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.     

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