Walking through the iron front gates of Engel Stadium Monday night, fans smiled as if they were meeting an old friend. And, in a way, they were.
The Southern League held its annual home run derby at the venerable, 84-year-old stadium and drew in excess of 2,000 people. The fans weren't there to see a game and probably weren't familiar with many of the players involved in the competition. But they were excited to see some kind of professional competition return to the place where their grandfathers and fathers may have brought them to see a game, where they may have played in a high school baseball game or where part of a movie they saw, "42" -- about Jackie Robinson -- was made.
No disrespect to AT&T Field, which sits in a scenic position in the Scenic City and doesn't have a bad seat, but Engel has the nostalgic feel the new field hasn't yet earned. Some of Monday's fans may go back to the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Senators days with the stadium, in the 1960s and before, but most probably remember the modern era -- baseball's vaunted return in 1976; Used Car Nights when fans had to push, pull, tug and tow away the cars they won; Roacho the Clown; players like Matt Keough, Joe Charboneau, Mark Langston and Trevor Hoffman; organist Charley Timmons being thrown out of the game by umpire Joe West for playing "Three Blind Mice"; NBA great Michael Jordan's appearance as a member of the Birmingham Barons; and colorful managers like Dirty Al Gallagher and Phillip Wellman.
Engel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is owned by UTC and supported in ways by the nonprofit Engel Foundation. The expensive-to-maintain octogenarian may not live forever at Third and O'Neal streets, but some 2,000 fans were glad it had life for at least one day in June 2014.
Tony Gwynn, who died Monday at the age of 54, was a Major League Baseball player whose likes may be gone forever with his passing. He was a pure hitter in the style of Stan Musial and Ted Williams of a bygone day but in the modern era of expansion baseball, jet lag and specialist pitchers.
To cite just one example, he never struck out more than 40 times in one Major League season. Atlanta Braves outfielder Justin Upton has already struck out 81 times this season, which isn't even half over. And Upton's strikeouts for his first six full Major League seasons have been 121, 137, 152, 126, 121 and 161.
Gwynn, a laughing and happy player who went on to be the baseball coach at his alma mater, San Diego State, nevertheless garnered a vice baseball players too often take up: smokeless chewing tobacco. It's what gave him oral cancer -- he acknowledged -- and what killed him. Major League Baseball wanted it banned at the sport's last labor negotiations, but the Major League Baseball Players Association nixed it.
Supposedly, players are not allowed to have tobacco packages and tins in their back pockets when fans are permitted in the ballpark, or use tobacco during pregame or postgame interviews, or at team functions. But television cameras often capture players with wads -- of tobacco, not bubble gum -- in their mouths. Maybe Gwynn's death will inspire the dumping of a few pouches and cans today. It won't be a moment too soon.
You probably missed it. Most people did, because the news was released late Friday, as governments often do, when most people had left work for the weekend. But the Internal Revenue Service lost two years' worth of emails to and from Lois Lerner, the former IRS chief who has refused to testify in the scandal in which she is accused of using her position to harass conservative groups.
The agency blamed a 2011 computer crash for the problem but had told Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee much more recently the emails were available. And the Obama administration, which likely called for the probes in the first place, played it dumb. "You've never heard of a computer crashing before?" a White House spokesman said.
With the latest snafu, IRS watchers and a few Democrats have even sat up to pay attention this time to the scandal, which had been fading. Now, finally, the issue may demand a special prosecutor, a move that should have occurred months ago.