Overplayed 

"The Squirrels' owners are insulting the intelligence and trying the patience of the people here, and as a baseball fan and a Richmonder, I don't appreciate it."

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE

This time last year, I was as excited as anybody that baseball had returned to The Diamond — anybody, that is, whose love of the game is not such that they should be institutionalized. Some people put me in that category, so I'm touchy on the subject.

But from my exposure to the Flying Squirrels last year, I'm not sure I'll be returning to the ballpark anytime soon. I think the team's owners are insulting the intelligence and trying the patience of the people here, and as a baseball fan and a Richmonder, I don't appreciate it.

The owners selected the name Flying Squirrels, you will recall, because they said it signaled their belief that baseball should be fun — or, as they spell it, funn. Where we differ is not about fun's spelling but its definition.

To these owners, as with many of their counterparts throughout the minor leagues, fun seems to consist of subjecting fans to a wearisome succession of gooney stunts, giveaways and trivia contests, accompanied by ear-piercing music — and lots more fireworks. (In fact, 21 games this year will end in fireworks.)

Just getting to your seat requires fighting through a phalanx of employees, performers and vendors, stationed there to jump-start the festivities. Once the game begins, it is treated as a distraction.

The real action — so the owners seem to think — takes place in foul territory, on the top of the dugouts, in the stands. The assault on the senses is relentless throughout. A manager can't go to the mound without a contest winner being announced, an ad broadcast or music cranking up. Much effort goes into getting fans to scream for contestants in a between-innings, pizza-eating competition than for the ballplayers.

But not all fans need such prompting. Given a good game, most will actually cheer without being asked to do so.

Evidently, the owners don't agree. To whip up still more enthusiasm, this year they have added two more mascots — Zinger, an inflatable acorn, and a real, live rally pig.

OK, I get it. All this frantic activity is how minor-league owners get people who wouldn't otherwise watch baseball to come to The Diamond. The game itself is a pretext for getting lots of people in the same place at the same time so they buy stuff.

Luring a young couple on a date or retirees on fixed incomes just won't cut it — a mom, a dad, and three ravenous, easily distracted kids younger than 12 — that's gold. Family entertainment is what puts cargo shorts and Capri pants in the seats, and last year, the Squirrels led the Eastern League with an average home attendance of 6,626.

So I understand the importance of entertainment at baseball games. Baseball can be a slow-moving sport that leaves lots of time for people's attention to wander. This is especially so for children.

"There's always been a place for entertainment at ballgames," ex-Yankee pitcher and "Ball Four" author Jim Bouton told me recently. "The problem is that what owners think of as entertainment is just stupid and tiresome."

The Squirrels' owners, of course, aren't the only ones who believe quantity beats quality. An acquaintance in another city emailed me recalling experiences comparable to mine at the last minor-league game she attended.

She stayed "long enough to see the pie-eating contest, little kids delivering mail contest, big men riding tricycles contest, ladies rolling tires contest, sumo wrestling contest, kids throwing baseballs through a hole in a giant pizza contest and a couple others we couldn't even figure out. And we left during the 4th inning!"

Bouton recalls more imaginative offerings, often with a local angle. A car dealer sponsors a used-car giveaway, with keys strewn all over the field. "People would be running all over the place, looking for keys, and then, when the car wouldn't start, they'd throw the key down in disgust," he says of the stunt, wherein contestants searched for the one magic key. "Pretty soon, there'd be a whole line of people holding keys, waiting their turn to start that damned car.

"A local bank would put up cash, and one-dollar bills would be dropped from a helicopter. There'd be one $100 bill in the bunch, so fans would be scrambling everywhere, trying to find that $100 bill. An area farmer would donate a pig, for a greased-pig chase. You never knew what would happen, and the fans loved it. The players were always on the top step of the dugout, watching this stuff and laughing our heads off. It was hilarious."

Bouton's favorite event was Bladder Buster Night. "All the beer was free until a fan went to the bathroom, then they charged for it," he says. "So there was this tremendous incentive not to go. Some poor guy would stand up to head for the john, the whole stadium would erupt in boos, and he would have to sit back down. I'm not sure you could get away with some of this stuff now."

Maybe not, but it's worth a shot. All the Squirrels' owners seem to be offering now is more of the same, only noisier. "Although we had tremendous success during our inaugural season in Richmond," Todd "Parney" Parnell, the team's vice president and chief operating officer, said recently, "we want to make sure that everything we do is bigger, better and louder in 2011."

Louder is now good? Get that?

In the absence of real entertainment, some of us would be happy just hearing the crack of the bat. S

Alan Pell Crawford, the author of "Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson," is a Richmond writer who fears for the future of baseball.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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