BY MATT LaWELL
METAIRIE, Louisiana | Every morning for a month, Mike Schline opened his eyes and looked toward the ceiling in his office. He was young and single then, and he was lucky. Hurricane Katrina had just ripped through New Orleans, had killed thousands, forced out hundreds of thousands more, caused billions in property damage. Schline still had his apartment, his car, his job. Not many people in the city made it out with all three. Some made it out with none.
Schline was the general manager of the New Orleans Zephyrs, and still is today. He has been a part of sellouts during more than a decade with the team, part of a division championship, a Governor’s Cup series. He has seen dozens of former and future Major Leaguers play in the city.
Nothing else comes close to the rush of that offseason.
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After that first blast, after the levees opened, New Orleans battled Katrina as best it could. That story has been told thousands of times. Enough years have passed that some shop windows in the French Quarter advertise T-shirts that list how to build a Katrina hurricane drink — ingredients include swamp water and sand and gunk — but no one who was around during those days or the months that followed will forget it. Not Zephyrs executive director and COO Ron Maestri. Not radio broadcaster Tim Grubbs. Not Schline.
Schline helped make the decision to cancel a weekend series in July 2005 when Hurricane Dennis appeared headed for New Orleans. He helped make the decision to cancel the last three home games of the season, too, on August 27 and 28. He boarded buses with the players and some staff, headed for Oklahoma City, four games with the RedHawks, some peace of mind. Better to evacuate, he figured, even if the storm passed over and missed all of Louisiana.
“We were able to accomplish something. Our staff came together, and it was very mentally therapeutic for them. It was a great time to be a Zephyrs employee because you had something to focus on, you had something to pour your energy into." — New Orleans GM Mike Schline
“When you look at the big picture, the size and severity of that storm, the probabilities are that New Orleans or the New Orleans area (are going to get hit),” Maestri told the Times-Picayune the day the team drove north. “The fact that people are going to be evacuating, our staff, our players, their families, we had to give them an opportunity to pack and get out of here.”
The Zephyrs were more than 700 miles away from the city when Katrina hit. They lost three of four at Oklahoma City, then won three of four at Iowa, then went dozens of separate ways for another offseason.
All the recovery started within the next month.
Schline moved into Zephyr Stadium a little less than two weeks after Katrina and stayed there for the next month. “I literally slept in my office and just got to work on it,” he says. “We started setting up meetings with our insurance company and assessing all of the damage. It was a struggle.”
Unlike much of New Orleans and the surrounding cities, the stadium had escaped some of the brunt, battered more by wind than floods. Within a couple weeks, it had electricity and some other comforts. Cable, food, people. Nothing felt normal, though.
“You couldn’t really go into the city,” Schline says. “The first couple of weeks, everything had a 6 or 8 p.m. curfew, so you would find a place here and there that was open for lunch. You’d go and eat lunch and you’d immediately order something to go to eat for dinner. One out of every 10 gas stations were open. You could live.”
Around that time, Schline and the rest of the front office drafted a news release, intended more to lift some spirits than anything else. They pledged to remain in New Orleans, to never leave, to play opening day at Zephyr Stadium in less than seven months. The Saints moved to San Antonio for the season, and played some other home games in Baton Rouge and East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Hornets moved to Oklahoma City. They played three games in New Orleans that season, but didn’t return for good for two years.
The Zephyrs never went anywhere.
The stadium had served as a National Guard and FEMA outpost, helicopters circling above to land in centerfield. It sustained about $2 million in damages, Schline says, about half of that from the storm and half from use during what most years would have been referred to as the offseason.
Floors warped, sound systems disappeared, ceiling tiles slumped with water, roofs ripped off with the gusts, light poles hooked in every direction like snapped limbs. Everything needed to be fixed, if not replaced.
“We had no time to spare,” Schline says, “and we were really quick in the process.”
So quick that Tulane started to play at Zephyr Stadium in February. Not everything was finished, like the main scoreboard and the press box, but the stadium looked good enough to use. And it was safe.
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The Zephyrs opened the 2006 season on April 6, a Thursday. More than 11,000 people packed the stadium, the largest opening day crowd since the team moved to the city 13 years earlier. Some of them were there in search of food available after an early curfew everywhere else, some were there in search of sports in a city that hadn’t been able to distract itself from the task at hand. Some were there for nothing more than the physical proof of community. “We’re back!” Grubbs shouted into his radio microphone and television cameras — into broadcasts all over a city still rebuilding.
The Zephyrs lost that day, 5-4, to the Round Rock Express. But they won the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. The Memphis Redbirds came into the city the next day, and Zephyrs outfielder Mike Vento hit a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 16th inning and the team won again. By the end of the home stand, they were 7-1. They finished the season a game over .500, third in a four-team division, and it didn’t matter.
“Katrina was a horrible tragedy,” Schline says, “but those next six months are something the Zephyrs are very proud of. We were able to accomplish something, our staff came together, and it was very mentally therapeutic for them. It was a great time to be a Zephyrs employee because you had something to focus on, you had something to pour your energy into. I don’t think about it too much, but it’s a big part of my career.
“I hope I don’t have to do it again.”