Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hooks and Hounds, Hooks and Hounds: Games 16 & 22 in Midland and Corpus Christi

For the second time in a fortnight, I saw the Corpus Christi Hooks play the Midland RockHounds. Although the outcome of the games was the same with Midland winning each by two runs, the ballparks and my experiences were distinctly different. 
The game in Midland marked my final one alone before returning to California from my season-opening sojourn in Florida and nearby southern cities.  The distance of Midland from other Texas teams had posed scheduling challenges during the planning phase of my project.  Finally, I realized that I could most easily include the RockHounds in my itinerary by adding an overnight stop at the Midland-Odessa airport on my American Airlines route.  As my plane was buffetted by gusts during its final approach into the airport, I could see the vast range scorched by the wildfires of previous weeks and dotted regularly with oil crickets.  Despite the city’s name, it certainly seemed more like it was at the edge of Texas or of anywhere else than in the middle.
Although the zephyrs across the plains seemed to push me away from the stadium, the parking lot cheerily greeted me with the likeness of Rocky, the RockHounds popular mascot. The sign also featured a mythic statistic identifying the ballpark's 40-year attendance total as its population:
Like many of the minor league ballparks, a sculpture also welcomes fans to the main entry to the Citibank Ballpark. 

But unlike the artistic creations at other stadiums, the piece in Midland is natural--and legendary.  According to its imbedded plaque, “Legend has it that this rock, excavated from below the playing field, guarantees fun and good times to all who touch it!”  So I did.

7 year old Justin surveys home plate within home plate.
Near this Texas blarney stone, a seating sculpture also provides a place to pay tribute to the team’s success.  A hexagonal bench in the shape of home includes an inset home plate at its center as well as plaques noting team achievements and ballpark awards.  Perhaps this design is baseball's version of Ezekiel's wheel within a wheel.

The Midland ballpark crouches inconspicuously at the edge of the city as though it is trying to duck below the path of blowing tumbleweed.  Its low profile results from the fact that the field level of the ballpark is excavated.  Fans enter the concourse at parking lot level and descend to their seats, unless they are among the few who rise to the VIP suites in the sky boxes.  Even the hillocks beyond the outfield fences slope downward from the surrounding plain. 
The canyon-floor position of the field allows prairie winds to howl above the rim of the ballpark, preventing high hoppers from gusting obliquely past a wary shortstop but not preventing havoc with high fly balls, which routinely die in the alleys while gales blow in on most nights.  For this game in Midland, however, the steady winds were clocked at 30 m.p.h. and reversed toward left. 
In the game at Midland, both teams scored in unusual ways, starting in the first inning with the RockHounds’ leadoff hitter Jermaine Mitchell striking out, reaching first on a passed ball, taking second on an errant pick-off throw, stealing third, and crossing the plate on a feeble grounder to the first baseman.  Innings later when he hit a homerun, fans held up dollar bills to give to the ushers for a homerun bonus.  I had not seen the hat passed since an independent minor league game the previous summer.

Fans contribute dollar bills to Mitchell for his homerun.

While the ballpark and game were enjoyable, what made my experience most pleasant was the gesture of appreciation by Hounds’ hitting coach Tim Garland and a conversation with Dan Jamierson, a Red Cross volunteer who praised the pace of my rendition.  Two nights earlier, Dan said, someone had mangled the anthem by “dragging it out for what seemed like half an hour.” 
His comment called to mind one of my favorite newspaper cartoons, “In the Bleachers.”  Coincidentally, earlier that morning, it had featured such an event, showing a singer standing near home plate with a word balloon providing the P.A. announcer’s remark: “Now rise while another celebrity butchers the national anthem.” 
Dan also requested that I lead the crowd in singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch.  We checked with the RockHounds’ staff and worked out that possibility: For the first time, I performed two patriotic hits for a game.
In contrast to the solitary character of the ballpark and my experience in Midland, the evening in Corpus Christi ended the first week on the road with Bonnie and Arby, and the game enjoyed the largest crowd that I had seen, lured by the chance to enjoy post-game fireworks.    
In conceptual ways the configurations of the Corpus Christi ballpark are like other sports venues designed by HKS, the Dallas-based architectural firm that conceived several minor league ballparks, including those at Frisco and Round Rock.  Like the baseball parks that resonate with their communities, Whataburger Field reflects the heritage of its placement.  Incorporated into the plan for the ballpark are structural elements that recall the cotton industry and warehouses that formerly stood on the site; the structures that frame the scoreboard look like cotton gins, not merely because of their shape but also because of the rusty, corrugated metal siding of the structures.  The ballpark’s fit with its environs’ history is further enhanced by its orientation toward the Harbor Bridge, which lends an impressive backdrop to the field. 
The site, orientation, and architecture of the Corpus Christi ballpark are impressive.
The layout of Corpus Christi’s ballpark complex also displays the community’s commitment to cultivate youthful participation in baseball.  Beyond the centerfield fence is a youth ballpark—Stripes Diamond—where kids’ games can be scheduled and where baseball activities can be held.  The Hooks contribute to this effort to nourish kids’ love of the game by expanding their opportunities for on-field participation.  Unlike other teams that schedule children’s base running or warning-track walking as pre-game or post-game activities, the Hooks sponsor a between-innings dash for kids from first base to centerfield and back. What a thrill to get onto the field in the middle of a game!

Children run the field between innings.
Routinely at the ballparks I have scanned the outfield fences to see where advertisements are displayed for auto parts, beverages, legal offices, educational institutions, health services, and scores of other businesses and operations.  
Scoreboard surrounded by cotton gin replicas and left-field fence with ad for Bay Area Fellowship.
Corpus Christi’s display is the first that has advertized a church.  A long banner in front of the scoreboard promotes the Bay Area Fellowship, a Megachurch founded in Corpus Christi by Bil Cornelius.  Utilizing popular music styles of rock, country, and R&B in scores of weekly worship services conducted on its seven campuses, the church has experienced phenomenal growth using various marketing techniques.  One of those, of course, is the large ad on the Hooks’ outfield wall.  Another was the “game-show” type give-away on Easter Sunday a year ago that was designed to attract folks who had never thought of going to church.  For that occasion, more than $2 million in gifts were offered to attendees.  The prizes, including cars, flat-screen televisions, computers, bicycles, and gym memberships, had been donated by church members and their businesses. 

There were two bridges—one in the stands and one on the field—that connected my experience in Corpus Christi with the earlier one in Midland.  Although there had been no mention of my tour during the anthem introduction, Mary Whitton, a Hooks’ fan, moved toward me quickly as I walked up the aisle following my anthem performance.  Expressing appreciation for the traditional rendition of the anthem, she asked if I had sung at Midland “last week.”   She had been there then and remembered me.  After I explained my anthem project to her, she indicated her delight in participating in the tour—by seeing me in multiple ballparks, two.  Then as I took my seat behind Midland’s dugout, batting coach Tim Garland also reconnected with me, giving me “thumbs up” when he took his position in the first base coach’s box. 

Hounds' coach after gesturing thumbs up.  
Like the game in Midland, the Hounds used a big inning rally to prevail by two runs.  This time, with none on and two out in the seventh, the Hounds ripped two singles before loading the bases on a walk.  After fouling off five pitches with two strikes, third baseman Stephen Parker hit his fifth homerun of the season, a grandslam that propelled the Hounds to their victory.

And like the night in Midland, I heard two hits in Corpus Christi, even if they were ones of anthem recognition from visiting RockHounds.

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