Sixty Miles From The Show

NED SKELDON STADIUM NEAR TOLEDO IS AN HOUR FROM DETROIT AND—DREAM ON, YOU MUD HENS—A TIGER UNIFORM
July 22, 1990

THE CLUBHOUSE MAN HOLDS ONE FLASHLIGHT. I HOLD ANOTHER. THE CLUBHOUSE MAN'S FLASHLIGHT SHINES ON THE POEMS, WRITTEN WITH A FELT-TIP PEN ON THE WOODEN WALLS OF A LOCKER NOW BELONGING TO PITCHER CLAY PARKER. MY FLASHLIGHT SHINES ON MY NOTEBOOK. I AM COPYING THE POEMS.

The time is 10 o'clock in the morning. A sudden storm last night knocked out the power in the clubhouse an hour before the Toledo Mud Hens were scheduled to play the Denver Zephyrs. The power has not returned. The Mud Hens' dressing room is as dark as a cave. There are no windows. I could be an archaeologist exploring the writings of some bizarre forgotten culture. Hieroglyphics. I am looking at modern hieroglyphics. Ten o'clock in the morning.

Hey, batter, what's the matter?
Hey, batter, batter, batter, batter...
swing.
Pitcher's off his rocker,
Looks like Betty Crocker.

I have been sent to Toledo to climb inside the soul of minor league baseball. Or something like that. The team's name is the obvious attraction: the Toledo Mud Hens. Is there any better, more evocative name in all of American sport? Where, exactly, is Toledo? What, exactly, is a mud hen? There are Clippers in Columbus, Bisons in Buffalo, 89ers in Oklahoma City, but the Mud Hens of Toledo—a strangely named team in a medium-sized city—best seem to capture the off-the-beaten-path quirkiness of the minor leagues.

What is it like to play baseball in the shadow of the big time and the big money? What are the frustrations? What are the joys? I have flown to Detroit, driven the 60 miles of interstate south to Toledo. The Mud Hens are the Triple A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. How hard is it to make that 60-mile trip in the other direction, to Tiger Stadium? How far away am I? Exactly?

The walls are caving in,
Get out of The Morgue before your mind caves in.
Heed the warning of past Mud Hen ghosts,
Whose own psyches have transformed into burnt toast....

The darkness in the room somehow seems perfect. Most of the poems I cannot use in this magazine because they contain certain foul words. I copy along for a while and—uh-oh—one of the unusable words appears. I move to another poem. I copy fragments, pieces. The printing is different from poem to poem. No one knows who wrote the first one. No one knows who wrote the last. No one knows why this locker was chosen as the place to write the poems.

"Terry Felton once had a locker in this same spot," the clubhouse man says. "Remember Terry Felton? He's the pitcher who went to the Twins and lost 16 straight games. It was a major league record. Well, he was here before the wooden lockers were built. He had a metal locker. One night, he was knocked out of a game and came in here and just destroyed that locker. Attacked it. He took a bat and beat the locker until it was maybe three feet tall. Maybe that was the beginning. Karma."

One poem is entitled "Disappointed Dreams" and written under the pseudonym I.M. Suspect. Another begins, "For whom the bell tolls, it does not toll for me...." The pseudonym here is Ernest Hemingway. The message that unfolds is that former major leaguers should not fret about big salaries, but simply return to a game in which teams always are waiting for washed-up big names instead of no-name minor leaguers. ("Just jump aboard the SS Minnow, commanded by the albino general, and the fountain of youth will be yours.") The writers' frustration is obvious. In a third poem, everyone awaits a call from Detroit manager Sparky Anderson:

Here we are in Toledo, no doubt.
It could be because of Sparky's gout.
We have to stay here and bide our time
Until our bean ripens on the vine.
When we 're ripe at some old age,
Then maybe we'll make a living wage.
So don't fret and be blue,
For someday you'll be in Sparky's Stew.

The clubhouse man has not slept. Because there was no power, he and his assistant had to wash the uniforms and sweatshirts in a local Laundromat. The uniforms are fine now, hanging in the stalls. "You probably think all this is strange, the power going out like this," the clubhouse man says from behind his flashlight. "Uh-uh. Things like this happen all the time. All the time. These are the minor leagues."

I suppose I have come to the right place.

The Mud Hens play at Ned Skeldon Stadium, located in a recreation complex in the suburb of Maumee. There is no megaboard in centerfield to convert the most insignificant plays and statistics into 30-foot wonders, no instant replay to replace memory. The action takes place once, in human dimensions. See it or don't. Lights from a half-dozen Softball fields shine beyond the outfield fences. Sometimes there are more people playing on the softball fields than there are watching baseball.

The ballpark is an architectural mishmash with 10,025 seats. The third base stands were inherited from a racetrack when the park was built in 1965. The stewards' box still hangs from the roof. The first base stands were modernized in a $1.8-million renovation in 1984. Part of the renovation was a cinder-block tower, built on stilts behind home plate. The tower contains the Diamond Club on the second floor (membership awarded to anyone who sells or buys 15 season tickets) and a press box on the third. There is no elevator.

The dominant color in the park is a muddy (Mud Hens?) brown. The seats are silver and red. The obligatory advertisements have been painted on the outfield fences. They run from the Presidential Tuxedos sign at the leftfield line to the Foth-Dorfmeyer Mortuary sign (FAMILY OWNED AND OPERATED SINCE 1892) in right. There are two levels of signs.

"Some of the hitters complain about the second level, about the glare that comes off the signs," says Charlie Bracken, president of the Mud Hens. "Well, do you know what I say? We sell each of those signs for $1,200. That might not sound like a lot of money in the major leagues, but it's a lot of money here. I say that if we could sell enough signs, we'd have a domed stadium. The signs would come right over the top of the field."

The economics of the operation are decidedly small-time. The Tigers pay the team's salaries and the bulk of its travel costs. The Mud Hens—structured as a public, nonprofit operation owned by Lucas County—take care of the rest. A box-seat ticket costs $4; a reserved seat, $3; and general admission, $2.50. Senior citizens and children under 14 get $1 off any ticket. A season ticket for the best box seat in the park costs $175 for 73 home games, a discount of $117. The largest part of the team's revenue comes from concessions. Come to the park and buy. That is the marketing strategy. Bring the kids. Buy. Parking is free. Sometimes even the tickets are free.

"We'll sell the whole park to a company for a night," assistant general manager Jim Rohr says. "The company then can work some giveaway. Whatever it wants. Pepsi, for instance, has bought the whole park for a couple of nights this year. You get coupons. You redeem 'em for tickets. We have a big crowd. We sell a lot at the concession stands."

A revenue boost in recent years has come from mail orders for Mud Hens merchandise. This has been a curious phenomenon, due not to baseball but to the success of actor Jamie Farr, a Toledo native. Farr played Corporal Klinger in the TV show M*A*S*H. Klinger lamented the fact that he was in the Army and stationed in Korea. He tried to obtain a discharge to "return home to Toledo" by wearing a dress.

Mud Hens general manager Gene Cook watched the show, listened to the laments and put together a Mud Hens care package for Farr that included a cap and a 1946 game jersey. He enclosed a letter saying that Farr should "get out of those dresses and into a Mud Hens shirt." Surprise. Farr wore the Mud Hens shirt on the show. He talked about the Mud Hens. He became the most famous Mud Hen of all time.

"It's amazing what that show has done for us," Bracken says. "The orders come in from everywhere. We always can tell when the reruns have begun in a new country because all of a sudden we start to get requests for merchandise from that country. I think it just started to play in Germany this year. We have gotten a lot of letters from Germany."

"Jamie has been very good to us," Cook says in his office, which features assorted pictures of the actor on the walls. "He's come here a number of times. Once he was here for his birthday. We had a ceremony at home plate. This MASH helicopter flew over the centerfield fence and landed right in the outfield. Two guys dressed as medics ran to home plate with a giant birthday cake. It worked out great."

The second-most-famous Mud Hen in recent years has been NBC sports-caster Bob Costas. On a promo for NFL Live, Costas once introduced himself as "Bob Costas, former utility infielder for the Toledo Mud Hens." Again, Cook went to work. Did Costas really play for the Mud Hens? Cook checked all the records available and found no mention of a Bob Costas. He sent Costas a letter saying that perhaps there had been an oversight in the record books and it could be remedied if Costas came to Toledo. Costas came.

"He was here for a week," Rohr says. "He took infield. He took batting practice. He coached first. He really got into it. We said goodbye to him after the game on Friday night because he was doing a Game of the Week on Saturday, but he went, did the game, then was back just to watch our game on Saturday night."

The highlights of a typical Mud Hens season are the two visits of the Famous Chicken (all ticket prices raised $1) and the one exhibition game against the reluctant Tigers. ("We used to be affiliated with the Minnesota Twins," Cook says. "They hated the exhibition game so much, they paid us $10,000 every year nor to have to play the game.") The rest of the schedule is filled with a succession of promotions honoring groups and charities and supermarkets and candy bars. Radio disc jockeys play softball before games. Big time wrestlers appear after games. A baseball game also is included in the price of admission.

All this help is needed because the Mud Hens are struggling. They have been left behind in the general renaissance of minor league baseball. The team is young—10 of the 23 players delivered by the Tigers are spending their first year in Triple A—and the Hens are in last place in their division of the International League. The Toledo economy is an auto-based economy, and that means it is a lousy economy. The team is last in attendance among 26 Triple A teams. The fact that Detroit is so close does not help...and the fact that the stadium is in the suburbs, not downtown, does not help...and a spring filled with rain does not help. All games seem to be played under clouds.

"You know what bothers me?" Cook says. "Weathermen. They're all so negative. They come on the air every half hour and they say, 'Forty percent chance of rain.' Do you know how negative that is? Why couldn't they say, 'Sixty percent chance of good weather'? Isn't that the same statistic? Have you ever heard 'em say it? I've even talked about this at a Meet the Mud Hens booster luncheon. Weathermen. I heard 'em say just this week that 'two funnel clouds have been spotted over Fort Wayne.' Fort Wayne! So what? Those funnel clouds aren't coming here, are they?"

Cook says this as he looks from his office at a hard rain falling at five o'clock on a June afternoon. The rain will pass—the weathermen say—but the damage is irreversible. The purchase of a ticket to a minor league baseball game is usually an impulsive act. Rain does not help the impulse. Even clouds do not help.

"It's the Independent Order of Foresters Night, too," Cook says. "Those poor Foresters. Can't catch a break. Last year it snowed on Foresters night."

The Mud Hens manager is 42-year-old Tom Gamboa. He is the second manager of the young season. The first manager either quit or was fired. No one seems to know exactly what happened, except that the first manager did not like to fly. Sometimes he would have to leave Toledo after the last night game of a home stand and drive the rest of the night and most of the next day to meet the team at its first road stop. It was not a good situation.

I sit on a folding chair in front of Gamboa's desk. His office is the size of a shelter at a bus stop. No, it is half the size of a shelter at a bus stop. He shares it with his coaches, Jeff Jones and Aurelio Rodriguez. Every time the door is opened or closed it hits the legs of my chair. The door is opened and closed often.

"I heard you left here at five o'clock this morning," I say.

"I guess it was five," Gamboa says. "Somewhere in there. I made a vow when I first became a manager that I'd never take a loss home with me, that I'd never leave the ballpark until I got it out of my system. Well, this was the test. I guess I failed. I couldn't leave this one. I went home just because I was hungry. I still haven't slept."

The loss was 8-6 in 16 innings, to the Omaha Royals. The game started at seven o'clock and did not end until 27 minutes after midnight. The hard part to digest was that this was a minor league loss. Under the same circumstances in the major leagues, the Mud Hens probably would have won. Minor league baseball sometimes is played under different rules.

"What's the difference between Sparky Anderson and me?" Gamboa says. "This game was a perfect example. Your job here is to develop players for the big leagues and to win. Sometimes there's a fine line between doing those two things."

The Mud Hens were leading the Royals 6-4 in the ninth inning. Gamboa's young, last-place team was leading a team that had the best record in the American Association. A local kid named Ron Rightnowar had pitched the eighth for the Hens and had done fine. A veteran relief pitcher, Urbano Lugo, was in the bullpen. Another kid, Eric Stone, came in to pitch the ninth. Why? Stone is a 22-year-old prospect.

The rule from Detroit was that Stone was supposed to close all ball games. He was supposed to be brought into games only at the beginning of an inning. He was supposed to be brought in only when the team had a lead. The Tigers said he had the liveliest arm in the minor league system. They had jumped him from Single A Lakeland to Triple A Toledo in a single bound. Even though he had struggled at this new level, he was supposed to pitch.

He pitched. He threw eight consecutive balls. He left. The Royals scored both runners, tied the game, then went on to win it after seven more innings of play.

"You would have left Rightnowar in the game?" I ask.

"Sure," Gamboa says.

"You would have come in with Lugo after that?"

"Sure."

Gamboa says the loss was the worst he has ever had as a manager. His situation is no different from his players' situation. He would like to be noticed. He would like to move along to the brighter lights someday. This is his chance. He was the Tigers' minor league coordinator at the beginning of the season, moving from team to team in the system. Managing was what he had always wanted to do.

"I started late," he says. "My wife never wanted me to manage because it would take me away for so much time. Those eight-hour bus trips and all of that. I was a scout instead. Then I got divorced. I said to myself, 'Well, why don't I manage now? I've managed in the instructional league. I know all the kids in the system, really, from my other jobs. I've worked with 'em all.' "

The good news is that the Eric Stone Rule has been lifted. Two Tiger officials were at the game. They supposedly told Detroit that Stone needs a little time to settle down. Gamboa may pitch him in a few blowouts, let him try to find control of that high-velocity fastball, and give him time to learn without pressure.

"What we did last night developmentalwise was right, but we're playing each and every game now to win," Gamboa says. "No more rules. We're playing to win."

I ride with his optimism as I watch the game that follows. The circumstances are eerily similar to the circumstances of a night earlier. Rightnowar pitches the eighth but is shaky this time. The Mud Hens take a 6-5 lead into the ninth. Gamboa brings in lefthander Jose Ramos to retire the first Royals batter, then replaces him with Lugo, who handles the final two. Afterward, I stand in the manager's crowded office with the two coaches and the entire Toledo press corps. His name is Duane Schooley, and he works for the Toledo Blade.

"That is the way the game is played," Gamboa says happily. He showers quickly this time. There is no need to stay, to leave anything at the park.

A few days later I call Bill Lajoie, general manager of the Detroit Tigers. I ask about the Eric Stone Rule. He denies that it existed. Then he defends it if it did exist. He asks who said there had been such a rule. I tell him that everybody in the Toledo organization said there was such a rule. There is a pause.

"It's sour grapes," Lajoie says. "Just sour grapes after a loss. The kid didn't lose that game. It went 16 innings. There were other chances to win."

Another pause.

"Besides," Lajoie adds, "we spend approximately $600,000 to go into that working agreement. The cost is very high. If we want to have a guy play for 30 days for the Toledo Mud Hens, we feel we have the right."

Minor league baseball. Different baseball.

The players mostly are transients. They stay in Toledo only as long as they have to stay or only as long as they are allowed to stay. Produce or go home. No one on the roster has been here longer than three years. Most have been here for far less. Professional baseball has been played in Toledo since 1882 on a more-or-less regular basis; 14 years are missing, only because various franchises failed. There have been times when players stayed in Toledo into their 30s and played most of their careers here, but those times were long ago. Triple A life is different now.

"You look at the pictures of those old teams," 66-year-old Mud Hens broadcaster Frank Gilhooley Jr. says. "They're much older men. Those players knew how to play the game. I see things happen on the field now that you wouldn't believe. Everyone is so young. People ask me about the players of yesterday against the players of today. I say the player of today is bigger, stronger, faster, but not better. Definitely not better."

Gilhooley has been around baseball his entire life. There is a picture of him in the Mud Hens office as a four-year-old, held in Babe Ruth's arms as his father looks on. In 1919, Frank Gilhooley Sr. was Ruth's roommate with the Boston Red Sox. Frank Jr. remembers walking to the old Toledo ballpark, Swayne Field, on Sunday afternoons to watch doubleheaders with his father. He remembers Casey Stengel as a young Mud Hens manager. Frank Jr.'s first job with the team was as a clubhouse attendant in 1936.

"The best player I ever saw in Triple A was Mickey Mantle, when he was playing for Kansas City," Gilhooley says. "He had everything. He could run like a deer, and he had all that power. Then again, Enos Slaughter wasn't bad, either. Then again, there have been some players who were terrific at this level who never succeeded in the majors. A guy named Roy Cullenbine had the best raw talent, but he loved to chase those dollies and he never slept. He'd be up all night, then tee off at the golf course at 5:30 in the morning on the day of a game. There was another guy, Jerry Witte. Hit 46 homers for the Mud Hens in 1946. Just wore this league out. Never did anything when he went up. There must have been some weakness that didn't count here."

There have been few Mud Hens stars recently. When the team was affiliated with the Twins, they had a tendency to move the best players to the big leagues in a hurry. Kirby Puckett played in Toledo for only a month. Kent Hrbek never played for the Mud Hens, jumping to the majors from A ball. Gary Gaetti never played-in Toledo. The Tigers, who took over the affiliation in 1987, have been struggling. They need as much immediate help as they can get. The last Mud Hens pennant was in 1968.

"On your Triple A team, you always have a number of players you are hoping to develop as long-term prospects, and a number of players you want to have ready immediately in case of injury," Lajoie says on the telephone. "Last year, we had 20 players come up at one time or another [because of] injury. This year, for the most part, we have developmental players in Toledo. Mostly pitchers. You're always looking to develop pitchers."

An example is Kevin Ritz, a 26-year-old right-hander from Iowa. He is a lanky kid, 6'4", 210 pounds, in his fifth year of professional baseball. He had a brief turn with the Tigers a year ago, when he won four, lost six. He is back in Toledo to try to find some consistency. Or another pitch. Or some composure. Or something. Every player is trying to find some missing ingredient that will make him famous.

"I was struggling so bad in Detroit," Ritz says. "It was almost a relief to come back here. I'm just trying to relax, to get back to where I was. In Detroit, I never felt I was part of the team. There were only a few young guys. It was hard. Everything's magnified there. Everything's in the papers, out in the open. The smallest things. You read the papers and you say you're not going to let them bother you, but deep down.... I'm trying to relax. Trying to have some fun with the game."

Ritz lives with Jim and Louise McVickers in the suburb of White-house. He has his own room in a large old house. The McVickerses are older people. Their five children are grown and married, so they called the ball club a few years ago and asked if any players wanted to live in the house. Ritz and outfielder Shawn Hare are this year's tenants. Ritz lived here a year ago, went to the Tigers, then came back to his old room. He pays no rent. The McVickerses are only looking for company.

Ritz has continued to struggle. Even the good nights leave him with questions. Couldn't he have been better? What about that hit in the fourth inning? The fifth? Why did he throw that pitch? The easy game of baseball has become hard after that Detroit visit. Everything has to be analyzed.

"What are you looking for, perfection?" a man asks after Ritz does not seem overly excited by a six-inning, four-hit, two-run performance in a game in which he does not figure in the decision.

The pitcher nods.

"You're in the wrong business," the man says.

Insecurities are everywhere. The hottest prospects, such as outfielder Milt Cuyler and pitcher Steve Searcy, wonder how long they will have to wait for the call to Detroit. The older spare parts, like catcher Phil Ouellette and first baseman Jim Lindeman, wonder whether there will be a call and whether they will be able to do anything when it comes. They have had their chance. Will they get another?

"Nobody wants to play in the minor leagues," says the 28-year-old Ouellette, who has played with the San Francisco Giants. "You just have to do it. You have to play and wait for your opportunity."

"Down here, players are real conscious of what they're doing individually," says Bruce MacPherson, a pitcher for the Mud Hens between 1979 and 1981. "They're always looking at the papers, seeing who was called up and what is happening. The longer you stay here, as the years go by, your self-esteem suffers. You wonder, 'Now what?' Nobody really tells you anything."

MacPherson never was given that call to the big leagues. He never was told why. His seven-year career ended in Triple A. What was he missing? He never knew. He was a kid from California, plunked onto this team in this league in the middle of the country. He had three pitches and he threw them again and again and hoped the balls were hit to places where his teammates were standing. He remembers road trips to the various medium-sized cities, getting up every morning and studying the local bus schedule of, say, Rochester, N.Y. These weren't cities with grand museums or famous tourist attractions. He would ride the buses to the outer limits of the cities, then ride them back, killing time.

His biggest moment, it turns out, came when he was fixed up with an 18-year-old Toledo girl named Darcy Shabnow. They dated a few times. He was traded to Denver. He left baseball. He went to Europe. He lived in California for a while. A decade passed. He called Shabnow every now and then—once or twice a year, nothing special. One day he decided to settle down, to get married. He made a list of women he would like to marry. Shabnow was at the top.

"We weren't going out, really hadn't seen each other much," he says. "I called her up and asked her to marry me. She thought about it, came to visit in California, then I came to visit here. She said she'd marry me if we could live in Toledo. Here I am."

Their house is two blocks from Ned Skeldon Stadium. MacPherson has a landscaping business. He will come home in the early evening, settle down in his living room. Sometimes he will hear faint cheers. He will figure the Hens have scored a run.

This is one of the good nights, the best of the young season. Pepsi has bought all the seats in the ballpark. Parents drive fl carloads of kids to the park and then disappear. Baseball as & baby-sitter. The noise around the field is a high-pitched murmur, a buzz that has nothing to do with the action on the field. Kids run through the aisles. Kids yell. Kids ask for money to buy soda.

I sit for a while with Rich Goss, a young worker at a clinic for the mentally retarded, who is at the game with his wife and two sons. He owns a pair of season tickets with seats next to the visitors' dugout.

"I'm here just about every night the team plays," Goss says. "How can you beat it? The only way I could be closer is to be on one of the teams. I sit in my seat and there isn't a thing between me and the action except the first base coach, and he moves out of the way."

I move from Goss to the press box. There I talk for a while with public-address announcer Chris Metzger. He tells me about the time the tape machine froze before it was supposed to play the national anthem. The players, the umpires, all of the fans already were standing at attention. What to do? He flicked the switch on his microphone. He sang the anthem, a cappella and off-key. Standing ovation.

I talk with Jim Weber, the other radio announcer. He works for the team year-round, one of five full-time employees. He broadcasts, sells ads, sells seats and makes all travel arrangements for 23 ballplayers, one manager, two coaches and himself.

"The travel isn't as bad as you would think," he says. "We fly everywhere except from Syracuse to Rochester. There aren't a lot of direct flights, because the cities aren't that large. We spend a lot of time between flights in Pittsburgh, it seems. Making connections."

I spend some time in the Diamond Club with team president Bracken. He mentions that a baseball costs slightly more than two dollars. Every time a ball is hit into the stands, he says, "There goes two dollars." I spend some time with general manager Cook, who says the most memorable player to come through the Mud Hens was Jesus Vega, an outfielder.

"We were playing in Charleston, West Virginia," Cook says. "Jesus strikes out and is so mad he throws his helmet into the stands. Some fan catches it, then won't give it back. A deal is made so the fan can come to the clubhouse after the game and exchange the helmet for an autographed ball or something. We're leaving town. Jesus comes out with the autographed ball. The fan is waiting with the helmet. Everything is fine, then the fan says something. Jesus decks him. Police come from everywhere. A log is pulled in front of our bus so we can't leave. Finally, they let us go, but only because they still don't have the warrant sworn for Jesus' arrest. They follow us out of town and when we stop at a restaurant, they have the warrant. Jesus hides. They finally find him in the ladies' room, where he is standing on a toilet so they can't see his feet. Jesus goes to jail. Cal Ermer, the manager, also goes to jail. It was a mess."

I ask about the origin of the Mud Hens nickname, and I am told that it comes from long ago, 1896, when the team played at Bay View Park and wild ducks inhabited the nearby marshlands. A mud hen is a ducklike bird with a pointed white beak. I ask if there is anyplace I can see a mud hen. I am told, alas, that the birds stop in the Toledo area only for a short time on their migration. They are in Canada now. There are no mud hens in Toledo, and because the stadium is in Maumee, there also are no Mud Hens in Toledo.

I learn the story of Moses (Fleet) Walker, who might have been the first black major leaguer because in 1884 he played for Toledo in the American Association. That year Toledo was dropped from the league, a move some people said was due to the presence of a black player on the roster. A footnote to history.

I listen to a recording of the official Mud Hens theme song, Oh, Them Hens, by the local group Hotlix. ("Gametime, gang, tell all your friends. Hip hip hooray, here come the Hens!") At the top of the eighth inning, I go to the Mud Hens office for an interview with Muddy the Mud Hen. He is the team mascot. His real name is Steve Sophis, and he is a manager at Hill's department store in Bowling Green. His costume consists of fluorescent yellow tights, yellow Chuck Taylor hightops, a Mud Hens jersey, a plastic pink tail and a head made of carpet with a long white beak hanging in front.

"It's my first year as Muddy," Sophis says. "I was working for Hill's sometimes as Lossie the Loss Prevention Dog. I wore a dog suit. Somebody saw me and offered me this job as the Mud Hen. I love it. I love the way kids react."

He says he is looking forward to the visits of the Famous Chicken because maybe he can pick up some mascot tips. He, too, would like to be in the majors.

"You'd like to do this in the big time?" I ask.

"Oh, yes," Sophis says. "The big leagues would be great. Right now, I'm just an amateur chicken."

An amateur chicken?

The night is coming to a close. The kids are still yelling and running through the aisles and buying at those concessions stands. Muddy goes out to work the ninth inning. An amateur chicken. I suppose I have come to the right place.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER THREE PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERAs in 1883 (opposite, top), ballplayers and mud hens still migrate through Toledo, roosting by lockers (opposite, bottom) and putting on the doggerel (above). THREE PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERThe eye black applied to outfielder Hare is fake, but manager Gamboa (above, right) hopes that the lefty heat applied by pitcher Don Vesling is real. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERAnnouncer Gilhooley, whose dad (on left, in photo) played for the Boston Red Sox, has been in baseball since he was a babe in the Babe's arms. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERBefore standing up for the Mud Hens at first base, Lindeman lies down on the field and helps his daughter get some work at the plate. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERLouise McVickers lit a candle for birthday boy Ritz as teammate and fellow boarder Hare recoiled at the thought of another blowout. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERBefore the stands fill up and the teams take the field, a would-be Mud Hen squares off and prepares to hit one out of the seats. SIX PHOTOS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)