Amid all the political battles over a new baseball stadium, what do regular Smokies fans think? We sit in on a few games to hear some opinions and a few memories.
by John Clendenon
It's a rainy day in KnoxvilleBob Schoemaker's worst nightmare. The Smokies' groundskeeper eyes the sky warily from his seat behind the left field foul line next to the picnic area at Bill Meyer Stadium. What he doesn't need is more wet stuff because the outfield is located on a landfill and "is extremely hard to maintain. There is no drainage" he says, "and it takes a lot more work to get the field ready." For 17 years, Shoemaker has been watching the outfield sink. "It drops about two feet beyond the infield and is very uneven. We get our share of complaints from players."
Sinking perhaps like the minor league team's future in Knoxville.
Sitting next to Shoemaker is Dan Rajkowski, the Smokies' general manager who won the Class AA Southern League's Executive of the Year award in 1997 for basically keeping the franchise afloat here. Three years ago, the body that governs the minors, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, decreed that Bill Meyer Stadium didn't meet minimum standards. Since then, Rajkowski has gotten waivers in order to play on while campaigning among city and county officials for a new field of dreams. He maintains that 45-year-old Bill Meyer is, well, too outdated and not in a renovation mode because of serious infrastructure problems. He says a new stadium needs to be built on a larger site with improved access and parking based on a public/private partnership, with the Smokies as the main tenant. So far, so bad, politically speaking.
Up in the press box, best reached with a degree in mountain climbing, long-time Smokies beat person Nick Gates labors away on his computer for the morning newspaper and dispenses nuggets of information for ignorant observers of the Knoxville scene. Last year, Gates lost one of his two beats when the Cherokeesthe minor league hockey team, not the casino ownersskated off into oblivion (actually Florence, S.C.) when the owners couldn't reach a satisfactory lease agreement with the city at, some say, the equally antiquated Civic Coliseum. For rather obvious reasons, he'd like to see the Smokies stay because he likes baseballhe played at UT in the late '60sand he'd rather write it than edit it.
"These are the worst conditions in AA ball," Gates says, "maybe even in all of baseball." His "conservative estimate" is the franchise, owned by Hickory, N.C., businessman Don Beaver, will lose at least $150,000 in 1998. Beaver purchased the Blue Jays' affiliate in 1994, three years after Rajkowski arrived.
Down on the field, the Smokies and Diamond Jaxxfrom where else, Jackson, Tenn.perform before a mid-week crowd that might equal the number of media present the day before at UT for John Ward's retirement press conference. Of course, the weather has sucked all day so only baseball diehards brave the elements. The Diamond Jaxx are an affiliate of the Cubs, playing in a new $8 million, 6,000-seat stadium. In their first season in the Southern League, and as the only game in town, the Jaxx are averaging 4,467 fans. The Smokies are averaging 1,641 with about 1,300 disguised as empty seats on this night.
Down the third base line, behind the visitors dugout, four zealots with varying backgrounds but a common love for the game settle in their box seats for the night. Hurricane Edna couldn't keep them away. Watching a Smokies game at Bill Meyer is a rite of summer for Judd Shaw, the minister at Farragut Presbyterian; John Thomason, a TVA computer specialist; Michael Croy, a house painter; and Michael Oravetz, a Pizza Hut manager. They are all in their forties except for Oravetz, the baby at 29. They've become good friends through Smokies baseball. Unhappy might be an understatement when describing their feelings about the franchise leaving town.
"I grew up in Memphis, and I remember going and watching the Chicks play," Thomason explains. "I brought that enjoyment with me when I moved here 28 years ago. I think when my two kids are grown, they'll remember coming to a game with me. You know, I go to Chattanooga on business, and it has its own identity. People there are proud of their renovated downtown, the aquarium. Knoxville doesn't seem to have its own identity...besides UT. This is a different communitypeople see themselves as South Knoxville, North Knoxville, whatever. They don't pull together. The power people are pushing for a convention center because it would pull more money in for their businesses. Don't get me wrong, I'm a hard-core Vol fanI go to almost everything over there, but I think we need to keep what we've got. Let's take care of the people who live here instead of worrying about the tourists first."
Shaw, who fondly recalls watching former Smokies first baseman Cecil Fielder knock out a few windows in the old Standard Knitting Mill plant with long home runs over the left field fence in the mid-'80s, has been coming to games for 14 years. He takes great pleasure in the ambiance available at the ballpark. "You know, baseball is one of the only sports not run by the clock; it moves at its own pace. And if the team left, you'd miss baseballbut also seeing each other, your friends. And I don't know, I guess it's just watching the game and seeing young players, some of whom will be in the majors some day. And the players at this level are so accessible and friendly. They'll talk to you, tease with you. It's not unusual to see a player pop up over the dugout and toss you a baseball..."
Croy moved here from Palm Springs five years ago and "immediately went looking for a baseball game." He's a single parent with three boys and says it's just a good place to bring them. One of his sons is the Smokies' mascot. "Minor league baseball fits my price range; I can't afford the ticket prices at UT. We went down to Turner Field in Atlanta and box seats, concessions, parkingit cost me about $200."
Oravetz proudly wears his Pirates' cap to games and admits he had his doubts about minor league baseball when he moved here from Pittsburgh. "As a teenager I went to a lot of Pirate games and I never thought a minor league game could be so much fun. It's a great thing to do in the summer and I make as many games as possible, though it's tough to be here in my business on weekends. It's just the aura, I guess. My wife is from Denmark and she didn't know a thing about baseball. Now she can't wait for spring."
A few feet away in the first row of boxes directly behind third base Marguerite Cheverton watches the game with one of her four sons, Bill, who works construction and is also the technical director for the Knoxville Opera Company. "I have so much fun," she says. "I celebrated Mother's Day here with about 18 of my friends and family. You get to know the players and their families. I used to sit with the catcher's [Julio Mosquera] wife and his little girl last year before they moved on [to Syracuse, the Jays' Class AAA affiliate]."
Bill has a more cynical view. "I enjoy the game, but it's pretty bad Knoxville doesn't support any sporting event that isn't UT."
n a muggy Saturday night, the last day of an El Nino-sponsored brutal month of May, Jim Whaley remembers the good old days as he sits in the back row of the grandstand with his grandson Rowan. The 56-year-old office furniture salesman was a frequent visitor to Bill Meyer Stadium as a youth, although he only makes about four games a season now.
"I love this part of the city," he says. "We used to walk to the games 40-50 years ago, past the old Sears building on Central Avenue in Oakwood. I never had any problems. A neighbor brought me to my first game; I was 6, my grandson's age. It thought it was the greatest thing. My favorite time would be the exhibition games in the '50s when the old Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants would play here. Duke Snider and Willie Mays; I thought it was wonderful. I liked the Dodgers and Snider was my favorite. I got a foul ball he hit, but I was too shy to get his autograph. I sure wish I had those baseball cards now."
Down in the first base box seats behind the Smokies' dugout, H. W. Davis sits in the same spot he has occupied for the better part of three decadesrow 1, seat 5, section C. You want memories, he's got 'em. The retired banker picks out a few favorites.
"I saw Jeff Kent play his last game here in 1991. I always called him 'Cowboy'he called himself a California cowboyso I gave him a maroon cowboy hat," he says. "Cecil Fielder? He surprised me more than anyone. I never thought he'd make it past AAA ball. He surprised us all. Tony LaRussanow he was a real gentleman. And then there's 'The Big Hurt' [Frank Thomas] up in Chicago. He was something else."
He's asked about the current push for a stadium.
"Well, the stadium does have its drawbacks, although crime has never been particularly anything to worry about. Parking can get hairy and there is only one access. Basically, the whole situation sickens me. This is strictly a UT town. I realize it's not considered anything of importance because this is not about the Orange, not about Tennesseeand I'm a Tennessee fan. I've had the same seat at Neyland Stadium for 20-30 years, too. There just ought to be room for other things in this town."