Thursday, June 9, 2011

Going Home Again: Game 33 in Louisville

The side door to the basement in our first apartment.
Arriving in Louisville was like returning home.  Bonnie and I had met, courted, and married in Louisville while I was pursuing a graduate degree and she was beginning her teaching career.  Our first apartment had been near Cherokee Park, a lushly wooded haven that was leveled by one of the tornados that roared through the Ohio Valley in early April 1974.  Days before our first anniversary, we had seen one of the whirlwinds approaching our duplex, sought refuge in the basement, and narrowly escaped its wrath as it veered away from us less than a hundred yards away. 

Despite the terror associated with that destructive event, Louisville holds romance for us.  So it was especially gratifying that one of Bonnie’s bridesmaids, Trudi Fastenow Bellou, and her husband Glenn joined us for an afternoon of retracing old paths and watching the evening game.
The glove sculpture invites fans into its pocket.
In the years since Bonnie and I have moved away from Louisville, baseball has returned to the city and now garners quite a few accolades.  During our residency there, the old Louisville Colonels departed and the city was left without baseball for more than a decade.  Finally, a franchise returned, a new stadium was built, and enthusiasm resumed.  Three times during the last dozen years, the Louisville Bats' ballpark has received awards for being the best field in the Minor Leagues, and recently it appeared on a national list of the top ten ballparks to visit.  I understand why.  The facility is beautifully situated near the riverfront, and its architecture presents an enclosed entry that provides an energizing transition from the urban neighborhood.  It also features several interactive sculptures and memorials that heighten its appeal. 
The smiling cookie vendor.
The ballpark also distinguishes itself with the most unusual vendor whom I have encountered.  Several other ballparks have hawkers who bellow distinctly or sing playfully.  Others have peanut sellers who toss nut-bags with more accuracy than many minor league pitchers.  But none have a cookie saleswoman like Louisville’s.  With native grace and ease she carries her store in a basket balanced on her heads.  To make her display even more magnificent, she wears a smile that exudes deep joy.
In addition, the Bats also surpass most other stadiums and staff in the amenities provided to anthem performers.  Staff members escorted me to the family waiting room near the team locker rooms.  There, I could warm up discreetly and relax on the overstuffed chairs and sofa.   In the room, I felt like the anthem mattered as a significant part of the game preparation and production.

Edinson Volquez

In part because my participation was on Memorial Day weekend, I encountered my tour’s largest crowd by far: 11,641, a sell-out that exceeded two of the Major League games for which I have sung.  The fans had come to see the Bats (especially starting pitcher Edinson Volquez, who was on rehab assignment from the Cincinnati Reds), the Yankees’ AAA farm team from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (which featured the Yankees’ top prospect—Jesus Montero—as well as several players who had been with New York during last season), and BirdZerk (the most entertaining baseball “mascot” since the San Diego Chicken). 

BirdZerk and Kevin Russo dancing at third base.

An independent, touring act making a special, scheduled appearance at the game, BirdZerk performs comic routines that remind me of the classic antics of Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball who enjoyed a cameo appearance in Bull Durham.  Before the bottom of the second inning one of BirdZerk’s wild skits featured Yankees’ infielder Kevin Russo, who seemed to hesitate before joining the energetic BirdZerk dancing around the left side of the diamond.  The routine required that Russo drop his glove near the bag so that he could mimic BirdZerk’s dance moves.  Stealthily, BirdZerk then angled toward the bag, picked up Russo’s glove, teased him with it, and holding it aloft took off on the grounds crew’s cart toward the left field corner.  As Russo watched the cart turn along the warning track, he saw BirdZerk heave the glove so far over the fence that it went out of the ballpark.  The crowd roared.  Russo acted dumbfounded and horrified, then called for a new glove to be brought from the dugout.  To make the act look unrehearsed, the equipment manager brought out two gloves, allowing Russo to select one to replace the glove confiscated and discarded by BirdZerk. 
BirdZerk and the ump dance together.
After the third inning another BirdZerk routine apparently involved the first base umpire, who had actually gone into the Yankees dugout to allow BirdZerk’s sidekick, dressed as an umpire, to take his place along the first base line.  This time, it seemed as though BirdZerk charmed the ump into a coordinated dance that ended with them twirling, legs interlocked, followed by the ump doing a flip and BirdZerk going berserk, lifting the ump and toting him into the dugout.  From there the real umpire, a few inches taller, emerged and resumed his duties of calling outs and fouls at first.

BabyZerk moons the crowd.

BirdZerk’s tomfoolery also included two other acts that featured his sidekick.  Together, they donned the costume of DogZerk and danced to the music “Who let the dogs out?”  And an inning later they duetted as BirdZerk and a new persona, BabyZerk, presenting a well-choreographed comic routine with BabyZerk mooning the crowd.
Shortly after I walked out to the home plate area, the Bats’ public address announcer introduced me as being from Whittier.  In response, a fan in the front row behind the backstop looked puzzled as I walked past and inquired, “California?”  Yes.  “What brings you this far away?”  We chatted about the anthem, baseball, and southern California.  Matt McColgan, the fan, had grown up in La Canada, less than an hour’s drive from Whittier, and he had played ball at UCSB with Chris Valaika, the Bats’ second baseman who had been a third-round draft pick in 2006.  Now living in the Tampa area, Matt had flown to Louisville for a long Memorial Day weekend and a reunion with his former teammate.
Following the anthem, several other fans and officials stopped me to express appreciation in various ways.  One woman was effusive: “Thank you for the anthem.  You did a beautiful job.  It was awesome.”  And Tom Slye, a Vietnam War veteran, excitedly inquired about my availability to join a barbershop group with him.  His invitation was flattering, for sure, but would require a wicked commute: so I declined.  And for the first time, off-duty police officers working the game stopped me—thankfully, not to cite me—to express their satisfaction with my rendition and project.  “We love baseball and luckily get to work all the games,” Sgt. Paul Neal related.  “We appreciate your efforts in singing the national anthem for the national pastime.  Baseball deserves the effort.”  He had played college ball and his partner, Sgt. Brian Stanfield, had played in high school.  Since they have heard hundreds of anthem renditions over the years and since they serve such a significant civic role day to day, I was greatly gratified by their expressions of appreciation.
The game matched the level of excitement provided by the large crowd.  After the Yankees scored in the first following a leadoff triple, the Bats used walks to claim the lead, which held up until the eighth when Ramiro Pena hit an upper deck homer to right for the Yankees.  His shot was matched in the bottom half of the inning by Daniel Dorn, who hit a towering, two-run shot just over the reach of the centerfielder.  And in the ninth, the Yankees tightened the score with a homer by Justin Maxwell, before loading the bases with one out.  With the tying run on third, the batter hit a shot up the middle.  Diving to his left, shortstop Kristopher Negron snared the short hop and, while prone, flipped the ball backhanded to Valaika, nipping the runner as Valaika pirouetted and made a strong relay to first to complete the double-play and end the game with a flourish.

Perhaps Thomas Wolfe lacked baseball when he opined that "You can't go home again."  Because baseball at home completes a circle.  On this fabulous evening, baseball had occasioned my return to Louisville, a place that I can genuinely call home even though no relative now resides there.  It was in Louisville that I had met and married Bonnie.  It was in Louisville that I began to sing seriously, turning avocational practices into vocational possibilities.  And it was in Louisville that I started to study the concept of civil religion, whose doxology is "The Star-Spangled Banner." 
Now Bonnie, baseball, and my singing the national anthem converged in Louisville, transporting me again to a place of contentment and security called home.

1 comment:

  1. Probably the best of your blogposts thus far. Very rich descriptions. Sorry that I missed being there.

    Glad to hear that catwoman hit one out.

    Let's go Yankees.