Friday, June 15, 2012

Getting back on Track: Game 58 in Wilmington

Although I had missed my scheduled anthem performances for the Norfolk Tides and the Delmarva Shorebirds because of Arby’s engine failure near Farmville, Virginia, we got back on track en route to Wilmington, Delaware.  Having missed Norfolk meant that we no longer needed to head toward the Tidewater area.  Instead, when we left Farmville we took an isosceles cutoff on State Highway 307 at Rice.  Now a well marked and truck-traveled route through high rolling hills, it had been a little known shortcut forty years earlier.  Then spending the summer at my parents’ home in Richmond, I had learned about that timesaving way when I preached nearby at the small Baptist Church where my father had served as interim pastor.

Now in Arby, Bonnie and I angled on up to and through the capital of the Confederacy where  we turned due north on the East Coast aorta, Interstate 95.  Before reaching Fredericksburg, however, we veered acutely toward Bowling Green and its intersection with federal Highway 301, thereby hoping to circumvent Washington’s glut of traffic.  By taking this route toward Wilmington, we missed the anticipated adventure of crossing over and through the 27-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel from Norfolk to the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula; but we were able to cross two impressive bridges spanning the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. 
The Nice Bridge across the Potomac (photo copied from

From Dahlgren, Virginia, to Newberg, Maryland, we arched over the Potomac on the magnificent Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge; and an hour or so later as we left Annapolis, we transcended the Chesapeake on the spectacular, curving, double-span, four-mile bridge on U.S. 50.
Postcard photo of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge (by R. C. Pulling)
Safely on the eastern shore of Maryland after traversing the river and the bay, we made our way on toward Wilmington, where we rejoined I-95 and passed the Blue Rocks’ ballpark on our way to the Tohickon Family Campground in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, an hour’s drive north of Philadelphia.   By docking there, we figured that we could easily tether in Toad back to Wilmington the following day and on to Trenton the day after. 

Arby stayed to the center through Sheard's Mill Bridge.
Making the final turn from the narrow rural roads toward the campground east of Quakertown, I knew that our travel woes must be over.  Our luck was changing.  The Sheard’s Mill Covered Bridge over Tohickon Creek, through which we must pass, showed clearance of 12’6”—almost a foot above the full reach of Arby.  Still, I eased through the portal, into the darkness of the tunnel and then the brilliance of sunlight at the other end.

Our luck also was changing in ways that I couldn’t yet determine.  While we had approached Philadelphia, Bonnie had called the Barnes Foundation to inquire about possibilities of securing tickets for the following morning to see the Barnes collection of French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, especially portions of its hundreds of works by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso.  The education institutional—a concept intentionally designed as an alternative to a “museum”—was founded by Albert C. Barnes, a pharmaceutical chemist who began collecting art after he had made a fortune developing an anti-gonorrheal drug.  Although Bonnie learned that admission had been sold out months earlier because of the impending year-long closure required to relocate the museum from its historic site in Lower Merion Township to downtown Philadelphia, she had left her number on the recording device, indicating that we’d be glad to change last minute plans if notified about ticket cancellation.  Perhaps, I thought, some ticket holder’s alternator might fail! 
Whatever the cause, Bonnie’s cell phone rang after breakfast the next morning with the Barnes’ representative offering early afternoon tickets.  Of course we claimed them.  Undoubtedly, Bonnie’s first love after her family is the group of French Impressionists.  And over the decades of our marriage, I have been comforted by a replica of Renoir’s portrait of a young girl with a watering can hanging in our bedroom at home, I have grown fond of paintings by Matisse and Monet, a I have increasingly resonated with works in multiple media by Picasso.
Shortly after Bonnie conveyed her excitement about getting to see “the Barnes” (which was on her bucket list), we dressed for the evening game in Wilmington and headed to suburban Philadelphia for the penultimate exhibition of works at the original Foundation location.

If there is a visual counterpoint to the narrative form of hagiography, the display of works in the rooms at the Barnes institution certainly would fit.  The audio tour directed viewers’ attention to Barnes’s perception of a work, its position in a room, and its relation to other pieces and artifacts nearby.  The purpose of the exhibition seemed to align the viewer’s perception with Barnes’ distinct appreciation rather than allowing a piece to engage the viewer on its own terms. And keeping with the directives of Barnes’s estate, the placement of the clusters of paintings and other artistic pieces will be retained at the new facility housing the collection.

The philosophical and educational design of these “wall ensembles” emphasizes the structure, power, and drama created through color, form, and light.  Rather than being able to focus on a single work or see the world through the eye of a particular painter, the viewer is presented with pieces displaying the collector’s ideas (and often his words) about “volumes of color.”  Memorable phrases from the audio about a room’s cluster of works included: “spatial intervals felt as color relations,” “color extends over contour” creating an “indissoluble entity,” and “color gives substance.”
While the dense displays throughout the building often seemed contrived, the works themselves have the power to evoke a depth of contentment, an expression of energy, and an invitation to contemplation that are incomparable.  Even so, a couple of hours after leaving the exhibition at the Barnes, I was delighted to engage the simplicity of Wilmington’s ballpark—its open spaces and its transparent celebrations of accomplishment. 
The openness of Wilmington's ballpark provided a counterpoint to the density of works at the Barnes.
Unlike many of the works at the Barnes, the realistic statue of Judy Johnson greeted fans and graced the pedestrian spaces between the parking lot and the ballpark’s main gate.  Johnson was a life-long Delaware resident and the Negro Leagues’ premier third baseman who batted over .400 in one season and who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1975. 
Judy Johnson appears positioned for the play.
Banners identifying successful Blue Rocks’ players who had made it to “the Show” hung above the concession concourse. 
Throughout the concourse banners recognize Wilmington players who have made it to the Show.

And numerical tributes to Wilmington stars added a personal character to the splay of ads on the outfield fence.  Affixed to the light standard in right field, a baseball featuring Robin Roberts’s number 36 represents the first number retired by the Blue Rocks.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976, Roberts had won nine games for Wilmington in 1948, his only season with the team, before being called up to Phillies before mid-summer.
Roberts's number rises above the outfield ads.
Above the left field wall, two other numbers appear, one retired, the other marking an accomplishment.  A Sweeney jersey with number 33 honors former Blue Rocks’ All-Star Mike Sweeney.  A five time Major League All-Star with a career batting average of .297, Sweeney is widely respected for his community service and his vibrant faith, exemplified by his serving as president of Catholic Athletes for Christ. 

The microphone for McAdams and the jersey for Sweeney express appreciation for their contributions.
The other honorific number—871—appears with a microphone and John McAdams, the original public address announcer for the Blue Rocks who died in 2005.  The figure identifies the number of games that he announced during his tenure with the Blue Rocks.  Known for his smooth, booming voice, he took great pride in making sure that players’ names were pronounced correctly.
His successor in the booth provided me with a thorough introduction about the anthem tour that ended with the request, “Please welcome Joe Price, professor from Whittier College.”  And the fans did.  They applauded before I sang—and afterward, as well.

My warm reception in Wilmington had even begun months earlier in pleasant correspondence with the Blue Rocks’ General Manager Chris Kemple in setting up the date for my singing.  Chris personalized the coordination of the scheduling process by letting me know that he had Southern California roots: He had grown up in Whittier, attended high school nearby in Hacienda Heights, and then graduated from San Diego State University.  Recognized by Baseball America as Minor League Executive of the Year in 2004, Chris completed the gracious welcome by stopping in to greet me in the conference room where I was given a chance to warm up.

Several additional factors contributed to the delightful experience at the ballpark.  For starters, the team name was intriguing: the Blue Rocks.  I wondered whether that was the name of a species of shellfish native to the Chesapeake Bay.  But I learned that the name refers to blue granite that is found nearby in outcroppings along the Brandywine River.

The mascot’s name was similarly charming.  With a moniker of Rocky Bluewinkle, the mascot impersonated a blue moose whose name plays upon the popularity of the cartoon characters Rocky (a flying squirrel) and Bullwinkle (an anthropomorphic moose).  Like most of the friendly mascots at ballparks, Rocky lured kids for souvenir photographs and lighthearted greetings.
Laughing kids "high-five" a smiling Rocky Bluewinkle.
And the food was unusually fresh and flavorful, with carved meets available at a make-your-own sandwich station.  Even so, one young fan added to the flavor of his pizza after it tumbled from his plate beneath his seat.  Undeterred by dirt under his seat, the boy downed most of the pepperoni, smearing cheese and sauce across his face while sharing his hatful of popcorn with his sister.
There's only so much that a young fan can balance while reaching for a soda.
But grandstand dirt never hurt the taste of pepperoni!

Adding to the elements of the ballpark’s ambiance was the chance to see Wilmington’s highly touted starting pitcher, Jake Odorizzi.  A first-round draft selection out of high school by the Milwaukee Brewers three years earlier, Odorizzi had been the key acquisition by Kansas City in its trade of Cy Young Award Winner Zack Greinke to the Brewers during the previous winter.  On this night, however, Odorizzi  had given up five runs in six innings., with Wilmington losing to Salem 5-3. Summoned to the manager’s office after the game, Odorizzi was surprised by the manager’s message—that, despite his lackluster performance that evening, he was being promoted to Kansas City's Double A affiliate in Northwest Arkansas.

Still, the most significant factor in making the ballpark experience so enjoyable was that I could see several fans joining me in singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Among them was Ron, a staff member assigned to the entry to the VIP suites.  He told me that, as a tenor, he had harmonized with my rendition in such a low key, and he was pleased to let me know that he regularly sings the anthem for the Blue Rocks when scheduled singers don’t show up.

As I left the ballpark, Matt Robinson stopped to congratulate me.  “Thanks.  Good job,” he said. “Thanks for singing it the way it’s supposed to be.”  Before the game he had learned of my project from one of the interns who has been his student at the University of Delaware, where Matt is on the faculty in Sport Management.

After the disruptions in my schedule earlier in the week, it was certainly good to get back on track with baseball and an appreciated performance of the national anthem in Wilmington.

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