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.

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