The Dodd's plain clapboard façade is a bit humdrum, but the atmosphere is exceedingly pleasant. And the food is a plus: frozen root beer floats, maple kettle-corn, and clam chowder. Jesse manages to snag a foul ball, and after the game—Norwich wins on a walk-off three-run homer that brings down the house—we retire to the parking lot for a round of catch. The rain has spared us again, and fog is rising off the gravel. Suddenly the back door to the clubhouse opens. Jesse stares for a moment, then trots over with his ball. "Sir, are you Bob Stanley?" he asks. "Sometimes," the man replies. Jesse smiles sheepishly and hands over the ball; Stanley signs it, then walks off into the misty night.
Pawtucket, Rhode Island
In its upper echelons, minor-league baseball approaches the glitz of the big show. The Pawtucket Red Sox, a Triple-A Boston affiliate, sell out games routinely, especially when injured Beantown stars are sent down for rehab. In the past few years, Curt Schilling and Nomar Garciaparra have both done stints with the PawSox. Bronson Arroyo pitched a perfect game here before being called up to Fenway. In other words, this is serious ball, with top-notch players and no silly sideshows. Jesse is pumped. He's got his stack of PawSox trading cards, he's got his foam PawSox bear paw, and he's hunched over his scorecard, dutifully noting every play.
The 64-year-old McCoy Stadium is awash in concrete, fluorescent lights, and sticky soda syrup. But what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for with energy and buzz, and the kids eat it up like fried dough. We're deep in Red Sox Nation, by all accounts. During a break in play, the JumboTron switches over to the Sox game in Boston, and the stadium goes ape.
The rain has held off, and we've hauled ourselves halfway across New England to my old stomping ground, Boston. Following games in Massachusetts tonight and Maine tomorrow, we're hoping to catch the final championship game of the Cape Cod Baseball League, the most famous amateur league in the nation. Every summer, top-ranked college players flock to the Cape to live with local families, mow lawns or paint houses, and strut their stuff for big-league scouts. (One out of every seven current major-league players spent a season on Cape Cod.)
But tonight, we're ready for the Rox. Following an afternoon behind-the-scenes tour of Fenway—which, by the way, you must take—we ditch the city and floor it to Brockton, a proud working-class town 25 miles south of Boston. Brockton Rox games are among the most irreverent—and entertaining—in baseball. When your team is advised and co-owned by actor Bill Murray, comedian Jimmy Fallon, and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, it's hard to be dull. The Rox are named for native hero Rocky Marciano. Beautiful Campanelli Stadium is the smallest park we've visited (official capacity: 4,750), though the fans make enough noise for twice that many people, cheering and chanting with thick Massachusetts accents. Indeed, Brawckton Rawx is the perfect name for a New England team.
The townie feel is pervasive. Sneakers, loafers, and golf shoes dangle from the rafters, in honor of Brockton's shoemaking heritage. Smoke from the hamburger grill wafts across the infield. And the program notes that the Rox are in need of host families for itinerant players. (Jesse wants to adopt the designated hitter: "He could teach me to bat lefty!")
Comic touches are what set Brockton apart. Bill Murray is listed on the program as Director of Fun, and the announcer shares his deadpan style: "What-ever..." he sighs when the visiting team scores. Fun-house mirrors hang in the bathrooms. The club sandwich is called a Tonya Harding. (Took me a second to get that.)