7.12.2005

Small Ball, Big Dreams



Barring delays, next week will find Mincer Poppadopolis ensconced in the Slushie Hut at the Harper Woods Little League complex just outside of Detroit, selling spectators a plethora of cool colored ices. He will also be leading spectators to their proper seats on the 5-tiered bleachers on each side of the diamond. He will also umpire, tend to the needs of hitters, and act as mascot for the inaugural American All-Star Bunt Bowl. Right now, he's taking a screwdriver to an outdated pitching machine, trying to finetune the machine's mechanics. "Pitches need to be slow but not slow slow!" he says breathlessly in thickly-accented English, his swarthy and squat five-foot frame hunched over the machine. "Hitters don't catch fast pitches with the bat!"

Satisfied with his struggles, he turns the machine on and steps back. A dimpled yellow ball slides between two fast-spinning rubber donuts and zips over the plate, waist high to a cardboard cutout poised in the right-handed batter's box. The pitch hits the backstop's chain link fence with a satisfying metallic clink. Mincer looks over at his taut and tan daughter, Ferrari, leaning against a fence on the 3rd base side of the field. She snaps her gum while pointing a radar gun in the general direction of the pitch as if the gun is a limp loaf of bread. "Ferrari!" he shouts. She casts a withering glare in Mincer's direction, and at me, and then looks at the read-out on the gun. "75, poppa," she sighs, her gum snap punctuating the ennui in her demeanor. Mincer looks at me with rabid glee flecking his eyes. "Yes!" he shouts, waddling over to hug his disinterested daughter, her deep brown eyes rolling skyward as her father squeezes her lithe frame between his meaty forearms.

Mincer Poppadopolis is a 2nd generation American. His parents came to the United States in the early 50s, with Mincer's father's career as a Fuller Brush salesman taking him, his wife, and young Mincer all across eastern United States. They finally settled in East Lansing, MI, where Mincer and his daughter now reside. Mincer's lackluster performance in high school, coupled with financial hardships, forced the young man to go to work at a local Kentucky Fried Chicken. He began behind the frier. After 18 years, he now owns his own Taco Bell / KFC / TCBY restaurant, and is looking to open a Pizza Hut not five minutes from his house. "Hard work is the American dream!" he shouts. "I work hard, and look! I am making money!" To illustrate his point, he pulls out a Detroit Tiger money clip from his black satin Detroit Tiger jacket, and rolls his fat fingers over the bunched dollar bills wedged into the clip. The sound made is not unlike what you hear when bicycle wheel spokes flicker over the edge of a Topps card. He grins, and shakes his money clip furiously. "I know I am money!"

As you might discern from his couture and accoutrements, Mincer is also a huge baseball fan. He has one room in his house dedicated to his favorite Tiger of all time, outfielder Milt Cuyler. Cuyler, a player known for his speed and little else, played only one full year in the majors. In 1991, his first full year in the majors, Cuyler stole 41 bases and scored 77 runs, leading off for a Tiger team transitioning from its mid-80s heyday into a dark descent into futility. The wood paneled walls of Mincer's study are draped in pennants and pictures and clippings concerning the little-known Tiger. "I don't know how it happened," Ferrarri Poppadopolis muses, her teeth mulling over her wad of sweet-smelling gum the way her cat-like mind mulls over memories. "I think he just saw Mel steal a base or get a hit or do something one day, and then, from what I know, it was all you could do to get Dad to talk about anything else. Besides, I was only 3 or 4. Why are you even talking to me about this?" Included in Mincer's collection of Cuyler memorabilia is a picture of Cuyler shaking Mincer's hand - it was taken at a local card show circa 1992. The look in Mincer's eyes: pure, focused madness, the type of madness typical of eccentric geniuses and misunderstood artists. The look in Cuyler's face: shock, dismay, seasoned with a small helping of fear, or perhaps a sense of his own baseball mortality. Cuyler's hand disappears into the swarthy man's grip the way a rat disappears into the unhinged maw of a cobra.

"It was the way he played!" Mincer offers as reason for his obsession. He talks breathlessly while taking a pair of pinking shears to the infield grass, fastidiously trimming any rogue blades. "He was fast! And he was speedy! And he did not hit home runs like Cecil Fielder and Lou Whitaker! Like me! I am Milt Cuyler! I do not hit home runs! I have to make runs the hard way! And I did!" It is this tenacity and ferocity that fueled Mincer's desire to participate in the upcoming All-Star Game festivities in any way possible. Hence, the American All-Stars Bunt Bowl, an exhibition displaying the oft-overlooked skills that, in Mincer's words, "make baseball great!" In Mincer's world, the Bash Brothers bring forearms together for advancing runners, and curtain calls are reserved for those who can coax a ball down a foul line fair. "No home run derbies!" Mincer yells, pounding the aluminum bleachers. "Home runs are for fat people with no skill! I hit home runs if I want! I just swing hard and throw out ass like cheap floozy! And there is yard work! Big fancy whoop-dee-doo-dee! But bunt and speed and moving runners - that is true skill! Like Milt Cuyler! I want to show people that!"

To that end, Mincer has painted multiple targets between the batter's box and the pitcher's mound. Like in the Home Run Derby, a hitter is given 10 "outs". The hitter will be offered a pitch, and the hitter will try to bunt the ball into one of the circles on the ground. Getting a ball into a certain circle earns the hitter a certain amount of points - the circles directly in front of home plate are worth only 5 points, while landing in the circle halfway down the 3rd base line is worth 100 points. However, a hitter also has the option to swing away at pitches in an attempt to move imaginary runners over with a well placed groundout. The chance for scoring increases with such attempts - a groundout through the proper circle could mean 1000 points - but there is also a chance that you lose points if you, for instance, line a basehit back through the box. Any ball hit to the outfield on the fly means instant disqualification. Other rules are written on multiple pieces of posterboard, twenty in all. On the day of the Bunt Bowl, Mincer plans on hanging these rules on any and all available surfaces.

"Mr. Poppadopolis' endeavor is the sort of endeavor that we wish was helmed under the aegis of Major League Baseball," says an anonymous representative of the Elias Sports Bureau. "In this day and age, the Productive Out and Sacrifice Bunt are unfairly impugned upon by various organizations that prefer the hollow glitz and glamour of scoring runs in bunches." Unfortunately for Mr. Poppadopolis, Major League Baseball has not recognized the Bunt Bowl as an official All-Star affiliated event - hence, the event taking place in a little league park in Harper Woods, and not Comerica Park. Despite constant and fervent petitioning, Major League Baseball has forbid Mincer to attempt to represent this event as being a part of the MLB All-Star festivities, and even went so foar as to state that the American All-Star Bunt Bowl cannot take place until after all MLB-affiliated All-Star events have been completed. To add insult to injury, invitations to various players - ranging from current players like David Eckstein and JJ Hardy to old-timers like Otis Nixon and Marty Barrett - have gone unnoticed or unresponded. "I heard back from Alex Cole!" notes Mincer. "But he thought this was a paid event! I said yes, you get paid! In hot dogs and cole slaw! And Corey Hart performance! By me! Night sunglasses!"

Mincer's passion hides a tint of bitterness - because of his undying passion for baseball, his wife, Claudia Maria Jennifer Poppadopolis, left Mincer three years ago. He was also removed as manager of the local tee-ball team after an ugly confrontation with a player and his parents. The following is an account from a parent who would only talk to us anonymously, for fear of earning Mincer's ire. "There was this kid on the team, a natural. Every time he swung, the ball would fly over the fence. And that squat little freak was getting angry at the kid! He kept saying stuff like, 'Stop swinging so hard!' and 'You're not playing right!' But the kid just kept on doing the same thing every at-bat. So that freak decided to bench the kid. And the kid's parents, rightfully, got upset. I wasn't at the game, but I heard that the argument got so heated that the freak grabbed an aluminum bat and started chasing people around, screaming something like, 'I show you how to swing!' I think the umpire broke his arm or something, and he managed to knock out a player's mother. They had to mace him. It was like bringing down a rhino. It was terrible." While Mincer would deflect any questions concerning this incident, it's clear that he sees the Bunt Bowl as an attempt to atone for that incident.

Atonement comes at a high price, however. Because of the incident, Mincer has had to pay the town an exorbitant fee to rent out the field. As noted before, there's a good chance that no players will show up, and the ill will fostered by Mincer's bunt-centric fanaticism has alienated most townsfolk. Still, the interest in the event for the Poppadopolis clan does not waver. "Whatever," sighs Ferrarri. "Dad said I could either help out with his stupid baseball thing, or I could work double-shifts at the Taco Bell all week, making burritos for burnouts and nerds. What would you do? And why do you keep staring at me? Perv." Despite the hardships Mincer has endured, it is hard to begrudge the man his dreams. Watching him splatter color Pollock-like across a scraggly infield, swearing to himself as sweat and paint drip into his eyes, one can't help but think of Ray Kinsella pouring his life savings into the building of a baseball field, powered by one overriding though. Mincer, face mottled with red and yellow sploches, looks over to me and smiles as if reading my mind. "This is my dream field!" he shouts, stubby arms spread wide, encompassing everything from the rusted playscape to the gravel parking lot. "If you come, I will build it!" Ferrarri, flipping through the latest issue of Blender, pops a bubble, and Mincer, smiling to himself, returns to his work.

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