Boogie Nights in Bridgeport

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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- This is an industrial town with a high crime rate and a sordid history that includes declaring for bankruptcy in the last decade. The downtown area is filled with empty storefronts and loitering teens. All in all, the picture is a pretty sad one. Especially when you consider that many of the surrounding towns are some of the wealthiest in the country.

But if you follow Broad Street many evenings all the way toward the water, underneath Interstate 95, there's something beautiful going on. Amid the overpasses and railroad tracks and power plants, the 5,300-seat Ballpark at Harbor Yards rises into the darkness.

In a sense it's a beacon. Of coming change for an impoverished town. And possibly of the way baseball operates its minor league system.

The

Bridgeport Bluefish

is one of six teams in the Atlantic League, a brand-new independent minor league. The players come from any one of a number of different places. Some are former major-leaguers. Others were top minor-league prospects who got injured or didn't fit into the plans of the big clubs for which they played. Others are right out of college. The level of play is better than that in Double-A, but maybe not quite as good as in Triple-A.

The Bluefish are about 70% of the way through their 100-game season and have won about two-thirds of the time. For the people in Bridgeport, having a winner is like gaining enlightenment.

"For the first time in a long time, the people of Bridgeport finally have something to be proud of," said Mickey Herbert, one of the Bluefish owners. "There's finally something good going on here."

This season, Bridgeport will probably draw more than 300,000 for 70 home games, more than the other four minor-league clubs in the state.

Sure, the players are celebrities in the city and surrounding communities. They spend almost half an hour before each game signing autographs. But the franchise really is a boon to the entire city, not just its youngsters. Opening the franchise here created more than 250 jobs. Herbert and his co-owners are having local businesses provide most of the materials for concessions, like hot dog buns from a local bakery and ice cream from a local dairy.

Also, it has given the people who reside in the affluent towns that border Bridgeport a reason to go into the city.

"We'd like to see Bridgeport become a destination city," Herbert said. "No one said that this team will be a panacea for all of Bridgeport's problems. But I think the elected officials from here thought that if we'd take the chance to get this going here, other people might too."

Already, plans are going through for a shopping center that will cost almost $1 billion and be situated just a stone's throw away from the ballpark.

While Bridgeport is looking to get the cash flowing in, major-league baseball teams are trying to keep the cash from flowing out. That means independent leagues like the Atlantic League could figure more heavily into the future of the sport.

Because they don't function under the rules of major-league baseball, independent teams are allowed to situate themselves near big-league cities (MLB doesn't permit minor-league teams within 75 miles of one of its franchises). That means that close-in satellite cities like Bridgeport can enjoy baseball, drawing in the suburban types with large disposable income. Thus teams like those in the Atlantic League can afford to pay salaries better than those of many minor-league teams.

"I spent a few years in the

Expos

organization and I can tell you, this beats that hands down," said Rob Lukachyk, an outfielder for the

Somerset Patriots

. "Everyone knows that the Expos have one of the lowest payrolls in the bigs. But where they really are saving money is in the minor leagues."

Added Sparky Lyle, former

Cy Young Award

winner and the Somerset manager: "I don't know if I'll live to see the day when it happens, but we may move to a time when it's economically more feasible for an organization to keep only two minor league clubs and stock them with top prospects. They can leave the rest to us and sign our players when they need them.

"Tell me there aren't teams out there that would love to save the cost of running four of their six minor-league clubs."

If there is anything that lends credibility to Lyle's assertion, it is this: On Wednesday David Hulse from the Atlantic League franchise in Nashua, N.H., was signed by the

Red Sox

and assigned to their Triple-A team in Pawtucket, R.I. Like many of the players in this league, Hulse spent time as a major-leaguer. He was an outfielder for the

Texas Rangers

and considered a budding star. But Hulse injured his throwing arm and needed two or three surgeries to repair the damage.

Now, scouts from the Red Sox say he has a good shot to get back into the majors when the club expands its roster to 40 players next month.

Another benefit for baseball is the way these clubs are at work creating another generation of fans. For most Bridgeport games, you can scan hundreds of children in the stands.

"At $2 for a child's seat you almost can't miss," said Kelly Temple, who was at one game last week with her husband and five children. "We could have gone into the city to see the Yankees or Mets and spent $200 or more. But here, it's a whole night out for us for less than $50. It's like everybody wins with this team."

She probably doesn't realize just how right she is.

TOP 10 FEATS IN SPORTS

Response was excellent to

last week's column on the 10 greatest feats/moments in sports history and whether breaking

Roger Maris'

single-season home run record of 61 would belong. The notes you dropped us were many and varied, but here's the gist of what they said:

Sixty percent of respondents to the question of whether hitting 62 home runs belongs on the list said it would not. Most sighted expansion and watered-down pitching as the real reasons.

Of the 40% that said 62 homers would be a top 10 feat, the vast majority indicated they thought

St. Louis Cardinals

first baseman

Mark McGwire

would be the one to break the record. Two people predicted Big Mac would hit 65 or more.

The biggest omission from our top 10 list, according to you, the readers, was

Joe DiMaggio's

56-game hitting streak. One of you even sent in the lyrics to the Simon and Garfunkel song

Mrs. Robinson

.

The second-place winner for biggest omission was

Secretariat's

31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. One reader called it "the greatest 2:24 in sports history."

The third-place finisher for biggest omission was

Villanova's

near-perfect shooting night (79%) against

Georgetown

in the 1985 NCAA men's basketball championship game.

Other suggestions we heard several times:

Mickey Mantle's

565-foot home run off the facade in Yankee Stadium,

Hank Aaron's

715th home run and

Bob Gibson's

1.12 ERA in 1968.

Things that got only one vote included:

Jesse Owens'

four gold medals at the 1936 Munich Olympics,

Wayne Gretzky's

92 goals and 212 points in the 1981-82 season,

Roger Bannister

shattering the 4-minute mark in the mile,

Johnny Unitas'

NFL championship-winning sneak into the end zone, the 1960

U.S. Olympic Hockey team's

gold medal performance and

Carlton Fisk's

game-winning home run off the foul pole in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.

Roger Rubin has covered sports in the New York area for the past 10 years. He currently is a staff writer for the

New York Daily News

, covering high school and college sports. He appreciates your feedback at Gotascoop@aol.com

.