August 5, 2005
Pitch and catch. It's kid's stuff, really. Just a ball and someone to throw it to. It's the last day of winter, which in the New Orleans climate means it's already warming up out on Brown Field, a colossal square of grass and clover that marks the former site of Tulane Stadium. You have to squint to see the ball curve against the bright blueness above. Cock your head at a certain angle and you can tune into chatter that's occasionally punctuated with the sound of the ball slapping into a baseball glove.
"Alright doc, here's one." "Over here, coach." "Boy Ernie, you could start for the Green Wave." Yeah, sure. Maybe 30, 40, 50 years ago these guys could take to the competitive college infield wearing blue and green. And some did. But right now it feels good just to be outside, breaking a sweat between the blue and green of heaven and earth, caught in the waning hours of winter, and in the company of friends.
"I figure it's the camaraderie and friendship," says Ben Abadie (A&S '50), summing up why, since 1961, he's put together team after team of Tulane alumni, faculty and friends to play first competitively in the Commercial Athletic League and now for fun on Saturday mornings in an outfit that calls itself the Field of Dreams team.
If you're old enough, some of the names on the current roster may ring a bell from your own glory days; some may not: Ben R. Abadie (UC '80), Creed Brierre (A&S '68, A '74), Phil Centanni (A&S '51), Don Charles (A&S '58), Bill Cotton (Tulane Booster Club [TBC]), Ernest Demma (A&S '69), Carlton Dufrechou (E '78, E '93), Ray Dufrechou (E '49), Phil Foto (A&S '52), Sal Giardina (L '75, TBC), Alan Greenstadt, Chris Kogos, Phil Luchsinger (TBC), Ted Mace (L '55), John Olagues (A&S '70), Ronnie Scott (A&S '68), Ronnie Smith (A&S '61), Paul Susdorf (TBC), Franz Vogt (E '66, E '71), Dave Watson (TBC), John Uglesich (UC '93), Robert Watts (E '59).
And while Field of Dreams wives attend social functions and may occasionally come out to practice, this is a boys' club, complete with the requisite nicknames: Galloping Bull, Flash, Spin Doctor, Payroll Master, The Ageless One... It's a disparate group of guys who have enjoyed vastly different walks of life but are bound together in an early morning ritual that takes place 52 weeks a year.
"It's like a Tulane social club," says Abadie. "Dr. Cowen said he wanted to join the team, but he's too young," quips Abadie with a wink. It was Tulane President Scott Cowen who discovered the Field of Dreamers during an early morning walk last fall and called universitywide attention to the group in one of his regular Friday morning e-mail postings to faculty and staff.
As Abadie tells it, the whole thing started in 1961 when he and the Dufrechou brothers, Ray and Leo (A '47, now deceased), began to work out on campus by "running, throwing and hitting a little pepper." During the course of the next five years, students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the athletics booster club started joining in on the weekly routine. When the group reached a critical mass, Abadie entered them as a team in the Commercial Athletic Association, an amateur league of adult players that competed locally.
For the next 20 years the boys played two games a week during the CAA season. "All of a sudden we got to be 55, 60, 65 years old," says Abadie. "I knew we had to scale back." Scale back, but not quit. It's only people like Abadie -- colorful, charismatic, strong-willed -- that can keep anything together for 50 years. He's what some might call a "character," but the old-timers on the Field of Dreams squad just call him "Coach."
And, in this case, it's not just a nickname. In fact, Abadie not only was a three-year letterman for the varsity squad during the late '40s but came back to Tulane to do two tours of duty as the Green Wave's head baseball coach, once from 1955 to 1957 and then again from 1964 to 1966. During those years he also served as the director of both football concessions and the Favrot Field House, as well as oversaw the Tulane intramural sports program.
In between, Abadie enjoyed a career as a professional baseball player, in both the U.S. and Venezuela Winter League (which he left when Coach Monk Simons offered him the job of Tulane's intramural sports director and baseball coach). For a life so intimately entwined with the university, Abadie was inducted into the Tulane Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996. Coach isn't giving his age, but he's not among the youngest on the team of men whose ages range from the mid 50s to the almost 90s.
Even still, he may be the most energetic. It's his bat that cracks the ball when the team takes infield. And it's his show when, each year, the team holds a ceremony at Commander's Palace, where Abadie cuts up and passes out new "contracts" to his players.
These days, Saturday mornings consist of the Field of Dreamers doing light exercise and stretching, taking infield (baseball jargon for practicing fielding a hit ball) and doing the soft toss, a hitting practice that Abadie says is used by major league players. At 89, Paul Sussdorf (The Ageless One) is the senior member of the team, and you can find him practicing his swing at Brown Field on most Saturdays.
Sussdorf, who did not attend Tulane but over the years has sort of adopted the university and its athletes, has been a major supporter of the Tulane Athletics Fund and various sports scholarships. He arrives a tad late on this bright spring morning, having spent his earlier hours watching the Tulane track team compete. "I like to watch the track and soccer teams, and the other minor teams that don't get a lot of attention," says Sussdorf.
Affectionately known as "Mr. Paul" by many of the athletes, particularly those on the women's teams, Sussdorf says he enjoys staying tuned into the lives of young people. "I don't have anything in common with most people my age," says Sussdorf. "Of course, there aren't many people my age." Among the most veteran members of the team is Bob Watts, who like Abadie has spent a lifetime affiliated with the university.
Watts, a professor of mechanical engineering at Tulane, was an undergraduate at Tulane when he first met Abadie through Tulane's intramural sports program. After graduating, Watts acquired academic degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue and even did a stint pitching one summer as a semi-pro before coming back to Tulane to teach in 1965.
He soon teamed up with Abadie again to play in the Commercial Athletic League and has been on the Field of Dreams squad for about 10 years. Watts, who is an expert in global climate, departed from his typical topics of academic interest in 1990 when he merged his love for baseball and engineering with the publication of Keep Your Eye on the Ball: The Science and Folklore of Baseball. The sport, as well as the friendships he's nurtured at Brown Field, have only added to his experience at Tulane.
"The guys are the salt of the earth," says Watts. "They're simply good guys." "It's hard to explain," says Abadie. "Everybody out there is there to help each other. We have six religions represented and at the end of the morning we always end kneeling in prayer. There is only one God up there."
Last November, Abadie had a videotape made of the annual Field of Dreams banquet at Commander's Palace so that Tulane's president wouldn't miss a moment. As he is on the field, so is he behind the lectern -- there's little doubt who is in charge as he gently pokes fun at each team member while handing out next season's player contracts. Each document is typeset in green and blue ink (no surprise) and begins with the heading:
Tulane University Field of Dreams Team
Saturday Morning Baseball
Founder Coach Ben Abadie
1961 to Present
Abadie fills in the terms of each contract by hand, typically awarding handsome, six-figure salaries to his players and sending each of them on an all-expenses-paid "honeymoon bonus" to the planet's most exotic locales. Coach has a knack for keeping his eye on the ball, and that translates into a nice comic touch as he sends Phil and Jeanette Centani to Cairo or Don and Edna Charles to Amsterdam.
And along the way, it could be that Abadie is lampooning the mega contracts now enjoyed by celebrity athletes, but then maybe not. More likely it's all just nonsense, pure and simple. Frivolity for the sake of fun. Boys being boys.
Nick Marinello is a senior writer in the Office of Publications and Tulanian features editor.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org