Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Back to the Beginning

For many years, my ex-wife's family met annually in the "Triple Cities" of Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott, New York to wish her maternal grandmother a happy birthday. Our generation often griped afterwards about the poor ratio of travel to socializing.

A not so happy 91st birthday.

After several years of complaint, I proposed that we stay overnight together in a cabin in Chenango Valley State Park. Challenged to name something to do in the evening, I suggested we go see a Binghamton Mets game. That was the first of the now many minor league games I  have attended.

I recently returned to Binghamton to learn about the game we saw, watch the B-Mets again for the first time in almost two decades, and see the Elmira Pioneers—a collegiate summer league team—at historic Dunn Field.

It turns out we saw an entertaining match-up, not that I remember; this was a family outing and we talked through the game. The recorded attendance was 4,594, which explains in part why we ended up in the top two rows of the general admission seats that, if I recall correctly, my father-in-law insisted on paying for.

What I did remember is Brooklyn-native Nelson Figueroa, now an analyst with SportsNet New York, was the starting pitcher and it was the first game at Double-A for Preston Wilson, adopted stepson of Mets' great, Mookie Wilson.

I took those two facts, and the knowledge that it was a Saturday game, to the Broome County Public Library, where I read the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin on microfiche. I had to be reminded how to use a microfiche reader, having not operated one since well before I saw the B-Mets take on the Bowie Baysox.

In "Mets ride 4 homers in romp," Rob Centorani recounts how Tate SeefriedFletcher Bates, Wilson and Matt Raleigh all went long in the 11-4 win on June 21, 1997. The last two home runs were hit back-to-back and Raleigh's dinger was his league-leading 22nd.

Bates hit a grand slam. When he was promoted from the St. Lucie Mets with Wilson, Bates was batting .300 with 17 doubles, 11 triples and 10 home runs in the Florida State League

"Seefried's blast was tremendous," Centorani quotes manager Rick Sweet, "but Wilson's was more tremendous." The first-baseman's two-run shot went into the parking lot but the right fielder sent his blast over the batter's eye. Perhaps Wilson's debut got his adrenaline pumping.

Figueroa benefited from the abundant offense, improving his record to 4-6. He left the game after loading the bases with no outs in the seventh. Reliever Sean Fesh allowed only one run, then pitched a scoreless eighth inning. I have always had a soft spot for Figgy because he is from Coney Island, pitched in "my" first minor league game, and is just a really sweet guy.

As I skimmed the Press & Sun-Bulletin—mistakenly looking first for a July and then an August game because my ex-wife's grandmother was a Leo, or so I recalled—I read that Figueroa was ejected from his June 14 start after hitting Hiram Bocachica of the Harrisburg Senators, then an Expos affiliate.

Bocachica hit a first-pitch home run in his first at-bat and when Figueroa expressed his displeasure in traditional fashion, the feisty infielder turned around and clocked catcher Vance Wilson on the top of the head. The backstop isn't who you usually take it out on but I guess he's convenient.

When the dust settled, five players and a coach were suspended for three games and fined $300, the Eastern League minimum. Every player on both squads paid a C-note for their participation in the bench-clearing brawl. That must have seemed a high price to pay for what was for most players probably just a sprint on to the field and maybe some mutually restraining hugs with someone from the other team.

I also read that Wilson was originally anticipated to play in Binghamton a year earlier, but a broken bone in his right wrist and a dislocated left shoulder limited him to just 23 games at Port St. Lucie in 1996. His 1997 Double-A debut was also postponed, but only by one day when Bates' and his flight was delayed.

Wilson was the Mets number one draft pick in 1992 and the ninth player chosen overall. Five years later, he was the organization's eighth best prospect according to Baseball America.

He would only play eight games for the Mets but had a 10-year career that peaked in 2003 with a league-leading 141 RBIs and an all-star appearance. He was error-prone in center and struck-out a lot but he had enough pop to find a place on five National League teams.

This is, I am sure, much more than anyone might ever want to know but I spun through five reels of microfiche until I was sick to my stomach. I am using everything. Did I mention that Wilson brought north only one of his Iguanas, Ike, leaving Tina in the Sunshine State? This tidbit from Centorani's Sunday, June 22 column.

I walked two blocks from the library to NYSEG Stadium, known as Municipal Stadium in 1997, for an afternoon game against the New Britain Rock Cats. It was a pitchers duel, with the starters—Michael Fulmer, a Mets' first round pick in the 2011 amateur draft, and Matt Flemer—each going seven innings and throwing a high percentage of strikes.

Brock Peterson, about to touch the fourth in a series of bases.

A ground-rule double, error and second double put the Rock Cats on the board in the fourth. Journeyman Brock Peterson tied it up in the sixth when he knocked one onto the train tracks. "Train." Gavin Cecchini, another Mets' first-round pick, lined a single to right, advanced to second on a wild pitch, and scored the winning run, 2-1, on a seventh inning double by Jared King.

When King came to bat, I shouted to him from the front row, "C'mon Jared! It's raining in Elmira!" It sprinkled very lightly, off and on, as a storm passed to the north of Binghamton. The folks in the general admission seats got wet anyway, since stadium staff sprayed them with a hose through-out the game.

Rain had threatened to scuttle my entire trip to the Southern Tier but I kept an eye on the Doppler and was fortunate. I left New York City mid-morning and drove northwest out of the showers that arrived as I hit the road. I had made my room reservation just a few hours earlier, flexibility Melvin and I don't have on longer itineraries.

My first stop was McKune Cemetery, about a mile west of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, where my ex-wife's maternal grandparents are buried. I could try to contextualize my visit but what my ex and her family cannot understand isn't worth explaining here. Suffice perhaps to say that we did not celebrate the 92nd birthday of my ex-wife's grandmother.

McKune Cemetery, Oakland Township PA.

The landscape was undergoing a tremendous change. An imposing stone house of worship had been built across the street from the cemetery and the state had repaved and perhaps realigned PA-171.

To the west, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was recreating the homes where church founder Joseph Smith lived with his wife, Emma, and where Emma's parents, Isaac and Elizabeth Hale, resided on the Hale farm at the time Smith, according to church history, encountered the resurrected John the Baptist.

Almost as soon as I parked my car, a woman drove up in hers and asked what I was doing. "I am going into the cemetery," I replied and then did so without looking back. A little later, a large black SUV with tinted windows followed me as I walked to a plot in a of the graveyard.

The woman might have been a contractor, the SUV a hearse, but when I learned later what "the Church" (as the Church's style guide prefers) was building next door, I could not avoid feeling that I was being watched. Melvin and I experienced Mormon paranoia on a 2009 tour of the Salt Lake City mothership (not a recommended term).

Can you find the three errors on the historical marker?

Even with my detour and a second stop at Wegman's for provisions, I was able to get to Dunn Field to see almost all of what had been rescheduled as a double-header, between the Mohawk Valley DiamondDawgs and the Elmira Pioneers.

I have wanted to see the 1938 stadium since I read Eric Pastore's 500 Ballparks: From Wooden Seats to Retro Classics. The ballpark has an old school grandstand with an imposing entrance behind home plate. The amenities are limited but that is for some tastes part of the charm.

Dunn Field, on the banks of the Chemung River, was home to Eastern and New York-Penn League teams until 1995. For the next 10 years, the stadium hosted teams in three different but interrelated independent leagues. The Pioneers have played in collegiate summer leagues since 2006, five years in the New York Collegiate Baseball League and the Perfect Game Collegiate League since 2011.

What about the 1914 New York State League championship?

According to Eric and Wendy Pastore, Perfect Game is "run by one of the largest scouting firms in the world." I know the collegiate summer leagues are showcases, in particular those scouted by Baseball America, but I didn't realize the arrangement could be quite this incestuous.

The lanky Justin Lewis, a University of Kentucky freshman, came into Game 1 with one out in the second inning. He finished the the 2-0 shutout and made it look easy—four hits, five strikeout, a .167 ERA and his first win of the summer.

Game 2 was a mess, with the infielders unable to field, throw or catch. The DiamondDawgs' shortstop and first baseman committed two errors apiece. All four of the Pioneer' infielders were credited with an error. Down 5-2 at the game's midpoint, the home team chipped away one run at time to win 6-5 in the ninth.

The view from the grandstand looked like a
Gregory Crewdson photograph, before the drama.

On my drive to Elmira, I passed an Adult Outlet, initial caps because it appears to be a chain (but with no web presence). Someone had played with the message sign, removing an "I" and sliding an "S" to the right. It now read, "YOUR PLEASURE SOUR BUSINESS," 11 syllables short of a haiku but heading in the right direction.

If my trip had gone poorly, I might have taken this for an omen, but it was a great couple of days. The worst thing to happen was missing the exit from I-81 on to I-380, but I have done that before. There has been so much construction for so long, the highways look different every time I pass through Scranton and I am often focused on the temporary lane changes.

Like the trip to DC two weeks earlier, a couple days is more relaxing than the longer itineraries, which of course have their own immersive merits. But I have seen all the teams near home, so this strategy means return visits to ballparks where I have been before. Maybe that's not so bad. If I let 18 years go by, it's almost like going for the first time.

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