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Ah,  the start of baseball season.  In Albuquerque,  that means driving down University Avenue to attend a game by our own Isotopes  (minor league branch of the Florida Marlins)  in the beautiful,  two-years-old,  stadium watching the sun set against the Sandia Mountains.

I have tickets to Thursday night's home opener.  But there have been a few games already:  Friday saw an exhibition game between the Texas Rangers and the Colorado Rockies;  yesterday,  there was a double-header with the Rangers playing the Arizona Diamondbacks early in the day and the Isotopes later in the afternoon.  All three of those games sold out before I even knew they had gone on sale!  I thought about going to this Tuesday's exhibition game,  during which the Isotopes would be playing the University of New Mexico Lobos with a ticket price of $5 for all seats,  but that's "Amazing Race" night.

During the Isotopes' inaugural season in 2003  (bringing professional baseball back to town for the first time since the Dukes were sold to Portland,  Oregon,  in the early 90's),  I attended an even dozen games -- a one-year record for me  (when I lived in Kansas City,  Royals Stadium was just too far away from home to attend those games regularly).  I even went to a divisional playoff game -- a great feat for the hometown team to make it in their first year out -- but they lost.

I'm really looking forward to besting my 2003 record this year.  Even if the Isotopes aren't winning,  it's easy to enjoy the views from the park as well as the wide variety of food available on the concourse  (it's not just hot dogs and peanuts anymore!).

I enjoyed Rick Wright's column in this morning's Albuquerque Journal and would like to share it with you:

Baseball Has Its Day In The Sun
Rick Wright

Robin Manderson, paying customer, and Luis Gonzalez, four-time major-league All-Star, couldn't have agreed more:

Baseball and a pristine, picture-book afternoon like Saturday in Albuquerque go together like sky and blue.

Add to the mix a state-of-the-art minor-league stadium, and you're within a squeeze play of perfection.

Steroid scandal?  Barry Bonds?  Yes,  there are things surrounding the game that are terribly wrong.

The game itself?  On a day like Saturday, in a venue like Isotopes Park, for almost 12,000 people, it could hardly have been better.

"This is a wonderful pastime, said Manderson, who watched Saturday's Texas Rangers-Arizona Diamondbacks exhibition game with her son, Brett, and her boyfriend, Shane Jackson, from Isotopes Park's picnic pavilion in the left-field stands.  You get to spend time with your family, you get to be outside, and there's lots of entertainment."

Gonzales, the Diamondbacks' veteran left fielder, added entertainment value by hammering a solo home run to right off Rangers right-hander Chris Young.  Forever after, 11,987 fans will be able to watch Gonzales play on television and say they saw him hit one out at Isotopes Park.

"I just think Albuquerque's excited for baseball," Gonzales said.  "This is my first time playing here, and I think this is an awesome facility.  It was fun for us to come in here."

Fun?  I didn't ask Gonzales this,  and he didn't say it.  But I'm guessing an out-of-the-way exhibition game like Saturday's -- sandwiched between breaking spring camp in Tucson and Monday's regular-season opener against the Cubs in Phoenix -- is regarded by the players as a bit of a hassle.

Yet,  Gonzales said,  the payoff comes in being ambassadors for a sport that could use a little diplomacy at the grass-roots level right now.

"It was just nice to go out there and know that people recognize you," he said.  "Unfortunately, we didn't win the game, but it was still a good showing for both sides."

Oh, yes.  The Rangers won the game 7-4.  Did that matter?  Not at all.  This was an exhibition, a melange of veterans, youngsters, rookies and players ultimately destined for Tucson or Oklahoma City.  You couldn't tell the players even
with a scorecard.

Besides, this was baseball -- sports' answer to the lawn party.

At any given time on Saturday, hundreds of people, perhaps 1,000 or more, had their backs to the field waiting in concession lines.  In the right-field grassy area, some were sunning themselves with eyes closed.  Fortunately, Gonzalez's homer to right landed harmlessly on the concourse.

Did any of those people leave the stadium feeling they missed anything?  Probably not.

"This is the first game I've been to in a long time," Manderson said.  "(Jackson) just decided to take my son and me out and spend a day at a baseball game, overload on junk food and catch some sun."

Manderson and Jackson, both recent arrivals in Albuquerque, had never been to Isotopes Park.

But, both said, they'd love to come back to an Isotopes game or two.

Or several.

Isotopes management should love the sound of that.  So should Gonzales, his D-Backs teammates and the Rangers, who with the Colorado Rockies had drawn more than 9,000 fans here Friday.

In Albuquerque, at least, baseball's alive and swell.

--The Sunday Journal April 3, 2005 p. D5, ©2005