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Original Issue

The Small Fall Classic In Las Vegas the inaugural Triple A World Series was only a sideshow

Life in the minors is a crapshoot," Jacob Cruz was saying during
a break in the action at last week's Triple A World Series, and
his surroundings suited the cliche. Cruz, a 25-year-old
outfielder for the Buffalo Bisons, was slumped in a darkened
lounge in the epicenter of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas,
encircled not only by craps tables but also by banks of
televisions showing three major league ball games. For him, the
dice and the Show both presented long odds.

Minor league baseball narratives are often about one player's
sojourn through the system, but this story has a team component.
The Bisons lost to the New Orleans Zephyrs, three games to one,
in a series that was made possible by a tectonic shift in the
bush league landscape last winter. For a century Triple A
baseball had comprised three leagues, the American Association,
the International League and the Pacific Coast League. From 1904
until 1962, and in sporadic seasons since, the champions of the
AA and IL squared off in the Little World Series, a championship
that meant practically nothing since the PCL was excluded. Only
in 1983 did all three leagues take part in an unwieldy,
unsatisfying round robin, a process that nobody wanted to go
through again. In July '97 a solution was finally hammered out:
The American Association was sacrificed, and the 30 Triple A
ball clubs realigned into two leagues. Buffalo, Indianapolis,
Louisville and an expansion team in Durham, N.C., joined the
International League, while the Pacific Coast League added clubs
from--get this, geography buffs--Des Moines, Nashville, New
Orleans, Oklahoma City and Omaha, plus an expansion team from
Memphis. The champs of the new IL and PCL would meet in a true
World Series.

These machinations led ultimately to the human dogpile of Zephyrs
that clumped near the pitcher's mound last Friday night following
New Orleans's clinching 12-6 victory at Cashman Field, the spiffy
home of the PCL's Las Vegas Stars. All that delirium wasn't about
the cash, man, not with winners' shares of only $2,000 a player.
("That'll barely cover our gambling losses," Cruz said.) No, this
early-fall classic was all about the simple pleasures of playing
and winning, pleasures that are often forgotten in the cutthroat
world of Triple A.

Perhaps that sentiment was best expressed by New Orleans catcher
Marc Ronan, whose eighth-inning solo home run had won the
pivotal third game. Leaning on a dugout railing, still glowing
from the rush of the homer and coated with the sweat of a
95[degree] Vegas afternoon, he said the series felt "like being
back in Little League, where the only things that mattered were
winning and getting a free hot dog after the game. At this point
in the season there's nowhere else to go, so no one's playing
for himself. It's just a thrill to be at the ballpark." Ronan,
29, went 1 for 12 for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1993 during his
only cup of coffee in the majors, and when it was suggested that
his Triple A series heroics might help his career, he responded
with surprising candor. "Nah, the book's out on me," he said.
"I'm a little too old, and I never hit major league pitching."

That was the sobering reality in Vegas last week: This World
Series, for all its charms, was a consolation prize for players
who were passed over when big league rosters expanded on Sept.
1. Ronan was starting for the Zephyrs only because Mitch
Meluskey, the PCL's top catcher, had been called up by the
Houston Astros, New Orleans's parent club. Still, the players
strained to put a good spin on their situation. "If the Triple A
World Series is the best I can do this year, so be it," said
Buffalo's hard-nosed second baseman Torey Lovullo. "I'd cheat my
mom to win."

"All any athlete can hope for is to win the last game of the
season, when only two teams are still in the race," said New
Orleans centerfielder Casey Candaele.

If the names Candaele and Lovullo sound familiar, they should.
Those two players have almost 3,000 big league at bats between
them, and they were joined by plenty of other former Showmen at
Cashman Field. Buffalo first baseman Jeff Manto, 34, hit 17
homers for the Baltimore Orioles in '95 and split 31 games
between the Detroit Tigers and the Bisons' big league affiliate,
the Cleveland Indians, this year. Jack Howell, the 37-year-old
New Orleans DH, appeared in 24 games this season for the Astros
and was a stalwart for the California Angels during the '80s.
Bob Milacki, 34, who won 39 games in the majors, earned the W in
Game 4 by giving the Zephyrs five serviceable innings.

Nearly half the players who turned up in Las Vegas had some major
league experience. Some might have gotten more had their teams
not made it to Vegas. "Jacob Cruz, [Bisons shortstop] Jolbert
Cabrera and some of the other guys deserved trips to the big
leagues," said Lovullo, "but the thinking was they'd just sit on
the bench in Cleveland, so let's keep them in Buffalo and let
them try to win the World Series. After all, that reflects well
on the entire organization."

The upshot was that the series featured some big league
performances. New Orleans took the Sept. 21 opener 7-2 behind
John Halama, a hard-throwing Brooklynite who pitched for the
Astros earlier this year. Halama struck out nine and gave up
only four hits. The Bisons got even the next night, 9-2, thanks
to 6 2/3 strong innings from Mike Matthews and a big night from
Manto, who knocked in two runs with a double. Game 3 was a taut
affair brimming with diving infielders and hustle on the base
paths. Buffalo was four outs from victory when New Orleans
rightfielder Ken Ramos and Ronan launched back-to-back homers.
The players' heroics, however, couldn't change the lifeless vibe
of the series-low crowd of 2,383. Why such poor attendance? Both
teams were far from home, and Cashman is too remote from the
Strip to draw much walk-up business. "But Rome wasn't built in a
day, even at Caesars Palace," says International League
president Randy Mobley.

The event won't be leaving Las Vegas until 2001 at the earliest,
since the leagues have two years left on their deal with the
city's Convention and Visitors Authority. "I see Las Vegas as
the rightful home of the Triple A World Series," says Branch B.
Rickey, the PCL president and grandson of the visionary Brooklyn
Dodgers executive. It's doubtful that his gramps, the game's
famously teetotaling Mahatma, would agree, but the free Vegas
vacation was a huge hit with the players. "We're all a bunch of
sick gamblers and insomniacs anyway," joked Lovullo. "Down the
pennant stretch our rallying cry was, 'Let's earn a trip to our
spiritual home!'"

With Rickey among the front-office players, it would be unwise
to bet against the series's long-term success. He was crucial in
brokering the realignment that created the event. "With 10-team
leagues playing 142 games, there was simply too much
repetition," says Rickey, who spent seven years as president of
the American Association. "The players were seeing the same guys
over and over, and so were the fans." One result of realignment
is the hilariously sprawling new 16-team PCL, stretching from
Alberta, home of the Calgary Cannons, to the New Orleans bayou
and the Arizona desert, where the Tucson Sidewinders play. Given
the penny-pinching that goes on in the minors, this can make for
some hair-raising travel tales. After a night game in Edmonton
this year, the team took a four-hour bus ride to catch a plane
in Calgary. The Zephyrs' flight was to leave at 6 a.m., so club
officials saved hotel money by renting a large conference room,
where the Z's caught a few Z's before dawn. After a
multiconnection odyssey they reached New Orleans at 5 p.m., an
hour before that evening's game, which was followed in turn by
two consecutive days of doubleheaders. "The obvious question
was, What the hell am I doing here?" says Candaele.

On Friday night Candaele was standing amid the sloppy on-field
celebration that followed Game 4. A few of his frisky young
teammates were chasing one another with erupting champagne
bottles, while series MVP Lance Berkman casually held court with
a pack of reporters. Berkman, a 22-year-old outfielder, had
smashed three towering home runs that night, including a
three-run job in the ninth that easily cleared the 24-foot-high
fence in dead center, 433 feet from home plate. That blast was
so majestic that it prompted a quick recount in the press box
over the MVP award, with Berkman stealing the trophy from Ronan,
who had been voted in only 15 minutes earlier. Not that the
award meant much to the winner. After the game Berkman, a former
Rice slugger who hit a combined .302 with 30 homers and 102 RBIs
at Double A Jackson and New Orleans this year, said that while
all this Triple A series business was O.K., the event wasn't as
much fun as the College World Series. Hardly anyone else admits
preferring Omaha to Vegas, but as a can't-miss prospect making a
cameo in the minors, Berkman can do no wrong.

Candaele, meanwhile, looked ecstatic despite his two-day growth
of beard and the hobble he had acquired running the bases and
making a diving catch in center--a lot of exertion for a
37-year-old fighting to keep a place in the game. Candaele's
mother, Helen, was one of the female pro ballplayers whose story
inspired A League of Their Own, and her less-than-mighty Casey,
who homers roughly twice a year, had just spent a night in
Berkman's league. In the final game of his 16th pro season,
Candaele had a homer, a triple and two RBIs.

So, old man, how does it feel to be a major cog on the 31st-best
team in baseball? "It feels," said Candaele, "like the next best
thing to the big leagues."

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Berkman (above) said the Triple A series wasn't as much fun as the College World Series. [Lance Berkman throwing from outfield]

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Three of diamonds Cruz cruised into third in Game 3. [Jacob Cruz sliding safely behind third baseman]

"If the Triple A series is the best I can do, so be it," Lovullo
said. "I'd cheat my mom to win."