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.

1 comment:

  1. Joe, I got notified that you wrote a blog today, but I don't see it anywhere. I am sure it was a good one though.

    Let's go Yankees!