Saturday, September 10, 2011

Beyond Little League: Game 53 in Williamsport

Even when the Little League World Series is weeks away, the welcome is always present.

During the last two weeks of August each year, the eyes of the baseball world turn toward Williamsport, Pennsylvania for the summer’s second World Series—this one for kids.  Unlike the season’s first World Series held in Omaha to crown the NCAA champion or the last one pitting the pennant winners from the American and National Leagues, the Little League World Series is truly for the World Championship.  It features representative teams from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as regional winners from the U.S.  Indeed, Little League claims to be the world’s largest youth sports organization.
Among the impacts that the Little League World Series have on the Susquehanna Valley, hotel rooms rent for premium rates during the period of the playoffs.  While blocks of rooms are guaranteed for competing teams and their entourage, media personnel and baseball pilgrims of all ages book space years ahead.  Although I would have enjoyed trying to double dip while in the area, singing for one of the LLWS games and for the Williamsport Crosscutters who play in the short-season New York-Pennsylvania League, I chose the better bet for room and rates by scheduling my visit several weeks before the region's saturation with Little League fans. 
Even so, my lodging possibilities were challenged by the recent discovery of an enormous natural gas reservoir underlying most of the region.  While Halliburton, among other exploratory enterprises, had sent so many crews to the area that they filled the hotels for miles around, I felt lucky to secure one of the last two rooms in city at the historic Genetti Hotel.
According to the waitress at breakfast the following morning, Williamsport is a town crowded with banks, bars, churches, and, of course, Little League Baseball.  During the eleven months when the LLWS is not in play, the Little League Museum and the new complex of fields,  now located in a pastoral stretch of South Williamsport above the Susquehanna River, attract thousands of fans of all ages.  The centerpiece of the complex is Lamade Stadium, whose grandstands seat more fans than most Minor League ballparks.  While most of the interactive exhibits at the Museum are designed to appeal to pre-adolescents, significant numbers of adults make their way through its turn-style.  They embrace the idea of Little League--a project by adults, an activity for kids. 

Lamade Stadium rises above the other fields in the Little League complex.

Little League's values guide fans to the museum's entry.
 To players and their parents from generations past, Little League signifies much more than childhood socialization through sport: It represents a person’s early and innocent hopes, dreams that extend beyond the fading horizon of maturity, desires keenly felt that have gone unfulfilled, possibilities unpursued that still mould memories of what once shaped promise.    It’s not uncommon for men to recall their batting averages from their best year of play in Little League, or the strikeout pitch that froze the big kid with the winning runs on base, or the diving catch that saved the game.  A single, significant win or game-turning play in Little League is often remembered as one of the formative events in childhood.

The tribute to Stotz greets fans at the complex.
As dominant as Little League is for the Williamsport, it was an even older baseball tradition that drew me to the city.  The Crosscutters of the New York-Pennsylvania League call the city home, as did their predecessor the Williamsport Grays, a minor league team that had played there in the 1920s.  The Grays had inaugurated professional play in Bowman Field against the Harrisburg Colored Giants in 1926, more than a decade before Little League founder Carl Stotz organized three teams to compete on an adjacent plot.
Like the hotel, Williamsport’s Bowman Field, where the Crosscutters play, is historic, claiming to be the second oldest minor league ballpark in regular use.  When it was constructed, the ballpark expanded over acres of outfield, with distances from home plate extending 400 feet down the line to left, 367 to right, and 450 to center.  Because only ten homeruns were hit in the first seven years of the ballpark’s use, including one in the first professional game by Harrisburg’s future Cooperstown enshrinee Oscar Charleston and others by barnstorming Major Leaguers, an inner fence was “temporarily” added.  It stood for almost 30 years.  Still spacious, the outfield now conforms to typical dimensions at other ballparks.   
The original dugout can't accommodate all of the Crosscutters.

While the outfield fences no longer stand in their original position, several of Bowman’s architectural features survive undisturbed.  Behind the third-base grandstands, the ballpark’s wooden outer wall requires buttressing to remain erect, and the small dugouts retain their original, open position farther down the baselines than usual.    During the 1950s the ballpark slipped into such disrepair that the Little League World Series refused the offer to assume its operation.  When the city took over its operation as a last resort, a few improvements were made, notably the installation of lights that came when the Polo Grounds were abandoned by the Mets to play in Shea Stadium.  Yet Bowman’s deterioration continued for another decade, prompting professional baseball to desert Williamsport until the mid-1980s. 

The historic wall winds its buttessed way behind the third base picnic area.
Now renovated, Bowman Park still exudes its early aura, which made my unamplified performance there seem fitting for its history.   Because sound systems were not routinely installed in stadiums until years later—Yankee Stadium was the first in 1929— ballpark performances of patriotic medleys that often included “The Star-Spangled Banner” were most often played by brass bands, not sung by soloists. 
As I stepped to my position behind home plate, the microphone accidentally went dead.  With the first word or two, I didn’t know that the microphone itself was muted, especially since a couple of ballparks had failed to adjust the sound settings on time.  Consequently, I had developed the habit of gauging the quality of the sound system and its delay when I reached the end of the first phrase.  By then I could clearly hear my amplified voice as I breathed following “see.”   So by the time I got to “the dawn’s early light” in Williamsport, I realized that the sound system was not projecting my voice.  I simply ratcheted up my volume, intensified my resonance, and kept going, unperturbed.  My voice carried throughout the ballpark so well that I could hear natural echoes tossed back to me from the wooden wall in centerfield toward which I was facing. 
When I came off the field, Crosscutters’ Vice President and game day operations manager Gabe Sinicropi apologized and said that he could hear me from the far end of the distant dugout.  Fans also uniformly expressed their appreciation with loud applause and frequent comments of “good job.”  And a couple of days later, I learned that Jack and Louise Thomas, musicians who had attended the game, reported to their daughter-in-law who relayed the message to me, that the a cappella performance without amplification had been splendid and appeared planned.
In contrast to the sound system failure during the pre-game ceremony, amplified recordings generated entertaining highlights throughout the game. When a downpour interrupted the sunny early evening in the bottom of the third inning, the guys on the grounds crew enjoyed hearing their own “walk on” music.  While they sloshed through the puddles to extend the tarp over the left side of the diamond, they heard the familiar refrains of a Creedence Clearwater Revival hit blaring over the loudspeakers: “Have you ever seen the rain coming down….”

Using old-fashioned half-diamond tarps, the grounds crews covers the left side of the infield with one. . .

then pulls a second one into place over third and short.

After the passing shower delayed the game for almost an hour, an incredible sunset smothered the sky before the seventh-inning stretch on summer’s second longest day.

Even the concessions got drenched.
Another soundtrack is quite common at many Minor League ballparks.  The crash of breaking glass often crackles over the loudspeakers immediately following a foul ball’s disappearance over the roof.  Yet at Williamsport, the timing for the sound track was different: When a foul ball soared out of the ballpark and into the parking lot, there was a slight delay, allowing time for the ball to fall and for the crowd to settle.  Then, suddenly, a clash of glass shattering jarred the fans, and the playful soundtrack became a prompt for an ad for a local insurance agent whose featured line was: “If that was your car, you’d be covered by the agent.” 
When another foul ball rolled into the bullpen, a Batavia reliever picked it up and tossed it toward a fan, but it hit the wall.  He retrieved it and tossed again, this time with the fan dropping it.  Finally, he picked it up and handed it to the fan before returning to his seat in the middle of bullpen bench.
Meanwhile in the grandstands, one of the vendors hawked peanuts by threatening to throw them to the fans.  One joked with him, “If you hit me, I’ll sue.”  “Won’t matter,” the young man replied keeping up his banter while also offering two for one sodas. “When you bought a ticket, you signed a waiver,” he grinned.
Before the rain erupted, Williamsport scored a run on a couple of doubles in the second inning.  But in the third, an error led to the first run for Batavia and extended the inning for the Muckdogs to score another.  Minutes later the offensive productivity of both teams drowned, and Batavia held on to win 2-1.

The skies cleared in time for the sunset to glow and the Muckdogs to claim victory.