Sox of the south
The people of Greenville, S.C., may not like yankees, but they sure love their Sox of the South
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The evening is clear and warm, the field beautifully manicured, the Pesky Pole and Green Monster just itching for some action. A breeze carries the aroma of hot dogs and popcorn and the hopes of thousands of fans. People doff their caps and place them over their hearts as the national anthem is sung.
``Play ball!" the crowd screams. But it isn't Schilling or Beckett or Wakefield who takes the mound. It's a guy named Guyette, Kevin Guyette, a right hander from Paradise, Ariz. The opposition is a team called the Greensboro Grasshoppers. In the stands are 3,774 fans -- about a 10th of Fenway's average -- many of them wearing Red Sox caps and T-shirts.
Welcome to West End Field, a Fenway wannabe, a mini-replica of the Yawkey Way original, down to the pole, the Monster , and the manual scoreboard. There's even an odd little triangle carved out in center field.
It's the spiffy new home of the Greenville Drive, a Red Sox Single-A minor - league affiliate. The team is a member of the South Atlantic League, playing such opponents as the Hickory Crawdads and the Savannah Sand Gnats. Until the 2005 season, the Drive were a farm team of the New York Mets, playing in Columbia, S.C., as the Capital City Bombers. But Greenville offered the team a good deal, and it was reborn as a Red Sox country cousin. Today, deep in the heart of this bright-red state where conservative values rule is a Southern slice of Red Sox Nation. Of the Sox' five non-rookie league farm teams, only the Greenville Drive are located in the Deep South.
Brad and Natalie Swillen and their three children were at the park for a recent night game, father and 6-year-old son Will wearing their Red Sox caps. ``I'm about as conservative as they come," says Swillen, 34, ``and the Red Sox are from one of the most liberal states. But I've been a Red Sox fan since I was a kid, mainly because Jim Rice was born and raised 30 miles from here." Shoeless Joe Jackson was also from the area, and the city erected a statue in his honor.
It's the first inning, and the Drive score on a home run -- over the Green Monster. Fireworks explode. Reedy Rip-It, the frog mascot in a fuzzy green suit reminiscent of the Red Sox mascot , Wally, works the crowd.
In the bleachers is Spencer Cordts, a medical assistant wearing a Yastrzemski T-shirt and a Red Sox cap. He grew up in Connecticut and moved to Greenville 18 months ago. ``The politics of the locals irk me, but you don't have to be liberal to be a Red Sox fan," he says. Cordts has been to the new park several times since it opened April 6. ``I love it. It's as close to the Fenway experience as you can get south of the Mason-Dixon Line."
As for Red Sox management, it says it's pleased with both the park and the players. ``The operation has been first - class, the ownership group and front office treat our players like major - league players," says Mike Hazen, director of player development, who has visited the field. He calls the park ``one of the best in minor - league baseball."
The infield and outfield playing surfaces were designed by Roger Bossard, who did the same for Fenway in 2004. The manager is Luis Alicea, who played for the Red Sox in 1995 and spent the past two years coaching the Sox' short-season Single-A team, the Lowell Spinners. The Drive's big rival? The Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs -- a Yankees affiliate. The two are neck and neck in the standings -- through Monday, Charleston was 34-30, Greenville 33-30 in the race for fourth place in the SAL's Southern Division.
In the 2006 Drive program, under a column called ``Sox Watch," the Yankees are referred to as ``the Evil Empire" and Johnny Damon is called ``a sellout."
But, really, no one is complaining. The team owners built a $15 million park on land leased for $10 a year by the city. It's in the heart of downtown, replacing a seedy section where no one ventured after dark. The city provides a trolley to take fans from Main Street the few blocks to the field. Or, if you're flush, you can spring for $5 parking.
West End Field is the latest step in the transformation of a tired old textile town to a city that has attracted BMW and Michelin plants, with nearby Clemson University establishing a center for automobile research. (Hence the name ``The Greenville Drive.")
``The concept is also that Greenville is a community driven to succeed," says city manager Jim Bourey, who keeps a Red Sox jacket hanging in his office and wears his Sox cap to games. Bourey lived in Norwood during elementary school, while his father was a manager for Woolworth's, and he helped broker the land deal that brought the Drive to Greenville. A lifelong Sox fan, he has a baseball cap in his credenza and another in his car.
Red Sox souvenirs -- clothing, key chains, magnets , and the like -- are sold next to Drive merchandise in the small shop just outside the park walls. ``Anything that has both teams on it is huge," says store manager Renee Allen. And the pink Boston cap with the distinctive ``B" remains a top seller. ``Boston fans are the best," she says. ``They're so avid."
Some of the local Red Sox fans are converts from the Atlanta Braves; the Braves had a farm team in the city for years. ``They left us, so I became a Red Sox fan," says Barry Hughes, 65. ``I love the rivalry with the Yankees. The Boston organization has invested a lot in our area, and that means a lot to Greenville."
Hughes describes himself as a conservative Southern Baptist. (``Gay marriage? No way. That goes against the teaching of the Bible, and this is the Bible Belt.") Greenville is home to the Christian fundamentalist Bob Jones University. The lead story in The Greenville News on a recent day details the state's impasse over teaching ``intelligent design" in schools.
But in Greenville these days, it seems everyone is a Boston Red Sox fan. ``Baseball transcends politics," Bourey explains.
At the Drive-Grasshoppers game, Michael Sandlin, 19, wears his Red Sox cap backward . ``I just love the Sox," he says. ``Besides, my brother became a Yankees fan, and that was all the more reason to become a Red Sox fan." He has only one beef with West End Field: ``I wish they'd put seats on the Monster."
At West End Field, one Southern fan wearing a Red Sox T-shirt explains his devotion. ``Even though I'm a hard-core Southerner, I pulled for the Red Sox in 2004. They were playing against the Yankees. Down here, we despise yankees, and then you got a team named after them," says John Randall, 31.
Like the Sox, the Greenville Drive are owned by a triumvirate, led by president Craig Brown, a quiet baseball fanatic who reminds you a bit of John Henry. Brown is unabashed in his admiration of all things Red Sox and exudes a paternal air as he surveys his ball field during a game. ``We thought it was a great idea to give recognition to the most beautiful ballpark in the country," he says.
Brown, whose main residence is in Connecticut, is buying a condo directly behind the Monster, for a 24/7 view of the park. (The only difference between the two fields is that the real Green Monster is 37 feet high; the Greenville Monster is only 30 feet, to give condo owners a stellar view directly into the park.)
But compared with the Red Sox, the Drive are able to provide a more affordable outing. A night at the ballpark for four can cost as little as $30. General admission tickets are $5, box seats $8. Hot dogs are $2.25, popcorn $1.50, and a 16-ounce beer $2.75 -- or, on Thursday nights, a dollar.
At the Grasshoppers game, it's the seventh-inning stretch, and announcer Jon Oliver booms into his mike: ``It's a Fenway tradition and now we're going to do it here, too. Please stand up and sing `Sweet Caroline.' " The fans comply, even adding the Sox fans' quirky chorus and chants of ``bo m bo m bo m" and ``so good, so good, so good." Close your eyes, and you could be at Fenway. The Drive went on to win the game, 6-2.
They beat the Grasshoppers the next day, too, with the city manager throwing out the first pitch -- wearing his Sox cap. The team just signed an extension with the Red Sox through 2008. But what happens if the two teams eventually part ways? What if -- God forbid -- the Yankees pick up the farm team, and there are pinstripes playing at the mini-Fenway?
Craig Brown does not see the partnership with the Sox ending. ``We share the same values, character, integrity , and commitment to quality," he says. And if the teams did split, he says, West End Field would still be an asset: ``Having a park built after Fenway, even if we weren't affiliated with the Red Sox, wouldn't be the worst thing that ever happened."
Joe Chandler is 26 and is sitting in the front row, eating peanuts and watching the Drive in the second game . He's as Southern as moon pies and magnolias, and a rabid Red Sox fan. Ask him to explain it, and he says: ``When you're a Red Sox fan, you're just a Red Sox fan. It's like the movie `Fever Pitch.' Nobody else in baseball can understand it, unless they're a Red Sox fan."