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.

1 comment:

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