Saturday, September 7, 2013

Memories and Memorials in Montana: Game 87 in Billings


It’s that simple and certain.  I love Montana—its rivers that laugh their way toward human delight, its mountains that outreach imagination, and its sky that stretches all the way from memory to hope.  


Montana's big sky above the Big Hole River.

In two summers prior to our anthem tour, Bonnie and I had vacationed in the western region of the state, staying with friends in Anaconda and taking daily trips and overnight outings throughout the region.  We coursed beside the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers before picking a picnic spot at one of the frequent places for public access to the ever-flowing streams.  We watched the antelope gambol across the valleys and slopes north of Ennis as we meandered away from Yellowstone, and farther north, we saw a grizzly bear paw its way across a meadow as we neared St. Mary’s Lake.  We rose toward earthly orbit, it seemed, on the historic Highway to the Sun in Glacier National Park.  

St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park not far from the Canadian border.
We mourned the tragic oppression of Native Americans commemorated at the Big Hole National Battlefield near Wisdom, where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce had engaged the pursuing U.S. Army in the bloodiest battle of their five-state flight toward possible freedom in Canada.  

The field of Nez Perce defeat near Wisdom.
We visited the local historic museum in Dillon where we saw on display an early map of Beaverhead County surveyed by Bonnie’s paternal grandfather, whose engineering firm had also been the first to publish a detailed sectional map of the entire state. 

Bonnie's grandfather's firm's map, which hung in classrooms throughout the state.
We explored the ghost mining town near Philipsburg days after we had read a letter from Bonnie’s maternal grandmother about her friends, about their families departing from the community following the silver market collapse caused by the government’s shift to the single monetary standard of gold at the turn of the twentieth century.  
The abandoned mineshaft where Bonnie's great grandfather had worked.



Fifty summers before our recent forays into Big Sky country, I had first experienced warm feelings toward the state when my family had stopped in Butte to purchase hoodies for our tent camping in Yellowstone.  When we had left our Mississippi home weeks earlier for a vacation featuring western National Parks, we had not packed enough winter wear, not fathoming the summer need for so much warm clothing.  As stunning as I recall Old Faithful, I was awed even more by the expanse and heights of Montana’s landscape, especially its glorious, grand mountains that punctured the wide black ceiling to pixelate the night sky with stars.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I made sure to design our anthem tour route to coincide with the Pioneer League’s short season schedule and to coordinate dates with most of Montana’s teams—the Mustangs in Billings, the Brewers in Helena, and the Osprey in Missoula.  The state’s fourth team, the Great Falls Voyagers, had agreed to let me sing if things worked out, but they were on a road trip during our trek through the state.  Unlike my previous ventures to the region, however, this time our schedule restricted sightseeing to ballpark vistas and Interstate panoramas, spectacular nonetheless.
 

The big sky above the picnic panorama at Billings' ballpark.

Although I had no personal memories of Billings, my introduction to the three-year old ballpark there was filled with memories of a different kind—impressive memorials to local baseball heroes and passionate fans.  Nearest the main entry gate stood a life-size, bronze replica of former Baltimore All-Star lefty Dave McNally, mid-delivery to the plate.  
A local “product,” McNally had achieved stardom in the Billings Little League, but had been unable to play in high school since Central Catholic High School, where he attended, couldn’t field a team because of the short spring and lack of schools with whom they could easily compete.  Even so, he excelled on the city’s renowned American Legion team, which played a summer schedule sometimes of 80 games, longer than the Mustangs’ Rookie League season.   During his American Legion career, McNally once struck out 27 batters in a single game (including five in one inning), he had posted a nearly perfect 18-1 record one season, and he had led his team to the American Legion World Series title game before signing with the Orioles.  Outside his professional baseball career, McNally lived his entire life in Billings. 

The narrative tribute accompanying his statue also featured his role, with “Andy Messermith” (a regrettable typographical error omitting an “s” between the “r” and “m” in “Messersmith”), in winning the suit against Major League Baseball to end the “reserve clause.”

Opposite the statue of McNally was an equally active, bronze tribute to his former American Legion coach Ed Bayne, who had taught fundamental baseball skills to young players for more than a quarter century. 
Bayne’s teams won twenty state championships and had advanced to World Series play on four occasions.  As celebrated as he was for these coaching accomplishments in baseball, Bayne was even more respected by the Billings community for coaching kids about life, summed up in this way by one of his former players: “He taught me right from wrong, he was tough, [and] he challenged you to reach the level your ability would allow.  He showed respect for you whether you were the last guy in the dugout or one of the best players.  We learned the fundamentals of baseball but we learned also how to be successful in life.”

At the ballpark in Billings, the American Legion tradition appears to rank more highly than professional baseball.  While many Minor League ballparks feature a Hall of Fame of former players (and sometimes managers) who set franchise records or later achieved stardom in the Major Leagues, only a handful display walls of recognition of collegiate players who have shared the facility, like the one in Peoria, or American Legion Posts, like the one in Casper.  By contrast, the dugout-length wall of fame in Billings—by far the biggest bronze tribute that I had seen at any ballpark—honors local American Legion coaches and players.   
In the first two years of its existence, the organization inducted more coaches than players.  Of course, leading the roster were Ed Bayne, whose name now graces the award given to inductees, and Dave McNally, whose name is associated with the award given to supporters of American Legion ball.  


Others also were recognized in less formal ways.  Between the two statues, the walkway to the main gate featured bricks inscribed with tributes to fans and former Billings baseball personnel.  The children and grandchildren of Alvin Schlenker remembered his love of the Mustangs, “especially when they were winning.”  One inscription honored coach Dennis Sahli, who inspired players to love the game, and nearby another recognized Andy Andrews, the “fantastic” concession manager from a half-century earlier.  Noteworthy was the message describing his work—that he gave “many kids [their] 1st jobs.”

While the sculptures, memorials, and tributes were inviting, we were deterred by several unexpected difficulties.  To our surprise, when I went to the Will Call Window, there was a single ticket for me in the envelope, none for Bonnie.  And since the game was sold out except for picnic and berm seating, the staff member couldn’t locate available, adjacent seats.  Recalling the distress that we had experienced in Durham when separate seats were finally offered, I insisted that our inclusion of Billings on the tour demanded appropriate seats.  After making several offers of disconnected seats, the ticket seller finally departed to secure authorization for us to sit in a reserved section. 

While our entry was delayed by the search for tickets, we nevertheless felt welcomed by the Mustangs.

The second challenge was unique.   As I moved to the area behind home plate about 10 minutes before singing the anthem, Matt, the staff member  coordinating pre-game presentations, pointed above the bluff behind the trees beyond the left field wall and said that the end of the runway at the Billings airport was less than a mile away.  “Every night between 7:00 and 7:05,” he said, “a FED EX flight takes off and comes over the field.  Some nights, it’s during the anthem.”  

If that happens, I immediately thought, whatever you do, don’t stop. Although it was certainly possible that my rendition might get blasted by the roar of the jet’s engines, I also thought that it might be fun for the timing to work out to make the departure a fly-over as the anthem ended.   Alas, the fly-over occurred before my singing, which meant that I appreciated the full introduction about my anthem tour while not worrying about a possible interruption by FED EX’s departure.

As I moved toward the dugout following my rendition, Billings pitching coach Bob Forsch asked, “How many games?” 

“Tonight was number 87,” I replied. 

“Where’ve you been?” 

“All over: Texas, Florida, North Carolina, New England, the Midwest, and Wyoming and Montana for the Pioneer League.”  And I added that several years ago I had once sung for a game that his brother Ken had pitched at Anaheim. 

“Did he win?” 

“Yes.” 

“Too bad.”  Ah, the memories of sibling rivalry!


The storm rolls in above the bluff that provides the airport's runway.
The third unanticipated difficulty was a thunderstorm that approached during the third inning.  When lightning began to strike nearby, the game was halted; and rather than wait out the delay, Bonnie and I left the ballpark as raindrops started to splash quarter-size spots on the memorial bricks at the front gate.  We didn’t expect the storm’s threat to be brief, causing a rain-delay of less than half an hour.  So we missed the scoring in the Mustangs’4-1 victory over visiting Great Falls, highlighted by a homerun by their slugging third baseman Sean Buckley.

 
The pot of gold seemed to mark the entrance to the freeway as we left the ballpark.

 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Barking at Ghosts: Game 86 in Casper


The panoramic view from Mike Lansing Field in Casper.
 
During the fifteen-minute drive from Arby’s berth at the River’s Edge RV park to the ballpark in Casper, Wyoming, Bonnie mentioned that she missed Winston, our lovable three year-old dog that we had left in Whittier with our older son, who was house sitting and dog training.
  
On my desk before the tour, Winston
is chagrinned about our departure.

To our surprise when we arrived at the game, the evening’s promotion was a “Bark in the Park” celebration, my third on the tour following ones in State College and Trenton.  Unlike the two earlier events where dog foods and supplies were promoted, the one in Wyoming was designed to raise awareness about the local Paws2Help Fund, a resource to provide medical care for pets in animal shelters and foster homes. The occasion also served as a fundraiser for the organization by offering at silent auction several custom ceramic serving pieces—Ghostly party platters for human festivities and autographed water or chow bowls for humans’ reputed best friends.

 
Volunteer Rebecca Grube displays a serving platter offered in the silent auction.
Ceramic water bowls autographed by the Ghosts.
Dogs of all sizes and breeds were everywhere in the ballpark:
Several dogs seem bored by the Ghosts' 7-1 lead in the 5th inning.
waiting in line at the concession stands for treats, panting at the entry to the grandstand, or lounging along the grassy median between the left-field foul-line fence and the walkway to the seats. 

Wylie, a MaltePoo, gets ready for the concessions.
Lucy, a bloodhound, continues her training as a hospice therapy dog.
Jackson, a golden retriever, studies the balls in the bullpen.
The only restrictions were that they were not allowed on the field or in the grandstand.  I loved having the chance to approach the dogs, offer them the back of my hand to sniff,  and wait for their approval before scratching behind their ears or stroking the backs of their necks.  Yet I kept hoping that some foul fly would bound past me so that I could see whether the retrievers might revert to primal instincts, lunging to run to fetch. 
 
When raindrops started to fall shortly before the scheduled start of the game, I chuckled, imagining that cats might start falling from the sky since the dogs in that hackneyed stormy phrase were already around me.  My good humor, however, quickly morphed into anxiety when I noticed that there was no tarp for a grounds crew to unroll over the diamond.  Yet I needn’t have fretted because the shower passed quickly, and I later learned of the uselessness of a tarp in Casper since the region’s average rainfall throughout July and August is less than two inches.   With only 38 home games scheduled during the summer season, the expense of a tarp for use during rain showers and between games proved unnecessary.   

A second distinct feature of the ballpark was something present, not something absent.  Beyond the right field fence, an alluring billboard featured a portrait of local real estate agent Jim Edgeworth standing with legs crossed, left hand hidden in his pocket, and right hand extended in a friendly greeting.  Extending across his photo was his name in foot-high letters with a large red arrow swooping toward an open hole “O” just below the crook of his right elbow.   
 

Baiting the arrow was a somewhat familiar, outfield sign plea: “Hit it here.”  But unlike other ballparks’ homerun targets for a free suit or dinner or carwash, this sign’s appeal was its promise of $20,000 for hitting a ball through the open “O.”  To certify the flight of a homerun through the hole, a net extended behind the opening to catch a ball worth twenty grand.   Now with fewer than a dozen home games remaining in the season, Edgeworth’s escrow seemed secure.  But during the third game of the season, Edgeworth might have considered foreclosure on the sign when Ghosts’ third baseman Sam Mende had hit his portrait’s right wrist, missing the reward by less than a foot.

In addition to a rainbow whose end almost placed its purported pot of gold behind Edgeworth’s “O,” a number of customary minor league practices enlivened the evening.  Like several other ballparks, Casper identified one of the opposing hitters as the designated “beer batter” for the game.  If that hitter struck out during the game, draft beers would be sold for ten minutes for only $2.  So When Darian Sandford struck out in the 5th inning, he created a rush past the dogs to the concession stand for cheap suds.  An inning earlier, a similar soda promotion had spotlighted $2 Pepsis during a ten minute hubbub following an around-the-horn double play turned by the Ghosts.

At other ballparks I had occasionally heard and sometimes sung “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch.  In Casper a different—and perhaps more regionally fitting—patriotic song preceded the customary chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” While the “purple mountains’ majesty” could still be discerned in the dusky distance above “the fruited plains,” a local student sang “America the Beautiful.”   Fans stood in reverential attention, and players came out of the dugouts and bullpens, faced the flag, placed their caps over their hearts, and appeared truly moved when the song implored Americans to “crown thy good with brotherhood.”  I wondered whether “The Star-Spangled Banner” evoked similar sentiments among the teammates who heard the anthem before every game.


The Ghosts' mascot prepares
to present flowers to
"The Sweetheart of the Game."
Another new feature that I encountered at Casper was the Ghosts’ recognition of a “Sweetheart of the Game” by providing a lucky female fan with a bouquet of flowers presented by the team mascot.  According to some of the staff, the bouquet encourages wives and girlfriends to attend the game, especially since the practice seems to have given baseball blinded guys ideas about the effectiveness of flowers.   Flowers for female fans at the ballpark?  Did that mean that tears of happiness would follow, that crying would soon be allowed in baseball?

Earlier on my way to our seats after singing the anthem, the Ghosts’ Executive Director Tim Ray grinned broadly and high-fived my rendition.  Before he had begun to talk with me, Tim had been approached by two wide-eyed, season ticket holders who had exclaimed, “Wow!  Who was that guy?”  To a certain extent, they already knew since they had heard the brief intro that I had provided to the Ghosts hours earlier when Tim had confirmed my appearance. 

“I told them, a professor who loves baseball,” he said.  So simple and so true.

From our seats then below the press box, I spied a small dog discreetly held in the lap of its owner who sat in the third row behind the backstop.  It looked exactly like Winston—black with a white mustache, white eyebrows, and white paws.  So Bonnie and I quickly moved to a row adjacent to Terry and Phyllis Letz and her mother, Evelyn McClure, owner of Riley, a ShiDoodle.  The Shih Tzu line of Riley’s mixed breed is cousin to Wintson’s Havanese pedigree.  Although dogs were restricted from the grandstand area, Ghosts’ must have thought that Riley was a stuffed animal since Bonnie held him so comfortably for so many innings!
Bonnie hugs Riley, the ShiDoodle Winston look-alike.

Nearby, two sisters joined our fun time of talking about dogs and baseball.  From the Yosemite area Kathy Moline was visiting her sister Sharon Sullivan for several days.  When they get together baseball usually fills part of their itinerary.  On several occasions they had coordinated shopping and adventure trips to Denver to coincide with games at Coors Field so they could watch the Rockies in person.  And Kathy had made sure that her visits to her sister in Casper would include Ghosts’ games.  For them, baseball resonates with childhood and family. 

As young girls in South Dakota, each week they had gone to their grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner.  There the telecast of a Minnesota Twins’ game was always on, no question.  Enthusiastically, then, I shared my fortunate encounter and conversations with Tony Oliva days earlier at the ballpark in Des Moines.  Although as Wyoming residents they had begun to root for the Rockies (as the only Major League team in the Mountain Time Zone) and its Rookie League affiliate Casper, they seemed to have been transported to their grandmother’s house by my story about my encounter with the Twins’ not-yet, but deserving Hall of Famer whom they had adored. 
Tony Oliva and me before the Iowa Cubs' game in Des Moines.

They regaled me with Oliva’s accomplishments.  A perennial All-Star, he had won the Rookie-of-the Year Award and multiple batting titles, led the Twins to their first World Series, and retired as a career .300 hitter.  A native of Cuba, Oliva was one of the last Major League players from that nation for several decades since he had signed his professional contract only two months before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

While we talked baseball, Sharon also lauded the nearby National Historic Trails Interpretive Center, an interactive museum paying tribute to the pioneers along the Oregon, Mormon, and California trails, all of which had followed the North Platte River past Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, and Ft. Laramie, the route that we had traversed during the previous day. 

Since I was not scheduled to sing the next night, Bonnie and I delayed our departure from Casper the following morning so that we could explore the Trails Center.  I wish that I had taken a picture of Arby in the parking lot there as a modern counterpoint to the Conestogas of the pioneers’ era.  Equipped with its own sanitary system, Arby stood in stark contrast to the covered wagons displayed throughout the exhibit, and we, unlike the trailblazers of yesteryear, had not been exposed to cholera during our coursing across Nebraska.  That disease had killed so many prairie crossers in the early 1850s that pioneer traffic decreased for a period following the epidemic.  

While Bonnie and I had often paralleled the trails in previous days, she had read aloud several chapters of Bill Bryson’s At Home, a fascinating history of the stuff and fixtures in the rooms of typical houses.  The coincidental relevance of Bryson’s book is this: In its intentional digressions about the development of toilets and plumbing systems, the chapter on the bathroom included a brief medical history about the discovery of the cause of cholera, the fecal contamination of water supply.  And in the museum we learned about the decreasing frequency of deaths from cholera as pioneers made their way up the Platte.  Because the river served as their constant water supply, the people followed it closely, all too closely, often infecting its adjacent watershed with their waste.  Consequently, folks downstream increasingly contracted the disease borne through the water that seemed to be their source of sustenance and hope.  

Displaying personal accounts of some who trekked along the trails, the museum’s exhibits brought to life the threats of death that pioneers so frequently faced.  As I reflected on the multiple stresses that the pioneers endured during their westward journey—painfully jettisoning furnishings and goods, and more traumatically experiencing accidents, illness, and death—I felt lucky that our only loss had been Arby’s awning as we had headed west from Omaha.
In the distance between the light standards, the Trails museum faintly glows on the hilltop.

In an extended metaphorical way, the label of pioneers also applied well to Cas per’s baseball team.  At an obvious level, the Ghosts competed in the Pioneer League.  But more than that, like the other novices in the Rookie league classification, the players were on a quest upstream through the Minor Leagues.  While the increasing competition at each higher level of play promised to hone their skills in preparation for their possible Major League debuts, more often it killed their chances to reach the Show.  And in Casper on the night when we were there, the Ghosts and visiting Chukars from Idaho Falls played as roughly as pioneers, amassing 17 runs on 18 hits, while committing 7 seven errors.  But the Ghosts could bark at the moon that night because they won 11-6.

 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Destruction to Departure to Distress: Moving toward Game 86 in Casper


If there are RVer angels or superheroes, then surely I met two of them on the morning of our scheduled departure from the Walnut Creek Recreation Area near Omaha.  The previous night’s storm had raged about us and rocked Arby as though we were in a row boat buffeted by the wake of jet ski.    


By midnight, the storm cells had passed into Iowa, and we slept, or at least tried to sleep until dawn sifted through the darkness.  Under clear skies, we rose and quickly surmised that the awning was an entire loss: the support arms were twisted, the canvas torn, and the roller bar bent.  The entire set-up would need to be removed.  
Bonnie surveys the damage to Arby's awning.
As I began to disengage the roller bar, the spring in the arm released, thwacking my thumb, which throbbed with pain as it began to swell.  Immediately I iced it and then gloved my hand to protect it while I returned to deal with the destruction. 

My injured thumb, which eventually took 18 months to heal.
Moments later two RVers who had been anchored at the park for several weeks offered to help me with the removal and disposal of the awning.  Both brought tools, expertise, and energy that were indispensable.  Vern Bridgewater, who now spends winters in Alabama and summers in Walnut Creek Park, had been a metal worker and tool specialist before his retirement a few years ago.  That meant he had electric tools—plenty of them—and good advice.  While I unbolted the arm supports and drilled off the heads of rivets securing the sidebars to Arby, he used his reciprocating saw to cut through the final portion of the support whose complete release had been prevented by hinges on one of Arby’s storage bays. 

Vern saws portions of the awning cover.
Meanwhile, Mike Meehan, whose RV had also suffered some damage during the storm, began to slice the canvas from the roller bar.  Since he was sporting a Red Sox cap, I turned some of our conversation to baseball and the national anthem and learned that, although he had spent most of his career in San Diego, he had never shifted his allegiance from Boston to the Padres.  Whether residing in California, or wintering in Georgia, or summering in Nebraska, he still claimed citizenship in Red Sox Nation.  (I decided not to muddy matters by refraining from expressing my allegiance to the Yankees.)  While we toiled together, Bonnie took photographs of Vern sawing the roller bar into six-foot lengths, me loading them into Mike’s van, and Mike hauling them away to the dumpster.

After a quick breakfast, Bonnie and I attached Toad to the tow bar and headed west across the sameness of Nebraska’s eastern flatlands toward my next scheduled appearance more than 600 miles away in Casper, Wyoming, where I would sing for their Ghosts.  On five previous drives across Nebraska, I had thought that I-80 was a purgatory of prairie.  But this time its sameness proved soothing to Arby, who seemed to sigh in relief, especially after having struggled over the hills of western Iowa the day before and suffering the broken awning during the night.  While big rigs rolled past us with greatest ease, Arby contentedly stayed in the right lane, sloughing along at 55 or so.  Even at that slower freeway pace, Arby managed to pass three vehicles—an overloaded minivan, a battered sedan, and a crippled pick up truck—bringing his total of overtaken cars and trucks to 29 since leaving Los Angeles.   

As much as I had appreciated the facilities at the county parks in Iowa and the recreation area in Papillion, they hadn’t provided Internet access.  One of the difficulties of reduced Internet access was that I could not easily re-contact the coming week’s teams to check on arrival information and pre-game routines.  So the opportunity for lunch, gas, and free WiFi lured us off the Interstate to the Bosselman Travel Center in Elm Creek.  There we ate sandwiches, filled Arby with almost 40 gallons of regular, and connected to the Internet, enabling me to send messages to staffers at the upcoming week’s Montana ballpark trifecta: Billings, Helena, and Missoula.

Days before, I had sent my normal request for arrival information to my Casper contact.  But since the email had not prompted a reply, I worried in my usual way.  Already twice on the tour I had experienced anthem cancellations because of personnel changes at Northwest Arkansas and Charlotte, Florida, where new staff did not receive their predecessors’ records of my engagement.  After those late cancellations, I made every effort to re-contact teams several days before my scheduled appearances with them.  Even so, a few teams never reconfirmed information, causing me some anxiety until I arrived at their ballparks.

While stopped at Elm Creek, I was able to read the somewhat terrifying response to my Casper email.  Its message: “Yes you can sing here tomorrow night for the West Virginia Power.”   My email effort had been forwarded to the former Casper staffer’s new address with a team in the Appalachian League more than a thousand miles in the opposite direction.   My quick reply indentified my progress toward Wyoming, and by evening I had received word from him about whom to contact now in Casper.

For more than 300 miles Arby hugged the slow lane of I-80 before we turned northwest along Highway 26, which soon rises up a bluff above Lake McConaughy.  I had no idea that Nebraska could offer such a scenic view; and we would soon find more!  After passing through the shrinking village of Lewellen, which falls one L short of my Welsh middle name, our route split the parallel paths of the North Platte River on one side and, on the other, a freight rail line along which chugged train after train with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of coal cars headed south toward Texas. 


Photo of Chimney Rock from National Park Services.
Nearing the end of the longest day’s drive on the tour, we spied Chimney Rock from miles away.  Rising out of the prairie like an offshore island lighthouse, Chimney Rock is the most frequently mentioned landmark in journals of nineteenth-century pioneers along the Oregon Trail, which basically followed the course of the Platte and North Platte rivers.  A short time later we reached our evening destination at the Robidoux RV Park in Scottsbluff.  There I docked Arby, checked email to no avail, and took more Advil for the persistent pain in my thumb.  Then following a simple dinner—I think it was microwaved chicken pot pies with added green peas—Bonnie and I walked through the mostly empty park and watched dusk tiptoe through the remaining shards of daylight to introduce a starry night that would have wowed Van Gogh. 


As we held hands while walking through the park, Bonnie sensed my silent distress about Casper and suggested that I focus on the evening’s splendor and recall the great assistance provided by Vern and Mike, without whose incredible help that morning we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy this sight at this time. 
 
Early the following morning, I finally talked with Casper’s Executive Director Tim Ray about my appointment for the evening’s anthem.  He indicated that after the team had been sold during the previous winter, he had not been notified about my tour or about the scheduled date for my performance.  Since he had someone else lined up to perform that evening, I thought I didn’t stand a ghost of a chance to sing.  Even so, I briefly explained my project, the circumstances related to my contact with the team, and my anticipated arrival in Casper by mid-afternoon.  I begged him to see if the other anticipated performer could be rescheduled, and I gave him Bonnie’s cell number to call since I would be steering Arby throughout the morning.

About the time that we crossed into Wyoming, Bonnie’s phone rang. 
“A Casper staffer?” I mouthed with eyebrows raised.   
Straight-faced, then squinting slightly as she listened, Bonnie nodded, smiled, gave me thumbs up, and began to jot down instructions.  Relieved and ready for mid-morning coffee, we stopped at McDonalds in Torrington, logged onto our email accounts through the fast food’s WiFi, and sent the Ghosts my intro information.

Within a dozen miles, however, we missed Lingle’s left turn toward Casper and headed instead north toward Lusk on desolate Highway 85.  No intersections or wide spots in the road offered space to turn with Toad still attached.  Bonnie pointed to creek crossings and dirt side-roads that I ignored, gaging them impassible for Arby’s weight and width.  Still I slowed for each hint of a crossroad or driveway.  Finally, fifteen miles or more beyond the missed turn, I saw a wide, hard pad beyond a rancher’s front gate.  Turning across his cattle guard, I circled Arby and Toad around as though maneuvering covered wagons of yore and reversed our course back toward the Oregon Trail.

I had failed to follow the route toward Casper.  I had failed to stop to figure out what to do once we were wrongly headed.  I had failed to heed any of Bonnie’s suggestions.  Now for only the second time in the four months of touring together in the RV, we had an argument, not so much with words, but with silence.  Neither the pain in my right thumb nor my anxieties about the Ghosts’ game approached the depth of my distress at that time.

Yes, we returned to Lingle, and yes, we correctly made the turn toward Casper.  But on in silence we rode.  By the time that we reached Fort Laramie within a half-hour, Bonnie had initiated the healing by asking, “Aren’t we a team?”

I nodded.

“Then you need to let me contribute,” she concluded.

With calm apologies, we reaffirmed our teamwork as she made evening reservations for us at a riverside campground in Casper.

 

 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Storm Chased near Omaha: Game 85 in Omaha



No team name had a more convoluted interaction with my tour than the one in Omaha.

In preparation for moving into a new ballpark after calling Rosenblatt Stadium home for more than forty years while sharing the facility with the NCAA World Series, which had been holding its tourney there for six decades, the Omaha Royals AAA team sought a new identity.  After a public competition to create a new name for the team’s first season in Werner Ballpark, the moniker “Storm Chasers” was chosen.  Little did I anticipate how fitting—even in a twisted way—that name might be for my experience in the Omaha area.  Although I had not chased active storms on the tour, I had retraced routes of recent tornado wreckage through northern Alabama, central North Carolina, and Wales, Massachusetts. 



While Bonnie and I had prepared Arby for his arduous cross-country trip, our RV service center near Whittier had offered advice about storm preparation, specifically, what back-up sources of power we should have and how to stay best informed about tornados and violent thunderstorms.  Yes, along the way we had lost power at an Indiana RV park, and we had endured prolonged lightning strikes within earshot when we had been docked in Illinois.  But on neither of those occasions had we worried for our safety.  Then came the evening in Papillion, Nebraska, the new home of the newly named Omaha Storm Chasers.

In the bottom of the third inning, rain began to fall, driving the crowd to the covered areas of the concourses.  Yet their movement seemed at best ironic by reversing the course of action designated by the team’s name:  The fans were being chased by the storm rather than pursuing it.  The cloudburst, however, was short lived, not even giving the grounds crew time to roll out the tarp; and the Storm Chasers scored four runs to take the lead from the wetter Sacramento River Cats who stayed on the field throughout the downpour.  Thankfully, I thought, the storm was brief.  But when clouds to the west intensified and lightning began to slice through the horizon an inning later, I considered options and decided to leave the game early, to return to Arby where I had left Bonnie after a hot and strenuous day of travel. 

Few fans exit early as the storm approaches the ballpark.
Although the RV site in the Walnut Creek Recreation Area was less than five miles from the ballpark, I didn’t make it back to Arby in time to prevent major damage from the gustado that charged through the area.  That’s right, a “gustado.”  Although the term hasn’t made it into the official meteorological lexicon, it was used by an Omaha newscaster to describe the tornadic force wind that sheers directly downward at the front end of “a fast moving T-cell.”

Having difficulty retracting the awning running the RV’s full length, Bonnie had phoned me as I left the ballpark.  While she asked what to do to minimize the turbulent rocking caused by the invading storm, she stopped abruptly and said, “There it goes.”  A torrid burst ripped the awning off Arby’s ribs, tossing it up onto his roof.  I heard the crash and worried about her safety.  “Just get here soon,” she implored.  There was little that could be done when three minutes later I drove up and saw the compound fracture of the awning.  After I dashed into the storm-tossed RV to comfort Bonnie, we considered abandoning ship and checking into a hotel.


The morning after the arm-breaking winds.
Despite clear skies that had prevailed throughout the morning and afternoon, an unpleasant feel had hung over the day.  I had waked with a ruptured blood vessel in my right eye, causing it to look more inflamed than if I had had an allergic reaction, a drunken splay, or even pink eye.  Although my ocular condition did not affect my vision or cause discomfort (other than to others who might look me in the eye), it seemed to color the entire day with difficulties. 

Heading west from Des Moines, Arby had struggled with the unyielding undulations in the terrain of western Iowa.  Down a slope on I-80 we’d go as fast as possible, reaching about 70, clinging to the right hand lane and still moving as the slowest vehicle on the road while 18-wheelers easily passed us. Then we’d huff and puff our way up the opposite grade at 45-50 mph.  Throughout the alternation of these speedy descents and arduous climbs, Arby’s temperature needle consistently hovered at a millimeter or two shy of the red zone. 

Through construction on Omaha’s freeways we continued, reaching the sun-drenched, hilltop site in the Walnut Creek Recreation Area by mid-afternoon.  While the outside temperature crested at 92 degrees in the shade, Arby’s gage on the slab registered 104.  I placed sun shields in the front and side windows facing west, plugged in the cord for air conditioning, and extended the awning, the last, and fatal, extension of that marvelous, full-length awning.  Even so, the air conditioner struggled to provide a cooling effect, enough comfort, however, to enable Bonnie to fall asleep before I slipped out to game alone.

Clear skies above pre-game tailgate parties proved deceptive.
About a half hour ahead of schedule, I arrived at the ballpark and stopped at a couple of tailgate parties to sample fan enthusiasm and appreciation for the new stadium.  Approaching the Will Call window I was a bit concerned when I saw that 16 or 17 people were already in the line, but I reasoned that at 6:15 I still had ample time to make it to the field in time to meet the contact person as scheduled at 6:30.  But seven minutes later when I identified myself as the anthem singer, I was whisked through the gates by a waiting staffer since the game time had been advanced by a half hour to accommodate a Faith Night musical performance.  Incredible!  With less time to warm up than a middle innings reliever, I was handed the microphone, oriented toward the flag, and told that my cue would be my name.  I should have sensed the swift pursuit of the subsequent storm!

A few of my anthem renditions are ones that I’d like to forget.  This was one that I could easily put in a storm cellar.  Nothing was really wrong: it was simply that I didn’t feel comfortable since I hadn’t been able to complete my warm-up routine.  Even so, while walking toward my position behind home plate, I hurriedly sang through the song in my mind to make sure that the words wouldn’t burst out of order. 

Still harried after my performance, I neglected to find out the name of the pre-game staffer who assisted me.  As she escorted me back to the entry to get my ticket scanned, I asked her about what happens when an anthem performer cancels or fails to show up on time: “Do the Storm Chasers play a recording?”  “No,” she responded. “Usually we draft one of the staff or get a season ticket holder to lead everyone in the anthem.”  Hmm, I wondered, who would have pinch-sung for me this night and how much advance warning would he or she have received?  I had thirteen minutes between Will Call and the opening triad.

Although my pre-game routines had been disrupted, I left the Storm Chasers’ staff member and began my usual ballpark maneuvers as the game began by checking out the concession stands, locating walls of recognition and banners featuring former players, scoping out the children’s play spaces and entertainment options, exploring artistic displays and architectural features, and reading notices of ballpark rules and other signs posted throughout the concourse.

Right away, I scanned the 19 Werner Park rules bilingually displayed at the entry gate.  While many of these directions for ballpark behavior duplicated standard codes of etiquette, several of the instructions were distinct, if not unique, to the Storm Chasers.

Tailgating is allowed only in designated areas of the parking lot.  Only one parking space per vehicle is allowed.

Umbrellas are permitted.  Lawn chairs are not allowed.

In the event of an evacuation, all guests are to abide by the directions of authorized personnel.

Naively, when I read this last regulation, I did not immediately associate the need for possible evacuation with stormy weather; instead, I thought that the instructions might apply in the event of an accident, a fire, a terrorist act, or other human-generated catastrophe.   About an hour after I had read the sign, the lightning, wind, and rain chased me from the ballpark before I could learn whether this gustado would command an evacuation.

Another bilingual sign behind the bullpen.
Other signs, art, spaces, and player recognitions throughout the ballpark also reflected the particular character of the community.  Most prominent among the local baseball heroes honored at ballpark was Bob Gibson,
Gibson feted as "our hometown hero."
a native of Omaha, a graduate of Creighton, and a pitcher for Omaha’s AAA team then affiliated with St. Louis.  A perennial Major League All-Star with  the Cardinals, Gibson won the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1968 while hurling 13 shutouts, compiling a miniscule 1.12 ERA, and leading the league with 268 strikeouts.  His season set the modern standard for pitching untouchability. 

In simpler ways other former Major League All-Stars—Nebraskans Wade Boggs and Richie Ashburn—were recognized by having VIP suites named after them.   Like Gibson, Boggs had been born in Omaha, and nearby Tilden claimed to be the birthplace of Ashburn, a Phillies’ star from the Whiz Kids’ era.  Others players who had enjoyed successful seasons in Omaha before becoming accomplished Royals in Kansas City were also “suitely” celebrated: catcher John Wathan, pitcher Paul Splittorff, and slick fielding second baseman Frank White.  Yet without having been identified specifically with Omaha, Dick Howser and Frank Robinson also had VIP quarters named in their honor.  Howser’s baseball career was shaped by the parent Royals in Kansas City who signed him after graduating from Florida State, started him at shortstop in his rookie year in 1961, and finally managed them for six years in the 1980s.


Like the name plates for other suites, Robinson's featured Braille letters.

What I couldn’t figure out, however, is why the “Nut-free Suite” was named for Frank Robinson, an All-Star with Cincinnati before winning a Triple Crown with Baltimore.  Why would he be so extoled in Omaha where, even during his few Minor League seasons, he never played a game?  Certainly, his role as the color breaking player for the Redlegs merited commendation, even as his baseball exploits secured his first-ballot election into the Hall of Fame.  But what, I still wonder, was his connection to Nebraska?  



What wasn’t a mystery was the cause of the chorus of laughter and squeals of delight from children playing in the areas known as the Family Fun Zone and the nearby Borsheims Diamond.  Their joyful sounds erupted when they slid through corkscrew tubes or hit Wiffleball homeruns.  Joining the kids in laughter were several adults, including me, at the Wiffleball game when one pre-school batter finally hit the plastic ball.  At the pitcher’s mound a Storm Chaser’s staffer purposely dropped the boy’s pop fly and intentionally continued to fumble the ball while the batter ran and ran and ran, never hesitating in his flip-flops until after he had circled the bases and slid into home.

While the River Cats rallied, a young boy finally wallops a pop fly "homerun."
In additional ways to the formal spaces and informal activities provided at the ballpark for children, the family and faith culture of Omaha—the theme for the night’s promotion—was evident.  On the family front, baseball loving kinfolk gathered for tailgate barbecues in the parking lot before watching the game from their picnic blankets spread on the ramparts beyond left field.  
While children hang out at the fence hoping for a homerun, families watch from the grassy slope.
 
On the faith front, Lutherans in particular congregated to enjoy the game and to participate in the public celebration of faith.  And for the faithful fans who, unlike me, had not been chased away by the immersing rain, a post-game Christian concert capped off the evening of the Storm Chasers’ 7-5 victory over the River Cats.

The post-game concert was sponsored by the Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church,
whose ballpark placard featured a ball and bat as the image for "Connecting Others to Christ."
 

 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Kinsellas and Kernels: Game 83 in Cedar Rapids


Driving past Iowa cornfields on our way from one ballpark to another, I recalled scenes from W. P. Kinsella’s magical baseball settings in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Shoeless Joe, which served as the basis for the cinematic hit Field of Dreams.  First among the images that came to mind was the cornfield diamond built by protagonist farmer Ray Kinsella.  Perceived by some as heaven on earth, the field of dreams lured a crowd of baseball characters to fulfill their destinies: Shoeless Joe Jackson and his fellow banished teammates from the Black Sox scandal; deceased doctor and former baseball hopeful Archie “Moonlight” Graham; reclusive software designer, alienated fan, and former author Terrence Mann (the film’s remodeled persona to replace the novel’s character novelist J.D. Salinger); Ray Kinsella’s late father John, an ex-minor leaguer and worn out factory worker; and Ray himself, the unfulfilled farmer who, as an emerging teenager, had refused to play catch with his dad. 

Depending on who's playing, Perfect Game Field might be a Field of Dreams.


While I knew that neither the riverfront field in Clinton nor the urban diamond in Davenport nor the residential ballpark in Cedar Rapids could resemble the dream field on the movie set near Dyersville, I kept gazing beyond the passing crops, hoping to catch a glimpse of an ephemeral field that could transform long passed promise into the karmic consummation that Kinsella’s field of dreams had facilitated for so many of his characters.  Yet instead of being wooed by such wonder on the route between Davenport and Cedar Rapids, I was brought back to earth by the sight of the world’s largest truck stop along I-80, a place with spaces for 800 big rigs. 



However, when I arrived at Veteran’s Stadium in Cedar Rapids, I did find a tribute to some of Iowa’s historic players that resonated with Kinsella’s fictional world.  The Cedar Rapids Hall of Fame, which is located in the ballpark’s souvenir store, recognizes more than fifty players—including Cooperstown luminaries John McGraw and Lou Boudreau—who starred with the Kernels and their predecessors dating back to the city’s first pro-team, the Canaries in the Illinois-Iowa League of the late 19th century.
 

Expanding on this celebration of notables in the city’s Hall of Fame, a timeline display of posters, sample jerseys, and memorabilia line the walls of the suite level of the ballpark.  Additional Cedar Rapids’ standouts like Trevor Hoffman, Bengie Molina, Paul O’Neil, and John Lackey are recognized with stars embedded in the walkway of the concession concourse; and by-gone greats Rocky Colavito, Allie Reynolds, and others are featured on directional placards to seat sections.
 
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Even with all of the outstanding players who had played for the Kernels in their half-century history, only one former player was honored with his number retired on the outfield wall: Nick Adenhart, who posted 10 wins for the Kernels during a partial season and who was killed by a drunk driver around midnight following his first start for the parent Angels in 2009 after making their Opening Day roster.

Nick Adenhart is honored by his number and image on the centerfield wall.
Joining Bonnie and me for a not-quite-historic evening at Perfect Game Field in Veterans Stadium were former Whittier colleague Gerry Adams and his wife Sara.  Two decades earlier they had immigrated to Iowa and had become immersed in its corn culture.  Having taught chemistry before moving to Grinnell to become the registrar of the college there, Gerry regaled me throughout the game about the advantages and challenges of the genetically engineered corn that had increased the productivity of the Iowa crops, which now were primarily destined for cattle consumption or use as bio-fuels.


Gerry and Sara Adams with Bonnie
Meeting me to provide pre-game orientation was Kernels’ staffer James Odegard.  A first tenor who was studying biology at Luther College, James had subbed three or four times during the season for scheduled anthem performers who cancelled. Since the Kernels, like most of the other teams, did not schedule a sound check for me, I asked James about what kind of delay and feedback I might encounter.  “Don’t listen to the sound system,” he suggested.  “When I heard myself I slowed down and then thought I should speed up.” 

“What key did you sing it in?”  I asked. 

“B-flat,” he said, adding that the low notes had seemed a bit low.  When I countered that I sing it in F-sharp, he smiled and said that would be far too low for him to join me in a duet. 

A short time later when I was introduced, I was pleased to hear the Cedar Rapids announcer read the brief introduction that I had sent to teams when I confirmed arrival information. 


If possible, I'd appreciate your PA announcer identifying my affiliation with Whittier College during the introduction.

 
...  national anthem by Whittier College Professor Joe Price. 


And if a few more words could be added to stimulate conversations with the fans, I suggest:

 
During the 2011 baseball season, Joe Price is singing the national anthem at more than 100 minor league ballparks in 40 states while he examines how baseball and "The Star-Spangled Banner" combine to shape the national pastime.

 

At the recent games in Kane County, Davenport, and Beloit where I had been introduced simply by name, few fans had interacted with me about the tour.  But in Cedar Rapids, the twenty-second introduction prompted numerous comments and fruitful discussions with fans during several innings.  

 

Among those responding so positively to the brief description of my tour was Teresa Dvorak, who stopped me on the concourse to introduce me to her mother.  A week earlier Teresa had attended the game at Kane County where my introduction had been minimal. When she heard the announcement during the Kernels’ pre-game ceremonies, she had thought that my name sounded familiar, and when she heard my voice she knew that I had been the one singing for the earlier game between the Cougars and the Kernels, a team that she has followed since she was a young child.  Her fascination with the team was tied, in part, to her mother’s ongoing support of its players.  More than twenty years ago, her mother had begun to provide room and board for the early hopefuls since her five-bedroom house is within a homerun’s cheer of the field. Without divulging the identities of players who might have needed such accommodations, her mother added, “When they have had a bit too much to drink, they can safely walk to their rooms at my home.”

While we were talking Kyle Swaney approached and identified himself as a Whittier alumnus from a few years before my arrival at the College. Favorably recalling his major professor David Volckmann (still my colleague and fellow bass in a community choir), Kyle discussed his current work with ACT, the college admissions and placement test organization whose home office was nearby in Iowa City.  As part of his work with the organization, he has co-authored research reports related to career groups and career counseling, studies that drew from and affirmed his undergraduate, liberal arts education. 

Our conversation was disrupted by a foul ball that took aim toward us, caroming off the fa├žade above us back toward the front row seats.  Retrieving the ball on the rebound, a man turned and handed it to a boy whose face exploded with delight.  The response personified the inscription on the statue of Pete Vonachen that I had seen in Peoria the previous night: “There is nothing more rewarding than the look of joy when you give a kid a baseball.”

Peoria's statue of Pete Vonachen.
Rob Thompson, the ball retriever, had returned to Cedar Rapids to attend his high school reunion the following night.  He had arranged his itinerary to include a Kernels’ game, a schedule that he had  tried to follow each time that he had returned to the city to visit family.  Self-described as an inveterate baseball fan, he said that giving the ball to the boy was “really no big deal” since he already had Major League balls from Rangers’ games near his Texas home, signed souvenir balls, and a Minor League ball that had been given to him by the mascot at a game in Hickory, North Carolina.  I wondered if “Mr. Shuck,” the Kernels’ mascot, would similarly favor him.  But a different chance presented itself to him a few innings after our conversation:  He was selected to be the person interviewed for the trivia contest. Rather than needing the prompt or hint from the staffer, he knew already that the answer to the question was option B, Eric Davis, a star for the Kernels in the early 80s.

Near his seat, season ticket holders Greg and Maria Camburn summoned me to sit by them for a half inning.  “We’re envious,” they said. “We’d love to explore America through Minor League ballparks.”  And their questions might be answered by the complete account of my tour: When did you start planning?  Where did you begin?  How many miles have you traveled?  Where have you stayed?  What ballparks have been your favorites?  Why?  What surprises have you found?  Which places were the most exciting?  What unusual baseball plays and players have you seen? 

 

In the section behind the Camburns, Jim Hutton sat in a wheelchair, confined to that means of mobility after having suffered multiple injuries in a biking accident years earlier.  A former lead tenor in a barbershop quartet, Jim was most complementary about my anthem rendition, especially since, as he put it, “you didn’t add any stuff or do something personal.”  Following his accident the damage to his jaw had required that it be wired shut, a treatment that necessitated a tracheotomy, which then caused damage to his larynx and regrettably ended his singing with the group.  Now, he said, he enjoys evenings at the Kernels’ games, often harmonizing with the anthem singer.  

While I enjoyed stimulating conversations with old friends and new acquaintances, the Kernels reached new levels of support from corporate sponsors for local charities by performing effectively on the field.  The ten strikeouts of River Bandits batters by a quartet of Kernels hurlers earned $250 for Kids First, the first American law center with a mission to mitigate the negative effects of divorce on children.  Additional support for better-known charities was generated by the Kernels’ six runs (for Meals on Wheels), Travis Witherspoon’s two stolen bases (for Camp Courageous), and Randal Grichuk’s homerun (for Veterans Group).  
A different scoreboard tallies the Kernels' efforts for charities.
Throughout the game the whole cob of Kernels enjoyed clutch hitting, going 5 for 11 with runners in scoring position.  And the game itself finished with a flourish.  After the Kernels cut the River Bandits’ lead to a single run on a solo shot with two outs in the bottom of the 8th, the 9th inning was filled with bases-loaded drama.  With two outs Quad Cities mounted a final threat, filling the bases with an error and two walks before Geoffrey Klein, who had homered earlier in the game, fanned to end the inning.  In the bottom half of the frame, the Kernels scored the tying run on a pinch-hit triple before loading the bases with only one out.  But an unassisted double play on a line drive to the River Bandits’ third baseman sent the game into extra-innings.  Then in the 10th Cedar Rapids rallied to win 6-5 after a hit batter was followed by a couple of singles.