Somewhere in the middle of the Sounds’ home opener last Tuesday, the Stooges showed up. Louisville’s right fielder had just made a fine, diving catch to rob a Nashville batter of a hit when everyone heard Curly’s high voice over the loudspeaker: “Oh, a wise guy! They heard Clint Eastwood too, after the Louisville pitcher brushed back a Sounds hitter with an inside fastball: “Go ahead. Make my day.”
Several times between innings, a retriever emerged from a doghouse beyond the first-base dugout bearing a tray in its mouth with refreshments for the umpires.
An unlucky fan, strapped into an oversized gyroball, rolled down a ramp and knocked over a set-up of tall plastic pins. Two other contestants, resplendently goofy in cumbersome goose outfits, waddled unsteadily toward second base and back.
Another costumed bird (not the Famous Chicken) carried on a hip-hopping break dancewith an umpire.
At least on opening night, the new owners of the Sounds had made good on their promise. This was like nothing seen before at Greer.
And judging from the reaction of the small but vocal crowd on the chilly evening, the change was a welcome one. In fact, the fans sounded more enthusiastic than any Sounds audience since Michael Jordan packed the place in the summer of ’94.
“We had people who’ve been coming here for the last 20 years to call and say this was the most fun they’ve had,” says Bill Larsen, the Sounds’ new general manager. “We were amazed at how much response we got. One guy from a local TV station told me, ‘I would actually pay to come back out here.’ ”
The team’s recently arrived new ownership, which also owns a Class A Kane County franchise in suburban Chicago, has conspicuously spiffed up Greer Stadium, dramatically improved the players’ clubhouses, and replaced the perpetually empty left-field bleachers with a picnic area.
But the Illinoisans’ best import is an enthusiasm for slightly off-center entertainment like the Goose Races, the Human Bowling Ball, and Jake, the frisbee-catching, water-hauling dog.
“We try to treat it not so much like 70 games as 70 events,” says Larsen. “Things like the ball blast”in which players hurl freebies to the crowd“break down barriers and get people out of the habit of just coming to the ballpark and sitting down. We want to enliven the experience so everyone can be part of what baseball is.”
Many of the goofus promotionslike Tattoo Night, the Dirtiest Car in the Parking Lot contest, and free Groucho glasses and bald wigshave already proven they can play in Peoria. Or at least in suburban Chicago.
But more than a little inspiration, Larsen readily admits, came from legendary White Sox owner Bill Veeck, the game’s most audacious promoter and author of one of the best baseball autobiographies, Veeck as in Wreck. It was Veeck, you’ll recall, who once sent a midget out to bat, outfitted his team in baggy black shorts, and installed shower heads in the hot center-field stands at Comiskey Park.
Greater still was Veeck’s ill-fated “Death to Disco Night,” which proffered discount tickets to fans who brought a disco record to Comiskey. (Between games of a double-header, the Sox exploded the amassed mountain of albums, whipping the crowd into such a field-storming frenzy that the Sox had to forfeit the nightcap.)
“I grew up on that,” says Larsen. “Gradually, I began to understand what [Veeck] was doing. He knew how to get people excited so they’d come back. You could sense an electricity in the air.”
After Veeck was inducted into Cooperstown, Larsen organized an appreciation day at Kane County and invited Veeck’s widow, Mary Frances, to throw out the first pitch. “She told me she got the same feeling at our park [as at Veeck-owned Comiskey],” remembers Larsen, still relishing the compliment.
Disco Night, minus the pyrotechnics, may even resurface at Greer this seasonespecially after Larsen discovered that the son of a Sounds staffer attends school with the child of disco queen Donna Summer. “Oh man!” said the GM, wheels turning. “We’ve got to work that angle.”
Don’t toss that Trampps LP just yet. It’s going to be an interesting season.
Jackie and Tiger
Fifty years ago this week, as he zipped around the bases for the first time in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, Jackie Robinson set in motion something much larger than himself. It’s no overstatement to claim that April 15, 1947, altered the face of American history as much as Dec. 7, 1941, did.
On that improbable spring day at Ebbetts Fieldsix years before the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools, eight years before Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on the busthe civil rights movement gained an irresistible momentum.
As his slashing style was changing the national pastime, Robinson also subtly changed the mind-set of many Americans. After 1947, when Robinson led the Dodgers to the World Series, it became impossible for anyone to maintain the lie that African-Americans weren’t suited for the major leagues. And once apartheid in one major institution was exposed as an absurd fraud, it became impossible, ultimately, to keep the walls from crumbling elsewhere as well.
On Sunday, a half-century almost to the day after he shattered that first racial barrier, Robinson would have smiled at the repudiation of one of the last. As if the timing had been preordained, one of Jackie’s legatees, Tiger Woods, became in his own right a powerful agent for change.
In case you were dozing, Tiger Woods won the Masters on Sunday. Woods, who has played in less than a dozen tournaments since joining the professional tour, dominated the course and the field as no one before him had done. He won by the widest margin12 strokesin Masters history. He shot the lowest score for four rounds. And he established a slew of other records in the process.
The Masters is America’s most prestigious golf tournament, played on America’s most hallowed links. Tiger Woods is an unprepossessing 21-year-old barely old enough to order a celebratory Scotch at the Augusta National Country Club.
More to the point, Woods is an African/ Asian-American who, not so long ago, wouldn’t have been allowed even to step through the front door of this club, for fear that he would violate the racial exclusivity that hung over the place in the same way that Spanish moss drapes its trees.
Golf, perhaps because of its association with exclusive country clubs, has provided the final, desperate refuge for institutionalized racism in professional sports. Before the 1990s, the Augusta National was monochromatically white. Until 21 years ago, no African-American had even been allowed to compete in the Masters.
Woods’ exhilarating triumph in this honky chateau will change the complexion of golf in the same way that Jackie Robinson made performance more relevant than pigment in baseball.
Like Robinson, Woods is a role model. Unlike Robinson, though, he is no pioneer. That mantle belongs to golfers like Ted Rhodes, Charlie Sifford, and Lee Elder, and Woods properly acknowledges his debt to them.
Elder, the first African-American allowed to compete in the Masters, in the year Tiger Woods was born, came back to Augusta to savor the day and to embrace golf’s new king. “No one,” he said, “will ever turn their head again when a black man walks to that first tee.” At that moment, Woods’ victory marked not just a beginning, but the completion of the journey that Jackie Robinson, all alone, began.