Monday, July 23, 2012

An Erie Birthday: Game 68 in Erie

In Amish country near Randolph, New York, I awoke on my birthday thinking about baseball and birthdays while I planned a scenic route for the drive in Toad to Erie for an afternoon game between the SeaWolves and the Altoona Curve.  As a child my birthday celebrations had featured trips to St. Louis, where I saw Musial hit a homerun, and Chicago, where Mantle and Maris homered in two games in their record-smashing summer of 1961.  For another birthday during the lean years of grad school, Bonnie had bought box seats for a game again between the Yankees and White Sox.  And, of course, throughout their childhood years my sons had found that mid-summer baseball gifts—caps and shirts and license plate holders and autographed balls—would bring me certain delight.

In a distinct way my birthday had already proved pivotal for my anthem tour.  A year earlier when I had sent out my requests to teams for pre-approval to sing the anthem, I had included a link to a streaming video of me singing for a game between the Rockies and Reds in Cincinnati on my birthday several years earlier.   Like that day in Southern Ohio, this sunny birthday in Erie would be a scorcher, with the temperature in the shade—if any could be found—settling in the 90s and the humidity level, well, next to the Great Lake, don’t bother to measure it.   

In most of the grandstands and on the field, of course, the sun proved tenacious, blistering fans and fielders alike.  Although I try to be cool when I sing the anthem a cappella, intense heat vies to accompany my performances.  Already on the tour Bonnie and I had encountered record high temperatures in Texas, Tennessee, and Alabama, and within the next few days and weeks we would continue to swelter through another record-setting heat wave sweating its way slowly across the Midwest.  Even so, Erie’s singeing afternoon could not match the on-field temperature on my birthday in Southern Ohio some years earlier.  Then on the artificial turf at Riverfront Stadium, the game-time temperature had crested above 120 degrees, a few degrees cooler, believe it or not, than two days before when a thermometer on field had registered more than 130.  A vivid series of non-anthem images comes to mind when I recall that afternoon.  After the fifth inning the batboys took a liter of water to each of the umpires.   Standing behind second base, one ump quickly guzzled a portion, then removed his cap and splashed a little on his hair, and finally poured the last half of the bottle in a circle around his feet, letting the immediate evaporation cool his cramping legs.

In Cincinnati, I had been offered a chance to view the game from an air conditioned suite where my college alumni group was holding a reception.  Yet in Erie the only shade and breeze that we could find was in the row of seats in front of the open broadcasters’ window, through which we could faintly feel the wafting of his words past our ears.  So there we sat in semi-shade for several innings, enjoying his play-by-play descriptions and color commentary, and imagining how we might have differently filled the long pauses interspersed with action on the field.

Despite the scalding heat at birthday baseball games, my anthem performances were well received.  As in Cincinnati, the Erie team provided me with a video of my performance, only the third ballpark on the tour where I had received a DVD of my rendition.  The first had been in Frisco, Texas, and the next in Winston-Salem.  In both of those cities new ballparks relished the chance to utilize their sophisticated recording systems.  By contrast, Erie’s Jerry Uht Park seemed to emit aromas of history.  So I was surprised at the stellar quality of the video and sound systems, as well as the all-star caliber tech crew at this urban ballpark, not simply because they recorded my performance but also because they personalized my introduction with comments about my making a national tour and celebrating a birthday.

Politely, the crowd preceded my rendition with applause, and following my straightforward presentation of the anthem two fans approached me, one with the familiar expression of appreciation that I had sung it as written and another with terse praise: “You did a damn good job.  That’s a hard song to sing.”
The sense of history that fans get at “the Uht,” as the SeaWolves’ ballpark is familiarly known, derives in part from its memorials, its simplicity, and its street placement in an established neighborhood.  Constructed in 1995 and renovated about a decade later, the ballpark celebrates civic leadership and baseball achievements rather than corporate sponsorship.  The ballpark did not auction naming rights to local enterprises or corporations.  Adhering to an older tradition, it preferred to be named for a long-time area resident who had established an endowment with the Erie Community Foundation for the maintenance of the ballpark and support of its operations.
The Uht's urban setting bounded by commercial buildings behind third...

... and an established residential area beyond left field.

In addition to its recognition of Uht, the ballpark also achieves a personal sense of history by displaying bronze steles of former Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey, who was instrumental in securing funding for the ballpark’s construction; Dick Agresti, who was the founder of Erie’s Boys Baseball, for which he built fields and organized volunteers to enrich the lives of the areas youth; and Mike Cannavino, who was a mid 19th-century city council member responsible for saving the Erie Sailors (the SeaWolves’ predecessor) for the city. 
Jethroe's plaque.
The other historic plaque honors Sam “the Jet” Jethroe, a notable Major Leaguer who began to play baseball in Erie following his professional career.   After achieving stardom in the Negro Leagues where he won two batting titles, Jethroe became the first African-American to play for a Boston team, breaking the color line in Beantown when he won the Rookie-of-the-Year award in 1950 for the Boston Braves.  That year, he also led the National League in stolen bases, and for three years he roamed centerfield before the Braves departed for Milwaukee.  For most of the rest of the decade, he played in the International League before retiring and settling in Erie.  While employed in a factory there, he resumed playing baseball in the Glenwood League, Erie’s prominent amateur league that has operated as a wooden-bat league for most of a century.

Jethroe’s number 5 is also one of only two displayed on the outfield wall.  When I saw the baseball with his name and number, I asked a staffer who he was and why he was associated with Erie.  She didn’t know but suggested that the memorial was from long ago.  (I discovered Jethroe’s identity a few innings later when I photographed the series of plaques in the undercroft of grandstands.)  The other honored number in left field is uniform, Jackie Robinson’s 42—uniform both in the sense that it was the numeral on his jersey, and uniform in the sense that it is the single number retired throughout the Major and Minor leagues.  Curiously then, the only honored numbers at Erie are for former Negro League stars who became Major League pioneers yet who never played for an Erie professional team.
The outfield numbers of Robinson and Jethroe.

Even though kids at a 21st century ballpark might not seem to be drawn to history and its traditional practices, the children at Erie this afternoon enjoyed their time at “the Uht” in old-fashioned ways.  Without the lure of techno-pitches and swings  or the chance to careen off the walls of bouncy rooms, they anticipated foul balls with eyes glued toward home and gloves poised, and later they lined up for the simplicity of a run from the centerfield fence across the first base line during a between-inning dash known as  “Kids’ Stampede.”
Kids ready to catch a foul ball.

Kids stampede across the outfield between innings.

There is also other, hidden evidence at the ballpark that contributes to its historic aura: its left field foul pole.  Routinely at ballparks, I tried to take a photograph looking from a foul pole down the line to home plate.  That perspective occasionally provided distinct pictures.  When looking at the shot that I had taken from beyond the left field fence at “the Uht,” I discovered that rusty holes had pocked the pole as though it had endured more than twenty winters.  I also saw a fascinating difference in the construction of the pole: a gap of six to eight inches extends above the fence and below the “fair screen,” which aids umpires in making the right call of “homerun” or “foul” on long drives that clear the fence.  I wondered if a ball had ever been hit through the gap, avoiding hitting the screen and causing an ump to call a homerun “foul”!
The rusty view through the gap of the left field foul pole.

I wouldn’t be so lucky that afternoon to witness such a rare feat, even though Diek Scram did hit a homer for the SeaWolves in their 9-3 victory over the Curve.

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