Wiedmer: 1976 forever 'special' for Mollenhauer

Wiedmer: 1976 forever 'special' for Mollenhauer

June 27th, 2010 by Mark Wiedmer in Opinion Columns

Engel Stadium lost track of time Saturday afternoon. No longer overgrown and underappreciated, it briefly returned to being our town's baseball diamond in the rough rather than, roughly speaking, a dump.

"Just a great place," Bob Mollenhauer said as he walked around the crumbling structure's perimeter, somehow ignoring 34 years of decay and decline.

"You'd look out the locker-room windows that summer and you'd see people lined up halfway around the stadium for tickets because there was only one ticket booth. It seemed there were sellouts every night. They cheered us all the time. They never booed us. Chattanooga had the best fans in baseball, bar none."

To be fair, the Lookouts were reborn in 1976, back in Engel for the first time in 21 years, Mollenhauer manning second base for the Oakland A's farm team.

"We were greeted at the airport by hundreds of people when we arrived from spring training," he said. "They were just so happy to have baseball back. Sometimes it seemed as if the whole baseball world was watching Chattanooga that summer."

Mollenhauer and his wife Laurie have been in town this weekend to watch son Dale play second base for the Birmingham Barons against the Lookouts at AT&T Field, as well as help him celebrate his 24th birthday.

Not surprisingly, Dale took one look at Engel and said he was happy not to be playing there.

But that doesn't mean he hasn't enjoyed his father's occasional recollections about the two summers he spent here.

"Just hearing things he would say," said Dale, who played three seasons at East Carolina before turning pro. "The whole atmosphere. The jokes. His teammates. He made it sound fun."

It was fun. And right from the start, when Mark Budaska hit a grand slam on opening day to spark a victory over Charlotte.

"We won the first-half pennant," Mollenhauer said of that first summer. "But they started moving guys up and Montgomery won the second half, then beat us in a one-game playoff here. It ended too soon."

Still, there were so much to enjoy that Mollenhauer said, "I don't think I ever went back to my apartment immediately after a game. There was always somewhere to go, something to do. Everybody was so nice to us."

There also was plenty of entertainment inside Engel not directly related to the score. Like the time a teammate dumped a box of Tide in the whirlpool, turning the whole training room into a bubble bath.

Or the night umpire Joe West ejected the organ player for breaking into "Three Blind Mice" after a particularly bad call.

"Only time I ever saw that happen," Mollenhauer said.

A sign that organ music has changed: When Mollenhauer walked to the plate that season, the organist broke into the Obernkirchen Children's Choir classic "Happy Wanderer." When Dale goes to the plate for the Barons, they play the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Around the World."

Less than a year after that first-half championship season, Mollenhauer called it quits, leaving the team in August to take a three-month hiking and camping trip more than half way around the country through the Tetons and Yellowstone with teammate Dave Hagman.

"I quit the day before Elvis died," he said, recalling Elvis Presley's death on Aug. 16, 1977. "When we were leaving town the next morning I heard one of the disc jockeys say, 'He's gone.' I kind of hoped they were talking about me, but I knew it was Elvis. That whole week, as we drove across the country, all we heard were Elvis songs."

Thirty-three years later, when asked what non-baseball attribute he most cherishes that he's learned from his father, Dale said, "Hiking and outdoors stuff."

But after three months in the wilderness, the elder Mollenhauer was ready to return to academic life, beginning grad school at Boston University. There he met Laurie. Mollenhauer has spent much of the rest of his life in education, mostly fundraising, working for Slippery Rock, Roanoke College and his current employer, Virginia Tech.

Dale is not the only other baseball player in the family. Younger son Brett is currently on scholarship at Radford.

Not that Bob and Laurie necessarily steered either boy toward athletics.

Befitting someone who once turned former News-Free Press sports columnist Mark McCarter onto author Kurt Vonnegut, Mollenhauer ended any successful athletic event for his boys by asking the following question as he tucked them into bed that night: "Now what's more important, your schoolwork or the game?"

Added Dale, "That was always pushed. We were expected to do well in school."

Yet it is baseball that bonds them. Dale spent spring training on the Chicago White Sox roster, being coached by Jeff Cox, who was Bob's Lookouts teammate. Now he's playing his father's position in the Southern League, a child of the north learning to embrace sweet tea, biscuits and gravy and June days in the 90s, much as his New Jersey-born dad once did.

Said the Happy Wanderer as he pulled away from Engel, his heart still stuck on 1976: "It was just a magical year. This place will always be special to me."