Beating the Bushes

Minor-League Ball Flourishes in the Shadow of the Mets and Yanks

The Ducks have been an instant sensation in sports-starved Suffolk, regularly selling out their 6000-seat park in their inaugural season. (The visiting Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds, by comparison, were recently outdrawn by a high school game across the street.) Perhaps one reason is the league's best food—fish sandwiches and chicken nuggets aren't exactly standard minor-league fare.

The Ducks roster is utterly star-quality-free (Chuck Carr, centerfielder for the original Marlins team that lost 98 games in 1993, is as close as they get), but the dugout features none other than Miracle Met Bud Harrelson, who helped found the league back in 1996. Working the third-base coach's box, Buddy deftly fields two foul balls bare-handed, drawing the largely sedate crowd's biggest cheers of the night.

But what EAB Park lacks in excitement, it makes up for, well, in ducks. The sound system blares duck-themed effects at every break in the Van Halen soundtrack, while greeting foul balls with a cavalcade of crashes and beeps that sound like someone lined a shot off Roger Rabbit's windshield. At the club's Waddle-In Shop, the brisk business in noisemakers has taken its toll, forcing management to post a sign: NO QUACKERS TONIGHT.

The view from below: minor-league ball on Long Island
The view from below: minor-league ball on Long Island

Jersey Jackals
(Northern League, May 26- Sept. 1). Tickets: $4-$8. By public transit: DeCamp bus No. 66 from Port Authority to Montclair State University. Colors: red and black. Oversized mascot: none, unless you count 275-pound DH-coach Matt Stark. Famous names: Infielder-turned-knuckleballer Mark Lemke.

If you didn't know this was Yogi Berra Stadium, the huge silhouette of Yogi that adorns the front gate might tip you off. Or the Yogi Berra Museum next door, which features memorabilia from Yogi's career (Yogi's 1955 MVP trophy! Yogi's glove when he was 14!), along with some nice historical photos and such baseball mementos as Phil Linz's harmonica. The place is so suffused with Yogi, you half expect a shrine with chanting disciples invoking the spirit of the Buddha of the Backstop.

Built into a hillside, the Jackals' home turf makes good use of the topography: A slope beyond right field is open to fans for $4 a head. Most refreshing of all, there are no luxury boxes, save one: a balcony behind first base that is for exclusive use of the Berras. The Northern League does feel less big-league than the Atlantic, in part thanks to economics—with a salary cap and limits on veterans, rosters are even more anonymous—but also for its homey familiarity, with kids scrambling around the ballpark getting autographs of the homegrown stars.

"I covered those Mets teams with Vince Coleman and Bobby Bonilla," says Jim Cerny, the Islanders broadcaster who handles media relations and play-by-play for the Jackals during the hockey off-season. "It was not a pleasant experience. To come here, where if somebody's lucky they might make it to double- or triple-A, but otherwise they're just here because they love it, it rubs off."

Still, there's a certain irony to a league where the greatest honor is to escape. "Guys here, they want to learn, they want to work, they want to try to get out of here," says Jackals pitching coach Vance Lovelace, a high school teammate of Dwight Gooden's whose moment in the bigs lasted four and two-thirds innings in the late '80s. "If you can give someone that opportunity, you've done your job."

Queens Kings
(NY-Penn League, June 20-Sept. 6). Tickets: $7-$10. By public transit: E, F to 169th St., transfer to Q30 bus. Colors: purple and gold. Oversized mascot: "Name the Mascot" Night was Monday. Famous names: none.

Staten Island Yankees
(NY-Penn League, June 20-Sept. 6). Tickets: $6-$10. By public transit: Staten Island Ferry to the S62 bus. Colors: midnight blue pinstripes . . . of course. Oversized mascot: none. Famous names: Dave (son of ex-big-league catcher Lance) Parrish.

In the files of Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden are letters from the Atlantic and Northern leagues, expressing interest in a Brooklyn franchise should a stadium become available. But approval for a Yankees farm team in the city was contingent on the Mets getting one too, and so New York's first minor-league franchises were granted to its Major League clubs, over Golden's protests.

This means fans will get a chance to see young players in the pipeline to the Bronx and Flushing—Staten Island's marketing slogan is "Yankees Made Here." Emphasis is on young: Most are just out of high school and college, and the oldest King is a venerable 24. Add in the short-season schedule, and you can understand why Golden was miffed.

With its planned Coney Island park delayed by legal challenges, the eventual Brooklyn club is squatting at St. John's University in Queens, which has seen its own neighborhood protesters. ("I hear they're going to throw batteries at us," one King quipped nervously before the home opener.) The team is also made up of Blue Jays; because the Mets' contract with their Pittsfield single-A affiliate runs another year, they found a stopgap solution: buy a Jays farm club in Ontario and move it south with its load of Toronto prospects. In 2001, the Queens Kings will join the Mets system; the following year, the club should relocate to its new Brooklyn home.

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