Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Legendary Evening: Game 31 in Lexington

The ballgame in Lexington, Kentucky proved legendary in multiple ways.  It took place in the heart of Bluegrass state with which I have indentified so closely for so long.  With family roots that extend back several generations, I attended Georgetown College only a tape-measure home-run’s distance away from Lexington.  During that time I also served for three years as the music and youth minister for the First Baptist Church in Mt. Sterling, which follows the opposite foul line thirty miles to the east.  And an equidistance south of Lexington is Berea, the arts and crafts capital of Kentucky.  There Bonnie and I enjoyed the best parts of our honeymoon at the Boone Tavern Inn, which is serviced by Berea College students.  We have returned to Berea every few years, making sure that we get a chance to sample the spoon bread in the Inn’s dining room while we drool over the fine wood and fiber crafts that make Berea so special.
The evening in Lexington took on legendary character also because of the severe weather that had attacked the region for the previous couple of days.  Thankfully, while thunderstorms and downpours continued to strafe nearby communities throughout the game, the field itself was spared the worst, experiencing only a light two-inning shower that did not interrupt play.
When I entered the ballpark, I passed Maris: Yes, that was her divine name, calling to mind one of my childhood favorites and the homerun record holder of pre-steroid days.  This Lexington Maris, however, was a young Legends’ fan who was distraught about the ineffectiveness of her ballpoint pen to imprint the communal autograph ball at the parking lot entry.  I stopped and handed her a Sharpie.  In her best five-and-a-half year-old penmanship, then, she proudly printed her name, added a smiley faced baseball, and said, “Now it’ll stay there!” Like her namesake’s accomplishment with 61 homers in ’61.
The Legends’ ballpark also featured a playful element on the foul poles.  Hanging on the screens in fair territory were ads for Chick-fil-A: “Eat more fowl.”  So if a ball hit the fowl foul pole, it would be fair!

Shortly before game time, friends from my undergraduate days arrived, followed soon thereafter by friends from Mt. Sterling.  Ken Rich had been my roommate freshman year at Georgetown College, and he and his wife Cheryl now live in Williamstown, about an hour’s drive north of Lexington.  Years ago, I had enjoyed singing in their wedding, and in years since we have tried to get together as often as either of us traveled toward the other’s home.

R.T. Sutton, Bonnie, Ken and Cheryl Rich, Dorothy and Robbie Sutton

From Mt. Sterling Dorothy Sutton and her adult children Anna Ray Martin and R.T. Sutton, along with his son Robbie, found me sitting at a bistro table near the home plate gate.  Anna Ray had been one of the lively students in the church’s high school group that I had directed, and R.T. had been a kindergartner when I had persuaded Dorothy to help chaperone a week-long youth trip to the church’s retreat and conference center in North Carolina.  I have always felt indebted to her for having assumed that leadership role, and we have kept in touch with Christmas cards and letters in the years since then.  Still, I hadn’t seen R.T. or Anna Ray in almost four decades.  And yet we share good, strong memories of those formative years, now rekindled by my singing for a Legends’ game.
As I took my place to face the crowd and sing, I saw a smiling and waving family in the box seats twelve rows directly in front of me.  There stood Laura Synkar and two of her children, Connie and Tommy Orme.  During my years at Mt. Sterling, Laura had served as the church secretary, and Connie and Tommy had sung in the youth choir and had participated in church activities, including the youth trip to North Carolina that Dorothy Sutton had helped to supervise.  Like the Suttons, I hadn’t seen them in years, and the deep delight in reconnecting with them intensified the already enjoyable gathering.
Norm and Laura Synkar, me, and Connie, with Tommy Orme standing behind us
Kent shows his VIP tickets to Bonnie.
Adding to the entourage of old Kentucky friends who joined Bonnie and me for the game was my former stellar student Kent Gilbert, now pastor of the Union Church in Berea.  Some time ago, Kent had marked the date on his calendar and in his typical, entrepreneurial way managed to synchronize multiple opportunities.  Earlier this spring, he had attended a fund-raising event for a school in Lexington, and in its auction he had bid on a VIP suite for a Lexington Legends game.  Making sure that he placed the winning bid, he then negotiated the night for my singing.  In that way he made sure that a church obligation wouldn’t conflict with the game by hosting church members for an outing to the game. 

Cheryl and Ken Rich join Kent, Bonnie, and Kent's church group in the sky box.

With so many friends from so many nearby cities converging for the game, the Lexington evening took on a legendary character.   Feeling buoyed by their presence, I sang the anthem with more enthusiasm and confidence than usual.  And when I left the field and handed the microphone to Stephanie Fish, the Legends’ staff member in charge of anthem coordination, I asked her if there had been any distinct anthem performances this year.  Quickly and briefly, she replied, “Yours.”      
The game itself featured an early inning outburst by the Lexington Legends, only to see to Braves knot the game 7-7 in the seventh.  Even so, Lexington reignited its offense and tallied three in the eighth while their second baseman Delino DeShields, Jr.—himself a baseball legacy of sorts since his father had been a Major League All-Star—completed a legendarily frustrating game on the base-paths.  After walking in the second, he was thrown out at third by Rome’s left fielder as he tried to advance on a single by a teammate.  In the sixth he struck out into a double-play when the Rome catcher nailed his teammate at second.  And after singling to fuel the rally in the eighth, he strayed a bit too far down the line and got picked off third by the Legends’ catcher, curtailed the Legends' rally.
Although there were no monstrous homeruns, no record strikeouts, or no triple plays, the game and evening, enjoyed with so many friends from diverse communities, are marked as legendary in my mind.

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