Thursday, May 19, 2011

Going Nuclear: Game 20 in Albuquerque

On May 2, my night for singing in Albuquerque, interest in the anthem was heightened throughout the nation, in part because of the spontaneous singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by a growing crowd at the White House gate the night before.  The celebration followed President Obama’s announcement of the success in the U.S. mission to terminate Osama bin Laden.
More locally, the front page of the morning’s sports section in the Albuquerque paper reprinted Chris Erskine’s story about my anthem tour, inserting a bit that indicated that I’d be singing for the Isotopes that evening.  The publicity prompted two afternoon phone calls from radio talk shows.  For the first, I pulled Arby off the freeway near the Laguna pueblo, and Bonnie and I picnicked while I talked with Peter Benson on his afternoon show on KNT, Christian talk radio in Albuquerque.  Our conversation concluded with me reciting the second stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which seemed appropriate for the day and Peter’s radio audience.  It celebrates the pursuit of peace and justice grounded in the concept of the nation’s manifest destiny. 
Oh, thus be it ever when free men shall stand
Between their loved homes and war’s desolation;
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that had made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just;
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust!”

Entry corner to the Isotopes' Ballpark.
A few of hours later I entered the ballpark before the gates opened and identified myself as the anthem singer.  Thomas, one of the ticket-takers, brightened: “You’re the guy who’s singing everywhere this summer. I read the story [in the morning paper] about you.”  There’s nothing like ratcheting up expectations for a good performance.
My early arrival made it possible for me to talk with Erik Gee and his side-kicks David Jubb and Brandon Vogt on their pre-game talk show on KNML, the sports radio station that anchors the Isotopes’ broadcasts. For half an hour we discussed the wild idea of a national anthem tour, the supposed difficult range of the anthem’s music, the challenges of travel and singing almost every night, and my teaching, especially my course on “Sports and Religion.”  While they understood my life-long love affair with baseball, they were amazed and envious of the love that I share with Bonnie—since she not only supports my anthem adventure but is traveling with me as my co-pilot. The media fascination with the anthem continued with the pre-game ceremonies when the CBS and NBC affiliates taped my rendition for inclusion in their late-night newscasts. 
And the public address announcer provided a thorough introduction, identifying me with Whittier College, briefly describing my tour, and noting my two books on religion and sports—a first among the intros of me.  Then I invited the fans to participate.  Having received permission from general manager John Traub, I prefaced my singing by saying: “On this historic day in America, I invite you to join me in singing our national anthem.”  While I could not see whether folks in the crowd sang along because I was facing the flag in centerfield, Bonnie reported that few joined me.
Yet we were joined at the ballpark by Heidi Bailey, her children, and her mother and stepfather.  Heidi and her husband James had been my students almost a decade ago, and they were instrumental in securing the opportunity for me to sing for the Isotopes.  Their advocacy for me proved persuasive since the ‘Topes had initially expressed reticence about participating in my project.

Most often, I stand between home plate and the backstop, frequently facing the crowd and occasionally looking at the flag.  The Isotopes had me stand between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, facing the flag beyond the centerfield fence.  Leaving the field, I walked toward the third-base dugout where Isotopes’ DH John Lindsey called out, “Good job.  What’s the title of your book?” 

For four weeks I’ve been meeting with ballpark staffers and talking at length with fans.  Yet the first person to inquire about my book is a ballplayer! 

The face of the card features my childhood hero rounding third.
Building upon the reversal of the Bull Durham stereotype that ball players don’t read, I then switched the pattern of baseball card exchange:  

The card is #5 in the Sports and Religion series issued by Mercer.

I handed him the promotional baseball card that Mercer University Press had designed for my book Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America.
The Isotopes’ ballpark is among the most elegant of any of the stadiums that I have seen.  The architectural design matches that of many of the newer and larger major league ballparks.  All of the seats have good sight lines, and two tiers of luxury boxes define the grandstand behind home plate.

The landscaping on the berm in the outfield is artistic and well-groomed, and the scoreboard features two large screens,

one for providing player information and the other for replays and reports.  It's easy to see why the Dodgers re-established their AAA affiliation in Albuquerque.
Joe with Homer.
Several baseball sculptures enliven the park; and an old, large baseball stands at the corner of University and Cesar Chavez streets.  It had defined the entrance to the former ballpark on the site that was razed to make room for the new stadium.  In addition to the steel sculptures of ballplayers in the picnic area, fiberglass replicas of Homer and Lisa Simpson invite fans to sit beside them on benches adjacent to the concession concourse. 

Bonnie with Lisa.
“The Simpsons” play a major role for the team and ballpark, whose names fulfill Homer Simpson’s desire to have Springfield, Ohio build an Isotopes stadium.  When the ballpark was erected in 2003, the name seemed to fit the physics of the region since New Mexico is well known for its history and industry related to nuclear energy, and Albuquerque houses the Museum of Nuclear Science.
In the game itself, the Isotopes went nuclear, not with an explosive offense but with small particles igniting a win.  Their three-run eighth inning started with a bunt single and stolen base, but enough energy, for sure, to propel them to a 5-3 win over the newly named Omaha Storm Chasers.

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