The 5,000 baseball fans who waited patiently last Aug. 9 for the
start of the first game of the 1996 Connie Mack World Series, in
Farmington, N.Mex., were joined by two unusual visitors to the
desert Southwest. The first was a 90-minute rainstorm, which
produced a double rainbow beyond the rightfield fence. The
second visitor, making the ceremonial first pitch, was Florida
senator Connie Mack, grandson and namesake of the Hall of Fame
manager who is memorialized in this annual tournament. But
neither visitor was what the crowd had come to see. After two
days of welcome hugs, a parade and opening ceremonies, the fans
at Ricketts Park wanted to hear the umpire call, "Play ball!"
The Connie Mack World Series, which Farmington has hosted every
summer since 1964, is the biggest event of the year in this town
of 40,000. Last year attendance for the nine-day tournament
topped 86,000. This year's Connie Mack, to be held Aug. 8-14, is
expected once again to draw the third-biggest crowd in the
state, behind the state fair and the Albuquerque Balloon Festival.
It's not just fans who love the tournament. Some 1,500 Connie
Mack teams around the country vie for the seven open spots in
the draw (the eighth goes to a team from Farmington), which
showcases the talents of 160 players aged 16 to 18. That's why
folks such as Jim Walton, of the Major League Baseball scouting
bureau, are also regulars at Farmington.
"They just shut down and talk baseball for 10 days," Walton says
of the city's residents. "You have to be somewhat in awe that
they've been able to put this together."
Another admirer is Sam Carpenter, manager of a leading Connie
Mack team, the Dallas Mustangs. "It took coming once for me to
make up my mind that I was going to get a group of kids who can
make it here every year," says Carpenter. His squads have made
nine trips since 1985.
Longtime fans brag about big leaguers they first saw in
Farmington, such as Barry Larkin, Dave Parker, Edgar Martinez
and Ken Griffey Jr. Some locals who can't describe a sacrifice
bunt generously open their homes to players from across the
country. The host-family program, created in 1975, helps reduce
the teams' costs enough for the American Amateur Baseball
Congress to keep the tournament in this remote town 180 miles
northwest of Albuquerque.
Not all of the 72 Farmington families who offer their homes (and
well-stocked refrigerators) to the teenage amateur athletes get
the chance to visit them in major league locker rooms later on,
as 15-year-old Steve Lien has done with Griffey at spring
training several times since 1986, after the Lien family had put
the player up. Many hosts, however, get graduation
announcements, wedding invitations and Christmas cards as if
they were part of the players' families.
Last year the Memphis BFI Tigers reached the final of the
17-game double-elimination tournament with a 3-1 record as
pitcher Keith Dunn won two games with a 1.75 ERA. But the team's
luck ran out in the title game, against Dallas.
The Mustangs, who matched the Tigers' 3-1 record to make the
final, secured their second straight championship with a 23-5
romp over Memphis. As Steve Scarborough, who led the Mustangs
with 12 runs, nine RBIs and a .667 batting average and was named
the tournament's MVP, said, "It's the best baseball atmosphere
I've been in. The whole town is geared toward the world series.
It was probably the best nine days of my life."
That's the kind of sentiment that warms the hearts of Connie
Mack fans and just plain folks in Farmington.
Myles Schrag is the sports editor of the San Juan Sun in
Farmington. This is his first story for SI.
COLOR PHOTO: WENDY WALSH Ricketts Park is the place to be seen during tournament week.