Thursday, May 31, 2012

Like a Church: Game 51 in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre

In his magical novel Shoeless Joe, W. P. Kinsella includes a wistful scene that is omitted from the story’s film adaption into Field of Dreams.   After leaving Chisholm, Minnesota and picking up the hitch-hiking kid Archie Graham, Ray Kinsella asks him and J. D. Salinger (who is transformed in the movie into computer programmer Terrence Mann) if they have ever been to a ballpark at night.  “There’s something both eerie and holy about it,” he says.  Excited by this simple tease, they leave their hotel room to explore nearby Metropolitan Stadium in the dark.  Continuing to muse about the mysterious atmosphere of such an experience, Ray adds, “A ballpark at night is more like a church than a church.”
Indeed, the ecclesiastical metaphor applies particularly well to PNC Field in Lackawanna County Pennsylvania, home of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, even though the ballpark there was neither vacant nor dark like the one at Bloomington that had lured Ray and his companions.  Built in 1989, the Lackawanna ballpark resembled a smaller version of the cookie-cutter, multi-use stadiums that had become popular in major cities a decade earlier.  Like them, it had declined in appeal, so much so that it would be razed, reconfigured, and restructured following the end of the 2011 season.  Despite the stale character of the Lackawanna edifice, the field exuded an ethereal aura.  A halo seemed to sanctify both the diamond and the night itself, and the spotlighted field beckoned the faithful to leave the darkness to bask in the light.  

The halo above PNC Field in Lacanawwa County, near Scranton.
In several additional respects the ballpark near Scranton resembled a church.  Like cathedrals that embody tradition by honoring saints with relics, the ballpark’s undercrofts were lined with portraits and tributes to bygone Yankee heroes: luminaries DiMaggio and Dickey, Mantle and Mattingly, as well as other fan favorites Catfish Hunter and Goose Gossage, Wade Boggs and Roy White. 

One of many banners is Mantle's tribute.
White's banner appears divinely lit.
Several impressions of this gallery of saints leapt to the forefront of my mind.  For one, I didn’t find tributes to Ruth and Gehrig, or Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra; but their banners might have hung in the upper deck corridor, which was closed for the evening.  Would that mean that Babe and Lou, Whitey and Yogi were at the upper eschelon of the pantheon of greats?  I also observed that the gallery included some shorter-term Yankee stars (like Hunter, who enjoyed his best years in Oakland; and Boggs, who spent more than twice as much time in Boston, where he won 5 batting titles, as in the Bronx, where he won none), while White was a lifelong Yankee whose 15-year major league career might have garnered little notice had he not been playing for New York.  During a decade of down years for the team, he had been a solid but not great player.  Did he ever lead the league in any category?   Yes, but...  He was a two-time All-Star who did lead the league twice in sacrifice flies, once in walks, and once in plate appearances.

Finally, since the Yankees had begun their relationship with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre barely a decade earlier, I was surprised that none of the tapestries in the shrine featured former players for SWB.  Unlike other minor league ballparks and franchises that celebrate the success of players who have graduated to the show, even briefly, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre feted the heroes of the Mother Church, the parent Yankees in New York.  However, nearby the saintly tapestries, a single banner of pancake portraits identified players who had appeared at both Scranton and the Bronx.  Many of them, including Jason Giambi and Roger Clemens, had minimally participated during rehab assignments.

Small portraits of Yankees who had appeared at the Lacanawwa ballpark.
Like many urban church sanctuaries that were built to accommodate huge congregations in previous generations, Scranton’s cavernous size far exceeded its current seating demand: Simply, like the waning attendance at many traditional church services, the ballpark crowd tonight would hardly fill a single section in the lower deck.  With a seating capacity of more than 10,000, the SWB Yankees and Norfolk tides announced  game attendance as 2876.  Although I’d wager that fewer than a thousand fans saw any inning of the game, that generous count of the crowd, which includes all tickets sold, is also like an ecclesiastical measure of including ministry contacts for a week rather than simply counting attendees at a worship service. 

The sparse congregation of SWB Yankees devotees.
Still, there was a couple of distinct differences between the perspectives of Scranton fans and those of cathedral worshippers.  For one, unlike the pattern of seating in most churches where the back rows and balcony seats fill first, the SCB fans did not prefer the remote perspectives.  And unlike the prominent appearance of the altar or pulpit from a front pew view in a sanctuary, home plate could not be seen by a fan seated in the front row seat adjacent to the far end of the Yankees dugout.   
The top of the Yankees' dugout obstructs a box-seat view of home.
Despite the small crowd, I was enthusiastically received like a Sunday morning soloist.  As I moved to different sections throughout the game, two school-age boys in box seats behind home plate asked for my autograph on their scorebooks.  When I also signed anthem postcards for them, you’d’ve thought that I had just given them a foul ball.

Replica of the postcard signed for the young fans.
Moments later, Ellen Watkins, a season ticket holder, stopped by my seat to introduce herself. “Thanks for a beautiful anthem,” she said.  “It was the best all season. The tempo was right, and you didn’t do anything weird.”  Another fan nearby commented on my clear articulation of the words and asked if I were British: That’s always a surprise to me since I routinely hear echoes of my Southern drawl despite my departure from my native Mississippi more than forty years ago.  And after the game as I walked out of the ballpark, StepZ, one of staff members on the Pinstripe Patrol, and one of compatriots expressed appreciation for my anthem rendition.

Earlier between innings, StepZ and one of her Pinstripe Patrol pals move toward Jesus Montero and the umpire.
For the most part, the game itself offered few opportunities for the home team fans to cheer.  Tides’ designated hitter Rhyne Hughes outslugged and outscored the Yankees, going 4 for 4 with 2 homeruns.  After SWB bunched a walk and two singles into a run in the first inning, the Yankees managed only a feeble bingle the rest of the game. 

But an unusual set of plays at first base made the game memorable.  In the top of the second inning, Norfolk scored four runs while no batter made an out, grounded into a force play, or a hit into a fielder's choice.  In the inning every Tides’ batter got a base hit, with the team going 7 for 7.  After two inning-opening singles and Hughes’s first home run, Brenden Harris’s base hit was followed by Tyler Henson’s line-drive hit to right field where Jordan Parraz threw toward third.  But the second baseman cut the ball off and whirled to relay the throw to first to nail Henson, who had rounded the base too far.  One out, runner on third.  Kyle Hudson restarted the Tides’ rally by singling Harris home; but David Phelps, the Yankees’ starter, quickly picked Hudson off first.  Two out, none on.  Matt Angle then singled for the Tides for the seventh consecutive hit.  But before the next batter could complete his plate appearance, Phelps picked Angle off first for the third out.  Inning totals: 4 runs on 7 hits and three put-outs by Brandon Laird at first, each by a tag of runners trying to get back to the bag. 

Perhaps the weird sequence of these put-outs also aligned the ballgame with an ecclesiastical service by lending a sense of otherness to an encounter, by providing a manifestation of the unexpected.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Generals' Memorial Day Apathy

It’s Memorial Day, a time for remembering and honoring the many who served and sacrificed to make it possible for me to enjoy singing about “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  Filled with memories about last summer’s tour, I vividly recall events from Memorial Day weekend in Kentucky and Tennessee. 

In Louisville on Saturday night, I enjoyed the largest crowd of the summer.  In Nashville the following day, I was serenaded by the shrill of cicadas that surrounded and invaded the ballpark.  Yet on Monday, Memorial Day itself, few fans attended the Generals’ game in Jackson, Tennessee. 
The sparse crowd on Memorial Day at Jackson, Tennessee.

A Generals' staffer plays pre-game catch with the "Play Ball" announcer.
There at Pringles Park I was stunned that no Honor Guard presented the Colors, nor did the announcer suggest a moment of silence to honor the service of generals and admirals, privates and sailors, nor did he recognize any veterans in the sparse crowd.  While there were no fans wearing VFW hats, the Generals’ field-staff sported camouflage shirts.  No promotion featured the patriotic day, and no group passed out small flags, as the Knights of Columbus would do in Winston-Salem on Flag Day.  But a flag was held high by two children in a bronze statue at the entrance to Pringles Park: Even so, the sculpture paid tribute to the “Children of Tennessee’s fallen warriors,” not to the servicemen and servicewomen themselves. 

The sculpture celebrating the patriotism of "the children of Tennessee's fallen warriors."

And during the pregame ceremonies, the ironic apathy of the Generals toward Memorial Day continued with the innocuous announcement that “Tonight’s Coca Cola national anthem is presented by Joe Price.”  Period.  Coke got more praise at the Pringles Park than veterans on Memorial Day. 

While I was personally miffed by the slight introduction, I was profoundly offended by the Generals’ absolute neglect of veterans, to whom we owe ongoing recognition and deep respect.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Spiked Interest: Game 50 in State College

Central Pennsylvania might be affectionately known as "JoePa" country, even after the fitting dismissal of Joe Paterno as head football coach at Penn State University, a termination that was quickly followed by his diagnosis, demise, and death from lung cancer.  Paterno was the winningest coach in major college football history and had spent almost a half-century leading the Nittany Lions to five undefeated season, numerous bowl game victories, and two national titles.  Because he is the icon of the region, it’s not too surprising that the State College Spikes play in football’s shadow, both figuratively and literally.

Penn State's football stadium hovers above the ballpark concourse.
The University’s football stadium looms above Lubrano Park, which is a facility shared between the Spikes and the Penn State baseball team.  By contrast, the football stadium dwarfs the baseball park by expanse and capacity.  Although the State College team is known as the Spikes, both Coach Paterno and the Nittany name frame the baseball field: Beyond the outfield fences, undeveloped Mount Nittany stands tall like Frank Howard towering above the first base bag, and opposite the preferred parking area for the ballpark, a dynamic statue of Paterno defines the entry to the stadium.

JoePa appears to lead his players toward conquest of the baseball field too.
There is a sense in which the name of the Spikes reflects the intellectual climate of the city and the literary bent of Paterno, who earned his Master’s degree in English literature. Their name generates a double entendre related both to the State College vicinity and to baseball.  For “spikes” is the name of the pair of undivided antlers on young deer, which are so prevalent throughout the region and which provide the logo for team; and “spikes,” of course, refers to the pair of cleats that baseball players wear.  I love the use of such a homonym, especially when the variant meanings of "spikes" equally apply to the team.

After spending the morning with Vincent Remillard exploring mountain scenery and sites near Ebensburg and Loretta, we descended by Horse Shoe Curve in Altoona and on to State College, where we parked at the home of Louise and Bob Griffin, one of Vincent’s colleagues whom I had met the previous day at the game in Altoona.  While the Griffins chauffeured the Remillards and me to the game, showers threatened the evening and eventually delayed the Spikes’ game for almost an hour.  During the rain delay, which had become a fairly common experience for me during the previous month, the Spikes' mascots Ike and Nookie entertained the crowd even more than the wind gusts wrestling with the tarp that covered the diamond.

Pre-game wind tents the tarp to mimic Mt. Nittany in the background.

At the State College ballpark I encountered several distinctions, in addition to ducking a wicked foul line drive that sliced past my head.   There I saw the professional debut of a “bonus baby,” I experienced my first "Bark in the Park" night, 
Perhaps "Spike" is also the name of one of these barkers.
and I shunned the thousands of calories of the most distinct hamburger of the summer: “The Endless Love Burger.”  It’s a standard bacon and cheeseburger, but with a unique twist—that it’s served on a glazed donut bun!  I’m certain that the sandwich affects some heart throbs, but I imagine they are ones of cardiac arrest, not eternal passion.

While the spirit of Joe Pa certainly hovered over the area, it was the initial appearance of Stetson Allie that dominated attention this night.  Drafted out of high school in the second round draft by the Pirates in 2010, Allie had delayed inking his contract until the deadline, finally settling on a signing bonus exceeding two million dollars.  His first professional assignment was to State College, the Pirates’ affiliate in the short season New York-Penn League.  Allie’s first professional pitch followed my singing the national anthem to open the Spikes second home game of the season.  Thanks to the hospitality of the Spikes’ management, I was allowed to stay at the end of the dugout to photograph Allie’s start.

Allie delivering his first professional pitch.
With his fast ball routinely registering in the mid-nineties and occasionally clocking in triple digits during high school, Allie commanded center stage.  He blazed his first pitch past the Auburn Doubledays’ leadoff hitter en route to striking him out.  But the next batter singled and following another strike out and a stolen base, a two-out double brought home Auburn’s first run.  Although Allie recorded a third strike out in the second inning, he lost command in the third, walking three batters and allowing two more stolen bases.  He was charged with three earned runs in less than three full innings of work, and his first professional decision was a loss:  an inauspicious beginning, and typical of his season totals, which showed no wins, two losses, 26 innings pitched, 28 strike outs, but 29 walks.

If the debut of Stetson Allie weren’t enough to lure the large crowd, the promotion known as “Bark in the Park” added to the attractions for the evening.  It was my first encounter with such a canine celebration.  Encouraging fans to bring a dog-on-leash to the ballpark, it came at an opportune time on my trip. Halfway through the tour, I keenly missed my two dogs.  
Toby, the Bernese, and Bella.
While I didn’t find look-alikes of Winston, my Havanese, or Tucker, my cockapoo, I did get to enjoy meeting another of my favorite breeds, a handsome Bernese mountain dog named Toby and his owner Bella.   

Because quite a few teams had introduced me with the simple phrase “Please rise for the national anthem, performed tonight by Joe Price,” I began to email ballpark contacts a couple of days before my scheduled game and request that that the public address announcer identify me as “Whittier College professor Joe Price.”  And I suggested that, if a supplemental sentence could be added to stimulate conversation with fans, I would appreciate the announcer adding, “During the 2011 baseball season, Professor Price is singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at more than 100 minor league ballparks in 40 states as he examines how the national anthem and baseball combine to shape the national pastime.” 

The honorary bat kid also appears to have pre-game concerns as players autograph his shirt.
As I had hoped, following the Spikes’ full introduction several fans approached me during the game.  A graduate student in sociology at Penn State approached me and inquired about the tour, especially my field of expertise.  Both he and a fellow grad student had bet that I was in sociology (like themselves, hopeful thinking), music, or anthropology.  When I confessed that I am a theologian, he looked stunned like Tony Kubek after the bad hop grounder deflected off his Adam’s apple in the eighth inning of Game 7 in 1960. 

Undeterred, the student began to talk about his love of baseball and the sociological observations that he often enjoyed at the ballpark.  As our conversation developed, he inquired about my work relating baseball to religious studies, and I summarized  two chapters in my book Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America that utilize sociological and anthropological methods of analysis.   In one, I explore the possibility of interpreting baseball in continuity with the ancient Green omphaIos myth by employing anthropological insights, and in the central chapter of the book I apply sociological methods to examine how baseball functions as a civil religion.  
At the ballpark, we engaged in serious scholarship!  I loved it, and so did he.  When I stepped toward the concession stand to get a look at the Endless Love Burger, which did not tempt me, I playfully chided him: “Don’t bet against religious studies, which can make sense of baseball and the ritual significance of the national anthem.”
Following the game, which Auburn won 7-6, I accepted the Griffins' gracious offer to sleep in their guest room rather than to return to Ebensburg before needing to double back through State College on my way to Scranton .  It was delight to extend the evening with Bob, an aficionado of minor league baseball.  He knew the strengths and weaknesses of players throughout the Pirates’ farm system, and he reported on records and distinctions of teams and ballparks throughout the region.  As I put my luggage in the guest room, I immediately understood more: Playfully framed on the far wall were ticket stubs from the ten minor league ballparks in Pennsylvania.  The caption read:  “Best Road Trip Ever,” a ball-planned vacation Bob had taken with Louise some years earlier.  Yet as heart-warming as this display of mementos was, adjacent to them hung photos of Forbes Field and the end of the 1960 World Series. 

Bob's shrine of Pirate and ballpark celebrations.
A devout fan of the Yankees during childhood, I recall having shed tears when I heard Ralph Terry hang a curve ball to Bill Mazeroski in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game.  Now, here hung the images of Mazeroski rounding third on his Series walk-off homer and of the ecstatic celebration of Pirates.  I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to fall asleep beneath this bleak reliquary.  As sleep began to seep past these memories, I hoped that I wouldn’t have nightmares about Yogi Berra turning to watch Maz’s blast clearing the left field wall at Forbes Field.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Who's Intimidated? Game 45 in Kannapolis

After starting a North Carolina week in the Smokey Mountains before spending several days along the stretch of I-40 from Durham to Winston-Salem, I turned back toward the Charlotte area where Kannapolis provided my final stop in the state.  During my Tar Heel tour I had sung for teams in the Carolina League, the International League, the Eastern League, and the South Atlantic or Sally League (as it was popularly known some years ago).  And if the Appalachian League had begun its short season schedule by this time, I would have added another team or two.  Burlington had approved me to sing; but, alas, they wouldn’t begin play for another two weeks.
In sequence: Asheville, Charlotte, Hickory, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Durham, Kannapolis.
Simply and thoroughly, I resonate with the Tar Heel region, not merely because of its baseball skeleton.  While I love the landscape—the comforting haze snuggling down among the Blue Ridge mountains and the hardwood forests hugging the rolling hills—I get inspired by the state’s traditions of folk art, its celebration of multiple musical styles, and its passion for sports.  In fact, I could easily have been a North Carolina native.   My oldest sister was born in this state while my father had been on the faculty at Meredith College in Raleigh.  But before I was born he left the professorate to assume a pastorate in Mississippi, from whence my roots spread more easily to his deep, deep family ties in Western Kentucky.

Across its varied terrain, a sporting spirit characterizes the Tar Heel state, especially during spring and summer.  The spring’s sports-obsession begins with ACC basketball and March Madness, which almost always features Duke or North Carolina in the Final Four, not to mention that NC State, Wake Forest, and Davidson excel in roundball.  And NASCAR’s circuit, which revs up with the Daytona 500 shortly before the NCAA basketball playoffs, traces its roots and rapid growth to the mountain regions of North Carolina, for whom the stock car fascination provides its pulse.

As much as Daytona, Darlington, and Bristol lure racing fans to desirable NASCAR destinations, Kannapolis in North Carolina is probably the true Mecca for the most fervent stock car devotees.  For it was in this historic mill town dominated by the textile industry that Dale Earnhardt was born, and throughout surrounding Cabarrus County dozens of NASCAR teams have their headquarters.  It should not be too surprising that the Kannapolis minor league team is known as the Intimidators, taking their name from Earnhardt’s moniker.

It is fitting, then, that one of the Intimidator’s race cars—a “Number 3” black Chevy donated by the Earnhardt Foundation—guides most fans from the parking lot to the front gate at the Fieldcrest Cannon ballpark, so named to recognize the historic significance of the textile magnate for the area’s economy. 

Despite the move of most fans toward Number 3, other young fans found a remote corner of the parking lot to their liking for a game of catch, exercising their own pre-game warm-ups. 

While NASCAR certainly dominates the region, North Carolina still enjoys a summer love affair with baseball.  The state was the home of Enos “Country” Slaughter and Catfish Hunter, Hall of Famers among the hundreds of Tar Heel players who have become Major League all stars, and it routinely boasts the most varied slate of minor league teams of any state.  If you count Charlotte’s Knight’s among the North Carolina teams—the Knights actually play their home games a few miles south of the state line in South Carolina—the state features nine affiliated minor league franchises, fielding teams in all five levels of minor league play.
During childhood, I enjoyed learning about geographic regions by locating clusters of teams in aptly named leagues like the New York-Penn League or the Texas League or the South Atlantic League.  But since Kannapolis was set to play the Delmarva Shorebirds, whose home is in Salisbury, Maryland, I cringed at the geographic conflict between the team’s location and the League’s historic identity.  Even so, the acceptance of a team from Maryland’s eastern shore in the so-called South Atlantic League is less egregious than the League’s inclusion of the Lakewood Blue Claws, whose northerly home in New Jersey at least peers toward the Atlantic, while the League’s landlocked Lexington Legends’ home ballpark is a two-hour flight from the nearest ocean shore.

The discomfort of my final Carolina afternoon was not caused simply by Sally’s geographic indifference.  Kannapolis tried to intimidate the Shorebirds with such hot and humid conditions that even Earnhardt’s Number 3 sweated profusely, or so it appeared since its black skin glistened like a middle-reliever facing a clean-up hitter with the bases loaded and none out.  Other than the gleaming black shell of Earnhardt’s Chevy, the most impressive aspect of the ballpark happened to be the men’s restroom, which features nineteen urinals, twelve stalls, and a dozen sinks; alas, despite that name of the ballpark, there were no hand-towels with labels from Fieldcrest or Cannon.
The miserable conditions of the afternoon were further intensified by the bleating sun that blistered all but two rows of seats directly in front of the press box; so I sought pre-game refuge in the air-conditioned gift shop where I resisted feeling intimidated by the barrage of team souvenir possibilities. 
While the grounds crew finishes pre-game prep, fans huddle in the only shade near the press box.

Leaving the comfort of the air-conditioned space, I made my way to the field where I needed to tiptoe past the dugout littered with tobacco wads.  Although Minor League Baseball forbids the use of tobacco products on the field, the dugout lip was stained with tobacco spit.  Even so, this was North Carolina, home of Tobacco Road and a different kind of Lucky Strike.  Awaiting the start of pre-game ceremonies, Intimidators play hackey-sack with baseballs, with the added challenge of keeping the pristine balls out of the the chaw debris. 

Kannapolis pitcher Dexter Carter and then takes time to learn new shooting techniques from team photographer Ray Marsden.

Nearing the half-way point in my anthem tour, I was surprised by two previously unheard comments about my project and performance from Intimidators’ personnel, while I was also reassured by a fan offering the most common response about my style.  I had grown somewhat accustomed—but still frustrated—to my frequent, minimal introduction, like today’s, as “Joe Price.”  Without the simple recognition of my affiliation with Whittier College or a brief description of the anthem tour, I often had found that ballpark staff members were unaware of my anthem efforts.  Especially in those cases I tried to inform the on-field host about the team’s participation in the project. 
Perhaps the fans thought that I was this "Joe"!
At Kannapolis, the pre-game staff’s ignorance about my project was most glaring.  Andrea, the anthem staff facilitator, was astonished to learn about my progress in singing the anthem at more than 100 minor league ballparks.   “All this season?” she queried.  “Have you got the dates set?”   I was dumbfounded.  How could she possibly comprehend the project since it had taken more than 300 hours work in the previous year to contact teams, secure approval from senior staff members, develop feasible routes, propose fitting dates, and confirm acceptance—all before driving the first mile in Arby or singing the first anthem in Florida.
The other comment was more affirming: As I walked past the Intimidators’ dugout after singing, manager Julio Vinas called out, “Good job again!”  Three days earlier he had heard me sing the anthem when the Intimidators had visited Greensboro, where they had stomped the Grasshoppers 9-3.  Today’s outcome would be even more decisive.  Perhaps Julio would like for me to intimidate their opponents more often!

Making my way then up the aisle behind the dugout, I was stopped by “Red,” a season ticket holder whose head of hair was fierier than the afternoon sun.  While I was making my way quickly toward the little shade, he grabbed my arm to make sure I heard: “Thank you, Joe.  Nothing funny, the way it’s s’posed to be.”

And that’s the way Kannapolis played baseball that afternoon: nothing funny; the way it’s supposed to be.  In the bottom of the first inning, the Intimidators certainly sought to exemplify their name.  Already leading 2-0 thanks to back-to-back doubles with two outs, Kannapolis placed runners on the corners.  While Delmarva’s pitcher Timothy Berry was coming to his set position in the stretch, Juan Silverio broke from third and slid across home plate before Berry could make a play.  But because Rafael Vera, the Kannapolis runner on first, tried a delayed steal of second, Berry whirled and threw to the shortstop, who nailed Vera before he reached the bag.  Although Silverio scored before Vera was tagged out, Silverio was not credited with the rare steal of home, which he had seemingly accomplished without a play.  

The mascot seemed more lovable than intimidating.
Like Silverio, the Intimidators’ starting pitcher Matthew Heidenreich did not get full credit for his season-best performance.  By the top of the fifth inning, the Intimidators had built a 9-0 lead.  But an out later, they were threatened, not by the flock of Shorebirds from Delmarva, but by rain.  A violent thunderstorm swept through the area, halting play for almost an hour.  During the downpour Heidenreich headed to the showers in the club house, thus losing his chance for a win in what would have been his five minutes and two outs later.  In more than four strong innings, he had given up a harmless single and a lone walk.  But because of the downpour before the end of the opponent’s fifth, he would go unrecognized with “no decision.”

While the grounds crew scurried to cover the field, I retreated past Earnhardt’s memorial and headed north back to Arby docked near Ashboro, driving Toad through intermittent driving rain that slowed traffic on Interstate 85 to the pace of a caution lap on a NASCAR track.
Former Intimidators who also made their way north on I-85, all the way to the Show.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Almost Shut Out: Game 43 in Durham

By twenty-four hours, I missed seeing Dirk Hayhurst hurl a shut-out for the Durham Bulls at home on Tobacco Road.  Normally, Hayhurst wouldn’t seem to warrant special notice since he was not a highly-rated Minor League prospect even though twice he had brewed a pot of coffee in “the Show.”  In 25 appearances for San Diego and Toronto in 2008 and 2009, he had struck out 27 batters in 40 innings, failing to win either of his two decisions.

But Hayhurst is noteworthy as an author—not of pitching gems but of books.  Beginning in 2007, Hayhurst became a diarist for Baseball America’s website, honing his writing skills as he reflected on the routines and challenges of a Minor Leaguer.  His 2010 book, Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran, achieved the all-star status that he had dreamed about when it became a New York Times best-seller. 

In the book Hayhurst avoided the polar temptations to expose teammates in clubhouse shenanigans or to sentimentalize his seasons in the sun.  Instead, he explored the enduring lure of baseball while revealing his struggles with daily necessities and routines, all the while celebrating his good outings and acknowledging his failures.  Shortly before I started the anthem tour, a friend had given me the book, which I inhaled.  It’s lively, entertaining, and poignant.  Having the chance to see Hayhurst in action would have been more than a minor (league) highlight.

Like the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs who had scratched out a single hit in their scoreless effort against Hayhurst the night before, I too was threatened to be shut-out in Durham—not by a pitcher, but by torrential rain. 
The crowd gather as the gates open.
When Bonnie and I arrived at the ballpark almost two hours before game time, we were surprised by the density of the crowd and the impossibility of parking, even in little Toad, not big Arby.  Although I had been warned that I’d need to find parking on my own, I circled through the nearby streets, found no spaces, and finally drove toward the attendant at the entry to the small team lot.  Rolling down my window I inquired rather innocently, “I’m the anthem singer tonight.  Where should I park?”  Looking befuddled for a second or two, he waved me past his check point and into the reserved spaces.  With that good luck, I anticipated an auspicious evening. 

Tribute to former Major League pitcher and manager Roger Craig.
The weather was warm, and the crowd jazzed about evening promotions featuring former Durham Negro League players as well as two dozen Boy Scouts troops.  Walking toward the Will Call Window, Bonnie and I paused to read names and tributes in the memorial bricks adjoining the ballpark.  
In addition to markers identifying the affiliations of Durham’s minor league teams over the years, another recognized the various professional Negro teams that had called Durham home during four decades—the Rams, Black Sox, Eagles, and Colts. Representatives from these teams would be feted for the evening: Roy Alston, Levy Barbee, Pernell Canady, Thomas Clark, Wesley Lee, Robert Pennington, Artis Plummer, Sterling Upchurch, Walter Wilson, James Womble.   
Adding to the focus on the Negro Leaguers, the current players from Durham and Norfolk wore throwback uniforms, with the Norfolk players donning jerseys from various well-known teams like the Birmingham Black Barons and the Bulls’ players sporting jerseys from Durham’s several teams.
Sporting the Tides' cap, a player wears the Barons' jersey.
But the high spirits of the evening started to dampen when I arrived at the Will Call window to pick up the tickets.  There the agent said that the game was sold out and that the only tickets available were for the lawn seating beyond centerfield.  “Nuh uh,” Bonnie protested.  “He’s the anthem singer and we need real seats.”   A couple of minutes later, the ticket agent produced two separate reserved seat tickets, saying that they were all they could be secured.  

Negro League veterans await recgnition and pre-game festivities.

After we located our seats I headed to the field for the pre-game ceremonies.  Several of the Negro Leaguers were escorted to the home plate area to await their introduction while the Boys Scout troops paraded along the track in foul territory starting from the right field corner.   While the Scouts reversed a player’s normal route, rounding home and heading toward the third-base dugout, I became concerned that the grounds crew started to cover the pitcher’s mound and batters’ boxes with rain tarps.
As the Scout parade ends, the home plate area is covered with its tarp.

When the last Scout scuffled through the grandstand gate beyond the dugout at 6:53—minutes before the scheduled time for the anthem—the grounds crew unrolled the infield tarp, anchoring its edges with a tractor mower and whatever other equipment could be found to weigh them down.  While they spread the tarp over the infield, the pre-game video featured Annie Savoy, the seductive role of Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham: Instead of reading the poetry of Whitman with Nuke or extolling the virtues of baseball with Crash, Sarandon’s sultry voice simply urged the fans to “Now sit back and enjoy the best summer entertainment in the Triangle area—Durham Bulls baseball.” 
Overlooking the tractor anchoring the tarp, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) welcomes fans.
While I had seen tarps extend over the fields in Charleston, Lexington, and Winston-Salem, I had not seen a grounds-crew’s implement strategies to keep the cover from flapping in the wind and, depending on the vigor of gusts, perhaps blowing foul.  I figured that a driving storm was imminent, and I dreaded the possibility of my first game cancellation.
After overhearing the grounds-crew chief tell the on-field announcer that the storm was expected to arrive at 7:10, I phoned Bonnie and suggested that she move to a covered area.  Then I retreated to the shielded ramp behind the first base-dugout, hoping that the delay would be minimal, that a thunderhead would move through the area with greater speed than Lou Brock or Rickey Henderson. 

In the ramp I was joined by the director and accompanist for the Wake Baptist Grove Church choir from Garner, North Carolina.  His distinct challenge was to shield his keyboard and amplifier equipment from the ensuing downpour.  Since I had been expecting to sing the anthem alone, I was puzzled about his keyboard, and so I  asked him what the choir would perform and learned that their participation was part of the celebration of the Negro Leaguers:  They would sing the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written and composed by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson.  Its first two stanzas call for all to celebrate hope based on the lessons that history has taught us. 

Lift Every Voice and sing till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of liberty
Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea

Sing a song, full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song, full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sum of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won

Yet on this night in Durham, like the previous year when the Wake Baptist Grove Church choir had been disappointed by rain, the fans would not hear any of the Negro anthem stanzas.  After an hour or so standing in the ramp and shielding the amplifier, the discouraged choir director lifted his keyboard and left.
Still, I persisted.

While the places of refuge in ramps, concourses, and concession areas were jammed tightly with fans seeking shelter, the Negro Leaguers set up a table to tell their stories and autograph pictures.  Although this night focused on the Negro Leaguers, there were other tributes to Durham’s African-American players displayed throughout the ballpark.  Among the tributes in the entry, a memorial brick was inscribed to Durham’s Negro League teams, and in the Men’s restroom, a poster of Nathanial “Bubba” Morton was prominently displayed.  Morton, of course, was the first African-American player signed by the Detroit Tigers, and he was one of the first African-Americans to play for the Durham Bulls, in fact, leading them to their first championship. 

While I was talking with the Negro League veterans about their experiences and whether the National Anthem had been played or sung before their games, Bonnie gave me a call from her dying cell phone to let me know where she had huddled behind a pretzel stand. 
Wesley Lee, Artis Plummer, and Pernell Canady sign pictures and memorabilia for the fans.

When I made my way through the crowd’s crush, I found her frustrated and amazed that I had been enjoying stimulating conversations, and she was aghast that I wanted to wait for the possibility to sing.  Down deep, I hoped that the Bulls would be highly motivated to get the game played because the hundreds of Scouts were ready and antsy to camp out on the outfield grass following the game. 
Resolute fans await the rain's end.
Meanwhile, the crowd shrunk significantly while the rain poured and the wind whipped.  Bonnie and I moved from the concourse area back to the covered grandstands, now sparsely populated.  Boys in Scout uniform continued dart in and out of the falling rain, splashing through puddles and playing tag while the baseball game remained remote.  As nine o’clock approached I let Bonnie know that I’d be willing to leave after 9:30 if then there were no promise of the start of the game.  But at 9:21 the grounds crew began to move the heavy equipment from the tarp’s exposed edges, and I kindled whatever modicum of hope might remain.  Sure enough, an announcement was soon made that the first pitch was anticipated shortly before 10 o’clock.
The grounds crew finally rolls up the tarp at 9:40.

Before Durham, ballpark crowds always swelled after the performance of the national anthem.  But this night, the announced attendance of 9944 almost evaporated by the time I resumed my place in the front row of the box seats, ready to move to the soggy sod behind home plate. 

At 10:16 I finally started the star-spangled phrases.   As I left the field, Frank Felicelli, the usher in the area behind home plate, gave me a grade of A.  Quite good, I thought, since he—a high school social studies teacher—is a rigorous grader, having recently completed evaluating more than 500 essays for the U.S. AP history exams.    
Even enjoying Frank’s endorsement of my rendition, I left the field and the game in some distress.  I had imposed on Bonnie by staying so long while she had nothing to do in the rain: her friends were in other cities; her Sudoku book was in the car; her iPhone had run out of juice.  As the Norfolk Tides came to bat, we left the ballpark; and the 90-minute return drive to Asheboro, where Arby was docked, was long, long, long, much longer than the miles that Toad road.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Friendly Folks and Beasts: Game 42 in Greensboro

Anticipating a cluster of games in central North Carolina, we heeded the call of the wild and aimed Arby toward the Zooland RV Park southwest of Asheboro.  Located in a rural area at the edge of the Uwharrarie National Forest, Zooland was so named not because of rowdy activities possibly pursued by campers but because the North Carolina Zoological Park was located about a lion’s roar away. Despite its cagy name, Bonnie had selected the RV park because it provided WiFi (which occasionally worked), cable TV (with few basic channels), and shaded sites (at least for a couple of early morning hours), and especially because of its proximity to the historic Pisgah covered bridge. 

Pisgah Covered Bridge in the Uwharrarie National Forest.
As we departed for the game in Greensboro, we turned away from covered bridge road and toward the zoo before turning north for a straight shot north up Interstates 73 and 74.  While I watched the highway signs as we approached the city and several Interstate intersections, I kept wondering how an East-West, even numbered Interstate highway would overlap a North-South odd-numbered freeway for more than twenty miles, especially since the numbers seemed to be in flux and the highway under reconstruction.  Could we travel in multiple directions at once?  Even so, the brief trip from Arby to the ballpark proved easy, perhaps presaging our friendly encounters in Greensboro.   

Fountains also greet our arrival at the Newbridge Bank Ballpark
Arriving at the ballpark, we should have suspected that parking near Friendly Avenue would signal a good omen for our experience.  While we walked along the sidewalk toward the front gate of Newbridge Bank Ballpark to pick up our tickets, a young woman standing on the concourse called out, “Are you Joe?”  Welcome.”  As the anthem coordinator for the Greensboro Grasshoppers, Laura Damico had been reading our blogs earlier in the day and had recognized us from the pictures in our postings.  Perhaps it also helped that Bonnie and I were wearing our AnthemTour logo polo shirts.  Nonetheless, Laura’s enthusiastic greeting set a gracious tone for the evening. 
Guilford, the Grasshopper
The general friendliness in Greensboro, evidenced in part by street names and ballpark hospitality, should not be surprising since the majority of British settlers in the area in the mid-eighteenth century were members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers as they are more popularly known.  In light of their employment of plain speech and their avoidance of use of titles, it is somewhat ironic that they named the county “Guilford” after the first Earl of Guilford, Francis North.  In 1754 they established the New Garden Friends Meeting (their plain speech designation for a congregation or “church”), and it continues to convene in Greensboro, along with several other Meetings of the Society of Friends.  In addition, Greensboro provides the home of Guilford College, which, like Whittier, was founded by the Quakers.  While the name “Guilford” is historically significant for Greensboro, the name is also playfully important for its fans: It’s the name of the Grasshoppers’ mascot. 
The ballpark, too, is impressive and inviting.  Built to Double A standards, the six-year-old facility featured several fan comforts: adequate seating for 7500, wide concourses, picnic areas, kids’ play spaces and facilities, and scores of concession stands.  Certainly, it was the most elegant Class A ballpark that I’d seen, especially in contrast to other, much more modest and relatively new stadia that I had seen a couple of days earlier in Hickory and would find a few days later in Kannapolis.

Outside the ballpark, interactive sculptures invited kids—and grown-ups, too—to sit beside the likenesses of team mascot Guilford, an obese caricature of a grasshopper, and Babe Ruff, the black lab retriever who serves the team as bat-dog.  Guilford and Babe vividly set a celebrative tone. 
Sculptures of Guilford and Babe invite me to join them on the bench.
Between the bench and the ballpark fence stood a bronze memorial to Sandra Bradshaw, a Greensboro resident and flight attendant aboard United’s #93 on September 11.  The tribute expressed the city’s pride and baseball’s ties to patriotism.  Nearby, kid-tall baseballs encouraged young fans to climb atop while adjacent fountains burbled fresh hope for the hometown Hoppers.  Even the security gates at the main entry featured the image of a baseball cap.
A team-size ball invites kids to climb up
While the ballpark’s aesthetic features created a stimulating environment, the fans’ excitement soared for the Grasshoppers’ first game of their home-stand.  Having won two out of three games on their short road trip to the first place Hagerstown Suns, the team had returned only a half-game out of the lead.  The fans’ enthusiasm had been stirred not merely by the Hoppers’ success against the Suns, but also by an incident involving starting pitcher Zach Neal, a scene captured on video that had gone viral on YouTube the previous day.  In the fourth inning of the middle game of the series against the Suns, Neal had yielded a homerun to top minor league prospect Bryce Harper, who then blew a kiss to Neal as he rounded third and headed home.  In response to the reprimands for Harper’s unsportsmanlike gesture, the parent Washington Nationals’ management tried to protect their teenage phenom Harper by calling Harper’s flurry a “teachable moment.”
In the first inning of this opening game against the Kannapolis Intimidators, Greensboro’s starting pitcher again took center stage.  After allowing two ground ball singles, Jake Rogers induced a force play that left runners on first and third with two outs.  Then he tried a standard, situational pickoff move that repeatedly fails:  Jared Rogers faked a pickoff throw to third, whirled, and threw to first.  The feint-to-third and swirl-to-first is a pickoff play that never works even though it’s taught to Little Leaguers, practiced by high school teams, and tried again and again and again by every professional team:  Fake a throw to third; whirl and peg to first.  Runners are never deceived, and fans are rarely confused.  Yet incredibly this time, the play worked.  Dan Black, the base runner, couldn’t get back to the bag, took off for second, and slid into the tag by the shortstop who took the throw from the first baseman.  When I relayed this story to baseball loving friends that I had witnessed this play’s success, they groaned—because now that it has worked, it’s likely that Rogers will continue to utilize it, although probably never again deceiving another first base runner but always slowing down the game.

When the Grasshoppers came to bat in the bottom half of the inning, fireworks exploded—literally.  One of the features of the ballpark is shooting off fireworks when a Hopper hits a homerun.  With one out and a runner on first, Christian Yelich launched a towering drive over the left field fence, and the spray of sparks erupted to the delight of the Hoppers and their fans.

While the explosion of fireworks provided a contrast to the ballpark’s non-violent, Quakerly atmosphere, other in-game entertainment manifested Greensboro’s friendly character.  As one of the promotions or distractions provided by the home team, Babe Ruff, a trained Labrador retriever and a representative of “man’s best friend,” directed to the home plate area in the bottom half of the third inning to retrieve the bats dropped by the Grasshoppers hitters.
Babe fetches a bat

...then wants to catch fly balls to deep center field
Compounding this friendly dog theme, one of the concession stands was named the “Dog Pound” since it offered classic “dogs” from Major League ballparks: Dodger Dogs, Milwaukee Brats, Cincinnati Chili Cheese Coneys, and Chicago Dogs. 

Yet somehow, there seemed to be a disconnect: There was no distinct dog representing Greensboro’s parent team in Miami.  Then again, what kind of dog might adequately embody the relation between grasshoppers and marlins?  However friendly it might be, it would surely be a feature at the ballpark and at Zooland!

Almost an Apologia

Last night I went with friends to Dodger Stadium, and we sat in the top row of the top deck deep down the left field line.  As we ascended the steps to the jig-leg approach to our seats, I wondered if Bob Uecker would be sitting beside us.  While we had a marvelous, blimp’s-eye view of the field and often could discern whether a fly ball was going to left or to right, we did feel removed from the game.  Thankfully, the booming bass speakers from their centerfield perch were also far enough away that we could occasionally continue talking when the music was playing.

All that said, I have been remiss in not making faster progress on completing snapshots of the missing ballparks and games from my Anthem Tour last summer.  Rather than deliver an apologia about my absence in recent months, let me simply note that Whittier’s academic year has been completed.  So I am resuming the writing and posting, a process that brings me back to an image from last night.

Although Charles, Mike, Warren, and I were interested in the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, we frequently found more entertainment in watching cliff swallows swoop in and out of the high beams of field lights, especially when they would dart and dive toward moths attracted to the intense brightness near the stadium’s roof, which we could almost touch when stretching above our seats.  

While the swallows snatched the flitting bugs, I was reminded of the hungry, dusk departure of the million bats from under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas, and I also recalled several significant insect encounters at ballparks.  At Nashville, the loudest sound in the Sounds’ ballpark was the buzz of cicadas from the trees and hillside behind the ballpark.  Some of them dive bombed Bonnie and me, and one paused on my shoulder for a photo opportunity. 
A cicada alights on my shoulder at Nashville, where I also sat on the top row.

And at Savannah, where the team is aptly named the Sand Gnats, the pesky pests had threatened to nip me during my anthem rendition.  Still, it was another team named for insects that ties my Anthem Tour to last night’s game Dodger Stadium, where I sang the anthem in September (the friend who posted this video elevated my stature by identifying me as a "Prince") after the end of the Minor League Season. 
The next team now to bug me about its neglected blog entry from last year: Greensboro’s Grasshoppers.