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CASEY AT THE WHEELUSED CAR NIGHT AT THE OL' BALLPARK

Craig Pletenik was standing near third base, trying to remain as calm as possible as he repeated "Mayday, mayday" into a walkie-talkie. He had exactly ninety seconds between innings at the Phoenix Firebirds game against the Calgary Cannons. Nearby stood a family looking hopefully at the left-field fence. In the stands at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, a crowd of several thousand watched as absolutely nothing happened. Finally, after what to Pletenik seemed like a lifetime, a gate in the left-field fence opened, and the family watched as the car it had just won rolled triumphantly onto the field. It was a Ford Granada, known to readers of Consumer Reports as a used car not to buy.

What had taken so long was that the Firebirds' employees couldn't get it started.

"This is typical minor league fare," says Pletenik, the club's general manager, talking about the Firebirds' first Used Car Night last June. Despite problems like the Granada's flooded engine, and despite the fact that two of the nine winners didn't even bother to pick their cars up--well, one of the cars given away was a Yugo--Pletenik has scheduled another Used Car Night for Friday, July 6. Given the way the team's been playing lately, it might be the most interesting thing on the field.

Minor league clubs like the Firebirds believe there's more to a ball game than pitching, hitting and defense. They believe in providing entertainment to those members of the family who don't understand the infield-fly rule and didn't want to come to the game, anyway.

So far, it's worked. Since the Firebirds changed ownership in 1984, management has made an attempt to substitute families, who think that a no-alcohol section is a pretty good idea, for the beer-guzzling, blue-collar crowd of past years. That's meant no more ten-cent-beer nights, and no evenings like the one a few years ago that appeared to be "Biker Night." First under former general manager Greg Corns and now under Pletenik, attendance has increased for the past three years.

Pletenik regards the tops of the dugouts as important as what's in them, and he has turned them into stages for local talent of all stripes. His policy is laissez faire: "If someone has an act and they want to call me," he says, there's a pretty good chance they'll wind up atop a dugout. "We've had eight-year-olds' drill teams out there."

Follow Craig Pletenik around the ballpark a couple of hours before the Firebirds game against its parent club, the San Francisco Giants, and you can watch him arrange for half a dozen young women in spandex shorts and halter tops, affiliated in some mysterious way with a radio station, to dance atop a dugout between the second and third innings.

He also turns an attentive ear to the Polka Boys, three young men bound for college this fall who have already turned themselves into a fixture at Phoenix Roadrunners' hockey games--and something approaching local celebrities. They get up on the dugout and, wearing floppy hats, do a silly dance to the "Clarinet Polka." The crowd, recognizing them, claps in time.

One new event is a spin on karaoke. A member of the audience stands atop the dugout and sings a number from a list of golden oldies. Some performers are truly bad, like the two girls a couple of weeks ago who sang what Pletenik guessed was "Wild Thing."

Then there are extraordinary surprises, like the guy known only as Elliott who gave an as-good-as-Jimmy-Buffett rendition of "Margaritaville" recently.

"Usually the crowd is noisy," says Nate Klinger, the Firebirds employee who runs the event. "But this time it was quiet for a second as people realized, `This guy can sing!'"

The singing, for some reason, is a favorite with the ballplayers, who invariably come out of the dugout to watch, and who have asked Pletenik if it couldn't be done twice during the game.

Popular among the sporting crowd, however, is the kids' race around the bases. That translates to six-year-old boys running in opposite directions from home plate. Some of them run to the wrong base. Some of them cheat, in full view of thousands, who then boo them.

Like the races, most of the promotions are "cornball," in Pletenik's words--not as high-dollar as the El Paso ball club's gift of a swimming pool, but not as pathetic as the fake noses and glasses the Albuquerque Dukes build an evening around every year. Pletenik is especially scornful of Calgary's conehead promotion, about a decade behind the times.

Not everything works. Pletenik tried a hula-hoop contest--for free airplane tickets--but no one could get the hoop going. For a while there were fish races under the scoreboard, although they never made any sense--guys walking behind the fence propelled wooden fish on sticks. Even Pletenik thought it was stupid. The one night he had to call the race, he was so embarrassed he hid in the press box. Then there are genuine fiascos. Pletenik hired a mariachi band for one Cinco de Mayo. It was supposed to play from the back of a flatbed truck. The truck driver wandered off, and nobody could get the truck--or the band--into the ballpark. The Firebirds canceled the whole thing. Pletenik's favorite fiasco, though, was "Mr. Dynamite." Guys like Mr. Dynamite and Max Patkin, a former ballplayer turned clown, are like old-time barnstormers who make their livings traveling from one minor league park to another.

Mr. Dynamite puts himself in a coffin with explosives, which he then blows up. The sides fly off. The night he did it at Muni, the explosives failed to go off simultaneously, and Mr. Dynamite got hit unexpectedly with a late shot.

"He was bleeding from the nose and ears," Pletenik remembers. Pletenik recalls, with 20-20 hindsight, that when he was talking to Mr. Dynamite in his office, the guy was tipping cigarette ashes into his own boot, and his body was covered with powder burns.

Since the press box at Muni is not closed off, if people don't like a promotion, Pletenik is not hard to find. One woman complained about the bat-spinning race, in which people put their foreheads on a bat stuck in the ground, run in circles around it and then dash to a base. The point is that they usually fall down instead. The woman said it was inhumane. Pletenik said, "Good."

Giving away a Yugo might also qualify as inhumane, although the man responsible for rounding up last year's used cars, Tony Komadina of Earnhardt Chrysler-Plymouth, gets a bit defensive on that point. Still, at least three of the cars given away last year--the Yugo, a Dodge Aspen, and a Plymouth Reliant--are regarded by Consumer Reports and Consumers Digest as "unsatisfactory choices in the used-car market."

"These cars are desirable," Komadina says doggedly, pointing out that each has a retail price of at least $1,000.

While last year's cars were not so desirable that anyone bothered to keep a list of them, they seem to have included, from the best of a variety of recollections, that 1987 Yugo; a 1982 Plymouth Reliant; a late-Seventies Dodge Aspen; a Ford Courier pickup from the mid-Eighties; a Mercury Marquis, probably from the late Seventies; a 1975 Toyota Corolla; a Buick Regal; a Mazda; and the Ford Granada that did not start. (Komadina contends it was the Courier that did not start.)

No matter. If they were good cars, it wouldn't be as much fun, as Pletenik is happy to admit. "I used the line last year, `You can sell it or drive it over a cliff,'" he says.

While his predecessor Greg Corns was promoted to a job in the Giants organization, Pletenik still labors in the vineyards of the bush leagues. He says he loves it. "There something pure about minor league baseball," he says. "It's unspoiled and unpretentious, it's intimate ballparks and underpaid players." He laughs at himself for waxing poetic, but people have told him they're glad Phoenix isn't getting a major league team. And the point about underpaid ballplayers was brought home at last year's Used Car Night.

One of the two cars never claimed was bought for the cost of the tags by Mark Dewey, a relief pitcher for the Firebirds at the time. "Only two things were important," says Dewey, who's now in the Mets organization. "It ran, and the AC worked."

Dewey's seen a few promotions in his time, too. Once, in Clinton, Iowa, he was pressed into service in a hog-calling contest. He stood at home plate calling "Sooooie" into a microphone, while a girl dressed as Miss Piggy ran toward him in response.

For a while there were fish races under the scoreboard, although they never made any sense.

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Anna Dooling