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.

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