Thursday, July 26, 2012

Featuring a Different Ball: Game 69 in Jamestown


Outside the front gates of seventy-year old Diethrick Park in Jamestown, New York, a historic marker pays general tribute to Baseball—its players and fans.  Yet the community in this grape-growing region of the state more specifically and significantly celebrates its love for a different a Ball: The town is the home of comedienne Lucille Ball.   And if Lucy herself wasn’t one for the birds, the other famous former citizen of Jamestown was—Roger Tory Peterson, the popular ornithologist who published guidebooks for birdwatchers.
Inside the ballpark one of the signs on the left-field wall publicized the upcoming centennial celebration of Lucy’s birth, an event that would attract to a lone place a world record number of Lucy impersonators aflame with red hair and thick lipstick.  I know that almost everyone loved Lucy; but a hundred impersonators at a single event might be too many for even re-run TV networks to enjoy.

Lucy Fest was scheduled for the first week in August.
However, the comic spirit might come naturally to the Jamestown Jammers and their fans.  With a name that conjures up flavors of the fruity spread for toast, the team personifies its logo by placing a face on a cluster of grapes, and it calls its mascot “Bubba, the Grape Ape.”  That playful spirit prompts creative expressions by the fans, demonstrated by one small girl dressed in pink who, after hugging the big Jammers’ Bubba, turned to her mother and asked, “What color bananas does Bubba eat since he’s purple?”  I grinned at this budding Lucille Ball! 
Getting a grape hug from Bubba.
The young girl was ready to take the stage, not at a comedy club but on the field with the other children participants in the pre-game “Dream Team” that accompanies Jammers to their respective starting positions.  Obviously already dreaming of his professional possibilities, one small member of the Dream Team bent down to touch the rubber as he crossed the mound on his way to his second baseman position.  Did he perform this ritual act routinely in his Little League games, or was his gesture the response to some dare from a father or teammate?
Holding the hand of her "little bubba," the embracer of Bubba Grape listens to instructions about pre-game activities.
While these images and actions provoked me to smile, I did not otherwise enjoy my experience at Jamestown.  When I had checked into the ballpark as the anthem singer, the staffer asked me what my name was, not for the purpose of verification but for the purpose of knowing whom to present.  Minutes later, the PA announcer identified me simply as “Joe Price.”  Miffed by the minimal, impersonal character of the introduction, I sensed that they might as well have mocked Ed McMahon on The Tonight Show, “Here’s Joe!”  

Although I was disappointed with the introduction at Jamestown, I realized that their inattentiveness wasn’t a personal slight.  The staffer who had met me upon arrival was consistently careless.  She spent much of the pre-game period complaining about kids who show up late and still ask to participate in one of the “in-game” entertainments.  She hadn’t selected someone to throw out the first pitch until three minutes before the ceremony, nor had she secured a player to sign the bat that would be given to the “fan of the game.”  And once he agreed to sign, she turned to another player and asked, “What’s his name?” 

"What's his name?" paints his shoes to complte his game preparation.
For the record, the game itself seemed unremarkable, other than eleven runs, twenty hits, and five errors.  Jamestown beat the Mahoning Valley Scrappers 6-5, coming from behind with three runs in the seventh and, despite an error advancing a runner to third with two outs in the ninth, holding off the visitors for the victory.

Although I was disappointed in the overall Jammers’ experience, I loved being in western New York.  Earlier in the day we had explored the Amish country near the Village of Randolph, where we had anchored Arby in the Pope Haven Campground for a couple of days coinciding with my singing in Erie and Jamestown. During the morning we had meandered in Toad on back roads past family farms, each offering different items such as lawn harnesses or buggy wheels, cedar chests or hickory rockers, bird houses or wicker works; products in iron, tin, leather, and wood; as well as women’s handiworks in rugs and quilts and baskets and, of course, pastries, pies, and canned goods. 

Lured by the simple sign “Hill Top Toy Shop,” we stopped at Dan Raber’s workshop where he designed and supervised the construction of wooden toys.  To our surprise, when we entered we could hear and see craftsmen working with power tools in an adjacent room.  How could these Amish artisans use power saws without electricity?  After generations of the Amish requiring that  their craftwork be hand-tooled, this western New York community had begun to allow generators to power some tools used for making initial cuts as long as the finishing touches would be completed by hand.  While we looked over toys and other items on display, one of the customers rocked back and forth on a rope-hung horse swing in the middle of the shop, and two friendly dogs nuzzled Bonnie and me, encouraging us to pet them.   It’s reassuring that good old dogs can bridge both cultures and generations.
Shortly after leaving the toy shop, we pulled into a neighbor’s place to see his ironwork before we headed to a younger Raber’s shed to admire the simple designs, fine woods, tight joints, and lustrous finishes on his furniture.  If only Arby could have opened wide enough to carry a chest, we would have bought and boarded a bureau!  

In our interactions with the Amish, two of their particular products intrigued me since they seemed incongruous with my understanding of an Amish lifestyle.  At the toy shop we saw a bin full of clothespin-loaded, rubber band guns selling for $2.50.  Not only was I confounded by the fact that gun culture was being marketed to children by pacifists, I also wondered how many mothers, in response to their young sons’ fondling of the toy, had repeated Santa’s line of “maternal worry” uttered to Richie in A Christmas Story: Not a chance, kid.  “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
The other befuddling item we found in a leather shop where belts could be punched and custom cut to fit.  The sale of belts seemed to mismatch Amish ways since Amish men only wear suspenders.  Impressed by this irony and concerned that I needed to tighten my belt both physically and metaphorically, I bought two of the tooled black straps and wore one daily during the last six weeks of the trip.

Having paid for the belts with the remaining bills and coins in my pockets, we needed to find an ATM to replenish our cash.  Looking at the map Bonnie saw that the nearest town was Dayton, toward which she directed me along rural roads through fields and fields of flourishing, sun-drenched crops.
A half-hour later as hunger started to gnaw at us, we drove into the charming community—no traffic lights, no fast-food restaurants, no national hardware stores.  What we found was diagonal, unmetered parking in front of the Jenny Lee Country Store and the County Bank of Cattaraugus, where two tellers behind an open counter pleasantly greeted me.  When I asked about where I could access an ATM, they directed me to the only one in town, two blocks south, inside the South Dayton Super 303 grocery store.  Finding the machine, I inserted my card, punched in numbers, and got crisp twenty-dollar bills.  Now reloaded with these yuppie food coupons, as my younger son calls ATM dispersals, we returned to the same parking spot in front of Jenny Lee and went inside for hot meat loaf sandwiches.  

Resuming our wandering through the countryside after lunch, we discovered a world-class quilt shop run by Elizabeth Wengerd and assisted by six year-old Amanda, one of her 28 grandchildren.  Although Amanda responded to our smiles and facial expressions, she did not understand our words since German is the language spoken in Amish homes.   Elizabeth explained that Amish children begin to study English when they enter their schools, which continue through grade 8.  Typically then, the boys begin to apprentice within their extended family or community while the girls focus on improving their craftworking and homemaking skills.  As we talked with Elizabeth and admired her handiwork, Amanda joined her in turning back the stack of quilts. 
On a wall-map of the world close by, push-pins located the hometowns of quilt purchasers, and Bonnie showed Amanda that we lived near the cluster of customers whose location was in Los Angeles.  California's far away,” Elizabeth translated into German.  So far, in fact, that she wondered how many days it had taken us to drive across country.   (I'm not sure that Toad looked any more comfortable than the buggies in which she often rode.)  Learning of our circuitous route, she then asked why we had come to the area. 
“To sing tonight in Jamestown,” I replied.  “At the baseball game,” Bonnie added.  “He’s singing the national anthem at ballparks throughout America.”  
Now I wondered how she might respond, especially since non-Amish farmers throughout the area often distinguished their identity by painting American flags on the road-side of their barns.  But as we left, Elizabeth simply said, “Sing tonight for me.” 
And I did, still mystified by her polite expression of patriotism, Raber's power tools, and the belt snugged against my waist. 

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