Diamond in the Rough

On a hot, muggy night in Beaumont, with the insects in full bloom and a view over the outfield fence of traffic tooling along Highway 69, the Beaumont Bullfrogs of the Texas Louisiana League -- an unaffiliated, bottom-of-the-ladder baseball association started only this year -- are trying to protect their one-game hold on the Eastern Division lead of the second half of their inaugural season. Trying to break that hold are the Mobile Baysharks, a collection of once-weres and hopeful-maybes like the Frogs themselves.

To those weaned on action in the Astrodome, there's not much to write home about here. The swings aren't particularly crisp; the trajectory of the ball from pitcher's mound to home plate is not particularly blazing. This is more than a few rungs down the ladder from the majors, a.k.a. The Show, but it has one crucial advantage over its more talented relation: this show hasn't been canceled. This

show is still playing to the crowds, albeit ones considerably smaller than those drawn to the Dome.

These are dark days for the hardcore baseball fan. Spring and the early summer months are only a prelude to September, when the serious baseball jones begins to kick in. But with the major-league strike seemingly set to end the 1994 season where it stands, those in Houston who want a hit of hardball have one true option: drive 90 miles east to root for the Frogs.

Actually, for those hoping to catch one more glimpse of the Astros, the Texas Louisiana League isn't a bad bet. Former Astro Jose Cruz is the manager of the league's San Antonio franchise; former Astro Alan Ashby manages the team in Harlingen; former Astros catcher Marc Bailey is still taking his cuts as a player-coach for the Frogs; and Charley Kerfeld -- the corpulent onetime reliever who starred for the 1986 Astros team that won the National League Western Division title, only to lose the National League Championship to the New York Mets in six games -- is back in baseball as the Frogs' manager.

Kerfeld, one of those rarefied characters that the national pastime periodically produces, lasted only three seasons in the majors. Even so, it's a long way from prime time to Beaumont. Still, while managing the Bullfrogs is a far cry from toweling off in the Astrodome, when the opportunity arose to be the Beaumont field boss, as well as an investor in the team, Kerfeld jumped at it like a bullfrog on a fly.

We found Kerfeld propped up in a folding chair inside the small coaches lounge in the tiny free-standing clubhouse located underneath the metal bleachers at Vincent-Beck Stadium, the Frogs' home field. Even when he was somewhat in shape during his glory days with the Astros, Kerfeld was still a huge man known for his huge appetite. Now the 6-foot-7-inch Kerfeld probably tips the scales in excess of 300 pounds. Leaning back against the wall in the metal chair, Kerfeld indeed resembles a big ol' bullfrog -- a bullfrog in sanitary hose and pitching sleeves.

"I haven't dropped any acid today," Kerfeld jokingly confesses as he launches into a discussion of Frog life with a longhaired reporter from Houston.

Kerfeld, who's just 30 years old, starts to explain how he got hooked up with a league that's not even affiliated with the majors -- a sort of lower-than-minor league -- but gets sidetracked when he tries to get his friend and first-base coach, H.D. Caldwell Jr., a Houston lawyer and son of former police chief Harry Caldwell, to order the players onto the field to roll up a tarp that has been protecting the natural turf diamond from recent rains. Caldwell ignores Kerfeld, electing instead to stay put in the coaches lounge, so Kerfeld feigns getting tough.

"Everybody get your fucking asses out there now," bellows Kerfeld from the closet of an office, "or I'm going to beat the shit out of Caldwell!"

Things are kind of loose in the Beaumont Bullfrogs' organization. At least off the field. On the field, however, the game is still the game. Tonight, when the first pitch is served up promptly at 7:05, some 300 folks have made their way to the ballpark. They're scattered about the stands, some sitting in the red folding box seats, others on the metal benches. Some camp out in a picnic area down the left-field line. All have a close-up view of the well-manicured grass field contained by an outfield fence with a double row of signs and logos promoting area businesses.

Vincent-Beck Stadium -- owned by Lamar University -- is a pleasant little ballfield. On the upside, it's intimate in the best way of small ballparks. On the downside, the air is heavy with humidity and mosquitoes -- proving that Judge Roy Hofheinz, the father of the Astrodome, was indeed a man of vision. However, the Frogs' fans on hand tonight are hard-core and oblivious to the elements.

"We have 22 kids busting their ass to play, not three or four like in the majors," boasts David Malone, the Frogs' general manager. "The difference in what you get here, or at any minor league level, is that the kids are really hustling. The talent level isn't quite as good but the hustle level is better. The lower the level of competition, the harder they're playing."

And you don't get much lower than the Texas Louisiana League, comprised of eight teams from Mobile to Amarillo, each with a monthly salary cap of $20,000.

That averages out to about $900 per month per player.
According to Malone, about 1,400 ballplayers are released from major-league organizations and their affiliates each spring. Of those, he says, 1,000 should start getting on with the rest of their lives. "That leaves 400 who could still make it," he says, and the place they could make it is with teams such as the Frogs.

But Malone doesn't depend purely on enthusiasm -- either on the field or for the game -- to pull in patrons. "You do a little bit of anything to entertain the fans," he says. "It's family entertainment. My top ticket price is $6. You can't go to the movies for $6."

In addition to using giveaways and gimmicks and a brisk souvenir business spurred by the popular Bullfrogs logo, Malone also has tried to take advantage of the major-league strike to draw fans to the games. "I honor all Astros tickets," he says. "I've had quite a few people come down and give me their $17 Astros ticket for my reserve ticket. It's great stuff. We've had a tremendous amount of phone calls and faxes from Houston from people looking for schedules and information. The 90-mile drive really isn't a whole lot. The interest has been very good."

That interest is heightened by plays such as one that occurs in the bottom of the third inning when Gerald Davis, a 23-year-old who has drifted from team to team in the minor leagues since being drafted out of high school by the New York Yankees organization, beats out a ground ball to short for an infield single. He moves to second on a sacrifice bunt, then scores the first run of the game on a single to center. By scratching out such advances, the Bullfrogs go on to win the final game of this home stand by a score of 3-2.

It's an important victory. It means that the Frogs have a good shot at extending their season into mid- or late September. The Frogs close out their regular season with a three-game home stand against the Tyler Wildcatters from Thursday through Saturday this week. (As an added attraction, during the first game of the series a woman known as the Dynamite Lady will blow herself up inside a coffin.) Then comes post-season play, if the Frogs can continue to hang on to first place.

Staying in the stands through September would be just fine for refinery worker Ben Lewis and his wife, Pam. Each Frogs home game, the couple take their seats behind home plate. The reasons are simple. "It's live and it's here," says Lewis. He explains his dedication while country-and-western music blasts over the tinny public address system and the team takes infield practice. "That's the two special things about it. I just like to be at the ballpark. And they're still playing." He pauses, contemplates and shrugs. "It's baseball."

If you decide to make the trip east to join the Lewises, it is suggested that you wear shorts and a T-shirt and take plenty of insect repellent.

"Either that," Kerfeld advises, "or drink heavy.


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