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BANANAS IN THE BUSHES

Sept. 12, 1977
Sept. 12, 1977

Table of Contents
Sept. 12, 1977

Day Of Reckoning
Bananas In The Bushes
Baseball
College Football
  • Rutgers, winner of 18 straight games, was looking forward to the dawn of a new era when it scheduled Penn State. Instead the Scarlet Knights were taught a harsh lesson in expecting too much too soon

Golf
Boxing
Werblin
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Departments

BANANAS IN THE BUSHES

Jim Paul doesn't know how the infield fly rule works but he's sure figured out how to fill up El Paso's ball park using ploys like the sundae doubleheader

Square chin on chest, eyes closed, Jim Paul sat in his paneled office and tried not to hear the clamor of the arriving baseball crowd. He might as well have tried to shut out the sound of a passing freight train. It was 6:53 on a warm, nearly windless evening in El Paso. Minutes remained before the first pitch would be thrown, and not a seat was empty in the brightly painted, 54-year-old park a few hundred yards north of the Rio Grande. Still the turnstiles spun.

This is an article from the Sept. 12, 1977 issue Original Layout

"Doesn't anyone go to the drive-in movies anymore," Paul mumbled. Then he prayed, "Please, Lord, no more people. Why can't You give me just a nice little crowd of 3,000 like they're having in San Francisco and Houston and Atlanta. Why do You do this to me?"

With a sigh, Paul arose from behind his tidy desk. He is young—34 next month—but he has just completed his fourth year as general manager (and his third as sole owner) of the El Paso Diablos of the Double A Texas League.

Behind Paul is an immense blackboard on which each of the club's 67 home dates is listed. Next to each date is a space to write in a promotion. Virtually none of the spaces is empty. On the opposite wall another blackboard, only slightly smaller, carries two more lists: the buyers of 53 ads on the outfield fence (at $750 per) and the purchasers of the 84 advertising spots in the Diablos program. Here there are no blanks.

There is no space for a blackboard on the wall opposite the door. It is covered by the collection of awards Paul has won since "returning" to baseball in 1974. He had rarely gone near the game, even as a spectator, since 1954, when he was cut from a Little League roster. He always knew that baseball's Hall of Fame was at Cooperstown but until recently he thought Cooperstown was in Michigan. "He still thinks all Chinese home runs are hit in some league in Peking," says Bob Rodgers, the manager this year of the Diablos, a California Angel farm club.

Proving that you do not have to understand the infield-fly rule to put people in the ball park, Paul has attracted almost 700,000 fans to Dudley Field since opening day 1974, and he has been named the Texas League's Executive of the Year the last three seasons. The league is 89 years old; no one else has been named its best executive three consecutive years.

After his first season at El Paso, The Sporting News named Paul the Class Double A Executive of the Year. The paper gave him a gold watch. He won the same award again in 1975, thereby establishing another first for consecutiveness. Although finishing 18½ games out of first place, the Diablos had drawn 162,395 fans, more than the attendance in 16 of the 24 Triple A cities in the United States. "Forget the watch, I've already got one," Paul told The Sporting News. "Just give me a wall plaque."

Last year the Diablos came in third and El Paso's attendance jumped to 181,747; only six minor league teams, all in Triple A, did better. Going for diversification, The Sporting News gave its Double A award to someone else. Paul settled for the MacPhail Trophy, which is given to the outstanding organization in all minor league baseball.

"Can't blame The Sporting News," Paul says. "Baseball can be boring enough without the same guy getting the same award all of the time."

The Sporting News is now facing the same problem again. After the season it must name its various Executives of the Year for 1977. Because the first-place Diablos drew 217,345 fans this year—a total exceeded by only four Triple A clubs—Paul again deserves an award. But which one?

Ignoring the blackboards and his plaques, Paul ranted on about the throng still shuffling through the turnstiles. "Where am I going to put all these people?" he said. "Tell them to go away. Tell them there is a great movie playing someplace." Again he resorted to prayer. "Please, God, give me a break."

The final attendance was 9,303. Dudley Field has 7,000 seats. Paul roped off the foul lines beyond first and third base for standing room. Another 500 fans were turned away at the gate. The same night there were 3,153 spectators at a game in San Francisco, 3,766 at Minnesota and 2,724 at Cleveland.

They have played Texas League baseball in El Paso every season but one since 1962, when the attendance was 148,649. From '62 on, the crowds fell steadily until 1970, when only 37,337 diehards came out. Professional baseball in the city was laid to rest.

But in 1972 the Dodgers elevated their farm at Albuquerque from the Texas League to the Triple A Pacific Coast League. Not wanting to desert the Texas League completely, the Dodgers elected to give El Paso another chance. The team won the league title and drew 108,158, but nearly half of the spectators were freebies. Claiming that no one could draw in El Paso, the Dodgers moved their farm to Waterbury, Conn.

In 1973, operating as a locally owned affiliate of the Angels, El Paso drew 63,081. Another death knell was heard. Just before the funeral, Paul arrived. Minor league baseball has not been the same since.

"Baseball people call El Paso Banana City," says Paul. "I'm the rash hot dog promoter, and they call me bush. They are starving to death, and I'm bush. Pure baseball in the minors puts more people to sleep than Seconal. Nobody falls asleep in my ball park. We've got something going every minute. It may be bush, but our fans participate as much as the players."

As an example, Paul points to doubleheaders, El Paso-style. "Two games of baseball in one day is the most boring thing in the world," he says. "Unless you are a total baseball fanatic, and then two games isn't enough. In doubleheaders you have a 25-minute lull between games. What do the people do? Well, in a lot of places the people get up and go home. Why spend 25 minutes more in total boredom? After all, how many times can you go to the bathroom or the concession stand?

"Here we give them a milking contest or a softball game or another world-record banana split. Bush? Perhaps. But our banana splits have become a tradition here. The people love to come out to see one built and to see 200 kids eat it in four minutes or less."

The banana split, according to Paul's calculations, is a world-record 120' long—but it is only four inches wide. His crew puts one together in 12 minutes using six huge bunches of bananas, three flavors of ice cream, two syrups, whipped cream and cherries. Paul takes 200 children into the outfield, gives each of them a plastic spoon, drops a red flag and runs for his life to avoid being trampled as the kids dash for the sundae set up in the infield. The banana split is eaten in about the same amount of time it takes to issue an intentional walk.

The banana split is only one indication of the difference between Paul and the other men who are trying, usually without profit, to make it in the minor leagues. Like his colleagues, Paul stages all the now-traditional giveaway nights: cap, wristband, ball, helmet, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And like a lot of other promoters, he has come up with a few freebies of his own. There have been Kazoo Nights, Broken Bat Nights (at which Paul hands out the season's accumulation of busted bats, usually 300 to 400 of them) and even a Martinez Appreciation Night.

For that one, Paul went through the El Paso phone book and determined that the most popular Spanish surname in that heavily Hispanic city was Martinez. All Martinezes who wanted to attend the game would get in free, but only 818 people showed up. Among the spectators were less than 20% of El Paso's Martinezes. "It was a real bomb," says Paul. "We made two big mistakes. First, we counted wrong. We later found out there are more Lopezes around here. Second, we didn't realize that the Martinezes we've got in El Paso don't like baseball."

But such attractions are mundane to Paul. What he enjoys—and what sets him apart as a minor league executive—is the festive air, the sense of fan participation he has brought to baseball in El Paso. This is perhaps best exemplified by the three flags that fly above the towering green wall in center field at Dudley Field. On the right is the Stars and Stripes; on the left is the Lone Star. The pole in the center is for the official Diablo cheerleading banners, which are sent fluttering aloft at the slightest provocation. There is a green one for rallies, a red one for stopping the other guys and a white one for saying goodby to an opposing pitcher who gets yanked.

"I guess what we do is shock people into participating, into cheering, chanting, booing, into enjoying themselves," says Paul. "Like when we decide it's rally time, which is any time we get somebody on with less than two outs. Up goes that green flag—the rally is official. We tell everybody to stand and cheer. I mean everybody.

"Now there're three or four thousand fans standing and yelling. Then we start singling out the people who aren't standing and yelling. And we get them up. Like there's some poor guy who's had a tough day at the office, the wife and kids have made him bring them to the park, and he's just sitting there drinking his beer and thinking, 'God, please leave me alone. Just let me drink my beer and forget my troubles.'

"Well, we don't leave that guy alone. Our P.A. man yells, 'Hey, folks, there's a guy in Box 7 who isn't standing. He don't believe we can win.'

"Now everybody is looking at the guy and yelling at him. And he's thinking, 'Lord, I didn't have a tough enough day that I got to come out here and take this abuse?' But he stands.

"I remember one game when we got a rally going, and we were really picking on one guy. We had just got this poor fan to stand up, when our John Balaz came to the plate. 'Hey,' we yelled, 'that guy in Box 5 is standing, but he's not clapping for John Balaz.' So the poor guy started clapping, and Balaz got a hit. We got another. And another. The game was tied. The fans were going nuts. The other team brought in a relief pitcher, and he got shelled, and the guy who had been just sitting there quiet was really into the game now, which was the whole reason we singled him out."

Paul's voice rises with excitement. "I mean he was out there yelling and clapping. He was involved. Everybody was involved. We had Jerry Remy [now the Angels' second baseman] on base, and up came Ron Jackson [now a utility in-fielder for California]. Jackson ripped one off the wall, and we won. It wasn't just another game. You'd have thought it was the World Series. When Jackson got his hit our whole team ran out and hugged him. Our fans went bananas. And the poor guy who came to the park because he had to was hugging his kids and his wife, and they were hugging him."

Another Paul fan-participation gimmick is the white-handkerchief, Bye-Bye-Baby send-off Diablo fans give a rival pitcher who has been shelled.

"When people arrive at the park, we hand them white Kleenex," says Paul. "It's for Bye-Bye-Baby. When we've got the other team's pitcher in trouble, when the manager goes to the mound, our P.A. guy says, 'You know what that means, mama. It's gonna be Bye-Bye-Baby time. Get set.' And all the fans will whip out those Kleenex.

"When the pitcher we knocked out starts to leave the mound, we flip on a tape of this little guitar intro to Janis Joplin's Bye, Bye, Baby, and everybody stands up waving their Kleenex and singing, 'So long, too bad you had to go, boom, bye bye, baby, bye bye.' I mean, they wave him right into the dugout.

"Usually the pitchers don't pay much attention; they just walk off feeling pretty bad. About three a year will stop and give the fans the salute, the bird. I don't like that because it's not family fun, and that's our whole theory. But they shoot the bird, and that just gets the fans' adrenaline pumping that much more. And it really hasn't affected the game at all. What the heck, the pitcher is already gone. I've had a lot of them thank me. They say, 'Next time I'll really be bearing down. They're not going to Bye-Bye-Baby me!' And a lot of clubs like the Midland Cubs bring towels from the dressing room, and when one of our pitchers gets knocked out they bring out the towels and wave them. The fans go nuts—but they love it. Love it!

"Then there are the class guys, like that kid who pitches for Cleveland now, Eckhardt or Eckersley, and one named Grossman. Both those guys tipped their hats. The Count of Montefusco tipped his hat once. The fans loved that, too. They even applauded."

The creator of all this bedlam grew up in El Paso wanting to be a hockey player. Later he yearned to be a bullfighter. "I couldn't find any ice and I couldn't afford a sword, so I finally settled for basketball," Paul says. "I went to UTEP on an athletic scholarship. I was so bad that when I flunked out after my first semester nobody even noticed. I went right on sitting on the bench."

Paul went into the Army for a couple of years, and after his discharge he returned to school, made the dean's list three of five semesters and graduated. Then he settled in as a sports information man, first at Kent State, later at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. In 1974 he became a part owner and the general manager of the El Paso baseball team.

"Things weren't going too well for us at Southwestern Louisiana," Paul says. "We had just got busted for 9 million basketball recruiting violations, and 2 million of them weren't true. I figured, what the heck, I'll stay here and do this crummy job as general manager of a baseball team that's a loser. If it doesn't go, everybody will say, we told you so, you've always been a loser. Besides, what did I know about baseball?

"I had quit the game when I was 12, right after some kid threw four pitches at me in a tryout and they told me to go home. Two pitches were wild, one I fouled off and one was a strike. My only other experience was a few years ago when someone asked me to coach a Little League team. I got a book called How to Play Baseball. I read it, but I didn't understand it. We went all season with the umpires taking advantage of us, and I didn't know enough to protest. The next year the kids got together in self-protection and asked me to take a walk."

Paul borrowed $1,200 and used it to buy a slice of the Diablos' $28,000 indebtedness. Under his promotional wizardry, the team, which finished first in the Western division, drew 112,000 in 1974—and lost $22,000. Most men would have wept. Or fled, as the Dodgers had. Undaunted, Paul borrowed another $1,000, and before the start of the 1975 season, he became the sole owner of the club, which now had a $54,000 debt spread among 72 creditors.

"We lost money in '74," Paul says, "but $22,000 was not much of a price to turn a whole program around, to buy a new image, and God knows we needed one. Nobody knew a Diablo from a taco. Now they did. The next year, my first as full owner, we made $12,000."

Because of his success in his first season, Paul had to go to baseball's 1974 winter meetings in New Orleans, where he picked up his awards. It was a trip he was reluctant to make.

"As the money came in that season, we used it to pay off all the old creditors," he says. "There wasn't anything left to pay new creditors. How do you think I felt, standing there getting those awards and thinking, 'Oh, I want to thank Hillerich and Bradsby's whom I still owe $1,000. And Rawlings, because I owe you guys $2,000.' I could hear the people saying, 'Well, there's big Jim Paul. He just got two Executive of the Year awards for being the most brilliant thing going, and that s.o.b. owes me three grand.' Most of the time I stayed in my hotel room."

That winter Paul went home, bought the ball club and contacted every one of his 72 creditors. "I was tired of repeating promises of payment that had not been kept," he says. "Now it was just me, and I told them they'd get paid if it took the rest of my life. And they have been paid, every cent. I just figured if I was going to take all the heat I might as well own the kitchen. Me and the bank. Still, I don't tell anybody I own the club. When I am introduced, it's as general manager, period. As far as I'm concerned, I'm just a guy working for a tough absentee owner. If I don't work hard, he's going to fire me. I'm always looking over my shoulder, even if it's at me."

During the baseball season Paul's day begins at 5 a.m. By 6:30 he has called 12 radio and TV stations, win, lose or rainout. "He's as dependable as day following night," says Tee Casper of KHEY. "He asked me what time was most convenient for him to call. I told him, and you can set your watch by the phone ringing." By 9, Paul is at his office, where he is already planning the next season's promotions. On game nights he seldom leaves the park before midnight.

Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, Paul has yet to receive an offer to move his magic up to the majors. "I'm not sure I want to leave, but I'm amazed that no one has asked," he says, rubbing his hands at the thought of the challenge. "Give me Houston; I want Houston. I could break all kinds of attendance records there. In two years you wouldn't find an empty seat.

"But if I took my show into Boston or New York or Chicago you'd see a public hanging. The fans would string me up. I wouldn't go to those cities. Baseball survives in places like that because it is baseball. That's all they need. But out there, baby, there are a lot of other places that need Jim Paul."

PHOTOCARL IWASAKIYouthful Diablo fans almost trample Paul every time he dishes out one of his 120' x 4" banana splits.PHOTOCARL IWASAKI