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Future Uncertain For Ballpark Named For Yankees Catcher

August 31, 1996

CANTON, Ohio (AP) _ Sadness seems to hang in the hazy skies above Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium, the minor league ballpark named for a working-class town’s favorite son.

After the Canton-Akron Indians take the field for the final time Monday, it’s uncertain when or if the sounds of baseball will fill the stadium again.

The Double-A Eastern League team plays its final game in Canton on Memorial Day. Next season, the Indians will play in a new stadium in Akron, yet another of the picturesque parks that are springing up in minor league towns all over the country.

But the thought of a stadium built for Munson, the star New York Yankees catcher, sitting idle and forgotten and overgrown with weeds is too much for some to take.

``I was a big fan of Thurman Munson’s,″ Canton-Akron manager Jeff Datz said. ``I liked the way he played. I thought about him more than a few times as I drove here to the ballpark.″

Munson made it to the big leagues on heart and grit rather than flash. With his curly hair, furry mustache and stubbly beard, Munson looked like he belonged at a construction yard or assembly line instead of a baseball diamond.

Munson died in a plane crash Aug. 2, 1979, at age 32. In 11 years in the majors, he batted .292. He had a .373 World Series average and won two championships with the Yankees.

His family still lives in Canton, where some folks came up with the idea of dedicating a baseball stadium in Munson’s memory. So Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium was built in 1989 as the home of the Cleveland Indians’ Double-A affiliate.

Now, the team is moving to a $30 million, 8,500-seat ballpark about 20 miles away. Those who favor the move say they saved the team from moving much farther. The team was much easier to save than Munson Stadium.

``I think they were talking about a girls softball league playing here,″ Gary Erdos of North Canton said.

``Or a single-A team,″ said his friend, Bob Myers of Cuyahoga Falls.

They were sitting along the first base line at Munson Stadium last week, watching the second game of the final homestand. In the first inning, the Indians’ Rod McCall hit a triple off the center field wall, right above the spot where Munson’s No. 15 is painted. The fans, about 1,000, stomped their feet on the outdated metal floor in the bleachers, making an awful rumbling sound.

``To me this is a super little stadium,″ Myers said. ``You’re so close, you’re part of the game.″

The playing surface was refurbished a couple of years ago, but the rest of the ballpark is badly in need of a facelift. Though only seven years old, the wood and metal structure looks like it’s been sitting amid the weeds, rock piles and abandoned tires on Canton’s south side since the turn of the century.

The stands, which hold about 5,700, consist of metal bleachers and seats. Wooden billboards behind the outfield fence are damaged and warped from seven nasty Canton winters. Tarps, bags of dirt and rusted tools lie abandoned beneath the stands along both baselines. The clubhouses are glorified basements.

``When I first got here, I thought the stadium was, like, 30-40 years old,″ said utility infielder Mike Taylor, who is only 24. ``Then I come to find out it’s only 6 or 7. I couldn’t believe it.″

For all its flaws, the stadium stands as a town’s proud tribute to Munson. The residents paid for it, without help from the government. There are lots of memories, like the Indians’ 1992 Eastern League championship.

``I used to haul people from Akron over here for the games,″ Robert Slack, a bus driver, said. ``I imagine I’ll be hauling them from Canton to Akron next season.″

The new stadium in Akron will feature red-brick architecture and tiered bullpens, like Camden Yards in Baltimore. Fans will enjoy a 77-by-54 scoreboard, a color replay screen and a bar and restaurant.

Munson Stadium was no match for this.

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