I just want to give a tip of the baseball cap to the Indianapolis Indians.
Where else but in the Minor Leagues would you find a visiting manager being given a special night in his honor?
Seriously. I mean, technically, in the Major Leagues, players on opposing teams aren't even allowed to "fraternize," a rule which I personally consider a ridiculous one that should be wiped off the books ... but that is possibly another topic for another column. (For the record, it's Rule 3.09).
Who cares if these guys have probably been teammates, roommates, good friends over the years? This is war. This is a rumble. This isn't Little League, where everyone shakes hands after the game and cheers "2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate? The other team! The other team! Yaaaaaaaay, the other team!" before they hit the juice boxes and snack-sized bags of Doritos.
So you can be pretty sure that, say, the New York Yankees are not going to be celebrating "Terry Francona Day" at Yankee Stadium any time soon.
But the Indianapolis Indians proclaimed Tuesday night, May 16, Razor Shines Night at Victory Field.
That was the night that Shines and his Charlotte Knights (White Sox) made their 2006 season debut in Indianapolis, opening up a four-game series in Indy. Shines was at the helm of arguably the hottest team in the Minors, who sport a pretty sweet 31-9 record and lead the International League's South Division. Indy, meanwhile, is 22-18 and atop the league's West Division.
But the game on the 16th marked the first time that Shines had stepped on a baseball field in Indianapolis when he wasn't wearing an Indians uniform. Not that there weren't plenty of reminders of those good old days at Victory Field that night.
Longtime Indians fan Kerry Smith had a table of memorabilia featuring Shines, and the evening featured giveaways of autographed pictures and other keepsakes.
There were plenty of years during which to collect that memorabilia.
Between 1984-1993, Anthony Razor Shines was the sparkplug for Indianapolis, then the Montreal Expos' Triple-A farm team. He helped lead the team to five American Association titles (1984, 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989) in a league that disbanded after 1997 to realign with the International and Pacific Coast Leagues. In '84 he was the team's MVP as he led the club with 80 RBIs.
But if you asked the fans, he was the MVP every year.
In that span, he established himself as, unquestionably, the most popular player to ever don that uniform. And keep in mind that this was an era when players such as Larry Walker, Randy Johnson, Otis Nixon and Delino Deshields all passed through Indianapolis.
But none of them could eclipse Razor in the hearts of the fans.
"I think it comes with winning," Shines said, regarding his immense popularity. "During my stay in Indy, we were very fortunate and won a lot."
But it wasn't just the wins that made Shines such a beloved figure in Indianapolis. The Durham, N.C., native moved there with his family and made the city his home for almost 12 years before leaving recently for Austin, Texas, where his wife took a new job ("Leaving Indianapolis was one of the toughest things I've ever done," he said of the move).
And no one was more dedicated and enthusiastic when it came to interacting with the fans.
"I got to be known on a first-name basis with a lot of the fans, and I always made sure that every kid who wanted an autograph got one," he recalled. "I think when you do that and you help out in the community, they gravitate towards you. And that's how my love affair with the city began."
Even in the offseasons, Shines was an integral part of the baseball lives of the city's youth.
After retiring, he worked as a hitting coach at a local baseball academy as well as an assistant coach at Bishop Chatard High School.
He also started his second career as a coach and eventually a manager in the White Sox system. He is now in his seventh season as a Minor League manager and his first at Triple-A, after earning the honor of Southern League Manager of the Year in 2005 when he led the Birmingham Barons to an 82-57 record. Many of his players on that team moved up with him to the Knights in '06.
While Shines played in just 47 games in the Majors (he was a catcher whose path was blocked by a guy named Gary Carter), there are many who think that he has exhibited the kind of leadership and passion that should earn him a Major League managerial slot down the road.
Shines' nearly cult-figure status in Indianapolis is part and parcel of what makes the Minors so special. He may be the most obvious example of a player who a Minor League city has adored and adopted, but he is not the only one.
In fact, that night in Indianapolis, the hitting coach in the opposing dugout could have told you a few stories about what it's like to be a Minor League legend.
Indians batting coach Hensley Meulens came up through the Minor League ranks with the New York Yankees. Signed in 1985 out of Curacao, he played his Advanced-A ball in 1987 in the town of Woodbridge, Va., with the Prince William Cannons.
Then a sleepy exurb of Washington, D.C., and now a thriving bedroom community that plays home to the Potomac Nationals (Washington's farm team in the Carolina League), Woodbridge and its baseball fans embraced Meulens like a native son.
Like Shines, Meulens had a catchy name -- he was christened "Bam Bam." And he put up some huge numbers, to the tune of a .300 average, 28 homers and 103 RBIs in just 116 games that summer, his first full season.
But it was more than just the moniker and the stats. Meulens was accessible, sweet, humble and smart. He spoke five languages and could communicate with the Latino fans as easily as with the English-speaking locals.
He tooled around town in a totally beat-up car -- I think it was a Ford Matador. In cooperation with the team, it was decided that the club would celebrate "Bam Bam Night" at the end of the season, an event capped when the team raffled off the "Bam Bam Mobile" at the end of the game.
Rumor has it that the winner never drove the car, just exhibited it in his front yard.
And I can say with firsthand knowledge that years after Meulens departed for greener fields, becoming the first native of Curacao to play in the Major Leagues when the Yankees called him up in September 1989, his name was legend in Prince William County.
He could have won any election held in that county. And you know what? I would have voted for him, too.
I say this because I was the Cannons' beat writer from 1989-1992. Two seasons after he'd left, people still talked about him with awe and wonder. His smile. His tape measure home runs. His car. But especially his warm personality.
I found out just how true this was in September of my first season covering the Cannons. When Meulens was called up to the Yankees, the club came through Baltimore and I was sent up to do a story on our popular adopted native son.
I'd never met him and had no previous working relationship with him. That day had started out hot and sticky but a late-afternoon thunderstorm moved through and the temperature dropped 30 degrees.
I sat in the dugout interviewing him, in a short-sleeved shirt and no jacket, shivering slightly. When we were done chatting, he looked at me with mild concern.
"Didn't you bring a jacket?" he asked. "It's going to be cold out there tonight."
I admitted, rather sheepishly, that I hadn't but I was sure I'd be fine.
He'd hear nothing of the sort. He took off his nice, warm quilted New York Yankees warm-up jacket and handed it to me.
"You wear this and you can bring it back to me after the game," he insisted.
Give me that ballot. I'm voting for Bam Bam.