The Missions open with a sluggish performance, but Ballapeño looks to be in mid-season form

During an opening night pregame ceremony, when the Missions' players received their 2002 Texas League championship rings (with the Wallflowers' version of "Heroes" blaring from the PA),

First baseman A.J. Zapp knocks out the Missions' first home run of the season during a game against the El Paso Diablos on Sunday, April 6. The Missions won the game, 8-0. Photo by Mark Greenberg
the response from the Nelson Wolff Stadium crowd of 4,574 was appreciative, but mild.

On a brisk, Thursday night, the Missions didn't give the partisans many reasons to get jacked up either, as the El Paso Diablos' 20-year-old Mexican phenom Edgar Gonzalez muzzled them for seven strong innings, on the way to a 4-0 El Paso win. But, for some odd reason, the dead bats couldn't suck the life out of opening night.

That's because double-A baseball is America's pastime as nature - or at least Abner Doubleday - intended. For one thing, the priciest seats at Wolff Stadium go for $8, and you can sprawl out on the lawn behind the outfield (also known as "the grassy knoll") for a measly four bucks. For a sport whose emotional pull owes a lot to nostalgia,

Samuel Gomez watches from the outfield lawn as the Missions take on the El Paso Diablos. Gomez was enjoying the game while trying to beat the heat of an unseasonably warm April day. Photo by Mark Greenberg
that is affordability of the old-school variety.

On opening night, the big attraction on the Missions' roster was Mariners catcher Dan Wilson, rehabbing a muscle strain (Gonzalez struck him out twice). But my favorite Mission, for reasons no more profound than his name, quickly became first baseman A.J. Zapp: a young man who apparently can't decide if he wants to be a NASCAR driver or a funk musician. By the time Zapp booted an easy grounder in the fifth inning - prompting one unforgiving fan to shout," Hey Zapper: Keep your eye on the ball. Otherwise, you'll get zapped!" - I practically considered him a family member.

Compared to any major-league contest, the vibe at a Missions game is looser, but the sense of surrealism is heightened. Consequently, it felt perfectly normal to see team mascot Ballapeño - a spindly-legged green pepper in a Missions baseball cap - riding around the concessions

Missions shortstop Jose Lopez slides face first into second base as the Diablos' second baseman Scott Hairston tries to tag him. Photo by Mark Greenberg
area on a motor scooter, or to see young mothers rocking their infants to the strains of the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop."

It's easy - probably too easy - to bash the run-amok, inflationary madness of major-league baseball salaries and ticket prices, but the real point is that the majors have created a class-stratification system for its fans. At Missions games, blue and white collars co-mingle on those oppressive metal benches. High-school kids hang out en masse, while toddlers romp on the lawn, and nobody breaks the bank to be there.

Whether you choose to blame Curt Flood, George Steinbrenner, or Bud "Lite" Selig for the revolutionary reshaping of the big leagues, ultimately it's dubious to argue - as many cynics do - that major-league players have changed much over the last three decades. Critics complain that the modern player doesn't know his history. Probably true, but did the ballplayers of the '60s and '70s really give a flip about Hack Wilson and Honus Wagner?

And anyone who says the modern major-leaguer doesn't have the heart and commitment of his forbears must

Five-year-old Alfino Arriaga tries to tackle Henry the Puffy Taco during the Missions' season opener on Thursday, April 3. Photo by Mark Greenberg
have missed the last two World Series, both of which were dramatic and inspirational enough to rival the storied heroics of Bill Mazeroski and Enos "Country" Slaughter.

The real problem is the inaccessibility of it all. Throw in the fact that most players don't stay with one team very long, a sense of fan detachment tends to set in.

At the Missions' double-A level, that's not an issue. The mascots - Ballapeño and Henry the Puffy Taco - are the real stars. After all, in recent years, this team has jumped from the Dodgers' to the Mariners' organization, without even the slightest change in its identity. You go to Missions games knowing this team is only a train station where players stop on the way to their true destinations. And, if we learned anything at all from Susan Sarandon's character in Bull Durham, we know that's the way it should be. •

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