In The Land of the Sand Gnats

Savannah is a long way from Wyoming, and a long way from the Major Leagues. But it's a fine place to play baseball.
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According to the first 2013 issue of Gnats Illustrated—the home-field program for the New York Mets’ Class-A affiliate Savannah Sand Gnats—the grounds at Historic Grayson Stadium have hosted organized professional baseball since 1926. The current stadium has been in place since 1941, which was a tough year to begin any enterprise in the United States not related to a World War.

In 1941, the state of Wyoming enjoyed a single year of professional baseball: the Cheyenne Indians Class-D team played one season in the Western Baseball League before the league folded as the war engulfed everything. It would take sixty years for professional baseball to return to Wyoming; in 2001, the Butte Copper Kings relocated to Casper, becoming the Casper Rockies until 2007—they were renamed the Casper Ghosts in 2008—before finally seeking greener pastures and a larger fanbase. They left Wyoming in 2011 and became the Grand Junction Rockies. Since then, Wyoming has had no professional baseball. The state also has no high school baseball programs. There is, though, a budding collegiate summer league and a thriving American Legion baseball system.

One product of that Legion system is Brandon Nimmo. Nimmo was drafted thirteenth overall in the 2011 MLB draft by the New York Mets, and Brandon Nimmo was this year’s Opening Day centerfielder for the Savannah Sand Gnats, which is part of what brought me to Savannah.

***

The closest I have ever been to Brandon Nimmo has been a series of excellent  articles by Casper Star-Tribune sports reporter Clint Robus. Were Wyoming anything but what it is, the one hundred eighty miles between Casper and Cheyenne would likely make Nimmo a citizen of some other state. It would certainly classify him a perfect stranger to me, which, of course, he is. But after spending some years in a state that covers almost a hundred thousand square miles but houses fewer than six hundred thousand people, one starts to think of connections differently. And so when I was in Savannah—it was not purely a scouting trip; I was also attending a conference for English educators—for the Sand Gnats’ Opening Day, there was no question that I would be there. I was supporting a neighbor, albeit a distant one.

On the afternoon of April 4, it seemed unlikely that there would be a game to go to at all—the morning brought waves of thunderstorms, sheets of heavy southern rain. But the Sand Gnats’ ground crew met the challenge, and, with a little help from a weather system that traded more rain for air that simply felt like a wall of water, the Sand Gnats took the field against the Rome Braves as scheduled. The Rome Braves uniforms mirror their parent club’s in Atlanta, providing a clear visual trajectory from the earliest levels of their farm system to the bigs. Several teams do that, and the philosophy is that the uniform and naming continuity creates the sense of professional identity sooner, raises the internal stakes to say I am a ___ instead of I play for ___ now, and I’ll play for ___ later, where the sentiment is separation, rather than connection. That method has its logic, and it’s admirable, but it’s also a bit boring. Minor league clubs can have fun names—the Casper Ghosts!—and goofy mascots—the Ghosts had a Rockies-purple platypus, theoretically because of the team’s proximity to the Platte River. They can also have their own cachet, their own visual identity, which is important because the players themselves—if things go well—don’t stay with the club. The idea is to move on.

***

The Sand Gnats look only like themselves: the smart white home uniforms trimmed in evergreen and accented with hints of raspberry, the logo only on their hats. The logo is, improbably, actually pretty cool, if also undeniably a cartoon sand gnat, a sort-of-mosquito with quite human teeth and in fact actual fangs, because the fangs are much more metal than an insectoid proboscis and because this is minor league baseball. On the costumed mascot, the mouth is empty, save two blunted nubs that resemble nothing as much as a Disney hippo’s teeth. The mascot is padded and plush and rounded to be child-friendly; it’s built to hug, not hunt.

The drawn logo, though, is lean and mean, the sand gnat readying to swing a bat with very human arms. It’s wearing shades and has calves cut from granite, its left leg drawn up, stepping in. The visible right fang, at first glance, looks incredibly like a cigarette dangling from clenched teeth. It’s a sand gnat that would be played by Robert Redford, if The Natural were about a baseball-playing bug and re-cast using Redford’s cocky con-man character from The Sting and directed by David Cronenberg.

The issue was that it wasn’t particularly easy to distinguish Savannah, Georgia’s MLB fans—quite probably Atlanta fans, given the proximity—from the visiting Rome supporters who might have made the five-hour drive for Opening Day. There were a number of Braves fans, either way, though the cheering certainly seemed weighted in favor of the home side; there was, in the crowd, a lot of Gnats’ green and gray. There were very few markers of the parent Mets’ club, and though I wondered what emotional turmoil that must cause for Savannah baseball people—Braves fans tasked with cheering on a divisional rival’s farm team, and one that’s frankly fun to cheer for—no one else seemed conflicted. That may have had something to do with this being the first Thirsty Thursday of the season, though.

The first-pitch temperature was fifty-seven degrees, which seems like it should have been warm—that’s shorts weather in the dry, sunny west—but it came with a creeping chill born of so much moisture, so little light. When the game began, it became perfect baseball weather, simply because baseball was being played. It could not have been otherwise.

***

During the game, there were the requisite strange minor-league entertainments, which included an inflatable bouncy-horse race along the third base line. The premise was that the children riding said inflatable bouncy-horses—their feet just barely scuffing the grass—could propel themselves along by a combination of bouncing and forward propulsion from the balls of their feet. From the stands, it looked like a fairly high demand for physical coordination from a bunch of five-year-olds, and the race—originally about half the distance between home and third—shrank and shrank as the mascot shuffled closer and closer. Another stadium employee, the young man responsible for bringing out the toys, was basically dragging forward the noble steed of the smaller of the two children. The mascot met them just in time to declare a winner, sort of, and pull everything out of play as the first batter stepped to the plate in the fifth.

That particular event was new to me, but the cheerful stadium host trying gamely to keep the activity together and declare a winner without disturbing the progress of the game, the stadium employees rigging and throwing events as needed—these were pleasant minor league constants and comfortably familiar. At Casper Ghosts’ games, children spun with their foreheads on upended bats for ten rotations and then put on an adult player’s uniform before running to first base. They shuffled and tripped and dove, waistbands gathered in both fists as they dizzily, laughingly, reeled. The uniforms they put on must have come from storage, but they had numbers on the back, were clearly intended for use and were always potentially someone’s. They looked quite a lot like the Rockies’ white and black pinstripe.

I wonder how players feel about these silly games, if they even notice them or if they feel the same kind of connections from park to park, if there’s any tie of workplace familiarity there. Surely they notice practical details of difference from park to park: the depth of the fences, how much territory between the foul lines and the stands or tarps. And how can anyone play so many games in a place without noting one stadium’s poured concrete stands where another’s are built from the same gonging aluminum as so many high school fields? But it’s not difficult to imagine it all blurring, blending, becoming one indistinguishable series of dizzy bat races unfolding in an unbroken cloud of dense minor league humidity.

***

Historic Grayson Stadium feels solid in a way that Casper’s Mike Lansing Field, former home of Wyoming’s last professional team, does not. That’s no knock against Lansing, which is indeed named for the former big league second baseman Mike Lansing, one of Wyoming’s precious few MLB alums. Lansing is open and airy, the stands more like bleachers, whereas nothing at Grayson—a roofed, cement grandstand in center sheltering the concessions area beneath, short banks of baseline seats, and a VIP/bar area along the first base line that offers elevated seating—seems open.

The stadiums reflect their landscapes: Grayson is tucked into a park hemmed in by blocks of houses likely older than Wyoming’s statehood; Lansing is on an open plot beside the Platte River, abutted by a softball complex. In the space it commands, one could build three Grayson Stadiums, and though there’s a fringe of trees screening the river behind the outfield fence and one rare hill blocking the prairie’s full breadth, the wind whipping across the back of the stands is a constant lashing reminder that this is Wyoming. There is no shelter. There’s not really even cover; there are no shaded or roofed seats.

The lore of Brandon Nimmo reflects that: his parents created for him an indoor batting cage in an outbuilding on their property so he could work on his game all winter. While the Wyoming elements and Cheyenne weather—famously some of the worst in the region—may engender toughness, it’s also not conducive to baseball practice eighty percent of the time. The American Legion season, which lasts from April to July, with playoffs in August, certainly spans a good portion of bad weather, particularly when the pre-season practice and off-season training is factored in. Outdoor sports in Wyoming simply soldier on through the chill and wind, more often than not.

That western culture of toughness, though, can only take one so far. Yes, you could hit outside in February, while the wind howls around fifty miles an hour and pushes and pulls the ball out of the strike zone. One could field grounders on a skin of snow over frozen clay. But such practice would fail to be true practice: baseball isn’t played under those conditions. How many MLB games have been postponed this season already—not for rain or lightning, but snow, wind, and bitter cold? There’s a reason Spring Training takes place in the warm places of the nation, why so many ball clubs have their farm teams in warmer climes, places with long growing seasons and relatively fewer meteorological curves—baseball is, to quote the apt title of Roger Angell’s great book, the summer game.

***

The street that leads from central Savannah to Historic Grayson Stadium, Victory Drive, is lined with towering trees, all of them draped in Spanish moss. Their thick roots crack the sidewalks even in front of the perfectly manicured lawns of the opulent homes there. Dense azaleas, their leaves the same green as the Gnats’ logo, crowd the sidewalk’s edge. The sheer fecundity of it, when one is so used to the spare, lean landscape of Wyoming, nearly overwhelms.

But baseball is baseball—familiar everywhere in its cadence and call—and there was baseball, good baseball, for a cool, wet night full of first-game jitters—in Savannah. The result, too, was not bad: Brandon Nimmo had a solid opener, tallying a walk, a pair of singles, and a run scored in what wound up as a 5-3 loss to Rome. Since then, Nimmo’s been on a tear: he’s hitting .322 at the second spot in the line-up, with twenty-nine hits in ninety at-bats, twenty-two runs scored, and a pair of stolen bases after just a month.

Whether that trend continues, of course, no one can say, any more than there’s a guarantee he continues at the same rate of production at the next level. That question of production is key—former Casper Ghost Nolan Arenado, after shredding Triple-A pitching at the season’s start, struggled a little in his first few games with the Colorado Rockies before an admirable settling-in through his starts in May. Still, it’s early. Arenado’s history at the plate has shown a fair amount of consistency in his four years and a month of professional baseball, averaging just under .300—not often much lower, nor significantly higher, either, save the incredibly hot start this year in Colorado Springs.

Nimmo’s not quite there yet. In his brief professional tenure, Brandon Nimmo hit just over .200 in ten games of Rookie ball, then .248 at Low-A. At the Single-A level, theoretically the stiffest competition he’s faced, he’s hitting .322. That is, of course, a small sample size. But a running start like that says, even if the player does cool off, it’s part of the natural high and low cycles of the sport. A running start like that says it’s not so much about intangibles or the adjustment to playing so many games, to being so far from home, to the increased press and weight of expectation and fear of failure, to the weather. It suggests a future.

***

The week after the Savannah Sand Gnats split their home-and-home series with Rome (the other games were played under notably more clement conditions), Wyoming got the first of two blizzards in two weeks. These storms not only dropped several feet of snow on various parts of the state, but also managed to close roads and schools and postpone sporting events all over the Rocky Mountain region. For days, the hard blue sky that lets everyone see the future, at least a little —if only because there’s nothing to keep anyone from seeing whatever the wind will carry in next—turned into a silent, opaque uncertainty. A few degrees colder, and the snow depth goes up; a little more or less wind, and the storm parks longer and the snow remains still or leaves sooner and the drifting might as well be its own storm. Everything was speculation, everything curiosity and dread and swearing about gardens postponed or buried.

The snow also wreaked havoc on the Mets’ series at Coors Field. During the second blizzard, while the New York Mets were freezing their fingers off and getting swept a mile up, their Sand Gnats were winning a series against the Greensboro Grasshoppers (whose insect mascot does not have awesome fangs), and Brandon Nimmo hit his first homerun of the season. Whether Nimmo was envious of friends and family at home having snow days and one more chance to play in fresh powder, the box score doesn’t say.

Though the Savannah metro area of three hundred and sixty thousand people—that’s more than half the population of the state Nimmo and I had recently left—is nothing like the high plains and the low, bare sprawl of Wyoming cities, there is clearly something real and familiar inside the solid shell of Historic Grayson Stadium. It doesn’t matter if, between the gray mist and live oak walls, the horizon—the one Wyoming residents are so used to seeing, against which they reconcile so much—isn’t visible. In the thick green air between the grandstand and the fences, Savannah seems like a good place for a ballplayer to grow.

Top image via MacksMets.


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