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Far From the Majors

In baseball's low minor leagues, teams like the Pittsfield Mets are luring fans and grooming players

THERE'S an intimacy, a friendliness, and a sense of emotional attachment about attending a minor-league baseball game that Fran Bauer finds unbeatable. ``It's so much fun to see these ballplayers get a [professional] start,'' Mrs. Bauer says of the Pittsfield Mets, who are about to take the field against the visiting Welland (Ontario) Pirates at 5,200-seat Wahconah Park here in western Massachusetts.

Though her family resides in Dalton, Mass., Mrs. Bauer grew up near Shea Stadium in New York and occasionally still visits the big-league park. Watching baseball there, she finds, can be like peering through the wrong end of a spyglass.

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``Last time at Shea we were closer to the airplanes [taking off at neighboring LaGuardia Airport] than the field. We'd have no chance at getting seats like these,'' she says of her regular Wahconah Park location, a half dozen rows behind home plate.

Certainly the price is a bargain at $2.75. And by arriving an hour before every game, Bauer and teenage daughter Tricia are assured of claiming the same seats while 10-year-old son Paul has plenty of time to talk to his heroes, the ever-accommodating junior Mets who toil at the Class A level. (Once there were six layers, D to AAA, but the progression was streamlined in 1963 and now begins with the Rookie Leagues and moves up through single, double, and triple A.)

``These players are all so young,'' Bauer says. ``I wouldn't care if they lost every single game, because it's almost like watching your kids play.'' To follow them as they move up the organizational ladder, she subscribes to the Mets' Inside Pitch, a franchise newsletter, and reads Baseball America, a magazine with extensive minor-league news.

The Bauers may be more zealous than many fans, but they are not alone in their loyalty to life in the baseball bushes.

In a recent cover story on what it calls the ``Minor Miracle,'' Sports Illustrated shows that extensive major-league TV coverage has not killed the minors. In fact, last season's attendance of 23,103,593 was the highest since 1952. There are fewer teams today (190 contrasted to 324), but many of them are better grounded in the fundamentals of marketing and promotion.

Miles Wolff, the owner of two North Carolina clubs, the Burlington Indians and the Durham Bulls of Hollywood-movie fame, says part of the revival can be traced to an infusion of new front-office faces and ideas. ``In the mid-1970s sports administration programs started in the colleges, so in the '80s we had this influx of people trained to operate baseball teams,'' he says.

The ingenuity and energy they bring to the job is often critical in today's entertainment-saturated society. ``You would like to be able to throw open the gates and say `Baseball Tonight,' and not do any gimmicks, ... but as [baseball impressario] Bill Veeck once said, you'd draw about 83 people.''

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Consequently, it's very important to bait the hook with more than just a baseball game in order to attract casual fans and families.

The Pittsfield Mets, with their three summer interns in a seven-person front office, work hard at this task. They invite children onto the field to sweep the bases and the players' shoes, run between-innings bingo and other contests, and offer a full slate of promotions - fireworks on the Fourth of July, appearances by baseball clown Max Patkin and Morgana ``the kissing bandit,'' and come-ons such as a Pay Check Night drawing, in which the team matches the winning fan's latest pay stub.

At the low minor-league level, a dynamic executive can make a world of difference. Mike Casey, co-owner and president of the Pittsfield Mets, is just such a person. He tends to the fans with the kind of care and attention learned during his years owning and operating a couple of nursing homes.

Mr. Casey greets fans as they enter Wahconah Park, lingers in the grandstand throughout the game like a customer-pleasing maitre d', and avails himself of every opportunity to play the gracious host. Before the game, he has the announcer request ``a warm welcome'' for a visiting Boston writer, and later does the same thing when an opera singer enters the ballpark (Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is nearby.)

Late in the game, when a player loses his grip and accidentally sails his bat into the box seats, Casey is met with boos when he retrieves it from a spectator. He knows the player will want his ``game bat'' back but doesn't want to leave the wrong impression and returns a minute later to present the fan with a souvenir bat. The crowd applauds.

Spectators appreciate such gestures, and show their support at the turnstiles. ``We came in last year and broke the Wahconah Park and New York-Penn League attendance record with 96,000 spectators,'' says Casey, an area native who takes special pride in beating ``the reputation that Pittsfield wouldn't support professional baseball.''

The city enjoys a rich minor-league history dating back to 1919 and the Pittsfield Hillies. But after backing farm clubs for the Red Sox, Brewers, and Rangers over the years, enthusiasm ebbed during the mid '80s, when even the division-winning Double A Cubs drew poorly.

Success on the field obviously doesn't guarantee acceptance or popularity in the minors, where, as Miles Wolff says, atmosphere is the main attraction.

``You can't promote the team or the players because you don't know if the team's any good or if you'll keep your players,'' he says. ``You don't have stars in the minors. If you have one he'll be gone. So you want to create this aura [for the fans] that this is the place to be. It's the experience, the game, and the idea of coming out to have a good time.''

The players, of course, hope they are only passing through, which explains the Pittsfield Mets motto: ``Catch the Future.''

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