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.

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