Baseball contrasts

St. Louis isn’t Springfield. Here you can always talk to the owner.

click to enlarge Fans waiting patiently to watch their Springfield Sliders in action. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SPRINGFIELD SLIDERS
Photo courtesy of Springfield Sliders
Fans waiting patiently to watch their Springfield Sliders in action.

Having attended baseball games for many decades, I was reminded last week of how different the game is from that first game I attended in 1955. On Memorial Day weekend along with my son, son-in-law and grandson I visited Busch Stadium to see the Cardinals play the Atlanta Braves. This is the second Busch Stadium where I have attended games in St. Louis and in every aspect it is an improvement upon its predecessor. More than 40,000 attended an excellent game that the Cardinals won with an eighth-inning rally.

Several things about the game were striking to one whose first baseball game was at Wrigley Field in Chicago. In those days, men wore white shirts, many wore ties, and young men dressed in similar fashion. Few women attended. The Cubs played Brooklyn, and if there were any Dodger fans in the bleachers, they were quiet. Memorial Day weekend in St. Louis, the dress of choice was Cardinals or Braves shirts, many bearing the number and name of players, present and past. A substantial number of Braves fans attended. They made their presence known. Cubs and White Sox fans come to St. Louis to cheer their teams on and I learned that Braves fans apparently travel equally well.

It was Yadier Molina Dog Bowl night and fans were rewarded with a silver dog bowl. Giving souvenirs at ballgames is now a common occurrence, providing an historical irony that many fans may not appreciate. The original promoters of giveaways to entice fans into the ballpark were team owners Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley. Both owned franchises that struggled with poor attendance. Veeck and Finley wanted to make baseball a more fan-friendly game. Their efforts were met with derision by fellow owners and the Commissioner of Baseball. Ultimately, they were drummed out of ownership. But today their ideas – ranging from, dancing mascots to brightly colored uniforms – live on in major ballparks across the country.

One such ballpark is Robin Roberts Stadium in Springfield. On May 30 I attended opening night for the Springfield Sliders. The season opener is special. Just saying the words “opening day” brings back memories and offers hope and optimism. Sliders owner Todd Miller may not be old enough to remember Bill Veeck but he is a Veeck clone with his hands-on style. On opening night I observed Miller selling tickets to move the line along, happily informing young fans that they would be allowed to run the bases after the game, visiting with fans in the stands, checking the concessions and generally making certain that things at the park ran smoothly. When I spoke with him during the sixth inning he knew the Sliders were ahead but was uncertain of the exact score.

By the sixth inning the Sliders were ahead 12-2 and would win by that score. Unlike the Cardinal game, the Sliders jumped ahead in the first inning with six runs, several due to miscues by their opponent, the Hannibal Hoots. The first inning also featured a broken bat. Unlike their college teams, players in the Prospect League use wooden bats. After an aggressive swing, a Sliders batter dribbled an infield hit, with portions of the bat flying farther than the ball.

Sliders starting pitcher Brian Chandler struggled in the first inning and walked three batters. Hannibal scored a run without benefit of a hit. Chandler settled down and did not give up a hit but had to be removed in the fourth inning because there is a pitch count limit in the league.

The game in Springfield was as enjoyable and entertaining as the previous game in St. Louis. Far fewer fans attended, but the Sliders work hard to put on a good show. Between innings there were giveaways and the traditional condiment race, with young fans dressed as mustard, ketchup and a hot dog running from first base to third base. Sliders mascot Speedy appeared on the dugout roof and danced to the tune of YMCA. Speedy also signed autographs for young fans, a remarkable feat for an animal with no fingers or thumbs. A Sliders player in full uniform walked through the bleachers selling 50-50 tickets during the game. Yadier Molina does not have that task at Busch Stadium.

An opening night victory does not a season make. In fact, the entire Sliders team is not even on the field. Several players are still participating in post-season college tournaments and will be arriving shortly. But a win on opening night is always to be savored. After all, only half the teams in the league can claim to be 1-0 after the first game.

The Sliders at Robin Roberts Field are an enjoyable summer evening event. On several nights during the season there will be fireworks after the game and the Sliders webpage has a long list of promotions. And you can actually purchase a ticket directly from the team’s owner.

Although never achieving his original career goal of becoming general manager of the Chicago White Sox, Judge Stuart Shiffman of Springfield remains an avid baseball fan and White Sox loyalist. This summer Illinois Times will offer “Da Judge” (his nickname at White Sox Fantasy Camp)  the opportunity to share some thoughts on the game he loves.

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