Monday, April 11, 2011

Miracles: Game 2 in Fort Myers

For months, I have been dreaming this anthem project, plotting its possibilities, and confirming its plans.  Sunday afternoon’s game was the first in a two-week stretch during which the tour really comes to life.  During this time I will have only one open date.  
Before now, I have sensed what John Steinbeck confesses at the beginning of the second part of Travels with Charley, the narrative about his discovery of and encounter with America. “In long-range planning for a trip,” he writes, “I think there is a private conviction that it won’t happen.”
Indeed.  I have wondered whether the wild idea of the anthem tour would actually be realized.  Yet Sunday's performance for the Fort Myers Miracle, a farm team of the Minnesota Twins, suggests that my project is miraculously coming to life, thanks in large part to the enthusiastic cooperation of so many teams in accommodating my scheduling needs.
As I drove toward the ballpark several vivid memories associated with the Twins rushed into mind. The first parking lot avenue that I passed was Puckett Circle, and immediately I recalled the morning in a Boston hotel in the late 1980s when my two young sons and I bumped into Kirby Puckett. When they jumped joyfully and asked for his autograph, he furtively looked around as I fumbled through my wallet searching for business cards.  While he told them that he usually doesn’t sign in hotels, he took my cards and signed the blank side.  Of course, my sons and I still cherish the moment.
Driving nearer to the ballpark entry, I turned into a partially paved parking lane: Grant Circle.  Ah, Mudcat, the Twins' winning World Series starter against Don Drysdale in 1965!  During Spring Training fifteen years ago, I had met Mudcat Grant on a flight from Los Angeles to Florida.  When he learned of my position at Whittier College, he offered to coordinate a group of aging former Negro League players to make a Black History Month presentation to Whittier students.  I leapt at the prospect. For three consecutive years, then, Mudcat brought Sammie Haynes, Joe Scott, Luther Branham, and Merle and Andy Porter to campus to spend an evening enriching the students’ lives, as well as my own.
In these simple street signs, I saw evidence of the miracle of baseball camaraderie.

A feature of Hammond Stadium is its Hall of Fame wall of baseball scouts.

Before the game, I met Gary Sharp, the Miracle’s Director of Media Relations and Promotions with whom I had corresponded on several occasions.  He expressed excitement about the magnitude of my project and, as he put it, “its pure summer fun.”  Minutes later in his role as the public address announcer, he introduced me for the anthem, beginning with a description of the project.  Thanks, Gary.  That description prompted several stimulating conversations during the game.
The Miracle’s game was one of a handful of their afternoon starts this season—all on Sunday.  After the previous game’s sell-out crowd of more than 8,000, this Sunday gathering of the faithful was about a tithe of the crowd the night before.  With the temperature in the blaring sun soaring octaves above the thermometer’s official reading in the mid-90s, I was sweat-drenched by the time I began the anthem.  While I had sung for less than a minute and a half, the players would stand on the field for more than an hour, and the umpires would endure three hours without relief.  The sun also factored into the outcome of the game since the Hammerheads’ right fielder lost a two-out fly ball in the high sky, allowing the Miracle’s winning run to score.

Current scouts aim their radar guns toward the pitcher while seeking relief from the sun.
While singing, I focused on several fans behind home plate, one of whom wore baseball pants and a jersey with “Naples” emblazoned across its front. He looked familiar.  After singing, I approached him and asked if he were Bill Virdon, the former outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates and, years later, their manager.  “No,” he responded, “but I get asked that question down here at least once a week.  I am Mark Langemo.”
He complimented my rendition and then inquired about the project, asking how I had conceived and planned it.  The more we talked, the more we became fast friends.  An emeritus professor of business at the University of North Dakota, he is preparing to return to his summer home town of Grand Forks later this week.  So we shared our love of professorial work, our enthusiasm for seeing America, and our passion for baseball.
Mark had come to the ballpark fresh from his Naples’ team’s winning its division in the “over 50” baseball league.  Months short of seventy, he had caught the entire game; and now from his perch behind home plate, he could identify with the challenge and success of these Single-A catchers one-third his age.
The afternoon also featured other near miracles. Incredibly, the catchers and home plate umpire did not wilt in the heat.  The game itself was set apart by a feat that Major League teams rarely accomplish: players executed five successful bunts, two for base hits on successive pitches.  But perhaps the most unusual display of the afternoon came from a six-year old fan who sat in the shade in the upper rows behind home plate.  On each pitch she’d peer to the mound and set her glove in a horizontal position like a catcher expecting to receive the pitch.  In the third inning a high pop foul caromed off a seat near her and then bounced like a pinball under empty rows.  She ran toward it and reached for it, only to find that a strong male hand seized it right before she could touch it.  In frustration, she winced before immediately shrugging off her near-miss.  When the man handed her the ball, her dejection reversed to joy as she acknowledged the gift with a huge, snaggle-toothed smile. 
For several innings, she thwapped the ball into the pocket of her glove.  In the eighth, another pop foul angled toward her ready position.  This time, as the ball careened through vacated rows, she dashed toward the end of its path.  And she won the race.  Delighted by her success, she turned and handed the ball to the three-year-old boy who, like her earlier experience, had nearly missed retrieving it.

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