Introducing the XBL

by Carl Crighughie

NOVEMBER 17, 2002 -- EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY

Real men can hack the cold. That's a good thing, because at the Meadowlands, where the brand spanking new XBL prepares for its inaugural contest between the homestanding New Jersey Pipe-Bombs and the New Orleans Insomniaxx, it's nasty. The shiny day does little to take the edge off the wind-chill. The first 50,000 fans get free handwarmers.

Up in the owner's box, with three hours before Goldberg throws out the first ball and 98 Degrees belts out the national anthem, New Jersey boss Tommy "Bicycle Clips" Fetidomuco entertains Zig Mantequilla, the league founder, and his mostly blonde entourage. Down on the field, Annette Tillamucka leads her team through a series of new cheers that had just come down from the league office this morning. Throughout the stands, firehoses blast the sixty thousand-some seats. Pipe-Bombs outfielders Spike Tarango and Cecil Burgess tease first baseman Todge Casper as his mighty swing and loud grunt produce no more than a three-foot dribbler. Bench coach Al Pangolin pokes a fungo just a bit too far, and backup outfielder Tony Pettles watches the ball disappear 18 rows into the stands.

In the Pipe-Bombs' bullpen, another of pitcher Stu Malkowsky's blazing fastballs gets away from catcher Luke Peters and skips along gaily until it plows into the tarp -- not that the tarp would be used all that much: no rainouts in the XBL. The show must go on.

Back in the owner's box, blondes giggle and Mantequilla guffaws. Fetidomuco inhales a tad too much, and starts choking on his cigar. Mantequilla whacks him back into life. Outside the yard, fans line up for blocks. The Pipe-Bombs ticket office expects a sellout today, even with the temperature in the mid-30s. Conversations vary, from the cheerleaders to the new XBL ball to the salary structure to the players themselves, but the common thread is, "I can't wait."

Souvenir stands hawk XBL memorabilia -- if there can be such a thing as memorabilia for a league that hasn't officially begun to exist yet. One middle-aged woman buys half a dozen extra-large Montana Militia sweatshirts at $40 a pop; a young guy picks up a sweat of Sacramento Slam wristbands, $24 for the pair. As surreptitiously as possible, an older fellow buys a green-and-gold D.C. Bills hat, then slips it into a tote bag quickly, lest the local fans get nasty about what they figure will be the Pipe-Bombs' chief rival.

Concession stands serve a bevy of warm drinks, from hot chocolate to hot toddies; 18 kinds of beer and two colors of wine; hot dogs, polish sausages, bratwursts; pizza, tacos, burritos; chowder, chili, or cioppino in a sourdough bowl; all manner of meat sandwiches and deep-fried vegetables; and plenty of sweet things.

The sound system plays an eclectic series of familiar hits and obscure showtunes from Frankie Valli to Frankie Avalon to Frankie Goes to Hollywood to Frankie Sinatra. Insomniaxx manager Cal Torts mulls over a lineup card with one of his coaches as a few of his relievers run windsprints in the outfield, well away from the Pangolin's fungoes. The place has a buzz, a palpable buzz, as if we were all about to take part in something very special.

Mantequilla and two of his party descend from the owner's box. He laughs the laugh of a wealthy, self-assured man who knows he's pulled off a super spectacle. "So whaddaya think?" he asks no one in particular. "Is this incredible or what? This is gonna be true smashmouth baseball! Every game is guaranteed to be exciting."

When asked how he managed to get the New York Giants and other NFL teams to share their homes during football season, Mantequilla says, "Two words: money talks, sometimes really loud." He then nearly collapses in laughter at his own bon mot, then tells the anonymous onlookers that he's not as think as they drunk he is.

But he's kidding -- he's not drunk, at least not obviously. He's just very pleased with how things are going, and he fully expects to give Major League Baseball a run for its money in terms of fan base and talented young players. At the moment, he XBL doesn't look to lure "name" players away from the major leagues: "We can't afford to -- yet," says Mantequilla. "And besides, they don't fit in with the pay structure. This is going to be a fiscally responsible league, and we're going to set a precedent for professional sports."

Indeed the top-salaried players pull down $65,000 in base salary, plus incentives, albeit minor ones. For instance, Vegas Bandits third baseman Hank Purkell will make an extra $100 per home run above 20, and an extra $1,250 for winning the league MVP. Further, some players make a few hundred here and there, based on previous professional experience. Former Tampa Bay Devil Ray Ondre Neal gets an extra grand based on 153 big-league at-bats in 1998, for example.

Each team has an active roster of 25 players, plus seven "reserves" who travel with the team and can be activated before any game. No minor leagues here: everybody's a free agent.

The teams themselves are fairly widespread, mostly in areas featuring no major league club. Three divisions each contain four teams; the three division winners and one wild-card winner will meet in the playoffs after the 92-game season.

The Eastern Division contains the D.C. Bills, Florida Keys, New Orleans Insomniaxx, and New Jersey Pipe-Bombs. In the Central are the El Paso Oil Barons, Memphis Hound Dogs, Montana Militia (playing their home games in Missoula), and Utah Savagezz; The West features the NoCal Nukes (playing in San Francisco), Sacramento Slam, SoCal El Dorados (who split their home games among Anaheim, Hollywood, and San Diego), and Vegas Bandits.

Rules quirks abound in the XBL, most notably the edict that players may not wear protective armor of any kind, though pitchers are granted the use of toe plates, and hitters... well, that's another story. Batting helmets are out -- "Those are for wimps anyway," states Official XBL Rulemeister Herm Gweek. "We got a whole new concept." That would be padded caps with soft earflaps that a batter can secure in place by tying the hanging strings together under his chin.

"I don't know about you, but I'm sick of watching major league hitters stand on top of the plate," says Gweek, "while pitchers have to pussyfoot around and pray they don't come inside and get ejected. Well, in the XBL, pitchers can throw any-damn-where they want. It's every man for himself."

But doesn't that give the pitcher way too much of an edge?

"Of course not. If I'm hitting, and you come too far inside, I can charge the mound, with impunity. Expect to see a lot more action in the XBL."

What about fans who hate to watch ballplayers fight, who think it's all just stupid macho posturing?

"That's not the kind of fans we're going after," Gweek says.

Well, what kind of fans is the XBL pursuing? According to marketing chief Telly Winpers, the key demographic is 14-to-25-year-old males, but the presence of lightly attired cheerleaders -- especially at the Meadowlands, where you can tell exactly how cold they are from hundreds of feet away -- expands the viewer base at both ends.

Helping this, Winpers hopes, are microphones and cameras everywhere you can thing of: in the dugouts, at home plate, maybe even on the mound. Players, managers, and coaches will be interviewed during games. Look for basecams, glovecams, capcams. Look for slick 3-D-graphic "pitch boxes" showing the trajectory of a pitch, or of a ball in flight.

And on that note, technology even extends into the umpires' ranks. As usual, four umpires will take the field before every game, but a fifth -- the "replay umpire" will be up in the broadcast booth, monitoring those pitch boxes and replay footage. If necessary, he can overrule calls on the field.

That might be a challenge for any umpire, though, because of the new XBL baseballs, which come in a variety of color schemes, though the "most official" one is a sort of purplish-black, with teal-and-white seams and an XBL logo.

Back at the batting cage, one player, who asks not to be identified, mutters, "How smart is that? You can't see the rotation, you can't gauge the speed -- I don't even want to try and hit one at night, or catch one." Until now, the players have been working with standard white baseballs, and they have just a few hours to get used to the new ones. Luckily, the umpires dress in white, so at least there'll be some contrast.

One thing is for sure, though: strange as all this may seem, the XBL promises to be a fun league, a breath of fresh air. The enthusiasm at the Meadowlands is overwhelming, and the place is full of folks expecting a new, exciting brand of baseball.