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.

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