Somehow, during the tumult of an occurrence-filled summer, I missed the startling news that the London (Ont.) Rippers professional baseball team of the Frontier League is no more.
Only a few weeks prior to my discovery, on a steamy July evening, the Rippers were a struggling expansion team in a small-market bus league, about to be whupped 4-0 by the Washington (Penna.) Wild Things before 1,883 fans in Consol Energy Park.
What remained of the Rippers the next day was suddenly reconstituted into the Road Warriors, a barnstorming team without a home, maintained by the league only to provide a symmetrical even-number playing schedule.
Not that London, Ont., less-than-glamorous seat of Middlesex County, was much of a home to begin with. To say that the city never warmed to their new team doesn’t quite describe the situation. Factions of the community were openly hostile to the notion that a local sports team would be named to commemorate the 19th century serial killer, who preyed on female prostitutes. The director of a London womens’ shelter spoke for many: “People are outraged. I think it’s appalling. It’s insulting and stupid.” Team general manager David Martin tried to downplay the controversy, but was urged to stand firm by misogynistic nitwits such as (inevitably) the phallocentric radio loudmouth Rush Limbaugh.
Further antagonizing the XX-chromosomal population of London was the information that Mr. Martin was merely the front-man for the franchise’s principal investor — one Dr. Othman Kadry of Pontiac, Mich., who funded the Rippers from the proceeds of his day-job as a practicing obstetrician-and-gynecologist.
When you kick things off by alienating most of your audience base (London’s population is 51.8 per cent female, according to the 2006 census), the only way you can make matters worse is to tell the remaining menfolk the two words we never, ever want to hear: No beer. But those were the conditions at the Rippers’ home field, the misleadingly-named Labatt Park. Through a quirk in Ontario’s arcane liquor laws, beer sales in the stadium were restricted to games involving the semi-pro London Majors of the Intercounty Baseball League. Which offered Rippers attendees the sobering invitation to watch a team with a winning percentage of .416 – with no consolation in lasting through a losing nine innings by getting, ah, ripped.
Not surprisingly, Rippers ducats had few takers. The team averaged just 846 Londoners per game, in a stadium able to accommodate 5,500. And so, the Rippers follow the trail of failed baseball franchises that preceded them in what may or may not be the oldest enduring ballpark in North America, dating back to 1877. (Fuller Field in Clinton, Massachusetts also claims the title.) They join the previous Frontier League nine, the London Werewolves (1999-2001), the Eastern League’s London Tigers (1989-93), the London Pirates (1940-41) of the wonderfully-named PONY League — which operated in Pennsylvania, Ontario, and New York – all the way back to the 19th century, when the International League’s one and only London Cockneys might well have remembered when the original Jack-the-Ripper tales were circulated ‘over ‘ome.
Thus do Rippers become Road Warriors. This transmutation, creepy though it is, fulfills the premise of Philip Roth’s 1973 comic fiction, The Great American Novel. Roth had fun sketching out the notion of a permanently homeless baseball team, the World War II-era Ruppert Mundys of the Patriot League, who are destined to know life as a single, unending road trip. The book is just plain brilliant, but only because the author knows his way around a metaphor — not to mention ironic constructions such as American dreams, greed, and lust, all converging around the nation’s pastime. Roth knows that any group of men who must constantly play the unhappy role of Away Team will suffer rootlessness and despair, ending with the rapid onset of madness. Frontier League Commissioner Bill Lee, who expelled the Road Warriors, née Rippers, from their home, to wander the league interminably, pretends to know no such thing.
The first thing that must be said about Commissioner Lee is that he is not the Bill Lee, the flaky former Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expo pitcher who is known as “The Spaceman.” It is natural that people will make the misassociation, when you share the name of a prominent notorious individual who also happens to be in your line of work. Just imagine you’re George Bush of, say, Cottage Grove, Oregon, no relation to the other guy, and someone down the block suggests you’d make a dandy candidate for Lane Country School Board. Or you’re Zelmo Beatty of Bedford, Nova Scotia, no relation to the old-timey basketball star, but you do play a little weekend hoops at the Dartmouth Y. Must take a lot of ribbing. Must be rough.
I know this, because once I sat in the row next to Bill Lee, the commissioner, on an US Airways flight out of Phoenix. Got to hear much of the commissioner’s whole life’s story, in fact, including how the jewel of his league was then the Chillicothe (Ohio) Paints. Now, as I seek to refresh my knowledge of the subject, I see that the Paints have transferred over from the good old FL to the Prospect League, a 12-team middle-western circuit, with which I’m unfamiliar. (However, the PL seems to have much to recommend itself, including two teams named the “Sliders,” one in Springfield, Illinois, and the other in Slippery Rock, Penna. Slippery Rock was another former FL city, which evidently slipped out of Commissioner Lee’s grasp.)
Just to further confuse matters, there is a third Bill Lee to toss into the mix: the police chief of Sanford, Fla., who made headlines over the handling of George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin.
And as there are myriad Bill Lees (we can overlook the fourth, William Burroughs’ literary alter-ego), it turns out that there are now any number of independent minor baseball associations, operating outside the structure of what is called Organized Baseball. One such is the North American League, currently wrapping up its sophomore season. It happens that just last evening, Bill Lee — that is, Spaceman Bill Lee – scattered just eight hits in a NAL game between Lee’s San Rafael Pacifics and the visiting Na Koa Ikaika of Wailuku, Maui, Hawaii. In doing so, Lee, 65, becomes the oldest pitcher ever to win a professional ball game. To which Mel Allen, the late sportscaster, would exclaim, “How about that?”
Lee, the pitcher, shares this with Philip Roth and William Burroughs: Each is an author of a highly-regarded work. And not to over-sell Lee’s memoir, but I recall it as being a faster, sharper and more accurate read than Portnoy’s Complaint, and much better-written than Junky.
Lee, the pitcher, recently told the Regina Leader-Post it is his opinion that the city of Montréal needs a professional ball team. “Go back to Delorimier Stadium and build a beautiful park there and call it Jackie Robinson Field,” he says. “Bring baseball back to Montreal.” He implies that if baseball returns to that market, he’d haul his creaky frame back east and try out for a playing position.
Lee, the commissioner, finds himself with a surplus baseball team on his hands, and eventually will need a burgh in which to locate it. Ideally, it will be a locale able to immediately source out an organ player who knows the chords to “The Happy Wanderer (Val-De-Ri Val-De-Ra),” along with a large tub in which to steam Lester’s hot dogs, someone who knows where to get the Youppi costume dry-cleaned, and, most important of all, a sufficient supply of cold Molson’s Brador.
The only remaining detail to settle, it would seem, is the team name. Or perhaps that has already been determined.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Are you ready to welcome Les éventreurs des Montréal?