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Baseball buff Burger bids farewell to Ernie Shore field

by Mark Burger

Looking back, I’ve probably spent more time at historic Ernie Shore Field than any other ballpark in my entire life, and a part of my past will soon be no more. After some 52 years, the ballpark, which has been home to the Winston- Salem Warthogs for more than a decade, has ended its playing days for good. I was fortunate enough to attend some of the games during the ballpark’s farewell season, including the last home game on Aug. 28. I can’t say how many Warthogs games I’ve attended over the last 10 years, but it was a lot. I can count on one hand the times I canceled going to a ballgame, but I can’t count how many last-minute invitations I accepted. Baseball is important enough to schedule things around it. After all, I’ve been known to plan business trips and vacations around the schedule of my favorite major-league team, the much-beloved (and frequently bedeviled) Philadelphia Phillies. The two times I visited San Francisco, it just so happened that the Phillies were in town. If you’re a baseball fan and happen to find yourself in San Francisco, I highly recommend a visit to AT&T Park, which may be the loveliest stadium I’ve ever been to. (All due respect to Camden Yards in Baltimore and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.)

In 2003, the final year of Veterans Stadium in Philly — a ballpark so loved that some people nicknamed it “the Toilet” (and these were fans!) — I made one last pilgrimage to the ballpark of my youth. When I came back here, I came down with pneumonia… but the Phillies did win every game I attended, so I suppose it was a fair trade-off. When major-league baseball came to south Florida, I went to a lot of Florida Marlins games. Believe me, the lack of attendance has long been a concern there. In the four years that the Marlins and I co-existed in South Florida, I saw them play the Phillies 20 times. I saw them beat the Phillies 18 of those times, a record so laughable that people don’t believe it when I tell them. In the 10 years I’ve lived in Winston-

Salem, I’ve attended countless Warthogs games. I’d go with friends, co-workers and the occasional girl I happened to be dating at the time. Every so often, I’d go alone — just because I enjoy America’s Pastime. I’d root, root, root for the home team, have a few beers (sometimes more) and enjoy a hot dog or one of those meat-and-cheese sandwich concoctions that, I suppose, is meant to be a cheesesteak. Being from Philadelphia, I might disagree…. On one Fourth of July, I even had the honor of throwing the first ball. (I was supposed to do it the day before, but the game was rained out.) I’m no pitcher and I never was, but Wally the Warthog called my sinking curve a strike. Believe me, it was sinking fast. I remember the game, too; the Warthogs came roaring back with three runs in the bottom of the ninth to win the game. I’ve seen the Warthogs lose and I’ve seen ’em win. I’ve seen games lost on close plays, close calls, double plays, what have you. In 2003, the year the Warthogs won the championship, the two games I attended that season I watched them get bombed. It never mattered to me how well the team was doing. I rooted for them, of course, but I’d just as often applaud a good play by the opposing team — even if it hurt the Warthogs. Good baseball is good baseball, that’s all there is to it. Unlike some people, I don’t find baseball boring in the least. It is, at heart, a game of suspense. What will the pitcher throw, and will the batter hit it? I like a good football, hockey or basketball game as much as the next guy (or gal), but baseball has emerged as one of the great passions of my adult life. Perhaps it’s because it was about the only sport I displayed any dexterity at when I was a kid — and even that’s debatable. I played with more enthusiasm than skill, and that’s putting it mildly, yet I did set a record in the Franklin Township Little League for being hit by a pitch 14 times in our 11 game-season. “As good as a hit,” my coach would praise, clapping from the dugout, while I jogged, or more likely limped, to first base. I don’t think I was a pitcher’s target because I was a dangerous batter — far from it — but because I sometimes had the habit of mouthing off to the catcher. “Quiet down, batter,” I can still hear the umpire’s voice echoing in my head. I also played catcher for a while, and I was the kind of catcher who would block the plate — even if the ball wasn’t in my glove. This undoubtedly annoyed and antagonized opposing runners, but there wasn’t a rule against it. Ernie Shore, for those who don’t know — and I certainly didn’t, when I first moved here — was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox during the 1910s. One of his teammates, then a fellow hurler, was Babe Ruth. When Shore retired, he was for many years the sheriff of Forsyth County as well as a long-time, die-hard proponent of baseball. It was he who spearheaded the campaign to build a new ballpark when nearby South Side Park burned to the ground. Under a variety of team names, a minor league team has played at Ernie Shore Field for the last half-century. For the last 11 years, the Warthogs have been one of the farm teams for the Chicago White Sox, which won its first World Series after a significant post-season drought in 2005. (Being a Phillies fan, I am very familiar with post-season droughts… and seasonal droughts, too!) The Warthogs, of course, will go on — albeit probably with a different team name — and there will be a nice, new downtown ballpark next season. But I cannot help but wonder what will become of Wally the Warthog, “the greatest mascot in all of baseball” (as the PA announcer would frequently proclaim). The team will surely retain some sort of mascot, but there was only one Wally. Despite a number of modifications and modernizations, Ernie Shore Field was getting a little obsolete in recent years. Some of my friends would grouse about the nicer, newer ballparks in the area by way of comparison, but much as it was with me and the Vet, there will come a time in the not-so-distant future when we’ll look back on our days at Ernie Shore Field with great affection and nostalgia.

To comment on this story, e-mail Mark Burger at marksburger@yahoo.com.

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