Friday, August 26, 2011

On a Wing and Prayer: Game 52 in Rochester

The worn metaphor of coming in on “a wing and prayer” has come to identify the frailty of hopes and faith for one’s deliverance from trying times, not simply to implore a safe landing after a troubled flight.  During my drive to the Rochester, that stale figure of speech—differently applied—characterized my goal and my spirit, probably because of Rochester’s name, the Red Wings, and because I thought that prayer might be the only way to get the pelting rain to subside and permit the game to proceed. 
While Arby rested back in Falls Church, Virginia, and while Bonnie used Toad to hop around the DC area, I drove a rental car for a week through portions of Pennsylvania and New York.  After singing in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, I headed north in steady rain the following morning.  Following I-81 through Binghamton, I briefly bemoaned the fact that I hadn’t been able to schedule their mini-Mets among the teams on my tour.  On toward Syracuse I pressed through increasingly driving rain, praying that my destination two hours west in Rochester might not be caught in the same storm system.  As hackneyed as the metaphor might be about coming in on “a wing and prayer,” it certainly seemed applicable to my destination and attitude.  
A baseball bouquet!
Shortly after my arrival at the ballpark in late afternoon, the skies above downtown Rochester began to clear, and I was welcomed into the administrative office’s reception area where I sat and worked on transcribing notes about recent ballgames.   There I saw a gesture that typified the graciousness of the Red Wings’ staff.  One of the senior administrators brought the receptionist a baseball bouquet. 
In keeping with the elegance of the flowers arrangement, the Rochester ballpark publicly, personally, and artistically ushers fans graciously into the game.  Outside the main entry to Frontier Field is a statue of Morrie Silver and inside the left field gate is a tribute to Joe Altobelli.  Silver is credited with having saved professional baseball for Rochester in 1957 when he spearheaded a drive to get more than eight thousand local investors to purchase the team and ballpark from the St. Louis Cardinals, who had owned both.  In recognition of his effort, the old ballpark, where the Red Wings played until their move to Frontier Field in 1997, had been named Silver Stadium in 1968.  Now his congenial likeness, positioned next to a baseball-uniform clad child representing future Red Wings’ followers, welcomes fans to Frontier Field.
Affable Joe Altobelli.

Inside the left field gate another statue salutes Rochester devotees to the ballpark. There a statue of Joe Altobelli stands as a reminder of the many ways to affiliate with and support the team.   After playing for the Red Wings in the mid 60s, he became the team’s manager in 1971, guiding Rochester to more than 500 wins (the most by any Red Wings’ manager in history) en route to championship seasons.  Following his successful leadership on the field, Altobelli shifted first to the office of General Manager before becoming the popular broadcaster of Red Wings’ games.
In addition to these graceful bronze figures, other artistic sculptures are exhibited along the concourse.  Inside the main gate two images of red-winged raptors oversee fans’ arrival, and an impressionistic, textural sculpture of a horse, whose medium is old baseball gloves, stands proudly at the heart of the entry.  That piece remains one of my two favorites of the tour.  While I was unable to find the name of the artist, the plaque at the base of “Horsehide” credited several season ticket holders for their contributions in making it possible to acquire and display the piece.
"Horsehide," the sculpture using the medium of old baseball gloves.
Not only do the elegant bronze statues and sculptures greet fans as they enter the ballpark.  The General Manager personalizes their greeting by taking the microphone behind home plate, alerting them to upcoming, and informing them about in-game attractions and concession specials like the “Wednesday Wings Night Special,” as well as the return of the Josh Whetzel Pretzel, which is named after their chief broadcaster.  The salty snack is an oversized treat intended to serve a family of four! 
Of all of the ballparks that I had encountered on my tour, the staff at Rochester is the most traditional and professional in appearance and demeanor.  Male staffers wore starched, long sleeve shirts with button-down collars, even in hot weather.  They looked crisp as they complemented their shirts with ties, frequently sporting artistic designs by the Jerry Garcia label; but they relaxed the formality of their appearance by rolling their shirt sleeves to the elbow.
Among other announcements, the GM anticipated the appearance and participation of Davey Johnson, who was scheduled to be at the ballpark and sign autographs on the following Sunday.  However, two days after my singing in Rochester, Johnson had to cancel his appearance because he was named the manager of the Washington Nationals after the sudden resignation of Jim Riggelman.  Rochester’s personal touch extended also to in game entertainment, which was provided by live organ music, only the second ballpark on my tour to include such a feature.
At various ballparks, I inquired about distinct anthem performances that the staff coordinator recalls during the season. Since I deliver an operatic rendition, I like to think that I surprise staff, players, and fans with my own performance, exceeding that of most during the season.  I was a delighted to hear from the Rochester staff that the team annually enjoys performances by Greg Kunde, a local “product” who is now an operatic performer of international renown.  Knowing of his appearances and inspired by the staff’s demeanor and support, I sang about as well and enthusiastically as possible, delivering one of my better renditions of the tour.  A distinct addition to the anthem performance was that two interpreters signed the anthem for hearing impaired fans in the audience.
As I entered the stands after singing, a fan in the front row hailed me in a way that I had not heard in other ballparks.  “Are you really from Whittier, California?" Kathleen Joyce Melrose asked.  "I grew up there and went to Cal Hi.”  Coincidentally, that is the high school where my two sons attended.  For a couple of innings, then, I sat with Kathleen and her husband to talk about Whittier, baseball, and the national anthem.  Kathleen said that when she finally writes her memoir, she’ll feature baseball, using the title Life of a Season Ticket Holder.  Among other reflections in it, she’ll propose several rule revisions to speed up games.  For instance, if a batter hits four foul balls, he’ll be out.  And since nine lives are enough for a cat’s longevity, she reasoned, so too nine innings should be enough for baseball: no extra innings. 
Trusting Kathleen’s recommendation for which concession to select—Rochester leads the Minor Leagues in desirable and healthy foods available—I headed for the Red Osier stand, where Dom the sandwich maker treated me to a Prime Roast Beef sandwich on a special Kimmelwick Roll, a Kaiser style bun with caraway seeds.  While I salivated and waited for the beef to be dipped, Tom Hober, a local high school coach, thanked me for the anthem’s clarity and brilliant tone. 

Dom, Lisa, and Shea beam about their superb prime beef sandwiches at Red Osier.
In addition to Rochester leading the leagues in its array of foods, it is also the first ballpark where I have encountered a nut free zone as well as an “allergen free” concession stand offering a range of “free” items:  peanut free, gluten free, dairy free, tree nut free.  Yet since I am allergic to sugar, I chuckled to myself that the menu did not list any “sugar free” products. 

The berm along the third-base line is allergen friendly--except for those hypersensitive to grass.

Blaze blazes his Red Wings ring.
As I was photographing the tributes to the inductees in the Rochester Hall of Fame and the art pieces near the main entry, Blaze Dinardo, chief of security, asked me if I were a professional photographer.  I was flattered.  When I told him about my project, he seemed fascinated and directed me to the tribute to Cal Ripken in the area behind the third base foul line. Later, he introduced me to one of the Red Wings’ board members, Priscilla Astifan, a local baseball historian who researches and writes about 19th century baseball in Rochester. 
An authority on the subject of Rochester’s early embrace of baseball, she has published five booklets about the early days of baseball in Rochester:  the first organized game in the city between two collegiate teams in 1858, its first professional game in 1877, and its initial competition in the International League in 1885.  In keeping with the public ownership of the team initiated by Morrie Silver several decades earlier, the board is comprised primarily of lawyers and business executives, as well as herself and the bishops of the Catholic diocese and the Episcopal area. 

Rochester's tribute to the rock of baseball.
When Priscilla learned that I am a theologian, she identified several parallels between baseball and religion, starting with the comparison of the umpire to God—in fact, reversing the basis of the comparison by indicating that God is like the umpire: you have to be ready when “The Great Umpire calls you home.”
The fans at the ballpark enthusiastically expressed their support of the team and their love for the game.  While fans at many ballparks loudly challenge ball and strike calls by the home plate umpire, few have chattered throughout the game like a bench jockey.  In that spirit Red Wings’ fans playfully harassed the Knight’s players with ongoing jeers:  “Pitcher’s got a rubber arm.  Swing batter.  New ball.  You’re out.” 
Their expressiveness also extended to their cheering for other fans.  When a kid got his glove on a foul ball, only to watch it glance away to a man who picked it up, the crowd booed until the man offered the ball to the kid.  But the kid, knowing that he had missed his real chance to catch a game ball, refused the offer, showing the highest of baseball Integrity: It’s not the ball itself that matters; it’s the act of catching it or making the play.  Minutes later when another kid caught a foul ball on a rebound off the fa├žade, fans applauded more loudly than at any point in the evening, even more than when Joe Nathan, the former All-Star closer for the Twins, pitched an inning on his rehab assignment, or when the Red Wings scored runs in their 8-7 loss to the Charlotte Knights.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sunshine and Shadows: Game 64 in Pawtucket

Championship banners adorn Pawtucket's neighborhood home.
While I have been cordially received by staff at most of the ballparks, few have been as hospitable and gracious as the welcome that I received from the Pawtucket Red Sox.  Immediately after Bonnie and I entered the pass gate, Jeff Bradley invited us into a hosted buffet to enjoy barbecue, baked beans, potato salad, and cold drinks.  Not only did the party tent offer these refreshments; it also provided late-afternoon shade from the brilliant sunshine that had bathed us an hour earlier when we had picnicked nearby at Oakland Beach, feasting on Iggy’s clam bellies and chowder. 
Jeff’s gestures of appreciation quickly began to restore Bonnie’s pleasure at ballparks, which had been dampened—both literally and figuratively—the previous night as we had approached the ballpark at New Britain, Connecticut, where the Rock Cats play.  While rain had been steadily falling as we had entered the New Britain parking lot the day before, the young city attendant had been arrogant and rude, even when I explained that I was the anthem singer and had never been to the ballpark before.  When I asked his name, he refused to give it, only willing to share his supervisor’s name, who, he said, was not on site.  We paid the six dollar fee, drove to a spot near the ticket window, and shielded ourselves with an umbrella while we approached the Will Call window, only to learn that the game had just been rained out.
Within minutes, we returned to the attendant’s station, finding him as aloof as a Rock Cat and as sensitive as the hot tin roof on which it might prance and prowl for unsuspecting prey like me.  He refused to refund our fee, in effect, charging us simply to drive up to the gate to learn that the game was cancelled.  The real parking rate thus computed to $45 an hour, more expensive than the tolls on the New York Thruway or a parking garage in Manhattan.  To say the least, our impressions of New Britain put a major crimp in our Minor League string.  That sour experience in New Britain was especially disappointing since Rock Cats’ staff members—particularly, Kim Pizighelli—had been most accommodating and encouraging in scheduling and anticipating my anthem performance there.

Charlie sports his Whittier College shirt beside me.
But back to the contrasting, pleasant experience at Pawtucket:  The hospitality tent also offered us a relatively quiet place to sit before the pre-game ceremonies, which featured two different elements for me: I stood between home plate and the pitcher’s mound, and I sang the anthem before the umpires took the field, summoned the managers for line-up exchange, and clarified the ballpark’s ground rules.
Not only were we greeted in such a cordial way by PawSox staffers when we entered the stadium; we also were joined for the game by Charlie Burke, one of my recent students, and his mother.  Following his graduation at the end of the spring semester with a double major in French and Religious Studies, Charlie had returned to the Boston area for the summer, and he had corresponded with me for several weeks to make sure that we could get together during my time in New England. 
In his first year at Whittier Charlie had been assigned to my advising group and writing seminar on “Humor and Faith in Southern Fiction,” in which he excelled.  Throughout his four years, he continued to improve his writing skills in his subsequent courses with me, consummating his religious studies with a remarkably sophisticated research paper for my course on “Latin American Liberation Theologies” last fall. 
On the opening day of first year students’ registration four years ago, Charlie made one of the most compassionate gestures by a student that I have witnessed in my three decades of teaching.  Learning that one of his fellow classmates would need to commute 75 miles to classes and would need to consolidate her schedule, Charlie offered his own opportunity for advanced registration to her and he encouraged and persuaded the rest of his group to do the same.  Now, getting registered for courses in a desirable schedule is a cherished goal, especially for an untested, entering student.  To forego the chance to get a head start with registration at that anxious and vulnerable time was an amazing gift to Dana.  With that genuine gesture of team spirit, Charlie became an all-star in my book, never mind that he’s the equivalent in Red Sox Nation to a Yellow Dog Democrat in West Kentucky.  But because he is a voting citizen among the Red Sox crazies, he was able to provide information and insight about former Sox playing for Pawtucket.
Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium is distinctive in several ways.  Erected shortly after World War II, the ballpark is situated in a neighborhood in a way that reflects its vintage.  Following its most recent renovation on the eve of the 21st century, it now stands as one of the more stately Minor League ballparks, featuring elevated concourses with multiple levels of seating above and below the access aisles.  In keeping with ballparks of yesteryear, the stadium’s name is not auctioned to the highest corporate sponsor.  Instead, it befits the community, bearing the name of a former Pawtucket mayor.  And unlike the recent tendency to elevate luxury boxes to the “sky level,” making sure that privilege is displayed by being above the hoi polloi of general admission, the prime seats in Pawtucket are located at ground level, beneath box seats, open to the field, and adjacent to the dugouts.  

Beneath the various tiers of reserved seating, the VIP seats are at field level.
The ballpark is historic not merely for its placement in an established neighborhood.  It is more significantly historic because it is the site where future Hall of Famers made their final preparations for Major League careers and, most particularly, because it is the site of the longest game in baseball history.  Baseball, of course, has been deemed a timeless game, not simply because its rules are rarely revised, or because its pace occasionally lags, but because it is possible for game to go on forever, like the 2000-inning game between the Chicago Cubs and the local All-Stars from Big Inning, Iowa.   For sure, that mythic game provided the fictional heart of W. P. Kinsella’s magical novel The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. 
But a generation ago at Pawtucket, myth infused history and history elevated to myth.  On April 18, 1981 the Rochester Red Wings, whose lineup featured Cal Ripken, came to bat at the usual time for the start of an evening game.  By the time of the seventh-inning stretch, the PawSox trailed 1-0 but tallied a run in the bottom of the ninth to tie the score.  And that’s the way things stood for more than another nine innings of shut-out ball.  Finally, in the 22nd inning the Red Wings scored the go-ahead run, only to be matched in the bottom half of the frame by the rallying PawSox.  Again, another stretch of more than nine innings of shut-out ball ensued until 4:09 the following morning when, after 32 innings, the score was still knotted while a few of the remaining 19 fans in the stands nodded off. 

Baseball's longest game.
 At that point the President of the International League intervened, ruling that the game could be suspended until the dawn of a new day, much like the ongoing game in Kinsella’s account. When Rochester next visited Pawtucket on June 23, play resumed, with Bobby Ojeda pitching for the PawSox, who set the Red Wings down in order.  Taking the mound for Rochester in the bottom half of the inning was a pitcher who had not been on the roster when the game had begun weeks earlier.  In bottom of 33rd, the Paw Sox loaded the bases with none out and scored, winning the longest game in history 3-2.  Other future Boston stars who played in the game were catcher Rich Gedman, infielder Marty Barrett, pitcher Bruce Hurst, and Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, who happened to go 4 for 12.  And getting two hits for Rochester in the game was the future Orioles’ stalwart shortstop, Cal Ripken, Jr.  In all, the play of the game stretched more than eight hours and took more than two months to complete.  Often identified by fans as a foretaste of eternity, baseball in this game in 1981 came about as close as possible to fulfilling that description.
A young fan enjoys sliding down the glove.
As historic as McCoy Stadium is, it also features several popular attractions for fans, young and old.  With the setting sun warming their backs and the rise of the hill shadowing left field, fans of all ages can picnic on the berm beyond the fence.  For younger fans, inflated bouncy rooms offer the chance to jump to heart’s delight, and even the mascot’s autograph and photograph station at Paw’s Pavillion invites childish interaction, enticing kids to climb and slide down the slope of the glove-shaped seat.
The ballpark also displays an unintentional comic curve—at least to Yankee fans—with the placement of one of the outfield ads.  Hovering above the PawSox bullpen is an advertisement for a prominent liquor store in Massachusetts, Yankee Spirits.  How ironic that future Red Sox relievers should warm up beneath a promotion for Yankee Spirits!  The ghost of Babe Ruth and Bucky Dent himself probably chortle loudly at that juxtaposition.

The PawSox bullpen is still beneath the sign for Yankee Spirits.

Shadows lengthen in left field as the sun begins to sink in the late afternoon.

The sun's angle toward the first baseman.
 McCoy’s diamond is also oriented in an unusual way, with left field lying toward the west.  What that means is that, at sunset, the glare comes directly over the left field wall.  The blinding light caused two plays that I had never seen before.  While I have seen fly balls lost in the sun or in stadium lights at night, even a line drive misplayed from its blending into the white shirts of fans behind the batter, I had never seen an infielder lose the ball on a throw.  Yet the first basement lost a throw from an infielder releasing the ball into the sun’s blaze.  Not once, but twice, in the same inning.
On consecutive plays in the seventh inning, Buffalo Bisons’ batters hit routine ground balls to the middle infielders.  The second baseman gloved the first one and made an easy throw that first baseman Lars Anderson lost in the sun, shielding his face with his forearm as he thought the ball was approaching.  The hitter reached second on the fielding error, and—to my surprise—the official scorer awarded an assist to the second baseman on his throw, even though an out was not recorded.  The next batter hit a broken-bat hopper to the shortstop,  who cleanly fielded it and made an accurate throw to first that Anderson again lost in the setting sun!  And again, the official scorer awarded the shortstop an assist on the play, even though no out was recorded. 

Then with runners on the corners and one out, the batter hit a grounder to the shortstop.  He shuffled the ball to the second baseman, who pivoted at the bag and rifled a throw to first for the inning-ending double play.  The catch of the relay by Anderson this time evoked both derisive and delighted cheers from the home crowd.
With the sun sinking and the shadows lengthening into the fullness of dusk, Pawtucket held on for a 2-0 win; and Bonnie and I left the ballpark refreshed by the hospitality of the PawSox, our touch with the ballpark’s history, and our friendship with the Burkes.

Westward Woe!

It’s a good thing that we had days off in Idaho and eastern Washington so that we could tend to Arby and Toad.  Although we had joyfully shouted “Westward, ho!” when, in Iowa, we turned in the direction toward home, the vehicles seemed to experience westward woe.  Both began to suffer the strains of the long trip compounded by hail storms in Wyoming, high mountain passes in Montana, and long gradual grades against headwinds in Idaho and eastern Oregon.
Following our jaunt down to Salt Lake City in Toad, we returned to Idaho Falls where we had docked Arby at an RV park near the Snake River and where, that night, I sang for the Chukars.  The following morning, we packed up as usual, emptied Arby’s holding tanks, attached Toad, and headed toward Boise, thinking that we might stop at an intermediate spot since we had an open date between the two engagements in Idaho: a final appearance with a team in the Pioneer League—the Chukars—and the first in the Northwest League at the game in Boise.
Thinking that we could enjoy the following day without any driving, we pressed on to the Boise area.  As we pulled into the Country Corners RV Park in Caldwell, Idaho, we were greeted by the owners who offered us freshly picked corn, tomatoes, green beans, and cucumbers.  As I unhitched Toad and positioned Arby in his place, I salivated in anticipation of a steamed vegetable dinner.  But as we tried to move the car into the parking spot adjacent to Arby, Toad couldn’t hop.  There was no juice left in his battery, not even enough to jump start the car, only enough to set off the car alarm, which we had not set or heard since acquiring the car.  Finally, I got the battery disconnected to disable the alarm and called AAA—the auto club, not the office of the senior minor leagues—to schedule assistance for the following morning.  Thankfully, Bonnie soothed my spirit and my hunger with the sweet corn and home-grown tomatoes.

Adam loads Toad onto the flat-bed, tow truck while Arby watches.
 At dawn the next morning, AAA arrived and after the battery technician was unable to get the car started, the tow truck was called to tote Toad to an authorized repair shop in Caldwell.  There, the diagnosis was discouraging: the day’s repairs would need to replace the battery, address malfunctions in the electrical system, replace brake rotors, service the transmission, and replace a cracked radiator.  No wonder that Toad had been running so hot!
With the repairs completed by late afternoon, Bonnie and I were able to make it to the Boise game that evening and depart the following morning for eastern Washington.  But Arby’s climb to the top of the mesas beyond the Snake River and through the Blue Mountains caused him to cough repeatedly, overheat on the ascent beyond the Columbia River bridge, and trudge up the low, long range leading to the Tri-Cities area.  Arby would need a tune-up.
With AAA’s help, we located an approved automotive shop where Arby’s issues could be treated the following morning.  So we checked into a nearby hotel, went to the game that evening, and spent our day off the following day dealing with Arby’s transfusion.
Rather than spending the two days off in the northwest writing, resting, or going sightseeing, we spent them in a pursuit that has become all too typical on our journey—dealing with automotive issues. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Gene Kelly and Me: Game 84 in Des Moines

One of my favorite musicals—other than my own troubadouring of “The Star-Spangled Banner” under the stars above bleachers and near stripes of the batter’s box—is “Singing in the Rain,” especially its title song.  Even though I certainly cannot soft-shoe along the third-base line while twirling an umbrella like Gene Kelly did down the street, I joined his joyful way of singing in the rain when the Iowa Cubs hosted the Fresno Grizzlies in Des Moines. 
Still, hours and minutes before the game, I feared that my Friday baptismal jinx might prevail and that rain might prevent me from singing again.  Already during my tour, the two rain-outs had been on Fridays three weeks apart.  Since it had been four weeks since the Connecticut cancellation in New Britain, I hoped that I had broken the kind of baseball pattern that generates superstitions.  I prayed that the storm would pass over Principal Stadium in downtown Des Moines and permit the game to proceed. 
As I had sat typing in Arby at about 4 o’clock in the Yellow Banks county park 10 miles east of the ballpark, it started to rain, lightly but persistently.  An hour or so later when I began the drive to the ballpark, I maneuvered Toad around dips and deep puddles, finding that the rain had fallen quite heavily between the RV park and the stadium. 
Rain continues to splash in front of home plate in the expansive sculpture welcoming fans to Principal Park.

There also must be some connection between rain and demanding parking attendants.   At each ballpark where I have sung, parking lot attendants have granted me complementary access with one exception and one close call, both on the rainy nights when games got postponed.  This time, the situation was like that in New Britain, Connecticut.  My name was not on the Book of Life, at least for baseball games.  And since my name did not appear on the pass list, I had to fork over seven rain-drenched dollars to park near the entry.
Still the parking fee seemed worth the gamble of getting the chance to sing the anthem in Des Moines.  The rain continued steadily, even while I parked the car, walked to the Will Call window, and checked in at the Front Desk, where I heard the receptionist repeatedly begin her telephone response, saying “At this point the game is still on….”  I was relieved.  At least I kept telling myself that I was relieved.  Perhaps this evening could be like the ones in Richmond and Winston-Salem where, despite heavy showers leading up to scheduled game time, the game would go on after a short delay.

Rain continued to pool upon the tarp approaching game time.

Waiting for the rain to stop, I wandered through the concourses photographing fans and displays before I ran into a hosted party for employees, clients, and friends of DeWaay, a corporate sponsor for the evening’s game.   Permitted to join the gathering, I heard former All-Start Tony Oliva being interviewed about his baseball career and friendships.  When attendees were invited to get his autograph and/or photograph, a few moved toward the table where he sat, and I followed them. 
Once the short line had dispersed and he sat alone, I approached and asked him about memorable anthem performances from his days as a player.  He paused to recall pre-game performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which, of course, is not the national anthem of his home country, Cuba.  He replied that the multiple performances by former Twins’ teammate Mudcat Grant were memorable. “Mudcat did a wonderful job,” he added.  “He’s a good singer.”

Tony Oliva and me

While most of the DeWaay party-goers talked with their friends and clients, I chatted with Oliva about baseball matters and cherished the fact that the rain that I had initially bemoaned had actually permitted me to enjoy his company. 

Before the Cuban missile crisis and its subsequent embargoes and emigration restrictions, Oliva had signed a contract with the Minnesota Twins, whose scout had recognized his quick bat and powerful swing.  After hitting over .400 in his first season in the minor leagues, Oliva progressed through the Twins’ system, tasting a cup of coffee with them during September call-ups in 1962. 

After spending the next season back in the minor leagues, he became the first Major League player to win the American League batting title and Rookie of the Year award in the same year.  Building on this exceptional start, he was selected as an All-Star in his first eight seasons, breaking Joe DiMaggio’s record streak of six.  Before being hampered by knee injuries, Oliva went on to win three batting titles and ended his fifteen-year career with a .304 average.
While sitting with Oliva, who was scheduled to throw out the final first pitch, I heard an announcement over the public address system alerted fans to the fact that, while rain was still falling and the field’s cover was being removed by the grounds crew, the game would not start on schedule at 7:05.  No new start time was then projected.  Even so, at 6:40 we watched the grounds crew turn back the tarp, surely a hopeful sign. 

The grounds crew recovers the infield as the rainfall resumes and shrouds the distant view of Iowa's capitol.

Yet within minutes the crew reversed its action and re-covered the diamond.  There it remained in place until a half-hour later when, with applause from fans and announcement that the game would start at 8:05, the crew returned to take it off the field yet one more time.

The grounds crew finally starts to remove the tarp...

...and roll it up so that play can begin.
“Home free,” I thought—as if I were scoring from second on a ground-rule double.  Instead, there was a series of 14 first pitches, the first of which was tossed by a Special Olympics participant who had taken the mound early, toed the rubber, and made repeated virtual warm-up pitches.  Following his actual lead-off toss, which hadn't crossed the plate, he didn’t want to leave his mound position until he threw a strike. 

Before the pre-game ceremony ended with Oliva’s final first toss, each of the other first pitchers was introduced before walking from the baseline to rubber, each basking in the moment as a reliever taking the mound in mid-inning.  To say the least, the ritual was protracted.  With first pitches finally finished, Iowa’s starting pitcher and catcher moved into position while drizzle continued. 

A Special Olympian strolls to the mound for the first first pitch.
Alas, the rest of team remained in the dugout while the home plate umpire convened with the grounds crew supervisor.  In the meantime, my name appeared on the scoreboard as the designated anthem singer for the evening.  The pace of the rain increased.  Nate Teut, the Cubs’ staffer who assists anthem performers and with whom I had talked about my project, wryly smiled: “83 and counting . . . and counting.”  This game would be my 84th, if ever sung.  
The home plate umpire held out his hand like the pose in Norman Rockwell’s classic painting, and catching raindrops, he summoned the Cubs’ manager out from the dugout.  He let him know that he thought that the conditions at that time were playable, but he was concerned by the report that “a yellow spot” had appeared moments earlier on the radar.  While they stood talking and while I stood waiting, the intensity of the rain increased.  The first pitches had been thrown, yet the anthem was unsung. 
Since the Iowa players would be taking the field first, the home plate umpire wanted the consent of Iowa manager Bill Dancy, who said simply, “Let’s play.”  Relieved while rain fell on me, I turned toward the flag, heard the cue of my introduction (which, by my name only, was briefer than the intros for first pitch participants), and waited for the crowd to quieten (which it didn’t).  So I started amidst the sounds of fans chattering. 
Although my performance in Des Moines was not one of my better renditions, I was still pleased that I got to sing while rain dappled my shirt and splashed my glasses.  I didn’t mind.  I was singing in the rain; and number 84 was in the books, not that anyone other than me was keeping anthem box scores.

If the rain were not wet enough, one young fan entices another to join her in the fountain sculpture.

And enjoy the dashing splashing he did!
Wet, but not soaked like the children who played in the right-field fountain, I stayed to see Justin Christian lead off at 8:06 for the Fresno Grizzlies, San Francisco’s Triple A team in the Pacific Coast League.   (Forget geography for a minute and allow the “made for Minor League Baseball reality” show that Des Moines, Iowa, which is nearer America’s right coast than the left one, competes in the Pacific Coast League).  Christian, of course, is the fleet-footed Giants’ outfield prospect who had scored from second on a deep fly to centerfield when he had been playing for Richmond on the rainy night when I had sung there six weeks earlier.  That play will certainly make my list of top ten plays during my Minor League summer.  Not to be completely outdone by his earlier performance at Double A, Christian doubled in the last of the Grizzlies' runs, who held on for a 3-2 win over Iowa's Cubs.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Stars for the Suns: Game 48 in Hagerstown

It’s not often that you can say that a class A level team has drawing power because of a renowned player on its roster.  Players with high promise and profiles usually progress quickly to more advanced leagues.  But the Hagerstown Suns have been fortunate in their affiliation with the Washington Nationals who, because of their ineptitude on the field in recent years, have enjoyed premier selections in Major League Baseball’s drafts. 

The popularity of the Suns is suggested by the line of fans a half hour before gates open for the game.

For the first few months of this season, the Suns basked in the starlight of Bryce Harper, the number one draft pick in 2010.  At the unusually early age of 17, Harper became eligible for the draft because he had completed his GED the previous year and had enrolled in the College of Southern Nevada in order to play at the collegiate level.  There he had competed in a wood-bats league where he was named the Player of the Year while setting school offensive records by hitting above .400 and averaging a homerun every other game.  Following his incredible performance there, he signed with the Nationals.  He started this season slowly with the Suns but caught fire after getting contact lenses, and when I sang for Hagerstown he was headed to the South Atlantic League’s All-Star game as one of its leaders in batting average and home runs.
Because the weekend game between the host Suns and the Delmarva Shorebirds supported breast cancer awareness and research, the players wore pink jerseys, each of which would then be offered in a blind auction to raise money for breast cancer research.  Harper’s jersey, of course, promised to create frenzied activity and a whopping winning bid.  But Harper also wore pink shoes, the only player to be so creative.  Prior to the game, which he sat out because of a slightly injured wrist, I teased him playfully about the shoes, pointing to them, nodding my head while smirking and raising an eyebrow, and then gesturing “thumbs up.”  He smiled in return.

Harper's bid-fetching shoes.
 Following my anthem rendition, he walked to the opposite end of the dugout to shake my hand.  I felt like an all-star, even if in a league very different from his.  It also gave me a moment to share a bit of fun.  Before the game, fans had petitioned him for autographs, calling out time and again, “Bryce.  Hey Bryce!”  Each time, I instinctively turned, thinking they were calling out “Price, hey, Price,” and wondering who would be calling me at Hagerstown!  He laughed at my presumptive mis-hearing. 
The Suns’ introduction of my anthem performance mentioned simply my name, which was a bit of disappointment to several of Bonnie’s friends who had driven up from the Washington area to see the game and hear me sing.  Since they were not attentive baseball fans, they weren’t aware that they were missing seeing Harper play, especially because Kevin Keyes, his replacement in right field, hit two homeruns and a double, propelling the Suns to a 7-3 win over the Shorebirds. 
Seated near us in the grandstands was a retired couple who groaned each time the Keyes launched a shot. Paul Lasky and his wife Janet had come to the game from their home in Montgomery County to socialize with their nephew, Delmarva’s play-by-play announcer Bret Lasky.   

Jantet Lasky hugging Woolie.
 A few days earlier, Janet had retired from teaching for more than 30 years, and she celebrated her new retired freedom with another hug of congratulations from the Suns’ mascot Woolie.  When the Laskys found out that I’d be singing the following week at Frederick, Paul indicated that he’d come to that game too, which he did.  Paul also graciously set up the possibility of my meeting with Bret when I was scheduled to sing for Delmarva’s day game in late June.  Regrettably, that was one of the two performances that I had to cancel when Arby blew his alternator hours before near Farmville, Virginia.
Surprisingly, the concessions at Hagerstown offered a most extensive array of foods and concoctions than the first fifty ballparks of my season.  One stand proved particularly alluring.  It featured buffalo burgers, country ham sandwiches, and an inventive sandwich called a Roller Burger.  Richard Hollsinger, a sixth generation butcher and chef, created a rolled “hamburger” made of ground chuck, grated cheddar cheese, salt and pepper—a mixture that he then stuffed into a sausage case and smoked.  Shortly before serving, then, he grilled the Roller Burger.  Even though I have tried to minimize my consumption of ballpark foods, particularly ordinary ones, I couldn’t resist trying the Roller Burger, which was quite good: lean and somewhat smoky, with a pleasantly chewy texture like kielbasa. 
The Hollsingers also cater the meals for the Suns’ players, who favor the lasagna, pork tenderloin, and green beans.  “Green beans?” I intoned as a question. “What’s your secret?  Why do they like them so much?”  “Must be the country ham that we add to them,” Richard replied.  That’s it: green beans, Southern style.
Capitalizing on Hagerstown’s affiliation with the Nationals, another of the food kiosks featured “The All-Angus Stephen StrasBurger,” named in honor of the fastballing phenom who had set a record for initial contracts when he signed with Washington for $15.5M.  In his inaugural season with the Nationals, Strasburg suffered a career-threatening elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery and a year’s physical therapy.  Six weeks after my appearance for the Suns, he was scheduled to make his first rehab start in Hagerstown.
A third distinct concession menu could be found at Hartle’s Fry Tent, which offered everything fried except for its wings and sodas.  Hagerstown was the second ballpark where I had found fried Oreos available, and the first to offer fried Twinkies and candy bars.  About the only missing possibility was fried frog legs, which could double the fun or fear of frying by calling a single serving “A Fried Fry.”  Now if its sale could be restricted to Fridays: Okay, you can tell that my mind was about fried as I surveyed these possibilities.
For devotees, heaven might be identified as "the sweet fry and fry."
For the past thirty years, the Hagerstown minor league teams have been known as the Suns, even while their affiliation shifted from one franchise to another and while their league and level changed from Carolina to Eastern to South Atlantic.  Earlier teams in the 20th century had been known as the Hubs, the Owls, the Braves, and the Packets while the quality of teams improved from Class D in the Blue Ridge League before the Great Depression to Class B for the Interstate and Piedmont Leagues in the early 50s.
Although the earliest Hagerstown team began its play in another ballpark, it inaugurated Municipal Stadium in 1930 after the ballpark was built in 6 weeks, and all subsequent Hagerstown teams have called the stadium their home.  Before the end of World War II, the ballpark also hosted several games for Negro League teams, including the Indianapolis Clowns, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and the Homestead Grays.  While some improvements have been made over the years, the ballpark retains its intimate and vintage character.
The historic significance of the ballpark is noted with posters of bygone teams and prominent players on walls near the concession stands.  The team also posts retired numbers above the bullpen bench, including number 24 for Willie Mays.   Although Mays never played for Hagerstown, he played his first professional game there on June 24, 1950 for the Trenton Giants, who took the field against Hagerstown's Class B Braves, then in the Interstate League.

The Suns' bullpen beneath the retired numbers.

The classic and personal character of the ballpark is displayed in multiple ways throughout the ballpark.  Near the entry to the grandstand, a white board with homey printing recognized and greeted community groups attending the game. 

The Suns' welcome board.
The scoreboard in left field is hand operated and features numbers that are hung inning by inning.  And in the grandstands, tribute is paid not merely to Hall of Fame players and historic accomplishments, a sign in front of Section C indicated that, in memory of long-time season ticket holder and devout Suns’ fan Fred Ziegler, that section will also be known as Section Z.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An August Slump

Like slap hitters whose legs begin to wilt and wobble in the August heat, I am certainly starting to show the effects of my long singing season.  My voice is still strong, but my energy has begun to wane.  The physical stress of the travel can be seen in my right eye, which has burst a blood vessel, and in my right thumb, injured in doing some Arby upkeep described below. 

The purple thumbnail is not covered with polish!
The hundred-degree heat in the Midwest for the last two weeks has sapped my imagination, the toll of rough roads has made Arby’s weariness an issue that requires increased attention, and the rigor of the schedule has now dumped me into a blogging slump.  Add to these woes the absence of WiFi throughout the first week of August, and the slack in my posting might be excused.   Still, as I drive each day I think about what I should write, and each evening I make detailed notes about travels and games.

But like an 0 for 19er who yearns for a dying-quail double sliced inches inside the line or a soft seeing-eye single through the hole or even a deflected drive off a diving shortstop’s glove, I needed some cheap hit, some unusual play to startle me back to my posting ways.  I had scorched some long blog drafts, but they had fallen foul or been fielded, yielding nothing to show, at least yet.
Even so,  I hadn’t expected a wind-blown error in Omaha to break me out of the blogging slump.   
After Arby had arduously trudged through the hills of western Iowa throughout mid-day, we docked in at a sunny spot atop a hill overlooking the lake at Walnut Creek County Park just south of Omaha.  Since the sun was bleating down on the bare site with a ferocity that caused high double digit temperatures to look attractive, I extended Arby’s electric awning, which had been one of our regular sources of possible comfort.  I told Bonnie that, because the wind was occasionally snapping at the canvas of the umbrella, I’d retract the awning before we left for the ballpark. 
A couple of hours later the wind gusts had dissipated, and Bonnie was snoozing so smoothly that I decided not to wake her for the game or disturb her with the sounds of the awning retracting.  As the sun shone across the horizon, I left at 5:58 for the Omaha Storm Chasers’ game less than five miles away. 
As usual, I had received instructions to check in at the ballpark at 6:30.  After parking in the distant free lot and photographing fans tailgating there, I circumvented the stadium to find the Will Call window where I expected to pick up my ticket.  

Under clear skies, fans tailgate on the parking lot a half hour before the game.
 The line was uncustomarily long.  At 6:19 I identified myself as the anthem singer, and a frenzy of action ensued.  The ticket agent called to a waiting staffer who whisked me through the gates and toward the field faster than Arby had climbed the grades earlier in the afternoon.  Because of a concert associated with a Faith Night Promotion, the start of the game had been moved up to 6:35 rather than 7:05.  I hadn’t been told.  I had 8 minutes until the anthem performance.
Whew!  I had less time to warm up than a middle-innings reliever.
When a brief rain shower sent fans scurrying to the concession concourse during the third inning, I interviewed several who clustered around me.   After a few outs, the rain eased and allowed them to return to their seats.

After the rain shower, fans start back to their seats.
Instead of resuming attention to the game, I looked toward the west where dark clouds with bolts and sheets of lightening looked more threatening than Albert Pujols stepping to the plate with bases loaded and none out in a tie game.  So I left the ballpark immediately and headed back to Bonnie and Arby.

Noting the denser storm in the distance, a few other fans precede me in leaving early.

Alas, the thunderstorm moved through the area faster than Toad could run back to Walnut Creek Park.  Alarmed by the winds’ sudden arrival, Bonnie phoned that the initial gusts had bent the awning arms before she could retract the cover.   While we talked as I started the car, the gale ripped the awning from its support, throwing its heavy roller over Arby’s roof.   Later in the evening, we learned that the winds had been clocked at 65 mph.

While this car pulled out ahead of me, Bonnie called with news that the awning had already been ripped.
 Within minutes I parked Toad next to Arby and saw that nothing could be done then about the awning which was reversed and snugged across the roof. Inside Arby, I found that Bonnie was frightened by the tempest and concerned that leaks might result from the crash that the roller bar had made when it had been torn loose from its front arm.  While the storm raged about us and rocked Arby as though we were in a row boat crossing the wake of jet ski, we considered abandoning RV life for the night and checking into a hotel, and we began to think about what to do to prepare for the next day’s scheduled journey westward toward Wyoming.  

Bonnie surveys the damage.
By midnight, the storm cells had passed into Iowa, and we slept, or at least tried to sleep.   Rising at dawn under clear skies, we quickly surmised that the awning was an entire loss: the support arms were twisted, the canvas torn, and the roller bar bent.  The entire set-up would need to be removed.  As I began to disengage the roller bar, the spring in the arm released, thwacking my thumb, which throbbed with pain as it began to swell.

Thankfully, moments later two RVers who had anchored at the park for several weeks offered to help with the removal and disposal of the awning.  Both brought tools, expertise, and energy that were indispensible.  Vern Bridgewater, who now spends winters in Alabama and summers in Walnut Creek Park, had been a metal worker and tool specialist before his retirement a few years ago.  While I unbolted the arm supports and drilled off the heads of rivets securing the sidebars to Arby, he used his reciprocating saw to cut through the final portion of the support whose complete release had been prevented by the hinges on a storage bay. 

Vern cuts the awning roller's cover.
Meanwhile, Mike Meehan, whose awning had also been damaged slightly by storm, began to cut the canvas from the roller bar.  Since he was sporting a Red Sox cap, I turned some of our conversation to baseball and the national anthem and learned that, although he spent most of his career in San Diego, he never shifted his allegiance from Boston to the Padres.  Whether wintering in Georgia or summering in Nebraska, he’s still a citizen of Red Sox Nation.

Mike hauls away the pieces.
For an hour the three of us toiled together, Vern sawing the pieces into six-foot lengths, me loading them into Mike’s van, and Mike hauling them away to the dumpster. I bid them farewell knowing that their assistance was the reason that I might keep the next engagement in Casper, Wyoming.
After a quick breakfast, Bonnie and I attached Toad to the tow bar and headed west across the recurring sameness of Nebraska’s prairie, a flat terrain across which Arby sighed in relief.