Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ending on a High Note: Game 104 in Inland Empire

Known simply and famously as Route 66, the highway angling from Chicago to Los Angeles was completed shortly before Ruth’s record-making season in 1927. During the following decade it would wend its way into American hope by directing Okies from the opaque swirls of the Dust Bowl toward the fruitful fields of California.  A few years later the road would secure a more playful place in the nation’s lore by providing the central image for Nat King Cole’s hit recording of “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66.”   And the highway would continue to provide romantic images of adventure well into the 1960s with the television series featuring Buz, Tod, and his new Corvette in their cross county road trip.  Had the highway been completed or even surveyed a century earlier, I am certain that Horace Greeley would have recommended tattooing its emblem on the biceps of newsboys in New York: “Go west, young man.  Go west—on Route 66.”      

Now forsaken by freeway travelers quickly pursuing distant destinations, Route 66 serves mostly as a nostalgic image or a relic of crumbled concrete.  Almost a year before I set out on the series of anthem performances, I had projected possible routes for the anthem venture, targeting the Inland Empire 66ers as the ideal final stop for the road trip since their name captures the spirit of the asphalt rope of hope.  They make their home in San Bernadino where the ballpark sits a homerun’s distance away from the historical Route.

Although most of the road trip guides, historical reviews, and coffee table picture books about cafes, motels, and tourist traps along Route 66 envision a journey beginning in Chicago and ending in Los Angeles, Bonnie and I reversed this flow on our only intersections with the highway.  We began our cross-country drive in Arby in late April by tracing the route from Los Angeles through Rancho Cucamonga, Victorville, and Barstow, before leaving its path to head to Las Vegas.  Picking up the highway’s course again near Flagstaff, we generally followed its channel upstream through Albuquerque and Amarillo, before turning south and abandoning it.  Even when we later left Chicago and headed west, we missed its origin by taking a more northerly router than its initial southwesterly direction.   

Yet at our journey’s end, we again headed east along the highway.  While tired Arby and Toad recuperated in my driveway in Whittier, I guided our family car along a short segment of Route 66 from Pasadena to San Bernadino, again reversing the normal flow, paying tribute to the Route’s symbolic significance before turning toward Arrowhead Ballpark to complete the summer’s singing and driving.  Cetainly, I was getting my kicks by ending with Route 66.
Although a coincidence of scheduling, it was also fitting that on this night the 66ers featured an end-the-season promotion providing the first thousand entrants a bobble-head Angel-gnome.  After bouncing in Arby across pocked and furrowed highways for thousands and thousands of miles, I easily identified with the jiggle-necked figure offered by the 66ers.   While to most fans he mimicked an angelic, mythic midget, he not only resembled my road-jostled frame, but his smiling face looked like my own elated expression after coaxing Arby to finish the arduous journey from Bakersfield to Whittier by climbing through the 4144 foot crest of the Tejon Pass.    
More than an hour before the start of the 66ers game on the next-to-last day of their season, fans extended the line to enter the ballpark for more than a block.  Standing among the faithful 66er fans were several of my friends, family, and former students.  Having arrived before us, my sister Liz and her husband Pat eased back in line to join Bonnie, me, and our two sons Jared and David.  

Pat and Liz join me and Bonnie.
Minutes later as the line began to move when the gates opened, Whittier colleagues Charles Adams and Mike McBride also stepped into the queue.  They had been supportive throughout the planning stages of the tour; they had regularly read the blog entries about the ballparks, games, and travel; and they had personalized their participation even more by joining Bonnie and me for out-of-state games along the way: Mike in Fishkill, New York, and Charles in Everett, Washington.   Now in the final stretch of the marathon, they came to bat for me once again. 

Really, being able to share the love and lore of baseball with good friends is one of the great joys of the venture. 

While most of the fans who entered the ballpark received the bobble-head gnome, one special young fan named Kyle, who has been cognitively disabled by a stroke at birth, received a baseball bat lamp for his devotion throughout the season.  Kyle’s devotion and the lamp maker’s creativity also seemed to provide a fitting emblem for the completion of the tour.   Throughout my visits to more than 100 ballparks, I was consistently heartened by the number of groups of developmentally challenged fans attending ballgames.  Transformed from a broken bat into a functional furnishing, the homemade souvenir provided an exemplary tribute to the health and hope that baseball can bring to its fans.   
After passing through the turn-styles and getting the bobble-head figurine, I found friend and fellow traveler Missy Alden in the concession area.  In fact, she scored the most states and games where she had joined us along the way.  After she and her husband Jerry had hosted Bonnie and me for games in two states during our East Coast swing, they had also attended a couple of games near their home in Northern California during the final week of the tour—games in San Jose and Sacramento.  Now she had flown to Southern California to celebrate the last game with us.  

Not only has Missy been an enthusiastic supporter of the tour, she is certainly a fervent fan of baseball: period.  In recent years she watched her two sons compete on their high school teams and she attended hundreds of Oakland A’s games; and whatever the league or level, she routinely keeps score of the games she attends.  She understands:  She roots for her team, the home team, or the team with some other allure.  And thankfully, she cheers for me singing the anthem.
Joined by Jared, David's friend Heather, David, Bonnie, and Missy, who, as usual, kept score.
The concession area where we encountered Missy certainly seemed to be a prime gathering spot.  Nearby, I also ran into former student and blog-subscriber Miheal Hererra. 
Miheal and his daughter Cassidy welcome us home.
Earlier in the summer he had let me know that he and his family had secured front row box seat tickets for the game.  Now with signs prepared to hold up as though the game would be featured on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight,” he challenged me to end the anthem tour on a high note by starting my rendition in E-flat—a full tone higher than my most frequent key of C-sharp.  
Miheal challenges me to sing in a higher key.
Although I later disappointed Miheal by singing the anthem in my most comfortable key, he did record my performance and post it on YouTube  
With so many friends and family joining us for the game, I was tempted to forego my routine warm-up exercises to enjoy spending more time with them on the glorious summer evening.  Yet I also wanted to make sure that I could shine for my final Minor League rendition.  So I sought out the quietest, most private place in the ballpark—the family restroom.   Throughout the summer I typically found that the best place to warm up in the ballparks was in the family or handicapped restroom, a space usually without speakers blaring the pre-game music and announcements.  With sounds muffled in the sequestered room, I could do the physical and vocal exercises that might prove distressing or alarming to casual passersby, as happened in a couple of ballparks where secluded spaces were inaccessible.
Near the corridor from the concourse to the third base seats, I found the family restroom, entered, locked the door, faced the mirror, and began the odd contortions and tongue wagging that loosen facial muscles.  Moments later, as usual, I started to vocalize, focusing on my naso-pharynx resonance rather trying to make pleasant sounds.  Then following my exercise through sequential scales, I practiced harmonic intervals.  Suddenly, the restroom door opened while I was making ugly sounds.  A startled young woman looked at me and started to shut the door.  Both of us were flustered.  Thinking that she might need the privacy afforded by the single-toilet room, I explained my efforts in preparation for singing the anthem, and I let her know that, apparently, the lock on the door didn’t work.  Since she looked somewhat desperate, I offered to leave the room and stand guard by the door with a malfunctioning lock.  

Meanwhile, on the field batting practice concluded, the batters’ boxes and foul lines got limed, and the infield got dragged and wetted to settle the dust.  The pre-game ceremonies were ready to begin.  Line-ups were read with a sense of excitement, first pitches were tossed as though they had meaning, and I stepped to the area between home plate and the backstop.   Silhouetted against the dusky sky, the San Gabriel Mountains glowed at sunset as though they knew that I was completing the journey. 
Arrowhead Ballpark at dusk on this glorious summer evening.
I was introduced to sing the anthem, with an expansive identification of my project and its conclusion.  I stood ready, hummed the C-sharp that I had blown a second earlier on my pitch pipe, and began to sing with an unusual sense of fulfillment and release.   When I got to the line “o’er the land of the free,” I smiled wider than the length of Route 66, I think, all the while thinking to myself, “I am, I am, I am.  I am free from the travel of the road.”
Marcie and her daughter give me brownies.
As I had requested, the 66ers PA announcer featured my affiliation with Whittier College in the introduction.  In response to the mention of Whittier, Chuck Perkins approached me and proudly said that his mother had gone to the College and that he had pictures and memorabilia from the 1940s related to her work in Broadoaks, Whittier’s “lab school” for early childhood education.   Shortly after he engaged me, former student Marcie Holmer brought me a batch of double-fudge nut brownies.  Marcie, as some readers might remember, had given me a box of baseball-icinged cookies at my first game of the season in the L.A. area. 

Finally, I moved to the row where my family was seated.  Incredibly, in the seats immediately in front of Bonnie sat Jim Henderson, a colleague from my year as an ACE Fellow.  Now a Dean at Cal State L.A., he had joined several other ACE Fellows (including Karen Mendonca who had joined us a week earlier for the game in San Jose) to accompany me when I sang for the Baltimore Orioles in Camden Yards in 1998.  Now with thousands fewer in these stands, he sat smiling, nonetheless, and we reminisced about baseball, education, and life throughout the first few innings of the game.
While I moved from one set of friends and family to another in the stands behind home plate, the game slipped past uneventfully, neither team scoring off the starting pitchers or middle relievers.  Even so, the game featured an amazingly high moment.  In the third inning, my older son Jared chased down a foul ball that had flown into the concession area. 
During my trek across the diamonds of America, I had been almost hit by foul balls in several stadiums.  I had retrieved one in New Orleans and handed it to a young boy nearby.  I had tossed out first pitches in Midland and San Jose.  And I had been given two balls by the managers of the Mississippi Braves and the Great Lakes Loons.  But no ball from the summer brought more joy than this scuffed ball, which my son scrambled to retrieve as a journey-ending gift. 

After eight innings of shut-out ball, the visiting Ports started the ninth with a single, a sacrifice, and an intentional base on balls.  Then their centerfielder greeted the new relief pitcher with his 30th homerun of the year, swinging Stockton to a 3-0 win.

Although the home team lost the last game on my tour, the 66ers made the post-season playoffs, which began a few days later. And me?  I finished the tour on Route 66, fulfilling my fantasy of seeing more than 100 ballgames and ballparks throughout America and sharing my love of the national anthem with fans from sea to shining sea.  While I might not have sung my final anthem in a higher key as Mihael had urged, I ended the tour on a high note with friends, family, and foul ball.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Absent like the Red Sox

And I thought that my blogging slump in August had been bad! 

Yet September proved worse for my postings, which appeared even less frequently during that month than wins by the Red Sox or Braves.  And now my October hiatus from blogging has begun to resemble the absence of A Rod’s power in the post-season. 

But unlike the Red Sox who swilled away their swollen advantage and vanished from post-season prospects, there is an explanation for my blogging disappearance, sort of.

Following my final anthem tour appearance in San Bernadino on Labor Day weekend, I had almost 13 hours between the time that I returned home from the game and the start of my annual professorial responsibilities at Whittier College the next afternoon.  13 whole hours, some of which I wanted to spend in my own bed, and a few of which needed to be spent learning the names of my incoming students and beginning to prepare my course syllabi for the impending semester.

When classes started three days later I got submerged in the quagmire of daily preparations for my three quite different courses.  So while I’ve worked on grading students’ essays in recent weeks, I’ve fallen even farther behind in my writing than I had experienced during the final surge of the Minor League season.

Naively I had thought that it would be relatively easy to transform my detailed notes about travel, cities, ballparks, and games into posts.  Incredibly, I had thought that I might be able to finish blogging about a “missing game” every other day or so, even after I returned home and resumed my normal professorial duties.  But the wear and tear of driving 28712 miles, making it on schedule to 104 anthem performances, and worrying about Arby and Toad performances on a daily basis drained more energy than I had thought I might have. 

What then is the future of writing about my anthem project?  Completion.  It’s that simple and that demanding.

Within the next couple of days, I’ll post a blog about the final game of the Minor League season, and then I’ll resume my efforts to reflect on each game, ballpark, and city along the way.  The good news is that, with my courses now well underway and without daily distractions by the NBA in the next few weeks (and months, perhaps), I’ll turn my efforts back to blogging about my anthem experiences in the "missing games" from last season. 

So during the doldrums between the end of the World Series and the beginning of Spring Training, I’ll savor a taste of Winter Ball, not by focusing on the Dominican League but by reflecting on the incredible baseball and patriotic adventure of this past summer.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Beyond Little League: Game 53 in Williamsport

Even when the Little League World Series is weeks away, the welcome is always present.

During the last two weeks of August each year, the eyes of the baseball world turn toward Williamsport, Pennsylvania for the summer’s second World Series—this one for kids.  Unlike the season’s first World Series held in Omaha to crown the NCAA champion or the last one pitting the pennant winners from the American and National Leagues, the Little League World Series is truly for the World Championship.  It features representative teams from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as regional winners from the U.S.  Indeed, Little League claims to be the world’s largest youth sports organization.
Among the impacts that the Little League World Series have on the Susquehanna Valley, hotel rooms rent for premium rates during the period of the playoffs.  While blocks of rooms are guaranteed for competing teams and their entourage, media personnel and baseball pilgrims of all ages book space years ahead.  Although I would have enjoyed trying to double dip while in the area, singing for one of the LLWS games and for the Williamsport Crosscutters who play in the short-season New York-Pennsylvania League, I chose the better bet for room and rates by scheduling my visit several weeks before the region's saturation with Little League fans. 
Even so, my lodging possibilities were challenged by the recent discovery of an enormous natural gas reservoir underlying most of the region.  While Halliburton, among other exploratory enterprises, had sent so many crews to the area that they filled the hotels for miles around, I felt lucky to secure one of the last two rooms in city at the historic Genetti Hotel.
According to the waitress at breakfast the following morning, Williamsport is a town crowded with banks, bars, churches, and, of course, Little League Baseball.  During the eleven months when the LLWS is not in play, the Little League Museum and the new complex of fields,  now located in a pastoral stretch of South Williamsport above the Susquehanna River, attract thousands of fans of all ages.  The centerpiece of the complex is Lamade Stadium, whose grandstands seat more fans than most Minor League ballparks.  While most of the interactive exhibits at the Museum are designed to appeal to pre-adolescents, significant numbers of adults make their way through its turn-style.  They embrace the idea of Little League--a project by adults, an activity for kids. 

Lamade Stadium rises above the other fields in the Little League complex.

Little League's values guide fans to the museum's entry.
 To players and their parents from generations past, Little League signifies much more than childhood socialization through sport: It represents a person’s early and innocent hopes, dreams that extend beyond the fading horizon of maturity, desires keenly felt that have gone unfulfilled, possibilities unpursued that still mould memories of what once shaped promise.    It’s not uncommon for men to recall their batting averages from their best year of play in Little League, or the strikeout pitch that froze the big kid with the winning runs on base, or the diving catch that saved the game.  A single, significant win or game-turning play in Little League is often remembered as one of the formative events in childhood.

The tribute to Stotz greets fans at the complex.
As dominant as Little League is for the Williamsport, it was an even older baseball tradition that drew me to the city.  The Crosscutters of the New York-Pennsylvania League call the city home, as did their predecessor the Williamsport Grays, a minor league team that had played there in the 1920s.  The Grays had inaugurated professional play in Bowman Field against the Harrisburg Colored Giants in 1926, more than a decade before Little League founder Carl Stotz organized three teams to compete on an adjacent plot.
Like the hotel, Williamsport’s Bowman Field, where the Crosscutters play, is historic, claiming to be the second oldest minor league ballpark in regular use.  When it was constructed, the ballpark expanded over acres of outfield, with distances from home plate extending 400 feet down the line to left, 367 to right, and 450 to center.  Because only ten homeruns were hit in the first seven years of the ballpark’s use, including one in the first professional game by Harrisburg’s future Cooperstown enshrinee Oscar Charleston and others by barnstorming Major Leaguers, an inner fence was “temporarily” added.  It stood for almost 30 years.  Still spacious, the outfield now conforms to typical dimensions at other ballparks.   
The original dugout can't accommodate all of the Crosscutters.

While the outfield fences no longer stand in their original position, several of Bowman’s architectural features survive undisturbed.  Behind the third-base grandstands, the ballpark’s wooden outer wall requires buttressing to remain erect, and the small dugouts retain their original, open position farther down the baselines than usual.    During the 1950s the ballpark slipped into such disrepair that the Little League World Series refused the offer to assume its operation.  When the city took over its operation as a last resort, a few improvements were made, notably the installation of lights that came when the Polo Grounds were abandoned by the Mets to play in Shea Stadium.  Yet Bowman’s deterioration continued for another decade, prompting professional baseball to desert Williamsport until the mid-1980s. 

The historic wall winds its buttessed way behind the third base picnic area.
Now renovated, Bowman Park still exudes its early aura, which made my unamplified performance there seem fitting for its history.   Because sound systems were not routinely installed in stadiums until years later—Yankee Stadium was the first in 1929— ballpark performances of patriotic medleys that often included “The Star-Spangled Banner” were most often played by brass bands, not sung by soloists. 
As I stepped to my position behind home plate, the microphone accidentally went dead.  With the first word or two, I didn’t know that the microphone itself was muted, especially since a couple of ballparks had failed to adjust the sound settings on time.  Consequently, I had developed the habit of gauging the quality of the sound system and its delay when I reached the end of the first phrase.  By then I could clearly hear my amplified voice as I breathed following “see.”   So by the time I got to “the dawn’s early light” in Williamsport, I realized that the sound system was not projecting my voice.  I simply ratcheted up my volume, intensified my resonance, and kept going, unperturbed.  My voice carried throughout the ballpark so well that I could hear natural echoes tossed back to me from the wooden wall in centerfield toward which I was facing. 
When I came off the field, Crosscutters’ Vice President and game day operations manager Gabe Sinicropi apologized and said that he could hear me from the far end of the distant dugout.  Fans also uniformly expressed their appreciation with loud applause and frequent comments of “good job.”  And a couple of days later, I learned that Jack and Louise Thomas, musicians who had attended the game, reported to their daughter-in-law who relayed the message to me, that the a cappella performance without amplification had been splendid and appeared planned.
In contrast to the sound system failure during the pre-game ceremony, amplified recordings generated entertaining highlights throughout the game. When a downpour interrupted the sunny early evening in the bottom of the third inning, the guys on the grounds crew enjoyed hearing their own “walk on” music.  While they sloshed through the puddles to extend the tarp over the left side of the diamond, they heard the familiar refrains of a Creedence Clearwater Revival hit blaring over the loudspeakers: “Have you ever seen the rain coming down….”

Using old-fashioned half-diamond tarps, the grounds crews covers the left side of the infield with one. . .

then pulls a second one into place over third and short.

After the passing shower delayed the game for almost an hour, an incredible sunset smothered the sky before the seventh-inning stretch on summer’s second longest day.

Even the concessions got drenched.
Another soundtrack is quite common at many Minor League ballparks.  The crash of breaking glass often crackles over the loudspeakers immediately following a foul ball’s disappearance over the roof.  Yet at Williamsport, the timing for the sound track was different: When a foul ball soared out of the ballpark and into the parking lot, there was a slight delay, allowing time for the ball to fall and for the crowd to settle.  Then, suddenly, a clash of glass shattering jarred the fans, and the playful soundtrack became a prompt for an ad for a local insurance agent whose featured line was: “If that was your car, you’d be covered by the agent.” 
When another foul ball rolled into the bullpen, a Batavia reliever picked it up and tossed it toward a fan, but it hit the wall.  He retrieved it and tossed again, this time with the fan dropping it.  Finally, he picked it up and handed it to the fan before returning to his seat in the middle of bullpen bench.
Meanwhile in the grandstands, one of the vendors hawked peanuts by threatening to throw them to the fans.  One joked with him, “If you hit me, I’ll sue.”  “Won’t matter,” the young man replied keeping up his banter while also offering two for one sodas. “When you bought a ticket, you signed a waiver,” he grinned.
Before the rain erupted, Williamsport scored a run on a couple of doubles in the second inning.  But in the third, an error led to the first run for Batavia and extended the inning for the Muckdogs to score another.  Minutes later the offensive productivity of both teams drowned, and Batavia held on to win 2-1.

The skies cleared in time for the sunset to glow and the Muckdogs to claim victory.

Friday, August 26, 2011

On a Wing and Prayer: Game 52 in Rochester

The worn metaphor of coming in on “a wing and prayer” has come to identify the frailty of hopes and faith for one’s deliverance from trying times, not simply to implore a safe landing after a troubled flight.  During my drive to the Rochester, that stale figure of speech—differently applied—characterized my goal and my spirit, probably because of Rochester’s name, the Red Wings, and because I thought that prayer might be the only way to get the pelting rain to subside and permit the game to proceed. 
While Arby rested back in Falls Church, Virginia, and while Bonnie used Toad to hop around the DC area, I drove a rental car for a week through portions of Pennsylvania and New York.  After singing in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, I headed north in steady rain the following morning.  Following I-81 through Binghamton, I briefly bemoaned the fact that I hadn’t been able to schedule their mini-Mets among the teams on my tour.  On toward Syracuse I pressed through increasingly driving rain, praying that my destination two hours west in Rochester might not be caught in the same storm system.  As hackneyed as the metaphor might be about coming in on “a wing and prayer,” it certainly seemed applicable to my destination and attitude.  
A baseball bouquet!
Shortly after my arrival at the ballpark in late afternoon, the skies above downtown Rochester began to clear, and I was welcomed into the administrative office’s reception area where I sat and worked on transcribing notes about recent ballgames.   There I saw a gesture that typified the graciousness of the Red Wings’ staff.  One of the senior administrators brought the receptionist a baseball bouquet. 
In keeping with the elegance of the flowers arrangement, the Rochester ballpark publicly, personally, and artistically ushers fans graciously into the game.  Outside the main entry to Frontier Field is a statue of Morrie Silver and inside the left field gate is a tribute to Joe Altobelli.  Silver is credited with having saved professional baseball for Rochester in 1957 when he spearheaded a drive to get more than eight thousand local investors to purchase the team and ballpark from the St. Louis Cardinals, who had owned both.  In recognition of his effort, the old ballpark, where the Red Wings played until their move to Frontier Field in 1997, had been named Silver Stadium in 1968.  Now his congenial likeness, positioned next to a baseball-uniform clad child representing future Red Wings’ followers, welcomes fans to Frontier Field.
Affable Joe Altobelli.

Inside the left field gate another statue salutes Rochester devotees to the ballpark. There a statue of Joe Altobelli stands as a reminder of the many ways to affiliate with and support the team.   After playing for the Red Wings in the mid 60s, he became the team’s manager in 1971, guiding Rochester to more than 500 wins (the most by any Red Wings’ manager in history) en route to championship seasons.  Following his successful leadership on the field, Altobelli shifted first to the office of General Manager before becoming the popular broadcaster of Red Wings’ games.
In addition to these graceful bronze figures, other artistic sculptures are exhibited along the concourse.  Inside the main gate two images of red-winged raptors oversee fans’ arrival, and an impressionistic, textural sculpture of a horse, whose medium is old baseball gloves, stands proudly at the heart of the entry.  That piece remains one of my two favorites of the tour.  While I was unable to find the name of the artist, the plaque at the base of “Horsehide” credited several season ticket holders for their contributions in making it possible to acquire and display the piece.
"Horsehide," the sculpture using the medium of old baseball gloves.
Not only do the elegant bronze statues and sculptures greet fans as they enter the ballpark.  The General Manager personalizes their greeting by taking the microphone behind home plate, alerting them to upcoming, and informing them about in-game attractions and concession specials like the “Wednesday Wings Night Special,” as well as the return of the Josh Whetzel Pretzel, which is named after their chief broadcaster.  The salty snack is an oversized treat intended to serve a family of four! 
Of all of the ballparks that I had encountered on my tour, the staff at Rochester is the most traditional and professional in appearance and demeanor.  Male staffers wore starched, long sleeve shirts with button-down collars, even in hot weather.  They looked crisp as they complemented their shirts with ties, frequently sporting artistic designs by the Jerry Garcia label; but they relaxed the formality of their appearance by rolling their shirt sleeves to the elbow.
Among other announcements, the GM anticipated the appearance and participation of Davey Johnson, who was scheduled to be at the ballpark and sign autographs on the following Sunday.  However, two days after my singing in Rochester, Johnson had to cancel his appearance because he was named the manager of the Washington Nationals after the sudden resignation of Jim Riggelman.  Rochester’s personal touch extended also to in game entertainment, which was provided by live organ music, only the second ballpark on my tour to include such a feature.
At various ballparks, I inquired about distinct anthem performances that the staff coordinator recalls during the season. Since I deliver an operatic rendition, I like to think that I surprise staff, players, and fans with my own performance, exceeding that of most during the season.  I was a delighted to hear from the Rochester staff that the team annually enjoys performances by Greg Kunde, a local “product” who is now an operatic performer of international renown.  Knowing of his appearances and inspired by the staff’s demeanor and support, I sang about as well and enthusiastically as possible, delivering one of my better renditions of the tour.  A distinct addition to the anthem performance was that two interpreters signed the anthem for hearing impaired fans in the audience.
As I entered the stands after singing, a fan in the front row hailed me in a way that I had not heard in other ballparks.  “Are you really from Whittier, California?" Kathleen Joyce Melrose asked.  "I grew up there and went to Cal Hi.”  Coincidentally, that is the high school where my two sons attended.  For a couple of innings, then, I sat with Kathleen and her husband to talk about Whittier, baseball, and the national anthem.  Kathleen said that when she finally writes her memoir, she’ll feature baseball, using the title Life of a Season Ticket Holder.  Among other reflections in it, she’ll propose several rule revisions to speed up games.  For instance, if a batter hits four foul balls, he’ll be out.  And since nine lives are enough for a cat’s longevity, she reasoned, so too nine innings should be enough for baseball: no extra innings. 
Trusting Kathleen’s recommendation for which concession to select—Rochester leads the Minor Leagues in desirable and healthy foods available—I headed for the Red Osier stand, where Dom the sandwich maker treated me to a Prime Roast Beef sandwich on a special Kimmelwick Roll, a Kaiser style bun with caraway seeds.  While I salivated and waited for the beef to be dipped, Tom Hober, a local high school coach, thanked me for the anthem’s clarity and brilliant tone. 

Dom, Lisa, and Shea beam about their superb prime beef sandwiches at Red Osier.
In addition to Rochester leading the leagues in its array of foods, it is also the first ballpark where I have encountered a nut free zone as well as an “allergen free” concession stand offering a range of “free” items:  peanut free, gluten free, dairy free, tree nut free.  Yet since I am allergic to sugar, I chuckled to myself that the menu did not list any “sugar free” products. 

The berm along the third-base line is allergen friendly--except for those hypersensitive to grass.

Blaze blazes his Red Wings ring.
As I was photographing the tributes to the inductees in the Rochester Hall of Fame and the art pieces near the main entry, Blaze Dinardo, chief of security, asked me if I were a professional photographer.  I was flattered.  When I told him about my project, he seemed fascinated and directed me to the tribute to Cal Ripken in the area behind the third base foul line. Later, he introduced me to one of the Red Wings’ board members, Priscilla Astifan, a local baseball historian who researches and writes about 19th century baseball in Rochester. 
An authority on the subject of Rochester’s early embrace of baseball, she has published five booklets about the early days of baseball in Rochester:  the first organized game in the city between two collegiate teams in 1858, its first professional game in 1877, and its initial competition in the International League in 1885.  In keeping with the public ownership of the team initiated by Morrie Silver several decades earlier, the board is comprised primarily of lawyers and business executives, as well as herself and the bishops of the Catholic diocese and the Episcopal area. 

Rochester's tribute to the rock of baseball.
When Priscilla learned that I am a theologian, she identified several parallels between baseball and religion, starting with the comparison of the umpire to God—in fact, reversing the basis of the comparison by indicating that God is like the umpire: you have to be ready when “The Great Umpire calls you home.”
The fans at the ballpark enthusiastically expressed their support of the team and their love for the game.  While fans at many ballparks loudly challenge ball and strike calls by the home plate umpire, few have chattered throughout the game like a bench jockey.  In that spirit Red Wings’ fans playfully harassed the Knight’s players with ongoing jeers:  “Pitcher’s got a rubber arm.  Swing batter.  New ball.  You’re out.” 
Their expressiveness also extended to their cheering for other fans.  When a kid got his glove on a foul ball, only to watch it glance away to a man who picked it up, the crowd booed until the man offered the ball to the kid.  But the kid, knowing that he had missed his real chance to catch a game ball, refused the offer, showing the highest of baseball Integrity: It’s not the ball itself that matters; it’s the act of catching it or making the play.  Minutes later when another kid caught a foul ball on a rebound off the fa├žade, fans applauded more loudly than at any point in the evening, even more than when Joe Nathan, the former All-Star closer for the Twins, pitched an inning on his rehab assignment, or when the Red Wings scored runs in their 8-7 loss to the Charlotte Knights.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sunshine and Shadows: Game 64 in Pawtucket

Championship banners adorn Pawtucket's neighborhood home.
While I have been cordially received by staff at most of the ballparks, few have been as hospitable and gracious as the welcome that I received from the Pawtucket Red Sox.  Immediately after Bonnie and I entered the pass gate, Jeff Bradley invited us into a hosted buffet to enjoy barbecue, baked beans, potato salad, and cold drinks.  Not only did the party tent offer these refreshments; it also provided late-afternoon shade from the brilliant sunshine that had bathed us an hour earlier when we had picnicked nearby at Oakland Beach, feasting on Iggy’s clam bellies and chowder. 
Jeff’s gestures of appreciation quickly began to restore Bonnie’s pleasure at ballparks, which had been dampened—both literally and figuratively—the previous night as we had approached the ballpark at New Britain, Connecticut, where the Rock Cats play.  While rain had been steadily falling as we had entered the New Britain parking lot the day before, the young city attendant had been arrogant and rude, even when I explained that I was the anthem singer and had never been to the ballpark before.  When I asked his name, he refused to give it, only willing to share his supervisor’s name, who, he said, was not on site.  We paid the six dollar fee, drove to a spot near the ticket window, and shielded ourselves with an umbrella while we approached the Will Call window, only to learn that the game had just been rained out.
Within minutes, we returned to the attendant’s station, finding him as aloof as a Rock Cat and as sensitive as the hot tin roof on which it might prance and prowl for unsuspecting prey like me.  He refused to refund our fee, in effect, charging us simply to drive up to the gate to learn that the game was cancelled.  The real parking rate thus computed to $45 an hour, more expensive than the tolls on the New York Thruway or a parking garage in Manhattan.  To say the least, our impressions of New Britain put a major crimp in our Minor League string.  That sour experience in New Britain was especially disappointing since Rock Cats’ staff members—particularly, Kim Pizighelli—had been most accommodating and encouraging in scheduling and anticipating my anthem performance there.

Charlie sports his Whittier College shirt beside me.
But back to the contrasting, pleasant experience at Pawtucket:  The hospitality tent also offered us a relatively quiet place to sit before the pre-game ceremonies, which featured two different elements for me: I stood between home plate and the pitcher’s mound, and I sang the anthem before the umpires took the field, summoned the managers for line-up exchange, and clarified the ballpark’s ground rules.
Not only were we greeted in such a cordial way by PawSox staffers when we entered the stadium; we also were joined for the game by Charlie Burke, one of my recent students, and his mother.  Following his graduation at the end of the spring semester with a double major in French and Religious Studies, Charlie had returned to the Boston area for the summer, and he had corresponded with me for several weeks to make sure that we could get together during my time in New England. 
In his first year at Whittier Charlie had been assigned to my advising group and writing seminar on “Humor and Faith in Southern Fiction,” in which he excelled.  Throughout his four years, he continued to improve his writing skills in his subsequent courses with me, consummating his religious studies with a remarkably sophisticated research paper for my course on “Latin American Liberation Theologies” last fall. 
On the opening day of first year students’ registration four years ago, Charlie made one of the most compassionate gestures by a student that I have witnessed in my three decades of teaching.  Learning that one of his fellow classmates would need to commute 75 miles to classes and would need to consolidate her schedule, Charlie offered his own opportunity for advanced registration to her and he encouraged and persuaded the rest of his group to do the same.  Now, getting registered for courses in a desirable schedule is a cherished goal, especially for an untested, entering student.  To forego the chance to get a head start with registration at that anxious and vulnerable time was an amazing gift to Dana.  With that genuine gesture of team spirit, Charlie became an all-star in my book, never mind that he’s the equivalent in Red Sox Nation to a Yellow Dog Democrat in West Kentucky.  But because he is a voting citizen among the Red Sox crazies, he was able to provide information and insight about former Sox playing for Pawtucket.
Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium is distinctive in several ways.  Erected shortly after World War II, the ballpark is situated in a neighborhood in a way that reflects its vintage.  Following its most recent renovation on the eve of the 21st century, it now stands as one of the more stately Minor League ballparks, featuring elevated concourses with multiple levels of seating above and below the access aisles.  In keeping with ballparks of yesteryear, the stadium’s name is not auctioned to the highest corporate sponsor.  Instead, it befits the community, bearing the name of a former Pawtucket mayor.  And unlike the recent tendency to elevate luxury boxes to the “sky level,” making sure that privilege is displayed by being above the hoi polloi of general admission, the prime seats in Pawtucket are located at ground level, beneath box seats, open to the field, and adjacent to the dugouts.  

Beneath the various tiers of reserved seating, the VIP seats are at field level.
The ballpark is historic not merely for its placement in an established neighborhood.  It is more significantly historic because it is the site where future Hall of Famers made their final preparations for Major League careers and, most particularly, because it is the site of the longest game in baseball history.  Baseball, of course, has been deemed a timeless game, not simply because its rules are rarely revised, or because its pace occasionally lags, but because it is possible for game to go on forever, like the 2000-inning game between the Chicago Cubs and the local All-Stars from Big Inning, Iowa.   For sure, that mythic game provided the fictional heart of W. P. Kinsella’s magical novel The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. 
But a generation ago at Pawtucket, myth infused history and history elevated to myth.  On April 18, 1981 the Rochester Red Wings, whose lineup featured Cal Ripken, came to bat at the usual time for the start of an evening game.  By the time of the seventh-inning stretch, the PawSox trailed 1-0 but tallied a run in the bottom of the ninth to tie the score.  And that’s the way things stood for more than another nine innings of shut-out ball.  Finally, in the 22nd inning the Red Wings scored the go-ahead run, only to be matched in the bottom half of the frame by the rallying PawSox.  Again, another stretch of more than nine innings of shut-out ball ensued until 4:09 the following morning when, after 32 innings, the score was still knotted while a few of the remaining 19 fans in the stands nodded off. 

Baseball's longest game.
 At that point the President of the International League intervened, ruling that the game could be suspended until the dawn of a new day, much like the ongoing game in Kinsella’s account. When Rochester next visited Pawtucket on June 23, play resumed, with Bobby Ojeda pitching for the PawSox, who set the Red Wings down in order.  Taking the mound for Rochester in the bottom half of the inning was a pitcher who had not been on the roster when the game had begun weeks earlier.  In bottom of 33rd, the Paw Sox loaded the bases with none out and scored, winning the longest game in history 3-2.  Other future Boston stars who played in the game were catcher Rich Gedman, infielder Marty Barrett, pitcher Bruce Hurst, and Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, who happened to go 4 for 12.  And getting two hits for Rochester in the game was the future Orioles’ stalwart shortstop, Cal Ripken, Jr.  In all, the play of the game stretched more than eight hours and took more than two months to complete.  Often identified by fans as a foretaste of eternity, baseball in this game in 1981 came about as close as possible to fulfilling that description.
A young fan enjoys sliding down the glove.
As historic as McCoy Stadium is, it also features several popular attractions for fans, young and old.  With the setting sun warming their backs and the rise of the hill shadowing left field, fans of all ages can picnic on the berm beyond the fence.  For younger fans, inflated bouncy rooms offer the chance to jump to heart’s delight, and even the mascot’s autograph and photograph station at Paw’s Pavillion invites childish interaction, enticing kids to climb and slide down the slope of the glove-shaped seat.
The ballpark also displays an unintentional comic curve—at least to Yankee fans—with the placement of one of the outfield ads.  Hovering above the PawSox bullpen is an advertisement for a prominent liquor store in Massachusetts, Yankee Spirits.  How ironic that future Red Sox relievers should warm up beneath a promotion for Yankee Spirits!  The ghost of Babe Ruth and Bucky Dent himself probably chortle loudly at that juxtaposition.

The PawSox bullpen is still beneath the sign for Yankee Spirits.

Shadows lengthen in left field as the sun begins to sink in the late afternoon.

The sun's angle toward the first baseman.
 McCoy’s diamond is also oriented in an unusual way, with left field lying toward the west.  What that means is that, at sunset, the glare comes directly over the left field wall.  The blinding light caused two plays that I had never seen before.  While I have seen fly balls lost in the sun or in stadium lights at night, even a line drive misplayed from its blending into the white shirts of fans behind the batter, I had never seen an infielder lose the ball on a throw.  Yet the first basement lost a throw from an infielder releasing the ball into the sun’s blaze.  Not once, but twice, in the same inning.
On consecutive plays in the seventh inning, Buffalo Bisons’ batters hit routine ground balls to the middle infielders.  The second baseman gloved the first one and made an easy throw that first baseman Lars Anderson lost in the sun, shielding his face with his forearm as he thought the ball was approaching.  The hitter reached second on the fielding error, and—to my surprise—the official scorer awarded an assist to the second baseman on his throw, even though an out was not recorded.  The next batter hit a broken-bat hopper to the shortstop,  who cleanly fielded it and made an accurate throw to first that Anderson again lost in the setting sun!  And again, the official scorer awarded the shortstop an assist on the play, even though no out was recorded. 

Then with runners on the corners and one out, the batter hit a grounder to the shortstop.  He shuffled the ball to the second baseman, who pivoted at the bag and rifled a throw to first for the inning-ending double play.  The catch of the relay by Anderson this time evoked both derisive and delighted cheers from the home crowd.
With the sun sinking and the shadows lengthening into the fullness of dusk, Pawtucket held on for a 2-0 win; and Bonnie and I left the ballpark refreshed by the hospitality of the PawSox, our touch with the ballpark’s history, and our friendship with the Burkes.

Westward Woe!

It’s a good thing that we had days off in Idaho and eastern Washington so that we could tend to Arby and Toad.  Although we had joyfully shouted “Westward, ho!” when, in Iowa, we turned in the direction toward home, the vehicles seemed to experience westward woe.  Both began to suffer the strains of the long trip compounded by hail storms in Wyoming, high mountain passes in Montana, and long gradual grades against headwinds in Idaho and eastern Oregon.
Following our jaunt down to Salt Lake City in Toad, we returned to Idaho Falls where we had docked Arby at an RV park near the Snake River and where, that night, I sang for the Chukars.  The following morning, we packed up as usual, emptied Arby’s holding tanks, attached Toad, and headed toward Boise, thinking that we might stop at an intermediate spot since we had an open date between the two engagements in Idaho: a final appearance with a team in the Pioneer League—the Chukars—and the first in the Northwest League at the game in Boise.
Thinking that we could enjoy the following day without any driving, we pressed on to the Boise area.  As we pulled into the Country Corners RV Park in Caldwell, Idaho, we were greeted by the owners who offered us freshly picked corn, tomatoes, green beans, and cucumbers.  As I unhitched Toad and positioned Arby in his place, I salivated in anticipation of a steamed vegetable dinner.  But as we tried to move the car into the parking spot adjacent to Arby, Toad couldn’t hop.  There was no juice left in his battery, not even enough to jump start the car, only enough to set off the car alarm, which we had not set or heard since acquiring the car.  Finally, I got the battery disconnected to disable the alarm and called AAA—the auto club, not the office of the senior minor leagues—to schedule assistance for the following morning.  Thankfully, Bonnie soothed my spirit and my hunger with the sweet corn and home-grown tomatoes.

Adam loads Toad onto the flat-bed, tow truck while Arby watches.
 At dawn the next morning, AAA arrived and after the battery technician was unable to get the car started, the tow truck was called to tote Toad to an authorized repair shop in Caldwell.  There, the diagnosis was discouraging: the day’s repairs would need to replace the battery, address malfunctions in the electrical system, replace brake rotors, service the transmission, and replace a cracked radiator.  No wonder that Toad had been running so hot!
With the repairs completed by late afternoon, Bonnie and I were able to make it to the Boise game that evening and depart the following morning for eastern Washington.  But Arby’s climb to the top of the mesas beyond the Snake River and through the Blue Mountains caused him to cough repeatedly, overheat on the ascent beyond the Columbia River bridge, and trudge up the low, long range leading to the Tri-Cities area.  Arby would need a tune-up.
With AAA’s help, we located an approved automotive shop where Arby’s issues could be treated the following morning.  So we checked into a nearby hotel, went to the game that evening, and spent our day off the following day dealing with Arby’s transfusion.
Rather than spending the two days off in the northwest writing, resting, or going sightseeing, we spent them in a pursuit that has become all too typical on our journey—dealing with automotive issues. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Gene Kelly and Me: Game 84 in Des Moines

One of my favorite musicals—other than my own troubadouring of “The Star-Spangled Banner” under the stars above bleachers and near stripes of the batter’s box—is “Singing in the Rain,” especially its title song.  Even though I certainly cannot soft-shoe along the third-base line while twirling an umbrella like Gene Kelly did down the street, I joined his joyful way of singing in the rain when the Iowa Cubs hosted the Fresno Grizzlies in Des Moines. 
Still, hours and minutes before the game, I feared that my Friday baptismal jinx might prevail and that rain might prevent me from singing again.  Already during my tour, the two rain-outs had been on Fridays three weeks apart.  Since it had been four weeks since the Connecticut cancellation in New Britain, I hoped that I had broken the kind of baseball pattern that generates superstitions.  I prayed that the storm would pass over Principal Stadium in downtown Des Moines and permit the game to proceed. 
As I had sat typing in Arby at about 4 o’clock in the Yellow Banks county park 10 miles east of the ballpark, it started to rain, lightly but persistently.  An hour or so later when I began the drive to the ballpark, I maneuvered Toad around dips and deep puddles, finding that the rain had fallen quite heavily between the RV park and the stadium. 
Rain continues to splash in front of home plate in the expansive sculpture welcoming fans to Principal Park.

There also must be some connection between rain and demanding parking attendants.   At each ballpark where I have sung, parking lot attendants have granted me complementary access with one exception and one close call, both on the rainy nights when games got postponed.  This time, the situation was like that in New Britain, Connecticut.  My name was not on the Book of Life, at least for baseball games.  And since my name did not appear on the pass list, I had to fork over seven rain-drenched dollars to park near the entry.
Still the parking fee seemed worth the gamble of getting the chance to sing the anthem in Des Moines.  The rain continued steadily, even while I parked the car, walked to the Will Call window, and checked in at the Front Desk, where I heard the receptionist repeatedly begin her telephone response, saying “At this point the game is still on….”  I was relieved.  At least I kept telling myself that I was relieved.  Perhaps this evening could be like the ones in Richmond and Winston-Salem where, despite heavy showers leading up to scheduled game time, the game would go on after a short delay.

Rain continued to pool upon the tarp approaching game time.

Waiting for the rain to stop, I wandered through the concourses photographing fans and displays before I ran into a hosted party for employees, clients, and friends of DeWaay, a corporate sponsor for the evening’s game.   Permitted to join the gathering, I heard former All-Start Tony Oliva being interviewed about his baseball career and friendships.  When attendees were invited to get his autograph and/or photograph, a few moved toward the table where he sat, and I followed them. 
Once the short line had dispersed and he sat alone, I approached and asked him about memorable anthem performances from his days as a player.  He paused to recall pre-game performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which, of course, is not the national anthem of his home country, Cuba.  He replied that the multiple performances by former Twins’ teammate Mudcat Grant were memorable. “Mudcat did a wonderful job,” he added.  “He’s a good singer.”

Tony Oliva and me

While most of the DeWaay party-goers talked with their friends and clients, I chatted with Oliva about baseball matters and cherished the fact that the rain that I had initially bemoaned had actually permitted me to enjoy his company. 

Before the Cuban missile crisis and its subsequent embargoes and emigration restrictions, Oliva had signed a contract with the Minnesota Twins, whose scout had recognized his quick bat and powerful swing.  After hitting over .400 in his first season in the minor leagues, Oliva progressed through the Twins’ system, tasting a cup of coffee with them during September call-ups in 1962. 

After spending the next season back in the minor leagues, he became the first Major League player to win the American League batting title and Rookie of the Year award in the same year.  Building on this exceptional start, he was selected as an All-Star in his first eight seasons, breaking Joe DiMaggio’s record streak of six.  Before being hampered by knee injuries, Oliva went on to win three batting titles and ended his fifteen-year career with a .304 average.
While sitting with Oliva, who was scheduled to throw out the final first pitch, I heard an announcement over the public address system alerted fans to the fact that, while rain was still falling and the field’s cover was being removed by the grounds crew, the game would not start on schedule at 7:05.  No new start time was then projected.  Even so, at 6:40 we watched the grounds crew turn back the tarp, surely a hopeful sign. 

The grounds crew recovers the infield as the rainfall resumes and shrouds the distant view of Iowa's capitol.

Yet within minutes the crew reversed its action and re-covered the diamond.  There it remained in place until a half-hour later when, with applause from fans and announcement that the game would start at 8:05, the crew returned to take it off the field yet one more time.

The grounds crew finally starts to remove the tarp...

...and roll it up so that play can begin.
“Home free,” I thought—as if I were scoring from second on a ground-rule double.  Instead, there was a series of 14 first pitches, the first of which was tossed by a Special Olympics participant who had taken the mound early, toed the rubber, and made repeated virtual warm-up pitches.  Following his actual lead-off toss, which hadn't crossed the plate, he didn’t want to leave his mound position until he threw a strike. 

Before the pre-game ceremony ended with Oliva’s final first toss, each of the other first pitchers was introduced before walking from the baseline to rubber, each basking in the moment as a reliever taking the mound in mid-inning.  To say the least, the ritual was protracted.  With first pitches finally finished, Iowa’s starting pitcher and catcher moved into position while drizzle continued. 

A Special Olympian strolls to the mound for the first first pitch.
Alas, the rest of team remained in the dugout while the home plate umpire convened with the grounds crew supervisor.  In the meantime, my name appeared on the scoreboard as the designated anthem singer for the evening.  The pace of the rain increased.  Nate Teut, the Cubs’ staffer who assists anthem performers and with whom I had talked about my project, wryly smiled: “83 and counting . . . and counting.”  This game would be my 84th, if ever sung.  
The home plate umpire held out his hand like the pose in Norman Rockwell’s classic painting, and catching raindrops, he summoned the Cubs’ manager out from the dugout.  He let him know that he thought that the conditions at that time were playable, but he was concerned by the report that “a yellow spot” had appeared moments earlier on the radar.  While they stood talking and while I stood waiting, the intensity of the rain increased.  The first pitches had been thrown, yet the anthem was unsung. 
Since the Iowa players would be taking the field first, the home plate umpire wanted the consent of Iowa manager Bill Dancy, who said simply, “Let’s play.”  Relieved while rain fell on me, I turned toward the flag, heard the cue of my introduction (which, by my name only, was briefer than the intros for first pitch participants), and waited for the crowd to quieten (which it didn’t).  So I started amidst the sounds of fans chattering. 
Although my performance in Des Moines was not one of my better renditions, I was still pleased that I got to sing while rain dappled my shirt and splashed my glasses.  I didn’t mind.  I was singing in the rain; and number 84 was in the books, not that anyone other than me was keeping anthem box scores.

If the rain were not wet enough, one young fan entices another to join her in the fountain sculpture.

And enjoy the dashing splashing he did!
Wet, but not soaked like the children who played in the right-field fountain, I stayed to see Justin Christian lead off at 8:06 for the Fresno Grizzlies, San Francisco’s Triple A team in the Pacific Coast League.   (Forget geography for a minute and allow the “made for Minor League Baseball reality” show that Des Moines, Iowa, which is nearer America’s right coast than the left one, competes in the Pacific Coast League).  Christian, of course, is the fleet-footed Giants’ outfield prospect who had scored from second on a deep fly to centerfield when he had been playing for Richmond on the rainy night when I had sung there six weeks earlier.  That play will certainly make my list of top ten plays during my Minor League summer.  Not to be completely outdone by his earlier performance at Double A, Christian doubled in the last of the Grizzlies' runs, who held on for a 3-2 win over Iowa's Cubs.