And as the Macon Braves' final season in this sweltering city winds down, the phrase starts to sound like a warning. As in, Remember, damn it! Remember that smell of cut grass, that slap of the fastball into the catcher's mitt, that hot dog's taste, that seat creaking beneath your weight, that fly ball to deep center field. Remember it, folks, 'cuz it's not long for Macon. But then, right before the first pitch, a voice comes crackling through the speakers. It's -- no kidding -- a tape of James Earl Jones' iconic scene from Field of Dreams:
"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and could be again."
If "remember the magic" is the knife in the heart of Macon fans, then Jones' words are the casual but fatal twist of the blade. Bad enough that Macon is losing its team because the city fathers weren't quick enough to fix up the stadium. Now, fans are reminded before each home game of what they're losing, in case it wasn't woefully obvious already. The net effect is somewhat akin to rubbing a dog's nose in another dog's excrement.
Certainly, the fans suspect who's to blame.
Mitch Clarke: "If the city had just put up $100,000 every year [toward repairs], we wouldn't have this problem."
Joyce Rowland: "They had plenty of chances to fix the field up. I wasn't surprised."
Tim Kurtz: "Macon suffers from a crisis of leadership. There is none."
Perhaps not, but it likely doesn't even matter. Small cities, captivated by the idea of baseball, of the innocence of America's pastime, build gleaming new ballparks and toss the keys to any team that will grab them. The team owners, only too happy to oblige, move in and rake in the bucks from ticket sales, concession sales, even parking. Cities like Macon, meanwhile, with its rich baseball history but empty public coffers, can do little but sweep up the dust the team has left in its wake.
"When you're a minor-league franchise, since you're not limited to being in one of the major media markets, you can play musical cities 'til the cows come home," says Neil deMause, who wrote Field of Schemes, a title that's pretty self-explanatory.
Since 1990, 73 minor-league teams (out of fewer than 200 nationwide) have moved to a new city. And in that time, 87 new minor-league ballparks have sprung up. It's hardly a coincidence that those numbers are so close. Next year, three teams will move. Two of those are Georgia teams packing up. The Macon Braves will move to Rome, where county taxpayers there agreed to build the team a $15 million stadium. And Columbus is losing its Class A club to the Cleveland, Ohio, suburb of Eastlake, which is spending about $17 million to build a new home for the RedStixx.
Up in the big leagues, the conflicting greed of the players and the owners may lead to yet another baseball strike, but down here in the minors, the owners' mastery of their domain is absolute.
Near the steps leading up to the grandstand seats behind home plate at Luther Williams is a plaque honoring Harley Bowers. Bowers is a World War II veteran, a retired sports editor of The Macon Telegraph, and, according to the plaque, the man who brought baseball back to Macon. "Lee Robinson came in as mayor in 1989," Bowers recalls. "He called me and said, 'Would you be responsible for getting the baseball situation straightened out?' "
That Macon leaders would have wanted to revive professional baseball is no surprise, given its storied history there. Windy Blanks, whose great-grandfather is former Mayor Luther Williams, remembers going to the field in the early 1960s, watching a young Pete Rose play for the Macon Peaches. Vince Coleman, Tony Perez and John Smiley also put in their dues at the minor-league level in Macon. Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson's minor-league tours took them through Luther Williams Field.
But by 1989, the 60-year-old field was showing its age. The last team had left, for good. Bowers agreed to sign on for the lobbying effort, but he had his conditions.
"I said, 'OK, if you do some work on the baseball park.' And they put in about $800,000 -- new dugouts, new locker rooms."
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