Forgotten Frasers now fiction
STAGE PLAY: Based on New West team, which even had a player who lived in a van down by the river
There is a timeless beauty about baseball, purists say, as one of the few pastimes played without the aid of a clock. It was a case of fortuitous timing, however, that will lead to a blend of baseball and comedy on a New Westminster stage this month, because it truly couldn’t happen any other way.
There’s no rational reason for a play about a roguish minor league team to be performed by a non-profit production company headed by an off-Broadway actress versed primarily in Shakespeare.
But there was little about the New Westminster Frasers that ever fit a script either. As the Shakespearean actress said herself, it’s Bull Durham all over again.
Any overview about the history of the pro game in the Lower Mainland could easily have overlooked the Frasers. In 1974, seven years before Justin Morneau was born in a city not far from the home of Jeff Francis, an independent Single A team was born. The team had a short, undistinguished life, not worthy of rewriting Northwest League history.
The Frasers — as much a lab experiment for some of the few who went on to a big-league career as they were a refuse for outcasts who were prepared to keep their hopes alive by playing for $300 a month, living at the local YMCA and working as both players and groundskeepers at Queen’s Park Stadium.
Years later, the only way to remember the city’s only brush with baseball came in the form of a book on the Frasers published last summer by Ken McIntosh, a 62-year-old retired New Westminster policeman who admits his strengths lie less in writing and more on forensics.
But what the Frasers represented to McIntosh and co-author/playwright Rod Drown has become Burning Up the Infield, a two-act play to be staged at 2 p.m. on June 12 at Douglas College by City Stage New West.
“I spent five minutes paging through the script and said ‘it looks like a comedy,’” Frasers general manager Dean Taylor said.
Though it seemed different at the time, the Frasers indeed were a comedy waiting to happen. Taylor, then 22, ran the team with a friend, Mike Manning, completing a college degree in sports management for what has become a long career as vice-president of the Kansas City Royals.
The team lasted eight months. Each day was an adventure.
City council did the team no favours by initially voting against the sale of billboard advertising. Total attendance for 41 home dates was 10,865, the lowest that year in organized baseball, averaging 259 past Canada Day. Sports in the day was Ernie McLean and the New Westminster Bruins, along with the lacrosse Salmonbellies, next door at Queen’s Park Arena.
“I don’t think [the Frasers] marketed the team that well. I didn’t see many ads,” said McIntosh, who spent $4,000 to print 1,000 copies of his book.
While many players on the home team lived at the YMCA — a good thing considering an area near the reception desk was the team’s first front office — visiting players dressed for games at their hotel. A good night was when the umpires showed up for work.
The introduction of the designated hitter a year earlier did not help many careers. One outfielder, Charlie Beech, a blond California surfer dude who lived in the back of a Volkswagen van, came after the beat writer with the now-defunct New
Westminster Columbian with a bat when he was described in the paper as the “designated out.”
While rivals like the Bellingham Dodgers were known for the players they developed, such as future big leaguers Rick Sutcliffe and Pedro Guerrero, the Frasers became less of a path to future stardom and more of a dead end.
The only local player to benefit was Rob Arnold, a Richmond pitcher who later ran Baseball B.C. for 23 years before his passing. The most notable of the Frasers’ three managers was John Wojcik, recalled in the book for getting into shoving matches with umpires.
All of what took place that year would have become hearsay without McIntosh, a self-described baseball nut who plans to write another book on B.C.’s major leaguers.
None of it would also be brought to the stage without a chance meeting in a Starbucks by Drown with a Shakespearean actress who was putting up a poster promoting a City Stage performance.
City Stage artistic director Rene Bucciarelli somehow saw the merits of a theatrical performance about a slapstick baseball team.
“Rod and I both have a very corny sense of humour,” Bucciarelli said. “We don’t have a Pulitzer Prize-winning play here, but what we have is charming enough to tell this very funny story. This is New Westminster’s Bull Durham.”
There’s plenty of subplots to go around. A focus of Burning Up the Infield took place long before the arrival of David Suzuki. One day, Wojcik and his team’s players/groundskeepers attracted the local fire department to the park when they tried to dispose of puddles on the infield before a game by burning used tires. The team didn’t go up in smoke that day, but the stadium almost did.
The narrative for the play will be in the voice of Glyn Lewis, former Columbian sports editor who wrote critically about the Frasers, who will be played by longtime local actor Blu Mankuma.
“Maybe it can be said we found the humour of that team’s short history,” says Drown. “People will have to close their eyes, open their ears and imagine.”
Taylor only had to read the script McIntosh gave him during a trip to Kansas City last month to remember the start of his career.
It took more explaining when he retold the story of the Frasers to Francis, a regular this season in the Royals’ rotation, who grew up in North Delta.
“If I had to do it over again I wouldn’t change anything,” said Taylor, who is with his fourth big league organization, including a 2000-02 stint as general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers.
“When I talk about New Westminster, people seem to be amazed that we were a couple of 22-year-old kids who had the courage to do something like that.”
Call Burning Up the Infield more of a comedic success story.