For me, as I suspect for many, the beginning of end of professional baseball in New Orleans began when they changed the name of the team.
Some traditions you simply don’t mess with. And you sure as hell don’t defile the sacred ones. Not in a place where tradition trumps change, where the past is not prologue, but prolonged.
One of the more endearing – and enduring – hallmarks of minor league baseball is its roster of offbeat, unusual and sometimes downright bizarre team names. Albuquerque Isotopes. New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Pensacola Blue Wahoos. Richmond Flying Squirrels. Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. Vermont Lake Monsters. Fort Wayne Tin Caps. Montgomery Biscuits. Savannah Sand Gnats. The Inland Empire 66ers. And of course, the iconic Toledo Mud Hens. But the best ever – yes, dammit, ever – was the New Orleans Zephyrs.
First of all, it just sounds cool. And a great majority of Americans don’t even know what the word means – and being unknowable is always a leg up in any kind of competition, in sports as in life.
Those who do know the definition think it’s a sustained gentle breeze. The erudite and literati in our midst recognize it as the name of Babar’s pet monkey in the series of beloved picture books about that kindly elephant. But in New Orleans, we know what a Zephyr really is. Or was. A roller coaster.
So we had a baseball team named after a roller coaster named after an elephant’s pet monkey who was named after a warm breeze – all of them drawn from the name of Zephuros, the Greek god of the western winds.
Take that, Isotopes! (Although, that’s a pretty cool name too.)
Then, in 2017, team owners made a fatal mistake – likely with the input of the same marketing genius who dreamed up New Coke and green ketchup – when they changed their name to the Baby Cakes.
That just killed me. Fans were outraged. Petitions circulated. Protests organized. Boycotts arranged. Jesus wept. All for naught.
And it didn’t help that the mascot resembled one of those knife-wielding serial killing toddlers from 1970s slasher movies.
No, that didn’t help at all.
That’s all probably a contributing factor to why I never went to another game after the name change, after being a faithful patron for years. But there were other reasons, to be sure. Evolving personal interests and changing tastes. The kids get older and they’d rather go see a slasher movie than a baseball game. Stuff like that.
And maybe I harbored some personal demons I was never able to expel. For instance, I took my kids to a game years ago, when they were really young, and after the game they joined the pack of other bright-eyed, star-struck fans pressed against the barriers that formed the path from the field to the locker room after the game.
The Z’s had lost badly that night and the players were in pretty foul moods and almost every single one of them just strode glumly past all these kids who were holding out baseballs and programs and pennants, cheering the home team guys even in defeat and begging for autographs.
But most of the players just stomped past them, their cleats chattering a defiant click-clack on the concrete without so much as even making eye contact with these kids, these yearning, impressionable innocents.
That just slayed me. All these kids reveling in one of the great of joys of summer, under the lights on a field of dreams, mustard stains on their shirts, tongues gone red and blue from too many snowballs, holding out their souvenirs as if offering alms for the poor – and here’s these arrogant, entitled and pretty damn fortunate 20-something ball players getting that prized, cherished opportunity to play on a minor league team with a real shot to make it to The Show – ignoring their naive, adoring little fans, leaving the whole lot of them bewildered and sad.
Even a 6-year-old kid know there’s something wrong with this picture.
Well, witnessing this scene, maybe I lost my cool. And after about half the players had filed by in gloomy silence, I pressed closer and leaned in over my own kids’ heads and barked into a couple of the guys’ ears, in all cap: IN THREE WEEKS YOU’RE GONNA GET SENT DOWN TO SINGLE-A AND YOU’LL BE INSTALLING KITCHEN CABINETS TO MAKE LIVING IN SOME TOWN WHERE NOBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME, WISHING LIKE HELL THAT SOME KID WOULD ASK FOR YOUR AUTOGRAPH. OR EVEN IF YOU WANT TO PLAY CATCH. GOOD LUCK WITH THAT!
Yes, I really said that. And although I believe I was righteous in my indignation, perhaps I did not set the best example for my kids, or the other children around us.
Hey, my bad.
And who knows, maybe that’s one of the reasons my kids lost interest in going to the games. (My behavior that is, not the snubbing by players; let’s be clear about that.) Either way, we never went to another game. Then the team changed names and now they’ve changed cities.
Last Thursday night, the Baby Cakes made their last stand at the Shrine on Airline. They lost the game. And then the bright lights went dark over our own local field of dreams below, now rendered bereft of the crack of bats and the roar of the crowd; the dugouts and locker rooms now haunted only by the ghosts of players past, apparitions of the so many hopefuls and dreamers who never made it to the Bigs.
And since baseball is a subject for which no American writer can possibly resist engaging in stunningly overwrought hyperbole and purple prose – let’s just say a little piece of our hearts also went dark that night. No extra innings for the faithful. No root, root, root for the home team. New Orleans strikes out. No joy in Mudville. The Endless Summer comes to an end. Going, going, gone! Good by, Mr. Spaulding. Elvis has left the…OK, I’ll stop.
So good luck Wichita, we wish your new team only the best. No hard feelings. I don’t know what the team will be called next season but may I suggest the Linemen? The Rhinestone Cowboys? The Choo-Choos?
Hey, you know what? Those aren’t so bad. Anything, please, but the Baby Cakes – a name best relegated to the bitter ash heap of minor league baseball history.
As for New Orleans, pro baseball is history now, but we’ll always have the River Ridge boys of summer, Little League World Series champs, our little heroes.
That is, until they grow up one day and go off to play college baseball at some faraway place like, say…Wichita State?
Oh, the horror.