the home team’s chances are passing.
Elmira stages a rally and almost a riot. With one out and a full count, catcher Erie doubles to left. DH Casey Levens steps to the plate. In a mid-count I don’t record, Zlotnik winds up for his pitch. Just as he releases his pitch, the scoreboard releases a single, small, whistling firecracker. It pops and Zlotnink jumps, but only after his release. Levens swings and makes solid contact. A screaming liner zips past the pitcher,Â but T.J. Jones at second extends full-body upwards, flagging the sure base hit into the webbing of his glove. Erie, running with contact, is easily doubled off.
Nobody mentions the firecracker. The umps do not pause the game. It has not effected play, and I can’t imagine what they would do if it had. The people around me are acting as if nothing had happened. But it’s the cheapest, most shameful, embarrassing stunt I have ever seen a home team try in thirty years of watching baseball. I can’t believe it happened at Dunn. It’s a slap in the face to Weaver, Palmer, Boggs and Hurst, and all the others who have made it to the majors from my home field.
The game goes on. Simendinger spent, Jordan Egan (Norfolk St.) enters the game. He’s only pitched thirteen and a third innings, striking out eleven and walking three, with an E.R.A. of 1.35. He promptly walks Koeneman to lead off the eighth. Pacione grounds to first, advancing him. Jason Brooks singles to left, driving the nail in the coffin. Kidd walks and manager Schwam hold a conference. After the talk, Egan strikes out the next two looking. Roused by the K’s, the Pioneers scrap together a last rally off of reliever Justin Van Grouw (Wake Forest).Â Lamborn singles, left fielder Corey Keller (Fla. Atl.) singles, and back at the top of the lineup Rickenbach walks to load the bases. Amsterdam manager Keith Griffin had been hoping Van Grouw, at a 3.45 E.R.A., could save his best arm an inning, but now he strides to the mound and calls on Abram Williams (Radford). In twenty-three and a third innings, Williams struck out thirty in the season and walked only two, defiling himself with an E.R.A. of 0.39.
But Matt Ford takes three straight balls. He takes a fourth pitch, hurls the bat away and heads towards first. The umpire calls him back and lectures him on waiting for the call. It is strike one. Flustered, Ford takes two more in the zone and sits. John Snyder, so nice, I think, as a Dodgers fan, to see another center fielder called Snyder, even with a ‘y;’ Snyder grounds four to six and on to first, and that is the pivot of the season. Both teams go straight out in the ninth. Catcher Brian Erie records the last out, flying to Cody Kulp in right to end everything, and the Mohawks, decked in red and gray, make the ritual pile up at the mound. It is the second straight for theÂ Mohawks, and many of us sit in the stands wondering what it must feel like, and sad to see local baseball go for another year. We watch as they hand out the trophies. Kyle Koeneman is the series MVP. Finally Manager Griffin strides out calmly to accept the league championship, and the team comes behind him in a orderly fashion to pose for a photograph. The Pios lineup to shake hands, so down emotionally that they do not acknowledge our applause as they leave the field after the ritual. Only a few of these college kids will see each other again. Maybe fifteen of them will see the minors. Maybe two will make it to the big lights.Â I head for the car wondering what the rest will make of this night, and the trophy they earned together in the prime days of their lives.