Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Half Way Home

Within the past few days, I reached the half-way point in the number of games for which I’m scheduled to sing the anthem. While that game didn't precisely mark the middle of the Minor League season, it coincided with the Class A mid-season All Star Classic. And although we haven't reached the apex of our travel route, which we'll cross next week when we get to Burlington, Vermont, we certainly hope that we have now passed the half-way point in the total number of miles that we'll pile up in Arby, Toad, and the rental cars—currently a little more than 14,000 miles.  For sure, by any of these measures friends jokingly consider me half-witted. 
Nontheless, it's halftime, despite using a metaphor from the wrong sport.  Even so, it’s definitely time for me to make mid-course adjustments in the way that I have been blogging about the trip. Thus far, I have been chronicling the games in the sequence of the tour.  During each game, I have made detailed notes, often followed in the wee hours by my drafting blogs in Arby’s comfort, a friend’s house, or a hotel room.  In other cases, the late hour of my return from the game and travel fatigue from the day have prevented me from simply transcribing notes that night and roughly shaping them into an initial draft.  The backlog started to like runners on base in a wild inning.  And not surprisingly, my ERA (Estimated Recovery Actions) started to balloon.
Since I spent haven't posted the blogs about games from the second week of June, it’s obvious that I have fallen far behind in honing the notes and drafts into blog posts.  Last week, I had thought that I’d be able to catch up a bit, at least completing the entries for the games in North Carolina and Pennsylvania; but I fell further behind as travel difficulties with lodging plagued me, access to the Internet evaded me, and a headache nagged me for a few days. 
I keep wondering, “How can I catch up?”  Should I continue to follow the same pattern of making sure that I keep the games in order and try to work harder or faster?  (I wish!)  Or could I make better progress by making some changes in format and sequence? 
So here’s what I’ll try: I’ll use a format that will identify games by their number and location; but they will not be posted in the previous pattern of the games’ sequence.  Using this format, I hope to quicken the pace of posting reflections on the most recent games and ballparks while continuing to work on the backlog of a score of games whose drafts I have not yet completed.  For several of these blog drafts, I still need to confirm information about players, the game, and the ballpark, and I need to select and upload the photographs associated with each game.  Each of these searches and actions, of course, has compounded the delay in getting blogs posted in the sequence of my singing for the games.    
In the new format that I'll use, for instance, “On the Frontier: Game 52 in Rochester” might precede the posting of “A Ballpark Prism: Game 46 in Richmond.”  By adding the number and location to the title, I want to make it easier and quicker for fans to find the blogs about the games that they attended and to allow regular readers still to track our somewhat convoluted route. 
On occasion, I will continue to intersperse game reflections with musings about the wonder and challenges of travel—like Arby’s current distress. 
Yesterday on our way from Roanoke to Norfolk, Arby suffered some gastric distress, cramped up on the highway, and required a stretcher—well, actually, it was a big tow truck—to transport him to an ER (short for "Engine Repair" shop) in Farmville.  The diagnosis was that he needed minor surgery—a new alternator. Since none of the auto parts stores in the small city had the correct part, one was ordered for delivery this morning.
Alas, Arby’s hospitalization over night meant that I had to cancel the anthem appearances in Norfolk for last evening and in Salisbury, Maryland (where the Delmarva Shorebirds nest) for the game this morning.  Now we're hoping that the transplant is successful and that the ER anaesthesia will wear off in time for us to make it to Wilmington for tomorrow night's game. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sharing Anthem Singing: Game 41 in Hickory

Several weeks before the tour began, I received a message from the Hickory Crawdads requesting that, if possible, I shift the date for my appearance there.  I checked with several other teams in North Carolina where I was scheduled to perform during that week and learned that it would not be possible to change any of their dates to accommodate the Crawdads’ request. 
The Crawdads’ problem—and now mine—was this: The Monday morning game in Hickory would be the team’s school day promotion during the final week of classes before summer vacation.  The team expected about 20 elementary and middle schools to send busloads of students to the late morning game. 
While the Crawdads indicated that they would like to honor their commitment to me, they also wanted to feature a local school group to perform the anthem.  From nearby Newton in Catawba County, the Balls Creek Elementary School chorus stood ready to sing.  The students at Balls Creek have a tradition of community involvement and social responsibility that is remarkable.  In the past decade, they have raised over $100K for the American Heart Association in their annual Jump Rope for Heart event.
Not wanting to break the hearts of these fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders, I suggested to the Crawdads that the choir join me in singing the anthem.  The school’s music director, Jennifer McNeely, was quite pleased to have us share the opportunity to sing the anthem for the game.  For the first and only time on my tour, then, I was able to count on support from good singers who knew the words.

Before the game, Conrad the Crawdads’ mascot also enjoyed interacting with members of the choir, giving them high-five hand slaps after he had teased the school librarian while she was taking their picture.  Thankfully, he didn’t try to harmonize with them using his crustacean voice.
Conrad the Crawdad gives the Balls Creek librarian claw ears.

Then Conrad hand-slaps the chorus members.
The Balls Creek schoolmates created quite an enthusiastic climate for us.  They cheered and clapped when the choir was introduced, and although the microphones had trouble picking up their joyful sounds, it was apparent that they are excellent musicians.  And most of the students standing in the bleachers joined with us in singing our allegiance.
A measure of fan enthusiasm.
Although baseball has historically been quite popular in North Carolina, Hickory’s fielding of a professional team is a relatively recent development.  Prior to 1993, the team had played in Gastonia and had been affiliated with the Texas Rangers.   In that year a group of citizens in Hickory succeeded in relocating and renaming the team, in part by constructing the L. P. Franz Stadium, which is named for two of the civic leaders and baseball lovers.  The community’s enthusiastic support of the team is evident in the ballpark, not merely by the presence of the fans but also by the number of local advertisements on the outfield wall.  The right field alone displays more than thirty billboard ads.

Right field's display of local ads.

The first hit.
Two pre-game ceremonies also were distinct at Hickory.  Unlike other ballparks, there were no first pitches, a practice that has expanded at so many ballparks that it now often includes half a dozen or more “first” pitches, making that phrase an oxymoron.  Instead of tossing a pitch toward home plate, a child was offered the chance to crush the first hit by smacking a ball off a tee near the Crawdads’ dugout.  And another child was given the chance to paint home plate white.  Under the supervision of the groundskeeper, then, the official painter for the day could complete the final act of field preparation. 
Preparing home plate.
When Hickory's lead-off hitter stepped into the batters box, the children began the rhythmic chanting and clapping of a pep rally: “Let’s go Crawdads.”  Clap, clap, clap, clap.  “Let’s go Crawdads.”  Clap, clap, clap, clap.  Amplified by the tiered formation of the seats and the hard surfaces of the stands, the enthusiastic noise encouraged the Crawdads, who scored early and often.  To the delight of all the fans, Hickory built a ten-run lead before settling for a 10-3 victory over the Lakewood BlueClaws.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Knightly Event: Game 40 in Charlotte

To get to the Charlotte Knight’s ballpark in Fort Hill, I had to cross the border between North and South—Carolinas, that is.  The name of the team presents a quandary:  It is named for a city in different state than its home.  Even so, I counted the game in Fort Hill among the week-long sequence of games I had scheduled for North Carolina teams, and I expected it to be a rather routine nightly game.  It proved anything but ordinary.  It was, in multiple ways, a knightly event. 
The unusual character of the evening started with my customary reporting to staff members at the Fan Assistance Booth.  There Patty Hunter greeted me.  As we exchanged pleasantries, she indicated that one of her best friends had attended Whittier.  “Who?”  I simply asked.  “Alexandra Shelton,” she said.  “Ah, Alex!  I had her in my course on ‘Arabs and Muslims,’ and she did quite a good job,” I responded.  “No way!  I remember her talking about that course,” Patty exclaimed.  
The conversation about the course was memorable to Patty since Alex is now serving in the Peace Corps in regions of Africa where Islam exerts significant influence in ways that distinguish it from typical textbook profiles of it an Arab religion.  There’s no doubt in my mind that Alex is making use of cultural, religious, and geographical information and insights that she garnered in her studies. 
Schwartz swats at another BP pitch.
The evening in Charlotte also featured a couple of other oblique connections with my California home and my anthem project .  Shortly before the gates opened, dozens of photographers, reporters, and television camera operators clotted the area around the batting cage.  They were focused on huge Geoff Schwartz (listed at 6’ 3” and 331 lbs.), one of the offensive linemen on the Carolina Panthers, and several of his teammates.  Taking hefty swings, Schwartz hit several ground balls and then a routine fly to right.  Although he made contact with the most of the pitches, he didn’t smash them like he does when he blocks defensive linemen.    
Two topics, I am sure, dominated the conversations between the reporters and the Panthers’ players: a comparison of the skills required for baseball and football, and the status of contract talks between the NFL Players Association and the owners.  I could almost hear the reporters ask, “Is it harder to hit a baseball or to catch a football, block a linebacker, or tackle a tailback?   And what about the NFL lockout?  Do you expect things to get resolved before training camps should open next month?  Will the players start to practice on their own if the lockout or work stoppage continues?”

Panthers sign fans' memorabilia.

So what was my “connection” with the football players who later set up an autograph station on the main concourse?  None really, other than that the pre-game festivities established a temporary partnership between Schwartz and me.  He tossed out the first pitch, and in that way the Carolina pre-game ceremonies coincidentally featured two guys from the Los Angeles area where Schwartz, like me, makes his home.
Schwartz fires a pre-game strike.
A more substantial and equally unusual connection occurred shortly after I completed my vocal exercises.  Near the stairwell to the field level, a person asked, “Are you singing the anthem tonight?”  I nodded.  “This will be my sixth time to see you,” he said.  Michael Juhl, a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, smiled as he added, “I’ve seen you more often than some of the players I’m tracking!  Let’s see, Ft. Myers, Montgomery, Gwinnett a couple of nights ago, and a couple of other places too.”

Juhl makes notes while sitting among other scouts.

Between innings, I sought him out, and we shared stories.  A former professional player whose baseball career essentially paid for his education, Juhl had moved to the Charlotte area when he had begun his Ph.D. studies in sociology at the University of South Carolina.  For several years, then, he taught sociology courses in community colleges before returning to baseball as a Cardinals’ scout. 
He understood the demands and opportunities afforded by my academic career, and increasingly I have been able to identify with some of the demands that scouts face.  Although they are often envied by fans since they get to see so many games from such good seats behind home plate, scouts have to catalogue the speed and placement of every pitch, hitters’ eye for the strike zone and their ability to hit certain pitches, the best defensive alignments given hitters’ tendencies on certain kinds of pitches, and such.  They must keep detailed records of these multiple aspects of performances, often recording the data in adverse conditions with sun blaring, rain falling, or ballpark noise threatening to deafen them. 
While we measured our work loads, compared our fatigue from frequent travel, and commiserated about the need to avoid a steady diet of ballpark food, we realized that we both use days off trying to catch up writing reports about baseball.  I try to write accounts of games and post them to my blog, and he writes profiles and analyses of players.  His particular challenge in the coming weeks is to complete about 600 player reports, each of which takes at least 15 minutes to compile and compose.  The reports are due well before the Major League trading deadline at the end of July so that the Cardinals can evaluate possible player transactions.  Both of us hoped to make progress on our writing a couple of days later.
While my view of players is certainly nowhere near Juhl’s discerning eye of their skills, I do appreciate their grace, power, speed, and heady play.  And I also like to report on noteworthy plays and accomplishments.  On this night the most memorable play that I saw occurred in the second inning.  On base after a single, Lehigh Valley’s Josh Barfield broke for second on a hit-and-run play.  Immediately, Charlotte second baseman Gookie Dawkins sprinted toward the bag to take a possible throw from the catcher.  Instead, Tagg Bozied hit a low line drive up the middle.  Already rushing toward the base, Dawkins caught the ball in stride a step from the bag and easily tagged the sliding Barfield to record an unassisted double play.  In his next at-bat, Bozied homered to tie the game, which the Crosscutters’ went on to win 4-2.
Two other bits related to the game merit comment, although neither involved players.  One was a knightly oriented competition that took place in foul territory between innings.  While other ballparks have featured bouts between sumo-suited contestants, or inflated ball races to knock over a bowling pin, or water balloon tosses, Charlotte highlighted its knightly fixation by having two fans joust with soft battering weapons.  Clad in oversized inflated costumes with superimposed “heads,” the two contestants vied to knock the Velcro-attached head off the other. 
The green jouster beheads the blue.
The other observation involved fan behavior.  Seated in the row immediately behind the Knights’ dugout were three boys—two young teens and a pre-schooler—and their father.  After the first inning or so, one of the teenagers caught a ball tossed into the stands by an infielder who was returning to the dugout.  For a couple of innings, the teen tumbled it gently in his hands, rubbing the horsehide and feeling the raised seams.  Eventually, he handed the ball to his younger brother who, moments later, rolled the ball slowly across the top of the dugout toward the field.  As it disappeared into the unseen cavern of players, the father caught a glimpse of the youngster’s actions.  Rather than scold him severely, he calmly—but sternly—let the young boy know why the ball was special and how he should care for it.  The teen, meanwhile, seemed unfazed: easy come, easy go.  Within minutes, however, an unidentifiable hand appeared over the lip of the dugout and flipped the ball back to the boys. 
Certainly, knightly behavior could be seen all around.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Intimate Baseball: Game 39 in Asheville

Some ballparks spread in open spaces where their foul lines point toward distant horizons.  Some ballparks perch on river banks like wily kids poised above a swirling swimming hole.  And some ballparks seem to huddle among urban buildings as though the stadium itself is the dugout for a field of surrounding high-rises. 
Asheville’s McCormick Field is different.  It is nestled gently into a thickly forested hillside where great old oaks and majestic hickories seem to dwarf and hide the light stanchions while some branches of the tallest trees bend over the 25 foot high walls and into the field of play.
While Minor League ballparks are known for their intimacy, Asheville’s ballpark presses intimacy into the realm of a Buick’s back seat at a drive in-theater.  The foul poles are so near the infield that you wouldn’t need a light on a porch to find your way home after dark: 297’ to right, 320’ to left.   The power alleys are so short that slap-happy hitters crash doubles off the high walls: 320’ to right center, 373’ to left center.   And dead centerfield is hardly fatal.  It generates life in ordinary swings:  370’.
Not only does Asheville’s ballpark enjoy distinct dimensions in its hillside position, it also sports the most aptly named souvenir shop: The Tourist Trap.  Its playful spirit extends along the concession concourse where an Asheville model Louisville Slugger towers across from one food stand named “Crash’s Kitchen.”   The name, of course, refers to Crash Davis, the veteran catcher in Bull Durham who taught Nuke Laloosh and caught Annie Savoy.  It was while Crash ended the season with Asheville that, according to statistically minded Annie, he set the career home-run record for the Minor Leagues.
The concessions were equally playful and unusual.  For entrees, you could order the Super Tostada and anoint it with any one—or more—of 20 different hot sauces, or you might try a fried pickle basket.  And for dessert, there’s nothing like The Sweet Spot’s fried moon pies, whose picture on the menu made it look more like a hamburger than a marshmallow-cookie sandwich.

Chaplain Brent Besosa
On the field for the pre-game ceremonies, I noticed the logo of Baseball Chapel on the shirt of Brent Besosa, and I asked him, “What was your text this morning?”  “A couple of passages in The Book of Acts,” he replied.  “Luke’s accounts of Paul’s conversion stories.” 

Formally approved by the Major Leagues almost 40 years ago, Baseball Chapel is a Christian ministry that soon expanded into the Minor Leagues.  It seeks to inspire and nurture spiritual development of players and team personnel throughout professional baseball by sponsoring Sunday morning Bible studies and worship services.
Brent had become the Tourists’ chaplain several years ago because he was already familiar with using sports as an entrée to share his understanding of biblical faith.  He had helped to set up, an online ministry oriented to hunters.  Not only had Brent led the Bible study for a group of Asheville players earlier in the day, he also immediately preceded me in the pre-game rituals by offering a brief invocation for the crowd. 
Yes, it was Sunday afternoon in the South, where the religious depth of the culture tries to shelter the pitchers in the bullpen from the sun, not opponents' rallies.

Not even the canopy of First Baptist can protect the Tourists' pitchers' ERA.
My anthem rendition was among the very best that I have done.  I felt in good spirits and good voice.  The acoustics were fine and the crowd embracing.  One of the umpires standing, as usual, at home plate during the anthem, turned at its conclusion, made eye contact, and slightly pumped his fist.  I took that to mean “good job,” not “you’re out!”  As I left the field Chris Smith, the Tourists’ Assistant General Manager with whom I had worked to schedule my appearance, enthusiastically remarked, “You can come back and sing for us any time.”  
Having heard my introduction as a professor at Whittier College, a smiling man approached me as I walked past the box seats.  “I’m an alumnus, class of ’64,” he said.  “It’s not often that I run into someone from Whittier in these parts.  I’m Dean Kahl.”  Now a professor of chemistry and environmental studies at nearby Warren Wilson College, he attends several Tourists’ games each year, often, like this afternoon, with his daughter and grandchildren.  As has been her practice for forty years, she brought her old glove to the game, ready to slip it onto her hand to field a pop foul into the stands.
Dean and I talked about our baseball passions, our professorial experiences, and our connections to Whittier College.  Like so many of Whittier’s students throughout the years, Dean had been the first person in his family to attend college.  When his chemistry professor Roy Newsome (who later became president of the College) suggested that he pursue graduate studies, Dean had wondered, “What’s graduate school?”  With Newsome’s encouragement, he found out, completed his Ph.D., and followed Newsome’s career path, becoming a professor at a liberal arts college. 
Dean Kahl and me
As we discussed our joy in teaching, Dean expressed great appreciation for Whittier’s continuing commitment to serve first generation college students, indicated in part by its official designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution.  He had been a student when Martin Ortiz had initiated advocacy and support services for Latino students.  Within a few years, Oritz created and Whittier’s Center for Mexican-American Affairs and directed it for decades.  Now expanded and renamed in his honor, the Ortiz Programs provide academic, financial, and career guidance to Latino students.  
While we mused about the campus and friends at Whittier in the sixties, I mentioned several of my recently retired faculty colleagues who, following their own graduate studies, had returned to their alma mater.  He smiled with recognition as I went over the roster:  Bill Geiger in English, Phil O’Brien in the library, and Les Howard in sociology.  One of the enriching characteristics of liberal arts colleges is their cultivation of a sense of community that persists beyond the location of the campus or the time of one’s studies. 
Providing counterpoint to our conversation about Whittier, we also talked about the community of Minor League baseball—the Asheville ballpark and its various Major League affiliations over the years; the stars whom he had seen play over the years, including former Tourists and now Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Willie Stargell, both power hitters who “hit homeruns into the trees”; and the Tourists’ pitchers, who season after season are at the bottom of the league in team ERA, in large part a consequence of the field’s short fences. 
That profile of Asheville’s pitching came to life as Dean and I watched Savannah’s Sand Gnats score seven earned runs en route to an 8-5 victory over the Tourists.

At the Home of the Braves: Game 38 in Gwinnett

To get to the Atlanta area in Arby from Huntville required that we jut back up into Tennessee, skirting Chattanooga before descending into Georgia.  Approaching the Atlanta area, we had hoped to circumvent its Friday afternoon traffic by taking State Route 20 through Canton and toward Lake Lanier, where we had expected to park Arby for the night.  That location would make an easy commute then to Lawrenceville where the Gwinnett Braves make their home.  All went smoothly until mid-afternoon on a stretch of the two-lane road between the communities of Lathemtown and Free Home.  There, an accident involving an 18-wheeler completely stopped traffic for 35 minutes on the broiling, sun-drenched pavement.  The temperature on Arby’s exterior thermometer rose to 117 degrees.  Some cars ahead of us turned back toward Canton.  Others tried a possible cut-off, but soon returned to the line they had left, now further behind than the position that they had previously held.  Given our size and position at the mid-point of our supposed time-saving route, we decided to persevere.
Since Arby’s air conditioner has a twenty-degree differential, which means that it can cool the outside air by that amount, we began to swelter as the interior temperature rose to the upper 80s.  Figuring that we’d start running short of time before the game and probably probably find it difficult to cool off Arby’s quarters, we decided to stay in the Lawrenceville Hampton Inn rather than in the RV park that we had targeted.  Good idea.  We checked in, changed clothes quickly, and made it to the Coolray ballpark at 6:38, thanks to Bonnie navigating me on back roads around the glut of traffic on Buford Highway.  Maggie Neil, the Braves’ staffer who sets up anthem performances, had already inquired about my whereabouts.  As I checked in with the staff, Bonnie and I were greeted by good friend Jon McRae and his wife Karen, who joined us for the game and a marvelous dinner later that evening.
To begin the pre-game ceremonies, one of the ministers of the 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville threw out the first pitch as a means of outreach to the people in Gwinnett.  While church groups have participated in the pre-game festivities at other ballparks, I had encountered none that matched the extensive promotional presence throughout the game by 12Stone.  A mega-church aligned with the Willow Creek Church, 12Stone provided information about its mission and ministries at a greeting table near the main gate, and it sponsored several give-aways between innings—the Best-Seat-in-the-House selection, the T-shirt toss, and a Home Depot gift card for a lucky seat-holder. 
12Stone Church's display at the entry to Coolray.
Despite the difficulties of the hot afternoon, the dense traffic, and the slightly late arrival at the ballpark, I felt good while waiting to begin, in part because of the relaxed and convivial conversation with Maggie immediately before singing.  She inquired about the progress of the trip as well as several of the ballparks with which she was most familiar—her hometown Erie SeaWolves and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, where she had worked last year.  
My performance must have gone well since several fans passed along complimentary comments.  One was most fun: “You shore do have a voice!” a man said as he approached.  “I try to sing, but nothing like that.  Wow.  Good job.”  And during the game, Zach Weber from the Braves’ Media Relations office, conducted an extensive interview for Gwinnett’s website.
Although I knew that we would enjoy dinner with the McRaes following the game, I was drawn toward the concession stands to see what they offered becauseI hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  What I found was that Gwinnett joined the competition with other ballparks for the most unusual snack or entrée:  My list already included several appearances of barbecue nachos, Montgomery's biscuits and jelly, and Savannah's "award winning" chicken and waffles.  But Gwinnett’s “Fried Oreos” takes the cake, at least thus far!  Although I did not purchase the treat because I don't eat sugar, Rachel brought four of them to the counter so that I could take this picture.

Rachel laughs as I photograph the Oreos without tasting them.
Perhaps because the ballpark is part of a green initiative, or perhaps because it is in such a burgeoning area of the region that it is subject to strict civic codes about adequate health warnings, it posted notices to identify “reclaimed” water from potable water.  Whatever the cause for the notification, I was not tempted to drink the water in the urinals in the men’s restroom even without this sign, which was posted above each of the ceramic repositories.

Sign posted above the urinals.
Bisons' bullpen looks on until the 9th.
For the Braves there were few highlights until the ninth inning.  They did execute one unusual defensive play during the early innings, however.  With a runner on second, Buffalo Bisons outfielder Lucas Duda singled sharply to right, and the runner held at third until Duda rounded the bag too widely.  The Braves’ first baseman cut the ball off and started to run toward Duda, who headed for second.  In the classic pickle play, the first baseman threw to second, at which point the runner from third broke for home.  The second baseman whirled with the ball and threw to the catcher, who tagged the Bison trying to score while Duda took second.
In the ninth, however, Bisons' pitcher D. J. Carrasco was working on a shut out and recorded the first two outs fairly easily on a pop fly and line out.  Then yielding a sharp single to Braves’ shortstop Brandon Hicks, Carrasco was replaced on the mound.  Braves' third baseman Shawn Bowman immediately  lofted a homer to left field, tightening the score 3-2 and bringing the potential tying run to the plate.  But the Braves’ next batter lined out softly to end the game, allowing the Bisons to escape with a win at the home of the Braves.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Starry Night: Game 37 in Huntsville

I enjoy the multiple meanings that some teams’ names connote.  The Hunstville Stars are such an organization since its roster includes current players named to the Southern League’s All-Star team and since former players like Jose Canseco achieved league MVP honors in 1985 and Major League star status a few years later.  Still, the Stars’ name refers to more than baseball players’ excellent skills and performances; it also reflects the primary industry in Huntsville by recognizing NASA, the starry-eyed space agency whose headquarters are nearby. 
The Huntsville team also treated me like a star.  General Manager Buck Rogers, with whom I had originally corresponded about my anthem project almost a year ago, took the College’s press release about my endeavor and forwarded its information and the date of my Huntsville appearance to the Stars’ subscribers.  During the game, several fans initiated conversations with me based on their familiarity with the profile that Buck had provided.  In addition, Jill Cacic, the Stars’ director of media relations, set up a live, pregame interview with sportscaster Ronnie Duncan on WAAY, the ABC affiliate in Huntsville.  The conversation was so much fun that Ronnie returned for a taping of my anthem rendition, which was later featured on the evening sports report.  Picking up on the project, FOX also sent a videographer to the game and featured my rendition and tour in its newscast.  
Jill indicated that the two television stations work closely with the team, with Ronnie often doing the five o’clock sports report live from the ballpark when the Stars are in town.  And both WAAY, channel 31, and FOX -54 have been featured on promotional nights when general admission tickets cost 31 cents or 54 cents.  The box office probably handled more pennies on those nights than the rest of the season combined!
For the third game in row, the anthem performance at a ballpark had a corporate sponsor.  This time, it was the Musicology School in Huntsville.   Hearing my introduction as a professor, several fans and Stars’ hitting coach John Curtis assumed that I was on the music faculty at the sponsoring school.  Having played in Yankee Stadium, Curtis associated my rendition with Robert Merrill, whom he considered the classic performer.  I assured him that, although I am certainly not in Merrill’s Met league, I model my performance after him. 
When Curtis learned that my field is religious studies, he posed several leading questions about possible connections between religion and sport.  Specifically, he asked, “How are you going to integrate your anthem tour into your teaching?”  First, I identified the idea about how the anthem functions as a consecrating hymn in the rituals of civil religion. Wherever “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played or sung, protocol requires solemn gestures of devotion.  At ballparks, fans remove their caps, stand at attention (often placing their hands over their hearts), and face the flag.  The ritual action and response resemble the acts and orientation associated with the consecration of the host in Christian celebrations of the Eucharist or that of the opening of the ark and the removal of the Torah in Jewish services.  At the ballpark, the anthem ceremony immediately precedes the announcement, “Play ball,” and the lead-off hitter stepping into the batter’s box, thus signifying a kind of transition in time from the ordinary time of day to the special time of games that is measured in innings, not hours. 
“It will be easy to incorporate examples and impressions from my tour into my teaching,” I added.  “Each year, I offer a course on ‘Sport and Religion’ that includes a several sessions on sport as American civil religion.”  He seemed fascinated by the ideas, and I’d have loved to spend more time talking with him about baseball and religion.  But the time for my anthem performance interrupted our discussion.  
A few of the fans who had received “the email from Buck,” as they put it, or had seen the clip on the five o’clock news with Ronnie Duncan also pursued conversations related to the project, its relation to religious to religious studies, and their own experiences attending baseball games in Huntington, New York, and Milwaukee, with whom the Stars are affiliated. 
Admiring father Brian looks over shoulder of Katie Beth.
“Good job with the anthem and good luck on your quest,” a fan said as I walked off the field.  Brian Allen caught my attention not only with his comment but because his young daughter Katie Beth was so charming.   Wearing a Brewers’ cheerleading dress that her god-parents had brought her from their visit to the ballpark in Milwaukee, Katie Beth joyfully attends a number of the Stars’ games each year with her mother and father.  Brian indicated that he had learned of my project on the newscast a couple of hours earlier.
Thanks to Buck’s email, another fan, Steve Foley, was aware of my effort.  He and his daughter Ciera frequently attend the Stars’ games as well as those in Major League cities when they travel each summer.  With a good bit of excitement, he shared their recent experiences of having been in Yankee Stadium on the night that Alex Rodriguez hit his 600th homerun.  While he doesn’t expect most of the Stars’ games to be so memorable, he finds that an evening at the ballpark gives them a chance “to chill” together after a long day at work or school. 
Don Ross and Bonnie before the game.
After a blistering day of heat, Bonnie and I also enjoyed chilling at the game with our new friend and Huntington host Don Ross.  Anticipating our arrival in the area, Don had graciously offered us the chance to dock Arby adjacent to his motor-home hook-ups at their farm nearby.  When the early summer heat wave intensified, however, he and his wife Myrna invited us into their beautiful home, which overlooks a bend in the Flint River in one direction and a Monet-worthy field of haystacks from another.

The view of the Flint River from the Rosses' deck.

The haystacks on the Rosses' farm.
Although Huntsville took an early lead in the game, the Tennessee Smokies came back and held on for as 3-2 win.  Although Hunstville’s Stars were eclipsed by Smokies, the clear sky in the cooling evening sparkled with them.  The baseball diamond was covered with them.  And our reception by the Buck and Jill and the Rosses made us feel like stars. 

A Baronial Game, if not Classic: Game 36 in Birmingham

For the past sixteen years, the Rickwood Classic has been held in Birmingham to feature America’s oldest professional ballpark, built in 1910.  Annually now, the Friends of Rickwood sponsor the game between the host Birmingham Barons and a visiting team from the Southern League.  Knowing the historic significance of Rickwood, I had appealed to the Birmingham Barons, and then to the Friends of Rickwood, to allow me to sing for the contest.  With the possibility that I might work things out with the organizing Friends to perform in Rickwood, the Barons graciously scheduled me for the day before the 2011 Rickwood Classic, thereby putting me in Birmingham on the date of the Classic. 
Alas, after several email exchanges with the president of the Friends, I learned that the tradition for that game is to have a brass band play the anthem.  That’s certainly historically appropriate on two counts: The first ballpark amplification system was not installed until more than a decade after the construction of Rickwood; and the “Star-Spangled Banner” did not officially become the national anthem until fifteen years after the ballpark opened.  The brass bands that played patriotic medleys at ballparks usually featured “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as often, if not more-so, than “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
While I was unable to schedule singing for the Classic, I also almost missed singing for the Barons because of travel delays.  The drive from Jackson, Tennessee to Birmingham was on the hottest day of the year, and the route took us to Huntsville, where we docked Arby, our trustee RV, for a few days on the farm of Dr. Don Ross, the brother-in-law of my good friend and frequent collaborator Don Musser.  The length of the drives that day in Arby and Toad, the Saturn that we tow, was the longest for any day on which I am scheduled to sing—almost 400 miles.  The long day of driving meant that we descended into Birmingham on I-65 at the height of commute traffic and less than an hour before the pre-game ceremonies would start.  Encountering a stand-still south of the city’s center, I feared that we’d not make it to the ballpark in time. 
Bonnie came to the rescue.  Using her iPad, she accessed a Birmingham traffic map that identified gridlock for several miles until our expected exit onto I-459, which would take us to Hoover and the Barons’ ballpark. It also showed an alternate route along Shades Crest Road, which could be accessed at the next freeway exit.  We got off the freeway and followed the winding route, which provided spectacular views of the valleys and mountains southwest of Birmingham.  And we made it to the ballpark in the nick of time.
While many Minor League parks feature sculptures at their main gates, the Barons’ stadium in Hoover had a live exhibit to welcome fans to this game.  Displaying animals from the Birmingham zoo, caretakers exhibited a large boa constrictor and a few other critters.  Although I’m not fond of snakes, I was glad to enter the ballpark and make my way to check in with the Barons’ staff.  For the second time—and on consecutive nights, at that!—I was given a ride onto the field in a new vehicle, this time in a Nissan sedan  that was again provided by a local dealer as a promotional venture.  Rather than standing near the dugouts after the ride as I had done on the previous night in Jackson, I was taken up the tunnel to the family waiting room where I could warm up.   

Babe Ruff, the Barons' mascot, leads me to the field.
Meanwhile, the keys to Nissan got misplaced.  The game time approached with the car still parked by the backstop.  Although the keys were located a couple of minutes before I sang, I had wondered what special ground rules might need to apply if the car were still sitting there during the game.  Would a wild pitch going through the open driver’s window allow an extra base for the runner like an errant throw going into the dugout?  Would a ball still be considered in play if it rolled under the car?  What would the ruling be if the ball caromed off the windshield?  Would it be like a foul ball hitting off the screen behind home or like one bouncing back to the catcher from the backstop?  Or given the opponent Chattanooga’s name as Lookouts, would there be a penalty for shouting “Look out!” if the car should shift into gear and roll toward home?  Ah, the possibilities!
Although the Barons' current ballpark can't claim historic appearances of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, as Rickwood can, it does enjoy the distinction of having been the place where two superstars in other sports got their professional starts in baseball.  Bo Jackson, the winning running back for Auburn who won the Heisman Trophy in 1985, starred for the Barons in 1991 as he resumed playing baseball.  Jackson became the first athlete to be named to All-Star teams in two professional sports, having been selected as a running back in the NFL while playing for the Oakland Raiders and being chosen later as an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox.  And Michael Jordan, during his hiatus from basketball, tried his skills at baseball, initially for Birmingham before briefly appearing for the Chicago White Sox and then giving up the sport. 
The Barons' current home viewed from the centerfield ride in the anthem carriage.
While I deeply admired both players,  my appreciation for the Barons’ franchise extends further.  Although the ballpark in Hoover is miles and years distant from Rickwood where the Barons and Black Barons had played, I associate the name and memories with Joe Scott, a former Black Baron and roommate of Willie Mays, who was one of the gracious guests for a program at Whittier College.  During Black History Month in the mid 1990s,  he joined with four other former Negro League players to share their oral history of experience in segregated baseball of the mid-twentieth century.
But back to the quite recent past and the experience at the Barons’ ballpark: The anthem was introduced perfunctorily by noting the corporate sponsor for the song and then indentifying me simply as Joe Price.  I might as well have been an employee at Coca-Cola, the anthem’s underwriter, not someone seeking to celebrate and study patriotism for an entire season.  As I began to sing, the sound delay was so severe that I thought the microphone was dead until I got to the second word and heard the first!  Even so, the anthem went so well that Sean Pharos, the scheduling coordinator, became the first to invite me back next year—perhaps to promote a book signing tour about this year’s quest.
Classically, the food fare at ballparks features fried foods—always French fries, frequently fried chicken tenders, and occasionally distinct items like fried pickles.  While Birmingham sells its share of fried entrees and sides, it also offers “Healthy Hits,” a menu of healthier food promoted by Baptist Health Systems.

A Baronial menu, including Healthy Hits.
On the field the Barons could have used a healthier offense, playing more like serfs and losing in undistinguished fashion to the Lookouts by the score of 6-2.

In General: Game 35 in Jackson, TN

While the sculpture at the entry to Pringles Park in Jackson, Tennessee generally stands ready to welcome the crowd  to every game, it provided a most appropriate greeting for fans coming to the Memorial Day contest between the Jackson Generals and the Montgomery Biscuits.  Reminiscent of the statue of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the bronze piece portrays two children holding an American flag and expressing success in having ascended a mountaintop.  Funded by an Armored Brigade Association, the untitled piece is dedicated to “The Children of Tennessee’s Fallen Warriors.”  
The name of the Jackson team also fit the holiday.  Last year, the team had been known as the West Tennessee Jaxx; but during the off-season the organization changed the name to that of an early team in the area: The Generals.  Now, the staff wears camouflage jerseys with the name blazoned across the front, and the mascot is known as Sarge.  While the team name, staff attire, and mascot demonstrate a deep appreciation for the military, the holiday to honor service men and women went otherwise uncelebrated.  There was no pre-game moment of silence to commemorate the sacrifice of soldiers.  No special presentation of colors or celebration of the flag to accompany the anthem.  No recognition of veterans in the community or the stands.  Even a simple statement acknowledging my project was missing in action.  

Melissa Farrell, a Generals' staffer, plays catch with the first pitch tosser.
Yet the anthem singer, as usual at Pringles Park, was given some special treatment—a ride in a new, red F-150 from the entry gate, down the hill outside the ballpark, through the left field access, around the warning track, and to the backstop behind home plate.  The $40K pickup truck was provided by a local Ford dealer as a promotional feature.  As we drove around the outfield wall, I teased the Generals’ staffer, asking if his perk for chauffeuring singers all summer was to get the keys to the pickup at the end of the season.  He laughed, but didn’t consider suggesting the possibility to the dealer.  Even so, when I got out of the truck, there was no introduction of the singer, no celebration of the anthem itself: only the identification and expression of appreciation for the sponsor.   And there was still almost a half-hour wait until the pre-game ceremonies would begin, during which time a couple of the staffers played catch and keep-away with the first ball tosser.
The big, red rider carriage for the anthem singer.
While the record-setting heat wave in the upper South slowed the scoreboard lights, which showed the names of the home team from the previous day’s NCAA playoff game, it also stifled the crowd, which was surprisingly sparse for the holiday evening.  There were so few fans that a solitary voice could be heard throughout the stands during the game.  In the fourth inning following a walk and a first-pitch ball to the next batter, the pitching coach went to the mound to talk to the Jackson pitcher, Erasmo Ramirez.  One fan yelled loudly and clearly at the pitching coach, “Don’t go out there and talk to him.  He’s doing fine.”  The penetrating voice brought a chuckle to the fans and a coterie of scouts who were aiming their radar guns repeatedly at Ramirez. 

15 minutes before the game, APSU is still posted as the home team against Montgomery.
After a rough first inning in which he gave up four runs on three hits, a walk, a hit batter, and a stolen base, Ramirez settled down, yielding only a single during the next six frames and retiring the last 13 Biscuit batters in row.  Thanks to the Generals’ seventh-inning, six-run surge that was capped off by a grand-slam homerun by first baseman Rich Poythress, Jackson claimed the win for Ramirez.    
This young fan charmed us with her smile and made us momentarily forget the heat.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Sound(s) Experience: Game 34 in Nashville

A graphic design for my anthem project provided by cousin Jenna Price, age 8.

A cicada comforts me.

An odd sound persisted throughout the Sounds’ game in Nashville.  I had expected to hear the crack of bats impacting pitches, the grunts of umpires calling strikes, or simply the ballpark P.A. system offering country music standards.  Who would have thought that a cacophony of cicadas would prevail over such ordinary ballpark sounds?  Returning in their thirteen year cycle, the beetle-like, clear-winged insects chirped and cackled throughout the game. 
Perhaps the Sounds and Oklahoma City RedHawks thought that the bugs might not be attracted to bright colors, thereby prompting both teams to wear red jerseys for the game.  With both teams also donning blue caps, their similar appearance  made it difficult to discern who was playing first base and who was base-running at the bag.  Surprisingly, the pitchers made no errant pick-off throws during the game.
Cousins Kent, Joseph, Jenna, and Julie Price
On this Sunday afternoon in the shade the temperature crested in the upper nineties.  The only problem was that there wasn’t much shade.  Bonnie and I traded our sun-drenched box seats for ones in the back row where the canopy provided cover.  I failed to follow the Major League pattern in making trades, however, by not insisting that a bottle of water replace the proverbial "player to be named later" in order to complete the deal. Within a few innings my cousins Kent and Julie Price, who had driven from West Kentucky to see the game with their school-age children Joseph and Jenna, relinquished their blistering seats in the second row behind the dugout in order to join us in the upper reaches’ shade.
To cool off, Joseph and Jenna chose ice cream treats, taking advantage of the ballpark's pitch that on Sundays all ice cream concessions were offered at reduced prices.  Ice cream treats were also featured in one of the between-inning promotions that was intended to increase crowd noise.  Inciting the fans to intensify their cheering, staffers tossed ice cream sandwiches to those yelling loudest.  Yet one tosser chose to reward texting fans rather than screaming ones, aiming ice cream bars at two somewhat isolated young women who were silently working on their cell phones. 

Not only was it sundae Sunday in Nashville, it was also autograph day.  Despite the blaring sun, nine Sounds’ players sat in chairs in front of their dugout, allowing children to file down the row seeking signatures.  While they stood in line, Ozzie, the Sounds’ playful and graceful mascot, sidled over and addressed me by name.  “How’s the trip going so far, Joe?”  Hmm.  The costume could hardly hide voice identification.  Behind the feline mask of Ozzie was Buddy Yelton, the Sounds' staff member with whom I had corresponded about my anthem project and performance,  Before he began his daily mascot routines, we chatted about minor league ballparks, mascots, and anthem performances.  At other ballparks the mascots had often slapped hands with me, hugged me, or even teased me as part of their routines.  Ozzie was the first to speak whose voice I heard, and it sounded familiar!
Ozzie shares his baseball love.
Built in 1978, the ballpark in Nashville is one of the older ones in AAA.  Distinguished by its original scoreboard in the shape of a guitar, it does not feature a video board or high-tech ads.  Although the stadiums is older than most that I have seen, I had expected that some of Music City's recording studios would have installed a state-of-the art sound system to promote its artists and their releases.  To my surprise, the sound system suffered a slight delay that caught me off-guard when I started to sing. Of course, a music theme and excellent audio might have been part of the plans for a new ballpark. 
As I mused about the irony that the scoreboard visually highlights Nashville's music culture while the audio system ignores it, I struggled to get several wads of sun-softened chewing gum off my shoes.  Seeing my frustration with sticky soles, a fan in front of me bemoaned the condition of the stadium, not its cleanliness but its age.  He expressed dismay about the defeat of an initiative that would have funded the construction of a new ballpark near the riverfront.  He yearned for a new facility like that in rival Louisville where a riverfront ballpark has exceeded its projected impact on the area's economic redevelopment.
Still, there are charming, marketable aspects of older ballparks.  Among the most attractive is the celebration of feats accomplished there or the recognition of former players and owners associated with the facility.  In the old St. Louis ballpark, for instance, an oddly colored seat in the upper deck marked the spot where the longest homerun had landed.  In many older ballparks bronze plaques pay tribute to former players, team and league officials, and civic leaders instrumental in saving the team for the city or building the ballpark.  In Nashville, there’s a single such memorial posted—but not to Don Mattingly, who had played there when the Sounds had been a Yankees’ farm team; nor even to Herschel Greer, the Nashville financier who had spearheaded efforts to retain professional baseball in the city and for whom the stadium itself was posthumously named in 1978.  Instead, the sole tribute is to a vendor, David Cheatham, a beloved beer salesman who had enjoyed and entertained the crowd for more than thirty years.  Following his retirement to Florida some time before his death, David had returned each season to rekindle his friendship with the fans and hawk brew for the Nashville team.
In addition to such formal means of recognition, it’s also possible to increase the appreciation for older ballparks during friendly or family conversations.  There’s nothing like the experience of sharing memories of star-players’ performances or weird plays: “One time when I was sitting about right here,” a father might say to his son or daughter while gesturing toward the scoreboard, “I saw Prince Fielder clobber a homer so high and hard that it just missed hitting that last fret on the guitar!”  Old ballparks are not inherently unlikable.  They need to be prized, as in Daytona and Savannah where wooden stands charm fans and overhead fans stir breezes above them.
Mary Catherine Dean and me.
Although there was a modest delay in the Sounds’ sound system, the anthem was well-received by ushers and fans, especially by Mary Catherine Dean.  Expressing appreciation as I climbed the stairs toward my seat, she introduced herself as affiliated with Abingdon Press, whose offices are in Nashville.  She is, in fact, the Editor-in-Chief of the publishing house that has issued  several of the books that I have written and developed in collaboration with Don Musser.  Among them are a recent introduction to the theology of Paul Tillich as well as several theological  handbooks. 

As my tour had begun to take shape a few months ago, I had invited the Abingdon editorial staff to join me for the Sounds game.  Remembering that my appearance would be on Memorial Day weekend, Mary Catherine called the team, described my project, and learned that my singing would be on Sunday.  I was flattered that she and her daughter Patsy, who had played basketball at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, had made such an effort to attend.  And I was delighted to spend an inning talking with her about Nashville, publishing ventures, and baseball—even if she was wearing a Red Sox T-shirt.
While the near-record heat consistently tried to sap our enthusiasm and the cicadas occasionally tried to kamikaze themselves toward our heads and shoulders, the Nashville ballpark experience was sound.  I got the chance to sing the anthem in Music City, spend the afternoon with family, friends, and cordial staffers, and enjoy a rather ordinary win by the home team. 
The only real blunder or unusual play that occurred during the game involved Erick Altamonte, an outfielder on rehab assignment from the Brewers.  With a runner on second and two-outs in the first inning, he launched a drive to left.  Thinking it was a home-run, he went into his base-circling trot, only to be tagged out at second on a relay throw from the deep outfield corner.  The Sounds’ manager Don Money couldn’t cash in on his argument with the umpire, who had ruled that the ball had struck the top of the wall before bouncing back into play.   Even so, the Sounds glided past the RedHawks by the score of 4 to 2.                                                                                      
Cousin Joseph rounds second base in the "run the bases" kids' event following the game.