"It's a labor of love."
If you ask Charlie Wride about his lifelong commitment to the New York-Penn League, he's almost certain to employ that phrase. He used it a half-dozen times when I talked to him during Aug. 28's Auburn Doubledays game, as part of a free-wheeling conversation that, no matter what direction it took, always came back to that simple phrase.
"It's a labor of love."
Wride currently serves as the New York-Penn League's historian, but he has been involved with the league and, specifically, Auburn's entrant in the circuit, since 1963. In those days, Auburn's team was known as the Mets, changing its name six times after that before settling on the Doubledays moniker in 1996.
"I've been about everything you want to be," said Wride, his voice a resonant baritone. "I've been the director, vice president, public address announcer, administrative assistant -- whatever that was -- and umpire attendant. All right here in Auburn. I've lived here all my life."
Wride credits his love of baseball to his uncle, Howard Wride. Beginning in the late 1940s, Howard would bring his nephew to old Falcon Park to see the Auburn Cayugas of the now nearly forgotten Border League ("new" Falcon Park, where the Doubledays currently play, was built on the same site in 1996). These experiences prompted Wride, as a young man, to get involved with the Auburn Mets.
"We had an ancient ballpark, but ancient doesn't mean bad. It was decrepit, but there were a lot of good memories there," said Wride, a retired teacher and father of five. "When I first started to work, they would literally give you a roll of tickets and a cigar box. If someone came up with a $20 bill, there might be change in the box and there might not be. I printed and sold the programs, and went out and got the prizes for the [lucky numbers in the] programs -- you know, a half-gallon of ice cream. And remember the old little packs of Chiclets gum? That was one of the prizes, too."
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Auburn was (and remains) a community-owned team, and as the years went by, Wride got more and more involved with its inner workings.
"You did what needed to be done. If you had to pick up a ballplayer in Syracuse, you went over and got him. You might have an extra room in the house, so you'd give him a bedroom until he got a permanent residency," he said. "I've been very fortunate. I've met all kinds of people."
For Wride, the opportunity to meet people he otherwise would not have is one of the primary perks of working in the world of baseball. During our conversation he mentioned that he maintains contact with some 175 current and former umpires, as well as players, coaches and managers who have passed through Auburn (Astros pitching coach Brent Strom and Mahoning Valley manager Ted Kubiak, to name two of many examples).
In the world of baseball, as in life, one connection leads to another, which leads to another, and that is how Wride got to meet a future Hall of Famer who at the time was just starting his career. But let's let him tell it:
"Way back when, there was a friend of mine who played in the [New York-]Penn League -- John Sanders, you can look it up, he played in one Major League game as a pinch-runner, but that was it. But once John got to Triple-A ball, he was with Jacksonville in the International League, and they would come this way to play Syracuse. What I would do is go over and get John, bring him back to bunk with us, and then bring him back to Syracuse. Back and forth, back and forth. I go over one night looking for John, but John's not there. I knock on the clubhouse door, a guy comes to the door and he tells me, 'Oh, John's on the bus. …Wait, where'd the hell the bus go? The bus left me. Will you give me a ride downtown?' I say 'Sure.'"
Here, Wride pauses and smiles.
"Well, before Nolan Ryan got in my car, I took a nice picture of him. He was a 17-year-old kid, and had not thrown one ball in the big leagues, but he rode downtown with me."
Wride's connection to, and knowledge of, the New York-Penn League eventually led to his appointment as league historian.
"It's the best non-paying job I've ever had," he said. "Every year I revise the media guide, all of the stat parts, and I have compiled a list of the almost 3,000 New York-Penn League players who have gone on to the bigs. I've got all kinds of things."
Of course, a big part of a historian's job is to preserve that which otherwise might fade from memory, and this is a particularly relevant task for Wride. The New York-Penn League has grown well beyond its original footprint -- it now includes teams in Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Ohio, and, in 2015, West Virginia -- and this rampant expansion and relocation has often occurred at the expense of the league's smaller, more traditional markets.
"I don't like what I'm seeing. For the smaller towns, the clock is ticking," said Wride. "Geneva is gone, Elmira is gone, Utica is gone, Newark [New York] is gone, Watertown is gone, Welland is gone. I can name a ton, and now Jamestown is gone and Jamestown was in this league since 1939. They must be crushed down there," he said. "Unfortunately it's dollars and cents, and if you don't have the fans in the seats, then it's bye-bye down the road. Life is cruel sometimes."
But no matter how the New York-Penn League continues to evolve, Wride has ensured himself a permanent place within it. He was inducted into the league's Hall of Fame on Aug. 19, as part of this year's All-Star Game festivities at Brooklyn's MCU Park.
"John Elway, Randy Johnson and myself were the crew that went in, and I have not come down yet," he said of the feeling. "It's a very humbling experience; you should see the names of the people that are in that Hall of Fame: Pete Rose, Wade Boggs, and then you throw Wride's name in there?"
"It's a labor of love."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.