Miera's years with club bond him to Isotopes

Press box attendant links New Mexico baseball's past to present

Willie Miera is one of about 30 game day employees who have worked for the Isotopes for the team's whole existence. (Josh Jackson/MiLB.com)

By Josh Jackson / MiLB.com | May 11, 2018 10:30 AM

Willie Miera has been coming to Albuquerque, New Mexico's Southeast Quadrant and looking out at a patch of grass for nearly 50 years. Although the view has changed, it has never gotten old.

Miera, who turned 81 in January, has returned to the Isotopes for his 16th season of work and second as the press box attendant, a role that was carved out for him after he suffered a heart attack on his way into the ballpark for his usher duties in May 2016.

"The doctor says, 'You can't do none of that -- no walking, no lifting, no nothing,'" Miera said, explaining that he thought he'd have to give up his job. "[Isotopes general manager John Traub] says, 'To [heck] with that! 'We're not going to send you home. I'll find you something.' They looked around, and they put me in here [in the press box]."

Saying goodbye to his usher post wasn't easy -- after all, he'd been there, mixing with fans in section 103 behind home plate, for as long as the Isotopes had existed. But by all accounts, his new gig is pretty cushy.

"It's a lot of fun. Don't do much," he admitted. "I watch the game. ... Eat good."

He's available to help with any needs that pop up for scouts, members of the media or the front office staff, keeping an eye over the press box in a general way, but the chief expectation placed on Miera seems to be that he continue to enjoy the ballpark atmosphere that's become a central part of his life. In other words, from a financial perspective, keeping him on staff may not have been the shrewdest decision an executive ever made.

"I know him working at the ballpark means a lot to him, and it means a lot to his family," Traub said. "You keep in mind that, yeah, it's a business, yeah, you're trying to make money for ownership.

"But you mean something to your fans, you mean something to your employees, you mean something to your players. You have a responsibility. ... Willie certainly worked for us for a long time. We were glad to be able to create something for him. We like to be known as an organization that has a heart, and we understand that things mean certain things to individuals."

Baseball, to Miera, means plenty.

A life around the game

Born in 1937 in the tiny Northern New Mexico town of Lyden, Miera stayed with his grandmother when his father went to Carbon County, Utah, to find work in the coal mines. A native Spanish speaker, he didn't hear the English language until he was old enough to join his father across state lines to begin school.

"I went up there, and first grade, I didn't pass. I had no idea what was [being asked of me]," Miera said. "The only ones I got along with [were nuns]. The nuns up there understood Latin, and there's a lot of Spanish in it. [Our home in Utah was] 40 yards away from the church, and on the other side, we were 40 yards away from a baseball field, so if I wasn't in church, I was at the ballpark."

On the field, he had no trouble making himself understood, or understanding others. The game took him in.

"Anybody can play baseball," he said. "If you're little, if you have speed, if you hit, if you can run, if you can field, you can play baseball."

Within a couple years, he was in Little League, then on his junior high and high school teams. But his exposure to the game wasn't limited to standard youth leagues. As was common throughout the first half of the 20th century, the region's industrial powerhouses fielded baseball teams to play against one another, and against professional or semi-professional ballclubs that passed through the area. 

"Around there, baseball, that was it. They had a league -- all the coal mines had a team," Miera said. "That's how [baseball pro and country singer] Charley Pride was discovered, up in Montana, on a mine team."

To Miera's recollection, some of the mine team players were ringers, men who were never at risk of being too tired from hard labor to help a boy work on his game. 

"The mines used to load up with college baseball players. They never went underground. They just had a job, which was to play ball," he said.

"It was good, because I'd be practicing with the big guys. I got all my best teachers in the world playing ball [with those players]. The fundamentals. There was a lot of old-timers that had played professionally in California. To me, that was a blessing, because I could ask them questions, ask them how to throw a spitball or do this or that."

Miera eventually did well enough in school -- and on the ball field -- to go to Carbon College (now Utah State University Eastern), and he looks back fondly on playing for the college team during the academic season and filling in on mine teams and playing in loosely organized leagues in Northern New Mexico in the summers. After college came the Army, with the Korean War freshly over.

This is Miera's second season looking out at Isotopes Park from the press box.

It seemed that his baseball days were behind him -- and they would have been, if not for a stroke of luck.

"When Uncle Sam called, I was in a company going to [South] Korea. We stopped in San Francisco, and the company commander announced they were having tryouts for baseball," he recalled. "The coach found out I played college baseball, [and] he asked, 'How long since you played a game?' I said, 'Two days ago.' I didn't go to Korea -- I stayed in California and played baseball. Tough duty!

"The first year in the Army, I played probably 110 games, which I didn't play in Utah in five years. When we were getting out of the Army, I ran into all the guys coming back from Korea. They said, 'Willie, where have you been?' I said, 'I've been right here playing baseball in California.'"

After the service, Miera worked a number of jobs throughout the West. (His brother found him a seasonal position at Yellowstone National Park one summer, and he was delighted to discover there were baseball games between employees). He got married and with his wife, Genevieve, lived in Colorado, both working at Denver's St. Joseph's Hospital -- she as a nurse's aide and he running the storehouse. In that capacity, he was approached by a former Carbon College teammate, Gary Davis, about returning to New Mexico.

"[Davis] told me, 'We want to build [our medical supply business] in Albuquerque, and you're going to run our warehouse. Whatever you're paid here, we'll do better,'" Miera said. "I came to Albuquerque in 1969."

The Isotopes were still three and a half decades in the future, but the Albuquerque Dodgers of the Texas League were playing in the brand new Albuquerque Sports Stadium, which stood exactly where Isotopes Park stands today. The hometown club became the Dukes for the 1972 season, joining the Pacific Coast League as a Dodgers affiliate and adopting a team name with ties to baseball in Albuquerque back to 1915.

The Mieras had three sons (Marty, Matthew, Randy) and a daughter (Kelli), and they were regulars at Dukes games as a family.

"Everybody around here was -- you'll see Dukes hats around town. Everybody here is still a Duke," Miera said.

The medical supply company asked him to relocate back to Denver, but instead he got a job locally with American National Insurance.

"I went into the insurance business, and I worked there for 27 years," he said. "That was good because you worked on your own, and I got my baseball time."

Today, the Isotopes' outfield is encircled by a berm where families can watch baseball in the shadows of rides for small children and an enormous blow-up version of Orbit, the 'Topes mascot.

During the days of Albuquerque Sports Stadium, it was an open bed of lava rock, where spectators tailgated throughout entire games.

"It used to be cars all the way around, with their grills, making hamburgers out there, bringing their food, groceries and everything. Keeping the balls, home runs... Everybody loved it," Miera said. "It was usually school nights [when we went], so my wife put a mattress in the back of the truck. If you got sleepy, you just went to sleep. When you got home, we put you in bed.

"They grew up here [at the ballpark]. We grew up Dodgers. We grew up Dukes."

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Home again

The Dukes moved to Portland, Oregon, to become the Beavers for the 2001 season, but in 2003 -- the year Miera retired from the insurance business -- Triple-A baseball came back to town, with Isotopes Park replacing Albuquerque Sports Stadium.

One day early that spring, Genevieve Miera, who died in 2008, punched her husband's ticket back to the ballpark. 

"It was a Saturday morning, and my wife says, 'What are you going to do now, because being around the house…' and she said a bad word.'" Miera remembered. "I said, 'I'm not going to do anything.' She said, 'Did you read the paper? There's a job fair for the Isotopes next week.'"

As it happened, Miera was scheduled to attend a Knights of Columbus meeting across the state the day of the job fair. He called the number listed in the newspaper and connected with then-Isotopes stadium operations coordinator Drew Stuart.

"When he found out I played ball in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and my time in the military was spent in California playing baseball, he said, 'Why don't you come down here?'" Miera recalled.

He was an usher for the next 13 years, and he quickly fell in love with the new park and the new team. He watches families fill the same area beyond the outfield where he and his wife spent so many nights with their own children.

"We had a pretty park, and then we got this -- it's state of the art!" he said. "[Fans] started coming, and they're still coming. This is a good baseball town. We were part of the Dodgers, so you name any player in the last 30 years who played for the Dodgers, they all played here. Then the Florida Marlins were here, and now Colorado. We became part of the Rockies. It's still baseball."

When he came to work in the press box for the 2017 season, the team had him throw out the first ball on Opening Day. But, Traub pointed out, Miera is just one of an estimated 30-35 people who have been Isotopes event staff employees since the first season, and all of them have their own special relationships to baseball and the ballpark.

"It's not rocket science: we treat them fairly and we try to be good and nice to them, and as much as we can, we want their employment experiences to be as good [as possible]," the GM said. "They love interacting with the fans, and we have a beautiful stadium, and it's a fun place to be. The longer folks work here and work together, it becomes like a second family to them."

For Miera, that's part of the draw, as are the scouts and reporters who flow into the press box each night.

"Every mind in here is a baseball mind, and everybody's got their own opinion. And it's baseball," he said. "Baseball has been my life. I could stay here 24 hours a day."

Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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