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.