By Daniel Dullum
First, it was Harvey, then Irma, then Maria. Hurricane season 2017 was a busy one.
Throughout that hurricane season, there was no shortage of maps posted online to show us the size of these devastating storms. One of them included a comparison in size between Irma and Hurricane Andrew.
That’s noteworthy because Andrew was in full force in the last week of August in 1992, while Fargo, ND, was hosting the annual American Legion Baseball World Series. One of the participating teams was the All-Star Ford squad from Gonzales, LA, a community of 9,000 people located 20 miles southeast of Baton Rouge, almost halfway between the state capitol and New Orleans. A community located slightly east of the direct path taken by Hurricane Andrew.
This was Fargo’s second time hosting the Legion World Series, and in a rare coincidence, Post #2 was also one of the participants as Central Plains Region champions. I was doing play-by-play of Post #2 games for CableOne at the time, and since they were in the Series, the tournament committee let us cover their games from our usual spot in the far-left end of the main Jack Williams Stadium press box.
By maintaining that location, I had access to a story I wouldn’t have known about if I were with the other writers in the auxiliary press box, located above the home dugout. Luck is underrated.
My report, in part, from August 1992:
“It is better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness.”
– The Christophers.
During the opening round game between Gonzales, LA and Fargo, the main press box telephone was literally ringing off the hook. One could consider this a monumental annoyance within a working environment – until everyone understood why.
With Andrew striking so close in time to the Legion World Series, Simoneaux was prepared to forego the tournament and head back to Louisiana to be with his wife and 6-week-old baby, just in case they were still there. But his family caught an early flight to Fargo and avoided the hurricane.
Referring to Fargo, Wade Simoneaux, coach of the Gonzales team, said, “This is a good place for us to be right now. Back home, we’ve got 120 mile-per-hour winds and four inches of rain.
“New Orleans was lucky. A storm like that would have wiped that town right off the map with a direct hit because they’re so far below sea level.”
Airports in Baton Rouge and New Orleans were temporarily shut down, preventing the parents of the Gonzales players from joining the team for the opening round. Plans to monitor the game from a local radio station were dashed when Hurricane Andrew took out the power lines.
Gonzales had no electricity, no running water. What the community still had, however, was land-line telephone service.
The number for the stadium press box was secured and the parents then called for updates. And called. And called. And called, from 9 p.m. until 12:45 a.m.
“The phone was our only mode of communication,” explained Beth Ambeau, whose son, Kole, plays for Gonzales. “Only one of us had generated power, so we sat by candlelight or flashlight.
“Most of us had returned to our homes and were together for the ballgame at that point,” she continued. “But the strongest winds (around 85 mph) were between 1 and 2 in the afternoon. The wind was blowing, the roar was there. It was difficult, but the phone pulled us through.”
Ambeau said the 18 parents were split up between three homes, each taking 10- to 15-minute intervals between calls.
“When it got real tight toward the end, some of us couldn’t wait,” Ambeau said. “So, we got three or four calls going at a time.
“The purpose was to keep us all informed. We each had five in a calling committee and each had five people to call, so all the parents knew what was going on at all times.”
On the receiving end of the barrage of calls was tournament committee member Jerry Stigman of Moorhead, MN, who was in charge of the press box. A sample exchange:
“Yes, Mrs. Babin … your son is 1-for-4 with a single … it’s 4-2 Fargo with one out in the sixth.
“Gonzales is batting with two out in the eighth … Reggie Wheat singled and was thrown out stealing on a strikeout … still 4-2 Fargo … you’re welcome.”
Once, when it was Ambeau’s turn to call, the conversation went like this –
Stigman: “Joe’s Pool Hall.”
Ambeau: “Hey Joe, what’s the score?”
Stigman (laughing): “Oh God, this woman’s nuts!”
In between calls, Stigman – whose cousin Dick was a pretty fair lefthander for the Minnesota Twins from 1962-65 – summed up the Gonzales parents’ makeshift communication system, “I’ve worked in education for many years, and I think that’s terrific to care that much about their kids to want to get together and do something like that.
“Something like this can really get your priorities squared away in a hurry.”
Being so tied up with baseball, the Gonzales players were somewhat oblivious to what was taking place at home until the media and area residents began to quiz them about it. What ensued was a flurry of frantic calls home.
“My son reached me at 11 Wednesday morning and said, ‘Where have you been? What’s the matter?’” Ambeau said. “He was concerned. It turns out we were at my mother-in-law’s to make sure things were good there.
“Because of all the questions, their minds were on their families, their friends, and their homes. The last time we had a storm this severe was in ’64 or ’65. These kids have seen pictures and TV footage, but they’ve never lived through an 80-mph storm.”
So, while Gonzales was mounting its ninth-inning comeback against Post #2, their parents were gathered around with flashlights, lanterns or candles, waiting to hear if their sons would play early on Thursday or later. When Stigman informed them that Gonzales had won 5-4 (around 12:45 a.m.), it was time to check on flights to Hector Airport.
The Baton Rouge and New Orleans airports were closed until 11:30 Thursday morning. The Gonzales parents were able to make connections on overloaded flights to Memphis, then had no problems making connections to the Twin Cities and Fargo.
“A lot of us have trees down and limbs down. We’re used to weather of that nature, but not as severe as it was,” Ambeau said. “We’re all lucky – all of the family members, and the whole community didn’t have a lot of destruction and damage.”
Upon arrival, the Gonzales parents had a chance to see the re-broadcast of All-Star Ford’s win over Fargo, and complimented my broadcast partner and I on our “excellent job” of pronouncing the Cajun surnames of their players, like Ambeau, Fontenot, Wagnon and Simoneaux.
Ambeau, and the rest of the Gonzales contingency, were hoping to see another victory by All-Star Ford on Friday, but Newbury Park, CA, overcame a 5-0 deficit to eliminate the Louisiana team 6-5. But, as the team and parents have come to realize in the last few days, worse things can happen in life than the loss of a baseball game.