Monday, May 30, 2011

Sunday, Sunday: Game 27 in Mississippi

Yes, it was a Sunday afternoon in Jackson, Mississippi, the city of my birth and my childhood and the city where my father had been pastor of one of the largest Baptist churches during those years.  It was—and still is—a city with such a pious culture that churches and sports leagues and teams often mutually support each other.  On this Sunday afternoon, for instance, several church and synagogue groups were identified as attending the game between the Mississippi Braves and the Jacksonville Suns.  Meanwhile, the Braves reinforced church attendance by announcing the team's practice that for Mondays’ games fans would be given discounted admission if they brought a church bulletin from the previous day. 
The Sunday congregation at theBraves' Green Cathedral in Mississippi.
That promotion prompted me to recall a similar bulletin policy established by the church softball league in Jackson.  When I had lived there decades ago, attendance at Sunday services was the requirement for players’ participation. While it seemed that my church’s team was always coming in second or third in the league, I wondered whether or not our rival team brought in ringers to play, offering them qualifying bulletins in exchange for potential homeruns.  Then the league also had a rule against Sunday afternoon softball practices.  Obviously, with Sunday ballgame restrictions no longer effective, choirs and Sunday School groups endorsed the Braves’ Sunday afternoon game as a special outing. 
By contrast, the Chick-fil-A concession at the ballpark remained closed on Sunday as an expression of corporate policy.  Ever since the food chain's founder and CEO Truett Cathy opened his first restaurant more than sixty years ago, Chick-fil-A's custom has been to respect Sunday as a day for spiritual practice.  Adhering to this procedure of remaining closed on Sundays, the company also believes that it expresses how it values its employees by making sure that they have a day to spend in worship, family activities, or personal renewal exercises.    
Chick-fil-A's expression of values.
For the Braves' game shortly after noon, there was no first pitch, no child selected from the stands to yell, “Play ball,” no Little League team to caddie the home team's starting line-up onto the field.  Instead, on this Sunday afternoon students from the secular Japanese Supplemental School in Mississippi sang “Amazing Grace,” even retaining its original phrase: “That saved a wretch like me.” Their rendition contrasts with the popular bowdlerized version in several current church hymnals that preserves some self-esteem by reducing the sting of personal identification as “a wretch” and referring instead to “sinners like me.”  The children and a few adult sponsors sang the first verse in English and repeated it in Japanese.  Religion still suffuses Mississippi life.
Before the game, I mentioned to Braves’ Assistant General Manager Sean Guillotte that this season the home team had 16-10 record when I had sung.  Immediately, he responded, “We’ll have to hire you to sing for us the rest of the season.”  The Braves were 15-21 at that point, although they had shut out the Jacksonville Suns the previous night.  Without knowing about my record for home team success, Braves manager Rocket Wheeler introduced himself while I lounged by the dugout before game.  After I sang, he handed me a ball and said “Thanks.  Good job.”  That’s the first ball that I have been given on this trip.  His evaluation was elaborated by a man wearing an Ole Miss cap and drawling: “You sang it the way it’s s’posed to be sung.”
In the second inning the Braves strung together two singles and a walk, followed by a routine double-play scoring grounder—second to short to first.  With a runner then on third, pitcher Brett Oberholtzer singled to drive in a second run.  Anything but routine, his hit was the first by a pitcher that I had seen this season.  Then tossing seven strong innings, Oberholtzer and two relievers made the runs hold up before adding another for a 3-0 win.
Reliever Jhan Marinez relishes Sunday afternoon's sunshine.
During the middle innings of the game I wandered out to a spot overlooking the Suns’ bullpen where relief pitcher Jhan Marinez lay on his back lounging in the warm sun.  One of his fellow relievers, Dan Jennings, noticed me also taking photographs of the young members of the grounds crew who were playing soccer nearby.  
The Braves' grounds crew passes time passing a soccer ball.
Dan called up to me, “Aren’t you the guy who sang the national anthem?  Weren’t you at our place a couple of weeks ago?”  Yes.  I had sung in Jacksonville for the Suns two weeks earlier, on Easter Sunday.
In the conversation that ensued, he asked where I am a professor.  When he learned that I teach at Whittier College, he offered, “That’s where I wanted to attend more than anywhere else.”  At first, I thought he was pulling my leg; but then he started recounting bits about his visit to campus: “Purple and Gold.  Aren’t those the College’s colors?  And isn’t it the place that has the rock that students paint?”   Yes, again. 
During his sophomore year in high school, Dan had toured several California colleges, thinking that he would pursue a baccalaureate degree rather than sign to play professionally.  Although Whittier’s team was out of town on the day that he visited campus, he left Coach Rizzo, who is one of my former students, a video of his pitching and a copy of his resume.  While he recalled positive impressions about the campus and the baseball program, what had appealed him the most about Whittier was its academic program, especially the faculty masters program that expanded students’ scholarly and cultural opportunities.  I enjoyed sharing with him how Bonnie and I had hosted the former Negro League stars to share their experiences during Black History Month on consecutive years when we had directed the programs in Garrett Faculty Masters House.

The face of the promotional card for my book.

Dan also inquired about the book that I am writing about the national anthem for the national pastime.  His interest was piqued, in part, by difficulties his father—also a professor—had encountered in securing a publisher a few years ago.  As we talked about Whittier and my course on sports and religion, which he said he would have taken, I tried to toss him one of the promotional, baseball-style cards for my book Rounding the Bases.  Winds swirled, helicoptering the card back up to me on several occasions before I could get it to drop to him below the bullpen wall.
Finally, we talked about where I’d been on the trip and whether the Suns would see me again on the tour.   When I described making the trip in Arby with my wife, he responded: “That sounds like a dream come true.” 
It is.

Memorable Mobile: Game 26 in Mobile

To minimize the difficulty in making the transition from a night game in Mobile to an early afternoon game the following day in Jackson, Mississippi, we decided to dock Arby in Hattiesburg and use the speed of Toad to cover more than half of the route from Alabama’s Gulf Coast to Jackson.  That plan allowed us to return to Arby before midnight and to leave early the next morning in Arby for the Trustmark Ballpark a hundred miles away and make it on time for the scheduled noon arrival.
In Mobile, our approach to “The Hank” took me down memory lanes.  We turned off Government Street onto Satchel Paige, then right onto Bolling Brothers, where the street number for the ballpark address is 755—Hank Aaron’s career homerun total. The entry to the ballpark pays tribute to Mobile’s extraordinary baseball history with a silhouette of a batter attracting fans to the home plate gates. 
At the heart of Mobile’s baseball heritage is its support of instructional youth leagues, its successful preparation of major leaguers, and its celebration of hometown superstars.  Five Hall-of-Fame members—Aaron, Paige, Billy Williams, Willie McCovey, Ozzie Smith—were born in Mobile, the third highest total of any city. 
Although I never saw Aaron play in person, I admired the purity of his play, its apparent ease: swift on the bases, efficient in the field, and powerful at the plate with a controlled swing that made explosive contact because of his quick wrists.  When the Milwaukee Brewers held their closing ceremony for the old County Park where he had played so many games and won the 1957 World Series, I got to interview him briefly.  I was so awestruck by standing adjacent to him talking about his memories of the ballpark that I could hardly write legible notes about our conversation.

In a different way, the tributes to Paige reminded me of his six rules for living, which I first encountered as a teenager when I was inspired by his autobiography Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever.
1.       Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.
2.       If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
3.       Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
4.       Go very light on the vices such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful.
5.       Avoid running at all times.
6.       Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.
On several occasions when I have been invited to deliver sermons in recent years, I have been tempted to use his rules as the focal text for the homily.
In addition to its tributes to the Hall of Famers and Mobile players who made it to the major leagues, the ballpark also is distinct in its architecture.  Unlike the luxury boxes that sit atop most grandstands, the VIP seats at The Hank are at field level between first and third.  The private spaces feature enclosed suites that open onto a couple of rows of covered box seats.  The design is unique and certainly provides welcome relief from the sun on summer days. 
Behind the mascot, the field level VIP seats appear below the red-clad fans from Pensacola.
Waiting to participate in the pre-game ceremonies, a young girl behind me asked if I were singing the national anthem.  When I smiled and nodded “Yes,” she identified herself as a descendent of the man who wrote it.  Indeed, her father confirmed a short time later that Alyssa Smith is related to Frances Scott Key.   It was fun to share opening ceremonies with her.  She was one of ten birthday children who threw out first pitches that evening, a record number on my summer tour that exceeded even the roll of eight in Las Vegas. 
While the lure of fireworks attracted a large local crowd to the Saturday night game, the loudest cheering came from the red-clad fans in three sections. They were supporting the visiting Carolina Mudcats, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.  Initially, it seemed odd that so many fans would follow a Double A team from North Carolina more than 600 miles for a game.  The trek that the troupe made was much shorter, merely having come from across the state line from Florida.  Next year the Mudcats will relocate to Pensacola, less than an hour’s drive away.  Despite the Pensacola fans' vocal presence, the Bay Bears blanked the Mudcats 8-0, thanks to the stellar pitching of Patrick Corbin and a grand slam by Paul Goldschmidt.
All in all, it was a memorable night in Mobile, highlighted by meeting a descendent of Frances Scott Key and evoking memories of Paige and Aaron.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lagniappe: Game 25 in New Orleans

“Lagniappe,” which is one of my mother’s favorite words, describes our New Orleans experience at the Zephyrs’ game.  A word of Creole origin, it means a little extra, something unanticipated and good, often “free.”   It was also the word used by Whittier alumna Jennifer Buddemeyer to describe the evening.
For the second game in a row, I was praying like My Fair Lady’s Henry Higgins, “Just get me to the park on time….”  Minutes before leaving Abita Springs to cross Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans for the Zephyrs’ game, we learned that the Causeway was closed because of a big-rig fire that had shut down  the lanes in both directions.  That meant that we would need to follow the longer route through Slidell, taking I-10 across the water and through much of New Orleans as the five-o’clock traffic swarmed.  Off we went in Toad and made our way fairly easily against the primary flow of traffic before exiting the freeway and continuing the last five miles on surface streets.  No problems developed, and we managed to get into the park early.
As I moved toward my check-in point, I noticed Jennifer Buddemeyer walking toward me.  She had been a residence hall advisor when Bonnie and I had lived on Whittier’s campus as faculty masters.  I wouldn’t have recognized her by sight if she had not been wearing her purple and gold T-shirt featuring the Whittier slogan, “Fear the Poet.” A marvelous singer herself, she joined me in singing the anthem from her place adjacent to Bonnie. 
Jennifer and Bonnie await the start of the Zephyrs' game.
Walking past the Zephyrs dugout, I heard hitting coach Damon Minor offer a simple response to my rendition.  “Thanks.”   His response was echoed moments later by one of the TV camera operators, who became the first commenter to address me by name: “Good job, Joe.  Thanks.” 
In our seats behind home plate, I had a grand time catching up with Jennifer during the game, learning about her progress on her literature dissertation at Tulane.  Since she had attended quite a few games at Zephyr Field during pre-Katrina years, she was able to provide background on the ballpark and the city’s support of the team.  One of the most fascinating bits that she shared was that the hillocks beyond the outfield fence serve a purpose other than providing a picnicking area for fans.  They also function as a levee.
Levees beyond the centerfield fence
Talking with her was a great distraction from the unusually calm Zephyrs, who collected only three singles until the ninth.  By contrast, the Salt Lake Bees generated an offensive hive, scoring easily and often, putting up six runs in the first inning.  About the only thing that the Zephyrs fans could cheer for until the final inning was the spectacular scoop of an errant throw and somersaulting tag by first baseman Mike Cervenak.  Immediately, over the public address system came the unmistakable phrase and voice of Harry Caray, “Holy cow!”  Indeed!
Even the lure of a muffalleto couldn't keep us from MiLa's.
As we left the ballpark while the Zephyrs were being blanked, a foul ball plummeted past our heads, bounced a few feet from us, and rolled into the bushes nearby.  I picked it up and tossed it to a young boy who was leaving the game with his father.  His bug-eyed delight more than compensated for giving up the first ball that I had gotten on the tour.  The ball was lagniappe to our early departure for dinner at MiLa’s, an incredible restaurant where we had dined two years ago and where on this brief return to New Orleans we had decided to eat our single meal.  (Check out Bonnie's blog on "Mmm, Mmm, Louisiana" to savor our dinner there.) 

Zephyrs' promotions

Lagniappe also ended up being the theme for the night, for Jennifer.  Following the game, she emailed me with a note that her seat number appeared on the scoreboard, indicating that its holder had been selected to win a free Mobil 1 Oil Change!  Indeed her seat was lucky that night.  During the seventh inning stretch when the Zephyrs’ staff members tossed promotional baseball caps into the stands, one landed in her lap. And following the game there were fireworks. “You gotta love minor league ball,” she wrote. 

She also let me know that although the Zephyrs lost 7-1, their lone run was, in her description, “poetry.” (You gotta love English majors who are alumni of the Poets—Whittier’s mascot!)  With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Vinny Rottino lined a triple into the right field corner.  The next hitter roped a single to right, scoring Rottino.  His hit was followed by another and a walk to load the bases before a grounder ended the game on a force play.   Jennifer concluded her note with the observation that “the Zephyrs went down playing all the way to the end—and that's something, ain't it?!?  I wished you'd been there to see it!  That kind of baseball, which doesn't happen at every game, was lagniappe, too.”

On a Mission: Game 24 in San Antonio

We knew it would finally happen—encountering travel difficulties in getting to a ballpark on time.  The real surprise was that we hadn’t figured it would happen in quite this way.
We had left the Austin area in Toad (the nickname for our towed car) in plenty of time to get to San Antonio for the late morning game.  As we approached the Alamo city, however, we were warned of significant traffic delays on Interstate 35 South in the middle of the city.  Since the route that we had mapped out would take us down I-35 to 90 West, we thought it best to find an alternate route.  At that point, Bonnie pulled out her iPad and typed in San Antonio Missions.  “Relief,” we thought when the suggested route directed us to take the 410 toward I-37.  The only sticking point in my mind was that the directions said to follow the 410 East.  While I knew that the ballpark lies at the western edge of the city, I figured that the 410 must be circumferential highway that would deposit us near the ballpark. 
When the green GPS locator of our position began to approach the red destination spot on Bonnie’s iPad, I noticed a historic marker for San Antonio Missions at the upcoming exit.  Yet when we got to the site, we found that it was indeed one of the historic San Antonio missions, a relic of the religious life of old San Antonio, not the ballpark for the team by that name. 
The time: 10:08.  I was due to meet with the Missions staff for pre-game instructions at 10:30, just a half hour before their late-morning start.  Bonnie quickly came to the rescue, adding “baseball” to the map search with San Antonio Missions, she quickly relayed that the new routing from I-410 to I-37 to 90W was estimated to take 19 minutes.  Thankfully, we were not slowed by Arby’s normal pace but instead enjoyed the freedom of freeway speeds.  And we made it to the front gate to greet Bill Gerlt, the Assistant General Manager, at 10:29.  Whew!
The close call in timing meant that I was not able to warm up as usual; and because of the pre-noon start, I had wanted to warm up a bit longer in order to get all of the overnight cobwebs out of my throat.  Instead, I breathed deeply while Bill and I talked about the wonders of minor league baseball and tried to avoid too much pre-game sun.  Already, the temperature even at that early hour had reached the upper 90s. 
Noticing a “Storm” baseball shirt on a fan in the front row, I asked if he had been to Lake Elsinore.  Yes, but….  The father of Missions’ slugger Jaff Decker had seen the Padres’ California League team in Lake Elsinore, but his shirt referred to his own enterprise, a baseball academy named the Storm in the Phoenix area.  Jaff’s dad had flown into San Antonio for a home-stand to see his son play.  The previous night Jeff had poled his 10th homer, a tape-measure shot over the top of the tree well behind the right field fence. 
Although there was no first pitch or other typical ceremony to precede the anthem, the P.A. announcer addressed the grade-school classes that filled the majority of the seats.  He posed a math question to the upper-grade students:  “In an average game, the Missions use 18 dozen baseballs.  Since there are 12 baseballs in case, how many cases of baseballs do the Missions use in their 70 game season?”  The spokesperson child answered 48!  When the announcer relayed the answer to the crowd of fifth-graders, he asked, “Is he right?”  They resounded loudly, “YES!”
I cringed, knowing that Bonnie, who had recently retired as a fifth grade teacher, was standing behind them, wanting to take them through a series of considerations that would help them compute the correct answer.
Although Jaff didn’t homer that mid-day, he did collect two singles, raising his average to the .300 range while San Antonio beat Corpus Christi 5-2 with the benefit of only one homerun.  The little-ball approach to winning baseball was new to the Missions.  During the first month of the season they had slugged more homeruns than any other Texas League team and had led all of the minor leagues in runs scored, topping twenty runs in three of those games.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Warming up: Game 23 in Round Rock

Like players who need stretching exercises before games or pitchers who gradually increase their speed from soft toss to hard throwing, singers also need to do vocal exercises before intoning their songs.  From my voice coach Mike Stevens, who is chair of the voice faculty at the Colburn School in Los Angeles and who sings with the Los Angeles Opera, I have learned multiple exercises and techniques for warming up my voice, especially ways to focus naso-pharynx resonance.  And like players and pitchers whose initial movements might not look graceful, so too the sounds that singers make in warming up are not intended to be pleasing to the ears.  Their purpose is to prepare facial and abdominal muscles for improving performance.

Pitch pipe and warm up exercise list.

At most ballparks a challenge has been finding a space where I can do these warm up exercises.  In most instances, finding a quiet place to warm up has been difficult since pre-game music blares over the P.A. system throughout the stadium.  Occasionally, when I have been able to find a family restroom, I have utilized its private, somewhat muted space to do my vocal exercises.  At other ballparks, I have sought far corners under the grandstands where I could discreetly warm up, sometimes using ear plugs to dull the distraction of the background music.  And at a few ballparks, I have resorted to the most remote men’s restroom where I have stretched and vocalized.  On those occasions, however, it has never failed that while I have been making ugly vocal sounds and making funny faces, someone has walked in and looked at me in a confused way, scrunching his eyebrows, raising his cheeks, and contorting his mouth while wondering whether I’m crazy or ill.
So it was a surprise and delight that Kathy Wall, a fan assistance coordinator for the Round Rock Express, warmly greeted me when I arrived at the Dell Diamond and immediately offered to provide a warm up room. 
The evening featured the largest crowd--exceeding 10,000--that I’ve seen at a minor league ballpark, in fact, one larger than the crowds at two of the Major League games where I have sung in recent years. 
Fans stand at attention during anthem.
Attendance received a boost, I am sure, from multiple promotions related to youth teams (their reward was getting to walk the outfield warning track before the game), student achievement associated with the Georgetown Partners in Education (their reward was getting to stand in centerfield with a banner before the player introductions), and the fireworks feted following the game. 
Little Leaguers parade along the warning track before the game.
Dell Diamond includes several imaginative design elements: Greeting fans at the entry to the concourse is a painted wooden bull labeled “The Express,” the name of the team and the nickname for Nolan Ryan, whose group owns the team and whose signature stands out on its side.
Bonnie pats the beefy greeter endorsed by Nolan Ryan.
The outfield stands feature a second deck that has some seats with partially obstructed views, like the historic ballparks in Boston and Chicago.  And like the advertizing spaces at some of the old ballparks, billboards protrude above the roofline.  A creative use of space is found at the foul poles, where an upright toothbrush image attracts attention for Carus, a family orthodontics practice in nearby Austin.

Families on the right-field berm adjacent to the Carus toothbrush foul pole.
At most of the ballparks the berms beyond the outfield fences are open spaces used as play areas by children, who seem to enjoy rolling down the slopes more than jumping in the bouncy rooms designed for them.  At Round Rock, the area was packed like the beach on a sunny, summer day, with couples and families on sitting on blankets and rooting for the Express.  In place of that customary play space, Round Rock the children’s “Fun Zone” beyond the centerfield fence appeared unequaled in its interactive structures.  A faux rock tower allows young climbers to practice belaying and rappelling while using fitted hand and foot holds.  A large trampoline also entices youngsters who are bungee-tied to bound and flip securely. 

Georgetown Education Partners get recognized pre-game while children climb the rock and jump on the trampoline behind them
Before the pre-game ceremonies began Reid Ryan, the founder and CEO of the team, stopped to chat with the participants. I enjoyed sharing with him the story of my having sung for his father’s final victory, Texas’ 4-2 win in Cleveland.  Inquiring about the anthem tour, he seemed pleased that I had sung in Frisco and Corpus Christi, teams also owned by the group connected to the Ryans.  While he winced at the loss that the Hooks had suffered in my previous game on a late-inning grand slam, he expressed hope that the Express would prevail.
They did, thanks to the offensive output of Omar Quintanilla and Chad Tracy, the Express’ designated hitter.  I was especially pleased to see Tracy do well since he had been on my fantasy league team when he had played the corner infield positions at Arizona.  In the sixth he hit a three-run homerun, and in the ninth he kept the game-winning rally alive with a single that moved the winning run to third.  The other hitting hero of the game was Quintanilla, the shortstop playing in his first game for Round Rock.  In the eighth inning he singled and scored in the rally that tied the game, and in the ninth with two outs he hit the game-winning single.

Hooks and Hounds, Hooks and Hounds: Games 16 & 22 in Midland and Corpus Christi

For the second time in a fortnight, I saw the Corpus Christi Hooks play the Midland RockHounds. Although the outcome of the games was the same with Midland winning each by two runs, the ballparks and my experiences were distinctly different. 
The game in Midland marked my final one alone before returning to California from my season-opening sojourn in Florida and nearby southern cities.  The distance of Midland from other Texas teams had posed scheduling challenges during the planning phase of my project.  Finally, I realized that I could most easily include the RockHounds in my itinerary by adding an overnight stop at the Midland-Odessa airport on my American Airlines route.  As my plane was buffetted by gusts during its final approach into the airport, I could see the vast range scorched by the wildfires of previous weeks and dotted regularly with oil crickets.  Despite the city’s name, it certainly seemed more like it was at the edge of Texas or of anywhere else than in the middle.
Although the zephyrs across the plains seemed to push me away from the stadium, the parking lot cheerily greeted me with the likeness of Rocky, the RockHounds popular mascot. The sign also featured a mythic statistic identifying the ballpark's 40-year attendance total as its population:
Like many of the minor league ballparks, a sculpture also welcomes fans to the main entry to the Citibank Ballpark. 

But unlike the artistic creations at other stadiums, the piece in Midland is natural--and legendary.  According to its imbedded plaque, “Legend has it that this rock, excavated from below the playing field, guarantees fun and good times to all who touch it!”  So I did.

7 year old Justin surveys home plate within home plate.
Near this Texas blarney stone, a seating sculpture also provides a place to pay tribute to the team’s success.  A hexagonal bench in the shape of home includes an inset home plate at its center as well as plaques noting team achievements and ballpark awards.  Perhaps this design is baseball's version of Ezekiel's wheel within a wheel.

The Midland ballpark crouches inconspicuously at the edge of the city as though it is trying to duck below the path of blowing tumbleweed.  Its low profile results from the fact that the field level of the ballpark is excavated.  Fans enter the concourse at parking lot level and descend to their seats, unless they are among the few who rise to the VIP suites in the sky boxes.  Even the hillocks beyond the outfield fences slope downward from the surrounding plain. 
The canyon-floor position of the field allows prairie winds to howl above the rim of the ballpark, preventing high hoppers from gusting obliquely past a wary shortstop but not preventing havoc with high fly balls, which routinely die in the alleys while gales blow in on most nights.  For this game in Midland, however, the steady winds were clocked at 30 m.p.h. and reversed toward left. 
In the game at Midland, both teams scored in unusual ways, starting in the first inning with the RockHounds’ leadoff hitter Jermaine Mitchell striking out, reaching first on a passed ball, taking second on an errant pick-off throw, stealing third, and crossing the plate on a feeble grounder to the first baseman.  Innings later when he hit a homerun, fans held up dollar bills to give to the ushers for a homerun bonus.  I had not seen the hat passed since an independent minor league game the previous summer.

Fans contribute dollar bills to Mitchell for his homerun.

While the ballpark and game were enjoyable, what made my experience most pleasant was the gesture of appreciation by Hounds’ hitting coach Tim Garland and a conversation with Dan Jamierson, a Red Cross volunteer who praised the pace of my rendition.  Two nights earlier, Dan said, someone had mangled the anthem by “dragging it out for what seemed like half an hour.” 
His comment called to mind one of my favorite newspaper cartoons, “In the Bleachers.”  Coincidentally, earlier that morning, it had featured such an event, showing a singer standing near home plate with a word balloon providing the P.A. announcer’s remark: “Now rise while another celebrity butchers the national anthem.” 
Dan also requested that I lead the crowd in singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch.  We checked with the RockHounds’ staff and worked out that possibility: For the first time, I performed two patriotic hits for a game.
In contrast to the solitary character of the ballpark and my experience in Midland, the evening in Corpus Christi ended the first week on the road with Bonnie and Arby, and the game enjoyed the largest crowd that I had seen, lured by the chance to enjoy post-game fireworks.    
In conceptual ways the configurations of the Corpus Christi ballpark are like other sports venues designed by HKS, the Dallas-based architectural firm that conceived several minor league ballparks, including those at Frisco and Round Rock.  Like the baseball parks that resonate with their communities, Whataburger Field reflects the heritage of its placement.  Incorporated into the plan for the ballpark are structural elements that recall the cotton industry and warehouses that formerly stood on the site; the structures that frame the scoreboard look like cotton gins, not merely because of their shape but also because of the rusty, corrugated metal siding of the structures.  The ballpark’s fit with its environs’ history is further enhanced by its orientation toward the Harbor Bridge, which lends an impressive backdrop to the field. 
The site, orientation, and architecture of the Corpus Christi ballpark are impressive.
The layout of Corpus Christi’s ballpark complex also displays the community’s commitment to cultivate youthful participation in baseball.  Beyond the centerfield fence is a youth ballpark—Stripes Diamond—where kids’ games can be scheduled and where baseball activities can be held.  The Hooks contribute to this effort to nourish kids’ love of the game by expanding their opportunities for on-field participation.  Unlike other teams that schedule children’s base running or warning-track walking as pre-game or post-game activities, the Hooks sponsor a between-innings dash for kids from first base to centerfield and back. What a thrill to get onto the field in the middle of a game!

Children run the field between innings.
Routinely at the ballparks I have scanned the outfield fences to see where advertisements are displayed for auto parts, beverages, legal offices, educational institutions, health services, and scores of other businesses and operations.  
Scoreboard surrounded by cotton gin replicas and left-field fence with ad for Bay Area Fellowship.
Corpus Christi’s display is the first that has advertized a church.  A long banner in front of the scoreboard promotes the Bay Area Fellowship, a Megachurch founded in Corpus Christi by Bil Cornelius.  Utilizing popular music styles of rock, country, and R&B in scores of weekly worship services conducted on its seven campuses, the church has experienced phenomenal growth using various marketing techniques.  One of those, of course, is the large ad on the Hooks’ outfield wall.  Another was the “game-show” type give-away on Easter Sunday a year ago that was designed to attract folks who had never thought of going to church.  For that occasion, more than $2 million in gifts were offered to attendees.  The prizes, including cars, flat-screen televisions, computers, bicycles, and gym memberships, had been donated by church members and their businesses. 

There were two bridges—one in the stands and one on the field—that connected my experience in Corpus Christi with the earlier one in Midland.  Although there had been no mention of my tour during the anthem introduction, Mary Whitton, a Hooks’ fan, moved toward me quickly as I walked up the aisle following my anthem performance.  Expressing appreciation for the traditional rendition of the anthem, she asked if I had sung at Midland “last week.”   She had been there then and remembered me.  After I explained my anthem project to her, she indicated her delight in participating in the tour—by seeing me in multiple ballparks, two.  Then as I took my seat behind Midland’s dugout, batting coach Tim Garland also reconnected with me, giving me “thumbs up” when he took his position in the first base coach’s box. 

Hounds' coach after gesturing thumbs up.  
Like the game in Midland, the Hounds used a big inning rally to prevail by two runs.  This time, with none on and two out in the seventh, the Hounds ripped two singles before loading the bases on a walk.  After fouling off five pitches with two strikes, third baseman Stephen Parker hit his fifth homerun of the season, a grandslam that propelled the Hounds to their victory.

And like the night in Midland, I heard two hits in Corpus Christi, even if they were ones of anthem recognition from visiting RockHounds.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Expanse of Texas

Growing up, I understood that it was redundant to say that Texas is big.  It’s possible to spend one’s entire life in the state and to find new horizons daily. 
So it seemed at the end of our first week on the road with Arby.  We entered the state near Amarillo in what seemed like one decade, only to leave it in another age when we learned about the approaching end of the world while we boogied past Beaumont.  Our first notice of the predicted beginning of Final Judgment (on May 21, 2011) was posted on a billboard as the highway from Houston leveled off toward Louisiana.  It certainly seemed like we’d been driving in Texas for much of a lifetime.
In the expanse of Texas we sampled its range of roads and spaces, from the Farm to Market county routes to the urban Interstate exchanges in Dallas and Houston.  While most of our nights were spent in cities, our first Texas evening was spent on the Texas prairie, virtually alone.  Because there are few RV parks between Amarillo and Fort Worth, we targeted Copper Breaks State Park as a convenient breaking point in the long drive. 

The Copper Breaks in the prairie.

There we saw our first live armadillo beside the road as we entered the park at sunset.  And we were surprised by the vacancy that surrounded us.  No rangers attended the check-in booth, nor did we find any campers on the grounds.  After docking Arby, we did notice one camper on a pickup at the far end of the RV lot. 

Arby alone at Copper Breaks' campground.
 Otherwise, we shared the evening with stars and critters, but thankfully not the rattlesnakes that are so plentiful in early spring.  The crisp air and the absence of ambient noise made the evening restful in preparation for the next night’s singing for the RoughRiders in Frisco.

A couple of days later when we left Frisco, Arby didn’t particularly care for the freeway system through Dallas and points south.  Moving rather cautiously in the mid-morning traffic, we headed south in the right hand lane of the Dallas North Tollway. Then nearing the core of downtown Dallas we merged rather suddenly with the left lane of Interstate 35E.  At least, I think those are the names of the two freeways that jolted my attention by the blind angle of their fusion. It’s quite unsettling to be moving along at 55 in Arby with Toad attached behind and to be forced into the swifter flow of the left lane of another freeway.  Even so, Arby managed effectively.
Navigating our subsequent shifts in Dallas through the maze of mergers, we still faced the challenge of Texas freeway exits and re-entries involving the frontage roads—or feeders, as they are apparently called.  The ramps connecting these parallel, one-way roads are short and often lack the routine line markings that indicate lane disappearance.  So when we got to Austin after driving through the eternity of Texas south of Dallas, we were glad to anchor for three days, joining Jonah, I am sure, for an experience in the belly of the big fish.  From there—Austin, not the fish’s belly—we could daily tether in Toad to Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and Round Rock without having to uproot Arby.
For our jaunt to Corpus Christi, we sought a change of pace, routing Toad along blue highways. That course took us through Lockhart, where the courthouse dominated the cityscape and where “Black’s Bar BQ,” a block away from the town square, posted its hours as “Open 8 Days a Week.” 
The courthouse in Lockhart.
From there, we meandered farther south to an anomalously named, seemingly anonymous Texas town, one called Nixon.  Finally, I understood the size of Texas: It’s big enough to embrace a Nixon, a Bush, and the memory of LBJ.

A Major League Evening: Game 21 in Frisco

At the Dr. Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, Texas, I saw two major league performers.  No, make that three. The first two pitched for the RoughRiders, while the third—a Hall of Famer—evoked memories of a previous rendition of the anthem in a major league park. 
The first two were players from the Texas Rangers on rehab assignment.  Rangers’ closer Neftali Feliz started the game, pitching a single inning—as usual—and clocking fastballs in the upper 90s, with one cresting in triple digits.   After surrendering a lead-off single to the Missions’ centerfielder Blake Tekotte, who entered the game hitting above .350, Feliz struck out the side. 
Feliz in the stretch.
In the second, Tommy Hunter, his Texas teammate, took over and threw four innings, allowing two runs, one on a homer by the Missions’ second baseman Vincent Belnome.  From that point on, the RoughRiders’ relief corps shut down the potent Missions’ lineup, which lead the Texas League in scoring,having tallied at least twenty runs in a gamethree times in the first month of the season.  Final score: Frisco 3, San Antonio 2.
“The Pitch” by Gail Slatter Falwell
As much fun as it was to see the two pitchers from last year’s A. L. Champions, it was even more exciting to see former Ranger, and now the team's principal owner, Nolan Ryan sitting behind home plate, scouting his recovering Rangers’ pitchers as well as prospects on both teams. 
Although Ryan was protected from interactions with fans, I was able to slip him a note about the anthem project and about our last connection.  After a conflict by the Cleveland Indians prompted a shift in the date for my singing in old Municipal Stadium in 1993, I had the good fortune to be re-scheduled on the day of Nolan Ryan’s final appearance in Cleveland.  It also proved to be the final victory among his 324 major league wins.
The Dr. Pepper Ballpark showcases several distinct elements that enhance fans’ experience.  Its entry sculpture, commissioned by the city of Frisco, stimulates young fans’ interaction by posing several questions on its plaque, such as, “Why do you think the artist made the muscles so angular?” 
The architecture of the stadium also is exemplary in two ways.  The distinctive VIP suites and sky boxes are free-standing complexes that provide concourse entries, the comforts of home, and elevated viewing balconies.  In addition, each of the units enjoys an exclusive, dedicated WiFi connection.
Three of Dr. Pepper's sky boxes.
A second facet of the ballpark’s configuration is its elevated pool zone beyond the right field fence.  Like the swimming pool popularized in Phoenix at the Diamondbacks’ stadium, the splash pool at Dr. Pepper invites parties of hot fans to cool off.  But unlike the pool in Arizona, the one in Frisco is integrated into the landscape. 
The Riders' Pool Zone.
While various design elements of the ballpark distinguish it from other minor league facilities, the pre-game ceremonies—or lack thereof—were unlike those at most minor league games.  On this mid-week night here were no series of first pitches, no children’s team in uniform dancing onto the field with home-team starters, no young fans wooed from the stands to call out “Play Ball.”  But home plate umpire Seth Buckminster did dance “the hokey pokey” on the first-base line with the Frisco mascot between innings.
All in all the RoughRiders provided a major league experience, even cutting a DVD of my performance.  (I’d post it here, but the slight separation between the video and audio, which was captured through the stadium sound system, creates a syncopated experience.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Going Nuclear: Game 20 in Albuquerque

On May 2, my night for singing in Albuquerque, interest in the anthem was heightened throughout the nation, in part because of the spontaneous singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by a growing crowd at the White House gate the night before.  The celebration followed President Obama’s announcement of the success in the U.S. mission to terminate Osama bin Laden.
More locally, the front page of the morning’s sports section in the Albuquerque paper reprinted Chris Erskine’s story about my anthem tour, inserting a bit that indicated that I’d be singing for the Isotopes that evening.  The publicity prompted two afternoon phone calls from radio talk shows.  For the first, I pulled Arby off the freeway near the Laguna pueblo, and Bonnie and I picnicked while I talked with Peter Benson on his afternoon show on KNT, Christian talk radio in Albuquerque.  Our conversation concluded with me reciting the second stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which seemed appropriate for the day and Peter’s radio audience.  It celebrates the pursuit of peace and justice grounded in the concept of the nation’s manifest destiny. 
Oh, thus be it ever when free men shall stand
Between their loved homes and war’s desolation;
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that had made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just;
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust!”

Entry corner to the Isotopes' Ballpark.
A few of hours later I entered the ballpark before the gates opened and identified myself as the anthem singer.  Thomas, one of the ticket-takers, brightened: “You’re the guy who’s singing everywhere this summer. I read the story [in the morning paper] about you.”  There’s nothing like ratcheting up expectations for a good performance.
My early arrival made it possible for me to talk with Erik Gee and his side-kicks David Jubb and Brandon Vogt on their pre-game talk show on KNML, the sports radio station that anchors the Isotopes’ broadcasts. For half an hour we discussed the wild idea of a national anthem tour, the supposed difficult range of the anthem’s music, the challenges of travel and singing almost every night, and my teaching, especially my course on “Sports and Religion.”  While they understood my life-long love affair with baseball, they were amazed and envious of the love that I share with Bonnie—since she not only supports my anthem adventure but is traveling with me as my co-pilot. The media fascination with the anthem continued with the pre-game ceremonies when the CBS and NBC affiliates taped my rendition for inclusion in their late-night newscasts. 
And the public address announcer provided a thorough introduction, identifying me with Whittier College, briefly describing my tour, and noting my two books on religion and sports—a first among the intros of me.  Then I invited the fans to participate.  Having received permission from general manager John Traub, I prefaced my singing by saying: “On this historic day in America, I invite you to join me in singing our national anthem.”  While I could not see whether folks in the crowd sang along because I was facing the flag in centerfield, Bonnie reported that few joined me.
Yet we were joined at the ballpark by Heidi Bailey, her children, and her mother and stepfather.  Heidi and her husband James had been my students almost a decade ago, and they were instrumental in securing the opportunity for me to sing for the Isotopes.  Their advocacy for me proved persuasive since the ‘Topes had initially expressed reticence about participating in my project.

Most often, I stand between home plate and the backstop, frequently facing the crowd and occasionally looking at the flag.  The Isotopes had me stand between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, facing the flag beyond the centerfield fence.  Leaving the field, I walked toward the third-base dugout where Isotopes’ DH John Lindsey called out, “Good job.  What’s the title of your book?” 

For four weeks I’ve been meeting with ballpark staffers and talking at length with fans.  Yet the first person to inquire about my book is a ballplayer! 

The face of the card features my childhood hero rounding third.
Building upon the reversal of the Bull Durham stereotype that ball players don’t read, I then switched the pattern of baseball card exchange:  

The card is #5 in the Sports and Religion series issued by Mercer.

I handed him the promotional baseball card that Mercer University Press had designed for my book Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America.
The Isotopes’ ballpark is among the most elegant of any of the stadiums that I have seen.  The architectural design matches that of many of the newer and larger major league ballparks.  All of the seats have good sight lines, and two tiers of luxury boxes define the grandstand behind home plate.

The landscaping on the berm in the outfield is artistic and well-groomed, and the scoreboard features two large screens,

one for providing player information and the other for replays and reports.  It's easy to see why the Dodgers re-established their AAA affiliation in Albuquerque.
Joe with Homer.
Several baseball sculptures enliven the park; and an old, large baseball stands at the corner of University and Cesar Chavez streets.  It had defined the entrance to the former ballpark on the site that was razed to make room for the new stadium.  In addition to the steel sculptures of ballplayers in the picnic area, fiberglass replicas of Homer and Lisa Simpson invite fans to sit beside them on benches adjacent to the concession concourse. 

Bonnie with Lisa.
“The Simpsons” play a major role for the team and ballpark, whose names fulfill Homer Simpson’s desire to have Springfield, Ohio build an Isotopes stadium.  When the ballpark was erected in 2003, the name seemed to fit the physics of the region since New Mexico is well known for its history and industry related to nuclear energy, and Albuquerque houses the Museum of Nuclear Science.
In the game itself, the Isotopes went nuclear, not with an explosive offense but with small particles igniting a win.  Their three-run eighth inning started with a bunt single and stolen base, but enough energy, for sure, to propel them to a 5-3 win over the newly named Omaha Storm Chasers.