Requiem for a Team

Graphic by Jake Slaughter

The morning of September 17, 2018, excavators gathered at Harbor Yard, the former home of the Bridgeport Bluefish, Connecticut’s now-defunct affiliate in the Atlantic League, an independent conference of minor-league baseball teams in the Northeast. On the order of the city’s mayor, Joe Ganim, the crew was to gut the field and carve the foundation for a new amphitheater––a “boutique” music arena, outfitted with $45,000-per-annum suites, beer booths filling the cavities left by the home and away dugouts, and other accoutrements of sybarite play.

Ganim’s demolition order was an unexpected betrayal. In his first term as mayor, several years before he would be convicted on 16 federal counts of almost every conceivable brand of graft––racketeering, extortion, bribery, conspiracy, tax fraud, mail fraud, the general ingredients of mob politics––Ganim helped to incorporate the Bluefish and build them a stadium in the Park City. Ganim had a place in mind: the brownfield beneath the old Jenkins Valve plant by the I-95 off-ramp.

Ganim had no trouble securing the land. He was buddies with the owner: a familiar king of crooks––Donald Trump—who had bought the parcel a couple years prior to preempt a New England casino incursion on his Atlantic City monopoly. By 1998, Trump owed the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes on the plot. Lennie Grimaldi, one of Trump’s PR whisperers, brokered a deal that pleased both parties. The city bought the land off Trump for a dollar and forgave the back tax bundle. Grimaldi, it should be noted, was also Ganim’s campaign manager. In 2003, prosecutors granted him immunity––he was facing federal corruption charges of his own––on condition of his testimony in the Ganim trial. 

The Bluefish played on the South End for nearly two decades. The team had a couple of great seasons, many more dreadful ones, and a miracle championship sprint in ’99––the year they swept the Somerset Patriots for the league title. The team played scrappy ball until Ganim’s barbed hook reeled them out of the sea. They never managed to repeat the ’99 magic.

Ganim claimed the eviction as a civic victory. All that was left was to convince the public: The new amphitheater, developed under the always dubious framework of “public-private partnership,” would generate millions in annual revenue for the city. Bridgeport was ripe for revival and the amphitheater would steer the course. “This groundbreaking is a bright moment for Bridgeport,” Ganim said, shovel in hand.

In spring 2020, almost two years after groundbreaking, and with tens of millions of tax dollars exhausted, Harbor Yard Amphitheater LLC, the arena’s developing firm, announced that the arena’s debut would be delayed by another year and a half. Harbor Yard is still a skeletal shrine to the profit motive.

The rationale behind the amphitheater has always been clear. First, it’s another chance for Ganim, in his second mayoral tenure, post-prison, to pillage the public coffers while crying virtue. Second, it’s part of a larger program to gentrify the city. Evidently, Ganim learned nothing from Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Dodgers who engineered their desertion of Brooklyn and resettlement in Los Angeles in the ‘50s: Evicting a beloved team and wrecking its stadium breeds a contempt that lasts. There are sections of Flatbush where mention of O’Malley or Ebbets Field still elicits tears and spits.

Students of the game have promoted various theories of the “baseball as national metaphor” idea: that it’s the game’s slow striving toward perfection and grace, its talent for mythmaking, its ritual imagery, its unity of law and disdain for those who discharge it, its dance of collective will and individual heroism, the absolute and the ambiguous, memory and desire, that make baseball a summary of national dreams. O’Malley and Ganim denied those dreams, and the wounds refuse to heal.

Baseball fans don’t mope––they mourn. That’s because the game demands total psychic surrender––through the 162-game regular season campaign, the 20-game playoffs, 120 games more in the minor league circuits. Wins are ecstasy. Losses devastate. Baseball is a promise: for a few hours a day, you can breach the land of dreams.  

Beautiful as it is, baseball has never been a game of innocence, much as it may fixate on boyhood and the contest of opposed apolitical resolves. “Babe” Ruth—who in the words of one New York sportswriter, Bill McGeehan, became “our national exaggeration”—was the archetype of the ballplayer-as-son-of-the-nation, slugger-as-forever-child trope. The Babe “lightened the cares of the world and kept us from becoming overserious by his sheer exuberance.”

The business of the game has always subverted the sport’s idealism. Before Dodgers star pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale threatened to boycott the 1966 season in a move leading to the founding of the collective bargaining arm of the majors, the Players’ Union, players subsisted on starvation wages––inconceivable now with $100 million contracts flooding the league––while front office executives hoarded spoils to rival the Ilian campaign. The league’s racial segregation, too, will forever be its original sin. Baseball has followed the history of the post-Civil War United States in lockstep.

In recent years, baseball’s executives and governing officers have escalated their efforts at what looks a whole lot like, to borrow a phrase from Thorstein Veblen, “pecuniary emulation”––the process by which the already rich develop a sort of complex around surpassing their peers in terms of wealth, actual and perceived, and try all manner of ruthless methods to do so. Individual teams have done themselves no favors, too, by signing massive telecom contracts that restrict access to games by zip code and provider; they’re severing local ties left and right. The MLB’s leadership compounded its assault on the local game in late 2019 with its reveal of the Minor League Reduction Proposal, a plan to eliminate 42 local franchises across the country within a year’s time. Worship of profit will be baseball’s fall.   

The local game has never been about raking profit and the Bluefish were no exception. They were an everyman’s team: retired major leaguers, up-and-comers who didn’t quite make the MLB farm crop, veteran players trying to rebound after injury. Tommy John managed for a couple of years. Pete Rose managed for a day. They brawled once in a while, mostly with the Long Island Ducks, a league rival with a wild streak. Get those teams on the field together and fists were aching to be thrown. Tickets were cheap. Seating was discretionary. A knish and hot dog stand sat above the away dugout, Italian ices down the right field line. B.B. the Bluefish, the towering plush mascot with a snaggletooth smile, made the rounds through the stands, taking pictures and the occasional handful of Cracker Jack. Kids ran the bases after each game. The team even put on a summer camp. My brother and I attended for a couple of years. The players were always patient with us, signing autographs, playing catch, taking us halfway up the outfield grass to hit homers into the left field pavilion or, if we had the muscle, the Sound. Every kid went home with a hat, a shirt, a week’s worth of tickets, and a pack of cards with each player’s stats from the season––the whole roster of local idols. I remember studying those like Latin verb conjugations. Shea Harris batted .176. Derrick Ellison had a 1.02 ERA.

Playing on that field was dream-realization plain and simple––now no longer. Farewell, Bluefish. A city turns its lonely eyes to you.

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