Friday, July 1, 2011

Facets of an Appalachian Gem: Game 56 in Pulaski

Friendliness seems to be endemic to Southwestern Virginia.  In the small mountain city of Pulaski, Mariners' staff and fans were as welcoming as a dugout of teammates following a grand-slam homerun.  Or as wary observers might wonder, folks there might have been prompted to be so cordial to me because they had read the Dan Casey's column in the Roanoke Times earlier in the day.  

New foliage stands ready to enhance the ballpark's natural beauty.
While several of the specific greetings that were extended to me were probably stimulated by the newspaper article, I'm fairly certain that the fans' affability was a reflection of the community's spirit. They intensely love their town, which had been severely damaged by one of the  tornados that ripped through the region several weeks before, and they genuinely expressed appreciation for me having come to Pulaski, where the Appalachian League’s Mariners had opened their Rookie level play several days earlier.  With scaffolding still erect in one section of the grandstands and foliage still in pots awaiting transplanting into the ballpark landscape, an expectant attitude seemed to emanate from the field as well. 
Because the Appalachian League plays a short-season schedule, my travel route overlapped the Mariners' late-June start by only one game.  So I was especially appreciative that Pulaski allowed me to sing during their first home-stand.  This season marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the original Appalachian League, which has been reconstituted on two occasions, most recently 50 years ago.

The pastoral setting of Calfree Park at sunset.
When I picked up my ticket Wayne Carpenter, one of the owners of the P-Mariners, came out of the office to greet me and offered me something to drink and eat—a first by a staffer on my tour!  And Abby Lyman, the Assistant General Manger with whom I had corresponded during the scheduling phase of the tour, gave me a copy of the souvenir program, a rare gift on the tour.  An hour or so later as I stood ready to sing the anthem, my introduction was the most thorough thus far, focusing on the object of the tour promoting the anthem itself detailing the expanse of my travel. 
Following my rendition, Dave Hart, the Director of Ballpark Operations mentioned that, after having read about the dead microphone at Williamsport, he made sure to put a fresh battery in the one used there at Pulaski!  His enthusiasm for historic ballparks, especially his, was also unmistakable.  He asked about my perceptions of the older facilities in Daytona, Savannah, and Williamsport, and he expressed personal appreciation for Rickwood Field in Birmingham.  A couple of decades ago when he had attended a regional conference of civic parks and recreation directors in Alabama, the group organized a softball game, which was played on the diamond at Rickwood.  As he told me the story, he glowed like a rookie standing on base after his first hit.

The original entrance into Calfree Ballpark.
Historic Calfree Park, the home of the Mariners, is one of the oldest ballparks in Minor League Baseball.  Built in 1935 as a WPA project, the ballpark was refurbished in 1999 when stands along the first base line were renovated, new locker rooms constructed, and the concessions area expanded.  The grandstands along the third base were left intact and merely repaired.  One of the charming features of that original section is its wide rows that do not have separate seats or even benches.  With expansive space, fans can sit on the widely  tiered platforms or bring their own folding chairs—as most did—and comfortably place them under the canopy of the grandstand.

Fans perch on the wide platforms in the original section of the grandstands.
As a Rookie League affiliate, Pulaski’s roster is filled with quite young prospects, some drafted as recently as a few weeks ago and others having played professionally last year.  The highest draftee on the Mariners was a tenth rounder, while the visiting Princeton Rays featured Tampa’s first-round pick of the 2011 draft, 18 year-old infielder Jake Hager from Las Vegas, and its first-round pick from a year ago, catcher Justin O’Conner. 
Half of the players on Pulaski’s team had signed as free agents, most of whom were 19-year olds from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.  Another international Mariner was an 18 year-old pitcher who hailed from South Africa.  Whether drafted as a prospect or signed as a free agent, each of the players appeared thrilled to be pursuring the dream of playing in the Major Leagues. 

As delighted as the players were about the getting paid to play baseball, the Pulaski fans reciprocated with an enthusiastic embrace of the team.  The community’s exuberant acceptance of the minor leaguers and their life-styles more closely resembles the snapshot of minor league life in Bull Durham than any that I have seen on the tour.   Each year, fifteen or twenty community members adopt players to provide them with family-style connections and support.

One of the adopters sought me out as I walked through the reserved seats. Mont Quisenberry, the retired choral director at Pulaski High School and the music director at nearby Memorial Baptist Church, extended his hand as he complimented my rendition.  "Thanks for singing it as the national anthem," he said, "and not as a voice exercise.  [Because] it's difficult, you don't need to add 30 extra notes to try to show off your voice."  

A family talks with a rookie before the game.
With courtesies exchanged, we talked at length about the national anthem, baseball (especially the Pulaski fans' support of the team as his adopted player came to bat), and our musical training.  He had honed his vocal skills and choral directing at Berea College, "a little Kentucky school that you probably wouldn't know," he added.  When I chimed in that my former student Kent Gilbert is pastor of the Berea Union Church, whose sanctuary prominently faces the College, he was surprised.  And he was more amazed that Bonnie and I had stayed there and dined at the Boone's Tavern Inn when I'd sung for Lexington a month earlier. 
For a number of the players, the challenge of professional play is compounded by the need to make adjustments in their first move from home and in relocating to a distant community.  A mountain town in Appalachia is quite distant in miles and culture from a Midwestern city, suburban Los Angeles, and especially Merida Menda, Venezuela. 

Typically, sponsoring families provide treats for players, and often feeding them and drive them to the store.  Last year, Meredith McGrady, the coordinator for player sponsorship, put 10K miles on her Explorer driving players on errands and trips.  An innovation this year is that the ballclub’s owners have purchased three vans for the coaches and staff to use to drive the players to the store.   In previous years, some of the adopting families also provided rooms for their adopted players, but this year the team is living together in a motel.  

One of the attractions that draws fans to adopt a player is the chance to extend personal hospitality and to strengthen the community’s cohesiveness and reputation.  Another is the possibility that the adopted player might become a Major League star.  Within the past few decades, a roster of Major Leaguers who played for Pulaski includes current starting pitchers Aaron Harang (Cincinnati) and Colby Lewis (Texas), former Atlanta Braves All-Stars Dave Justice and Javy Lopez, and Hall of Fame slugger Mike Schmidt.

Mariners' infielder Dan Paolini gives batting tips to aspiring players.
The close relationship between players and fans is displayed before games at the ballpark, where players stop to talk at length to children, often giving them batting tips, as did Daniel Paolini, the highest draft pick on the Mariners’ team.  And there’s a familiarity that youngsters also enjoy with players.  When one of the little “dream team” players approached Reynaldo Sabala, a Venezuelan born pitcher, the kid proudly exclaimed, “I get to go on the field with you!”  Looking a bit baffled, as though the catcher had called for a pitch out with no runners on base, Sabala smiled broadly and said simply, “Don’t understand you.”  Indeed the challenges of adjusting to life in the Appalachian League often extend far beyond those of geographic relocation: they frequently involve unfamiliar language and cultural immersion in the life of a small, mountain town.

Like the neigbhorhood at Wrigley Field, fans can watch the game from their porches.
Although the Marines had won their first five games this season, they were plagued by sloppy fielding, making six errors that led to eight unearned runs in the 14-2 loss to Princeton.  Even so, the evening was a gem revealing the camaraderie grows between players and their adopting families.  And the joyful expressions on the faces of both players and fans showed that baseball helps to bridge racial distinctions, ethnic differences, and linguistic barriers.
The Mariners' mascot apparently sheds a tear at the final score.

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