CHILLICOTHE, OHIO — WE arrived as the recording of the national anthem was being played and for $23 bought six tickets in the third row behind the home-team dugout. A nimble young man wearing a spotted horse's head was already frolicking there by the time we sat down next to the players' girlfriends.
The horse-man is the official mascot of the Chillicothe Paints, an unaffiliated Class A Frontier League team located in Chillicothe, a southern Ohio town of 22,000 known otherwise for its Mead paper plant, its Kenworth truck factory, its sprawling state correctional facility, the lavish outdoor drama called Tecumseh, and the arboreal roller-coaster roads of the Paint Creek valley.
We and a few hundred other satisfied souls had driven past the forbidding barbed spirals of the state prison this August night and found baseball on the grounds of the Veterans Administration. One has to look hard to find baseball here, the Frontier League being perhaps the smallest blip on professional baseball's landscape. If Class A, in general, is considered the bushes, the Frontier League is a shrub. In its inaugural season last year, Baseball America, the ranking authority on the minor leagues, called the Frontier ``the league of last resort.''
The last resort is precisely what many baseball fans have been driven to in these days of the major-league work stoppage. It also turns out to be a delightful off-highway alternative.
In the Frontier League, baseball has returned expressly to the hometown, encompassing eight communities as big as Erie, Pa., (108,000) in the North and as small as Pikeville, Ky., (7,500) in the South.
The geographical closeness of the Frontier League recalls an earlier era of professional baseball, when entire minor leagues would be contained within the borders of a state. The likes of Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby got their starts in such bush leagues.
Together, the eight teams make up an independent (unaffiliated), blissfully obscure association that is in virtually all ways untouched by the long arm of the major leagues. This might be a somewhat daunting thing for the college players who predominantly account for the Frontier League rosters, but it can be a refreshing state of affairs for the paying customer, who is treated to a game in which the players' foremost goal is to win, not to earn statistics.
The quaintness endemic to the low minors carries with it an element of unpredictability. When the Chillicothe left-fielder stood by on our Tuesday night as an ordinary fly ball dropped six feet behind him, it was speculated that the lights had played a part - but at this level, one never really knows. Anything can happen in Class A. A couple of years ago, an eager minor-leaguer literally ran through an outfield wall chasing a fly ball. Then there was the free-spirited catcher who startled his third baseman by trying to throw out a base-stealer with a potato. Earlier this month in Princeton, W.Va., the home-plate umpire ejected the public-address announcer for arguing about one of his calls from the press box.
In the Frontier League, the baseball fan can not only see these things, but also see them close up. The Portsmouth (Ohio) Explorers carry the proximity thing to its utmost, permitting young fans to stand with their players during the national anthem. In Chillicothe, the players shuffle about and lean against the chain-link fence that separates them from the crowd, the dugouts being too short to accommodate all their young-buck shoulders at once. Occasionally, one of them wanders into the grandstand for such purposes as delivering a bouquet of flowers to the Lady Fan of the Night. (This honor is not to be confused with the special customer who is ceremoniously ushered by the horse mascot to the Best Seat in the House, a rocking lounge chair situated at the top of the first-base bleachers.)
The thrill of baseball was not forgotten, either, when the Chillicothe third baseman deflected a ground ball to the shortstop, who barehanded it and improvisationally threw back to third for a forced out, or when the same apparently gifted shortstop dived to flag down a hard smash, bounced up, and pegged out a runner at home plate - two plays that would have solidly earned Barry Larkin his $20,000 a night.
But the concept here is to take the action to the stands. Our younger two kids were completely overtaken by the unbridled spirit of Horse Head. By the seventh inning, our eight-year-old son was wearing his sweatshirt as a hat and dancing in the aisles as he had never danced before. (It should be noted, though, that our 11-year-old daughter was impressed enough by the shortstop, Sherrod Rives of Southeast Missouri State University, to desire his - and only his - autograph. And although Rives's overall game fell somewhat short of Barry Larkin's, it should also be noted that the $43,500 Frontier League salary cap for each franchise - a player's maximum monthly salary is $700 - would buy approximately seven innings of Larkin and, say, Bobby Bonilla.)
Our five-year-old daughter was also captivated by the right-field playground, which is staffed by a full-time attendant. Like so many other distinguishing features of a Paints game, it is one that the Cincinnati Reds do not offer in their concrete doughnut 100 miles away. It so happened that our family had viewed our only Reds game of the year nine days earlier, the consideration of which prompted me to ask the kids about their preference.
``I'd say this one, if they had as many different kinds of food,'' said the 11-year-old, who nonetheless approved of the nachos.
``This one,'' shouted my son, dashing off to pull Horse Head's tail out of his baseball pants.
* The Paints' regular season ended Aug. 26, and they advanced to playoffs this week. Their record was 1-1 in the playoffs at press time, and they could face Erie, Pa., in the champ-ionships tonight.