Monday, July 18, 2011

Tributes in Salem: Game 57 in Salem

When I entered Salem’s ballpark and saw the Red Sox warming up for their home game against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans toward the end of June, I took one look at their uniforms and wondered what was going on.  Since popular Roanoke Times columnist Dan Casey had written a feature story about my project for the Sunday edition of the regional paper, I briefly wondered if there were connection between it and the players' garb.  There wasn't.  They wore unusual uniforms for another reason. 
They had donned tuxedo style jerseys in an attempt to break the June-long hex that had sunk the team into last place, even without a curse of a minor Babe.  Not since Memorial Day, when the Sox had won the game on a walk-off grand-slam homerun, had they won a home game.  For the entire month of June they had been winless in their own ballpark, where they had gone 0 and 6, while compounding their misery with a 6 and 12 mark on the road.  With such an abysmal record, they reversed from first (having blasted off to a 17-5 record in April) to last in the semblance of biblical judgment. 
On the night of my singing they had hoped that by “dressing to impress” they could break their streak.  Impress whom?  The gods of the gopher ball or demons of the diamond?  Whatever their motive and target, the ploy didn’t work.  They lost to the Pelicans 10-8, even though they took a lead into the eighth inning.  As only a losing streak can seem to generate, the poor June luck of the Red Sox continued when their promising relief pitcher suffered an arm injury that forced his exit with none on and two outs in the inning.  Alas, before the inning was over, his replacement had yielded four hits, hit a batter, balked, walked a batter, and allowed a stolen base, all of which produced four runs and effectively sank Salem.
Carter and Karen Turner, Bonnie, and Dan Casey
A few days earlier the Carolina League had completed its first half of the season.  And although the Red Sox didn’t fare well in the standings at that point, they still had good hope of making the post-season playoff by breaking their losing streak and winning the second half of the season in their division.
Although I couldn’t claim partial credit for ending their streak the following night, I thoroughly enjoyed my one evening in Salem.  I got to spend it with Carter Turner and his wife Karen.  Carter is a professor at nearby Radford University; and we have worked together on conference panels and projects dealing with sports and religion.  In addition, at the game Bonnie and I got to greet and talk to Dan Casey. 
While the story by Casey had not affected the Red Sox, it certainly influenced fan appreciation and other media awareness.  Mid-afternoon as Bonnie and I were eating in a Roanoke restaurant, I received a call from Elizabeth Harrington, a reporter for WDBJ TV, requesting an interview.  We filmed it at various points in ballpark, and her short feature ran on the evening news and the morning show the following day.  As much fun as the interview was, it was even more fun to be approached by fans throughout the game who had seen Casey’s story the previous day and who had heard my introduction before singing. 
When I had entered the ballpark, Dave Spangler greeted me at the gate, congratulating me on the project. and indicating that he had read about it in Casey's column.  He and others were able to recognize me because the newspaper had also printed a picture of me in my customary performance attire of an anthem tour polo shirt, which I was wearing for the Salem game.  Another fan passing by said, “Mr. Price.  We’re glad you came to Salem.  Keep up the good work around the country.”  Later while I was standing in one of the concession lines, Bruce Briggs approached me and asked me to sign the back of his ticket.  I know that the autograph will never have monetary value, but his request reflects the kind of hope many Minor League fans have about one of their players making it big in the big leagues.  A few do--and their early autographs rise from sentimental significance to monetary value. 

At most Minor League parks, there are posted lists or banners or plaques on the wall that identify recent team players who have made it to “the show.”  A few ballparks—like the ones in Asheville or Scranton/Wilkes-Barre—also display colorful banners or bronze plaques of former players who made it to the Major Leagues and franchise stars enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  At Salem, a different level of respect is accorded to the former heroes.  Rather than devoting a concourse wall for displaying the roster of successful bygone stars, the team has erected a separate facility in the ballpark complex to serve as Salem's Hall of Fame.   It commemorates the pace setters among the team’s former stars as well as local baseball personalities who contributed to the community in significant ways.

Children playing at replica Fenway in fron of Salem's Hall of Fame building.

A child retrieves a foul ball for the kids' Wiffle ball game.
 To get to the building, I walked past children playing Wiffle Ball on a miniature diamond with a proportionate replica of Fenway’s Green Monster looming over left field.  This free entertainment space encouraged vibrant activity for kids who thronged to the site, playing their own game within earshot of the Salem-Myrtle Beach game a few hundred feet away.  They appeared to be more excited by their competition in this baseball set than the bouncy-room attractions that typify most of the play-spaces at Minor League parks. 
Salem’s Hall of Fame lured me for personal reasons.  I wanted to see if a shirt-tail friend—a recurring acquaintance through our mutual good friend Don Musser—was honored there.  Having been told by an usher that the facility was open, I was disappointed to find its doors locked.  Undeterred, I sought one of the senior staff members to get access.  Sure enough, one of the stadium security officers unlocked the doors, turned on the lights, and allowed me to survey the walls until I found the tribute to Art Howe, whose plaque he removed from the wall so that I could photograph it more easily.

Forty years ago, Art had been a semi-pro player in Pittsburgh where he was a member of the church where Don Musser served as pastor.  Signed to a contract with the Pirates after showing his skills at a try-out camp, Art led the league in hitting in the year that he played for Salem.  Thereafter, he progressed through the minors and finally was promoted to the Pirates as a reserve infielder in the mid-1970s.  It was at that point that Don and I met in graduate school in Chicago. 
So when Pittsburgh came to town to play the Cubs, Don phoned Art and got us box seat tickets at Wrigley Field for a record-setting game. That afternoon Pirates’ second baseman Rennie Stennett became the first player to get 7 hits in a nine-inning game and John Candelaria pitched Pittsburgh to a sunny shellacking of Chicago—22-0, the largest margin of victory in a shut-out in Major League history.  After the game, Art got Stennett to autograph a ball, date it, and mark its significance before handing it to Don.  Then on a rare day off in Chicago, Art came down to the Midway at the university to watch the Divinity School’s intramural softball team, on which both Don and I played, and cheer for us as we beat the Business School that afternoon. 
After finishing his playing career in Houston about a decade later, Art shifted his role to that of coaching, progressing to become the Astros' manager.  Our paths then crossed again in the early 90s when I sang the anthem in Atlanta.  Conveniently, Don and his wife Ruth were in the city while Don was doing academic research at Emory University; and the three of us attended the game and talked with Art during batting practice.  Adjacent to the Astros’ dugout, I was able to take a posed picture of Don, Ruth, and Art, later getting the photograph enlarged and signed by Art during one of the Astros’ visits to Los Angeles.  The poster-size photograph now hangs in Don's study.
My last encounter with Art solidified my respect for his friendship with Don.  After Art became the manager of the A’s, I was able to sing the anthem in Oakland.  Prior to the pregame ceremonies there, I sought Art and let him know that Don, who had conquered lymphoma while serving as his pastor, had contracted a new case of the cancer, now thirty years later.  While Don was completing rounds of chemotherapy and awaiting an autologous stem-cell transplant, Art phoned him to check on him, reversing the pastoral role that had bonded them years earlier.  My deep friendship with Don—a friendship about which we are jointly writing a memoir and theological reflection—motivated me to seek out the tribute to Art in Salem’s Hall of Fame exhibit.

Everybody loves Salem's mascot:
Dan Casey's son goes cheek to cheek with Mugsy.
 It’s not surprising that I fell in love with the people, the setting, and the tributes at Salem’s ballpark.  Yet while romance at a ballpark is a common desire and experience of baseball fans, marriage proposals offered there are less frequent.  In Minneapolis, for instance, it is possible for a Twins' fan to reserve the opportunity for a marriage proposal projected on the video board.   At Minor League parks, however, such public proposals are scarce.   Following the fifth inning of Salem's game, Mike and Melanie were “invited” to participate in a trivia contest or dance game atop the third base dugout.   Unbeknownst to Melanie, Mike had connived their selection to be featured.  On cue then, Mike knelt and proposed to her, and she accepted.
Love at the ballpark and love of the ballpark: Baseball in Salem stimulates both.

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