Zephyr Tales

Arthur Nead illustration

Perhaps it wasn’t the best choice of shirts to wear.

During the Zephyrs’ first season in New Orleans, 1993, the team’s home games were played at University of New Orleans’ ballpark, as they were for a couple of years until the stadium on Airline Drive was built.

For one of the early games I had a chance to sit in the small press box. Because the franchise had relocated from Denver, I reached in my closet for a Colorado Rockies T-shirt that a cousin had given me.

That season was the first for the Rockies, who were an expansion major league franchise. Prior to the big league team’s arrival, the Denver Zephyrs, a Triple-A minor league franchise, played in the  Mile-High City. With the coming of the Rockies the Zephyrs had to move elsewhere. New Orleans at the time was the largest city in the nation without a professional baseball team, minor league or major, so the move seemed natural.

A Denver businessman named John Dikeou owned the relocated Zephyrs. He was seated in the press box a few seats away from me. As the game began I noticed when he called one of his staff people aside and began what I overheard as being an angry murmur. I couldn’t understand everything he was saying, but I did grasp two words that were muttered frequently: “Colorado Rockies.”

Moments later the aide came and talked to me. Mr. Dikeou, it turned out, was hardly a Rockies fan. There had been contentious negotiations between him and the new club.

From our conversation I got the impression that Dikeou worried that either I was some sort of wise guy rubbing it in by wearing the shirt or, worse yet, someone from the Denver media trying to stir up something. I assured the aide that I was neither. The rest of the game went peacefully, though Mr. Dikeou and I never made eye contact.

He eventually sold the team and headed back to Denver. Left behind was a franchise with a name that tuned out to be an amazing coincidence.

UNO’s ballpark is located across the street from the site of the old Pontchartrain Beach amusement park. The park’s signature ride was a roller coaster that raced along a winding track supported by a sprawling white wooden lattice frame. The ride’s name was the Zephyr. A true rite of passage for those growing up in New Orleans was to ride “the big Zephyr.”

Anyone sitting on the first base side of the UNO ballpark would face the site where the Zephyr once rolled. It was natural for fans to assume that the ball club was named after the ride.

In fact, the team was named after the Denver Zephyr, a passenger train that once raced through the mountains to the West Coast carrying a name that was borrowed from a Greek phrase for west wind.

Curiously the wind, albeit from the south, would have an effect on the New Orleans Zephyrs’ biggest moment to date. In 1998 the team won the Triple-A World Series by beating the Buffalo Bisons three games to one. Only when the victorious club returned home, there were no adoring fans waiting to greet the players. Hurricane Georges was spinning in the Gulf of Mexico and authorities had warned local folks not to feel safe at home.
Too bad the team never had a chance to produce championship memorabilia. I could have used a new T-shirt.

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