Ambassadors of the Faith

Baseball fans everywhere have probably heard of (and bemusedly chuckled at) the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, top farm team for the back-to-back pennant-winning Philadelphia Phillies.  Coca-Cola Park in Allentown enters its third season widely regarded as one of the finest minor league ballparks in America.  But the whole existence of the Iron Pigs still stretches my credulity; like the nebulous five-minute dreams that come after hitting the snooze button they seem both real and not real at the same time.  I lived my entire life in the Lehigh Valley until 2004.  The last time I saw “Coca-Cola Park” it was a decrepit office building on the outskirts of a decrepit city.  As a pious young fan I wished and prayed for a real professional ball club in my hometown, but that seemed as distant and quixotic as playing in The Show myself.  After several false starts (and a lot of anger at the Phillies for blocking any other ML franchise from placing an affiliate in their territory), we Allentonians moved beyond cynicism into a state of grudging acceptance that some inherent flaw in our nature made us unworthy of even a low-A team.

My prayers were finally, amazingly, answered in 1997 with the creation of the Allentown Ambassadors.  Sure, it was an awkward, goofy name chosen solely to satisfy someone’s alliteration fetish.  Sure, they played in the independent Northeast League, professional only in the strictest, most literal sense.  The presence of a few guys who’d enjoyed a few cups of coffee in The Show disguised the fact that almost any decent college player could have waltzed into the league and performed.  But none of that mattered to this 12-year old boy; the baseball gods had deployed a small detachment of heroes and demigods to my backyard for the summer!

The Ams, as they soon came to be known, drew nearly 3,000 fans per game those first couple years despite playing in a quirky softball park that had been deemed unsuitable by the city’s high school and Legion teams.  There was an implicit understanding that if fans came out to Bicentennial Park every night, they would soon be rewarded with the sweet new stadium they deserved.  In the meantime, however, we had to sit on backless bench seats painted a random array of faded colors and watch as the old park relegated our boys to hapless circus clowns.  The field had first been used by a Boston Braves farm club back in 1939, which gave it a touch of charm but no tangible assistance in pulling it up to modern standards.  Because of the residential streets that ran right behind the outfield, the dimensions were 340′ to left, 340′ to dead center, 390′ to right-center, and 310′ to right.  In order to prevent a nightly homerun derby (and to protect the neighbors’ windows), the fences were about 15-20′ high with a 30′ net on top.  A fly ball had to clear the netting or else it was still in play; this gave the impression of baseball played in a well – balls bouncing all over the place, rarely getting out.  The bullpens were offhandedly tucked away behind the corner in right-center, completely invisible from the stands and dugouts.  But to people walking down the street outside, only a chain link fence separated them from the bored relievers.  There was almost no foul territory at all; fans behind the plate could almost touch the umpire.  The place was sorely unfit even for this lowest level of pro ball, yet it made gritty Allentown unique in that regard.  When I read W.P. Kinsella’s classic Shoeless Joe and found the characters sneaking into a major league stadium to spend a night on the hallowed grass, I envisioned myself right there with them doing the same thing at Bicentennial Park.

The manager was Allentown resident (he drove a truck in the off-season) and former Pirates catcher Ed Ott, who once ended an opposing player’s career with a body slam.  He had put on some paunch over the years, but the competitive fires still raged.  The claustrophobic intimacy of Bicentennial Park allowed every ear in the house to pick up every word of his eloquent arguments with the league’s young umps, which occurred with such dizzying frequency that he earned several suspensions.  But his players always played hard, and usually came out on top.

A few weeks into the inaugural season I learned that my mom’s friend’s husband, Mark, was the Ams’ trainer, which entitled him to season tickets.  I quickly laid on the charm and it soon paid off, as he happily led me into the front row right behind the plate.  I had never seen a pro game from such a close vantage point, and could not believe how fast Rich Hunter’s fastball looked, the pop it made hitting Jared Sadlowski’s mitt like a grenade.  But the best was yet to come, as Mark escorted me into the clubhouse after the game (I nodded haughtily at the college-age “security guard” as we entered).  Scott Samuels and Brandon Naples each gave me a cracked bat.  Scott’s was massive and covered in pine tar, while Brandon’s was sleek and black like a ninja.  Trey Beamon sat in his jockey shorts and asked me about my baseball career (“I play knee-hi, I play third,” I told him) as Mark strapped a warming pad to his back.

That night, when the players so openly welcomed me into their midst, finally bridged the canyon that had been carved by years of worship from afar.  Pro baseball no longer seemed like a separate, higher plane of existence.  It became something I could touch and feel and even be a part of, and like a nut who hears the voice of God, I longed to drink as fully from the magic fountain as I could.  I discovered that after the third or fourth inning the ticket takers all abandoned their posts, and thusly I began entering for free a couple nights a week.  I always stood in a shadowy corner of untrafficked walkway, right behind the third baseman and close enough to hear each of his sunflower seed shells fall softly to the dirt.  From my spot I watched Francisco Matos poke so many line drives up the gap in right-center during the incredible summer when he hit .416.  I followed Ryan Kane, the quintessential old-school third baseman for several visiting teams over the years, who wore his socks up to his knees and vacuumed up ground balls.

Bicentennial Park was also the scene of one of the most terrifying incidents that ever occurred on a diamond.  The Ams were hitting against the Waterbury Spirit one sticky August night when the batter got seriously jammed on an inside fastball and popped it up off the handle.  The bat shattered and I can still recall, in slow motion, a hefty-sized dagger-shaped piece spiraling toward first baseman Jeff Keaveney.  He was instinctively, obliviously, demonstrating the fundamental of keeping his eyes on the ball as it floated up toward the lights.  I did the same but when the ball came down he was lying motionless with the shard of lumber impaled in his throat.  Suddenly my flashback switches from slow motion to fast-forward as the whole of both dugouts and all the other fielders sprinted toward first base, hands on caps in astonishment.  A hush fell over the crowd as well, until several minutes went by without any signs of consciousness, at which point an ambulance arrived on the infield and we began to wonder whether we had just witnessed a baseball fatality.  Fortunately, Keaveney survived after spending nine days in the hospital and all winter learning how to speak again.

But a few years later I showed up for an early summer night game to find the park dark and empty and funereal.  Had there been a mistake in the schedule?  No.  The Ams’ starting pitcher that night, 25-year old Joe Bauldree, had dropped dead of a heart condition a few hours earlier.  As death is a part of life, it is also a part of baseball.  The church mourns all of its departed children, some with less pomp and pageantry than others.  By the early 2000’s, A-town’s lively infatuation with the Ams had withered into tired indifference, and all hope of a new ballpark had been abandoned.  The boxscores always reported between 500-1,000 people in attendance, but I seldom saw more than a few dozen.  No longer confined to my secret little nook, I was free to roam down to the empty $7 box seats.  My brother sat there with me one night when a batter from the rival New Jersey Jackals popped a foul our way.  I sprinted up the steps, across two empty sections, and dove heedlessly over three rows of seats before rising triumphantly, ball in hand, only to realize that I had absolutely no competition in the chase.  The P.A. announcer’s voice boomed across the quiet stillness “Oooohh, kid that musta hurt.”  I shrugged.

Even when death is plainly imminent, it can seem sudden.  The Ams had several players under contract and were about to open their 2004 spring training camp when the owner (himself an Allentown native who would soon die in a plane crash) announced that they had simply ceased to be.  Over the next few years, I found myself at other ballgames where I would occasionally recognize the name of a former Ambassador still hanging on (I caught up with Jorge Diaz and Ben Rosenthal in El Paso, of all places).  I started to understand that the vast intertwining web of the game is much bigger than any one person, town, or team.  But I do feel the loss of something that I fear I may never find again – the casual familiarity that made Bicentennial Park literally feel like my own backyard, the unconditional devotion and unpretentious connections I felt with those anonymous titans in the red, white, and blue.

And so I offer up this eulogy for a star-crossed club, distorted though it may be by absence and the passage of years.  I only pray that the Ambassadors are not forgotten.  That’s why, if you tune in to ESPN for the Triple-A All-Star Game at Coca-Cola Park on July 14, you may be able to pick me out.  It’s safe to say I’ll be the only one of the 10,000+ in attendance wearing a vintage Uncle Baseball cap.

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One Response to “Ambassadors of the Faith”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Just finished reading your post of the article about the Allentown Ambassador’s. My wife had sent it to me to read. We are the parents of Joey Bauldree. That day, May 29th, 2002, will always be in a our mind. Joey loved baseball so much and he loved Allentown and the people. When the owner of the Allentown team called me that day, with the news, I though my world had come to an end. It is still good, after all these years, to hear someone mention Joeys name, especially when it is associated with baseball. During the time, when we went to Allentown, to bring Joey home, we were treated by everyone, in Allentown, as if we were family, especially Tom and Sharon Palmer, who were the host family Joey was staying with. Thanks for mentioning Joey in you article and letting us relive some memories.

    Tommy Bauldree

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