Wharton: Remembering Derks Field

By Tom Wharton

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: July 5, 2012 11:28AM
Updated: June 28, 2012 10:18AM
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Tom Wharton

The name on Salt Lake City’s beautiful baseball palace at 1300 S. West Temple might read “Spring Mobile Park.”

But to baseball fans like me — who grew up watching teams with names such as the Bees, Little Giants, Trappers, Gulls and Angels in a much less modern park that, in reality, had little charm — this piece of ground will always be known as Derks Field.

As a 41-year employee of The Salt Lake Tribune, I like the fact that the old park was named not after some corporation that put up big bucks to have its name plastered on the entrance, but after John Derks, a longtime Tribune sportswriter.

My wife and I took in a recent game at Derks — I mean Spring Mobile Park — the other night. I’m pretty sure I bored her with my youthful tales of growing up with the old park.

I may or may not have seen Dick Stuart — fondly known as Dr. Strangeglove because of his lack of fielding prowess — play for the Bees in 1958. I would have been 8 then. And, in answer to a question from Bill Oram, one of our young sportswriters, I did not see Babe Ruth play there.

But I do remember players such as Harry Bright and Max Alvis. If memory serves, Alvis rented a house in our neighborhood, and I might have cut his lawn. I certainly bugged him for broken bats and used baseballs. My mom, a huge Dodgers fan, once chided me for trading a vintage Roy Campanella card for Bright.

The old stadium wasn’t much to look at. It had bleachers, not the nice green chair seats seen today. There was no roof. And when I finally went to work for The Tribune and got to cover a few prep games, a minor-league game or two and a couple of national softball tournaments, getting to sit in the old Derks press box was a thrill. That said, the old box hung over the top of the stadium and I had nightmares of it one day simply toppling backward over the side.

In 1987, the old park became the focus of national attention when a group of rookie Pioneer League players not considered good enough to play for a Major League affiliate won 29 straight games, a professional baseball rec­ord. Even Sports Illustrated came to town to celebrate our Trappers, though a photo that made it look as though the sun was setting over the Wasatch Range to the east seemed weird.

A number of great players wore Salt Lake uniforms. The website Digitalballparks.com listed 21 Major League Baseball All-Stars who played for teams at old Derks, including Sam McDowell, Ken Landreux, Dickie Thon and Mickey Rivers.

The minor-league baseball experience has changed a bit over the years. There was no fancy television screen, cute train, kids’ playground, mascot or Bees girls in the past. But some things never change.

First, does anyone really “root, root, root for the home team,” as the song says? Triple-A baseball players come and go so fast that it’s difficult for any but the most avid of fans to really get emotionally involved with the team. A few might follow where the Bees are in the Pacific Coast League standings, but most are more likely to follow their Major League favorite.

Second, I love the smells and sounds at the park — watching kids with mitts hoping a ball might be hit their way, fans begging players to toss them a ball between innings or just how these athletes make hard plays look easy. Eating a grilled brat, salted-in-the shell peanuts, a hot dog with all the trimmings or a cotton candy is part of the experience.

Mostly, though, sitting at the ballpark — whatever it’s named — on a warm spring evening, watching people and enjoying America’s pastime seems like a ritual well worth keeping.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton