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The baseball myth of Cardines Field

A small team in a small town plays on a field with a great story

This is where John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier got married, on 12 September 1953. This is where the Vanderbilts settled – legendary nineteenth-century builders and creators of New York’s modernist myth. And here is where the Astor family, nemesis of the Vanderbilts for real estate dominance in the Big Apple, had their summer residence. This is where the Tennis Hall of Fame begins and flourishes, combined with one of the most important ATP tournaments. This is the home to the legendary America’s Cup.

Just for the record, ‘here’ is Newport, Rhode Island, in the north-eastern United States. Now, what one of the most popular of American sports has to do with one of the most elite places in the world is difficult to explain. Yet there is a strong link between baseball and this small town of 25,000 people. And it’s a story that goes a back long way.

As early as 1890, Major League teams playing in Boston used to stay at the convenient Newport hotels and had just a short train ride into the capital of Massachusetts. In order to make the most of the overnight stay, the managers of the teams organized exhibitions games against a selection of local players. In front of a large – paying – crowd at Freebody Park. These Sunday matches show the strong local interest in the game and the New England League decides to give the town a franchise: the Newport Colts are born. These are the years when Wellington Park is built, a stadium with a capacity of 3000. In those days, a truly epic achievement. Then the team changes name and becomes the Newport Trojans.

The usual practice of high-ranking franchises coming to ‘train’ in Rhode Island contin- ues and, in August 1916, something amazing happens: the New York Giants lose 5-3 at Wellington Park. An incredible result for the hosts, because it was against a MLB franchise and, above all, because the Giants would follow up that defeat with eight con- secutive wins, establishing the most successful record ever for September fixtures. A record that gives an even more mythical halo to the Trajans’ achievement.

But where the Giants didn’t manage to bring down their hosts, the termites did, by literally destroying the stands. For safety reasons, what little was left had to be pulled down and they had to look for new location for the stadium. Cardines Field is inaugurated and the local passion for baseball continues. The Trojans play in an increasingly important Sunset League and their popularity increases substantially during the Second World War.

Like all good stories, however, there is an inevitable ending and the killer has a readily identifiable name: television. Between the 1950s and 1960s, the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves games began to appear on the small screen, catalysing the in- terest of Newport fans. The Sunset League continues to draw a local crowd – and still does so today! – but at the beginning of the 1990s the colour of cable television definitely kills the old appeal. In 1993, the New England Collegiate League was cre- ated and, in 2001, the Rhode Island Gulls left Narragansett Bay to move to Newport, taking up the Trojans’ legacy.

The playing field is always the same, named after Bernardo Cardines, the first in- habitant of Newport who died in the First World War. Originally called ‘The Basin’, Cardines Field is one of the oldest baseball stadiums in the United States, so much so that there is quite a controversy about claims that it is actually the oldest field still in use.

The fact remains that the story of local baseball is closely intertwined with this ground, which has become a legend in its own right for very good reason. The whole of the perimeter fence, for example, is 28 feet high – except in the middle of the field, where it’s 15 feet high – not to preserve the original appearance, but to leave room for a tree! And the trees are one of the problems related to the field. Around it, there are many; with them there are also many houses, since the area is highly residential: needless to say, broken windows have to be taken into account in the team’s budget …

In the early 1980s, Newport’s strong tourist expansion led the local government to consider the demolition of Cardines Field to make way for a parking lot. A popular uprising put a stop to this unfortunate idea, and funds were raised to keep the field where the breeze from the Atlantic Ocean – we’re just a block from the sea – has a strong impact on the game, carrying the ball to the right when the southwesterly winds blow.

And when the ball flies out of the stadium? Well, in this case there’s a cast-iron rule: any fans who leave the stands to recover the object of desire won’t be allowed back into the grounds. The reason is simple: they want to discourage a dangerous rush of ball hunters onto the busy streets around the stadium … hardly the utmost in terms of security.

The fans, therefore, have learned to stay in their seats, abandoning them before the end of the match only in one case: when the summer fog blankets the pitch. Which is not that rare an occurrence, as play is stopped for that very reason a couple of times a year. The likelihood of this happening is part of the myth that has grown up around one of the meccas of US baseball.

Right here, where JFK and Jackie said yes, the National Pastime lives out one of its most beautiful love stories with the American people.

By pure chance, the 8 was close to me. The number, seen on its side (∞), vaguely resembled the mathematical symbol for infinity. I smiled. “What’s there to laugh about?” Maggie asked. “I’m laughing because we’ve come to the end of the game and, I believe, my life … and in front of my eyes I find the symbol of infinity,” I said, pointing at the 8 lying on its side.

“The irony of destiny, Franky, you know better than me that everything passes and nothing is infinite, not even death, according to some cultures.” By a strange ricochet effect, unfortunately for the old woman, the cue ball was exactly between the 8 ball and the pocket her next shot should have been aimed at. And it was completely surrounded by the remaining balls, all mine.

There was really little margin for success, it was a nearly impossible shot, it would take at least two favourable bank shots to pocket the ball. While at the same time avoiding the others. “So what’re we going to do now, Franky?” Mag asked.

“We finish here,” I answered, closing my eyes. “Play, I’m ready.” “Well,” added the old lady, smiling. “In that case I’d say it’s time to wake up!”

When I opened my eyes, I saw in front of me the poster of ‘The Hustler’ hanging on the wall. Paul Newman’s icy stare trained on an undefined point above my head. I sighed. I got out of bed, drenched in sweat, and ran to pick up the phone where I’d left it the night before, on the kitchen table. I looked at the numbers in the memory display, stopping at the contact details that Cynthia had sent me a few Christmases ago in the hope that I’d ‘try’ (those were her words) ‘to do something good in life’. At the time, I didn’t pay any attention, I thought she was trying in every way possible to humiliate me and remind me I was a failure, as a man, as a father and as a husband.

At the other end of the line, the phone rang:
“Hello?” a female voice answered.
“Good morning,” I said. “I’m looking for Paul Banks. Is he at home by any chance?”
“Of course, I’ll put you over to him,” said the woman. “Who shall I say it is?” “His father.”

Credits

PH Jason Evans
TEXT Francesco Costantino Ciampa

March 2, 2020

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