Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ending on a High Note: Game 104 in Inland Empire

Known simply and famously as Route 66, the highway angling from Chicago to Los Angeles was completed shortly before Ruth’s record-making season in 1927. During the following decade it would wend its way into American hope by directing Okies from the opaque swirls of the Dust Bowl toward the fruitful fields of California.  A few years later the road would secure a more playful place in the nation’s lore by providing the central image for Nat King Cole’s hit recording of “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66.”   And the highway would continue to provide romantic images of adventure well into the 1960s with the television series featuring Buz, Tod, and his new Corvette in their cross county road trip.  Had the highway been completed or even surveyed a century earlier, I am certain that Horace Greeley would have recommended tattooing its emblem on the biceps of newsboys in New York: “Go west, young man.  Go west—on Route 66.”      

Now forsaken by freeway travelers quickly pursuing distant destinations, Route 66 serves mostly as a nostalgic image or a relic of crumbled concrete.  Almost a year before I set out on the series of anthem performances, I had projected possible routes for the anthem venture, targeting the Inland Empire 66ers as the ideal final stop for the road trip since their name captures the spirit of the asphalt rope of hope.  They make their home in San Bernadino where the ballpark sits a homerun’s distance away from the historical Route.

Although most of the road trip guides, historical reviews, and coffee table picture books about cafes, motels, and tourist traps along Route 66 envision a journey beginning in Chicago and ending in Los Angeles, Bonnie and I reversed this flow on our only intersections with the highway.  We began our cross-country drive in Arby in late April by tracing the route from Los Angeles through Rancho Cucamonga, Victorville, and Barstow, before leaving its path to head to Las Vegas.  Picking up the highway’s course again near Flagstaff, we generally followed its channel upstream through Albuquerque and Amarillo, before turning south and abandoning it.  Even when we later left Chicago and headed west, we missed its origin by taking a more northerly router than its initial southwesterly direction.   

Yet at our journey’s end, we again headed east along the highway.  While tired Arby and Toad recuperated in my driveway in Whittier, I guided our family car along a short segment of Route 66 from Pasadena to San Bernadino, again reversing the normal flow, paying tribute to the Route’s symbolic significance before turning toward Arrowhead Ballpark to complete the summer’s singing and driving.  Cetainly, I was getting my kicks by ending with Route 66.
Although a coincidence of scheduling, it was also fitting that on this night the 66ers featured an end-the-season promotion providing the first thousand entrants a bobble-head Angel-gnome.  After bouncing in Arby across pocked and furrowed highways for thousands and thousands of miles, I easily identified with the jiggle-necked figure offered by the 66ers.   While to most fans he mimicked an angelic, mythic midget, he not only resembled my road-jostled frame, but his smiling face looked like my own elated expression after coaxing Arby to finish the arduous journey from Bakersfield to Whittier by climbing through the 4144 foot crest of the Tejon Pass.    
More than an hour before the start of the 66ers game on the next-to-last day of their season, fans extended the line to enter the ballpark for more than a block.  Standing among the faithful 66er fans were several of my friends, family, and former students.  Having arrived before us, my sister Liz and her husband Pat eased back in line to join Bonnie, me, and our two sons Jared and David.  

Pat and Liz join me and Bonnie.
Minutes later as the line began to move when the gates opened, Whittier colleagues Charles Adams and Mike McBride also stepped into the queue.  They had been supportive throughout the planning stages of the tour; they had regularly read the blog entries about the ballparks, games, and travel; and they had personalized their participation even more by joining Bonnie and me for out-of-state games along the way: Mike in Fishkill, New York, and Charles in Everett, Washington.   Now in the final stretch of the marathon, they came to bat for me once again. 

Really, being able to share the love and lore of baseball with good friends is one of the great joys of the venture. 

While most of the fans who entered the ballpark received the bobble-head gnome, one special young fan named Kyle, who has been cognitively disabled by a stroke at birth, received a baseball bat lamp for his devotion throughout the season.  Kyle’s devotion and the lamp maker’s creativity also seemed to provide a fitting emblem for the completion of the tour.   Throughout my visits to more than 100 ballparks, I was consistently heartened by the number of groups of developmentally challenged fans attending ballgames.  Transformed from a broken bat into a functional furnishing, the homemade souvenir provided an exemplary tribute to the health and hope that baseball can bring to its fans.   
After passing through the turn-styles and getting the bobble-head figurine, I found friend and fellow traveler Missy Alden in the concession area.  In fact, she scored the most states and games where she had joined us along the way.  After she and her husband Jerry had hosted Bonnie and me for games in two states during our East Coast swing, they had also attended a couple of games near their home in Northern California during the final week of the tour—games in San Jose and Sacramento.  Now she had flown to Southern California to celebrate the last game with us.  

Not only has Missy been an enthusiastic supporter of the tour, she is certainly a fervent fan of baseball: period.  In recent years she watched her two sons compete on their high school teams and she attended hundreds of Oakland A’s games; and whatever the league or level, she routinely keeps score of the games she attends.  She understands:  She roots for her team, the home team, or the team with some other allure.  And thankfully, she cheers for me singing the anthem.
Joined by Jared, David's friend Heather, David, Bonnie, and Missy, who, as usual, kept score.
The concession area where we encountered Missy certainly seemed to be a prime gathering spot.  Nearby, I also ran into former student and blog-subscriber Miheal Hererra. 
Miheal and his daughter Cassidy welcome us home.
Earlier in the summer he had let me know that he and his family had secured front row box seat tickets for the game.  Now with signs prepared to hold up as though the game would be featured on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight,” he challenged me to end the anthem tour on a high note by starting my rendition in E-flat—a full tone higher than my most frequent key of C-sharp.  
Miheal challenges me to sing in a higher key.
Although I later disappointed Miheal by singing the anthem in my most comfortable key, he did record my performance and post it on YouTube  
With so many friends and family joining us for the game, I was tempted to forego my routine warm-up exercises to enjoy spending more time with them on the glorious summer evening.  Yet I also wanted to make sure that I could shine for my final Minor League rendition.  So I sought out the quietest, most private place in the ballpark—the family restroom.   Throughout the summer I typically found that the best place to warm up in the ballparks was in the family or handicapped restroom, a space usually without speakers blaring the pre-game music and announcements.  With sounds muffled in the sequestered room, I could do the physical and vocal exercises that might prove distressing or alarming to casual passersby, as happened in a couple of ballparks where secluded spaces were inaccessible.
Near the corridor from the concourse to the third base seats, I found the family restroom, entered, locked the door, faced the mirror, and began the odd contortions and tongue wagging that loosen facial muscles.  Moments later, as usual, I started to vocalize, focusing on my naso-pharynx resonance rather trying to make pleasant sounds.  Then following my exercise through sequential scales, I practiced harmonic intervals.  Suddenly, the restroom door opened while I was making ugly sounds.  A startled young woman looked at me and started to shut the door.  Both of us were flustered.  Thinking that she might need the privacy afforded by the single-toilet room, I explained my efforts in preparation for singing the anthem, and I let her know that, apparently, the lock on the door didn’t work.  Since she looked somewhat desperate, I offered to leave the room and stand guard by the door with a malfunctioning lock.  

Meanwhile, on the field batting practice concluded, the batters’ boxes and foul lines got limed, and the infield got dragged and wetted to settle the dust.  The pre-game ceremonies were ready to begin.  Line-ups were read with a sense of excitement, first pitches were tossed as though they had meaning, and I stepped to the area between home plate and the backstop.   Silhouetted against the dusky sky, the San Gabriel Mountains glowed at sunset as though they knew that I was completing the journey. 
Arrowhead Ballpark at dusk on this glorious summer evening.
I was introduced to sing the anthem, with an expansive identification of my project and its conclusion.  I stood ready, hummed the C-sharp that I had blown a second earlier on my pitch pipe, and began to sing with an unusual sense of fulfillment and release.   When I got to the line “o’er the land of the free,” I smiled wider than the length of Route 66, I think, all the while thinking to myself, “I am, I am, I am.  I am free from the travel of the road.”
Marcie and her daughter give me brownies.
As I had requested, the 66ers PA announcer featured my affiliation with Whittier College in the introduction.  In response to the mention of Whittier, Chuck Perkins approached me and proudly said that his mother had gone to the College and that he had pictures and memorabilia from the 1940s related to her work in Broadoaks, Whittier’s “lab school” for early childhood education.   Shortly after he engaged me, former student Marcie Holmer brought me a batch of double-fudge nut brownies.  Marcie, as some readers might remember, had given me a box of baseball-icinged cookies at my first game of the season in the L.A. area. 

Finally, I moved to the row where my family was seated.  Incredibly, in the seats immediately in front of Bonnie sat Jim Henderson, a colleague from my year as an ACE Fellow.  Now a Dean at Cal State L.A., he had joined several other ACE Fellows (including Karen Mendonca who had joined us a week earlier for the game in San Jose) to accompany me when I sang for the Baltimore Orioles in Camden Yards in 1998.  Now with thousands fewer in these stands, he sat smiling, nonetheless, and we reminisced about baseball, education, and life throughout the first few innings of the game.
While I moved from one set of friends and family to another in the stands behind home plate, the game slipped past uneventfully, neither team scoring off the starting pitchers or middle relievers.  Even so, the game featured an amazingly high moment.  In the third inning, my older son Jared chased down a foul ball that had flown into the concession area. 
During my trek across the diamonds of America, I had been almost hit by foul balls in several stadiums.  I had retrieved one in New Orleans and handed it to a young boy nearby.  I had tossed out first pitches in Midland and San Jose.  And I had been given two balls by the managers of the Mississippi Braves and the Great Lakes Loons.  But no ball from the summer brought more joy than this scuffed ball, which my son scrambled to retrieve as a journey-ending gift. 

After eight innings of shut-out ball, the visiting Ports started the ninth with a single, a sacrifice, and an intentional base on balls.  Then their centerfielder greeted the new relief pitcher with his 30th homerun of the year, swinging Stockton to a 3-0 win.

Although the home team lost the last game on my tour, the 66ers made the post-season playoffs, which began a few days later. And me?  I finished the tour on Route 66, fulfilling my fantasy of seeing more than 100 ballgames and ballparks throughout America and sharing my love of the national anthem with fans from sea to shining sea.  While I might not have sung my final anthem in a higher key as Mihael had urged, I ended the tour on a high note with friends, family, and foul ball.

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