The story of a summer of crazy minor league shenanigans including Bernie Sanders and an unforgettable mix of national anthems.
It was the straightforward work that no one wanted.
A friend of mine refused it without batting an eyelid. In doing so, he joined a growing list. Baseball, even minor league baseball in 1987, was nothing without rumors, gossip and hearsay – the word was, Mike Agganis, the owner of the Vermont reds from the Eastern League, called everyone in the league except me to see if they were interested in leading his team.
There were good reasons no one wanted the job. It was an open secret that the franchise would move from Burlington, Vermont to Canton, Ohio at the end of the following season. But the biggest factor in the refusals was that the owner of the Vermont Reds had a reputation for being difficult with employees.
Who in their right mind would take a job like this? Me, I guess. I turned 24 that month, and the opportunity to lead a minor league team at that age was like Orson Wells doing Citizen Kane at roughly the same stage of life. It would be a monumental achievement and would look fantastic on my CV. Or so I thought.
So I took the bull by the horns and knocked Mike over, calling him and telling him that I was interested in the job that no one wanted. Next thing I know, I’m going to Vermont for an interview. The team played a playoff game the day I interviewed. I don’t remember anything from the interview, but I do remember standing in a grassy parking lot, taking money from the drivers and telling them where to park. I should have known by then that 1988 was shaping up to be different.
The deal I made was that I would run the day to day operations of the team for the 1988 season. In return, I would receive $ 750 per month. I was already making $ 750 a month for less responsibility working for a minor league baseball team in Pennsylvania. When I mentioned this, I was then offered a car allowance of $ 100 per month as a sweetener, as if the extra $ 100 per month for wear and tear on my car was equivalent to winning the lottery. No health care or pension plan came with the job. I know what you are thinking, but if you worked in minor league baseball in the 1980s, you understood that low pay and long hours were part of the job. Stockholm syndrome, baseball style.
As a kicker I was told the following year, 1989, when the team moved to Canton to what was to be a brand new and shiny stadium, they would need someone with more experience than me to lead it, and I be demoted.
And even with this disastrous setup, the season continued to find a way to provide more low light.
Stump Merrill, then manager of the Albany-Colony Yankees and later the New York Yankees, chewed me well, not once, but twice, for the cleanliness or lack of cleanliness in the visiting clubhouse. Nothing like an old school baseball kick. I don’t remember if the bore was earned, but at the time it didn’t matter. True or False, you had no choice but to take it.
We had changed affiliations during the offseason from the Cincinnati Reds to the Seattle Mariners, which meant we had to change our team name. The boring choice would have been to become the Vermont Mariners. Most minor league teams chose more exotic names that had nothing to do with the parent club. Being the young go-getter that I was, I took the opportunity to organize a team name contest in collaboration with the daily newspaper to do the publicity I badly needed. After receiving creative responses from the audience, just before the contest deadline, the owner told me we were going to be the Vermont Mariners. We certainly didn’t need a competition to find this one.
I guess weird contests were our thing this season. That year, a major US airline, coincidentally, launched non-stop flight service from Burlington, Vt., To Seattle. We took this opportunity to convince them to give us two free plane tickets to Seattle as part of the promotion to a lucky Vermont Mariners fan whose game ticket was drawn on promotion day. As a bonus, we also negotiated two additional tickets, so we could accompany the winner to Seattle. From there we were able to arrange free tickets to a Seattle Mariners game, so our promotional night was shaping up to be something special. The only problem was that the owner of the winning ticket had no interest in a free trip to Seattle and refused to go. In the end, I used my free trip anyway, enjoying the Seattle and the Mariners game and not chaperoning exactly anyone.
Then there was the schedule debacle which, over thirty years later, still wakes me up with a cold sweat. Thanks to the bad proof sent to the printer, we got a typo in our pocket diaries, one that showed the team on a day they actually had a game. I realized the mistake when the visiting team called me shortly before the game to ask where our team was. Imagine his surprise when I called the team principal, Rich Morales, and asked him if he could put together a professional baseball team in the time it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn. In the end, we ended up forfeiting that day. Not our finest hour.
To call us Operation Mickey Mouse would be an insult to mice everywhere. Oh sure, we had some highlights. The squad was pretty good and the roster was full of future big leaguers including Ken Griffey, Jr. and Omar Vizquel. We ended up losing in the Eastern League Championships to the Stump Merrill Yankees. I’m sure Stump was very happy to beat the clowns who couldn’t even keep the visitor’s locker room clean.
Enter the Bernie Sanders
I was desperate for people to come to our games. Try selling tickets to late-night games in April and May in freezing cold Vermont to a fan base who knew the team already had a foot out. One creative promotion night that I had that didn’t fail was Hockey Puck Night, where we winked at the cold conditions and gave away hockey pucks with the logo of the team. team to each fan present.
I couldn’t wait to coax people into the stadium that I invited the mayor of Burlington to throw the first pitch before a game. The mayor of Burlington was one Bernie Sanders. If five people showed up to see the mayor throw the first pitch, or if the newspaper took a picture of him at the game, or even if Bernie hung around a few minutes after the first pitch and bought a hot dog at the dealership stand, that would be a victory for us.
After issuing an invitation for the first pitch, Bernie quickly agreed. The schedule for our pre-game ceremony was simple. First we played the national anthem, then Bernie had to walk up to the pitcher’s mound and pitch his pitch. I stood with Bernie on the third base line, playing host and having a friendly chat with him. When it was time for his pitch, I gave him the signal to head for the mound. I had never met Bernie until right before the first pitch, and what struck me was how the hell a guy with such a thick accent from Brooklyn ended up as mayor of a little girl. city of Vermont?
The national anthem was played from the press gallery, which was stripped down and old. We played our games at Centennial Field, which we rented from the University of Vermont and which was built in 1904.
In 1988, there was no such technology as Click Effects, which allows you to play songs, sounds and videos on your stadium sound system or video card with the click of a button on a computer. We in Vermont were old school. We didn’t have a video card and the sound was amplified through a speaker from a tape. Our music catalog wasn’t really big either; including the “Star-Spangled Banner”, we probably had a dozen songs to choose from.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. Please stand up for the interpretation of our national anthem.
Bernie and I were already on our feet, but we were standing a little straighter as the fans stood up and the players came out of the dugouts and took off their caps.
A momentary pause ensued as the recording began. Only, one way or another, it was not the “star-spangled banner”. Instead, it was one of our twelve dirty songs that were part of our music library, this one being Johnny Rivers’ classic 1966 hit song, “Secret Agent Man.”
“Secret Agent Man”, for the unenlightened, is a catchy tune that parodies a James Bond theme song; Plus, he does a shrewd job of making “danger” and “stranger” rhyme. Thanks to the archaic equipment we had, “Secret Agent Man” has been playing for far too long as our fans fidgeted nervously as they wondered what was going on.
After what seemed like an eternity, a loud click of the shutting down tape was heard, followed by the sound of a tape rewinding. Eventually, the “starry banner” was played.
Those with a bird’s eye view from the press box said the amazing thing was the shocked look on Bernie’s face as it happened. Bernie, to his credit after the end of his first pitch, never mentioned the incident to me and then walked away into the night, slightly dazed after meeting me. Him and me, destined never to cross paths again.
Gamers, being gamers, however, let’s never forget the mess. After the incident, when we played “Secret Agent Man” between innings for the rest of the season, our players stopped what they were doing to make sure they were on their feet and take off their caps.
In the footnote, I contacted the Bernie Sanders camp to see if Bernie had anything to add to this memory. He wisely declined to comment.