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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning

"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

The Park By the Airport, I

The Park by the Airport, part 1 of 3: [note: This is part 1 of a three part series about Heritage Park and the Albany-Colonie Yankees, a staple of SmAlbany culture for the better part of a dozen years. Part 1 discusses the actual ballpark - Heritage Park in Colonie. Part 2 discusses the team. Part 3 discusses baseball in Albany since the A-C Yankees left town.]

The answer to yesterday's quiz is that those 93 names are a complete list of major league baseball players who ever put on a uniform for the Albany/Colonie Yankees (or A's). But today, I just wanted to talk about their home field, Heritage Park in Colonie.

Even as a kid, I remember Heritage Park being a strange place to watch a baseball game. For one, the setup of the park seemed silly. The parking lot was mostly behind the outfield, but the entrance was near home plate. The seating was strange too: there were basically four ways to watch the game: most people sat in the large bleachers on the first base line (see picture, right). Other people sat in the "grandstand" directly behind the plate. Almost nobody sat in the best seats down low near the field (see picture, right, below) because the ushers wouldn't let you even though they were constantly empty. And most kids spent their time on the hill on the third base line, hoping to catch a foul ball.

Ultimately, the park was built at the wrong time. Not because Albany didn't need baseball in 1983, it did. There hadn't been a professional team in the capital district since 1960. It was built at the wrong time because baseball was changing in 1983. Much like the SkyDome in Toronto was built as the last "cookie-cutter" cavernous ballpark in 1993, right before Camden Yards in Baltimore ushered in the age of the retro-beautiful park, Heritage was built at the tail end of an era in professional baseball - the era of fandom being dominated by drunk and rowdy men. As Bill James has written, baseball in the late 70's and early 80's was a very different specatator sport:
Between 1977 and 1983 I never went to a major league game at which I was not seated next to a loud, obnoxious drunk. I went to very, very few games in that era at which there was not a fight that broke out somewhere in the vicinity of my seat. I must have gone to 30, 40 game a year for that period...Sometimes there would be a group of rowdy patrons - four or five guys together, maybe eight, maybe twenty, all drinking and screaming obscenities at the players or trying to pick fights with other fans...And then suddenly one spring, the problem was gone. I think it was the spring of 1984. The problem disappeared so quickly and cleanly that its absence was hardly noticed. What happened? Major league baseball teams developed a subtle and diverse program to control alcohol abuse and disruptive behavior. Beer sales were ended in the 7th inning...Bottles were banned from the stadiums...drinking in the parking lot was discouraged...Security has been increased at most parks.
-From the Bill James Baseball Abstract
Now, Bill is talking about major league parks. You can imagine what the atmosphere was like at minor league parks in the late 70's. Lots of drinking. Lots. Heritage was built right at the end of the time period when the fan experience of a baseball game was a male dominated affair often centered around getting drunk with one's friends. And as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, Heritage Park was constructed and built, if not to faciliate that goal, in a way that reflected that reality. It was cheap. It was basic. It had no frills. It was functional. There was no beauty to Heritage park, no family-friendly amenities. That's simply not how baseball parks were constructed prior to the modern boom in retro parks. They were designed for watching baseball, and yes, for drinking. One of my oldest memories from Heritage is going to an A's game there when I wa about 5 years old, and sitting there with my dad while a pile of drunks in the bleachers screamed at the umpries non-stop for the entire game. Nothing about the park sent a "classy" message. It wasn't anyone's fault - it's just how parks were designed in 1983. And unfortunately for Heritage, times changed very quickly after that and Heritage was virtually outdated before the paint had dried.

When the AC-yanks packed up and leave town after the 1994 season, it was partially because new rules had been put in place for Double-AA ballparks, and Heritage was no longer up to standards. More seating was required, better facilities, and more security. In effect, the minor leagues were following the major league trend. (More on this in Part 3 later this week). At some point in the late 1980's, the seating at Heritage was modified slightly. Larger bleachers were put in on the third-base line, and some extra box seats were built down both lines. Years after that, a second concession area was built down the right field line, and a speed pitch carnival-type thing was introduced. But the essence of the park remaiend unchaged - it was a no-frills functional ballpark. Come have a beer.

The good side to a no-frills park was that you had total freedom to roam the grounds and do what you want. For kids, that translated into two things: chasing foul balls and trying to get autographs from the players. Most kids would spend their evening at the park either camped out on the hill on the third base line (see picture at right) or back by the concession area behind home plate. These were the two most-likely spots to easily snag a foul ball. Of couse, only the hill offered a simultaneous view of the game, so most of us were over there. Going after autographs was easier than you might think. The home dugout was easily accessed from the walking path directly in front of the first-base side bleachers, and the home bullpen was separated from the walking path by nothing more than a 3 foot chain-link fence.

The food at Heritage Park was delightfully awful. For some reason, the concession stands never seemed to work smoothly there. There was always a long line or an unexplained wait. And they seemed to know it. They had that endless maze of rope you had to walk through to get to the counter, as if they were expecting a 40 person line. Usually, even if there were only 1,000 at the game, they were right. My father at one point vowed to never stand in that line again, preferring just to go to the ice cream cart, but i was usually able to break him. I was a sucker for the cheese-fries, which virtually always came with way, way too much cheese. Heritage park was also the first place I ever saw a vendor throw peanuts from a distance into the bleachers. Although I've now seen this trick repeated at tens of baseball parks, I've never been as impressed. The guy at Heritage could literally put it on the money throwing behind his back from 15 rows down. Just grand.

A universal truth at Heritage Park was that even if it was August, it would still be cold enough at the top of the bleachers that you'd want to have a blanket with you. I swear, they could not have picked a material to construct those bleachers out of that would have been colder than that grey aluminum or whatever it was that you sat on. And the wind would really start whipping up there, too. It was the kind of thing where first-timers would spend the early innings laughing at people who lugged blankets into the bleachers, and then have that "I'm sorry I ever made fun of you" face on as they froze in the late innings and then finally left early. One sound you'll never forget is the sound of a rocketed foul ball hitting those bleachers, making that errie metallic thud as people simultaneously lunged for it and tried to get out of the way.

I never loved Heritage Park. It wasn't the kind of place I begged my parents to take me, even though i did and still do love baseball. It just wasn't the kind of place you could love. But it was the kind of place that made for a crystal clear set of memories, particularly in retrospect. But more on this tomorrow, when I'll spend the column discussing the actual Albany/Colonie Yankees, including a first-person perspective reivew of "Ron GuidryNight."
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At 12:35 AM , Blogger freestuff2 said:

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At 7:36 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

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