Minor League Ball a Winner in Washington
By Chris Scarnati
Baseball used to be of little interest to Cheryl Sabatula.
Whenever the Brownsville resident had control of the television
remote, her viewing habits tended to be more "CSI" than RBI.
always liked watching cop shows," she professed. "Whenever my
husband (Kevin) and son (Tyler) would turn on baseball, I'd usually
go to the other room."
Of course, this was before she discovered the Wild Things.
Ever since the Washington-based independent minor league organization
opened its gates to kick off its inaugural 2002 season, Sabatula's
eyes have been opened to a whole new world.
"Wild Things games are so much fun because of the exciting atmosphere,"
she explained. "We enjoy it so much because the players and staff
are really involved with the fans. Going to a game is like going
on summer vacation for us."
Spectators of Sabatula's ilk throng to Falconi Field the way
Elvis aficionados throng to Graceland. Like Steelers fans, they
swear an unwavering allegiance to the team's young core of players,
win or lose.
Their loyalty, however, has yet to truly be tested.
While the Pittsburgh Pirates continue to languish in baseball
purgatory, the Wild Things have dominated their Frontier League
adversaries in each year of their existence. In addition to posting
four consecutive winning seasons, Washington became the second
team in Frontier League history to make the playoffs four straight
In 2005, the Wild Things rattled off 14 straight home victories
to finish 63-32.
"We've had great success off the field, and this is a tribute
to the entire organization, from top to bottom," said Washington
general manager Ross Vecchio. "We've had great support from our
sponsors and a lot of people continue to buy tickets. The entire
community has really embraced this team."
Field of Dreams
32 miles separate Falconi Field and PNC Park.
But when it comes to the brand of baseball they house, the two
venues might as well be separated by the Atlantic Ocean.
The Pirates are a Major League organization that is on pace
to miss the playoffs for a 14th consecutive year. Since losing
seasons have become as perfunctory as seventh inning stretches,
the team's forlorn fan base has dwindled slowly over time.
Prior to throwing out the ceremonial first pitch in Pittsburgh's
home-opener against Los Angeles, actor Michael Keaton fired incendiary
comments at Pirates brass that stated the obvious: you have to
pay to compete. Despite a $13 million jump from last year, the
Pirates payroll of $47.6 million ranks them 26th out of 30 franchises.
The caliber of baseball is significantly lower than that of
even single-A (Major League) affiliated ball, and the total payrolls
for most independent baseball teams aren't much more than the
sticker prices of a pair of Dodge Minivans. Average player salaries
on the Wild Things, a perennial playoff contender, fall between
$600 and $1,200 a month.
"It's not an easy life," admits Chris Carter, the starting centerfielder
who signed with the Wild Things last season after spending two
years in the Baltimore Orioles farm system. "In affiliated ball,
you at least have health insurance, but you don't get that in
the independent leagues."
Paltry wages also make it hard for Carter and his teammates
to afford their own lodging. With the exception of Washington
native Patrick Sadler (pitcher/catcher), Pittsburgh's Jim Popp
(pitcher), Cecil's Chris Sidick (left field) and Munhall's Scott
Manko (pitcher), the rest of this season's squad will stay with
It's a symbiotic relationship. Aspiring athletes get to continue
chasing their dream of making it to the "Big Show" and a devoted
fan base gets an opportunity to personally support each incoming
"I think people who come to our games can really relate to these
kids," said Christina Blaine, director of communications. "By
and large, the whole team is adopted by the community. They see
them as being wholesome kids who are just trying to do their best
to get to the next level."
always been the appeal of a Wild Things game. In comparison to
the big leagues, a night at Falconi is as pure as a Promise Keepers
convention. The Pirates may one day rekindle the winning swagger
they once had with Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke,
but million-dollar signing bonuses and over-inflated egos make
it hard for the average Joe to relate.
Nevertheless, it's always easier to feel a connection with players
in the same tax bracket.
Or in some cases, lower.
"There's a certain appeal with young athletes who are clawing
their way to get to the top, and it's obvious to our fans that
these kids (on the Wild Things) aren't motivated by greed," Blaine
explained. "You don't leave your home and family, get on a bus
for 45 days out of the summer and make this kind of money unless
you love what you're doing."
Film legend Humphrey Bogart once said "a hot dog at the ballpark
is better than steak at the Ritz."
Wild Things supporters might agree, even though the taste of
victory is most pleasing to their palates.
"There have been times when our (home) stadium remains packed
after long rain delays," Vecchio said. "You'll always have people
dressed in Wild Things shirts and hats everywhere. It's really
exciting to see."
Expectations are running high for a fifth-consecutive trip to
the playoffs. The return of Carter, Sidick, Mike Arbinger (right
field), Lance Koenig (catcher) and Andy Hudak (first base) should
fuel a talented batting order, and Popp and Stephen Spragg bring
experience to the mound.
These players will be fighting to attract attention from Major
League scouts, but they'll also be laying it on the line for the
respect of the community.
"The fans in Washington are great," Carter said. "I think it's
the greatest thing in the world to have people who want to pay
money to watch us play baseball."
Sabatula can't wait. Five years ago, she would've been hard-pressed
to discern the difference between a shortstop and a short-order
These days, she shows up to Falconi decked out in Wild Things
apparel from head to toe and is acquainted with the majority of
the players on a first-name basis.
And should "NYPD Blue" ever air the night of a game, Sabatula
will set her VCR.
Box seats will always beat out the couch.
"I didn't know much about baseball and wasn't really into any
sports before we started buying tickets," she said. "But now I
love it, and I'll be coming here forever."