April 11, 2012 12:17

Crumbling bricks and broken promises

I meet Ogi Overman at the scarred and mottled concrete façade of War Memorial Stadium in Greensboro’s Aycock Historical District just after a heavy rain blew through town. We’re both late.

Not that it matters this afternoon— there’s nothing going on here today but the slow, steady deterioration of one of the oldest ballparks in the country. All the gates are locked, so Overman and I slip through a gap in the chain-link and enter the arena from the third-base side.

We wade through standing water onto the infield, which still gleams like a gem among the ruins of the old stadium. Overman tells me they re-sodded it around 1995, after Derek Jeter’s error-prone season, for around $75,000, errors charged to him by Overman, who was the Bats’ scorekeeper at the time.

“The Yankees brass threatened to pull out because of all those errors I gave Jeter,” he says.

Overman spent the better part of three decades watching the Yankees Class A affiliate, the Greensboro Bats, develop talent here, learn from their mistakes and push a few players into the bigs. He saw future Yankee Don Mattingly play first base, right around the time they started selling beers during batting practice, smoked joints behind the left field wall he called “Little Fenway,” torn down to make way for the grandstand, which he also frequented. When he put down the beer and the pot for good, he became the Bats’ official scorekeeper, a post he held until the team became the Greensboro Grasshoppers in 2005, by then a Florida Marlins affiliate, and moved to fancier and more modern digs in downtown Greensboro.

He missed the years when Jim Bouton worked out the kinks in his knuckleball on this mound, and the days when Joe Pepitone made his bones out here — this was before Pepitone became known as the man who introduced the hair dryer to professional baseball.

But he was here when John Horshok bought the team and built the grandstand, when local broadcasting legend Charlie Harville used to sit along the first base line — “And that’s the best in sports today.” He was here for Jeter and Mattingly and Andy Pettite and Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera. And he was here when a player he remembers as “Cujo” crashed through the right field wall in pursuit of a fly ball and landed in the creek that runs alongside the park.

“Good times, Brian,” he says. “Good times.”

He’s feeling sentimental today, after the Greensboro City Council entertained the idea of “renovating” the stadium earlier in the week, a renovation that consists mainly of tearing out the brick-and-concrete stands, the bunker-like concession huts and the weathered wooden grandstand, razing everything save for the pillars at the entrance and leaving the magnificent green diamond as a reminder of past glory.

It would literally be a shell of its former self, a compromise by the current council to keep a promise made by a former one that manages to raise the ire of the people of the Aycock neighborhood and also betray the wishes of those for whom it was built.

On the day of the stadium’s dedication, Nov. 11, 1926 — Armistice Day, just eight years after the Great War ended — Greensboro Mayor Edwin Jeffress said, “The soldier boys said they wanted no hollow granite, no useless monument to decorate our street corners, even no statuary or brass to remind us of those who have passed along after doing life’s full duty, but they wanted something that would be useful; that would help develop mind and body; that would in this way be a perpetual memorial to those who have passed.”

The deal was cut amid plans for the new ballpark — an assurance by council, Action Greensboro and other parties who stood to benefit from new construction downtown: The old ballpark would not be allowed to deteriorate into a relic, that it would be maintained as a playing field for future generations and remain a vital part of the community’s fabric.

“They sold it as part of the deal,” Overman says now, as we stand in a marshy center field, “that this would be held in perpetuity and they wouldn’t let it crumble to the ground.”

But that’s exactly what’s happening. Exposed wires sag and fray.

Fissures in the concrete and mortar widen. Untreated wood fades and buckles. Paint peels and flakes. Steel beams corrode. Out in right field, the yellow foul pole teeters slightly in bounds.

The good seats along the first-base line, once brightly colored, have lost their luster, the names of preferred sponsors like ancient heiroglyphs on the backs. Flowers Bakery. Lamberth-Troxler Funeral Home. Johnson Capital Corp.

And here is Charlie Harville’s seat, Section 5, Row B, Seat 16 — though this space between 15 and 17 is for some reason marked as 12. The part that folds down, where Charlie sat his ass for decades until he died in 2002, is gone, wrenched from the joints that held it in place.

“Somebody got a souvenir,” Overman observes. All Ogi has are his memories, some more hazy than others, to keep company with his sense of outrage.

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