Thursday, April 28, 2011

Good Friday and Bad Weather: Game 13 in Charleston

For more than an hour during late afternoon on Good Friday, I sat stranded in the car in the parking lot adjacent to the Charleston River Dogs’ ballpark.  Raging thunderstorms were pounding the area.  I had no umbrella to use to enter the River Dogs’ offices, and I kept hoping that the storms would subside so that the game might proceed.  I really wanted to feature the River Dogs in my writing since team president Mike Veeck had been instrumental in lining up my singing for them.  He also had played a formative role in the setting up the first occasion for my singing the anthem for a ballgame.

Friday's afternoon deluge in Charleston.

On a Friday in late July last year, I received a phone message from Mike in response to my email proposal to sing for Charleston.  33 years earlier on a July Friday evening in Chicago, Bonnie and I were tending to our newborn son in our two bedroom apartment. When the phone rang, I answered it.  The caller identified himself as Mike Veeck, a staff member in the front office of the White Sox.  He asked for me and then invited me to sing the National Anthem on Fan Appreciation Day at Comiskey Park a few weeks later. 
A month earlier I had sent a letter to Bill Veeck, the owner of the White Sox and Mike’s father. In the letter I had expressed hope that Bill could help me fulfill a dream of singing at a Major League game.  In those days before audio cassettes, I had no recording of my anthem performance.  In my appeal I simply listed my singing credits in the Chicago area and offered to audition at any time during the summer. 
“When do you want me to audition?" I immediately responded to Mike.  In those pre-Roseanne Barr days, he replied succinctly, “You’re fool enough to ask. We’re fool enough to let you do it.”
When Mike called me again last summer to offer me support by River Dogs’ staff in scheduling a date, he also indicated that I’d be welcome to sing for the Fort Myers Miracle and the Hudson Valley Renegade, other teams owned by the Goldklang group with whom he is associated.  As we talked, I expressed appreciation for his role in getting me started, and he replied that he was glad that “good things persist” and that I was still loving baseball and enjoying singing the anthem.
These formative conversations played through my mind while the rain continued to pound the roof of my car.  Meanwhile, the bus bringing the Greenville Drive players to the park pulled into the lot and opened its door.  But no one disembarked.  After a few minutes the door closed and off the team drove—or floated.  As the puddles deepened into mini-ponds, my single ray of hope  was sustained by the fact that the lights of the ballpark remained on.  I figured that if and when the game would be cancelled, the lights would be turned out.
After 90 minutes, the deluge subsided and I went to look at the field—or wading pool. By comparison, the wet field in the playful scene when Crash Davis created a “rain out” in Bull Durham was merely a puddle. 
The grounds crew creating a wake behind home on Good Friday.

South Carolina's left-field lowlands.

When the manager of the visiting Drive saw the expanse of the water, he looked like he was disoriented in some of South Carolina's rice paddies.  Nonetheless, he directed his team to dress and prepare for play.
For two hours I watched the grounds crew shovel water into 5 gallon buckets, empty the containers into 50 gallon trash cans, and transport them on the maintenance cart beyond the outfield fence where they dumped can after can. 

River Dogs' grounds crew shoveling left field.

Adding a new Ashley River beyond the trees.

While I photographed their efforts, one of the guys hollered up to me, "I hope we're on Sports Center tonight!"  All told, Mike Williams, the heads groundskeeper, and his staff shoveled more than 2000 gallons of water off the left-field corner alone.  Their incredible effort enabled the game to begin merely a half-hour later than scheduled.


While Drive teammates watch the crew shovel water in the left field corner, other crew members ironically wet the infield!
In keeping with the season-long custom of honoring American service men and women at their Friday evening games, the River Dogs introduced two naval and marine enlistees and described their tours of duty as part of the pre-game ceremony.  For only the second time on the tour, I faced the flag in the outfield rather than the fans in the stands behind home plate.  While walking back up to the concourse, I was greeted by Tony “The Peanut Man.” “Man, that was good!” he exclaimed.  “That’s the first time I understood every word.”  Having worked at the park since it opened in the mid-90s, Tony has heard hundreds and hundreds of renditions. 
Despite the rain a few hours earlier, the crowd in Charleston was the largest that I had seen since opening night.  While they enjoyed the River Dogs' win and the post-game fireworks show, I appreciated the efforts of two Mikes who had made it possible for me to sing in soggy Charleston.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Beaten Biscuits: Game 9 in Montgomery

An old Southern food tradition is “beaten biscuits,” so called because the dough was often whacked with a wooden tool to create air pockets that would cause the biscuits to rise.  Now that baking soda and baking powder can be added to the dough, simple kneading can achieve the same leavening effect. 


My winsome son David 

Because of my love of biscuits, I desperately wanted to include the Montgomery Biscuits in my itinerary although the most convenient dates that I proposed to the team’s staff couldn’t be accommodated.  So I went to extremes to work out a date with the Biscuits, the only team whose name is a food that is not an animal or plant. Of course, there are Stone Crabs in Charlotte (FL), Mudcats in Carolina, Kernels in Cedar Rapids, and Nuts in Modesto.  But there are no Burgers in Burlington, Fries in Fresno, or Grits in Greensboro. 
The only way to find a compatible date with the Montgomery Biscuits was for me to interrupt my crisscrossing through the Florida State League for one day's excursion into Alabama.  In effect, the inclusion of the Biscuits in my menu required
·         driving from Clearwater to Orlando after a Sunday night game
·         catching an early morning direct flight to Birmingham
·         then driving 110 miles south to Montgomery
·         singing for the game
·         returning after the game to a hotel near Birmingham’s airport
·         and catching the only direct flight back to Orlando early the next morning so that I could finally drive to Lakeland to sing for the Flying Tigers on Tuesday evening.  

 Whew!  But the travel extremes were worth it.

When I arrived at Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, I became concerned about a possible distraction.   Just beyond the left-field fence I saw a train rolling along and heard its shrill whistle, certainly not harmonious with the anthem in F#.  I cringed at the possibility that another locomotive might belch its signal while I would be belting out “bombs bursting in air.”  Later as I talked with fans, I learned that occasionally anthem singers have been distracted by the coincidental serenade of the trains. Fortunately, I experienced no such difficulty.


A train passes beyond left field before the pre-game ceremonies.
At one point a former Montgomery mayor promoted the possible distraction as a distinction, offering a thousand dollars to the first hometown player who hit a homerun off a passing train.  Eventually, the mayor paid up when one of the Biscuits belted one of a boxcar.
T-Ballers preparing for their participation.
The pre-game ceremonies featured two colonels from nearby Maxwell Air Force Base throwing out the first pitch. Both were wild, their throws flattening out fifteen feet short and wide of home plate.  I hoped that my anthem rendition would follow that pattern of falling short of the target.  Others who participated were players from a local T-Ball team sponsored by a pediatric dental clinic had participated in the pre-game ceremonies, joining the Biscuits’ starters on the field at their respective positions.  When the kindergarten and first-grade kids were introduced by name and position, they were to run onto the field and sidle up to their respective Biscuit players already in place.  But when the announcer quickly read the T-Ballers’ names and positions, confusion arose.  None went to right field or shortstop: “Where are those positions?” the kids must have wondered.  Instead, a clump of them ambled happily over toward the easily identifiable second base and joyfully stood at attention while I sang the anthem.
T-Baller High-Fiving Big Mo
All of the kids received a ball that was autographed by their aligned Biscuit player.  But the highlight of their evening seemed to be their picture with Big Mo, the Montgomery mascot whose costume features a Hula-Hoop waist that creates virtual biscuits for hips. The T-Ballers’ joy was as delectable and true as beaten biscuits.
As the game started, the Biscuits hoped to smother the Jackson Generals with record-breaking homeruns as they had done the previous night by hitting five.  But this night, while the Generals commanded the air strikes by hitting three homeruns, I engaged James Anderson in lively conversation about the history of minor league baseball in Montgomery, the ballpark’s construction, the naming of the team, and Alabama’s support of AA teams (4 of the 30 AA teams in the nation are in the state).  A partner in the law firm whose offices across the street look down on the field, he has occupied the same box seats behind home plate since the ballpark opened.
He pointed out that a new law prevents all public officials from being hosted at any ballgame.  Since corporate sponsors had been able to share their seats with legislators and city magnates until last month, one consequence of the law, he conjectured, is that corporations might begin to question their expenditures for luxury boxes.  Coupled with this challenge, the downturn in the economy might reduce the number of games that ordinary fans attend.  Having seen his childhood Montgomery leave decades ago, he wants attendance at the Biscuits' games to remain a draw.  Scanning the crowd on this Monday evening, he projected that the Biscuits would be challenged to break 500, despite having two youth teams featured as part of their pre-game ceremonies. By the game's end, however, the official attendance reached 1698.  Maybe the concessions and in-game activities that feature chicken biscuits, biscuits with gravy, and biscuits with butter and jelly lured a reasonable crowd on a school night!

Although I had felt that I needed to see the Biscuits in my anthem tours, on Monday night they were simply beaten: Jackson Generals 6, Montgomery Biscuits 4.   And so was I.  Somehow, in my fatigue, I deleted all but three of my Montgomery pictures .

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Fireworks seem secondary: Game 8 in Clearwater

Darren, Rachel, Sarah, and Tyler
The joy that I derive from watching baseball is intensified when I’m able to share a good game with friends.  In Clearwater, that happened.  The Stoub family from Orlando—Darren, his wife Sarah, and their two children Rachel and Tyler, ages 8 and 7—joined me at the Threshers’ ballpark for an early evening game.  Darren, a chemistry professor at Rollins College, had been my colleague at Whittier several years ago.  And a week before the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Darren, who has a pilot’s license, had taken Bonnie and me for an airplane ride over Whittier, Disneyland, and other landmarks in the area.  Now much of that airspace is more tightly controlled than the day that he gave us the aerial tour.
Tyler's delight!
Having spent the day at the beach, Rachel and Tyler attended their first baseball game.  The Threshers had provided us with marvelous seats behind the Clearwater dugout, and we enjoyed ample space afforded by the empty rows in front and behind us.  In the bottom of the fifth inning, a foul ball bounced toward the dugout and was grabbed by left fielder D’Arby Myers, who tossed the ball to me so that I could give it to Tyler.  Then, forget the game on the field!  Tyler got absorbed in tossing the ball a few steps up the aisle and fielding it as it would roll back down the steps toward him.  
That is, until the seventh-inning stretch, through which Tyler smiled while singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and which Rachel enjoyed when the video camera isolated her on the scoreboard screen. Up to that point Rachel had been most fascinated by the size of the women’s restroom!  After a mid-game visit there with her mother, Rachel was amazed by the “20 stalls in the women’s bathroom,” a fact that she reported with amazement on her return to our seats. 
Before the game ended, Rachel continued to have a charmed experience.  When the Threshers' staffers started to "bazooka" promotional T-shirts into the stands,  Darren caught one and handed it immediately to Rachel.  Emblazoned with the logo of the Threshers on one side, the shirt also featured the sponsor Ozona’s Southern Style Barbecue on the other.  And tucked into the tightly wadded shirt was a gift certificate!  But Rachel’s night was not yet done: After the top of the ninth inning, the Threshers’ fielder who had caught the final out tossed her the ball.  Incredibly, both Tyler and Rachel received balls from the players. 
During the game, the most distinct play was a second-inning bunt that rolled foul with its last breath. The Daytona batter laid down what looked like an uncontested single with the ball hugging the third-base line in front of us.  The Threshers’ fielder escorted it down the chalk, waiting to tap it once it might cross the line.  Yet it stayed fair, even while the batter stood watching and waiting on first base.  As the ball’s speed slowed, it held its course until its whisper reached the bag.  Then within a catch-breath of the base, it tilted across the line and died untouched in foul territory, a dime’s distance from the base.

Fireworks as I leave Clearwater's ballpark

Typically, a post-game fireworks display is the highlight of a young child’s experience at the ballpark.  Yet I’m not sure that even that colorful spray top the delight that Tyler and Rachel experienced eating ballpark concessions, getting game balls and a T-shirt, and being spotlighted on the scoreboard. 
While the Stoubs stayed to see the fireworks, I enjoyed a different celestial display of the full moon rising over Tampa Bay as I headed back toward Orlando to catch an early morning flight to Alabama for the Biscuits' game in Montgomery the following night.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Extra Innings and Extraordinary: Game 7 in Jupiter


Moe's small sign is on the stanchion between the pitcher and base umpire.

The second distinct play spotlighted the umpires.  With a runner on second, the Hammerheads’ batter topped the ball, sending a slow roller between the mound and first. Maikel Cleto, the Cardinals’ pitcher, scooped up the ball, crossed the foul line, and lunged after the runner—but missed making the tag.  The base umpire, who had been positioned near second because of a runner on base, called the hitter safe as he crossed first base.  Immediately, Luis Aguayo, the Cardinals’ manager, rushed to field and argued the call.  And within a couple of minutes of intense discussion with both umpires, the base umpire changed his ruling and called the runner out for having left the baseline.
Tug Haines captures a play in Jupiter.
During the game, I met Tug Haines, a blogger who is attending games this season in each of the minor league parks east of the Mississippi River.  A cranberry farmer from New Jersey, he fell in love with minor league ball a few years ago while his beloved Phillies were on a long road trip.  And last fall, he came up with the idea of hitting the road for a longer trip than the Phillies had taken.  With his sister’s assistance, then, he looked at team schedules and, like me, decided to begin his expedition in Florida.  When he checked my itinerary a few days ago, he discovered that, although we’ll simultaneously crisscross the eastern U.S. throughout the season, the only place where we’d land on the same night would be in Jupiter, coincidentally while the moon would be approaching its seventh house.  Maybe baseball is “the dawning of the age of Aquarius.” 

Two teams in the Florida State League have home dugouts in Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter. Like the Lakers and Clippers who share the Staples Center as their home court in Los Angeles, the Jupiter Hammerheads and the Palm Beach Cardinals call the same ballpark “home.”  Fortunately for me, I got to sing for both of them in my one night at their ballpark.
Yet when I arrived at Roger Dean Stadium in mid-afternoon, I heard the unfamiliar “ping” of the bat making contact with the ball, not the great wooden “crack” that distinguishes professional play. I listened to the public address announcer calling the game.  The Jupiter Christian Eagles were hosting the Benjamin Buccaneers in the final week of the regular season of Florida’s Class 2A High School baseball.  While their game progressed, I sat on a bench outside the ballpark reading yet another baseball book.  After both teams scored an unbalanced number of runs in the final inning to even up the score, Jupiter won in extra innings on a walk-off homerun.  There’s nothing like a day filled with baseball!
The evening game between the Hammerheads and the Cardinals featured two unusual plays, ones more extraordinary than the walk-off, bloop single that ended the game in the eleventh inning--the ballpark's second extra inning game of the day.
In the first inning the Hammerheads' clean-up hitter Kyle Jensen belted a homerun off the "Moe's Southwest Grill" sign on the light stanchion beyond the 387 marker in left-centerfield.  He certainly cleaned up with his good aim, winning $100 in gift cards from the restaurant and generating coupons for a free taco for fans in one section.  The promotion called to mind Abe Stark's scoreboard at Ebbets Field that read "Hit sign, win suit."  The trick there was to hit the low right-field sign on the fly.  Cartoons often featured one of his clothing store employees standing as an extra outfielder in front of the ad, ready to catch any hit toward the target.

Sharing anthem honors

At St. Lucie, a twin pillared sculpture made from remnant steel at Ground Zero graces the entry to the ballpark and pays tribute to the victims of the Twin Towers’ attack.  Created by Patrick Cochrane, the piece was donated by retired New York City firefighters who live in the St. Lucie area.
As I entered the ballpark to sing for Florida's Mets, the relic reminded me of the consummate performance of the national anthem by Daniel Rodriguez, then a New York City policeman, at Yankee Stadium shortly after the 9/11 tragedies. 
While the crowd’s response to my anthem rendition in St. Lucie was enthusiastic, the most expressive gestures and comments came from Mets players and a vendor.  As I walked the gauntlet past the Mets dugout right after I had sung, manager Pedro Lopez gave me thumbs up and said “Good job,” followed by third-baseman Richard Lucas reaching over the dugout railing to shake hands with me.  A short time later, the vendor who was roasting pretzels over a charcoal fire near the backstop breezeway expressed great appreciation for the anthem itself.  He offered that his wife, Laura Mercado, had auditioned a couple of days earlier to sing for the Mets and hopes to sing soon for one of the games.
A similar connection took place the following day in Jupiter while I was eating a delectable lunch at Le Metro in the Abacoa Town Center.  Tiara, the waitress, recommended the broth-based mushroom soup and, as an entrĂ©e, grilled scallops, presented over tabouli, sliced tomatoes, and a fan of avocado slices dressed with an herbed balsamic vinegarette.  I still savor that meal.  When she asked what business had brought me to town, I indicated that I’d be singing for the Hammerheads a few hours later.  “Wow!” she exclaimed and then recounted how some years ago when she had been living in Newport Beach, California, her daughter Nicole Gero had sung the national anthem for the Freedom Bowl game. 
It’s quite simple: Anthem performances bring people together.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Souvenirs: Game 6 in St. Lucie

Among the bits of advice and recommendations that I got from friends while planning this project was the suggestion that I get a hat from each team that I visit this summer.  I countered: “Are you kidding? If I could get them for an average of $20 apiece, I’d be out more than two grand.  And what would I do with 109 hats?  Where would I put them?”  No thanks.
So before embarking on this wild venture, I decided not to buy any souvenirs but to look for freebies—ticket stubs and folded schedules—that I might frame in a collage or some other artistic arrangement of a ballpark, a baseball and bat, or a map tracing my route.  That was my commitment until my sixth game. 
St. Lucie staffer Cassie Younce with Mookie's jersey.
In St. Lucie, however, I couldn’t resist buying the Mets program for $1.50 because it included a raffle chance to win a Mets’ jersey, specifically, number 53: Mookie Wilson’s jersey.  And, oh my goodness, a dollar fifty is surely worth the chance to win a Mookie jersey to give to my good friend and travel companion from last summer Rick Censullo.  He’s a life-long, die-hard Boston fan, who died hard in 1986 when the Mets unexpectedly prevailed over the Red Sox in the World Series.
With Boston leading New York three games to two and ahead 5 to 3 with two outs in the tenth inning of Game 6 in the 1986 World Series, the Mets had no runners on base.  Boston fans could taste the end of their seven decades of agony during which the World Series championship had eluded them.  But a wild thing happened.  The “Curse of the Bambino” started to shout.  Twice down to their final strike, the Mets managed to string together three singles before a wild pitch brought home the tying run. Then Mookie Wilson hit a routine ground ball toward Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.  The ball started to assert its own rhythm, hip-hopping under Buckner’s glove and scoring the winning run. Although Buckner’s miscue on Mookie's roller has taken on mythic significance, the missed opportunities and misplays earlier in the inning really cost the Sox the Series, which the Mets clinched the next night.
The temptation offered by the chance to win a Mookie jersey for a patriot in Red Sox Nation was certainly too seductive for me to resist the purchase of a program for a souvenir.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Feedback: Game 5 in Dunedin

Since I knew that I would be spending several consecutive days singing for teams on the Gulf Coast, I had anchored in a hotel near Sarasota to allow for easy commutes to Fort Myers, Bradenton, and Tampa.  However, rather than remaining in the area for the next game in nearby Dunedin, I returned to DeLand after the Tampa game so that I could pick up Don Musser to join me for the Blue Jays’ game the following night.  I know that doesn’t make geographical sense since it required more than 300 extra-miles of driving. But it scores in baseball and personal terms because it shares a day-long road trip and a game with a close friend. 
Don and I left DeLand at noon, heading across state on blue highways toward Dunedin. We anticipated an intermediate stop in the community of Wesley Chapel where Don wanted to pick up some unique hibiscus hybrids that he had ordered a few days earlier. 


Don with one of the hibiscus blooms that he often takes to his mother in a nursing home.

Driving along Route 44 as we approached Cassia, we crossed the headwaters of Black Water Creek.  Several years ago on a cold, rainy, windy January morning, Bill Flowers, the senior naturalist of the St. John’s River and its tributaries, had taken Don and me fishing in the Creek near its mouth miles south at the Wekiva River. 

Black Water Creek along Route 44 near Cassia, Florida.

When Don and I crossed the bridge over the Creek, we recalled how the boat ride with Bill that day had made the experience so memorable.  For one thing, as Bill paddled us up the nearly impassible Black Water, we often had to crouch into the bottom of the boat to avoid low-hanging branches while we alternately had to rise and shove the hull away from submerged stumps.  We didn’t mind ducking since the hull of the small boat momentarily provided a baffle to the wind.  Even more distinct than our dodging obstacles in the swollen water was the incredible cold that we experienced as Bill had motored down the river to get to Black Water.  I am not sure that I have ever been colder, even in the sub-zero temperatures intensified by gusting winds off Lake Michigan as I walked home from classes when I had been a student at The University of Chicago.  Despite the horrible conditions that January day on the water, we managed to lure several keepers into the boat, thanks, I am sure, to Bill enticing the bass with promises of warmth.  We were too cold to bait our hooks, making wiry Bill unglove to hook the shiners.  And truth be told, we were too cold even to care to take photographs of our remarkable catch. 

When I walked onto the field at the Dunedin ballpark a couple of minutes before singing the anthem, two fans in the front row behind the backstop greeted me.  John Price and his brother-in-law Rick Miller had been at the Tampa game the previous night, and they expressed appreciation for my rendition as well as encouragement for the tour.  Hearing them, Don immediately cackled and said that I had a groupie following!  But John’s wife Gail protested, joking that they really weren’t stalking me.  The Prices are from Chattanooga and hoped that I would be singing there for the Lookouts while I’m touring through the area.  Regrettably, the Lookouts were among the twenty minor league teams that never responded to any of my queries.
At Dunedin, the sound system suffers from about a half-second delay.  Thankfully, Morgan Bell, the Dunedin Blue Jays Coordinator for Community Relations, had alerted me to the need for ear plugs.  Indeed they were helpful, although during the anthem as I heard the muffled feedback, I recalled the advice: “Whatever you do, don’t listen.  Keep going!”  Try as I might, however, I couldn't suppress the sound of the feedback.  When I finished and moved toward the stands, one of the visiting Tigers' roving instructors standing near me commented, “How did you do that?”  Then he saw me remove the ear plugs, and said, “Now I see!”
Dunedin won its first game of the season that night, beating the Lakeland Flying Tigers 6-5, and Morgan gave me partial credit for inspiring the team.  If only that were true!
Dunedin's "Wall of Fame" of its former players who made it to "The Show."
Having enjoyed the memories of fishing together, the promise of bountiful hibuscus blooms, and good old fun at the ballpark, Don and I spent much of the 150 mile ride back to DeLand in silence, the kind of silence that only two old friends can enjoy: “The less said, the more,” in the words of Duffy House, the retired sportswriter-detective in Crabbe Evers’ Bleeding Dodger Blue.

Mini-Yankees: Game 4 in Tampa

In a distinct way, singing for the Tampa Yankees echoed my experience of singing for Major League teams.  Unlike the previous minor league ballparks where I have sung, including three on this tour, the Yankees scheduled a sound check for me before the stadium opened.  The early arrival gave me an opportunity to watch players work out and take batting practice.
As the visiting Manatees finished their swings in the batting cages and walked back toward the visitors’ clubhouse, I saw #17, Josh Prince, the Manatees shortstop.  A few days earlier he had patted me on the back following my Opening Night rendition in Brevard County.  I congratulated him on his solid fielding, including his splendid play on a shot up the middle, and he inquired about what had brought me to the bowels of the ballpark. When I identified myself as a professor undertaking the anthem tour, he brightened and asked if the Zephyrs were on my schedule.  Indeed.  He had gone to Tulane, and he joshed that he’d like to ride along on my tour to return to his friends and haunts in New Orleans.
After practicing the anthem with the sound system, I saw one of the younger Yankees prospects in the dugout and remarked to him that, on the two occasions when I had sung for the parent Yankees, they had won.  He was unresponsive to my comment although he had smiled broadly while I had been singing.  A staff member let me know that he had recently arrived from the Dominican Republic and speaks very little English.  His situation is not uncommon, and it shows the complex challenges that many of the minor leaguers face.  Not only must they learn to adjust to the rigors of bus-league travel while they try to advance through their organization's system; they simultaneously must learn to swim in an alien culture.
Following my performance for the game, I was greeted warmly by Myra and Ed Kryscnski from New Jersey.  The public address announcer had briefly identified my anthem project and tour; and the Kryscnskis were curious about my itinerary.  Devout fans of the minor leagues, they have partial season tickets to the Trenton Thunder's games where, they hoped, I would sing later this summer. "July 1," I replied.  I've worked so often and long with the schedule that it is now mired in memory. Myra said that although that date is not on their package of games, they’ll add that one to their schedule.  As we talked she also identified the chance for them to join me for the IronPigs’ game in Lehigh Valley.
During the game, I also chatted for several innings with Mike Lortz, a blogger for www.busleaguesbaseball.com.  He let me know that a few days earlier he had met Tug Haines, a cranberry farmer and free-lance writer from New Jersey.  Like me, Tug is trekking through minor league ballparks this summer, trying to see more than a hundred games in the ballparks east of the Mississippi River.   
Manatees' ace Kyle Heckathorn challenges the Yankee batter.

Needing to drive back to DeLand that evening, I left the game following the seventh-inning stretch, during which the public address system played a recording of Robert Merrill singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”  Could I have more fun during the singing of baseball's song than to blend my voice with the rich baritone of Mr. Merrill?  Although the crowd had dwindled far below the gate report of 840, I lustily sang the great, traditional melody, modulating along with Merrill.
Although I had claimed a perfect record for the Yankees before the game, the these mini-Yankees lost 4-2 that evening to Brevard County, who won their first game of the season, breaking their own five-game skid.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Where's the pitch? Game 3 in Bradenton

When I walked into the Bradenton Marauders ballpark I asked Fred, one of the box-seat ushers, if he could direct me to Charlie, the staff member whom I was to meet for anthem assistance. Before pointing me in the right direction, Fred looked at the anthem tour logo on my shirt and said, “Are you the guy who’s going to all the ballparks and singing the anthem?”  When I nodded “yes,” he continued. “I heard about you this afternoon.”
Enthusiastic about my performance and tour, Fred introduced me to a couple of his colleagues as I prepared for the pre-game ceremonies.  Here, they varied the routine from my previous performances.  Since there were no corporate sponsors for the game and no groups in attendance, there was no typical first pitch.   While I was reaching for my pitch pipe, the public address announcer introduced me sooner than I had expected.  With the wind blowing steadily, I started effectively on C#.  Following my performance, the public address announcer described the anthem tour, identifying Bradenton as the third ballpark.
When I returned to the stands, one of Fred’s friends expressed appreciation for the pace and clarity of my singing.  During Spring Training for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he said, several of the anthem performers had butchered the tune, changing keys, embellishing the melody, or screeching at the end.   By contrast, he liked the way that kept the focus on the words.
Among the fans who commented on my performance, Mike Murphy was fascinated by my scheduling challenge to find teams in the same area at home on consecutive days.  In a couple of weeks, he and his wife planned to fly to Iowa for the Drake Relays in Des Moines.  The promise of the meet lured him back to his alma mater where he had played football and run track. Recently retired from executive positions in the food industry, he had spent most of the last decade abroad.

During their stay in Iowa, Mike and his wife expected to attend several of the minor league games.  He expressed frustration by the fact that the Iowa Cubs would be “away” during the Relays; but he and his wife would be able to catch games in Cedar Rapids and Clinton. Somewhat like David Lamb who chronicles his re-immersion into Americana through minor league baseball in his engaging book Stolen Season, Mike enjoyed minor league baseball as a way of getting back in touch with the rhythms of America.     
Unlike my two previous Florida ballparks, Bradenton’s McKechnie Field is not positioned in open space with acres of grassy parking.  Instead, one of its outer walls abuts a street, giving it a neighborhood immediacy much like Wrigley Field.  It also features spired garrets like Churchill Downs, and pillars that partially obstruct the view of a few seats in the higher grandstands.
After hearing the 702 fans swoon their way through “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” I left the game with the Marauders holding a three-run lead.  They maintained that margin for their victory, although both teams combined for six more runs in their final at-bats.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Miracles: Game 2 in Fort Myers

For months, I have been dreaming this anthem project, plotting its possibilities, and confirming its plans.  Sunday afternoon’s game was the first in a two-week stretch during which the tour really comes to life.  During this time I will have only one open date.  
Before now, I have sensed what John Steinbeck confesses at the beginning of the second part of Travels with Charley, the narrative about his discovery of and encounter with America. “In long-range planning for a trip,” he writes, “I think there is a private conviction that it won’t happen.”
Indeed.  I have wondered whether the wild idea of the anthem tour would actually be realized.  Yet Sunday's performance for the Fort Myers Miracle, a farm team of the Minnesota Twins, suggests that my project is miraculously coming to life, thanks in large part to the enthusiastic cooperation of so many teams in accommodating my scheduling needs.
As I drove toward the ballpark several vivid memories associated with the Twins rushed into mind. The first parking lot avenue that I passed was Puckett Circle, and immediately I recalled the morning in a Boston hotel in the late 1980s when my two young sons and I bumped into Kirby Puckett. When they jumped joyfully and asked for his autograph, he furtively looked around as I fumbled through my wallet searching for business cards.  While he told them that he usually doesn’t sign in hotels, he took my cards and signed the blank side.  Of course, my sons and I still cherish the moment.
Driving nearer to the ballpark entry, I turned into a partially paved parking lane: Grant Circle.  Ah, Mudcat, the Twins' winning World Series starter against Don Drysdale in 1965!  During Spring Training fifteen years ago, I had met Mudcat Grant on a flight from Los Angeles to Florida.  When he learned of my position at Whittier College, he offered to coordinate a group of aging former Negro League players to make a Black History Month presentation to Whittier students.  I leapt at the prospect. For three consecutive years, then, Mudcat brought Sammie Haynes, Joe Scott, Luther Branham, and Merle and Andy Porter to campus to spend an evening enriching the students’ lives, as well as my own.
In these simple street signs, I saw evidence of the miracle of baseball camaraderie.

A feature of Hammond Stadium is its Hall of Fame wall of baseball scouts.

Before the game, I met Gary Sharp, the Miracle’s Director of Media Relations and Promotions with whom I had corresponded on several occasions.  He expressed excitement about the magnitude of my project and, as he put it, “its pure summer fun.”  Minutes later in his role as the public address announcer, he introduced me for the anthem, beginning with a description of the project.  Thanks, Gary.  That description prompted several stimulating conversations during the game.
The Miracle’s game was one of a handful of their afternoon starts this season—all on Sunday.  After the previous game’s sell-out crowd of more than 8,000, this Sunday gathering of the faithful was about a tithe of the crowd the night before.  With the temperature in the blaring sun soaring octaves above the thermometer’s official reading in the mid-90s, I was sweat-drenched by the time I began the anthem.  While I had sung for less than a minute and a half, the players would stand on the field for more than an hour, and the umpires would endure three hours without relief.  The sun also factored into the outcome of the game since the Hammerheads’ right fielder lost a two-out fly ball in the high sky, allowing the Miracle’s winning run to score.

Current scouts aim their radar guns toward the pitcher while seeking relief from the sun.
While singing, I focused on several fans behind home plate, one of whom wore baseball pants and a jersey with “Naples” emblazoned across its front. He looked familiar.  After singing, I approached him and asked if he were Bill Virdon, the former outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates and, years later, their manager.  “No,” he responded, “but I get asked that question down here at least once a week.  I am Mark Langemo.”
He complimented my rendition and then inquired about the project, asking how I had conceived and planned it.  The more we talked, the more we became fast friends.  An emeritus professor of business at the University of North Dakota, he is preparing to return to his summer home town of Grand Forks later this week.  So we shared our love of professorial work, our enthusiasm for seeing America, and our passion for baseball.
Mark had come to the ballpark fresh from his Naples’ team’s winning its division in the “over 50” baseball league.  Months short of seventy, he had caught the entire game; and now from his perch behind home plate, he could identify with the challenge and success of these Single-A catchers one-third his age.
The afternoon also featured other near miracles. Incredibly, the catchers and home plate umpire did not wilt in the heat.  The game itself was set apart by a feat that Major League teams rarely accomplish: players executed five successful bunts, two for base hits on successive pitches.  But perhaps the most unusual display of the afternoon came from a six-year old fan who sat in the shade in the upper rows behind home plate.  On each pitch she’d peer to the mound and set her glove in a horizontal position like a catcher expecting to receive the pitch.  In the third inning a high pop foul caromed off a seat near her and then bounced like a pinball under empty rows.  She ran toward it and reached for it, only to find that a strong male hand seized it right before she could touch it.  In frustration, she winced before immediately shrugging off her near-miss.  When the man handed her the ball, her dejection reversed to joy as she acknowledged the gift with a huge, snaggle-toothed smile. 
For several innings, she thwapped the ball into the pocket of her glove.  In the eighth, another pop foul angled toward her ready position.  This time, as the ball careened through vacated rows, she dashed toward the end of its path.  And she won the race.  Delighted by her success, she turned and handed the ball to the three-year-old boy who, like her earlier experience, had nearly missed retrieving it.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Opening Night: Game 1 in Brevard County

On Opening Night, the Brevard County Manatees opened their gates—literally.  They offered a fan-free night, charging no fee for a general admission ticket, and the official count of the crowd soared to 4777.  What a populist way to build enthusiasm for a team at the start of the season!

The pre-game ceremonies featured a parachute specialist flying the American flag as he descended into centerfield and a color guard of Vietnam veterans presenting the flag on the pitcher’s mound. Then while the teams stood on the baselines and the flags flapped in the strong wind, I sang the anthem.  As I walked past the dugout, Josh Prince, the Manatees shortstop and leadoff hitter, expressed appreciation, patting me twice on the back.  And pitching coach Fred Dabney smiled big and teased me: “Best anthem all year.”  For now, of course: it's the only one!

Prince played a stellar game, collecting one of the Manatees' hits, stealing a base, and fielding flawlessly.  In the second inning he turned in a web-gem ranging to the second base side of the bag on the outfield grass to stab the two-hopper.  Then  pirouetting in Jeteresque style, he made a leaping throw to first to nip the runner.  Despite his hustle, the Manatees lost to the Daytona Cubs 3-2, who were led by their outfielders.  Left fielder Michael Burgess hit a tape-measure home run to start the Cubs' scoring, and Jae-Hoon Ha and Nelson Perez cut down runners with their laser throws from center and right.
The right field foul pole.
From the Manatees’ ballpark it is not possible to see the coastline, which lies about a dozen miles away. Yet its name--Space Coast Stadium--is appropriate since it refers to the prominent space industry in the area.  The ballpark is within blastoff-range of Cape Canaveral, and several of its features pay tribute to space exploration. A sculpture of the space shuttle stands at the main entry, and the field itself prominently displays foul-pole banners that honor the crews of the Challenger and Columbia shuttles.
One of the personal benefits of my project is that I'll be able to share games with friends.  Accompanying me to this one was Greg Sapp, a colleague from Stetson University and an enthusiastic fan of the minor leagues.  (He took the photographs of the pre-game ceremonies.)  A few years ago, Greg had been a season ticket holder for the Braves' Single-A team in Macon, Georgia, and now he follows the Daytona Cubs.  Throughout the game, he provided background on several of the returning players from last year as we enjoyed the playful promotions presented by the Manatees staff between innings, like the kids' run from the centerfield fence to the dugout.
Pre-teens rush from centerfield fence to the dugouts.
While the evening had begun with my singing about "the rockets' red glare," it ended on a similar note--with a post-game fireworks display, which Greg and I observed in the rear-view mirros as we headed out the parking lot and back toward DeLand.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Starting Out

Opening Day for Minor League Baseball is today, April 7, which is also my 38th wedding anniversary. 
Throughout the last month Bonnie and I have celebrated our wedding while we have decorated and outfitted Arby for our four-month venture—an extended honeymoon.  Even so, while I prepare to sing for the first game tonight, I dearly miss Bonnie, who has remained at home making final preparations for our RV journey.  And I cannot think of a more loving anniversary gift from her than her enthusiastic support of my anthem project.   
Two days ago I began the travel in ways that I had not anticipated.  Unfortunately, I started my flight with the onset of a cold—hardly an auspicious beginning for a singer.  But quite pleasantly at the Ontario airport, I was greeted by Audrey Farrell, a smiling agent at the American Airlines counter.  When I said that it was good to see her again, she recognized my voice and responded, “You’re the anthem singer.”  Wow! 
A dozen years ago I had flown out of Ontario several times when traveling to sing for Major League games.  Always smiling, courteous, and efficient, Audrey would exchange pleasantries with me while I checked in with luggage.  Since then, I have shaved my full beard and have switched to LAX for my airport departures.  I was amazed that she immediately recognized me by voice, perhaps a good omen for my anthem performances.  If you ever want to restore appreciation for an airline, go to the American counter at Ontario and find Audrey.
During the flights to Florida, I wrote postcards about the trip to friends.  Then arriving in Jacksonville, I found that my Hertz car rental was new, really new. It had four miles on the odometer as I turned on the ignition and began to navigate my way south on I-95 toward my weeks-long hosts Don and Ruth Musser in DeLand.  Despite my continent-wide separation from Bonnie at that time, I felt a tethered connection with her as I crossed the eastern end of I-10, the freeway whose western end had directed us to Ontario hours earlier.
When I usually visit Don, we begin our visit with a fishing outing, often with our friend and guide Larry Blakeslee.  And so we did on this visit, too.  Yesterday, we spent several hours feeding shiners to escaping large-mouth bass, evil mud fish, and mean gar.  We did, however, land several big fish, including an eight-pounder that I managed to catch. 
And we saw five manatees swimming calmly near the mouth of the Ichetucknee Springs as we idled through the current of the Santa Fe River.  Although this was my first trip to the restive and remote Santa Fe, 25 years ago I had tubed down the Ichetucknee with colleagues at the University of Florida, where I spent the summer taking a seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. 
I was sure that seeing the protected manatees signaled a good start for tonight’s game, the season opener for the Brevard County Manatees and the Florida State League.

Shakeouts and Preparations

To prepare for the anthem tour, Bonnie and I have undertaken several different efforts and challenges: Since July of 2010, I have spent about 300 hours contacting teams with my proposal and audition link, devising possible routes based on their home schedules, proposing dates and setting a schedule, purchasing and outfitting an RV, and reading extensively about Minor League teams and leagues’ histories.  Meanwhile, Bonnie has begun to explore and catalogue possible RV campgrounds at anticipated stops, while we both have started to enjoy reading travel narratives.
Before beginning this venture, our cumulative experience in RVs had been limited to three nights.  Two decades ago, we had borrowed friend Bill Brown’s Class C coach to spend a night boon-docking near Palm Springs before taking a hot-air balloon ride the following morning.  Months later, I persuaded Bill again to allow me to borrow his RV for a couple of nights so that I could conduct some research on Super Bowl fans at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego.  These brief trips had been our entire RV experience until our purchase of a Class A RV, a 1994 Fleetwood Flair with 23K original miles, for this anthem tour.
So a month before Opening Day for Minor League Baseball, Bonnie and I planned a shakeout trip to road test our RV, which we playfully named Arby—short for “rattly bang,” since that is the sound that it makes when it runs over pot holes or our stuff shifts in sharp turns. We set Mendocino as our destination since it charms us with memories about the place where Bonnie had spent vivid childhood summers in the redwoods home of Nana, her grandmother George.  In addition, the distance to Mendocino allowed us to anticipate the anthem tour by driving a few hundred miles on consecutive days through big cities, on clogged freeways, and across mountain roads.   Although unplanned, strong winds along the 101 north of Santa  Barbara and rain in the coastal range of mountains added to our learning experience. 
As we drove north from Los Angeles, Bonnie began to read aloud Charles Kuralt’s memoir, A Life on the Road. I had expected to be inspired by Kuralt’s reflections on travel.  I was surprised to learn of his Southern roots, his prize-winning essay as an adolescent about the Charlotte Hornet’s third baseman, and his subsequent coverage of junior high sports for the Charlotte newspaper. Immediately, I connected with his Southern heritage and his reporting on junior high basketball, which I had also done as an early teen for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.  And the start of his journalistic career with the essay on a minor league baseball player now resonated with my tour to minor league ballparks.  I was charged up by his road life.  I only hoped that his repeated troubles with RV mechanical systems would not be replayed by us.
When we reached Mendocino, we boon-docked the RV on a private spot just off Highway 1, not far from the Compche-Ukiah Road on which Bonnie’s grandmother had lived.  Situated in 40 acres of prime redwood forest sloping down to Laguna Creek, Nana’s house had burned several decades ago; but the “Tom Thumb” playhouse, built in 1954 by Grandpa George for his grandchildren, had been the goal for family visits to the property ever since.  (Take a look at pictures of the playhouse in Bonnie’s blog.  The rainbow colors of remaining boards attest the durability of lead-based paint!)
Our shakeout proved effective since we encountered electrical difficulties when we started to leave the site.  As we checked the turn signals and brake lights on Arby and its toad (the towed Saturn that came with its purchase), we discovered no illumination.  I hadn’t wanted to identify so quickly and so closely with Kuralt’s RV difficulties!  Within a few hours, however, Steve and Jamie Shipman at the American Repair Service in nearby Fort Bragg were able to fix the problem and send us on our way to retrace the winding route through the Alexander River Valley, back toward Highway 101, and on to Los Angeles.