COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dear Boss:

Big night here in the minor leagues. The Chicken showed up. Really. I was about to pay my $4 ticket price when a blue- haired cashier shook her head and popped her bubble gum. “Ah’m sorry,” she drawled. “It’s two dollars more tonight. The Chicken is here.”

Naturally, my first reaction was to say, “That’s OK. I’m having the roast beef.” But I didn’t think she would have gotten it. Anyhow, what’s two bucks? No sooner had I entered than fiddle music began to play, and the small crowd rose to its feet. “Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve heard him, you’ve seen him but you still can’t believe him — live from San Diego, The Chicken!”

Well. You would have thought Wayne Newton had taken center stage at the Dunes. Kids rushed to the fences. Adults clapped in unison. The orange and yellow-feathered mascot did the same stupid tricks that most people ignore in the major leagues — and this place came unglued.

Not that it was all that tightly glued to begin with. Capital City Park, home of the Columbia Mets, is one of those small, southern baseball fields where a teenage girl serves the Cokes, and puppies and children roam freely under the bleachers. The air is thick with gnats, and the entire outfield is rimmed by wooden billboards. (“Instant Cash! People’s Pawn Shop” “Oink! Oink! The Pig’s Prices are Lower!”) There’s even a giant wooden sign of Elvis Presley holding up a donut. If you hit a ball through the hole, you win $500.

In such places, the Chicken is big. Which doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is that my adopted team, the Fayetteville Generals, had to participate in his stunts — during the game. Between the fourth and fifth innings, the creature comes to the dugout — wearing boxing gloves — and six Fayetteville players have to run out and pretend to be punched unconscious.

This is humiliating enough. But the score at the time was Columbia 4, Fayetteville 0, and it’s kind of hard to get a rally going when you’re lying face-down on the grass, under a giant orange foot. Fans love Captain Dynamite

Such is life, boss, here in the minor leagues.

“That’s nothing,” Donnie Erickson told me later that night, shaking salt on

his dinner. “You should see Captain Dynamite.”

I nearly spit. “Captain Who?”

We were sitting at a table inside a Steak-n-Egg restaurant, which, unfortunately, was the only place open. (By the way, why does every food place in the South have an “n” in the middle? Steak-n-Egg. Brew-n-Chew. Choke-n-Puke. Is it some sort of code?)

The game had been lost, the third straight loss for the Generals, and Erickson, the blond third baseman, was trying to eat it away, along with me and Pat Pesavento, a shortstop prospect from Notre Dame. Fortunately, they kept their sense of humor.

“Captain Dynamite,” Erickson explained between bites, “is this guy who comes to the ballparks, lies in a paper coffin and blows himself up. Boom! People go nuts! The explosion knocks him unconscious. Then, after a minute, he comes to and sort of waddles around. He’s done it maybe 300 times. One time I went up to him after the game, right? The dude was, like, deaf. He’s smoking a cigarette going “Uhnn, uhnn-uhnnn.”

Captain Dynamite is big in the minors. When he shows up, ticket sales can double. Same goes for Max Patkin, the aged baseball clown made semi-famous by the movie “Bull Durham.” Circus night. Dime-a-dog night. Chickens. Coffins. Not just baseball, boys, entertainment. That’s the ticket in Class A. What do the Tigers do — give out hats?

Blow somebody up. Their problems will be over. What happens to memories? Chickens aren’t the only distraction down here. There are the soaking wet outfields after rain delays. And the lightning. Did I mention the lightning, boss?

“We were playing the Sumter (S.C.) Braves,” Pesavento recalled, “and this storm was blowing something fierce. The lightning would come down in the outfield and just stay there for like two seconds. Ba-booom. And we’re out there in metal spikes!”

“I wanted to hide in the shower,” said Erickson.

“Yeah, really.”

“They don’t like to cancel games down here.”

They nodded in agreement. I asked if they felt stupid tonight, having to act with the Chicken.

“Aw, that’s not so bad.”

“Yeah, the people like it.”

“Better than that Captain Dynamite dude.”

Pesavento poked at his ham and eggs. “Guess they don’t do that in the big leagues, huh?”

They sighed and drank some pop.

Hey, boss. Here’s what I wonder: How come I never heard these stories from guys like Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris? Surely, they went through it, too. Are the minors something you bury when you hit the big time — like a dirty past? Or are they something you just grow out of?

“You know,” said Erickson, as another group of players joined us to walk home, “that Captain Dynamite, man. He was so deaf. . . .

“Hey. You think he uses real dynamite?”

The others shrugged, and they walked into the humid night, soon to sleep, and dream of better days, of glory. Of the big leagues and baseball without feathers.

Gotta go, boss. Curfew. See ya.

Mitch

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