Ted Shockley: Memories of baseball’s Rockfish

On Oct. 29, 1998, the Delmarva Rockfish left on a four-game road trip — and never returned.

Twenty years ago this month, my wife and I had a routine.

We’d drive to Salisbury from our Accomack County home on chilly October evenings.

Ted Shockley.

We’d enjoy a quick dinner at Nacho Pete’s, grab a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and go watch baseball at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, sneaking in the coffee under blankets and sweatshirts.

But it wasn’t the Delmarva Shorebirds taking the field. Instead, it was my favorite all-time baseball team — the Maryland Fall League’s Delmarva Rockfish, a squad whose lifetime spanned 41 games over 41 days, and no more.

The scorecard for the Sept. 26, 1998, home opener trumpeted their “inaugural season,” and I had high hopes fall baseball would become a Delmarva tradition.

On Oct. 28, the last day the Rockfish ever played in Salisbury, irascible starting centerfielder Milton Bradley slapped the home-plate umpire three times in the face, providing the team its most memorable and notorious incident.

The Rockfish then left on a four-game road trip and never returned. The team had a chance to win the league title on the last day of the season but was swept in a doubleheader and finished 21-20, a game off the lead.

The following year organizers of the four-team league — which was designed to provide extra work for minor league players — didn’t get requested financial assistance from Major League Baseball, and the fall league moved to California.

I’ve always been disappointed that it did. I’m a shameless sentimentalist, especially when it comes to Salisbury.

Truth be told, I liked the Shorebirds more when they were affiliated with the long-lost Montreal Expos. I liked the old Salisbury Mall, the old English’s diner on South Salisbury Boulevard, and every location of Nacho Pete’s.

And I liked the Delmarva Rockfish. I wasn’t the only one.

The Rockfish had the best attendance in the league, drawing an average of 1,367 fans per game and selling more than 300 season tickets.

Fall was a wonderful time for local baseball. The heat and humidity of the Shorebirds games gave way to crisp, cool nights at the ballpark. It was unique watching live professional baseball in October, with the Major League playoffs the only other games on the calendar.

A trip to the Perdue Stadium in the middle of August is sticky and sweaty, more a chore than a charm. But a trip to Perdue Stadium in the middle of October featured temperatures that felt like hayrides and corn harvests.

In addition to the great temperatures, the league brought an entertaining brand of baseball to town. Second baseman David Eckstein would later win the World Series with the Angels and Cardinals. Infielder Aubrey Huff would become middle-of-the-lineup guy with the Orioles. Pitcher Jake Westbrook won 105 games during his career, and a World Series with the Cardinals.

Bradley’s assault of the home-plate umpire foreshadowed troubles in his Major League career, where his quick temper got in the way of his remarkable talent.

There are many more from the team who never got called to the majors, bouncing for years around dusty outposts like Kinston and Burlington and Macon. But that’s the nomadic life of a minor leaguer — here one day, gone the next.

That also was the life the Delmarva Rockfish — the inaugural season was its final season. I never imagined that Bradley’s assault on the umpire — one of the strangest baseball moments I’ve ever witnessed in person — would be the last time the team would ever play in Salisbury.

I still miss the old Mall, and English’s diner, and Nacho Pete’s. And 20 years later, I miss the Rockfish and Maryland Fall Baseball — and crisp, cool October nights at the ballpark.

Ted Shockley owns and operates monthly newsmagazines Eastern Shore First on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and Shore Drive Living in Virginia Beach. He is a former Executive Editor of The Daily Times of Salisbury.

 

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