While Wrigley Field might be known as the “Friendly Confines,” I dare say you’d be harder pressed to find a friendlier ballpark than the one in Lynchburg, Virginia, where the Hillcats (High A Class affiliate of the Atlanta Braves) make their home. In Lynchburg Ronnie Roberts greeted me and introduced me to GM Paul Sunwall. Both inquired about the progress of the tour and the reception that I had received at the ballparks. I indicated that, because I sing the anthem without embellishments and at a crisp tempo, the most frequent comment is “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Paul said that was exactly what he likes to hear. Ronnie added that some audition in a traditional way, but given the microphone at game time, they try to put their own spin on it. “They don’t get invited back,” Paul added.
|Luis Salazar laughs with coaches before the game.|
Turning our conversation to baseball, Paul asked if I knew the story about the Lynchburg manager, Luis Salazar. In Spring Training this year, Salazar had been hit in the face with a line drive that caused him to lose an eye. By Opening Day, he was back in the dugout, and during the player introductions he individually greeted players on both teams with fist bumps. Following and he will likely resume his position coaching third base in the second half of the Hillcats’ season. While he has not yet taken his typical on-field position in the third-base coach’s box, it is likely that he will resume that practice during the second half of the season. Between now and then, he’s scheduled to have advanced surgery to attach his prosthetic eye to the muscles and nerves in his eye socket, thereby aligning its movement with that of this “good eye.”
After the anthem, I exchanged several comments with Salazar. I complimented his courage and inspirational leadership and he inquired about my next few games. Before getting to my seat by Bonnie, several fans expressed appreciation, not only for the anthem rendition but for including Lynchburg on my itinerary. And Paul and Ronnie expressed their appreciation by introducing me to significant personalities of the ballpark. Ronnie introduced me to Douglas Thom, a former professional light opera performer who regularly sings for Hillcats’ game. “I heard you at the game in Little Rock a month ago when I was visiting my folks,” Douglas said. What fun! Four years ago he sang the anthem on the final day of Lynchburg’s season. Given his excellent musicianship and his traditional rendition, influenced by Robert Merrill’s standard performances at Yankee Stadium where Douglas had learned to love baseball, he has now become a regular performer for the Hillcats.
|Terry Falwell holds bobble-head of his father Calvin.|
And Paul introduced me to Terry Falwell, son of Calvin Falwell, after whom the ballpark is named because of his instrumental role in bringing the Hillcats to the city. Terry also happens to be the cousin of the late Jerry Falwell, televangelist and founder of Liberty University where Terry works in community relations. Terry, in turn, seemed to know everyone in the ballpark, and after talking with Bonnie and me for a half hour about our grand adventure, he escorted us through the concourses and skyboxes, speaking to most folks by name and introducing them to us.
One was Gene Gallagher, one of the Hillcats’ owners. Now a passionate Hillcats’ fan, Gene had not grown up loving baseball. In fact, he had not followed baseball until his children enjoyed attending their first Lynchburg game some years ago. After enjoying the school-night promotion on their initial visit to the ballpark, his children requested the chance to return the following evening. They did, and Gene became a devoted Hillcats’ fan because of the family entertainment provided by the Minor League atmosphere.
In that first season of his children’s fondness for the game and the Lynchburg team, which was then affiliated with the Mets, Gene and his family attended most of the home games and made several road trips with the team. His eight-year old daughter Brittany fell in love with Paco Perez, one of the Hillcats’ players. Following the final game of the year, Brittany teared up and said, “Now I won’t be able to see Paco anymore.” Seeing her cry and hearing her remark, Paco put his arm around her and said, pointing to his head, “But you always be here with me.” That tender moment of a Minor Leaguer’s interaction with his daughter sold Gene on becoming more involved with the team.
Now decades later Gene watched the game between Lynchburg and the Wilmington Blue Rocks with the keen eye of a businessman while cheering for the home team. The game itself was filled with unusual plays and blown calls. In the first inning with runners on the corners and one out, a sharp grounder was hit to the first baseman who made a strong throw to the shortstop Phil Gosselin, a fan-favorite and recent graduate of the nearby University of Virginia who was covering second. Gosselin leaped over the sliding runner and made a strong, accurate return throw to the first base bag. But no one covered first, the ball sailed into foul territory, and the Blue Rocks’ runner from third scored. A group of six women behind me groaned in unison and loudly offered coaching advice to both the pitcher and the first baseman: “Come on guys. Cover the bag.”
Cheering encouragement to Hillcats’ hitters, gently heckling the opponent in traditional ways, and criticizing close calls by the umpires, they provided the most entertainment throughout the game. Life-long residents of Lynchburg who regularly sit in the back row of the family section, these six women had been effusive in their expressions of appreciation of my anthem rendition. They endeared themselves to Bonnie when they pleasantly remarked to each other after the applause following my performance: “He’s traveled all the way ‘cross the United States to sing for us.”
|From left: Pat Jefferson, Betty Cauley, Norma Glass, Bonnie Ayers, Nancy Trent, Delores Wright|
Throughout the game, they cheered and cheered so good-naturedly that we stayed so long at the game that we almost missed our dinner reservations. When we arrived at the restaurant quite late, the kitchen crew had already begun to scrub down the grill. Here’s a sample of what kept us enrapt.
Responding to the Hillcats’ pitcher tossing over to first several times to keep the runner close, one who had the commanding voice of a long-term school bus driver, called out: “Come on. Let’s get him at the plate.”
But to the Blue Rocks’ pitcher in a similar situation an inning later, she yelled: “Forget him. Pitch the ball.”
Encouraging a Hillcats’ batter: “Good eye, Joey. Come on, Joey.”
Or: “Base hit, Adam. Hit a homer.”
Advising a Hillcats’ runner on a tag play at home: “Slide. Slide. Slide.”
Or to the ump on a blown call: “Blue, you’re full of it tonight.”
Their remark to the home plate umpire, who surely could hear them, was only a little kinder than Terry’s comment, quoting his father: “He may have been cut out to be an ump, but somebody sewed him up wrong.”
One thing’s for sure, however. There’s nothing wrong with a night at Falwell Field in Lynchburg. Despite the Hillcats losing to the Blue Rocks, the fans and ballpark were simply endearing.