County Stadium is a tall, faded, red brick structure that rises suddenly on the left--seemingly from the very vapors of a nearby brewery--for traffic heading west on Interstate 94 out of downtown Milwaukee. It has a lived-in look about it: not antiquated, but firmly in middle age, poised before an impending decay. In its corners and upper regions it has a darkened, smoky appearance, like the hood of a grill in a greasy spoon. This is entirely appropriate: County Stadium has a reputation as one of the better eateries among major-league ballparks--on both the inside and the outside.
Milwaukeeans claim, if not to have invented the parking-lot barbecue--though some claim even that--then to have raised it to its highest level. They conduct a tailgate party the way a Zen master conducts a tea ceremony. The stadium is right on the interstate, and it is entirely surrounded by parking lots. Those lots begin to fill early, long before the game, with fans firing up the Weber and pulling out the cooler stocked with brats, burgers, beer (please, no Budweiser--only Milwaukee's finest here), and, of course, cheeses. "Priority Parking," slightly nearer the stadium, available for an extra two bucks--bringing the total to a modest $6--is the preferred location for tailgaters. For the more refined partier who wants a little distance from the car, there are tents located just outside the stadium, although no doubt there are dedicated tailgaters who feel a tent is a barbecue's ruination. What's important is that this is serious fun, the first event in a long process of relaxation--enjoying a ball game--and the mixing aromas of charcoal and lighter fluid and cooking meat are taken in like incense. The whole picture is considered serious enough by the Brewers that the club provides trash barrels every few yards throughout the parking lots--not for garbage, but for coals. For the unsuspecting and endangered out-of-towner, the barrels are labeled explicitly and emphatically "Hot!"
Quaint and unstudied as this may be, County Stadium, on the inside, remains a well-designed ballpark, a rewarding place to see a game. We have a friend who's fond of traveling, who's trying to visit each big-league ballpark one by one over the years, and he calls the stadia of the 50s his favorites, with Baltimore's soon-to-be-replaced Memorial Stadium his top choice, just above County. These stadia, he feels, offer the perfect medium. They're provided with all the modern amenities demanded by the nuclear family, and for anyone familiar with squeezing through the crowd for a hot dog beneath the grandstand at Comiskey--especially during a rain delay--the notion of comfort and easy movement to and from the concession stands should have an obvious appeal. Moreover, the seats are close to the action, a priority that was lost as baseball became big industry and owners began moving the seats back to create a wider arc behind home plate, allowing more room for top-price box seats. County Stadium, as promised, occupies a delightful middle ground on both these criteria. Under the grandstand the concessions are numerous and varied, and the food is high quality (although not quite as good as at Comiskey). Above, the very best seats are very close to the field--closer than at Comiskey, it appears, although not as close as at Wrigley--and the grandstand rises more steeply toward the back, improving the sight lines for those unable to afford box seats. The upper deck too is steeply pitched, with even the worst seats--the Bob Uecker section--right on top of the action. Extra seats were squeezed in by making the gates small and the aisles thin, but somehow this never seems to cause jam-ups; County Stadium was designed for a more docile race--Milwaukeeans--tolerant of others and willing to wait a moment for someone to cross their path.
Although tight around the field and erect in posture, County doesn't have the claustrophobic feel of Detroit's Tiger Stadium because--as at Wrigley--there's no upper deck for the bleachers. The wide arc of the outfield seats at County has the look of the south end of a football stadium. Indeed, the wide-open spaces beyond--there is nothing there, not houses, not apartment buildings, only sky, a single factory, the ballpark lights like the branches of bare trees, and a huge, modernistic, gray pillar of speakers--create the one disorienting thing about the ballpark. County looks much better at night, when the darkness sets a black backdrop and the lights rise elegantly instead of sparsely above the playing field.
We got to see County both day and night, as we journeyed up last month for a twi-night doubleheader between the Brewers and the White Sox. It was, in fact, one of the pivotal days of the season for the Sox, because in the first game both Alex Fernandez and Frank Thomas made their major-league debuts.
Faced with his club surprisingly still in contention and with the decision of either mortgaging the future for a few tested veterans for the stretch drive or resigning himself to waiting until next year, White Sox general manager Larry Himes adopted a risky middle course: he declared the future the present and called up Fernandez and Thomas. Thomas is a big first baseman, a first-round draft choice of the Sox last year out of Auburn, where he had also played tight end on the football team. He arrived in the majors with a little more than one full year of minor-league experience, most recently at Class AA Birmingham, where he'd been tearing up the Southern League. Fernandez was only a few months out of college, the University of Miami, the Sox' first-round draft choice this year, and he was given the ball to start the first game, where he'd have the advantage of pitching in the twilight, when it's harder for the batters to see.
Now there's one thing the unsuspecting fan should be warned about in attending a game at Milwaukee: the Brewers are among the very slowest teams in the majors when it comes to the time it takes to play a game. Perhaps it's deliberate, the slow pace, which forces a fan to either relax--to return to that nostalgic innocence of earlier times--or go crazy. The White Sox, with a rookie pitcher on the mound and Carlton Fisk behind the plate, offered no relief on this evening. Fernandez, who appears to be an urgent, high-strung sort to begin with, was doubly so in making his major-league debut. He'd rub the ball, look up, look down, kick the dirt, peer in for the sign, look left, look right, and then deliver. He was in frequent trouble the first few innings, with Fisk visiting the mound about twice a frame to nurse him through. The Brewers' pitcher, Teddy Higuera, was pitching at his normal pace: that is, get two strikes on the hitter and then step off behind the mound to rub up the baseball for this ultraimportant impending pitch. After three innings of the first game, Higuera had not allowed a base runner, and Fernandez had not allowed a run--yet the game was an hour and ten minutes old, a pace that would make it a three-and-a-half-hour scoreless tie. With another game to go and a 100-mile drive home, we grew discouraged.
The Sox, however, cheered us with a three-run rally in the fourth on back-to-back homers by Ivan Calderon and Fisk, who was then in the process of chasing down Johnny Bench for the most career homers hit by a catcher (he has since set the new record and continues to add to it). Fernandez made a mistake in the fifth, hanging a slider to Gary Sheffield, who hit it a mile, but he responded by fanning the next batter, Dave Parker, to end the inning--and that was all he gave up. Fernandez is said to be a disciple of Tom Seaver, and he has obviously modeled his motion after him, even hunching his shoulders forward in the same manner, a funny sight because Fernandez is well muscled and wide shouldered. At first we thought he had a short pitching stride, but it turns out he is simply short, drawing the speed for his fastball, like Seaver, from a low and energetic leg drive down the mound. His pitches seem to explode out of nothing the way a tennis ball shoots out of one of those practice machines. He should have gotten the victory in this game, with seven innings of strong work, but Barry Jones came on in the eighth and walked the leadoff man, who eventually scored to tie it.
Which only allowed Fernandez's fellow debutante, Thomas, to save the game. Calderon led off the ninth with a single, went to second on a wild pitch, advanced to third on a ground ball to the right side by Fisk, and scored the game winner when Thomas hit a high chopper to third base.
That game--and the nightcap, which the Sox also won--left us with such a delightful feeling that it's worth recalling, now that the Sox have fallen on harder times. (A blown save by Bobby Thigpen two weekends ago was costly. It sent the Sox on a four-game skid, during which Fernandez was no help, blowing a three-run lead to lose a game.) Himes had staked the Sox' fortunes on his eye for talent, on rushing the future based on players he had picked in the draft, and it appeared to have a chance of paying off. The Sox had the youngest team in the majors even before calling up Thomas and Fernandez, and that night, with those two in the lineup, the Sox looked like Carlton Fisk and a team of local high school stars making a stop on a barnstorming tour. That impression was only enhanced by County Stadium, where the tiresome list of "Official This and That of the White Sox" or "Down on the Farm, brought to you by John Deere"-- the unremitting hucksterism to be found these days at Comiskey and Wrigley--was replaced by the game itself and by a fondness for hot dogs and beer and the other things so deeply associated with the traditions of baseball. When the black-and-white scoreboard television broke in between innings to present a message from Abbyland sausages, in which a cartoon character leads the fans in a polka, how could we resist laughing? To recall it now is to revive a kinder, gentler, earlier time, both in the game's history and in the White Sox' fortunes of this season.