Where's the Love?

A night with the Sarasota Reds, least-attended team in the minors.

click to enlarge GATOR DONE: Sean Connor, aka RalliGator, gives good hugs. - Amanda Gatlin
Amanda Gatlin
GATOR DONE: Sean Connor, aka RalliGator, gives good hugs.

There are 228 fans here at Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium tonight. How do I know? I counted, one by one, walking from one end of the park to the other during the sixth inning. Tonight's game between the Sarasota Reds and the St. Lucie Mets isn't a championship game, and it doesn't feature any players who could draw a big crowd. It's a plain ol' Wednesday night minor league game, and there are less people here than you'll find at the Gator Club on a bad night.

Blame it on the heat, maybe. The sun's just set, but the heat left over from last night's rain (the first real shower in months) keeps the air nice and sticky. We haven't yet reached the dog days of summer, though these may qualify as puppies. I'm sweating as I sit motionless here in the bleachers, and it's almost 8 p.m.

The mugginess, made worse by a lack of breeze, makes it hard to concentrate on the game. Worse yet, there's no crowd here to cheer on their home team (and in effect, keep me awake). If I didn't have a full cup of beer that I insist on finishing, I could nap in my seat.

I'm slumped in my blue plastic chair, which is a little faded but still in good shape. Looking around, I see the whole stadium's pretty well-kept. Aisles are clean, and the toxic urine fumes I'll forever associate with the little league restrooms of my youth are absent. Though not immaculate, the ballpark looks like a newlyweds' new house awaiting first-time visitors: ready for company, when (if) they show up.

I have the best seat in the house, with a clear, close-up view of home plate. Froth-mouthed fans, kids in oversized jerseys, and wives and girlfriends of the players should be sitting here, not me.

Truth be told, I don't even really "get" this game, in which fans spend $6 to watch guys more or less standing around for hours. We sit. They stand. Players come up to bat, and on occasion — make that, on rare occasions — there's a spark of action.

No wonder there's hardly anyone here tonight.

OK, I'm being too harsh on the Reds. "Don't criticize what you can't understand" — isn't that what crusty old Bob Dylan said? Truly, I don't understand baseball. But that's no reason to snub it, and indeed, you have to give these guys credit for trying. The players bust serious ass, to the point of wrecking their bodies, for little pay — and judging by attendance — little acclaim. They are here for the love of playing, and the chance, remote for many of them, to make a major league roster. This is dues-paying of the highest order.

"We did get good crowds during spring training," notes Steve Toporov, a Philadelphia native who started working in the Reds' info booth last month. Toporov is a voice of experience, a middle-aged guy who has spent much of his life cheering on his home team. His life is sports — he used to be the Philadelphia 76ers' photographer — and he's been around both major league baseball and basketball for years. Sarasota Reds games are no comparison.

"Friendly people here," in Sarasota, Toporov says, in a mild Jersey accent. "I think it's because it's a resort town. You don't get the same noisy drunken crowds as up North."

Toporov gives one example of such noise-lessness, describing a Reds player and his girlfriend: "There's a girl here. Her boyfriend gets a hit, and she's the only one clapping." This, people, is the saddest thing I've heard anyone say all week.

"It's a frustrating situation," Toporov concludes.

No kidding. Between the fifth and sixth innings, Reds management comes onto the field with an elementary school-aged boy and an apparatus I can only describe as a giant slingshot. The grown-ups set the kid a few yards away with an empty sack in his hands, then launch a sub sandwich maybe 20 feet in the air. Kid catches it in his first attempt, and the crowd — for the first time all night — goes relatively wild. The lad with the slingshot and sandwiches gets more applause than the players.

The only other character here getting much attention is RalliGator, a towering mascot that looks like a gator and acts like a cartoon character. The kids clamor for him. He's the most popular guy at Ed Smith Stadium tonight.

What's it like being the most sought-after reptile at the game? "It's a pretty overwhelming experience," says Sean Connor, the man behind the mask.

Connor is a student at Riverview High whose previous jobs include a stint as a mascot for a leather company (for that gig, he dressed as a cow and waved to passersby as they drove down Tamiami Trail through south Sarasota). He loves being RalliGator and, judging by the constant stream of toddlers high-fiving him, the job (pun alert) suits him.

"This is different from the cow job," he says, straight-faced. "You give big expressions with your hands. You give hugs as much as possible ... mascotting is a dream job."

Connor speaks with such reverence about mascotting, that it hardly fazed him when I mention the low attendance numbers. "Yeah, we're last in the league in attendance," he acknowledges. "It's starting to pick up. Getting more people to the baseball games would make it so much better. It's already a rush — I can't imagine what it'd be like if we got a reasonable attendance."