BY CAROLYN LaWELL
METAIRIE, Louisiana | Three eventful innings pass. The Round Rock Express load the bases in the second and third innings, and score three runs. The New Orleans Zephyrs reach base four time and commit three errors. And still, the Dippin’ Dots line continues to grow with children more fascinated by little beads of ice cream than with the game being played feet in front of them.
Two sections over, to the left of home plate, a foul ball bounces off a suite and drops near an empty area in the lower bowl. It pops in the air two more times before it settles under a seat. There’s no fight for the ball because no one even runs to retrieve it.
This is a school day.
About 1,700 students have come to see the Zephyrs play an 11:30 game. They get a partial day out of school, lunch at the ballpark and a game. Though few seem to actually realize a game is being played.
The loudest, most unison chant comes when the SpongeBob SquarePants theme blasts from the speakers. A game on the scoreboard that has students guessing which hat conceals the hidden object is more captivating than players crossing home plate.
Not every child is clueless to the game. A boy, probably in third or fourth grade, sits with his navy hat, a big white Z on the front. He’s wearing shades and smacking his fist in the glove on his left hand. Over and over, he tries to get his classmates around him to scream “Here we go Zephyrs, here we go.” It works. Sometimes.
More than 5,000 school children, mainly between second and eighth grade, will come to the Zephyrs’ three school days this year. For some, it will be their first baseball game. Others wear their Zephyrs gear and act like they’re regulars at the park.
These days can be difficult for game day staff, mainly because it’s a rush of people all at once. “They’re more stressful because it’s all the schools arriving at the exact same time, and they have all the kids right behind them,” says Katie Bonaccorso, group event coordinator and school days organizer for the Zephyrs. “Having to deal with each teacher one on one, making sure their tickets are correct, they bring payment on the day of.”
Bonaccorso confirms that Dippin’ Dots are in fact the most popular stand. And, as far as off-the-field entertainment, speed pitch is always packed. For $1, you get three balls to throw as hard as possible at the target. Kids love it. The staff picked to work speed pitch on school days, not so much. “That’s a lot of bending over and picking up baseballs,” Bonaccorso says. “And it’s in the sun.”
On days like today, it doesn’t matter if the Zephyrs win or lose. All that matters is that the kids go home and tell their parents about Dippin’ Dots and snow cones and hot dogs and speed pitch and SpongeBob. All that matters is they tell their parents how much fun they had at the stadium. And their parents say they’ll take them again, some day.
Time for minor league trivia. The Zephyrs moved to New Orleans from what city that is now home to a Major League Baseball? (Keep reading for the answer.)
Not often do you see a team load the bases and then walk in a run. Well, the Zephyrs pitching staff did it twice on their way to a 7-1 loss to the Express. The Zephyrs had a rocky start, committing three infield errors in the first two innings. The Zephyrs did have 11 hits, one more than Round Rock, but also left 12 men on base. They reached base against all four Express pitchers, they just couldn’t score.
The Zephyrs adopted Boudreaux D. Nutria as their mascot after he was found lost in the swamp exhibit at the Audubon Zoo in 1997, or so the legend goes. Boo quickly charmed his way into the hearts of Zephyr fans — and Clotile Picou. In front of a sellout crow on April 11, 1998, Boo proposed to Clotile. They quickly planned a wedding and were married four months later in front of a then-record crowd of 11,012. The couple is happily married, have six children and preside as king and queen of Zephyr Field. Still wondering what the heck a nutria is? It’s a large semi-aquatic rodent whose name is derived from two Greek words that translate as “mouse beaver.”
One of the New Orleans Saints’ practice fields is located behind Zephyr Field. The state of Louisiana paid $21 million to build Zephyr Field, which opened April 11, 1997, as well as the Saints’ state-of-the-art facility. The Zephyrs’ ownership also pitched in $5 million for 16 suites, a swimming pool and a hot tub in right field, a party shack and a home run porch. Since moving to Zephyr Field, the team is averaging about 320,000 fans per season, compared to 200,000 in their four seasons in old Privateer Park.
Want the answer? Before becoming the New Orleans Zephyrs in 1993, the team was the Denver Zephyrs. The team moved shortly after Denver was awarded the Colorado Rockies. The Zephyrs were originally named after the famous Denver Zephyr, a passenger train that ran from Chicago to Denver. The name was still appropriate when the team relocated because the Zephyr Roller Coaster was a popular ride at the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park in New Orleans, which amused locals and tourists alike until it closed in 1983.
And in random statistical news, the game started four minutes later than the scheduled time, the first pitch was a strike, the first batter grounded out to the catcher and a local youth choir sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” in a crisp 1 minute and 10.6 seconds. Also, we ate chicken tenders and French fries. At 10:30 a.m. Call it an early lunch.
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.