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.

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