The imprisoned congressman was popular at Cafaro Field in absentia, and won a mock election.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
NILES -- Jim Traficant ran from FBI agents, taunted players and vowed to run in the 2012 presidential election.
It seemed as if nothing had changed.
The congressman was eccentric as ever Wednesday at Cafaro Field. He was vocal, relentless and -- imagine this -- popular. Traficant won the 17th Congressional District election over opponents that included -- Scrappy?
In an anticipated promotion that drew statewide media attention and 4,597 fans, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers held "Jim Traficant Night" at the home of the Cleveland Indians' Class A short-season minor league baseball affiliate.
Of course, a baseball game was still played. Mahoning Valley defeated the Jamestown Jammers 9-8. But on this night, Jim Traficant (impersonators) took center stage.
Sent to prison
In a well-documented series of events, the former congressman, a Poland Democrat, was sent to prison after being found guilty on 10 felony counts, including bribery and extortion. The Scrappers still chose to honor the long-time congressman.
"If Jim doesn't make the phone call and really push, this stadium doesn't happen," said Scrappers general manager Andy Milovich of the stadium that opened in 1999. "[Wednesday night] really was to honor Jim."
In Traficant's place Wednesday were impersonators who worked for the Scrappers. Some fans also dressed in Traficant garb and were given free admission for wearing a toupee or showing proof of being a son of a truck driver.
Traficant's hair became an issue during his conviction when word began to circulate that he wore a toupee. He also was proud in being the son of a truck driver.
"He's pretty popular in the Cleveland area. People like his charisma," said Struthers native Tony Jordan, 42, now of Lorain. "He does bring attention to the area. That can't be a bad thing."
Jordan and Jim Riddell, 29, of Westlake came wearing wigs of bushy gray hair, with long side burns, and dark glasses.
"We drove 11/2 hours just to have some fun," Riddell said. "We thought more people would dress up like him, especially from Youngstown."
53 admitted free
Scrappers officials reported that 99 fans were admitted free -- 53 sons of truck drivers and 46 people wearing toupees.
Danielle Devan, 16, of Salem walked around the Cafaro Field concourse wearing a bright orange jail suit, with handcuffs attached to her wrist, and a gray, furry hat.
"It's just a prank," Devan said. "I'm used to making a fool of myself. I'm good at being the class clown."
Devan was with her stepfather, Frank Santolla, who admitted being a big Traficant fan.
"He may be guilty of everything he did, but I would still vote for him," Santolla said.
In addition to the Traficant impersonators, one man, who chose to remain anonymous, dressed as J.J. Cafaro, whose family's financial support helped to make minor league baseball possible in the Mahoning Valley.
The man, wearing a dark sports coat and tie and a black wig and puffing on a long fake cigar, carried an exchange with another Traficant impersonator, Jim Altier Jr. of Niles.
"Without Jim Traficant, this stadium wouldn't be here. Without J.J. Cafaro, this stadium wouldn't be here," the man said. "I'm here to pay homage to both of them."
Then, in echoing Traficant's words spoken often to reporters, the man said, "Now, get the hell out of here."
The Scrappers promotions included an FBI agent, impersonated by Jeff Meehan, chasing Traficant impersonators Phil Eckenrode and Larry Gibson around the stadium.
In the third inning, Eckenrode danced on Jamestown's dugout, at one point shaking his butt in the faces of onlooking players.
In possibly the night's most popular promotion, a mock election, Traficant won by collecting 63 percent of fans' votes taken from 503 ballots. He defeated Democrat Tim Ryan (20 percent), Republican Ann Womer Benjamin (11), Scrappy (5.4), who is the Scrappers' mascot, and independent Warren Davis (less than 1).
"We came out because the night had a political theme to it," said Tom O'Neill, campaign supporter for Benjamin. "It's been a nice tribute. We feel like there is a sense of closure for Jim Traficant supporters."