- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You can see some unique things in this country if you take the time to travel on the back roads, as my son and I have on our road trip. You see things like meteor craters and motels built in the shape of wigwams.

We found these and something else as we pulled into Albuquerque — a Homer Simpson nightmare come to life.

There we found Isotopes Park, home of the Class AAA baseball club known as the Isotopes, a team nearly ripped away from a community in what would have been the most tragic loss of a baseball franchise since the Senators left Washington in 1971.

The community was Springfield, the fictional town in the animated television program “The Simpsons.” But there is nothing fictional about the Albuquerque Isotopes. They play in the Pacific Coast League and draw an average of 8,000 people a game — third in the league — in a revival of minor league baseball in this New Mexico city, which lost its previous team three years ago after the most recent version of the Albuquerque Dukes, in existence since 1960, were sold and moved to Portland, Ore.

But an ownership group led by minor league franchise magnate Ken Young, owner of the Norfolk Tides, purchased the Calgary Cannons and wanted to move them to Albuquerque, provided the city built a ballpark or renovated the old one.

Voters approved a deal to spend $25million to fix up the old ballpark, and they did a magnificent job. It’s a beautiful ballpark that seems like new, with a great view of the Sandia Mountains.

But the vote that resulted in life imitating art was the newspaper poll to name the team — 57 percent of which were obvious loyal Simpsons viewers. They chose Isotopes over the more traditional Dukes, which had been the name for most of the incarnations of minor league baseball in the city since 1915.

“It was very popular,” team spokesman David Bearman said of the selection of the name Isotopes.

Even before the team took the field, the Isotopes — a Florida Marlins farm club — were No.1 in all of minor league baseball over the winter in merchandise sales and in the top 10 in all of baseball, major or minor league.

In a “Simpsons” episode involving the baseball franchise, Homer discovers Duff Beer’s plan to move the Springfield Isotopes to Albuquerque and saves the franchise when he exposes the plan. Of course, it’s not that simple. There’s a hunger strike and hot dogs and all sorts of Homer lunacy before the team is saved, but somehow he does it, and in the process paves the way for the future of baseball in Albuquerque as well.

Now, supposedly part of the reason for the team nickname is to represent the nuclear research industry in New Mexico, but people aren’t buying those hats and jerseys because they are big fans of the Los Alamos research facility. These are Homer and Marge and Bart groupies. They wouldn’t know an isotope from an ion. They would drink Duff beer if they could buy it, and if they could sell Duff beer at Isotopes Park, they would. In the Simpsons world — as in real life — beer and baseball go together.

Al Jean, head writer and executive producer of the show, thought it was amusing that the Isotopes had come to life in Albuquerque and told the Albuquerque Tribune that he hoped “we got a Duff beer concession for the new team.”

That’s not going to happen. Apparently, “Simpsons” officials draw the line at their suds. An Australian company tried making Duff beer but got the word from Fox attorneys to cease and desist. But they have not stood in the way of the Isotopes name.

“They have allowed us to use the name but not anything else,” Bearman said. “They did let us use Homer and Bart mascots for Opening Day.”

One of the names for the franchise that had received consideration was the 66ers. Like Springfield, Route 66 — at least the one that America traveled west on in another time — doesn’t really exist, save for small stretches of road here and there. It is from a bygone era, when minor league baseball was a small-time operation and not a big-time business.

No, the game has changed, and to make it a success this time in Albuquerque, it needed someone with vision. It needed a man who was in touch with the sports fan of today.

It needed Homer Simpson.

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