Several seasons ago when the New Orleans Zephyrs first became a farm club of the Houston Astros one of the jokes around town was that the local team would be renamed the Half-Astros. I winced, not just because of the joke but because of the symbolic implications. I suffer from a malady common to many American males and that is to frequently think of life in term of baseball metaphors. (This article is now rounding first base.) The notion of New Orleans being a farm club for Houston was loaded with disheartening symbolism such as empty office space in the towers along Poydras Street.
New Orleans was eventually replaced by the burg of Round Rock (near Austin) for the Astros’ affections. Our city can at least save face with its current affiliation as part of the New York Mets farm system. There is less disgrace to being a farm club for the Mets because in a sense, the entire nation is a farm club for New York.
Granted, affiliation with the Mets does not have the same panache as in the heyday of the old New Orleans Pelicans who were a farm team for the New York Yankees. In those years, Babe Ruth and company would swing by New Orleans for an exhibition game after closing spring training in Florida. Baseball, the most tradition-bound and the most senior of professional sports in this country, still reflects changes in the nation. It was the first sport to integrate by race; the first to expand to the West coast and into the South; the first to play on artificial grass inside a domed stadium. When the Yankees came, the games were at Pelican Stadium located on S. Carrollton Avenue between Tulane Avenue and the railroad tracks. Now our local team plays at Zephyr Field located between Airline Drive (which becomes Tulane when it crosses into the city) and the same railroad tracks. The geography of local baseball remains along the same parallel, but like the nation, it has just moved further into the suburbs.
New Orleans has become a major league city in baseball and basketball but it never will be in baseball. The already strained sports market is just too small to support 81 home games and the TV market size is strictly minor league. But the city that gave baseball Mel Ott, Mel Parnell, Rusty Staub and Will Clark has had its impact on the game. Abner Powell was both a pitcher and manager for the New Orleans Pelicans in the late 1880s. He also became an organizer, promoter, financier and most of all an idea guy. Concerned that not enough women were coming to the games, he introduced the first ever Ladies’ Days at which women were admitted free,
Then there was the weather. Baseball is played in the summer so in semitropical New Orleans rain was often a factor. Powell worried that would- be fans were staying away for fear that their money would be wasted if rain stopped a game, so he had an idea: He put wording on the ticket stub explaining that, if the game was canceled because of weather, the stub would be redeemable for a free ticket to another game. Thus was created the "rain check," a term that now transcends baseball and is part of the language not just as compensation for a soggy experience but as a polite refusal as in: Want to go alligator hunting? I think I’ll take a rain check!
When New Orleans had a minor league hockey team it played in the East Coast Hockey League. The Zephyrs play in the Pacific Coast League. We are a geographically ambiguous city.
Now a new season has begun and the Zephyrs have answered the call seeking again to be the best minor league baseball team along the loosely defined Pacific coast. Last year the Zs won their division but got leveled in the playoffs. Since this column is now rounding third base, here might be the place to mention that attendance at Zephyr games has declined over the last few seasons. Rain has been a factor, so has the revolving door nature of minor league baseball by which the better players seldom last the season. The game at the Triple-A level is not really about the pennant race but about the personal drama of young men trying to make it to the top. Watching the drama while holding a cold beer in one hand and hot dog in another can be a relaxing way to spend a balmy summer night. And if the sky creates it own drama – there is always the rain check.
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