By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports
In 2010, the Class 1A state baseball championships were hosted at Fair Grounds Field. St. Mary’s (Natchitoches) was playing, and as the Tigers pitcher was beginning to warm up in the bullpen behind the left field fence, the pitching coach was stunned at what he saw. And smelled.
“The stench was amazing,” the coach says. “It was like I was in a sewer while I was trying to get my pitcher ready to go. It was embarrassing.”
But what you need to know is that the St. Mary’s pitching coach had a different perspective than anybody else at Fair Grounds Field that day. You see, he was also the same person who was the starting pitcher in the second game ever played at Fair Grounds Field.
“It was so disappointing,” says Brian Ohnoutka today. “We all had so much pride in that stadium. All I could tell my pitchers was ‘One day, this stadium used to be great.’ That hit me hard.”
It’s been a long time since they were playing minor league baseball at Fair Grounds Field, but those who did still remember it well. Whether they went on to play in the major leagues or simply finished as a career minor leaguer, Shreveport and Fair Grounds Field had an impact on them.
And they had an impact on Shreveport as well. Perhaps there is no greater illustration of that impact than seeing the old pictures and hearing the old stories about how these players – mostly in their late 50s now – became “favorites” among local baseball fans.
Greg Litton was working in Pensacola when Shreveport’s independent league team was playing in town in the early 2000s. He was introduced to one of the players before the game. “Greg Litton!” the player said. “You were my favorite player when I was 10 years old!”
The impending destruction of Fair Grounds Field has brought about a sense of nostalgia from those fans, and the same feeling from those who played for the Class 2A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.
“Really? That’s so sad,” says former Captain Romy Cucjen upon getting the news. “I’m becoming emotional just thinking about it. It’s kind of overwhelming. It just shouldn’t be that way.”
“We were the first team through and we had the best stadium around and it was awesome,” Ohnoutka says. “The fans were great and we all had a great time. The beer garden was awesome. The pitchers would go down there and interact with the fans and they’d love it.”
“I had so much fun in Shreveport,” says Litton, an infielder who played for the Captains from 1986-88. “My memories of playing there are incredible. The people treated us so great, the fans were great … everywhere we went, people knew who we were. You almost felt like a big leaguer in the minor leagues.”
Litton went on to have a six-year major league career. There is one part of playing at Fair Grounds Field that he doesn’t remember fondly.
“Honest to goodness, I played baseball in stadiums all over the country and without a doubt that was the hardest stadium to hit a baseball,” he says. “There’s not another that’s even close. I don’t what it was about that stadium. So when I heard (about the demolition), my first thought was ‘Thank God.’ I’m joking of course. Pitchers loved it, though.”
“I told this to people for years – I got to play in one of the best stadiums in the minor leagues,” Cucjen says. “It had to be in the top five. That place was awesome and it was something we were all proud of.”
Ohnoutka never made it to the major leagues. He was a second-round pick (30th overall) in the 1985 draft out of TCU. The Houston native was 22 years old when he arrived in Shreveport and played for the Captains in 1986, 1987 and part of 1988 before being called up to Class AAA Phoenix. In 1990, he played for the Class AAA affiliates of San Diego and California before calling it a career.
“To tear it down is probably the right thing to do,” Ohnoutka says. “You can’t do anything with it now. My point is that they should have done something to revitalize it 10 of 15 years ago. It’s a lost cause now.”
He married a Shreveport native he had met while playing for the Captains and then settled in Natchitoches, where he has been a financial consultant for 25 years. His son is currently a pitcher for Northwestern State.
“We had something special,” Ohnoutka says. “That’s all you can say. It was awesome. The management did a great job promoting it the whole year.”
Litton agrees, especially in regard to management. “I played for teams all through the minors and majors and there’s only one owner I ever knew and that’s (team president) Taylor (Moore),” Litton says. “He was always around and any little thing you needed, you knew you could talk to him.”
Litton, 57, is a mortgage broker living in Pensacola. He is also a motivational speaker and has been involved in politics in the area.
“If I was going to have to be in Double-A for that long, there’s no place I’d rather done it,” he says of Shreveport and Fair Grounds Field. “I made friends there and it really couldn’t have been a better experience and a lot of that was because of the fans. Everything was incredible.”
Cucjen came to the Captains near the end of the 1986 season and played in Shreveport in ’87 and ’88. He finished his career in Class AAA in 1990 and came back to Shreveport.
“The things you always remember are the relationships,” Cucjen says. “I met a lot of people there and playing for the Captains is what brought me to Shreveport. We raised our family there. It changed the trajectory of my life for the next 20 years.”
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