A Friday evening near the end of spring, and the ballpark drifts into its light, familiar daze. Half awake, half something else. One of the season's solitary breezes wanders across the field into the stands; only the foul net moves. Just over the hum of voices in the crowd rise soft, sporadic baseball sounds: the distant clap of a bat, the smack of ball against glove, the umpire's muffled calls. Children dart through the stands and beyond, some cheering on the team every so often, others opting for games of tag on the concourse. Dads don LSU caps and sip light beer, arms around their wives or girlfriends.
The Zephyrs are facing division rival Oklahoma at Zephyr Stadium. The game stays close, the Zephyrs taking a one-run lead at the bottom of the third after a three-run homer by Brandon Larson. But it's the fireworks, a post-game staple on Fridays, that may have been the biggest draw. Tonight is definitely a family affair. One cotton candy vendor is already sold out. No matter where you go, some adult always seems to be shouting, "Stop running!"
"It's a great family place," says Bryan Landry of Ormond, carrying his daughter on his shoulders. "I brought her out for Opening Day, and she loves it."
"Whether we win or lose, people are going to stick around for the fireworks show," says Todd Wilson, director of stadium operations for the Zephyrs.
Adds Wade Arcement of Metairie, "I still don't even know who we're playing."
One would be hard-pressed to find striking differences between this crowd and any other Triple-A baseball team's crowd of supporters. A few things, however, put this year's Zephyrs followers in a league of their own.
It's Rebuild NOLA night at Zephyr Stadium, and several local nonprofit groups, such as Desire NOLA and the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, have set up tables on the concourse. The Zephyrs even allowed some of the groups to hang banners above the outfield wall. Many, if not most, of the fans are likely still working on their Katrina-damaged homes. Still, on this night, rebuilding seems to be the last thing on people's minds.
"People come out, they've been toiling at their houses all day," says Dianne Angelico, a volunteer with the LASPCA. "They need a rest."
Greg Guinta, who had almost 2 feet of water in his home, attended the game with the Ursuline Dad's Club.
"As a group, we try to make it out at least once a year," he says. "You get to see that things are back to normal a little bit."
Amanda LaBruzza and Patty Kimack, bartenders at Zephyr Stadium for six years, agree. They haven't seen many of the old regulars, but they say things have gotten somewhat back to normal. "If anything, people are friendlier, more upbeat," LaBruzza says. "They're more excited. Everybody wants Zephyrs hats, logos."
IT'S DIFFICULT TO IMAGINE THAT JUST over nine months ago, Zephyr Stadium served as a National Guard and FEMA outpost after Hurricane Katrina, that helicopters landed where the centerfielder now stands, that camouflaged Army trucks, not the Ursuline Dad's Club tailgate party, commanded the parking lot.
General Manager Mike Schline evacuated with the team to Oklahoma City, then spent a few days in North Carolina before returning to New Orleans on Sept. 10. By that time, emergency personnel had set up throughout the stadium, some in the luxury boxes. Schline says he felt good about opening the stadium's doors to emergency workers.
"Of course it was strange seeing the stadium used like that, but we knew it had to be done," Schline says.
Schline lived in his office until mid-October, sleeping on the couch. There was some uncertainty at first about whether the team would return, but the Zephyrs quickly dispelled that notion in a press release issued two weeks after the storm. They were the first professional sports team to publicly commit to the city post-Katrina. Schline credits that commitment to the faith of owner Don Beaver as well as the Washington Nationals organization.
"Don called me and asked if the stadium was intact. Then he asked me if the area was intact," Schline says. "When I answered yes to both, that was it. He never wavered. People in this community put us on the map. We didn't want to bolt when the times got tough."
Beaver did everything possible to keep the organization together. He even housed six employees at Rock Barn, his golf course in Conover, N.C. Schline adds that no one missed a paycheck. After notifying the Pacific Coast League of the team's decision to stay, there wasn't much baseball business to be done. Schine's attention shifted to repairing the stadium, which had sustained about $2 million in damages from the storm. He says that making sure the stadium was prepared for Opening Day 2006 was undoubtedly the team's greatest challenge. The facility needed a new scoreboard and a new sound system in addition to roof work. Beyond that, smaller things like broken windows and doors throughout the stadium presented another set of problems to be solved.
"We were haggling with the insurance companies and FEMA like everyone else," says Schline.
The challenge intensified when the Zephyrs agreed to let Tulane use the stadium for its baseball season. That had the effect of moving "Opening Day" up from April 6 to Feb. 15 -- doubling the workload for all. The brunt of the pressure fell on Wilson, director of stadium operations, and on Thomas Marks, the head groundskeeper. Marks's home was destroyed in the wake of a levee breach. He returned to work in September to find his equipment "cannibalized" by the various emergency-response groups using the stadium. Ironically, after the flood, finding water for the ball field became his main concern.
"The irrigation system was shot, and there was very little rain after Katrina," says Marks.
Wilson oversaw repairs to the stadium. The roof took months to fix, but he was able to finish the job by Tulane's first game. Minor repairs such as paint jobs remained unfinished, and the scoreboard still wasn't fully functional, but overall Tulane was satisfied. Neither Wilson nor Marks regrets playing host to the Green Wave.
"Sure it was more work, but it was great to have them," says Wilson. "They're one of the top programs in the country."
What's more, repairs were completed in time for the Zephyrs' first pitch on April 6. Opening Day was a truly a moment of triumph for the organization. Schline now sees a tremendous sense of unity and accomplishment throughout the organization -- a spirit that wouldn't have been possible without the obstacles Katrina set before them. That might sound like so much front-office talk, but others in the organization share that attitude. Staff members repeatedly talk about how lucky they feel to have been part of the Zephyrs amid Katrina's chaos.
"I was just grateful to have something to do every day," says Marks. "Some stability."
Changes to the organization run deeper than the brand-new, major-league-level scoreboard or the state-of-the-art sound system. Though players say their approach to the game is no different from last year, pitcher David Gil says that his approach to fans has changed. Gil hails from Miami, Fla., and has plenty of experience with hurricanes. He lived through Andrew in 1992 and witnessed that city's long rebuilding process.
"If a fan comes up to me at a restaurant or outside the stadium, I'm more likely to be a little warmer," he says. "You know what these people have gone through. You feel for them."
"It makes you appreciate what we're doing more," says shortstop Josh Labandeira.
Schline says the change on his end is unmistakable.
"We feel like we have a purpose now, a mission," Schline says. "We're not just selling billboards anymore."
OPENING DAY WAS ALMOST TWO MONTHS ago, and the Zephyrs are now more than 50 games into the season. Like many of their fans who have finally let go of Katrina's drama in favor of rush-hour traffic and work deadlines, the front office has gotten back down to the business of filling the stands. Schline reports happily that overall attendance is slightly higher than last year. He says crowds are "rowdier, heckling umps and doing the wave." But seasonlong numbers have declined since 1998, when the Zephyrs' attendance reached an all-time high in New Orleans of 519,584. Last season's attendance was 330,466.
"This place used to be jam-packed all the time," says fan Ken Netterville, sporting his son's JPRD East team shirt. "I came for a Saturday game this year; there couldn't have been more than 300 people in the stands."
Longtime fan Anthony Oncale has been a season-ticket holder since the Zephyrs came to New Orleans in 1993. Although his wife died a year ago, he still buys two tickets to every game, laying a plaque on the empty seat in her honor. His enthusiasm has not waned a bit. At the bottom of the ninth on this night, he jumps out of his seat after every out to announce how many outs are left.
"The novelty part of it has worn off," he says. "It was packed in '97. Now I couldn't give the tickets away if I wanted to. We need to support the team if we want to keep Triple-A ball here."
It would be unfair to gauge the team's popularity by this season's attendance, for obvious reasons. Many Zephyrs fans have been displaced by Katrina, and others are in the throes of rebuilding. The daily grind of arguing with contractors, placing phone calls to FEMA, and making trips to Home Depot undoubtedly leaves many too exhausted for an evening at the ballpark.
"We'd like more people to come out, but it's understandable," says designated hitter Brandon Larson. "People are still working on their homes."
"You do feel that not as many people come out to the games," says Gil. "But I've seen what hurricanes can do. I know that going to a ballgame is not the biggest concern for these people right now."
The situation would make an interesting final exam for a college marketing class -- how to sell baseball at such an uncertain time, just before the new hurricane season, while a flood-ravaged city is trying to determine its future? Every year the organization coins a new marketing slogan. This year it's "Proud to Call New Orleans Home." On Opening Day, the players wore shirts with the phrase emblazoned across the back during the national anthem.
"Even when we're not at home, a manager or someone will wear the shirt," says Gil. "It spreads the word that things are getting better in New Orleans."
The Zephyrs stood by the city during and after Katrina, and the slogan is a perfect reminder. Team officials feel they have proven themselves as a powerful rebuilding force in the community -- something that other local pro teams haven't quite accomplished -- and they hope their loyalty translates into ticket sales as the area rebounds.
"The Zephyrs have been phenomenal to us," says Scott Schlegel, fundraising chair for Desire NOLA. "They've given us all the free advertising we want, let us plug our organization."
"I hope they never go away," says Dianne Angelico of the LASPCA.
Of course, marketing minor-league baseball poses its own unique challenges. As manager Tim Foli explained, the minor leagues are more game-oriented, whereas the majors tend to focus more on individual players and teams.
"Cohesiveness is never possible in Triple-A," Foli says. "Minor league baseball is about change. We can't promote players, we have to promote baseball itself."
Tonight's game, for example, wasn't billed as Gil vs. Volquez, but rather the Zephyrs vs. the Redhawks. Most fans would likely have a hard time naming the entire starting line-up. Foli says that if they ever promoted a player who was doing well, he'd be sent up to the majors in the blink of an eye. After all, these are the minor leagues, a kind of purgatory for men who have spent their young lives dreaming of major-league stardom. The idea of playing in Triple-A is that you are a transient; you are waiting for the chance to go to a better place. All the same, Zephyrs players seem positive, even happy to be here. Schline warned everyone about the inconveniences of living in New Orleans at this time, and he says players don't complain.
"We told them at the beginning of the season to look at it from a historical perspective. They can tell their grandkids about it one day, that they were on the '06 Zephyrs. They only wish they could do more for the community," Schline says.
"There's not much change around here, except that a lot of places are closed," says first baseman Larry Broadway.
"The city's deader, of course, the atmosphere's different," says shortstop Josh Labandeira. "But we're here to play baseball."
Adds Larson, "Baseball players have a job to do."
Things like limited flight plans and parts of the city still out of commission filled some players with trepidation. Fortunately, inconveniences were minimal in the area where Zephyr Stadium is located.
"Basically, Dot's (Diner) closes at nine, instead of 24/7," says Schline.
Schline's acknowledges that Zephyr Stadium seems a world away from the areas hit hardest by Katrina. He described DARE Day, an annual drug-prevention effort attended by local public school students. One day is reserved for Jefferson Parish, the other for Orleans Parish. Attendance from Jefferson Parish was 11,000. On Orleans Parish day, it was 3,500.
"It was a reality check," Schline says.
THAT REALITY CHECK IS PALPABLE AT Friday's game. Among the fans interviewed for this story, the farthest away anyone lives is Harahan. Orleans Parish isn't completely absent, though. The seventh grade graduating class from Christian Brothers School sings "Take Me Out To the Ballgame" for the crowd during the seventh-inning stretch. Some of them top it off with cannonball dives into the water at the stadium's swimming pool beyond the right-field fence.
Elsewhere in the stadium, Girard Playground Little Leaguers, their faces sticky from cotton candy, marvel over the autographs they'd gotten on the field, though chances are they had never heard of those players before. Parents stand in line at the concession stands while Boudreaux and Thibodeaux, the team mascots, dance and toss T-shirts out to the crowd.
"Baseball is a stabilizing force," Schline says. "There was no Katrina moment of silence on Opening Day. People come to the games for escape."
The theme at Zephyr Stadium is indeed all baseball, not big-name match-ups. A Zephyrs game is a celebration of the game itself, of the art of pitch and catch, of unhurried precision. A leisurely summer kind of game. The voices, the laughter, the slow advance of the innings build like some old, dreamy song in the back of your head that doesn't end, or at least never quite goes away. And not everyone is leisurely. Anthony Oncale stays on his feet throughout the entire ninth inning, cheering on his team and counting down the outs 'til the ball game's over.
"I love baseball, love the Zephyrs," he says, adding a flourish of disrespect for Saints owner Tom Benson that shall remain unprinted.
The Zephyrs win 3-2, but one can't help wondering if the team's victory is just icing on the cake. How to sell baseball in New Orleans at such a time? Was there ever a better time? For a little while -- for nine innings, at least -- the ever-daunting task of rebuilding seems far away. The stadium then goes dark and the fireworks begin. A message appears on the new scoreboard: "Thank you, Mr. Don Beaver, for never doubting us -- from your Zephyrs staff."
A little girl runs back into one of the rows to join her family, out of breath. Her mother asks if she's happy about the win. "We won?" she says. The fireworks last longer than some Fourth of July displays, burning iridescent streaks in the sky above Airline Drive.
For the first time that evening, the crowd is completely still.
- Tracie Morris Schaefer
- Head groundskeeper Thomas Marks, whose home was lost in the wake of a levee breach paints home plate before the game.
- The Zephyrs
- Katrina's winds tossed the Zephyr's old scoreboard in to the stands.
- Tracie Morris Schaefer
- A message from the Zephyrs staff to owner Don Beaver on the brand new major-league scoreboard
- Tracie Morris Schaefer
- General manager Mike Schline poses with Boudreaux on Zephyr Field.
- Tracie Morris Schaefer
- Zephyrs shortstop Josh Labandeira signs autographs for anxious Little Leaguers from Girard Playground in Metairie.