Saturday, June 4, 2011

Traveling to the Travelers: Game 29 in Arkansas

Since the route from Memphis to Little Rock was one of our shortest day’s drives, we were able to dock Arby several hours before game time.  Just a half-mile from Dickey-Stephens Park, our site overlooked the Arkansas River, which, thankfully unlike most of rivers that we had crossed earlier in the day, was not flooding.  Our early arrival also permitted an afternoon of sightseeing in Little Rock. 
Bonnie sits in the President's chair at the Cabinet table.

Seeing the Clinton Presidential Library on the opposite banks of the river, we seized the opportunity to spend the afternoon interacting with the exhibits there. Inspired by the stories about Bill Clinton’s empathy for the poor and dispossessed, his advocacy for civil rights legislation and practice, and his success in economic development that produced budgetary surpluses during his terms in office, I was primed to sing the anthem for the Arkansas Travelers’ game against the Springfield Cardinals.
At various times in its history, the Travelers have barely survived in the area.  Several decades ago when the team was in danger of folding, fans and local investors purchased shares in the team to preserve its identity with Little Rock.  And a few years ago when the team’s former ballpark for almost 75 years began to deteriorate, Warren Stephens, a Little Rock financier, donated 11 acres of riverfront property in North Little Rock for the site of a new ballpark, which was completed in time for the season opener in 2007.  The ballpark was named in honor of the co-founding brothers of Stephens, Inc., an independent financial service that employed Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey and his brother Skeeter, also a Major League player.  Before starring for the Yankees, Bill had played the 1925 season for the Travelers, and following their baseball careers both Dickeys worked for Stephens.
At the entry to the Dickey-Stephens Park, I had Bonnie take a photo of me with the plaque paying tribute to Bill Dickey, a Hall of Fame catcher for the Yankees during the 30s and 40s.  I have a fond place in my heart for Dickey, not merely because he played with Ruth and Gehrig.  In 1964 or 65, I responded to a classified ad in The Sporting News that offered a mimeographed list of current and former Major League players home addresses.  When I received the pages of data, I decided to start an autograph collection by writing to the Hall of Famers whose names appeared on the list.  With slow typing skills, I pecked out brief letters to each, requesting that they sign the blank side of an index card that I enclosed and that they identify a career highlight on the opposite, ligned side.  Bill Dickey was among about 20 who responded, not only signing the index card and citing his career with the Yankees as the highlight, but also enclosing an autographed postcard of his Hall of Fame plaque.
Building on my childhood appreciation for Yogi Berra, Dickey’s gracious gesture generated a fondness for Yankees’ catchers; and I have followed them closely ever since: Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, Rick Cerrone, Jorge Posada.  And now while focusing on the Minor Leagues during this season, I am tracking the progress of their probable successor, Yankees’ top prospect Jesus Montero. (It’s tempting not to pun that Jesus might be the savior of the Yankees’ All-Star catching continuity!)
Before getting mired too deeply in my memory and fandom, let’s trek back to the Travelers’ game against the Springfield Cardinals by noting that the Arkansas catcher, Orlando Mercado, duplicates a practice of Posada, painting his fingernails white to improve the pitcher’s perception of the signals for a pitch's placement and speed. 
Even though Dickey-Phillips is among the newest ballparks, it is the site of one of the most tragic events in baseball history—an extremely rare on-field death by a player or coach.  In the inaugural season of the ballpark, new hitting coach Mike Coolbaugh of the visiting Tulsa Drillers stood in the coach’s box along the first base line in the ninth inning.  Coolbaugh, who had played in the Major Leagues for 44 games with the Brewers and Cardinals five years before, had joined the Drillers as their hitting coach three weeks earlier.  With Tulsa behind by four runs, Coolbaugh focused his attention on the Drillers' base-runner who had lead off the inning with a single.  Then Tino Sanchez, the back-up switch-hitting catcher for the Travelers, lined a shot that felled Coolbaugh, who died moments later despite CPR efforts.  Coolbaugh’s story is narrated in the award-winning book Heart of the Game: Life, Death, and Mercy in Minor League America by S. L. Price (regrettably, not one of my relatives).  With elegant prose and a keen baseball eye, Price sensitively interlaces the stories of the careers and family commitments of Coolbaugh and Sanchez while providing a portrait of Minor League life throughout the country.

The first base coach's box is shrouded by shadows.

As I walked near the first base dugout while waiting for the pre-game ceremonies to begin, I thought compassionately of Coolbaugh and prayed for his family, the Tulsa and Arkansas players, and the Travelers' staff members who had been on duty that night. 
Mudcats' players calling for a ball.
In contrast to the mournful thoughts of Coolbaugh that the field evoked, I deeply enjoyed seeing the children at the ballpark.  With particularly delight, I watched the players on the Mudcats, a youth team that participated in the pre-game ceremonies, have a good time catching souvenir balls tossed to them by one of the Travelers, and later it was quite fun to see them get such a charge out of securing the signature of Shelly, the Travelers’ oil-company sponsored mascot. 

Mudcats' players getting Shelly's autograph.

Trey Trimble with his playlist.
A pleasant tone for the evening was also set by live, pre-game organ music, a first among the ballparks on my tour.  Young Trey Trimble sat at a console on the concourse behind home plate.  Having learned of the position as Travelers' organist through an ad for the job, Trey auditioned well, got hired, and now played exuberantly from a list of titles that he had drawn up to set the mood for the games. 
Yet the cheerful children and joyful music could not produce a hometown victory on this night.  For this 29th game on my tour, the Travelers scored three in the first but yielded six two-out runs in the second inning to the Cardinals, who held on to beat Arkansas 9-7 in a 29-hit slugfest.

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