August 15, 2022

Weekending With Weirdos

July 9, 2022 by · 1 Comment 

Even if you’ve never been to Austin, Texas, you have likely heard the phrase “Keep Austin Weird.” If you haven’t actually heard anyone say it, you might have seen it on a bumper sticker, coffee mug, T-shirt, or some other trinket.

Austin has long had a reputation for attracting genuinely creative folks (especially musicians) as well as poseurs, people who think they are creative but no one has the heart to tell them otherwise. Throw in 50,000+ students at the University of Texas, then mix in the politicians and bureaucrats that typically populate a state capital habitat, and weird behavior patterns are assured. As a result, the eccentricity quotient of Austin is higher than in most cities. Hence the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan – and its new professional baseball team, the Austin Weirdos.

The Weirdos are an expansion team in the Pecos League. Austin is almost 400 miles from Pecos, Texas, but the once tiny Pecos League has grown a lot since its inception. The league opened for business in 2011 with five teams in New Mexico (Carlsbad, Las Cruces, Roswell, Ruidoso, White Sands) and one in Alpine, Texas. Roswell and Alpine are still around but the geography of the league has grown far beyond the banks of the Pecos River. The schedule, however, remains abbreviated: the regular season encompasses June and July; the postseason is in early August.

Today the Pacific Division of the Pecos League has eight teams, all but one in California (the Tucson Saguaros are the exception). The Mountain Division has four teams in the Mountain Time Zone and four in the Central Time Zone. The Weirdos and the Weimar Hormigas (Spanish for “ants”), who play 80 miles or so southeast of Austin, are the latest additions to this division. Pecos may seem a parochial appellation for a league spread all across the Southwest. But geographic improprieties are not unique to the Pecos League. Consider the Pacific Coast League, which hosts the Sugar Land Space Cowboys, who are 65 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and roughly 1,500 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

The PL is not one of the more prominent independent minor leagues. Chances of a player attracting the attention of a big-league team and being signed to an affiliated minor league contract are slim. But moving up to a better independent minor league is a possibility. In the entire history of the Pecos League, only two players have managed to claw their way to major league teams.

Pitcher Chris Smith, formerly with the defunct White Sands Pupfish, had a cup of coffee (four appearances) with the Blue Jays in 2017. You might have heard of Yermin Mercedes, who set a record with the White Sox in 2021 by beginning the season with eight straight hits. He too was a proud alum of the White Sands Pupfish. (He is now with the Charlotte Knights, the White Sox Triple-A affiliate).

So, the Austin Weirdos likely have no stars in their eyes so far as making it big in the big leagues. Some have played with other Pecos League franchises or some other low-level minor league, affiliated or otherwise. Others are undrafted college players.

For some players, Pecos League ballparks may be a step down from what they experienced in amateur ball. A veteran of a major college program has likely seen better. The PL parks range widely in terms of capacity and amenities. At the high end, the Tucson Saguaros play at the Kino Sports Complex, the original spring training home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, as well as the Triple-A Tucson Sidewinders and Tucson Padres.

Other notable venues include Kokernot Field in Alpine, where the Boston Red Sox once maintained a minor league team; Roswell’s Joe Bauman Stadium, named in honor of the man who held the single-season home run record (72 in 1954) until Barry Bonds came along; and Fort Marcy Ballfield, a classic WPA (1936) bandbox (355 feet to center field) that houses the Santa Fe Fuego. Then there is Sam Lynn Ballpark (opened in 1941), home of the Bakersfield Train Robbers and the Wasco Reserves. Sam Lynn Ballpark also features a short center field dimension (354 feet), but its real claim to fame is its western-facing footprint, meaning that night games must start later than normal so batters and catchers don’t have the sun in their eyes.

Most of the PL parks, however, are old but not particularly historic, and this is true of the Austin Weirdos’ home, Parque Zaragoza, a municipal park and ball field adjacent to Boggy Creek on the east side of Austin. The surrounding neighborhood is heavily Hispanic with lots of working-class bungalows but signs of creeping gentrification are also apparent.

The park/ball field was named after General Ignacio Zaragoza, who was born in present-day Goliad, Texas in 1829, and gained fame by leading Mexican troops to victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 (the origin of Cinco de mayo). Not-so-fun fact: While his victory has resounded through the ages, General Zaragoza didn’t have long to bask in his achievement as he died of typhoid fever less than four months later. Sic transit gloria.

Actually, if the general were still alive, he would probably not be impressed by the ballpark named after him. In early July the park is all but deserted as long-term heat has descended on Austin. Aside from the ballplayers warming up, the only noise emanates from cicadas. The grass in the park and ballpark is heavily stressed. The rigid demarcation usually seen between the cutout sections of the infield and the grassy areas are nonexistent; the brown areas shade into the green and vice versa. Bad hops? Yeah, buddy, Parque Zaragoza is no place to be a third baseman.

Mercifully, the small grandstand, originally constructed in the late 1940s, is shaded. The corrugated tin roof is a mixed blessing, however, as it is not nailed down properly and the occasional gust of wind creates an annoying banging sound.

The park’s dimensions appear respectable but there are no distance markers on the outfield fence (no warning track either). There are a couple of signs promoting RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and the phrase “Engage, Develop, Transform.” The good news is you can bring in food; the bad news is you have no choice; there are no concessions.

The minimalist scoreboard provides only the score, the count, and the number of outs. Clearly, this is inadequate, but the point is moot as the scoreboard doesn’t work. Unless you have an eidetic memory, the only way to know the score is to keep score.

In center field there is what appears to be a derelict flagpole. Without a flag, there is no national anthem, even on the 4th of July weekend. Of course, there is no P.A. system, so there is no means to play the anthem anyway. Sadly, without a P.A. system, a spectator will never know the names of the players, just their numbers. On the plus side, spectators are not annoyed by snippets of pop-schlock walk-up music or corny sound effects after every foul ball. And if you’re sick of “Sweet Caroline,” rest assured it will never be inflicted on you at Parque Zaragoza.

In short, Parque Zaragoza is much less illustrious than the man it was named after. Looking through pictures of Pecos League ballparks, however, Spartan facilities are hardly rarities. So, I must admit that the bigotry of low expectations clouded my visit to Parque Zaragoza over the 4th of July weekend.

There were no patriotic salutes during the Saturday and Sunday games against the Weimer Hormigas….no elderly veteran throwing out the first pitch, no color guard, no flyovers, no fireworks.

Given the revenue stream (all but nonexistent, much like drought-stricken Boggy Creek that “flows” past the third-base side of the park), the lack of amenities is to be expected. My $10 ticket for the Saturday night game had 0535 stamped on it. The next day’s ticket was stamped 0587. I assume that number represents total attendance to that point of the season. In other words, after 15 home games the total attendance is around 600, or about 40 people per game. This was in keeping with my rough estimates of the “crowd” during the two games I attended.

For the Saturday night game some people bring lawn chairs. Eavesdropping on conversations in the grandstand, I realize that there are few fans who are not relatives of the players, so best not to be too vocal in one’s criticism. As is the case in a number of low-rent minor league parks, donations are solicited after a hometown player hits a home run. Given the small crowd, the intake is small potatoes. If Weirdos nation were a geographical nation, it would be the equivalent of Monaco or Liechtenstein.
The local media are no help.

If you read The Austin American-Statesman, you would never know the Weirdos exist, even though they are the first minor league team to play in Austin since the Texas League Senators in 1967. The sports section includes zero information on the Weirdos, not even a line score or league standings. Even in the off-season the sports section is dominated by University of Texas sports teams. Austin FC, the new (2021) MLS franchise, also is well chronicled, as are high school sports. The Weirdos don’t even get short shrift. They are completely shriftless!

Now you can’t have a team nicknamed the Weirdos without it being reflected in the team graphics. The logo features a Texas flag superimposed over a tie-dyed letter “A.” The web site also features a cartoon ogre of a ballplayer wielding a baseball bat with a spike embedded in it. If you are old enough to remember the grotesque cartoons of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, that will give you some idea of what this guy looks like. For a more contemporary pop culture comparison, imagine this guy doing a cameo as a freakazoid on Rick and Morty.

The Weirdos are 10-17 before the Saturday night game. The Hormigas, having suffered a 10-game losing streak in June, are at 7-18. Drought or no drought, both teams are getting their feet wet this season, and expansion teams and losing records go together. The two teams would seem to be evenly matched, yet the Saturday night game was a 21-0 victory for Austin. The Sunday afternoon game was a more reasonable 10-7 victor for Weimar.

So, there was plenty of action on the field, even though extracurricular entertainment was nil. Well, not entirely. Foul balls on the first-base side frequently leave the park, thus taking aim on stationary targets (windows of homes on Pedernales Street) or moving targets (automobiles). Curiously, the right field fence has been heightened to protect cars and homes on Gonzales Street, even though home runs are much less plentiful than foul balls.

Seeing a ballgame at Parque Zaragoza doesn’t resemble any other minor league experience I’ve had. In truth, it is closer to games I have seen at local community colleges. There is no entertainment other than the ballgame itself. In a sense, that is refreshing. With no distractions, there is nothing to occupy the fan’s attention other than the ball game. What a novel concept!

As bare bones as Parque Zaragoza is, it should not be dismissed out of hand; baseball history may be made there on any given day. The Polo Grounds was famous for the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff; perhaps one day Bigfoot will hit a walk-off homer and there will be a new Legend of Boggy Creek.

Even in Austin, that would be a red-letter day for weirdness.

Comments

One Response to “Weekending With Weirdos”
  1. Tyler Blair says:

    Enjoyed the article Frank, I’m the manager for the Austin Weirdos this year. I’d love to speak with you more on the team and league, I have a proposal for you if you’re looking for some unique content.

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