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Several years had passed since I'd driven to South Bend for a minor-league baseball game, and many things had changed--most of them recently--by the time I traveled back last week. Most prominent among the changes, especially for Chicago fans, was the White Sox having abandoned the Silver Hawks as their Class A Midwest League affiliate earlier this year--in fact, they've abandoned the Midwest League altogether. The league has a reputation as a relatively inferior A league, so the move might have made strategic sense, but it was nevertheless another Sox public relations disaster. It deprived them of a nearby place where fans could see the future incarnate (like Scott Radinsky, whom I saw the year before he jumped from A ball to the big leagues), and it severed the natural ties between the south side and South Bend, home of Notre Dame.

The Silver Hawks have retained their name, but the South Bend franchise has been claimed by the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks, whose lack of a major-league presence until next year has deprived the Silver Hawks of talent. In fact South Bend was one of only two Arizona minor-league teams (both Class A, three steps removed from the majors) until the new crop of Arizona draftees arrived this summer to fill out the half-season rookie-league rosters. The other Arizona A team, the High Desert Mavericks, compete in the vastly superior California League; the Mavericks got the team's $10 million "bonus baby," Travis Lee, who tore up A-level pitching and was recently loaned out to the Milwaukee Brewers' AAA team so that he might be ready to move up to the majors next season. Meanwhile the Silver Hawks were batting just .252 going into their series against league powerhouse the West Michigan WhiteCaps; the batting roster was 12th in the 14-team league and largely to blame for the Silver Hawks' woeful 36-50 overall record.

Despite these radical changes in the team, little has changed over the years at Stanley Coveleski Memorial Stadium, affectionately known as the Cove (Coveleski, a Hall of Fame spitball pitcher, is now best remembered for his contribution to The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence Ritter's classic oral history of the early days of major-league baseball). The stadium is still a small wonder, dug into the landscape on the south side of South Bend near the old Union Station. Its blue grandstand roof clangs like a deadened conductor's bell when foul balls land on it; the comfortable blue seats behind home plate and the dugouts give way to bleachers ($2 cheaper) that extend down the grandstand along the right- and left-field lines. The concession stands have all the modern conveniences, including microbrews on draft and jalapeno poppers. Viewed from the grandstand, the skyline is dominated by a church steeple behind left field and a bank building--the only thing in sight that could possibly be described as a skyscraper--behind center. There's something appropriately small-town America in that juxtaposition. That evening the clientele was a disarming melange of small-town families, teenage couples, groups of kids out on their own, and, of course, a few dedicated baseball fans like ourselves.

We'd driven down--my father-in-law, brother-in-law, and I--from the Michigan shore, where we'd been enjoying a weeklong family vacation. We arrived in time to claim the last parking space on the street behind the Cove, just beyond the range of any foul balls that might clear the grandstand roof (a cause for concern at many minor-league parks). Our box-seat tickets cost $7 apiece, and we sat in the fourth row behind the home dugout. Unfortunately the batting cage was being wheeled away, and batting practice was giving way to infield drills, but the slap of gloves and the pock of fungoes got us in the rhythm of the game. One of the Allman Brothers' free-flowing boogie jams played on the PA, followed immediately by "Louie Louie," and the sun was setting in a cloudless blue sky. It was a perfect night for baseball of any sort, be it the White Sox, the low minors, or Little League.

Our luck didn't end with the weather. Checking the lineups printed in Magic Marker on a board at the concession level, we discovered that one of the Silver Hawks' most promising pitchers, a 19-year-old with the natural baseball name of Nick Bierbrodt, was slated to start. According to the remarkably detailed stats sheet included with the scorecard, Bierbrodt was pitching just his fifth game of the season, but so far he'd allowed only 12 hits and nine walks in 18-plus innings, striking out 25 batters and holding opponents to a team-low .179 batting average. He arrived on the mound after warming up down the right-field line and received the game ball from a delivery woman for team sponsor United Parcel Service (she arrived in uniform and made him sign for it).

Bierbrodt was a gangly left-hander, six-foot-five and 175 pounds, outfitted with a set of wire-frame spectacles as delicate as his windup. He executed an elegant, pointed-toe kick and a short stride before the ball exploded from behind his left ear. Right away one could tell he had a major-league fastball, but he was far from a finished product. He walked the WhiteCaps' leadoff hitter, who promptly stole second (Bierbrodt had a clumsy move to first). The second batter grounded to third, but then Bierbrodt walked another man. He had the cleanup hitter in the hole but then threw a looping curve; the hitter waited just long enough to bounce it down the third-base line for a double, scoring a run. Then, with runners on second and third, Bierbrodt settled down to business and struck out the next two hitters with fastballs.

On paper, the game was a mismatch. West Michigan are part of the resurgent Detroit Tigers minor-league system, and the WhiteCaps marched through the first half of the season to claim first place and a spot in the postseason playoffs. Going into the game they were 58-24 overall. Yet both teams had started the second half strong, tied for first place in the league at 12-7, and this game turned out to be a well-matched pitchers' duel, a classic confrontation between the talented Bierbrodt and the crafty West Michigan starter, Russell Spear, a shorter, altogether less impressive pitcher who nonetheless knew what he was doing. A 19-year-old right-hander, Spear had a little extra notch to his kick and a way of leaning slightly backward in the middle of his delivery; both gestures reminded me of Orel Hershiser. Like Hershiser, Spear allowed a hit here and a walk there, and like Hershiser he wasn't above hitting a batter to remind him who owns the inner plate. In general he mowed down South Bend while Bierbrodt struggled with himself. From the scorecard we discovered that Spear, like my father-in-law, was Australian, so while I rooted for Bierbrodt to master his abilities, my father-in-law rooted for Spear as a compatriot, shouting between cupped hands a loud, drawling "C'mawn Awzzie!"

In the second inning Bierbrodt sandwiched a force at second with two strikeouts to strand runners at first and third. He struck out two more batters in the third, then another two in the fourth. In the fifth he caught the leadoff man looking on a beautiful curve, then got two strikes on the designated hitter, fierce-looking Brian Dubose. The announcer informed us that Dubose was the designated strikeout king of the night: if he struck out, everyone in attendance would win a free game at a local bowling alley. The crowd was on edge. "Here comes the hammer!" I yelled. But I shouldn't have warned him. When the curve rolled up to the plate, Dubose waited for it, then he launched it into the right-field gap for a triple.

Bierbrodt struck out the next guy on a fastball--his fifth straight inning with two strikeouts, giving him ten for the night--but that, oddly enough, was it. The team obviously had him on a pitch count to minimize wear and tear on his young arm, and manager Dick Scott had him replaced. That's one of the problems with minor-league baseball today: the development of talent supersedes the integrity of the individual game. But it's understandable, especially when the New York Mets saw their promising staff of young hurlers blow up in the majors after typically throwing more than 200 innings a year in the minors. And the Diamondbacks do seem to have a set strategy for building a winner in the shortest time possible. Every reliever who came to the mound threw almost as hard as Bierbrodt, and a quick look at their stats revealed that the team, in spite of its poor record, had a respectable 3.87 earned run average, fourth in the league. The Diamondbacks obviously hope to develop pitching for next winter, when they'll pick up a raft of hitters in the expansion draft. Scott maneuvered like Walt Alston, whose pitching-rich, hitting-poor LA Dodgers of the 60s played for one run at a time.

In the sixth the Silver Hawks got their first two men on base; Scott called on his best hitter, Jason Conti, to bunt. The sacrifice moved both runners into scoring position, and the man on third came home on a groundout to tie the score, but that was all they got. The WhiteCaps nudged ahead in the ninth after a run-scoring single by Dubose, who never did strike out. In the bottom of the inning West Michigan summoned 19-year-old closer Francisco Cordero, the league leader with 22 saves, and he blew the Hawks down with a blistering fastball that should put him in the majors within two years. We can say we saw him when.

No one among the three thousand fans seemed upset about the loss, though. Everyone was cheery as we headed for our cars. South Bend still has the comfortable, low-key feel of A-level minor-league baseball, combined as ever with the thrill of the hunt, the search for great players in their infancy, before they're threatening to play out their options and become high-priced free agents. We drove home, skirting the edge of Niles, Ring Lardner's birthplace. As we turned west a big golden moon hovered dead ahead to guide us, and northwest of us the Big Dipper pointed to the North Star. I felt as if my baseball bearings had once again been fixed.

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