- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Moving from Montreal to Washington wasn’t the only step up for the Nationals.

Changing their Class AAA affiliate from Edmonton, Alberta, to New Orleans? That’s trading up on all sorts of levels.

For one, a player doesn’t have to cross three time zones when he’s called up to the majors.

“In Edmonton, we weren’t going to get him on that same day,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “That was tough. In New Orleans, you can call him during the day and have him at night for the game.”

Second … well, it’s New Orleans.

Edmonton’s claim to fame is the West Edmonton Mall. Granted, it’s the largest mall in the world, but it’s still a mall.

New Orleans, meanwhile, boasts the French Quarter, Mardi Gras, voodoo and “Girls Gone Wild” videos. Its economy is driven by gluttony and a few more of the seven deadly sins.

How, then, can the New Orleans Zephyrs behave on Bourbon Street? How can any young, red-blooded American males — ballplayers, no less — keep out of trouble in a town built on temptation?

For the Zephyrs, it has been easy. They keep remembering why they are in New Orleans.

“We’ve had no trouble whatsoever,” Zephyrs manager Tim Foli said. “They understand what they are trying to accomplish. They are trying to get to the major leagues. That is where they want to play, and [they] have to try to do everything they can to get ready for that, so they take care of themselves. A lot of them have families, too. They understand it is a job that can create a lot of benefits for them if they can get to the next level, and that is what they are working on.”

And that’s true from the younger players so close to a shot at the majors to the older ones who want to get back.

“Maybe if it were a lower level, with younger players, it might be a problem,” veteran pitcher Dan Smith said. “But the guys here are mature enough that they are focused on what they are trying to do on the field.”

Adam Wogan, the Nationals’ director of player development, said there were no concerns when the franchise signed a two-year agreement last winter with the Zephyrs.

“Players can get into trouble any place they go,” he said. “We didn’t think it would be a problem. Once they get there and get settled, it’s just another place to live. If anything, it should be a problem for the visiting teams. [The Zephyrs] should have a great home record.”

They don’t, at least not this year. New Orleans is 9-13 in its first 22 games at the “Shrine on Airline,” the local reference to Airline Drive, the street where Zephyr Field is located about eight miles from the French Quarter.

The 10,000-seat ballpark has all the modern minor league amenities — skyboxes, wide concourses and several concessions. The dugouts at Zephyr Field are more spacious than those at RFK Stadium.

So how did the Nationals — who just two years ago had their Class AAA team in Ottawa, home of one of the minors’ worst facilities — wind up with such a prime location?

Nolan Ryan.

The Zephyrs had been a Houston Astros affiliate since they moved into the $23 million ballpark when it opened in 1997. The connection made sense because the Astros were the closest major league club to New Orleans.

But when former Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan, who owned the Astros’ Class AA club in Round Rock, Texas, wanted to move his team up a level, the Astros took advantage and made Round Rock their Class AAA affiliate.

“That left us with a situation to decide who to go with,” Zephyrs owner Don Beaver said. “We have always liked the Montreal organization over the years, and when it appeared they were going to move to Washington, it seemed like a good situation. They wanted someone, and so did we, so we hooked up.”

Beaver is one of the biggest names is minor league baseball. He owns several teams, including the Charlotte Knights and Hickory Crawdads, and is a minority investor in the Pittsburgh Pirates. He acquired the Zephyrs in 1997.

Beaver should be a familiar name to Washington baseball fans because of his attempts to purchase and relocate major league teams in the last decade. He led an effort to build a ballpark in North Carolina’s Triad area for the Minnesota Twins, but a referendum for a ballpark financing plan was voted down. He also pushed for Charlotte to become involved in the relocation derby, but officials there had no stomach for pursuing a major league baseball after losing the NBA’s Hornets and building a new arena for their new basketball team, the Bobcats.

“There is a good possibility we could have landed the Montreal team if a stadium had been built there,” Beaver said.

He remains a minor league owner and said he is still enthusiastic about baseball in New Orleans. The sport has thrived in the city since the Pelicans won the Southern League pennant in 1887 while playing at Sportsman’s Park.

“New Orleans is a good baseball town,” Beaver said. “We don’t have the corporate sponsorship that you have in other large cities, but the fan base is good.”

Not as good at it once was, though. The Zephyrs drew 507,000 in 1997, and a year later they won the Pacific Coast League and the Class AAA World Series. But attendance fell in recent years as the Astros sent more players to Ryan’s Class AA team, neglecting the Class AAA club. The Zephyrs drew just 324,324 last season, but the new relationship with the Nationals — with several major leaguers already sent down to New Orleans for demotions and rehabilitation assignments — has resulted in an increase of about 800 fans a game.

One fan favorite is outfielder Tyrell Godwin, acquired in March from the Toronto Blue Jays. The former North Carolina football player was the team’s player of the month in April. He has cooled off somewhat but still is batting .333 with 25 runs, 12 RBI and 11 stolen bases in 44 games and plays with the kind of excitement that attracts attention.

What Godwin wants, though, is to get the attention of the Nationals’ decision makers.

“If it were based on the fans, I probably would have moved up a long time ago,” he said. “I like it here and like playing for the fans here.”

While Godwin has cooled off, the weather in New Orleans hasn’t. When the Class AAA team was in Ottawa, it had to contend with games being postponed in April because of cold weather. In New Orleans, players are faced with the other extreme — heat. On a late Friday afternoon in May, sweat poured off players while they took batting practice with the temperature in the mid-90s.

“It’s pretty warm, and we heard it will only get hotter,” Godwin said. “It is an adjustment we will have to make.”

Games aren’t canceled because of heat. That isn’t the case with hurricanes, and another storm season has just begun. New Orleans is below sea level, and emergency management officials urge people to leave town several days before a storm is expected to hit because of flooding.

Those kind of hurricanes could be a problem for the players. The hurricanes served at Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon Street, they say, are not.

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