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Minor League

These Parts--Touring the Midwest With the South Bend White Sox

by and


Motoring east on River Drive, away from the business district of Davenport, Iowa, at 5:15 on a Tuesday night, and the livin' is easy. "Rush hour" sounds different in Davenport than it does in the giant important cities of America: instead of the concentrated sound of a million straining shackled engines, it's the put-putt-put-putt of garden sprinklers and the soft hissing of summer lawns, clearly audible between the evenly spaced swooshes of the passing cars. This traffic does not snarl.

River Drive runs alongside the Mississippi, which makes it the most scenic of Davenport's main drags. Driving east, if you're not staring at the river on your right, you can't miss the municipal parking garage on your left. Nor would you want to. On its side, a half-block long and sloping up to two-story height, are painted the sheet music and lyrics to "Davenport Blues," and where the music ends, the mural concludes by reproducing the most famous portrait of Davenport's most famous son, cornetist Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke, the song's composer. Big as a god, the unassuming Bix sits with his horn on his knee and stares at the river and at anyone who'll stare back. He stares toward the black iron railroad bridge over the river and the adjacent John O'Donnell Stadium, where the Quad City Angels will be playing baseball later tonight.

Unfortunately, the visiting South Bend White Sox, one of the farm teams affiliated with the Chicago organization of the same name, will hardly get a glimpse of old Bix. They're booked at the Voyager Inn, a faceless midpriced hotel out near the interstate, and the bus that drives them from the hotel to the ballpark goes nowhere near the mural. The Sox are here on business, not to sightsee. Their bus cuts through the center of Davenport's business district, which is deserted by early evening; hell, it's not too lively at high noon, a run-down corn-belt downtown devastated by the depressed sales of the farm machinery that had been the area's biggest industry. The bus drops the South Bend Sox at the stadium and sits in the parking lot until the game's over, as if the driver were waiting for the Shriners' circus to end so he could drive the kids back to the junior high. The players carry their own equipment bags on and off the bus, and there is no pregame anticipation, no escalating excitement as batting practice ends and game time nears. The players are not inundated with requests for autographs.

They're fortunate in at least one respect, though: they're playing at O'Donnell Stadium, and it's a gem. It was originally built in 1931 and allowed to lapse into disrepair until a few years ago, when the city began restoring it at a cost of more than $3 million. The rehab is nothing short of spectacular. The stadium's archway entrances all but gleam. The on-field lighting is modern and top-drawer, the infield appears to be true and even. The park can seat 5,500, making it one of the largest in the league, and the entire place has a scrubbed, fresh look, from the white concrete walkways to the electronic scoreboard to the red textured-plastic box seats and the spanking bright grandstand benches.

These you can see in great detail, since so few of them are obscured by spectators. In fact, at game time on this Tuesday night, exactly 117 people have settled in to watch their Quad City Angels. (There's no need to estimate this crowd--why estimate, when you can use the far more scientific method of counting the fans one by one?) John O'Donnell Stadium, in other words, is filled to roughly 2 percent of its capacity, even though this is Family Night--Mom, Dad, and the kids admitted for just a five spot, provided they've clipped the Family Night coupon from the Quad City Times--and even though their opponents are the first-place South Bend White Sox.

Welcome to the minor leagues.

The Angels and the Sox and a dozen other teams, including the Appleton Foxes and the Springfield Cardinals and the Wausau Timbers and the Cedar Rapids Reds, play in the Midwest League. It's an "A" league, second rung from the bottom on baseball's minor-league ladder, the place where you start to separate the real prospects from the guys who ought to be thinking about some other line of work. The Angels' souvenir program contains a list of about 30 current major leaguers who have played for the Quad City team. There is no list of players who never made it to the bigs--perhaps because the program is only 78 pages thick, and you couldn't name them all in so little space.

If you're the general manager of a team in the low minors--filled with baseball infants taking the equivalent of toddler steps in pro ball--you do what you can to build confidence. You goose their pride. And so, as the hometown nine take the field, a recording of the theme from Rocky accompanies them, actually seems to propel them from the dugout, while the public-address announcer cheerleads his way through the lineup.

Naturally, the visiting South Bend Sox don't get this kind of treatment, but they don't really need it: they've been announcing their own presence since April, hitting the ball hard and gaining a reputation as the scourge of the Midwest League, and they're well on their way to a spectacular 21-and-10 record for the season's first half. This means they can look forward to something the parent club can't even dream about: a spot in the play-offs. (Throughout the minors, the season is split into two half-seasons, the winners of each facing off in late summer to determine the division champion.) South Bend's success is not unique in the White Sox farm system: all of the minor-league teams affiliated with the Sox have been gangbusters this year, and that has spread a lot of hope. The parent club looks a few years down the road and envisions a contender. The kids themselves can look at the major-league roster, see the gaping holes that have made the Chicagoans a last-place club, and know they have a real chance to move up fast.

This Tuesday night in May, the game opens uneventfully--except for the 7:13 arrival of a Soo Line train as it passes the ballpark, so close to the left-field bleachers that it seems to pass through the ballpark. The tracks run only a few yards behind the bullpen, and when the train comes into view--after a few presentational squawks of its diesel horn--it's unexpectedly enormous, resembling some prehistoric animal that's been suddenly time-transported into modern surroundings that can't quite contain it. The engineer decides to showboat: he slows the train to a crawl and pulls on the horn, blat blaaat BLAAAAAAAT, drowning out the public-address announcer, the crack of the bat, and for that matter the conversation of your neighbor in the stands.

If you have one.

In the first inning, South Bend sends only three men to the plate, and the Angels manage a couple of two-out singles; in other words, both pitchers look pretty good. The Angels have started Mark Holzemer, a lefty who's averaging a strikeout per inning but has a high earned run average. He's matched against the Sox' Sam Chavez, another lefty, who has a good-looking fastball; he's one of the players the parent club will watch carefully in the next couple of years. (This group also includes third baseman Ed Smith, base-stealing outfielder Derek Lee, second baseman Cesar Bernhardt, and hot-hitting first baseman Rob Lukachyk.)

In the second inning, the game turns into a cakewalk, as the Sox send 12 men to the plate and score 8 of them. They couldn't do this without help: in addition to their own six hits, the Sox are aided and abetted by the Angels pitcher, Holzemer, who walks the first two batters, and by three Angels errors. The Angels manager never makes a move to yank his pitcher, yielding speculation that Holzemer must have done something pretty awful to have earned this unending humiliation, but then he surprises everyone by setting the Sox down in order over the next two innings. Then again, maybe the Sox are just tired from their second-inning exertions.

Meanwhile, despite giving up two runs in the third, Chavez is breezing along, staying ahead of the batters, giving up 12 hits but walking only one; he leaves the game after eight innings with a 12-4 lead. Virgil Cooper, a fireballing relief pitcher with control problems--he can really bring it toward the plate (but not always near the plate)--comes in to pitch the ninth and gives up one run in one inning, which is about his average. Throughout, South Bend's vaunted hitting is on display: center fielder Randy Warren collects four hits, Lukachyk goes two for five and drives in a couple, and designated hitter Jay Hornacek scores three runs, two in the same inning. It's a game that, as they say, has "a little of everything," including a balk, nine errors by both clubs, and a few oddities they don't leave space for on the scorecard--such as when South Bend catcher Joe Singley, in returning the ball to his pitcher, tosses it four feet over Chavez's head and into center field, allowing an Angels runner to score from third.

But watching them play in the Midwest League fosters a renewed appreciation for how hard it is to play baseball. When you follow the majors, when you watch the game played by the big boys, you get used to the spectacular, because you see it every day; you expect the backhanded stab behind second base, the caught-stealing catcher-to-shortstop, the unhittable strike-three fastball low on the corner. Then you see these young players--professional ball players, mind you, boys getting paid, however minimally, to play baseball--torpedo the common plays you thought were routine, the plays you thought every ball player could make. You suddenly understand, or else you're reminded, how hard it is to make the pickoff, to turn the double play, to hit the curveball, to throw the curveball, because although these things all happen dozens of times every day in the majors, they happen very rarely at John O'Donnell Stadium.

Before the start of the sixth inning of each game, the Angels stage a fan home run contest, allowing some lunk from the stands three swings to knock a batting-practice fastball out of the park. Tonight's contestant manages to muscle one of the three to deep shortstop.

Four innings later, the South Bend White Sox board their bus with a 13-5 victory, padding their runaway division lead. Another diesel engine blats its way behind the stands, headed for points west.

Springfield, Illinois, is hot, humid, and dull--a backwater. It is to state capitals what Saint Louis is to big cities--an analogy that is especially appropriate in this case, as Springfield is also home to the Saint Louis Cardinals' Class A affiliate in the Midwest League. The Springfield Cardinals play on the north side of town, near one of the world's largest grain elevators (if it's not, it should be, because not even the Merchandise Mart takes up as much area), at Lanphier Park, which has been voted "best facility in the Midwest League the last seven years," the public-address announcer informs us. Who does the voting he doesn't say, however: probably the National Association of Aluminum Contractors, because the entire stadium--steps, aisles, seats, and (most uncomfortable) bleachers--is made out of aluminum.

We arrive a little more than an hour before game time, about 5:45, with the sun just beginning to set. Pulling into the (free) parking lot, we find several spaces empty right next to the stadium. A couple groups of fans mill about near the main gate, which isn't yet open, so we leave for a moment to tour the pleasant, almost suburban streets of north Springfield. When we return, the spaces next to the stadium are still vacant, but inexplicably we pull over, nearer to the main gate, and park out along the far end of the lot--fortuitously, as it turns out.

The backside of the Lanphier Park grandstand is open, so as a fan goes through the main gate behind home plate he or she looks up into the underside of bright aluminum. No less elegant is the press box, which presents a facade from the black-velvet school of architecture: it resembles the side of a mobile home, chopped off its blocks and strapped to the back of the grandstand. On this evening, a sign over the entrance welcomes the Illinois Department of Revenue on "Revenue Night," a festive occasion that all but guarantees a good crowd.

Inside, however, the ballpark is well-appointed and fairly nice, especially as one looks out on the diamond. The outfield fence is tall and made of wooden slats, painted green, and straightaway center field is embellished with tall bushes sandwiched between two pine trees. In the distance beyond is a neighborhood of one-story houses--a small-town version of Wrigleyville--with one especially large elm tree attracting the eye. Kids abound in the stands on this evening--strange, for a night game--and everyone seems to know everyone else, at least from section to section. The heat fades away, the humid air lifts, there isn't a cloud in the sky--not even mare's tails in the sunset--and we hear behind us someone say, "Is this a beautiful night, or what?" The most combative words spoken all evening, as it turns out.

The White Sox are just finishing up batting practice. Pitching to them is Roger La Francois, their hitting and first-base coach (everyone does double duty at this level of the minors--from the umpires, who come two to a crew rather than four, to the managers, who also coach third base), and his constant advice is, "Keep your head down"--a welcome sign of continuity in the system, as this is the mantra of Chicago hitting instructor Walt Hriniak. The White Sox then leave the field to the Cardinals, who take a very ragged infield practice until the balls skittering about begin to find their rhythm, moving with the same predictable motion as in the majors. The White Sox, too, take infield, and they too have their problems finding a rhythm, then settle down. They finish up with a few problems, however. A stray throw by catcher Clemente Alvarez rattles past first baseman Mark Chasey and into the right-field corner. Then coach Jim Reinebold, trying to fungo a pop-up straight overhead for the catcher, gets a bit too much of the ball and hits a Texas-leaguer into short right field. The ball bounces to a complete rest and remains there until Chasey retrieves it. Bad omens.

The whole episode is accompanied by dry, reedy organ music that sounds as if it has been recorded at a skating rink--and perhaps it has, because the organ eventually gives way to recordings of the theme from Rocky (again) and then the theme from Superman as the Cardinals take the field. Looking back over our shoulder, we catch someone in the press box shuttling cassettes in and out of a tape player. No organ in sight, and it never returns. Instead, as the chosen rally music of the Springfield Cardinals, we get that old saw "We will, we will--rock you"--but with a twist. As people stomp their feet in time, the noise is increased exponentially by the aluminum grandstand. 40,000 New York fans at Shea Stadium can't create the sort of noise that 1,200 people are making at Lanphier Park this evening.

The game has the look of a pitchers' duel as it begins. Most of the pitchers are ahead of all but a few of the hitters at this level, and on top of that the Midwest League, like most of baseball, is enduring a pitchers' year in 1989, with the league batting average below .250. The Cardinals send Cory Satterfield to the mound, while for the White Sox we again catch Chavez. Satterfield has a 6-2 record and a 2.89 earned-run average, and he pitches well, but he isn't an eye-opening prospect. He has a stooped, almost herky-jerky motion--confounding but not overpowering. The Sox hit three home runs off him in his five and two-thirds innings, but only one of them with a man on base. The performance is good enough for the victory.

Because Chavez is not sharp. It isn't that he's utterly off, it's just that he has to fine-tune his various pitches. He is a smallish pitcher, with a relatively short stride that hurls him over the top toward the batter at the end of his delivery. This probably diminishes his speed, but with the benefit of added snap on his curveball. His curve and his fastball are clearly his two best pitches. In the first inning, he finds trouble after surrendering a two-out single. Ahead of the next batter in the count 1-2, he comes in with his third-best pitch--a common mistake for a youngster--and the batter swats the slider into left field for a double. With runners at second and third, however, Chavez bears down, gets ahead of the next hitter 0-2, and then strikes him out without dallying on a fastball.

While Chavez is tinkering, however, his teammates' fielding gets a bit shaky in the second inning, and the game promptly falls in on him. The inning opens with a two-base error committed by third baseman Ed Smith on what would normally be called a routine play, except of course that the phrase "routine play" has no application in Class A ball. Chavez strikes out the next man with that recalcitrant slider (so there), but then gives up a bullet to center field. Steve Mehl misplays the ball, cutting across and back when an application of the Pythagorean theorem would serve better; the ball glances off the tip of his glove, then bounds on toward the fence for a double. After another strikeout, the Cardinals put together two straight hits before Chavez retires the side: three runs, all unearned. He returns to the dugout looking worried and puffy--his wide cheeks even wider. The Cardinals get another in the third and lead off with a homer in the fifth; with the Sox now behind 6-4, it's the end of the day for Chavez.

And it's deja vu all over again as he is replaced, for a short time, by Virgil Cooper, who is wearing a different number, 16, than the one listed in the program, 20. The change is instructive, for we notice that Cooper has a windup modeled exactly after that of Dwight Gooden, who also wears number 16. There's the high kick brought down into the low stride, the over-the-top delivery yielding a fluid fastball and a snapping curve. Of course, Cooper's fastball is not as fluid as Gooden's and his curve doesn't have the same snap, but there is something disarming in seeing a young player mimic a great so precisely. It's the baseball equivalent of coming across a devoted art student in a museum, hard at work copying an old master. Sox manager Rick Patterson isn't so charmed; he pulls Cooper after an inning and a third.

Again, railroad tracks run alongside the stadium, just beyond the fence, and a train goes by late in the game, but with courtesy to the fans--or so we think at first. As the cars trundle past there's no hoot of a horn. Then, however, the engine, unburdened, returns in the other direction, letting off one long blast as it rumbles out of sight beyond the center-field fence--a lonesome whistle blowing just for spite.

The big mystery of the night--why are the parking spots vacant next to the stadium?--is solved for us when a White Sox batter sends a foul ball down the grandstand, over the back on the first-base side, and the kids in the higher rows yell, "Bus territory," and an instant later we hear a loud, echoed "thunk" as the ball lands, we presume, on the roof of some bus. The buses are parked a good way beyond those open spaces we first took notice of, and over the course of the evening numerous foul balls arc just over the back of the grandstand behind home plate into that very area. Each time, attentive (or worrisome) fans prick up their ears, awaiting the sound of thunk or crash. As we leave--with everyone chirping good-byes and see-you-soons--we cross the parking lot and end the evening stooped along the side of our car, looking to see if there's any prize underneath.

The roadsides of South Bend, Indiana, are dotted with signs depicting a baseball diamond with an oddly angular blue cap, and an arrow underneath pointing directions. The signs make little sense to anyone who isn't familiar with Stanley Coveleski Regional Stadium, but there is some satisfaction in following their instructions to the park and discovering the key to the puzzle. Coveleski is a new stadium, opened only a year ago at the cost of $10 million, and it has a sharp blue roof on the grandstand that's not mistakable for anything else in the city. The blue cap on the signs is an aerial depiction of the grandstand roof, but of course you wouldn't know that unless you'd already been there. The signs are the worst and most poorly thought-out aspect of the entire operation, however; otherwise Coveleski is a small, freshly cut jewel of a ballpark.

Named after one of South Bend's more famous favorite sons--a 1969 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and the subject of a chapter in the classic book The Glory of Their Times--Coveleski is built down into the ground like Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. One parks outside, enters through the gate, and walks down the steps to one's seat. This grandstand has a cement base, and while the bleachers down the foul lines are, again, aluminum, the "box seats," right around home plate, are comfortable textured plastic. While Springfield's stadium has all the charm of a high-school field done over in aluminum foil, Coveleski has more of a big-league feel to it. It's a wonderful place to see a game, and a pleasant place to play, Sam Chavez tells us, as he is dressed in street clothes, sitting behind home plate, charting the pitches in this evening's game.

Frank Merigliano--another of South Bend's big three pitchers--is sitting across from us on the other side of Chavez, holding a radar gun on the third of their number, Carlos de la Cruz, who is on the mound. De la Cruz is a little fellow, about the size of the average big-league shortstop, which is not surprising: he is from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, a small town that has produced an amazing number of big-league shortstops, including Tony Fernandez, Rafael Ramirez, and Mariano Duncan. He throws bullets, however, and on this occasion he is trying to tie Merigliano and Chavez for the team lead in wins at seven. All three are among the league leaders in E.R.A., with de la Cruz at 2.50 trailing Merigliano at 1.97 and Chavez at 1.89. We are advised of these numbers as both Chavez and Merigliano have been poring over stats in the press box before the game, comparing themselves with others around the league.

Chavez, at 23 years old, is in his third season of professional baseball. He's with the White Sox after being drafted from the Cincinnati Reds system over the winter, and he welcomes the change. "The Reds had a number of good left-handed pitchers at all levels," he says, "single A, double A." The Reds are also light on instruction, counting on the scouts to have done their job in choosing the players, then simply picking the ones that develop--like ripe fruit--for the majors. Chavez says the Sox are more devoted to instruction and development, and that they have a good roving pitching instructor, Dewey Robinson--a fact that shows itself in the solid mechanics of all the pitchers on the South Bend staff. "It's not like he's constantly changing your mechanics, not at this level," Chavez says. "There's just fine-tuning."

Chavez applies himself to our occasional questions with a somber, serious attitude; if being interviewed isn't exactly new to him, neither is it routine. He says South Bend is "a good city to play in, a good ballpark," denying that the team is overshadowed by Notre Dame athletics. When we ask him if there are any dead spots on the Midwest League circuit--thinking of the evenings spent in Davenport and Springfield--Chavez says no, there are some bad ballparks but no bad cities: a serious answer, devoted to baseball, in response to a playful question. We settle in to watch the game.

De la Cruz is smoking. He allows only one run in his six innings, and that comes when he smokes a bit too much. In the fourth, on a grounder to the right side of the infield, he drops the ball covering first. Chavez frowns, saying de la Cruz is actually the best fielding pitcher on the staff. (A shortstop in high school, no doubt.) Steamed at himself, de la Cruz gets a few of the next several pitches up, and a double and single follow a strikeout to bring the run home and put runners at the corners with one out. He composes himself, though, and forces two pop-ups on the infield to get out of the inning. He allows only three hits total in his six innings, and because of his own error the one run is unearned.

The Sox, meanwhile, are pounding lumps on the Beloit Brewers and their starter, Greg Landry, a lumpish, slope-shouldered kid with a big heater and nothing else. South Bend scores three in the first on three hits, a walk, a hit batsman, and a wild pitch. "You can't get by on just one pitch," Chavez says, "not even at this level." The Sox add two more in the fourth on only one hit, with shortstop Eugenio Tejada stealing home outright--not on a failed squeeze bunt or a ball that got away from the catcher, but by taking off when the pitcher goes into his windup and then beating the catcher to the front corner of home plate. It's one of the more exciting things we've seen all year on a baseball field. "Yes!" Chavez says, and in the hum following the play we take the opportunity to playfully ask if he is a baseball fan. Not whether he "loves the game"--there are plenty of big-leaguers who barely tolerate the game because it's what they're good at and who, like Eric Davis, would rather be playing guard alongside Magic Johnson--but whether he enjoys it as a sport. "I'm a sports fan--all sports," Chavez says, "and I've always liked baseball, but I can't watch it on TV. Not all nine innings of a game. I don't know any ball player who can." Compared with actually playing the game, he says, there just isn't enough excitement.

Things get more exciting soon enough, however. The PA announcer declares that the Kenosha Twins are getting thumped by the Peoria Chiefs, 10-3, and a cheer runs through the ballpark among the more knowing fans. Kenosha at the time is six and a half games behind the Sox, with the first half of the season coming to an end, and Chavez tells us a South Bend win and a Kenosha loss would reduce the White Sox' magic number to three. "We should wrap it up this weekend," he says. At that moment, trouble arises as if summoned by a jinx. The White Sox' fielding goes to shreds in the seventh (three or four errors: in all the confusion, we kind of lose track ourself), and these, combined with a miserable call by the infield umpire, lead to three more Beloit runs on only one hit. Suddenly the score is 5-4. The Sox load the bases in the bottom of the inning--all of us leaning forward and in the game--but fail to score, and when we turn to Chavez and ask, "How about that, did you find that exciting?" Chavez just shakes his head and says, "Bad baseball." He's not in the mood to be amused by something of such importance.

His relief comes quickly. When the first Beloit batter walks to open the eighth, things begin to stir in the South Bend bullpen. A fielder's choice later, manager Patterson summons Scott Radinsky to the mound. "The Rad Man," Chavez says, and there is such a sound of assurance in his voice--especially coming from a pitcher--that we know we're in good hands. Merigliano has left his seat for the moment, leaving the radar gun behind, but Chavez retrieves it and trains it on the mound for a warm-up toss. "Eighty-nine," he says. When we ask where Radinsky usually throws it, Chavez says, "Lower 90s."

An entire team of high-school players has been sitting in the row in front of us--hooting at one another and at the miscues on the field throughout the game--but now they turn with every pitch and ask Chavez, "What was that?"

"Ninety-one," he says. "Ninety-two," with the next. And five straight strikeouts later, the game is over. De la Cruz--showered and dressed--has joined Chavez and the returned Merigliano by now, flexing his tender arm, and as the crowd files out the three pitchers remain seated, talking about the game. We thank them for their time and leave with the fans.

The craftsman's attention Chavez devoted to that game--his somber, watchful demeanor--is illustrated on a large scale a week later, when we return to South Bend for Little League Night. All uniformed players--boys or girls, softball or baseball--get in free, and they pour into the stands as the gates open an hour before the game. The PA announcer instructs them to go en masse to their proper places on the field--first basemen to first base, second basemen to second base, and so on--where members of "the first-half, North Division Midwest League champion South Bend White Sox" are stationed to hold clinics on fielding their positions. Out in center field, trimming the class size among the large numbers of little-league outfielders, is Chavez, demonstrating how a player uses his glove to shade his eyes in catching a pop fly. The entire event is a lesson for anyone who's ever snickered at a professional ball player making a mistake--at any level. Which is not to say we never have, but that sometimes we need the lesson ourselves.

South Bend's pitcher for the night, Fred Dabney, seems inspired by the pregame attention to craft. A left-hander with a smooth motion--hands over head, kick with a slightly pointed toe--he goes through the order of the Burlington Braves starting them with fastballs, then alters his tactics the second time around and starts most of them with breaking pitches. To keep them honest, he drops his three-quarter delivery ever so slightly and busts a mean, snapping cut fastball inside on a couple of their right-handed batters. The White Sox open a 5-0 lead, and through five and two-thirds innings Dabney has not allowed a hit. When third baseman Smith dives to snag a hot grounder in the fifth, then throws the ball away--earning himself an error, but preserving the no-hitter--the evening appears clearly marked for minor-league greatness.

As Dabney himself later describes it--showered and dressed and sitting in the press box having a bite to eat in the later innings, the no-hitter already broken up: "I've been taught to throw to both sides of the plate, to throw in on their hands and then to throw strikes on the outside part of the plate. That's my game--throw in on the hands to establish your outside pitches. That's the way the White Sox teach it." The ante gets upped, however, when the Braves' pitcher throws over the head of Rob Lukachyk to open the bottom of the fifth--perhaps in response to Dabney's inside pitching, perhaps simply because the pitch gets away. In either case, baseball ethics clearly call on Dabney to respond, and in the sixth, after getting two outs to put himself in good standing, he comes inside to Burlington's Steve Glass. "When they threw over Lukachyk's head," he later explains, "that was meant--you know--on purpose, so I wanted to come inside on him and I ended up hitting him."

The incident is clearly etched in memory. The ball hits Glass on the fleshy part of the upper arm--not the worst spot by a long shot, not like throwing at the head or, even worse, behind the head--but he takes off like a shot for the mound. Dabney throws his lone weapon, his glove, at Glass as he approaches, then, backing away, tries to wrap him in his arms before escaping. Other White Sox come to the rescue, converging on the pitcher's mound, but the Braves' bench empties at the same time. A major-league brawl would level off here, as players with cooler heads grabbed hold of those overtaken by the moment, but in this incident--involving men in their late teens and early 20s--the tempers keep flaring, so that the fight peaks through two or three sustained climaxes. Dabney circles back around toward the dugout, but then several Braves, spotting him, again rush him head on. Pinned against the railing of the White Sox' dugout, Dabney lashes out with a few punches, for which he will be ejected from the game, no-hitter or no no-hitter. "I wasn't throwing a punch to throw a punch, I was throwing a punch to protect myself," Dabney explains. "When I was up against the rail, they were kicking me and hitting me, so that when I did get free I threw a punch." Catcher Jay Hornacek drags one of those guys off Dabney, and those two, entangled, go tumbling into the dirt behind home plate, scrapping all the way. Before it's all over--after what seems like several minutes--a member of the Braves is KO'ed by South Bend shortstop Wayne Busby. Unconscious, he's stretched out in front of the White Sox dugout like a side of beef wrapped in a gray uniform.

The two umpires--finally creating order--send the teams to their neutral dugouts and call the managers to home plate to assess the damages and punishments. Included among the latter are the ejections of Lukachyk, Busby, Glass, another member of the Braves, and Dabney.

Cooper and Radinsky mop up for the victory, but not before Cooper surrenders a bleeder single through the right side of the infield in the seventh. (He's rushing to cover first base even as the ball bounds on into right field, and he pounds his glove against his thigh and kicks at the dirt in response.) "I felt like I was in control," Dabney says. We offer that we have never seen a no-hitter and that this seems a particularly unappealing way to lose one. "Yeah," Dabney says, "I'm kinda upset about it," but he's talking to a reporter and there's no conviction behind the voice. He's broken the tip of his right middle finger in the fight, and he flexes it as we speak and as Radinsky closes out the Braves. We return to watching the game, and Dabney starts talking with Lukachyk, who has also showered and dressed and come to the press box for a bite to eat. Suddenly Dabney bursts out, "I had a no-hitter going!" And it's all he can do to keep himself from pounding his stinging right hand on the table.

All told, it's a helluva lesson for the little leaguers.

A few nights later, the South Bend Sox swing into Kenosha, Wisconsin, to start a four-game series with the Kenosha Twins. It's a Saturday night, the last night of Cohorama--a week-long fishing contest cum second-rate carnival spread out along Kenosha's little harbor--and a crowd of about 1,200 has assembled at Simmons Field to have a good time. They seem little concerned that the Twins must face a South Bend team that features no fewer than nine selections to the division all-star team.

Simmons Field, like a couple of other public institutions around Kenosha, owes its name to the family that founded the mattress company here in 1875 (it moved in 1960). The second smallest park in the Midwest League, it can seat only 3,000, and it's not much to look at--especially compared to Davenport's O'Donnell Stadium. Then again, Kenosha and Davenport have quite different baseball agendas. Davenport has justified its multimillion-dollar stadium rehab with its desire to eventually attract a team from the high minors--a Triple-A team, just one step below the majors, which would fill O'Donnell Stadium just about any night of the week. Kenosha has no such grandiose plans: situated almost midway between Chicago and Milwaukee, Kenosha has plenty of access to major-league baseball; Kenoshans can travel less than an hour to see the Cubs, White Sox, or Milwaukee Brewers. They don't need a Triple-A team in Kenosha. The Midwest League suits them just fine.

Simmons Field is aptly named, a ball field and not a stadium. There are benches on risers down the foul lines; behind the plate, an old-fashioned gingerbread grandstand rises maybe 20 feet to accommodate the reserved-seat patrons, and atop the grandstand roof sits the press box, a squat container that can seat no less than a half-dozen, provided none of them takes too deep a breath. (Simmons features one improvement over O'Donnell, however. At Simmons, the railroad tracks run behind the center-field fence, instead of right alongside the stands; when a 54-car freight train pokes its way along in the fifth inning, it has relatively little impact on the game.)

The press box also seats the Kenosha Twins public-address announcer, and he's having a fine time up there. Tonight's game is a company outing for Snap-On Tools--before the game there was a softball match for Snap-On employees--and what with that and the frequent reminders of upcoming games, there's plenty to talk about. The Twins have a full slate of promotional events for their games. For instance, Sunday's doubleheader will be All Veterans Day, and Monday night's contest with South Bend (Hispanic Night) will benefit Hispanic centers in Kenosha and nearby Racine. Tuesday, when the Beloit Brewers come to town, we're told that "the Dynamite Lady will blow herself up after the game. You don't want to miss that."

It's a lively crowd, teasing the announcer, joshing the players, and given to ritual. When the visitors' lineup is announced, the crowd responds with an incredulous "WHO?" after each name, and when the name is repeated over the loudspeaker, a deflated "OHHHH." For the seventh-inning stretch, Twins owner Bob Lee steals a bunch of the small fry from their parents and leads them onto the field to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Everyone's having a fine time at Simmons Field tonight, except for the South Bend White Sox, whose bats will snooze through a 6-2 loss. With their 44-18 record, they're the Damn Yankees of the Midwest League, but on this night it's the fourth-place Kenosha Twins who look like the Midwest League Northern Division champs (which in fact they were in 1988).

In addition to providing the patter, the announcer also serves the function that organists serve at most major-league games, using well-known recordings to provide musical commentary for the on-field action: he plays "These Boots Are Made for Walkin"' when the Twins draw a base on balls, the theme from Jeopardy when they load the bases, "Mission: Impossible" when the South Bend manager convenes a conference on the mound to discuss a precarious situation. The repertoire also includes such selections as the introductory vamp from The Addams Family TV show and the theme from Hawaii Five-O, the significance of which remains a mystery to us.

South Bend's problems begin and pretty much end with a lanky 22-year-old southpaw pitcher named Steve Muh, who is the Twins' ace. The account of the game in the next day's Kenosha News will refer to Muh's "tantalizing curveball," and that description gets no argument from us, or from the South Bend bats, which appear stupefied. It's a sneaky, middle-speed curve, and it messes with the timing of the South Bend hit men all night long.

Muh sets down the first nine Sox batters. He gives up one run in the fourth, thanks to three walks and a delayed steal of home, but keeps his no-hitter intact; in the fifth, he finally allows a couple hits and one more run. When he leaves after seven innings, having struck out ten, the all-star-laden Sox have only the two runs and five hits to their credit.

And the South Bend pitcher, Steve Schrenk, doesn't have enough juice to win with only two runs. Kenosha's all-star center fielder, J.T. Bruett, manufactures a run in the first inning, drawing a walk, stealing second, moving to third on a ground out, and scoring on a single. Schrenk is behind the batters most of the night, allowing plenty of Twins baserunners in his six innings; surprisingly, Kenosha scores only four of them, stranding ten on the basepaths. Schrenk's worst inning is the fifth, when eight Twins come to bat: after he walks his third man of the inning, the public-address system plays a snippet of "Walk Like an Egyptian."

The few South Bend highlights include a powerful triple by Mark Chasey, the rangy first baseman; two hits by big Ed Smith, who mitigates his offense with two errors (and a bad throw on a tough grounder) at third; and spectacular diving catches from Lukachyk in left and then Kinnis Pledger in center. Pledger's catch earns him a lusty round of applause as he heads for the dugout, even though he's snuffed out a Kenosha rally; in the Midwest League, you don't see so many of those plays that you can afford to ignore them, and partisanship be damned.

To cap off the evening, Virgil Cooper gets another shot at honing his control. He relieves Schrenk in the seventh and, true to form, allows a Kenosha run in each of the two innings he pitches. He only walks one, but he's sufficiently high on enough pitches to earn a spin of "Born to Be Wild" on the public-address jukebox. Virgil teams with first baseman Chasey to end the seventh with a real A-league special. The Twins batter rifles a comebacker straight to Virgil, who fields the ball with a smart snap of the glove, sets his feet, and sails it three feet over Chasey's head and maybe five feet wide of the bag. Chasey leaps down the line, somehow intercepts the pass, and, with no time to stand up, has to crawl to first and tag the base a split second before the runner arrives. On the mound, Virgil stares in disbelief at his own throw, then puts his hands on his hips and slowly shakes his head.

But who knows? Virgil Cooper may put it all together, harness that lightning, perfect a breaking pitch to complement it, and save 45 games in the new Comiskey Park. Rob Lukachyk could find a power stroke to complement that gaudy .347 batting average and find himself installed at first base early in the 90s. Ed Smith might improve his defense and put his own home-run power at the service of some team in "the Show" (although it probably wouldn't be the White Sox: between Smith and the majors stands another third baseman, Robin Ventura, the Chicago team's number-one draft pick from last year).

Anything can happen--that's a cardinal (you should pardon the expression) rule in baseball--and much of it will, especially in the White Sox organization. These guys, and those further up the ladder, determine where the Chicago White Sox will go for the next few years. Larry Himes, the White Sox general manager, has attempted to rebuild the major-league club with a strong farm system, rather than trading prospective stars for established older players. And those prospective stars, including some of the baseball babies who play for South Bend, will have to start coming through soon. People will pay cash money just to sit in the White Sox' brand-new stadium, but not for long. After a while they'll want to see some good baseball there, too.

At any rate, we've seen a good game tonight in Kenosha; good, but long. Games in the Midwest League do not zip along. Part of this has to do with the instructional nature of baseball in the low minors: whenever the manager strolls to the mound, every player in a 75-foot radius joins in to soak up the wisdom. Mistakes also stretch the clock, and there's lots of dawdling as the batters, still a little unsure, stare extra long at the third-base coach to make sure they've got the right sign. Tonight's game, not a high-scoring affair, has taken 3 hours and 20 minutes.

Now the remaining fans--those who have stuck through the cool breeze that swept in off the lake midway through the game--are filing out, grabbing a last soft drink or buying Kenosha Twins paraphernalia. The small parking lot empties quickly, while the public-address announcer completes his postgame litany of appreciations, solicitations to drive home carefully, and blandishments for upcoming games. One of the players is standing near the grandstand, still in uniform but not yet larger than life, talking to his girlfriend.

"And don't forget," the announcer is saying, "on Tuesday the Dynamite Lady will blow herself up after the game. You don't want to miss that."

For travel information on Davenport, Springfield, South Bend, and Kenosha, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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