Thursday, May 20, 2010

When Baseball Meets the Weird

Submitted for your approval…
            There are things in this universe human beings have yet to understand.  Things that control the vertical, things that control the horizontal, and even the fly ball.  When these unknowns overlap with the known world, strange things happen.  The paranormal gets in your normal like chocolate in your peanut butter.  Not even America’s Pastime is immune from these supposed incidents.  What follows is a trio of true stories of when baseball met The Weird.

            Key West.  The Florida islands.  The crème de la crème of the American tropics where they show you everything but Jimmy Buffet.  A place where you can actually smell the humidity as you peel your clothes from your skin.  A place where strange things can happen.
            On August 6th, 1974, The Class A Key West Conchs hosted the St. Petersburg Cardinals at Wickers Field, capacity 1,000.  The Conchs, a farm team at the time for the Chicago Cubs, boasted the worst record in professional baseball at 32-79.  There is something oddly fitting about that, but that is not from where the weirdness of the story is derived. 
            The first pitch was at twilight.  Fog rolled in over the island and undulated in a strange ballet in the skies above the game.  St. Petersburg left fielder Ernie Rosseau would later call the scene “eerie.”  In the bottom of the first, Joe Wallis came up to hit for the Conchs.  The wind gusted up to 20 mph, a factor that did not promise to aid the Conchs in their season record.  Undaunted, Wallis took a few warm up swings and got into stance.  He then waited for the pitch.  He hit a high fly that drifted in a lazy arc towards Cardinals right fielder, John Crider.
            And then the ball disappeared.
            Crider shook his head and then ducked for cover.  Thinking his teammate lost sight of the ball, Jimmy Williams ran from second base to assist.  Center fielder Claudell Crockett beat him there.   By the time Williams arrived, Crockett’s arms were up in the air asking as he asked, “Where the hell is it?” 
            “It just…faded into nothing,” Crider said.
            The outfield fell into chaos.  Every Cardinal ran this way and that in search of the ball.  Bumps, thuds, and grunts of frustration sounded out in a chorus.  Meanwhile, Wallis made a slow, tentative circle of the bases while pausing every few steps to look over his shoulder at the visiting team’s panic.  With no ball produced, the umpire ruled it a home run.
            Naturally, the Cardinals argued against this.  As an appeal to the rules was made, the fans (what few there were) exited the stands to search for the ball.  People scoured over the crushed gravel parking lot and the paltry oaks and palm trees that made up the landscaping.  No ball was found.  Bystanders who were in the lot at the time were asked if they heard a plunk, tree limbs rustling, the shatter of glass, or any telltale sign of a baseball coming to earth.  Nobody heard a thing.  John Crider spent the rest of the night in the dugout, just rocking back and forth.
            “As I hear tell,” he said.  “A ball ain’t supposed to do that.”
            The umpires contended that the ball exited the airspace of the park.  Witnesses from each team maintained that was impossible due to the baseball’s low speed and declining trajectory.  A local sportswriter for The Key West Citizen theorized that the trade winds caught hold of it and sent it out to sea.  Though hesitant to offer any real comment on the occurrence, meteorologists at The National Weather Service admitted that theory to be rather unlikely.  So what explanation is left?
            “It had to be a UFO,” said Cardinals player, Tito Landrum.  “Players don’t just go after a ball where they think it’s going to land and nothing lands.”
            Not a stretch for those who point out that Key West is somewhat tangential to The Bermuda Triangle, a place infamous for disappearances.  Or failing that, perhaps ghosts.  Key West is replete with tales of the dead crossing over to visit the living once more, such as “Robert the Haunted Doll:” a child’s doll in the East Martello Museum that is said to move about the building on its own…even when encased in Plexiglas.  The Conchs’ owner, a Cuban exile, attributes the ball’s mid-air disappearance to the ectoplasmic presence of author and one time Key West resident, Ernest Hemingway.
            “Papa has dat ball.  His spirit is everywhere on this island.  He took that one home.”
            He must have been a Conchs fan.  They won the game 7-4.

            Great Falls, Montana.  Home of The Electrics. 
Though the club’s history is largely unremarkable, one date stands out: August 5th, 1950.  That was when Nick Mariana was general manager of the minor league farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers. 
On the morning in question, Mariana arrived at Legion Field with his 19 year-old secretary, Virginia Raunig to “inspect the field” before a game later in the day.  In the midst of doing this, a glint of light caught Nick’s eye.  He looked to the sky and saw two silver discs flying over the ballpark at a high rate of speed.  Each one seemed to be rotating as it flew. 
Mariana ran to his car.  From it he pulled a 16mm color movie camera that he kept for team training purposes.  Brushing his thick hair from his forehead, Nick pointed the camera skyward and managed to shoot sixteen seconds of footage before the objects disappeared over the mountains.
A quick bit of history.  In 1950, a sense of paranoia pervaded deep into America.  To borrow a phrase from Tom Clancy, a Red Storm was rising in the East.  Many civilian and military leaders considered nuclear attack from the Soviet Union to be inevitable.  What is more, just three years prior a pilot named Kenneth Arnold sighted a series of unknown craft over Mt Ranier, Washington.  He described their movements as “saucers skipping over water.”  Hundreds of sightings like this followed by people across the nation.  Thus, “flying saucer” hysteria was born.  Hollywood was quick to capitalize on this with movies such as Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and War of the Worlds.  Invasion from across the ocean and outer space no longer seemed so far-fetched.  Within this context, it is understandable how the film shot by Nick Mariana, general manager of the Great Falls Electrics, would become a nationwide sensation.
            Nick’s fifteen minutes of fame began with the local civic groups of Great Falls.  He was first invited to show his home movie to the members of the Central Roundtable Athletic Club.  Inevitably, the local papers picked up the story and the film made its way to national media outlets. 
            It was suggested that the film be turned over to the police for an investigation.  Local authorities deferred the matter to experts at Malmstrom Air Force Base, conveniently located just outside of town.  Nick agreed to lend them the film for further scrutiny.  This act ended up leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of Mariana and other members of the community, for when the film was returned it was found that the first forty frames had been removed.  It just so happened that those frames contained the clearest footage, footage that according to others who viewed the film detailed two spinning, metallic discs with black bands along their outer edges.  The Air Force maintained it only removed one frame that was damaged during the analysis, an analysis that was deemed “inconclusive.” 
Additionally, Mariana said that men in a black suits and black ties visited him.  They told him in no uncertain terms that what he saw were reflections of two F-94 fighter jets.  Mariana retorted that the discs were moving faster than any jet anyone he knew had ever seen.  To that, one man supposedly got in Nick’s face and replied, “You really shouldn’t talk any more about what you THOUGHT you saw.”  Nick’s blood turned to snow and the conversation ended.
            Investigators of the UFO phenomenon were quick to pounce on the event.  Dr. David Saunders, a psychologist who studied UFOs during the 50’s and 60’s, even tracked down Mariana’s secretary, Virginia Raunig for her account of the sighting and the days that followed.  He especially pressed her on the matter of the missing footage purportedly in the hands of the Air Force.  To this, Raunig was hesitant and coy.
            “What you have to remember in all of this is…that Nick Mariana is a baseball manager,” she stated.  “That means he’s a promoter.”
            To this day, the “Mariana Film” or “the Baseball Film” as it is sometimes called, remains one of the best pieces of evidence for the existence of UFOs as it was shot long before the advent of PhotoShop, Final Cut, or any computer software that could easily fake such a movie today.  Indeed given the technology on hand in 1950, it would have been extraordinarily difficult to fabricate what the footage shows: two objects in the sky flying faster than any aircraft at that time was capable of.
            In the end, it all worked out for Montana.  Great Falls is now home to two minor league baseball teams: The Electrics and The Voyagers.  The symbol for The Voyagers is a flying saucer piloted by a little green man as it circles the Earth.

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