It seems every small town holds its own annual festival of some sort, a social happening to bring the community together and give the few people there a reason to get out and celebrate collectively. For many places this event is the local fair, a chance for folks to show off their best quilting and sheep-raising among various other pastoral proficiencies, while grubbing down on corn dogs, cotton candy and more deliciously life-shortening treats. Others get a little more creative; Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina hosts the National Hollerin’ Contest, where competitors are judged on their redneck greeting skills, while Clinton, Montana honors the time-honored rancher’s delicacy of battered cow balls at its yearly Testicle Festival.
These events are designed to provide an entertaining distraction for people who generally don’t have a whole lot to get excited about. Here in Farmington, New Mexico, our distraction is baseball and our festival is the Connie Mack World Series, the best amateur tournament in the game.
Connie Mack, as it’s known around here, is the culminating event for the American Amateur Baseball Congress’ (AABC) 16-18 year old division. For most teams, a spot in Connie Mack is earned by successfully grinding through city, state, and regional tournaments. Additionally, the winner of the Farmington City Tournament gains hosting rights and there are also two spots awarded via open-invitation tournaments. To get an idea of what it means for teams to come play in Farmington, watch this reaction by the Ontario Blue Jays after they won the North Atlantic Regional tournament last week.
Farmington, New Mexico has hosted the Connie Mack World Series every August since 1965 and over the decades it has become an integral piece of Farmington culture. Known mostly for its natural gas and racial tensions between whites and Native Americans, this is the one time for the little town tucked into the Four Corners to really roll out the red carpet and show itself off. And show off they do; on arrival teams are greeted by performances from the two high school dance teams and opening day includes a parade right down Main Street, where players are treated like celebrities, waving to smiling fans while riding floats through the heart of downtown.
In a town without a lot of headline stories happening, the local paper begins building hype for the World Series as soon as the city tournament ends and the host team has been decided. Yesterday there was even a captivating front page article about the team getting a tour of the local jail as part of its World Series preparation. This is something that defines the city of Farmington and that its citizens care dearly about. But Connie Mack isn’t just a nifty little gimmick to give some podunk town a reason to get out and celebrate; it’s a gathering of baseball’s amateur elite and something any true fan of the game should care about as well.
The level of play at this tournament is tremendous. Every year there are kids that have just been drafted and are on the verge of signing contracts well above Farmington’s median income. As of July 31, 2010, there were 41 CMWS alumni on Major League rosters and countless more throughout all levels of the minors. This competition has seen the likes of Manny Ramirez, Cal Ripken, Jr., Edgar Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez, Barry Larkin, Ozzie Smith, and Ken Griffey, Jr., who according to local legend possibly fathered a child during his Farmington stay. There are representatives from every Major League organization scouting players and hundreds of kids swarming them for autographs after games. Connie Mack, unlike the much more recognized Little League World Series, is a tournament whose level of play actually matches the hype behind it.
To top it all off, the contest is held at the immaculate Ricketts Park, a 6,100 seat stadium that routinely packs capacity crowds throughout this magical week. For a town of only about 40,000 people, this is no small feat. The place is a gem of a yard, and the city volunteers who handle the tournament keep it in pristine condition for every game. The atmosphere is unlike any other amateur baseball contest, and when a rally gets going and fans start stomping their feet those metal bleachers echo for blocks. Opening night for the Connie Mack World Series is this Friday and I could not be more excited.
I have to give special mention to this year’s host team, the Farmington Cardinals, who are coached by my older brother, Griffin, and two of my best friends. Historically host teams have not fared too well at Connie Mack, and this year will prove another enormous challenge as they take on the Florida Legends, a team boasting multiple draft picks including this year’s third overall selection, Manny Machado, in their opening round match-up. Other teams to watch out for include the perennial contender East Cobb Yankees of Georgia and the always fan favorite Midland Redskins from Ohio. But underdogs as they may be I’ll be rooting for the hometown boys and wish the Cardinals the best of luck.