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Outlaws in the outfield

Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan meld their small-town tour with the national pastime.

August 09, 2004|Paul Lieberman | By Paul Lieberman Times Staff Writer

Cooperstown, N.Y. — Don Seibert was waiting with his 12-year-old son, and a baseball, on Elm Street, outside the glossy buses housing Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and their bands.

Seibert, a high school history teacher, had come all the way from Lancaster, Pa., "to kill two birds with one stone," hoping to complete the fatherly ritual of taking his boy to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and then catch Friday night's opening of the barnstorming tour that will take Dylan and Nelson through 22 minor league ballparks in the next month.

An hour before the concert, Seibert was combining both missions by seeking autographs from the two grizzled music legends -- on the baseball.

The history teacher knew getting Dylan's signature would be a longshot, but one of Dylan's guitarists signed and summed up what the father and son were about to witness:

"It's pure Americana," the guitarist said.

That symbolism indeed is heavy in what storefront signs here dubbed the "WillieBob" tour: Kids under 14 get in free, and there's no reserved seating -- you plunk yourself down in the outfield, or the bleachers -- during an itinerary that avoids the likes of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago in favor of Wappinger Falls, Altoona and Aberdeen.

For the kickoff concert here, the concession contract was turned over to Cooperstown's volunteer fire department so the hot dogs and sodas could help pay for a new ambulance.

Of course, it's often hard to separate myth from reality in baseball, or music, or small-town life, so the tour reflects that too, including the start here in Doubleday Field. The cozy ballpark up the street from the Hall of Fame persists in hanging a banner declaring itself the "Birthplace of Baseball" despite the recently unearthed evidence showing that Abner Doubleday was not father of the national pastime.

The organizers had hoped to end the WillieBob tour at Hollywood's "Field of Dreams," the diamond-in-a cornfield setting for Kevin Costner's movie that declared Iowa to be heaven on earth. The families that owned the Iowa site wouldn't agree, however, so the concluding concert will be in Kansas, "in the wheat fields instead of the cornfields," shrugged Mike Veeck, the man whose promotional instincts -- and birthday wish -- gave birth to this tour.

And what could be more Americana than that, how the impulse came from the son of the man who once sent a midget up to bat in a major league game?

Mike Veeck's father is in the Hall of Fame, though not for how he hit a ball. The late Bill Veeck owned three teams and won pennants but was best known as the "inveterate hustler and energetic maverick," as the Hall puts it, behind such promotional innovations as postgame fireworks.

A modern-day blend of his old man and a radio DJ, son Mike, 53, made his own name by filling Chicago's Comiskey Park with a Disco Demolition Night in 1979. While record burning in the outfield set off a riot and cost Mike Veeck his job, he did get a few more cracks at the majors and came up with Lawyer Appreciation Night, charging attorneys extra to get in.

But he's found his niche in the more freewheeling minor leagues as part of a group that owns a handful of teams, including one in St. Paul, Minn., not far from Dylan's hometown. Veeck says the singer-songwriter became one of his three idols -- along with his father and Cleveland Indian slugger Larry Doby -- the day, as a youngster, he traded two Beach Boys albums for a "Blonde on Blonde."

So for his birthday in 1994, another executive of the St. Paul Saints took him to a Dylan concert in Rochester, Minn., and a fan of the team -- a childhood friend of Dylan's -- arranged for them to get backstage.

"We had this strange exchange," Veeck recalls. "[Dylan] looked at me and said, 'You're that guy who runs that ballpark with the trains,' " a reference to the tracks beyond left field.

It took three years, but Dylan did a show there in 1997, drawing a sellout crowd that included his mother and comedian Bill Murray, a part owner of the team. Veeck, being a Veeck, naturally thought then of taking the show on the road.

The organizing was done by Chicago-based Jam Productions, whose Jerry Michaelson uses a baseball metaphor to explain why Dylan signed on: "People wouldn't think of Bob Dylan showing up at a minor league park to play. But he's one artist who likes to 'change up,' " Michaelson said, "to bring his music to different places [and] a whole new audience."

Dylan served up baseball lingo himself in his one statement on the venture.

"What we aim to do with this tour," he said, in announcing the shows, "is hit the ball out of the park, touch all the bases and get home safely."

And everyone agreed it was fitting to "start in the home of baseball," Michaelson said, even if Cooperstown isn't quite as advertised any longer.

Myth and nostalgia

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