Saturday, July 21, 2012

An Ironic and Elegant Sty: Game 67 in Lehigh Valley

I love teams and ballparks that display a sense of humor like the Lehigh Valley IronPigs who make their home at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania. 

When I had first seen the team’s logo of a steely-faced boar, I had assumed that the name IronPigs suggested the character of the baseball team—that it plays with a kind of pig-headed determination.  Yet the team’s name really derives from the region’s primary industry.   Pig irons are smelted ingots produced in the process of refining steel, and the steel workers in Eastern Pennsylvania who produce the bars of pig iron are themselves often called “iron pigs.” 

Ballpark references to the region’s dominant industry also extend to the names of the team mascots, Ferrous and FeFe.  Certainly the pair must be male and female representatives of their fuzzy species, for “Ferrous” connotes a male creature with iron strength (even if not the man of steel himself, Superman), and “FeFe” playfully fuses the effete pet name Fifi with the chemical symbol for iron, Fe.
A young fan gets her shirt autographed by Ferrous

While “iron pigs” refers to a by-product of local industry, the team nonetheless puns its name with porcine images and labels throughout the ballpark.  Posted at the entry are signs displaying ballpark rules and decorum—what’s not permitted inside the stadium, like chairs and coolers, “outside” food and drinks, as well as pets, except for service dogs.  Oddly, then, the final order to fans is, perhaps, to forego decorum and to “Go Hog Wild!”  

As they enter the concourse, fans can pick up free copies of the program—“Pork Illustrated,” whose lettering resembles the font and format of the banner of the iconic magazine Sports Illustrated.  Not only does the “I” in “Illustrated” feature a swine’s swirling tail, it also represents the iron ingots produced in steel refining. 

Immediately past this trough filled with information for fans’ consumption is an “IronPiggy Bank” emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo.  Painted annually from a winning design submitted by a child (this year, there were more than 2000 entries), the big piggy invites donations and raises awareness of IronPigs Charities presented by the Air Products Foundation.  With a mission to provide educational and recreational opportunities for youth in the region, IronPigs Charities collected and distributed a record total of more than $106,000 in 2011 despite the economic woes that affected the Lehigh Valley.  Recipients of awards ranged from a local school system, Boys and Girls Clubs, churches with sports teams and leagues, a community bicycling group, and the area’s Special Olympics. 

While most of the funds were raised from a golf tournament, a winter banquet accompanied by silent auctions and a bat raffle, and a mid-season luncheon with manager Ryne Sandberg and several players—a luncheon that coincidentally had taken place a few hours before my appearance for the anthem— the IronPiggy Bank also proved to be effective in encouraging fan participation in the charitable efforts.  On average, about $10 in loose change was slipped into IronPiggy’s slot at each home game.  And the ban on pets at the ballpark is lifted each summer on two evenings when dogs are welcomed, on leash with the purchase of a one-dollar ticket whose proceeds go to IronPigs Charities.  During the 2011 more than $700 was collected in this way for distribution to the Animal Food Bank and the Center for Animal Health and Welfare.
A young fan gets extra luck by kissing IronPiggy.
Part of the charm associated with IronPiggy is its playful solicitation “that good fortune goes to ye who feed me change and then rub my nose.”   So if feeding the IronPiggy and rubbing its nose might bring good luck, then what greater benefit might come from kissing its snout?

As one might expect, food stands easily played with the piggish theme.  One of the permanent concessions was known as Pig Out, and a temporary tent offered pulled pork.  Although the Philadelphia Pretzel Factory didn’t offer a bacon infused treat, it did exhibit a playful spirit, naming its pretzel bits for one of the products associated with the steel industry.  The box of bites was called “rivets.” 

While a whimsical spirit characterized the young ballpark, it was also distinguished by its architectural design, which provided superb sight lines throughout the stands and wide concourses.  In 2008 Baseball Digest had recognized Coca-Cola Park as an ironic and elegant sty, naming it the Ballpark of the Year.  One of the artistic—and playful—facets in its design is the scoreboard, which features a gigantic Coca-Cola bottle “Roman candle” that fizzes with fireworks when an IronPig hits a homerun.  

Other sportive artistic expressions could be found at the main gate, where the sidewalk welcomes fans to traverse a giant baseball with red-brick seams, and next to the doors to the executive offices.  There, an eight-foot IronPigs bat abuts the coin-operated newspaper stand was shaped like a baseball. 

As distinct as these features were at Lehigh Valley, the ballpark shares with most other minor league ballparks the intimate contact between its seats and the field, between the fans and the players.  And like many other stadiums, Coca-Cola Park touts scores of advertisers on outfield fences.   At few other ballparks that I visited, however, were there more than the 76 billboards on the fences in Allentown. 
From afar, right field appears to be a commerical mosaic.

Since the ballpark was otherwise so inviting and the team was playing so well, it’s not surprising that during the 2011 season attendance at Coca-Cola Park topped that at all other minor league venues.  And with the IronPigs enjoying the best record in the International League and with a double-header this evening because of a rain-out that had occurred during the opening week of the season, 10000 fans flooded to the ballpark, about ten percent more than the year’s average attendance. 
Even the terrace seating was filled to capacity.

While the crowd was among the largest that I encountered during the summer, so too was the number of “first pitches” that were thrown: 16!  I have seen first innings with fewer pitches than the number of first pitches that were tossed that evening.  And despite the outstanding architectural features and the multiple forms of entertaining at ballpark, the delay in the sound system was among the most challenging that I encountered.  Even so, as I left the ballpark, a woman clasped my arm, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Thanks for not making it a funeral dirge like so many.”

The seven-inning contest, the normal length of games in AAA double-headers, was distinct in a couple of ways.  With Syracuse leading by two runs in the bottom of the fifth inning, Jeff Larish took a lead off second, rounded third on a single to left field, and collided with the catcher as slid into home.  Not only was he out at the plate, he also was out for the season, suffering compound fracture of his right leg that required stabilization before he was carried off the field. 
With his leg immobilized, Larish is carried off the field.
After Syracuse tallied another run in the top of the sixth, the IronPigs finally scored in their half of the inning when Brandon Moss hammered a two-run homer to right center field, prompting the Coke bottle atop the scoreboard to blast off its fireworks.  Following Moss’s blast, Josh Wilkie relieved the starting pitcher and smelted the final four IronPigs, striking out three of them to secure the victory for the visiting Chiefs 3-2.

No comments:

Post a Comment