Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Quality Start Amid Base-running Blunders: Game 70 in Niles, Ohio

In baseball terms, a quality start for a pitcher means that he has completed at least six innings, giving up three runs or less, and keeping his team in the game.  Former Whittier colleague and perennial fantasy league competitor Jon Moody dubbed my anthem progress a quality start since he attended performance number 70 with me for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers’ game against the State College Spikes.  With 70 games completed and 35 still scheduled, the game in Niles, Ohio marked the two-thirds point in my project—or, in baseball terms, the end of the sixth inning.

Like me, a young fan is embraced by the Scrappers.
Call me an old warhorse or a performer from bygone years: I expect to go the distance.  I don’t see a reliever in sight, and I certainly don’t have a closer waiting in the pen to come in for the final inning—or dozen games.
If baseball metaphors apply to my anthem tour and performances, then my appearance in Mahoning Valley also was fuelled by a rally of enthusiastic reception.  Publicity about the anthem tour by Scrappers’ staff on the team’s website prompted TV journalist Dan Martin to conduct pre-game interviews with Bonnie and me.  (To see the piece that was telecast that evening on WKNB, click here.) Their respect for the project energized my anthem performance, as did the presence of Jon, his wife Jane, and his son Jonathan.
After I had sung Scrappers’ manager Dave Wallace shook hands with me, and I took the opportunity to wish him better luck than the night before when I had sung for their game in Jamestown.  That night, they lost to the Jammers 6-5 when the relief corps allowed three late-inning runs.  In response to my comment, Wallace quipped: “If we lose, I’ll hold it against you.” 

Lots of kids join in the fun, assisting a Scrappers' staffer in singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
On the outfield wall in Niles, two names and numbers appeared “retired.”  One, of course, was Jackie Robinson's #42, a number officially retired from all Major League teams and Minor League affiliates, with the exception of a player (like Mariano Rivera) who was already wearing the uniform number when the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s first game with Brooklyn was reached.  The other Scrappers' number was 13, which was identified with the name “Wolcott.”  
Through a screen of years, Wolcott's 13 and Robinson's 42 are memorialized.
Two things puzzled me about the sign: Wolcott’s name does not appear on the roster of former Scrappers who have made it to the Majors, and the number 13, which appreared to be retired, was being worn by starting catcher Alex Lavisky.  
I wondered aloud to Jon about the conundrum and told him how in Erie a couple of days earlier I had seen two retired numbers on the outfield wall.  There I had inquired of a couple of staff members about the identify of the companion number and name to that of Robinson: “Jethroe #5.”  None knew. 
Immediately, Jon effused, “He was my favorite Braves’ player when I was growing up in Boston.  I’m not sure why, and I didn’t understand his significance until later—what he meant [as the first African-American player] for Boston and the Braves—but he was somehow my favorite.”  Sam “the Jet” Jethroe, had starred in the Negro Leagues before playing in the Major Leagues during the first wave of signings of Black players. 
In the year following Jackie Robinson's debut with the Dodgers, Jethroe also signed with the Brooklyn team and played two seasons for their Triple-A team in Montreal before being traded to the Boston Braves following the 1949 season.  As the starting centerfielder for the Braves in 1950, Jethroe made an immediate impact, hitting a home run in his first game, leading the National League in stolen bases for the season, and being named the League's Rookie of the Year--the oldest player ever to be accorded that honor.  Yes, there were plenty of baseball reasons why Jon might have identified Jethroe as his favorite Brave. 
While Jon and I caught up on each other’s professional work, it looked like the young players in the NYP League had trouble getting caught in base-running blunders.  In the first inning the Scrappers’ leadoff batter hit a routine bounder toward the second baseman.  Hitting a pebble in the infield dirt, the ball took a wicked hop and hit the Spikes’ fielder in the face, felling him and forcing his removal from the game.  
There’s a belief in baseball that a batted ball quickly finds a new fielder.  It did.  Yet seemingly oblivious to the pattern of making a miscue on the first fielding opportunity, Walker Gourley immediately made a sensational play, turning an unassisted double play in a way that I had never seen before.  The Scrappers’ batter hit a soft line drive between first and second, and the base-runner paused to see if it would be caught.  Ranging far to his left Gourley scooped the ball on a short hop while the base runner retreated toward first, trying to delay a tag to allow the batter to reach base safely.  Still, Gourley overtook him, tagged him near the bag, and lunged across the baseline to tag the batter a half-step before reaching the first base bag.
Base-running blunders continued a couple of innings later.  With Scrappers on first and third with one out, the batter hit a deep drive to the right centerfield alley.  The runner on first advanced to second, where he paused to watch the flight of the ball while the runner on third retreated to the bag to tag in case the ball should be caught.  It was. 
While the runner on third tagged and scored, the runner who had paused at second failed to return to first and instead proceeded toward third. The relay throw from the second baseman to first was fumbled but retrieved easily to double-up the runner who had never attempted retreat.

The mystifying adventures of base-running were not restricted to the Scrapper nor even the Spikes.  The umpires also  joined in their confusion.  In the top of the third with a runner on first, the Spikes’ batter hit a line drive to the third baseman who got his glove on it, juggling it up in the air a couple of times before watching it drop beyond the sweep of his bare hand.  The base umpire ruled that the ball hadn’t been caught, and the base-runner, already retreating toward first in anticipation of a catch was caught off guard.   The third baseman tossed the ball to the second baseman, who tagged the retreating runner; but his throw to first failed to beat the batter who, after crossing the bag, started back toward the dugout before being told by the first base coach to return to the bag.  The base umpire had called him safe.  Befuddled by whole sequence—as though this description might be any clearer—both runners stood on the first base bag while the plate umpire convened near the mound with the base umpire to sort things out.

Who's on first? Umpires try to solve the mystery.

The result: A double play was ruled because the home-plate umpire had had a better view of the play by the third baseman who had snagged the line drive before fumbling the ball in the exchange between his glove and his hand.  The umpires determined that the runner who had been on first had been doubled off by the tag that was applied as he had retreated to the bag.

Who's on first?  The umps rule "none," as Spikes manager Kimera Bartee seeks an explanation.

While I enjoyed a quality start, the Scrappers' starter didn't fair quite as well.  After a solid start, he reached his pitch count after four innings, leaving with a five-run lead.  His relievers continued to dull the Spikes until the ninth, securing Mahoning Valley's win 6-1 and preventing Wallace from holding me accountable for the outcome.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Doubling Up: Game 63 in Hudson Valley

Near the Military Academy at West Point, the Hudson Valley Renegades count on the availability of the institution’s staff members to work part time during the short season of the New York-Penn League.  While I am not sure if they might be considered renegade employees, I wonder if they are considered AWOL from the Academy. 
Echoing the Army's enlistment motto "Be all that you can be...," Hudson Valley encourages fans to be all that they can.
Although none of the fans at the Hudson Valley ballparks wore military uniforms or sported Army T-shirts in mid-July, it was apparent from their haircuts, demeanor (especially their crisp salute of the flag during the anthem), and conversation that many of them were affiliated with the Academy.  Rather than displaying military apparel, many fans had slipped on the Renegades jerseys given to the first 1500 entering the turn-styles.   
Since Bonnie and I had arrived at the Hudson Valley ballpark later than usual, all of the shirts had been snagged by fans who had stood in line waiting for the gates to open.  Although we didn’t get the promotional item, we were thrilled that we did receive the support of two Whittier friends who joined us for the game: Michelle Cervantes, a former student who now works in the United Nations, and Mike McBride, a colleague in political science whose campus office is almost adjacent to mine. 

Michelle warily wonders about her professors' passion for baseball.

In her work at the U.N. Michelle is responsible for coverage of the Security Council and the General Assembly.  Her duties are reflected, I think, in a job title longer than my anthem tour.  Officially, she is “The Senior Policy Coordination Assistant for the New York Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.”   On occasions when she has taken flight to visit family in California, Michelle has attended Angels and Dodgers game when I have sung the anthem.
Mike, too, is a repeat attender at games for which I have sung, and several years ago he persuaded a tour guide at old Busch Stadium in St. Louis to let me sing the anthem at home plate in the empty ballpark a week before the season opened.  Amazingly, the cavernous edifice resonated like a shower stall since its empty wooden seats and concrete and steel structure reverberated my rendition.  Staff members emerged from offices to hear and see what was happening, and maintenance workers in the outfield stands paused during the anthem, applauding after I reached the final note.  As much fun as singing in St. Louis was, I don’t count that ballpark among the twenty Major League stadiums where I have sung for games.
Mike’s love of baseball rivals my own.  He regularly teaches a writing seminar on baseball history.  For the course he usually takes students to see a Dodgers’ game, and for another assignment he has them play rounders, often inviting me to join in the fun.  Mike’s devotion to the game extends well beyond his familiarity with its history and literature.  In the mid-1980s after the publication of the book about the original Rotisserie League, he organized a fantasy league for Whittier College faculty.  Now almost three decades later, he continues to compile and calculate the weekly statistics for the league.    

Wall of Fame tribute to local Hall of Famer.

In the ballpark at Hudson Valley, the Wall of Recognition features bronze plaques for two Hall of Famers from the nearby area.  Eddie Collins, who had grown up in Millerton, is ranked among the best second basemen of all time. During a quarter century playing at the keystone for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Chicago White Sox, he excelled at bat and on the base paths.  Seventeen times in his career, he stole home, and twice he stole six bases in a single game.  He and Ty Cobb were the pair of pre-eminent base-stealers in their day like Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson at the end of the century.  Also celebrated with a plaque on the Hudson Valley wall was Dennis “Big Dan” Brouthers from Wappingers Falls.  He had begun his 19-year big league career in 1879 with the nearby Troy Trojans in the National League.  During the dead-ball era, he was considered the greatest power hitter, slugging more than 100 homeruns in his career while compiling a life-time batting average of .342.
Retired numbers displayed above left field.
On another wall adjacent to the main gates, ten members of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame are similarly recognized with plaques about their respective careers.  A different wall tribute of sorts is accorded to two players whose numbers are retired:  Circles with the numbers 42 and 45 peer like binocular lenses above the left field fence.  Of course, 42 has been unilaterally retired by Major League Baseball as a way of recognizing the contributions of Jackie Robinson.  “But 45,” I wondered aloud to several staffers who didn’t know.  Finally I learned that it was the number of Kevin Brown, the first Hudson Valley player to star in the major leagues.
The walls in a more private area of the ballpark also provide an opportunity for displaying baseball themes, not in tribute to bygone heroes but in a playful effort to appeal to the youngest possible fans.  Because I often have found that the quietest, out-of-the-way space to warm up at ballparks is in the family restroom, I was able to see the multiple murals of animals playing baseball on the walls of the family restroom at Hudson Valley.  While other ballparks have provided diaper-changing tables in their facilities, none had been as inviting as this one.

Two of the baseball murals around the diaper changing station.
Off the walls, the ballpark at Hudson Valley was also distinct, offering several unique concessions.  The healthy choices exceeded those at several other ballparks, adding gluten free beer and a tastefully named sandwich, the Thai Cobb Veggie Burger.  And the grill-to-order stand continued the playful approach to burger names, calling its monster sandwich the Eben Burger, in honor of the team's general manager Eben Yager.   The Eben Burger, which is still subject to modification according to Eben himself, is even bigger than most at McDonalds:  It is a freshly grilled half-pound hamburger stuffed with cheddar cheese and A-1 steak sauce. 
While I salivated for either of these burgers, I knew that I couldn’t eat it before the anthem.  At 6:25 participants in the pre-game ceremonies were called to the first base dugout, and I joined the throng.  In contrast to the confined space at New Hampshire on the previous night where theater chains had cordoned off the place for pre-game participants to stand until time to fill their roles, the area in front of the Renegades’ dugout almost looked like a flash mob scene, especially since 53 young ballet dancers in pink and maroon costumes clustered there.   Add to these performers the score of their parents wielding video cameras, the dozen softball players awaiting introduction, and the usual cadre of Little Leaguers ready to take the field with the starting line-up, and you can see why it was almost as crowded on the field as in the grandstands.

The pre-game ballerinas begin to process in front of the Renegades' dugout.

Inspired by the ambiance of West Point and the presence of good friends, I sang about as well as possible; and my rendition was enthusiastically embraced by the crowd, which respected the anthem with impeccable protocol.  I was surprised, however,  by one of the fan’s response.  While returning to my seat, one woman stopped me and said, “Thank you.  You sang it better than the people who were born here.  You’re a foreigner, aren’t you?” she continued.  “You sing with an accent.”  “No ma’am,” I replied.  “I grew up in the South, but I try to sing crisply and pronounce each word clearly.”
A few days earlier at another ballpark a person had asked if I were Scottish because of the roundness of my vowels in “the dawn’s early light.”  I guess that my attempts to articulate each word clearly disguise my Southern accent.
For the most part, the game itself was a rather ho-hum affair.  Both teams scored a single run in the first few innings, and then matched records through regulation: one run on three singles and one error, apiece.  But there was a twist to the action in the sixth when Renegades’ pitcher Mickey Jannis, who had entered the game at the top of the inning, gave up a questionable single, a misplayed soft line drive that glanced off the second baseman’s glove.  An odd sequence then developed.  Jannis approached the foul line where he was met by the trainer, manager, catcher, and umpire.  It didn’t look like he had hurt his arm or leg since he didn’t try to twirl his arm, rub his leg, or flex his knee.  Pausing at the first base line, he simply left the field and went into the dugout; yet the manager and umpire summoned no new reliever. 
A few minutes later Jannis returned and started toward the mound but turned back, calling for the trainer to supply tissue for his nose.  Apparently, he had a slight nose bleed and tried to stuff tissue into his nostril; but the home-plate umpire seemed concerned about the possibility that the white protrusion from his nose might distract the hitter.  Back to the dugout he went.   After a twelve-minute delay, he finally resumed pitching, missing the strike zone on his first two offerings before getting the batter to ground into an inning-ending double play.
Following the ValleyCats’ futile turn at bat in the top of the seventh, I lead off the traditional mid-inning stretch by singing “God Bless America.”  In anticipation, players emptied from the dugouts, lined up and toed the grass, took off their caps and held them at their side or dropped them by their shoes.  They placed their hands over their hearts as though they were pledging allegiance to the flag.  Impressed by their reverential respect for the song by Irving Berlin that Kate Smith had popularized, and inspired by the presence of friends and the proximity to West Point, I doubled my singing pleasure of the evening. 
With the score knotted 1-1 in the bottom of the 8th, fans along the third base line tried to rally the Renegades by starting a wave.  It didn’t work—neither the rally nor the wave.   But in the 10th inning, the Renegades scratched out a run on Chris Winder’s single and stolen base, followed by his advance to third on a ground out.  With two outs then, he scored the winning run on a wild pitch. 
For the second time in a week, I watched the Valley Cats suffer a walk-off loss on a battery muff: a dropped third strike in the ninth had led to their defeat in Vermont, and now the extra-inning wild pitch in Hudson Valley allowed the Renegades to double their score: Hudson Valley 2, Tri-Cities 1.
All in all, it was also a kind of Wrigley-esque evening of doubling my pleasure and doubling my fun by singing twice and sharing the game with Whittier friends.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tossed a Fatherly Curve: Game 49 in Altoona

Even the team's name curves along the hillside.
From previous posts, it should be obvious that I am fond of team names that connote multiple meanings, especially when a name reflects some distinct character of its community and an element of baseball.  When the name also happens to be a collective singular noun, I find that it somehow exemplifies the depth of teamwork that bonds individuals into a unit.  (I do experience difficulty, of course, in knowing what kinds of agreement need to be made with the collective singular noun, such as whether to use a singular or plural pronoun. Should I refer to the Curve as “they”—usage that would correspond to a reference to the plural name such as the Nationals; or should I specify the Curve as “it”—thereby spinning the emphasis to the collective entity.) 

While fans might associate the Curve’s name with baseball’s breaking pitch, the Altoona Curve’s name derives from the famous horseshoe railroad curve that rises through the mountains of central Pennsylvania a few miles west of the city.  Now designated as a National Historic Landmark, “Horseshoe Curve” opened in 1854.  

Portion of the graphic explanation on display at the National Historic Landmark.
Aerial photo of Horseshoe Curve on display at the Allegheny Portage exhibit.
An engineering feat that conforms to the contour of the mountains without the aid of a trestle, the tracks rise more than 100 feet in a distance of less than half a mile, a slope that is more than two and a half times greater than the average grade that trains usually negotiate. That slope is further complicated by the severity of the tracks’ half-circle, whose degree of curvature is 9 degrees, 25 minutes.

Boxcars negotiate Horseshoe Curve.

Remnants of the Portage Railway.
In the mid-nineteenth century Horseshoe Curve enabled rail traffic to move uninterrupted through the region, making the nearby Allegheny Portage Railway obsolete.  Prior to the completion of the Curve, the portage system had combined canal barges and rail lines with ten incline engine stations using counterbalances to lift and lower cargo and passengers 36 miles across the mountain ridge.  When completed in 1834, the Portage Railway had also featured the first rail tunnel in the United States, and its combined barge and railroad system had accelerated the exploration and commercial development of territory west of the Alleghenies.  

Placing the Allegheny Portage Railway in a cultural timetable.
But back to baseball and Altoona: Until the late 1990s history threw a curve to Altoona’s turn for professional baseball.  For less than two months in the inaugural season of the Union Association in the late 1800s, Altoona served as the home of a team in the new league that challenged the professional dominance of the National League and the American Association. Within weeks, however, Altoona’s team flailed and failed, drawing poorly and losing frequently.  After compiling a record of 6-19, the team was basically railroaded out of town, going far to Kansas City. 
In several years before the depths of the Great Depression, Altoona fielded minor league teams, twice watching them depart for other cities before the end of their first season.  When the Altoona Engineers left for Beaver Falls in 1931, more than six decades would expire before professional baseball would return to the mountain town in the mid-1990s with the establishment of the Rail Kings in the independent North Atlantic League.  While that team enjoyed relative success and enthusiastic support from the community, the League itself folded, forcing the team to join the equally hapless Heartland League the following year. 
Then came Major League Baseball’s expansion in the late 1990s.  Accompanying the development of two additional Major League teams—the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (as the team was initially known)—affiliated minor league franchises were also awarded to prospective cities, with Altoona winning out over Springfield, Massachusetts for one of the new Double-A teams.  So was conceived and born the Altoona Curve.
My predisposition to like the Curve because of the playful complexity of its name was heightened by the hospitality that I received in the mountain community and the special features aligned with the game on the date of my singing.  It was Father’s Day.  I had anticipated missing my family since Bonnie had remained in Washington to spend several days with friends, and my sons, both of whom phoned me before evening, were a continent away in California.  What I had not expected was that I could share the afternoon with the father of a friend and colleague, Art Remillard. 
A professor of American religious history at St. Francis University, Art has presented papers on religion and sport at various conferences that I have attended, and he has reviewed books that I have written and edited.  When he learned of my project, he invited me to stay in his home for the nights when I would sing for Altoona and State College, an hour’s drive away. The odd thing: Art and his family would be out of town for two months surrounding my time in the area.  Art said that I could get access to his house from his father Vincent, an ardent Curve’s fan who lives close by and who planned to attend both of my games.

Vincent Remillard at Horseshoe Curve Historic Landmark.
Although the age difference that I have with Vincent is hardly sufficient to allow for him to be like my father, we began our relationship on the basis of my friendship with his son.  To a very real extent then, we experienced Father’s Day with vicarious delight, recognizing that, while each of us missed being with our own sons that day, we could relate as father and son.  And the following day we continued to enjoy each other’s similar company while Vince showed me great sites in the region—the Horseshoe Curve, the Franciscan Monastery in Loretto, and the nearby St. Francis University campus before we headed out to State College for its evening game.
 In Altoona, the Curve’s ballpark is one of the most imaginative in all of baseball.  A couple of years after the Blair County Ballpark had opened in 1999, USA Today played with its description of the facility: “A minor league ballpark is one thing. An amusement park is another. But tucked in the Allegheny Mountains is a place where there’s really no difference.” 

 Skyiner makes its own horseshoe curve behind right field.

In large part the ballpark’s amusement ambiance is set by Lakemont Park’s Skyliner roller coaster, whose high tiers abut the right field fence.  While the amusement park dates from the late nineteenth century, the fifty-year-old Skyliner was purchased from another amusement park and installed at its present site more than a decade before the team was formed and the adjoining ballpark conceived.  The high wooden scaffolding and sweeping curves of Skyliner’s structure not only add a playful backdrop to the ballpark; they also mimic Horseshoe Curve, from which the team derives its name. 
At the Curve’s ballpark on Father’s Day afternoon, a sense of poetry also prevailed as a pre-game promotion allowed parents to play catch with their children in the outfield.  Generations of families participated in the activity, while many of the pairs of tossers and catchers called to mind poet Donald Hall’s signal essay in his baseball collection Fathers Playing Catch with Sons. 
The game was also distinct in several other ways.  Squeals of delight dopplered into the stands from the roller coaster riders swooping along Skyliner’s dips and turns.  Sprinklers sprayed the infield during the bottom of the first inning.  

I enjoyed my first in-stadium interview with a team’s broadcast crew, the local ESPN radio game-day host Josh Ellis. 

Curve's media man Josh Ellis interviews me on WVAM's pre-game show.
 And in his Double-A debut, the Curve’s Phil Irwin hurled six impressive innings, yielding two harmless singles (one on a hanging curve), showing good control with after hitting the first batter that he faced, and holding the Harrisburg Senators scoreless during his team's win 4-1.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Tributes in Salem: Game 57 in Salem

When I entered Salem’s ballpark and saw the Red Sox warming up for their home game against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans toward the end of June, I took one look at their uniforms and wondered what was going on.  Since popular Roanoke Times columnist Dan Casey had written a feature story about my project for the Sunday edition of the regional paper, I briefly wondered if there were connection between it and the players' garb.  There wasn't.  They wore unusual uniforms for another reason. 
They had donned tuxedo style jerseys in an attempt to break the June-long hex that had sunk the team into last place, even without a curse of a minor Babe.  Not since Memorial Day, when the Sox had won the game on a walk-off grand-slam homerun, had they won a home game.  For the entire month of June they had been winless in their own ballpark, where they had gone 0 and 6, while compounding their misery with a 6 and 12 mark on the road.  With such an abysmal record, they reversed from first (having blasted off to a 17-5 record in April) to last in the semblance of biblical judgment. 
On the night of my singing they had hoped that by “dressing to impress” they could break their streak.  Impress whom?  The gods of the gopher ball or demons of the diamond?  Whatever their motive and target, the ploy didn’t work.  They lost to the Pelicans 10-8, even though they took a lead into the eighth inning.  As only a losing streak can seem to generate, the poor June luck of the Red Sox continued when their promising relief pitcher suffered an arm injury that forced his exit with none on and two outs in the inning.  Alas, before the inning was over, his replacement had yielded four hits, hit a batter, balked, walked a batter, and allowed a stolen base, all of which produced four runs and effectively sank Salem.
Carter and Karen Turner, Bonnie, and Dan Casey
A few days earlier the Carolina League had completed its first half of the season.  And although the Red Sox didn’t fare well in the standings at that point, they still had good hope of making the post-season playoff by breaking their losing streak and winning the second half of the season in their division.
Although I couldn’t claim partial credit for ending their streak the following night, I thoroughly enjoyed my one evening in Salem.  I got to spend it with Carter Turner and his wife Karen.  Carter is a professor at nearby Radford University; and we have worked together on conference panels and projects dealing with sports and religion.  In addition, at the game Bonnie and I got to greet and talk to Dan Casey. 
While the story by Casey had not affected the Red Sox, it certainly influenced fan appreciation and other media awareness.  Mid-afternoon as Bonnie and I were eating in a Roanoke restaurant, I received a call from Elizabeth Harrington, a reporter for WDBJ TV, requesting an interview.  We filmed it at various points in ballpark, and her short feature ran on the evening news and the morning show the following day.  As much fun as the interview was, it was even more fun to be approached by fans throughout the game who had seen Casey’s story the previous day and who had heard my introduction before singing. 
When I had entered the ballpark, Dave Spangler greeted me at the gate, congratulating me on the project. and indicating that he had read about it in Casey's column.  He and others were able to recognize me because the newspaper had also printed a picture of me in my customary performance attire of an anthem tour polo shirt, which I was wearing for the Salem game.  Another fan passing by said, “Mr. Price.  We’re glad you came to Salem.  Keep up the good work around the country.”  Later while I was standing in one of the concession lines, Bruce Briggs approached me and asked me to sign the back of his ticket.  I know that the autograph will never have monetary value, but his request reflects the kind of hope many Minor League fans have about one of their players making it big in the big leagues.  A few do--and their early autographs rise from sentimental significance to monetary value. 

At most Minor League parks, there are posted lists or banners or plaques on the wall that identify recent team players who have made it to “the show.”  A few ballparks—like the ones in Asheville or Scranton/Wilkes-Barre—also display colorful banners or bronze plaques of former players who made it to the Major Leagues and franchise stars enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  At Salem, a different level of respect is accorded to the former heroes.  Rather than devoting a concourse wall for displaying the roster of successful bygone stars, the team has erected a separate facility in the ballpark complex to serve as Salem's Hall of Fame.   It commemorates the pace setters among the team’s former stars as well as local baseball personalities who contributed to the community in significant ways.

Children playing at replica Fenway in fron of Salem's Hall of Fame building.

A child retrieves a foul ball for the kids' Wiffle ball game.
 To get to the building, I walked past children playing Wiffle Ball on a miniature diamond with a proportionate replica of Fenway’s Green Monster looming over left field.  This free entertainment space encouraged vibrant activity for kids who thronged to the site, playing their own game within earshot of the Salem-Myrtle Beach game a few hundred feet away.  They appeared to be more excited by their competition in this baseball set than the bouncy-room attractions that typify most of the play-spaces at Minor League parks. 
Salem’s Hall of Fame lured me for personal reasons.  I wanted to see if a shirt-tail friend—a recurring acquaintance through our mutual good friend Don Musser—was honored there.  Having been told by an usher that the facility was open, I was disappointed to find its doors locked.  Undeterred, I sought one of the senior staff members to get access.  Sure enough, one of the stadium security officers unlocked the doors, turned on the lights, and allowed me to survey the walls until I found the tribute to Art Howe, whose plaque he removed from the wall so that I could photograph it more easily.

Forty years ago, Art had been a semi-pro player in Pittsburgh where he was a member of the church where Don Musser served as pastor.  Signed to a contract with the Pirates after showing his skills at a try-out camp, Art led the league in hitting in the year that he played for Salem.  Thereafter, he progressed through the minors and finally was promoted to the Pirates as a reserve infielder in the mid-1970s.  It was at that point that Don and I met in graduate school in Chicago. 
So when Pittsburgh came to town to play the Cubs, Don phoned Art and got us box seat tickets at Wrigley Field for a record-setting game. That afternoon Pirates’ second baseman Rennie Stennett became the first player to get 7 hits in a nine-inning game and John Candelaria pitched Pittsburgh to a sunny shellacking of Chicago—22-0, the largest margin of victory in a shut-out in Major League history.  After the game, Art got Stennett to autograph a ball, date it, and mark its significance before handing it to Don.  Then on a rare day off in Chicago, Art came down to the Midway at the university to watch the Divinity School’s intramural softball team, on which both Don and I played, and cheer for us as we beat the Business School that afternoon. 
After finishing his playing career in Houston about a decade later, Art shifted his role to that of coaching, progressing to become the Astros' manager.  Our paths then crossed again in the early 90s when I sang the anthem in Atlanta.  Conveniently, Don and his wife Ruth were in the city while Don was doing academic research at Emory University; and the three of us attended the game and talked with Art during batting practice.  Adjacent to the Astros’ dugout, I was able to take a posed picture of Don, Ruth, and Art, later getting the photograph enlarged and signed by Art during one of the Astros’ visits to Los Angeles.  The poster-size photograph now hangs in Don's study.
My last encounter with Art solidified my respect for his friendship with Don.  After Art became the manager of the A’s, I was able to sing the anthem in Oakland.  Prior to the pregame ceremonies there, I sought Art and let him know that Don, who had conquered lymphoma while serving as his pastor, had contracted a new case of the cancer, now thirty years later.  While Don was completing rounds of chemotherapy and awaiting an autologous stem-cell transplant, Art phoned him to check on him, reversing the pastoral role that had bonded them years earlier.  My deep friendship with Don—a friendship about which we are jointly writing a memoir and theological reflection—motivated me to seek out the tribute to Art in Salem’s Hall of Fame exhibit.

Everybody loves Salem's mascot:
Dan Casey's son goes cheek to cheek with Mugsy.
 It’s not surprising that I fell in love with the people, the setting, and the tributes at Salem’s ballpark.  Yet while romance at a ballpark is a common desire and experience of baseball fans, marriage proposals offered there are less frequent.  In Minneapolis, for instance, it is possible for a Twins' fan to reserve the opportunity for a marriage proposal projected on the video board.   At Minor League parks, however, such public proposals are scarce.   Following the fifth inning of Salem's game, Mike and Melanie were “invited” to participate in a trivia contest or dance game atop the third base dugout.   Unbeknownst to Melanie, Mike had connived their selection to be featured.  On cue then, Mike knelt and proposed to her, and she accepted.
Love at the ballpark and love of the ballpark: Baseball in Salem stimulates both.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Deluge: A Rainout in Potomac

Inflated Uncle Sam appeals to the heavens to prevent rain.
 Sooner or later the rain was bound to fall and cause the postponement of one of my games.  Narrowly, I had escaped cancellation in several cities during the previous weeks.  A torrential storm in Charleston had swamped the field in April and threatened cancellation of the game.  A steady, soft rain for a couple of innings in Lexington hadn’t interrupted play.  The thunderstorms in Winston-Salem and Durham delayed the start of their games.  And the night before Potomac’s deluge, rain had complicated matters in Richmond.  Yet each of those games proceeded.

Even with skies beginning to clear, the infield remained covered.

Left-field could have been a splashing pool attraction for children.

The game would have pitted two last-place teams in the Carolina League.  Potomac sat at the bottom of the Northern Division with a 28-39 record, and Salem had slumped to the bottom of the Southern Division with a 30 wins and 37 losses.  The good news about the evening was that neither team would sink farther, that is, unless they waded in the puddles on the field.

As recently as mid-afternoon in northern Virginia, no rain-storms had appeared on radar, but at 6:03 an intense, an isolated storm erupted. Lightening cracked and thunder rolled.  A strong cell had developed southwest of the ballpark around 5 o’clock and seemed to have targeted the municipal recreational ballpark in Woodbridge for a downpour. Because the field doesn’t drain well, a short shower can cause a game to be cancelled.  A few days later when I sang in Frederick, Maryland, I learned from one of the staffers that the field conditions in Woodbridge are so challenging that Potomac sometimes must play its home games in Frederick.
The field remained covered in hopes of the storm being merely a passing shower, but a deluge ensued for 45 minutes.  An odd thing:  At 6:30 I learned of the postponement of the game and phoned Bonnie, who was en route to the ballpark with one of her friends.  Although they were only four miles away, they were shocked since it wasn’t raining on their car.  So too was Ann Linder, a friend from Chicago.  For months, she had planned to synchronize her visit with family in the Washington area with the time that Bonnie and I would be there.  Having paid the parking fee minutes before receiving my phone call, she and her entourage of cousins and nephews could hardly believe that the game had been cancelled since the skies had begun to clear.

Meredith and Shelby display the line-ups.
  Despite Potomac's losing record, the list of its recent alumni is impressive, featuring National League MVP first basemen Albert Pujols of St. Louis and Joey Votto of Cincinnati.  I had wanted to see who would now be playing first for the team--perhaps the NL MVP for 2020.  Although I didn't get to see the game, I did get the anticipated line-ups presented by Meredith and Shelby, two of the Nationals' staffers.
Literally deflated by the rainout, Uncle Sam appeared to drown in disappointment.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Baseball Prism: Game 47 in Richmond

The site of Richmond’s Diamond, the current name of the Minor League ballpark, is a prism for my baseball experiences since I was a teenager.  It figures prominently in my acceptance of my family’s relocation from our Mississippi home during my high school years.  It has tangible significance since it is the first ballpark where I caught a foul ball, now on display among several others in a wing of my study.  It holds special memories since my sons and I went to games there during visits to their grandmother’s house. It was the first Minor League ballpark in which I sang twenty years ago.  And now it assumes a significant role in my anthem tour.
When my father first suggested the possibility that our family might move to Richmond from the Mississippi home that I had known throughout my pre-teen years, he was surprised by my delight.  “Why would you like Richmond?” he asked as he drove me to a doctor’s appointment along Woodrow Wilson Drive in Jackson.  “It’s where the Yankees’ farm team is,” I replied. 
It didn’t take many days for us to attend our first game featuring the Richmond Virginians and future Yankees’ second baseman Horace Clarke.  And it was in one of my first games at Parker Field, as it was known at that time, that I caught a pop foul off the bat of Norm Sherry, then a catcher for the Syracuse Chiefs.  In addition to the charm of baseball, I also found a different kind of romance at the ballpark throughout my high school years, taking special dates there to see the future—and sometimes former—Yankees. 
Although I was disappointed when Richmond shifted its affiliation from the Yankees to the Braves, I still attended their games on the occasions of my return visits to my parents’ house during my collegiate and graduate studies.  And several years later when my sons were school age, my aunt and uncle treated the entire family to box seats.  At the game that night, one of the promotions was a trivia contest, which my older son Jared, then age 8, entered with my assistance.  The question: “What American League pitcher held the record for career strikeouts by left-handers?”  We worked through several options and finally settled on Mickey Lolich.  He printed the name with his best handwriting and handed his answer sheet to an usher. 
An inning or so later, the P.A. announcer reported that there had been four correct submissions and that a winner’s name had been drawn from them: Jared Price.  He was thrilled to hear his name called aloud over the P.A. system.  A picture of him smiling moments after the announcement hangs prominently among my cherished mementos in the baseball gallery in my office.  When he went to retrieve his prize of a large Domino’s pizza, several fans and staff members congratulated him on “knowing baseball.”  As much delight as he derived from winning the contest, he found at least equal pleasure in having earned supper for our family!
If these experiences years apart were not enough to carve a permanent place into the joy-box of my memories, a few years later I enjoyed another delightful experience there.  After I had begun to sing the anthem for the Dodgers and Angels, I contacted the Braves to see if I could sing for them during another family trip to visit my mother.  That afternoon, we were joined by Bill Kruschwitz, a friend from college and seminary years.  Eighteen months later, I received a brief letter and Xeroxed page from Bill’s roommate Jack Birdwhistell, also a friend during seminary days.  Having been told by Bill about my anthem performance the year before, Jack was surprised as he read David Lamb’s book A Stolen Season.  From that work he had copied page 183, and highlighted three sentences from Lamb’s account of having seen a game in The Diamond.  “A visiting college professor from California sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and someone from Napa Auto Parts threw out the first pitch.  The Braves won in the eleventh inning.  Dave Justice went 0 for 5.”
Lamb’s somewhat anonymous account of my singing there almost two decades ago still makes me smile, especially since his mention was one of only three or four references that he made to anthem performances and receptions throughout his summer-long journey.
A child's impression of Nutzy.
After Richmond lost the AAA Braves to Gwinnett in 2008, The Diamond lay dormant for a year before the Eastern League relocated the Giants’ AA franchise from Connecticut.  A fan contest was held to name the team and more than 6000 local entries were submitted before a national surge added another 9000 suggestions. For proposing the winning entry—the Flying Squirrels—the fan received life-time season tickets.   In preparation for the shift, a number of renovations were made in the ballpark, primarily to improve seating comfort, upgrade luxury box upgrades, and redesign the restaurant and souvenir shop.  The concourses now provide a gallery for children's artistic renderings of Nutzy, the Flying Squirrels' mascot.

At the renovated ballpark, an outfield ad plays with the Flying Squirrels' name.
Ironically, the auto club's ad hangs above this reference to the Squirrels, who are AA, not AAA.

Even so, the sound system is as poor as it was when Lamb had heard me sing two decades ago.  The sound delay, one of the worst that I have encountered, is described by some of Richmond’s staffers as being a couple of seconds.  While singing with ear plugs packed as tightly as possible into my ears, I heard both then and now simultaneously, almost like listening to a simulcast on TV and radio with both sound systems on, but with one delayed.  The experience was disjointed, to say the least, as I tried to block the continuous echo.  In part, the audio difficulties were masked by fireworks that were shot off from beyond the centerfield fence when I reached the phrases about “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.”  Even so, the anthem went well. 
Huguenot Little Leaguers parade on field before the game.
I had requested that I would be introduced in some way other than merely with my name, at least with the name of Whittier College, whose sabbatical support makes it possible for me to spend the time on the journey.  Normally, an additional sentence is provided to identify my project which would likely not provoke recognition even from former high school classmates who might be attending the game.  Perhaps the P.A. announcer cut the planned introduction because of the length of other pre-game ceremonies, which included a parade of Little League players and 11 first pitches.  I have seen first innings with fewer first pitches than Richmond paraded to the mound that evening!
In the Richmond dugout during pre-game warm-ups, I had also hoped to connect with Thomas Vassella, who had pitched for the Poets while he attended Whittier.  Although he had begun this season with an impressive win against Bowie in his first start in Double-A, he had been sent back to the Single A San Jose Giants by the time that I got to Virginia.  Perhaps I can catch up with him in Silicon Valley during the final weeks of my tour.  
Though my pre-game experience was not as gratifying as I had hoped, I was glad that the game was able to be played after a downpour started less than an hour before its scheduled start. 

In an odd sequence, the infield was watered while the tarp crew waited to cover the field to protect it from the storm.

Having been watered minutes before, the infield is covered during the downpour.

Gradually, the capacity crowd filled the ballpark and cheered enthusiastically as Richmond took an early and commanding lead.  In the first inning, Richmond scored a run in a way that I have never seen.  Leadoff hitter Justin Christian hit a ball to the shortstop who muffed it, allowing him to reach first safely.  Another grounder to short advanced the fleet-footed Christian to second on a fielder’s choice.  With one out, Roger Kieschnick hit a towering drive to centerfield.  Anticipating that it might be caught against the wall, Christian returned to second, tagged immediately as the catch was made, never hesitated as he rounded third, and slid across home as the relay came in chest high.  The catcher didn’t bother to sweep a tag.   
If he hadn’t convinced me with his first inning feat, Christian made a believer of me the next inning when he crushed a homerun with two on and two out, and two innings later when he singled in the middle of another Flying Squirrels’ rally.  Led by Christian and Kieschnick, who also hit a three-run homer, Richmond scored 11 runs on only 9 hits while Binghamton tallied 17 hits but only 9 runs, four of which they got in the ninth.     

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Dashing Experience: Game 43 in Winston-Salem

Since I love team names that feature grammar and baseball plays, what could be better than a name that puns the punctuation mark within a city’s name with the fleet-footed run from the batter’s box to first base!  The Dash.  From Winston-Salem.   Not that the team wants to flee the city or its smoky heritage, but you get the drift.  Add to that double reference the fact that the team’s name is a collective singular noun, a feature that underscores the group unity of teamwork, and you can see why I am so taken with Winston-Salem's dashing name. 
While I delight in word play about the Dash, what made the Winston-Salem game most enjoyable was that two former colleagues from Whittier, Laura Ammon and Randy Reed, drove down from their home in the mountains to join Bonnie and me for the game and dinner later in the evening.  A specialist in the history of Christianity, Laura began her association with Whittier when she was appointed to replace me during my previous sabbatical leave during the late 90s.  For several years thereafter, she continued to teach courses in religious studies while completing her Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University.  Her husband Randy, whose expertise lies in the studies of methods and theories related to religious studies, also began to teach for us while he completed his dissertation at my alma mater, The University of Chicago Divinity School.  Incredibly, both now enjoy tenure-track appointments in the same department at Appalachian State University!
Two hours before the scheduled start of the game, violent thunderstorms rolled in and lightning struck in the parking lot adjacent to the stadium.  As the rain slackened I still needed to complete a sound check on the field, and although the violent portion of the storm had passed, I wondered whether the battery powered microphone might attract lightning. 
As skies cleared and fans began to pour into the ballpark, they were greeted by members of the Knights of Columbus who passed out small flags in honor of upcoming Flag Day.  What a great photo opportunity—a patriotic celebration by a religious group.  I reached into my computer bag for my camera and realized that it was still on the dinette table in Arby, which was docked at the Zooland RV Park 50 miles away in Asheboro. 
Although it was a Friday night, you might have thought that the ballgame in this North Carolina enclave was an ecumenical conference.  Not only were the K of C from the Holy Family Catholic Church greeting fans; according to the welcome board, there were also groups attending from 5 Baptist churches, 2 Episcopalian churches, an independent religious community, a Catholic church, and a Moravian congregation.  The series of groups could almost be sung to the tune of the 12 days of Christmas—a unifying celebration for which, like this baseball game, all of the diverse religious groups might gather together. 
Given the throng of church folk in the audience, it’s ironic—by omission—that my introduction to sing the anthem didn’t refer to the fact that I’m a professor of religious studies.  A more explicit irony was connected to my introduction.  My identification was prefaced with the sponsoring phrase: “Performing tonight’s anthem is Winston-Salem Journal National Anthem finalist and Whittier College professor Joe Price.”  What an irony!?  Several days earlier I had sent the Journal’s sports department a news release about me singing the anthem for the Dash’s game, and as usual my email got ignored, not even provoking a form reply.  Yet now, getting ready to sing the anthem, I was claimed to be a sponsored finalist for a publication that had refused to recognize the anthem performance project that I have undertaken!
For only the second time on my tour, the team made a video of my performance.  So there is some visual record of the ballpark and the Dashing fans.  (You can see it by clicking on the movie screen at the top of this page.  I always am reluctant to post the in-game performances since the acoustics at ballparks make hearing oneself difficult.)  On my way to my seat following the anthem, I was surprised by one woman’s comment, especially in North Carolina: “Thank you for not singing it country.”
The Dash’s mascot Bolt was among the most energetic and inventive on-field entertainers that I have seen in the first forty games of the season.  In one of his routines he pretended to pilfer balls from the umpire’s bag and then to pull out size 60 or larger briefs.  The crowd roared.  The underwear was so large that a later promotion could have featured a yoked race with two children using the leg holes of the underwear as waist bands to run in contrast to another pair of runners similarly tied together.  Bolt also surprised me during one of the mid-inning give-aways.  While I was talking to Randy and Laura, he threw a soft souvenir ball toward me.  Bonnie said, “Look!”  I turned, and with instinctive reactions uncommon for me, caught the spongy, small ball, a first for the season!
As was the score:  The Wilmington Blue Rocks dashed Winston-Salem’s hopes for starting their home-stand with a win.  Swatting five of their six hits for extra-base, including a couple of homeruns, Wilmington won 4-1.