Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Shots Abounding and Resounding: Game 61 in Lowell

The association of shots with baseball usually means that jiggers of whisky are somehow involved.  But in Lowell, Massachusetts on the evening following July 4, the shots that resounded throughout the evening were from muskets fired by fans dressed as Colonial soldiers from North Middlesex County. 

Minutemen load their rifles.

Often throughout the Spinners’ baseball season, these minutemen present the colors at the beginning of games.  Because their flag bearer did not arrive on time, Courtney, a staff intern with the Spinners, volunteered to carry the flag.  Yet her presence seemed incongruous even though she bore the colors.  The men carried guns; she carried the flag.  The men wore costumes from the 18th century; she wore shorts and a Spinners’ staff T-shirt from the 21st century.  Following the anthem they fired their muskets in salute; she winced at the explosion.
During the game they also fire their arms when Spinners cross home plate.  With the Spinners scoring eleven runs in the seven-inning first game of the double header, the minutemen were hardly able to reload their muskets fast enough to shoot again.
Smith takes mound for first pitch.
Despite the frequency of their firing, the musketeers were not the main shooting attraction of the game.  The Human Cannonball—David Smith, Sr., who holds the world record at more than 201 feet of cannon projection—became the first “Human Homerun.”  The promotion had been feted in ads and blogs and media in days leading up to the event. 
When I had first learned of the promotion, I had hoped to see a cannon placed in the batter’s box and a stunt man then propelled over one of the outfield fences.  Even at a cozy ballpark like the one in Asheville where the distance down the line was less than 300 feet, a human homerun would have bettered the world record more than 50%. 
I was a little disappointed, then, when I saw that Smith’s cannon was rolled to an outfield position about half-way between second base and the right centerfield wall.  When a nearby kid watched the Spinners’ staff member place a tarp to protect the field while the cannon was being rolled out, I heard him muse, somewhat prophetically, “What’s the worst thing that could happen? Damaging the field?”

The cannon is rolled to its outfield position.
No. We all knew that the worst thing might be that Smith could hit the outfield wall head-first, or that he’d land in the trees, or miss the acrobats’ net beyond the outfield wall.  Yet what appeared to be of great concern to the Spinners was the condition of the outfield grass.

Because his son who had been scheduled to be the first Human Homerun had withdrawn from the production a few days earlier, the senior Smith, age 69, inserted himself into the event.  He climbed into the barrel of the cannon, and after a launch-like count-down, he was shot over the fence. 

The spectacle was incredible.  The crowd oohed and aahed, cheered, and applauded. 
And after emerging through the outfield fence like an astronaut coming into view after a Shuttle landing, Smith waved to the fans and began a victory lap toward home.  Stopping at first base, he was interviewed about his experience of flying over the fence.  
Excerpts: "What does it feel like when you're up there?"  "It feels free." 
"How did you get started as a human cannonball?  “I was a school teacher,” he said, “and that was too tough!”
While athletes often use interviews as a means to offer a brief testimony, Smith used a different vehicle to express his faith.  He let his powerful cannon speak.         
Indeed his feat of clearing the right field wall—and the row of trees behind it—was spectacular.  A(A local news video can be viewed HERE.) Even ESPN had taken notice.  Thomas Neumann, one of its on-line editors, attended the game to document the event. Having arrived early enough to catch the first game of the double-header (unlike most of the fans), Thomas also caught my anthem rendition, interviewed me during the middle innings, and blogged his story by the following afternoon. 
The trophy case of Lowell bobble-heads.
The Lowell franchise is well-known for its creative promotions.  Over the years it has been celebrated for its unusual bobble-head give-aways, one of the most famous being its image of Jack Kerouac, an example of which is archived in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And when Jonathan Papelbon, now the ace closer for the Red Sox, was recognized with his own likeness, fans lined up for blocks before the front gates opened.  In some way, the bobble-headed feature is expected to evoke fan devotion to the Red Sox, Lowell’s parent club, or to Massachusetts.  Unusual selections joining Kerouac included a piece representing Stephen King a base identifying his three favorite novels: The Dark Tower, The Dead Zone, and The Green Mile.  (Note: this bobble-head--with head still attached--was distributed on Friday 13th!)  And a bobble-head of Emeril Lagasse, a Massachusetts’ native, was given out on the day that Katrina struck New Orleans.  (I wonder if his image came with a sound chip exclaiming “Bam!”)
In a way the Lowell ballpark seems to typify the democratic identification of a community with a team, not merely by the inclusion of Massachusetts notables in the series of souvenir bobble-heads but also by the design of the grandstands.  There was little distinction in viewing angle or closeness to field between the box seats and general admission; and there were no elegantly appointed luxury boxes atop the stadium or at dugout level.  Instead, the VIP suites were a couple of rooms adjacent to the press booth and accessible from the concourse level.  The named one—a Yawkey suite, of course—had no one in it during the first game of the evening, other than a staff member seeking quiet to finish her work or text friends.
After Smith, who was wearing Spinners number 37, had soared over the fence, the pitching coach for the Spinners, also wearing uniform number 37, looked up at me in the right field stands and said, “Are you the guy who sang the national anthem?”  I nodded yes. “Aren’t you from Whittier, California?”  Again, yes.  “Didn’t you sing last year at Fullerton?”  An affirmative trifecta!
Pitching coach Paul Abbott of the Lowell Spinners had heard my introduction and made the association of my singing with last year’s rendition for the Orange County Flyers, an independent minor league team in the Gold Coast League.  Having been in the ballpark in Fullerton that afternoon, he had heard the introduction of me as a professor at Whittier College.  That info bit stuck.
Still I wondered why Smith had worn the pitching coach’s number as the uniform when he became the first Human Homerun:  Wouldn't identification with the pitching coach suggest a strikeout possibility?   Shouldn't he prefer  a powerful slugger's number?  Wouldn't a homerun embarrass a pitching coach? 
The game’s homerun power was provided by Seth Schwindenhammer (whose surname has the most letters of any I have encountered this season).  In the fourth inning, Seth blasted a grand slam homerun, prompting shots by the Middlesex militia and propelling the Spinners to an insurmountable lead against the Connecticut Tigers.  Final scores: Spinners 11, Tigers 7.  And Smith, Sr., 1, Smith, Jr., 0.

The Spinners' ballpark--site of the NYP League All-Star Game.


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