It will be summer baseball season in Berkshire County soon enough.
As fans get ready to head back to Wahconah Park and Joe Wolfe Field, I thought it might be a good time to check back on four outstanding years of baseball.
The crowds didn’t turn out like they did for the Pittsfield Mets, the Suns or the North Adams SteepleCats, but let there be no argument that the four years the Eastern League’s Pittsfield Cubs called the old ballyard on Wahconah Street home, was baseball second to none once pros were once again allowed to patrol the big outfield.
The Cubs had three winning records in four years, fielded future All-Stars and one Hall of Famer in pitcher Greg Maddux.
Maddux was on the 1986 Cubs team with Major Leaguers like Jamie Moyer, Gary Varsho, Rich Amaral, Damon Berryhill, Rafael Palmeiro and Darrin Jackson.
“That was a different type of baseball,” Jackson said. “You brought up your top guys and you kept them together at that time. You’re right. You saw Rafael Palmeiro, you had Moyer, Maddux, myself, Varsho. We had in ‘86, we had six, seven or eight All-Stars that year that ended up sticking together for a couple of years.”
Jackson, one of the very few players to have played in both Bakersfield, Calif., and Pittsfield, where the sun sets over center field, spent the 1985 and 1986 seasons patrolling the outfield at Wahconah Park. He went on to have a 12-year Major League career with the Cubs, San Diego, Milwaukee, Minnesota, the Mets, Toronto and the White Sox. He is currently the radio analyst for the White Sox.
“We didn’t know that’s not the way it was normal. You don’t know that until you get somewhere later and you realize that not every organization promotes them together like that,” said Jackson, when we met up in the visitor’s radio booth at Fenway Park last week. “At that time, we thought it was normal because we kept rising together through the ranks.”
Maddux will be the last Hall of Famer to call Wahconah Park home for a while. None of the Pittsfield Mets, as good as many of them were in the big leagues, ever came close to having a Hall of Fame career. As to players who wore Pittsfield Suns uniforms, the jury hasn’t even begun deliberations yet.
To a player, the aforementioned were all, at-worst, quality Major League players. Many, like Moyer and Palmeiro were All-Stars. Maddux, of course, needs absolutely no introduction. Just look at his plaque in Cooperstown.
“Yes, honestly,” Jackson said to me when I asked him if he expected their big league successes.
He went on to say that “One thing for me in particular is I was one of the younger guys. I signed when I was 17, so I saw a lot. When I was with those guys in Pittsfield and in [Class AAA] Iowa and in the big leagues, I had a lot of games under my belt. I saw them play a lot of games and I saw others that were going to ascend to the big leagues on other teams — the Ellis Burkses and other guys like that who were going to get there and stick around.
“You saw a level of talent that it was going to take to be the best. All those guys who ascended from Pittsfield up to the Major Leagues, all were really good. It wasn’t an accident that they all stayed a long time. They were all really good.”
They weren’t the only ones. In Jackson’s two years in Pittsfield, he played against guys like Burks and Sam Horn with the New Britain Red Sox, against Barry Larkin and Rob Dibble of the Vermont Reds, and against Jay Bell and Cory Snyder with Waterbury. In addition, former Red Sox pitching coach and manager John Farrell played for Waterbury, former Pittsfield Astros manager and ex-Major Leaguer Ivan de Jesus played for Vermont, while current Chicago White Sox executive Kenny Williams played for the 1985 Glens Falls White Sox.
“When I watched these individuals keep moving forward, it was because of their talent,” Jackson said. “Greg Maddux wasn’t really taught. At that age, he could have taught the pitching coaches how to work. Moyer too, his stick-to-itiveness, he was built to go ahead and last a long time. You couldn’t teach these.
“We just worked well as a unit, as individuals. I always say about the Yankees, they were able to put the best talent in the same locker room, and they’ll play as a unit.”
It’s always good to remember those days.