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Take me out to the Coast League.

From bandbox grandstands, the fields spread lush and green to outfield fences covered with ads for local businesses and beers. Home runs don't soar into two or three concrete tiers, but into panoramas: geese flying over green hills with spruce and fir at Vancouver, monsoon storms building over the Sandia Mountains at Albuquerque, and, at Edmonton, the domed Alberta capitol glowing beyond right field as the north country night arrives late in the game.

In the Pacific Coast League, the game blends into the city, the land, and the sky. It's beautiful, like a colorized version of some old baseball movie--the game of memory, before drug scandals, $30.5-million contracts, and George Steinbrenner.

Now two months into its 90th season, the PCL is perhaps the greatest of all the minor leagues. Seven Western major-league teams, as well as the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Minnesota Twins, field their top minor-league clubs in the PCL, a Triple A organization one step below the majors. Current superstars like Seattle's Ken Griffey, Jr., Los Angeles's Orel Hershiser, and Oakland's Jose Canseco all played in the league, and nearly 30 Hall of Famers have played or managed here.

PCL ball has a different character, filled with the drama of careers moving toward still-unwritten endings, with no promises of big-league rewards. Some players earn $2,000 a month, half of what some big-league stars average per inning. But fastballs still pop with a passion that radar guns can't measure.

"The guys in the minors know that they're going to have to go out and get a construction job at the end of the season," says Jeff Ronstadt, a fan who pretty much grew up at Tucson's Hi Corbett Field. "They're still working on the dream."

But the PCL isn't just about young phenoms. It's also about recapturing lost glory. Some players succeed. But any Dodgers fan who watched Fernando Valenzuela struggle with Edmonton last year could tell you that Yogi Berra, baseball's walking I-Ching, was only partly right when he said, "It ain't over till it's over." Sometimes it's just over.

These days, the PCL isn't very coastal, but at least it's Western, unlike in the 1960s when teams from Little Rock and Indianapolis joined the league. And a distinctly regional feeling survives. In Tacoma, a public address announcer thanks a pulp mill for donating paper for programs; Las Vegas has a reclining showgirl painted on an outfield fence. Not only do stadiums mirror their towns, but they sometimes reflect baseball's past. Tacoma's Cheney Stadium has some lights and seats from San Francisco's long-gone Seals Stadium. Vancouver's infield was imported from an old stadium where Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig once played barnstorming games.

Portland is the only current league city that fielded a team in the PCL's inaugural season, 1903. The West's mild weather allowed long seasons, sometimes 225-game campaigns with improbable stats like pitcher Doc Newton of the Los Angeles Angels winning 39 games in 1904 and Portland's Isaac Butler losing 31 games in 1903--and again in 1904.

In Portland, PCL history sits behind the visitor's dugout where Alice Spackman has been kibitzing with players since 1944. When she became a fan, the team played in Lucky Beaver Stadium--Vaughn Street Park to the locals. "It was a good little ballpark, but a firetrap," she says. "The stands were all wood, so cigarette butts would start fires. There were buckets of sand at the end of each aisle, but we would just pour some beer to put them out."

Spackman now knows someone with just about every major-league team, and prime seats await her whenever she visits big-league cities. One of her 125 signed baseballs came from then Vancouver pitching coach Moe Drabowsky, who inscribed it, "My one and only day being a manager." It's a relic from the night he stepped in after the manager quit.

Drabowsky, one of many former stars who have coached in the PCL, is best known for two things (three if you include his status as the greatest player ever to come out of Ozanna, Poland). In maybe the finest World Series relief appearance, Drabowsky in 1966 pitched six shutout innings for the Baltimore Orioles against the Dodgers, striking out 11. He is also remembered for using a bull pen phone at Anaheim Stadium to order in Chinese food. From Hong Kong.

His old managers might shake their heads in disbelief that flaky Moe of all people has become a mentor for a younger generation of ballplayers. But watching him one evening last August as he swung an invisible bat over the bull pen plate, helping a 28-year-old Canadians pitcher named Mike Dunne fight his way back into the big leagues after arm trouble and his father's illness, Moe looked just right--not in an old-timers game, not selling his autograph at a baseball card show, but in the PCL.

Through World War II, most PCL players, including two of the game's biggest stars, came from the West. San Diego native Ted Williams struck out in his first professional at bat as a 17-year-old with the original San Diego Padres. (He made up for it with a home run in his last major-league at bat, at age 42.) In the PCL, 61 doesn't refer to Roger Maris's major-league home run record, but to the hitting streak that a 19-year-old local named Joe DiMaggio had as a San Francisco Seal in 1933.

Alice Spackman missed DiMaggio and Williams by a decade. But hers has still been the classic PCL experience: she's seen players like Lou Piniella rise from Triple A ball to major-league stardom to managing a world champion. "Sometimes I call Lou up and say, 'Hey! This is Alice! Your mother.'"

Postwar, when the West grew and the majors claimed the big markets where the PCL had prospered--San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle--the league moved on to smaller cities away from the coast. Now those PCL cities have grown, too. Some ballparks have sky boxes. And Tacoma announcer Bob Robertson, who through last year was doing radio re-creations of away games, will finally travel with the team to broadcast live this year.

Things change. But the world of small towns, simpler times, and the easily understood universe that baseball once represented all survive in the PCL: Alice knows Moe, who coached Mike Dunne, who remembers Alice from Portland. Even in uniform, Mike is still a fan who collects baseball cards and answers the baseball trivia questions broadcast between innings. Mention Mike to 27-year-old Jeff Ronstadt, a Tucson Toros and Pittsburgh Pirates fan, and Ronstadt reels off details about the pitcher's promising early years with the Pirates.

This year Alice is back in her seat, Moe has rejoined the Baltimore Orioles organization, and Mike won his first start with Vancouver. And the ballpark is still home for Ronstadt.

"I've been with the Toros, and the Toros have been with me and my family, as long as I can remember," Ronstadt says. "It's the same beer, the same smells, and the same bleachers. Last year everything came together. I met a girl who works in the front office, I fell in love with her at the ballpark, the Toros won the pennant, and now we're getting married."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; Pacific Coast League, minor baseball league
Author:Jaffe, Matthew
Publication:Sunset
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Words:1208
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