Indy minor league ball back in business



Napoleon Lajoie?

Really. The guy’s .426 average in 1901 is the highest batting mark from the 20th century on. And he played for Indianapolis, though not for long and not in his prime. At 43 in 1918, he stopped by for 78 games before retiring and was still good enough for .282.

There has been minor league ball in Indy since 1902, as long as anywhere in the country except Rochester, New York. The all-time roster, referred to as “Notable Alumni” in the team’s archives, is not merely an all-star cast, but between hitting, pitching and coaching, it is a Hall of Fame cast.

Heck, I would like to host a dinner party seating Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown, Napoleon Lajoie, Luke Appling, Randy Johnson, Harmon Killebrew, Al Lopez and Joe McCarthy. Could you please pass the mashed potatoes, and oh, can you tell me about that World Series moment again?

Minor league ball in Indiana’s capital predates Victory Field by practically a century. While mashed potatoes are not served, it seems the menu is as extensive as the state fair. A website concessions list says there are beers and wines, hot dogs and hamburgers, cracker jacks, peanuts and popcorn, four kinds of chicken, nachos and burritos, coffee, hot chocolate, soda, salad, fruit cup, veggies with hummus, milk shakes, sundaes and Lemon Chill.

That variety might make some hometown diners blush. Except last Saturday night when the Indians played the Columbus Clippers, that wasn’t so. Following the called-off 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an information official said choices have been reduced for the moment.

At least after a long virus-induced hiatus, we have live baseball. The Indians mentioned over the public address system it had been 600 days since parents could take their kids out to the ballpark: “It feels like a lifetime.”

For some fans around the country, it may be. In the offseason, Major League Baseball ruthlessly disposed of 25% of all affiliated franchises, slashing the roll call of teams from 160 to 120.

Good old baseball was back, but it’s not clear how much tinkering the sport plans to do with the good old game. Doubleheaders are now seven innings times two. Imagine if Ernie Banks was around. Would he say, “Let’s play one and a half?” There is talk of robots calling balls and strikes and of the mound being moved back for the first time Cy Young was in the first half of his career.

My wife Deb’s response to all of that was, “That’s just wrong.”

Compared to mom-and-pop operations in smaller cities, Indianapolis is a AAA powerhouse. Not only a many-time champion of the American Association or International League, but in normal years, Indianapolis is a team that draws around 600,000 fans.

The Indians are affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates but once were the top farm club of the Cincinnati Reds. The ballpark concourse displays mini-billboards featuring some of the best-remembered Indianapolis stars, including Reds Ken Griffey Sr. and Davey Concepcion.

Concepcion, a many-time all-star shortstop, looks about 12 in the photo. The Venezuelan who played for the Big Red Machine champions is now 72. He spent 42 games in Indianapolis in 1969.

Pedro Borbon, Sean Casey, Eric Davis, George Foster, Bernie Carbo and Pete Rose Jr. all wore the Indianapolis uniform.

It was 84 degrees and sunny accompanied by some fluffy white clouds for this game, and 4,723 fans attended. The Indians edged the Clippers 3-2.

One thing about minor league players is they do come and go so quickly, as in “The Wizard of Oz.” A photo of recent arrival Philip Evans flashed on the scoreboard and showed him adorned in a Pittsburgh cap. Good thing he was on Indianapolis’ side this night, though, since he struck two doubles.

The most familiar face in the park belonged to mascot Rowdie the Bear, the anthropomorphic, kid-pleasing, over-grown stuffed animal. Rowdie did a little jig on a dugout roof. He tossed free T-shirts to adoring fans, and he signed autographs after the seventh inning.

I bet he never met Napoleon Lajoie up close and personal, though.

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