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!

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