Memories On The Loose

Jul 9, 2020   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

Welcome to Thursday Blog Day on July 9, 2020. Can it really be July 9? I know the quarantine made a blur of a couple of months, but I swear it was just Barbara’s birthday a couple of weeks ago. Her birthday was April 28. It’s really bizarre how the challenges of this Covid virus have altered our lives, from wearing masks and washing our hands, to cooking at home almost every night, which also means filling the dishwasher to the limit at least three times a week, all the way to losing track of time. And absolutely yes, all of these things are inconveniences at worst. Staying healthy is the only goal.

One piece of news that qualifies for inclusion here is that we have our “Like” button back! The only difference is it’s located at the bottom of the blog instead of the top, but I think that’s a better spot for it. I’d always run my “Please hit the ‘Like’ button” request at the end of each blog, so now there’s no need to scroll back up.

Anyway, this will be one of those installments that kind of comes out of nowhere. Up until I was watching TV last night, I had no clue what I was going to write about. Something triggered something else, and that led to other things, and here I am. It struck me that I can kind of blend the old “my favorite things” theme with some more obscure stories that may or may not have made it into “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” and each of those memories triggered a few new ones. That’s how it works. It’s magic!

So, as I sit here with fingers on the keyboard, I don’t even remember what the initial trigger was last night. But the Eugene Emeralds were part of it, as was their classic old ballpark Civic Stadium.

Wonderful Civic Stadium in Eugene. Now long gone… (Click on any image to enlarge)

That led me to this question: “What’s my favorite ballpark that I played in as a pro?” There are many contenders, including Johnson Central Park in Paintsville, Miles Field in Medford, and Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, but old Civic Stadium in Eugene, Oregon wins the contest. It was quaint. It was old-school. It just felt like minor league baseball from the moment we got off the bus. Plus, it was the only ballpark that I was ever at while hanging out with my dad’s Spokane Indians team and then played in myself. The only one. It was like a homecoming when our Medford A’s arrived to play the Emeralds in beautiful Eugene, Oregon.

(UPDATE: I had a memory pass through my feeble brain last night and verified it today. My brother Del Jr. also played in Eugene, as one of the Emeralds in the Phillies organization. So that makes three of us in the family who have a direct connection with Civic Stadium. How cool is that?!)

The Ems always drew well, too. There’s no getting around the fact that playing in front of thousands of people is way better than playing in front of hundreds. Or dozens. It really doesn’t matter if they root for the other team. There’s just energy and electricity in the air when there are a lot of people there.

Civic Stadium was a marvel in a few senses. It’s gone now. In 1979 it looked as if it should’ve burned down 50 years earlier, but there it stood. It had been home to Triple-A baseball, which is why I was there with Dad’s Spokane team, but by the time I played there with the Medford A’s it was a Class-A park. It still had amenities designed for those guys who were one step from the big leagues, though, so that made it fun. A full visitor’s clubhouse with all the lockers and showers we needed, and a short walk from the clubhouse to the dugout were things not too many parks in the Northwest League offered. And that brings up another story.

See the gate in the fence kinda behind home plate, where the blue padding is missing? That gate led directly to the visitor’s clubhouse, and to get there you walked beside the box seats, where Eugene fans were above you. That ended up not being a good thing one night. I think some fans above our dugout (the one you can see on the third-base side) had been throwing peanut shells or other debris at some of our guys throughout the game. A couple of our pitchers talked back to them and it escalated. When the game ended, I was walking through the passageway when all hell broke loose. Fans were throwing cups and beers and whatever they could get their hands on at us as we tried to get to the clubhouse. By “fans” I mean college-age boys, who had those beers because they’d already consumed a few. And that sent a few of our pitchers into a tizzy. They attempted to climb up into the stands to fight the rowdy fans, and there was no security to be seen. We had the low ground, which wasn’t good, plus the stands right there were metal grate and that’s not good when you have spikes on. Almost immediately it was getting more dangerous and more out of control. I was not a proponent of such behavior.

Two of our pitchers, Craig Harris and Chuck Dougherty, were finally about to get into the stands and I saw Craig grab a bat and hold hit over his head. When he reached back to get some leverage I knew he was aiming to hit one of the kids in the head. I was behind him, so I reached up and grabbed the barrel of the bat, then took it out of his hands. I also took the bat to the clubhouse.

After things simmered a little bit, we were all back in the clubhouse and Dougherty got in my face, screaming “What the hell is wrong with you? Aren’t you on our side?” He was literally foaming at the mouth and spitting on me. I pushed him in the chest and said, “I just kept your boy there from going to jail, you idiot. If he hit one of those kids, he’d go to jail. Maybe for a long time! Did you think about that?” Some teammates separated us, and most of them were just yelling at Dougherty to go to his locker and shut up. Closest I ever came to fighting a teammate. Actually it was the only time I ever came close to fighting a teammate.

Oral Roberts. What a gem.

OK, so next on the list is “What’s my favorite ballpark I played in as a college player?” and that one is not close. The stadium at Oral Roberts University was, by far, the nicest park the SIUE Cougars ever played in. It was as good as any Triple-A park I’d ever seen back then. It was actually a little intimidating for us, and we got smoked, but it was a pleasure to play there. Little did I know, when we played them at the end of our senior season in 1978, that just a month later I’d be sharing a clubhouse and dugout with two members of that Oral Roberts team. Buddy Slemp was signed by the Detroit Tigers like I was, and Vince “The Bronze Fox” Bienek was signed by the White Sox. All three of us were sent to Paintsville, to be Hilanders together.

And let us never forget that my buddy Lance McCord fielded a ball at third base and proceeded to make his throw to first. The ball went completely out of the ballpark. I wonder if anyone ever found that…

Home of the USA team in 1989

Finally, on the ballpark list, “What is my favorite ballpark I played in as a semipro player?”  Again, not close. Millington Legion Field near Memphis was the home of the USA National Team. Had we not beaten them 6-5 on the night of June 20, 1989 it would still rank as the coolest ballpark most of us ever played in.

For one thing, the playing surface was incredible. After all those high school, college, minor league, and semipro parks I’d played in, it was the first field I’d stepped on with a design mowed into the grass. I quickly learned that valuable lesson that when they do that (by mowing in different directions to make the grass lay differently) it makes a rolling baseball change directions as it’s coming toward you. Not much, but it’s way different, believe me. Scared the heck out of me the first time a USA guy hit a hot shot out to me in right field. I had no idea. I actually dropped to one knee just to make sure I blocked it. By the end of the game I was getting used to it, but it was an eye-opener for sure.

Worst parks? Well, in the Appalachian League they were all pretty good, at least ranging from cozy to very nice. In the Florida State League, they were all amazing, because all the parks were Spring Training homes for Major League clubs. In the Northwest League we had a couple of real “special” parks. The Salem Senators played their home games at Chemeketa Community College. It featured seating for a couple of hundred and no clubhouse for the visitors. We actually had to use the public Men’s Room if we needed to do any of the things we typically did in a clubhouse. In Victoria, British Columbia, the Mussels played in some old multipurpose civic park that may have been great for soccer, rugby, or even cricket, but it was ill-suited for baseball and it also featured no facilities for the visiting team. And both Salem and Victoria shared one other thing. The teams were independent clubs, not affiliated with any Major League team, and whatever baseball fans who happened to live in those towns ignored them almost completely. Like I said, it’s not that much fun to play in front of 126 people.

The wonderful old St. Louis Arena

What about arena memories and favorites? That one’s also not close. The old St. Louis Arena, now long gone, was part of my life from childhood all the way to my 40s. As kids, we saw the circus there, or the Ice Capades, or the Harlem Globetrotters. Before the Blues came to town we’d go to the “Old Barn” and see the St. Louis Braves play minor league hockey, at a time when chicken wire took the place of the glass. After the Blues arrived, we were in attendance dozens of times per season, and my dad and I were devoted fans. In college, my first real job was as an usher there, for hockey, basketball, and those special-event shows. How cool it was to walk in the loading dock entrance in the back and flash my badge, then just stroll in like I owned the place.

And then the St. Louis Steamers arrived around 1980 and that changed my life. I loved indoor soccer, and somewhere in the back of my mind I made the vow that someday I’d find a way to work in that sport. I could only dream that it would be at the same St. Louis Arena that I grew up in. And with the St. Louis Storm, who replaced the Steamers, that dream came true.

You could never build a place like The Arena now. It was just one major seating bowl until the Blues hung some additional seats from the ceiling above each goal, to get capacity up to close to 19,000. With just the one main bowl, the pitch of the grandstand was severe. It was like walking up the side of a mountain to get up each aisle to your row. The sight-lines, therefore, were incredible. It was as if you were right on top of the action. No way any architect would be allowed to make seating that steep now, and of course they’d have to build in all the suites and other amenities. The Arena was utilitarian but geez it was fun.

The concourses were cramped. The old hallways and tunnels were fascinating. The feeling in the air when 18,000 would pack the place to watch the Steamers take on the New York Arrows, or the Wichita Wings, or the Kansas City Comets was unlike anything I’ve really ever experienced. To finally get to work there when I joined the Storm as its first front-office staff member, only three months before our first game, was phenomenal.

What about football? Well, to be clear this has to be “valued memories” of football seen in-person. Like most folks, I’d say at least 95% of all the football games I’ve ever seen have been on TV. Maybe even more than that. But one particular football game stands out and, again, it’s not even close.

I was a freshman at St. Louis U. High. I’d only been in school there for a month or so. Our football team, the Junior Billikens, was really good. We didn’t have a football field then, so we either went to road games or our “home” games, which were played a few miles south of SLUH at O’Fallon Tech. Still, it was great to be part of such a thing as a young kid. Those varsity players looked like men to me. And I looked up to them enormously.

SLUH was slotted into the Missouri State Athletic Association with the largest schools, Class AAAA, despite the fact we had less than 1,000 students in our full enrollment. The reason for that was the pesky fact we were an all-boys school, so the association based our enrollment on twice that number, since there were no girls. Our gridiron guys marched through the season and the playoffs all the way to the Missouri State Final, played at the University of Missouri in Columbia. We packed a dozen chartered Greyhound buses to get there. Kansas City Center High was the opponent, so Mizzou was a great place to play them, right in the middle of the state.

State Champs! (Yes this is from my freshman yearbook)

We cheered our hearts out for the full game. And being all boys, we were LOUD. I had friends on the KC side and they later told me they couldn’t hear themselves cheer. “HERE WE GO BILLIKENS, HERE WE GO! (Clap, Clap.)”

When the final whistle blew, the Junior Bills were state champions. We were delirious. There were screams, hugs, fists in the air, and a few tears.

It was unforgettable. And here’s the rub. That was the fall of 1970. I was 14. Since that day in Columbia, Missouri I’ve never again experienced anything like it at a football game. We never won another one when I was at SLUH. We didn’t have football at SIUE. The St. Louis Cardinals were generally pretty mediocre, if not terrible. And on that fall day with the Junior Bills and all my classmates, I remember thinking “I can’t wait to do this again!” It just never happened.

There are other notables. Seeing the Cardinals win the World Series in 1967 and 1982. Amazing, and I really liked Busch Stadium II, the circular bowl. It was home. Even as a 13-year old I could roam around at ease with total freedom, because I knew every ramp and concourse, and my mom actually worked in the front office in ’67 and ’68.

The late-great Moses Malone, playing for the Spirits

And I can’t forget when our old ABA team, the Spirits of St. Louis, somehow beat Dr. J and the New York Nets in the first round of the ABA playoffs after not even coming close to beating them all season. For the Spirits, a crowd of 5,000 in The Arena was pretty good. When that New York series happened, 11,000 showed up and the atmosphere was like nothing I’d ever experienced at a basketball game. They played the Kentucky Colonels in the second round but couldn’t quite make that happen. Kentucky was very good. And if I wasn’t able to get to Spirits games, I listened to their young radio announcer who had landed his first pro gig with the team. That was Bob Costas, straight out of Syracuse University. He was “pretty good” if by that you mean he was phenomenal.

And I didn’t even scratch the surface here in the NHRA Drag Racing world. That’s a whole additional blog, I’m sure. Places like Gainesville, Pomona, and Bandimere Speedway outside of Denver rank at the top of my favorite tracks. The greatest memories are nearly endless, but winning the Skoal Showdown and the Mac Tools US Nationals on the same weekend has to rank as No. 1 without a doubt. That moment, when Del Worsham edged out Frankie Pedregon to win the US Nationals, has to rank as the single most thrilling moment of my sports career, and not because we won close to a quarter-million dollars by winning both events, but because we’d done it. We “doubled up” and even many of the teams with the biggest budgets had never done that. We made history. I struggle each time I try to put it into words. So many stories to tell…

So this whole blog started with an idea. Even as I was typing the intro paragraph I wasn’t really sure where I was going. I had to take a break from writing in order to Google many of the photos and download them, and I needed to take an iPhone pic of that two-page spread in my yearbook. Like so many others, this one just organically happened. It’s funny how that works.

And now I get to write this again: If you just read this blog and kinda sorta maybe liked it a little, please click on the “Like” button. It’s now right there at the bottom. Thank you! The more “likes” the better.

I have to run now. Our local custom framing shop has reopened and I need to get my dad’s 1946 Cardinal jersey up there. It will be hanging my office in mere weeks.

See you again next week.

Bob Wilber, at your service and still sure there was no place like the St. Louis Arena.

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