As much as we all complain about our work, many of us have had jobs that we have loved so much that we have had to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming. I would do this, you say to yourself and to anyone who will listen, even if I didn’t get paid to do it.
This week’s cover story, on the minor league Trenton Thunder baseball team, brings back memories of my dream job, back in the summer of ‘65 in Binghamton, New York. Fresh out of high school I landed a summer job as a sportswriter for the Binghamton Evening Press, one of the town’s two daily newspapers. Among the events that had to be covered in person: the home games of the minor league baseball team, the Triplets, so named because they represented the Triple Cities of Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott. At the time the Triplets were the exact minor league equivalent of the Trenton Thunder, the New York Yankees farm team in the Eastern League, two levels below the majors.
It was my dream job. As a kid I had been a devoted Yankees fan, and had followed the minor leaguers’s careers as they passed through Binghamton on the long road to New York. On one memorable Fourth of July I went to a game with my father, watched a pitcher named Al Downing win the game for the Triplets, and then woke up the next morning to learn that Downing had been called up to pitch for the Yankees in Yankee Stadium four days later. (Downing would later serve up Hank Aaron’s 715th career home run, the one that broke Babe Ruth’s record).
By the summer of ‘65 I was more a sportswriter than a sports fan, and the chance to cover real stories about hometown heroes and to compete with the arch-rival morning newspaper, the Binghamton Sun-Bulletin, was too good to resist. I had one summer job offer from the most prestigious employer in town, IBM, where I would have driven a fork lift in a factory for $70 a week. But instead I took the sportswriting job at $55 a week. Friends of mine were amazed that I passed up the big bucks at IBM. The truth was I would have taken the writing job for free.
At the end of the summer I still felt that way. Even then going to a minor league baseball game was a special treat — you could soak up the sounds of the game and the majesty of the turf. And you could talk to the players — not just thrust a ball at them in a calculated transaction to obtain an autograph. It didn’t take long to figure out that the players had that same pinch-me-I-would-do-this-job-even-if-I-weren’t-getting-paid feeling.
And to this day, 44 years later, I still recall vignettes from that summer. There was an awkward looking shortstop with an awkward sounding name, Dion von der Lieth. There was an outfielder named Tom Shopay, just two years older than me, no taller than me, and not much heavier than me. But he was an athlete and I wasn’t — two years later Shopay made his major league debut with the Yankees before later being traded to Baltimore, where he ended up in the organization’s business office.
On days when I wasn’t covering the team, I often went out to Johnson Field anyhow, and struck up conversations with the players and the coaches. Often I would sit close to the field and follow the progress of the gregarious third baseman, Joe Mackey. Of all the spectators, the one who had Mackey’s ear the most was an elderly gentleman who came to every game. While the Triplets were on the field the old guy would offer advice to Mackey, suggesting he move a few feet to the left or the right, or a few feet forward or backward, depending on the ball-strike count on the batter and the game situation.
If I could get my dream job back, I would do a piece on the old guy and Joe Mackey, who must have thought that the guy had some “secret sauce” that would give him a some small but important edge. The old guy’s secret sauce would be a precursor to the steroids peddled decades later to another generation of players looking for an edge. I’d write about it even if I didn’t get paid.
But the secret sauce isn’t the only part of baseball that has changed. As David McDonough reports in this week’s U.S. 1, the die hard fans are no longer capable of filling minor league parks. Now the teams try to broaden their appeal by selling to companies or churches planning social events, and to families with small kids, who are entertained by carnival sideshows, giveaways, crowd participation games, and the antics of hyper-kinetic mascots.
Five or six years ago I took my then pre-teen boys to a Thunder game. We got there early to watch batting and fielding practice. Then we settled in for the game. But not for long. The cacophony of sound between each inning and at every break in the action during an inning was deafening. I made my way to the press box and asked to speak to someone in management. A polite young man promptly showed up, and I made a modest request: Don’t turn the sound off, I suggested, just turn it down.
The only thing turned down was my request. That noisy background, he explained, is what sells tickets these days. Since then I haven’t gone back, and I’m not likely to — no matter how much someone would pay me.