Of all the home openers Northwest Federal Field at Pfitzner Stadium has hosted in its 36 years, the most memorable was the first one in 1984, otherwise known as the night of the horse, the holler and the banned bunt.
Or for history’s sake, officially known as April 19, 1984, the day professional baseball made its delayed-but-distinctive debut in Woodbridge as the Single-A Prince William Pirates hosted the Hagerstown Suns.
Around the horn, the bizarre events started in the outfield. Unsafe playing conditions at the new stadium, caused by hard rain, forced umpires to rule the warning track off limits. Workers positioned a row of saw horses along the warning track; any ball hit over the saw horses but short of the fence became a ground-rule double.
At home plate, the wackiness included some hollering by the Suns, upset with the quagmire-like field conditions. The umpires wouldn’t cancel the contest, but they did outlaw all bunts on the freshly laid sod.
And to think this game technically wasn’t the Pirates’ official home opener. That took place April 1 when Prince William played Lynchburg in Norfolk because Prince William County Stadium wasn’t finished.
Gainesville resident Dave Stinson, a long-time fan of the Potomac Nationals, was among supporters in the stands for one of the team’s final ga…
After almost an hour-and-a-half delay, baseball commenced at 8:43 p.m. on April 19. The Pirates won their fifth straight, defeating the Suns 6-2, but the memorable moments from their maiden voyage didn’t end that soggy, damp night.
The Pirates’ class of ’84 featured a sight rarely seen at the Single-A level: a union of major-league players, past and future.
The past came in the form of Super Joe Charboneau, the 1980 American League Rookie of the Year who after struggling through three straight injury-plagued seasons, landed in Woodbridge for a final comeback.
The future came in the form of Leon “Bip” Roberts and Felix Fermin, who went on to star with the Cincinnati Reds and the Cleveland Indians respectively.
The class of ’84 featured colorful stories like the time manager John Lipon put a punching bag in the dugout so Charboneau, an intense, combative player, would have something to vent his frustrations on besides the new lockers. (The bag, by the way, lasted only one homestand before Charboneau ripped it apart.)
Prince William’s first season of minor-league baseball also included:
Roberts smacking the lone grand slam of his professional career, while his mother and sister, who had come in from Oakland, watched from the stands.
The Pirates giving up an inside-the-park home run after Jim Aulenback got his leg stuck under the outfield fence while chasing a fly ball.
Or on a more serious note: pitcher Shawn Stone’s accident.
In the early morning of July 5, police charged Stone with driving under the influence after the car he was driving hit a utility pole, injuring himself and Mike Berger, who missed the rest of the season after breaking his left ankle.
“There was a state trooper there. He was a good man. He talked to me,” said Stone, who said the incident matured him. “I learned a lot from that. That experience made me think about a lot of things.”
The list goes on, but it always begins with the stadium itself, a state-of-the-art facility, considered one of the elite minor league parks at the time.
Actual on-site lockers, tunnels between the dugout and the clubhouse, and plenty of lights were far from the dilapidated parks like Greenwood, S.C., a step below Prince William on the Pirates’ minor-league ladder.
“When you think of Single-A ball, you think of run-down old parks,” Berger said. “But all of a sudden you get into this place and thought you had gone to the big leagues.”
The “big leagues” arrived in Prince William after the Alexandria Dukes moved south, primarily for two reasons: The Dukes’ cramped quarters at Four Mile Run Park and a city ban on beer sales.
Dukes president Eugene Thomas, impressed with Prince William’s offer to build a stadium immediately, turned down two other interested parties, Fairfax and Prince George’s (Md.) counties. The Pirates organization looked forward to the move.
“As I remember, Pittsburgh wanted to put together a real professional organization down there,” said outfielder Ron DeLucchi, a 1983 first-round draft pick. “It was a good experience. We got the best of everything. The best uniforms, you name it.”
Pittsburgh did put a formidable team in Prince William.
The roster included six future major leaguers and a noted manager in Lipon, a 30-year veteran who retired after spending the 1992 season with Single-A Lakeland. Lipon had a career 2,176-1971 coaching mark.
The biggest name, though, was Charboneau, who hit .289 with 23 home runs and 87 RBI for the Cleveland Indians during his celebrated 1980 campaign.
But the following season, Charboneau hurt his back and suddenly saw his stock plummet. He hit just .206 in 48 games for the Indians before being sent down to Cleveland’s Triple-A team in Charleston (W.Va).
More back problems and wrist surgery eventually left him with Cleveland’s Double-A affiliate in Buffalo, where in 1983 he played in just 11 games.
After Cleveland released him, Charboneau signed with the Pirates in February of 1984 and faced two options: go to Triple-A ball in Hawaii and play some of the time or go to Prince William and play all the time.
“I just wanted to get back in shape as soon as possible,” Charborneau said. “It didn’t matter to me where. I was comfortable anywhere.”
His off-beat personality, crazy antics and major-league success made him a popular figure among the media and his teammates.
During one game, a local television station attached a microphone to his jersey, and viewers got quite an earful after Charboneau, forgetting his mike was on, voiced his unbridled (and colorful) enthusiasm over the Pirates’ come-from-behind win in the ninth inning.
“To say he kept the clubhouse loose is an understatement,” Berger said. “He did some crazy things, but they’re not for print.”
All the legendary stories aside, Charboneau discovered a new perspective during his stay in Prince William.
“It put me in a different role because I had been to the major leagues,” Charboneau said. “I was a liaison between the coach and the players. It was a lot of fun for me because I was relearning things that I had gone through the first time through Single-A ball. This time, I started to think like a manager as well as a player.”
Kim Christensen was another older brother figure on the Pirates.
A born-again Christian who led church services for the team, the aptly named Christensen became, at Lipon’s urging, a guardian angel to Roberts, a highly regarded 20-year-old second baseman.
“He started hanging out with some of the older guys, so I was asked to keep him straight,” Christensen said. “A lot of guys didn’t like him. They thought he was spoiled. I looked past that.”
Two years later, Roberts reached the major leagues, playing for San Diego. Told Christensen was now a firefighter in Louisville, Roberts replied: “That figures. He was always helping someone.”
Roberts and Christensen, both named Carolina League all-stars that season, helped the Pirates nearly capture the first-half pennant with their hitting.
Other factors in Prince William’s early success included good pitching, led by Dave Johnson and Dorn Taylor, and good defense, sparked by infielder Fermin, who eventually led league shortstops in fielding.
Prince William went into the final weekend with a 1.5 game lead over Lynchburg, but finished a game back after splitting a doubleheader with Hagerstown.
Charboneau wasn’t there for the second half after Pittsburgh promoted him to Hawaii, but unfortunately for the fading star, Prince William would mark the last stop on his comeback trail.
Charboneau almost returned to Prince William to take a job driving a beer truck, but then moved to Lockport, N.Y., when his wife enrolled in college there.
“I can still see that field in my mind right now,” Charboneau said.
There certainly was a lot to see that first season.
This is an updated story that originally published in 1993 commemorating the 10th-year anniversary of minor-league baseball in Prince William County