Thursday, July 5, 2012

Nursery Rhyming Ironbirds: Game 66 in Tri-City

At Tri-City in New York, the words of a different song threatened the familiar strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Lines from a nursery rhyme—“Four and Twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”—kept humming through my mind because the ValleyCats’ opponent that evening was the four and twenty Ironbirds from Aberdeen.  Not that their roster was comprised of twenty-four players: their record stood at a dismal four wins and twenty losses! 

Named the Ironbirds because of their affiliation with Baltimore and their ownership group headed by Cal Ripken, himself the iron Oriole, the team from Maryland began the game watching the ball spray beside the plate like buck shot. The leadoff batter was hit by a pitch and scored on a wild pitch later in the inning.  And that run would prove decisive for the tin-foil birds as they would hold on for a 7-6 victory over the ValleyCats who, despite a losing record of their own, had been favored to win as the NYP League’s defending champion.
The NYP League Trophy on display.

Before the game, I assured the ValleyCats’ manager that my anthem renditions did not produce bad luck for his team.  When Tri-City had played at Burlington, Vermont a week earlier, they had lost the game when a rally was ignited in the bottom of the ninth when their catcher dropped a third strike.  Days later, when I had seen them play in Wappingers Falls, New York, they had lost to their Hudson River rivals when, again in their opponents’ final at-bat (this time, in the tenth), the ValleyCats’ reliever unleashed a wild pitch that brought the winning run home: a walk-off wild one. 

When I told the ValleyCats’ manager Stubby Clapp, “Really, I’m not a jinx.  You’ll win tonight,” he responded in playful kind: “What’s your number?  If we win you’re coming back.”  So I quickly handed him my card. 

It’s no wonder that he was superstitiously searching for any answer to improve his team's performance.  At that point in the season, the ValleyCats were four games under .500.  Three of his starting players were hitting below .150, and one a paltry .040!  Alas: not even the launch of distracting fireworks during the anthem’s phrase about “the bombs bursting in air” would turn the fortunes of Tri-City.  For the third time in less than a fortnight with me singing, the ValleyCats would lose by a single run.

Our interchange anticipated my interaction with the sports reporter for News 13, one of the TV channels in the Albany area that had sent a film crew to the game.  While I had been singing the anthem and thinking “A Song of Six-Pence,” I had noticed that there were five TV cameras positioned on the media pad at the concourse level behind home plate.  So when I moved to my box seat during the early innings of the game, I asked the sports anchor why there was so much attention on the game between two losing teams.  I wondered if a recent high draft choice had signed and were making his professional debut.  Not the case.  “Simple,” the reporter said.  “It’s a slow Monday sports night.”
TV cameras prepare to capture home team highlights, perhaps.
Immediately, I handed him my anthem tour business card, described my project, and suggested that he had a distinct story to tell, leading it off by playing a phrase or two of me singing.  “Wow!  I didn’t run the tape then,” he responded.  “Tell me ahead next time.”  Right!  As though there might be a next time for me, a Californian in Troy, New York!  Regrettably, during the pregame introductions, the ValleyCats had identified me merely by name, which meant that no one in stands—including the reporters—knew about the anthem project or my journey until I approached them.
Usher Dan Carubia dances with a fan.

Overhearing my conversation with the reporter was an usher, Dan Carubia, who expressed delight in my patriotic mission.  During the next few batters he recounted stories about memorable anthem performances in Shea Stadium and Madison Square Garden where he had served as an usher for several years.   And few innings later I watched him dance atop the dugout and then make the evening for two young teens with general admission tickets by escorting them to vacant seats behind the backstop.

Even as it was a slow sports night near the Berkshires to the east and the state capital a few miles to the southwest, so too the pace of the game was equally lethargic: there were 5 walks, 4 wild pitches, 3 errors, a hit batsman, a passed ball, and a balk.  These plodding plays must have affected the public address announcer as well since he apparently sought to intersperse his game description with filler announcements, such as one about preventing the spread of a destructive tree beetle.  He urged homeowners and campers to avoid burning firewood away from the premises where it had been cut.
Having scored on a wild pitch, the Ironbird and ValleyCat appear to do a chorus line routine.

While the home team’s loss might have merited little news coverage in the region and while the PA announcer’s repartee might have strained for sporting relevance, the ballpark itself prominently paid tribute to baseball legends who had played in Troy.  Positioned near the entry to the ballpark were plaques and portraits honoring Hall of Famers Johnny Evers (of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” fame), Buck Ewing (the first major leaguer to hit 10 home runs in a single season), and two nineteenth century stars, Tim Keefe and Roger Conner.
Notable ads above the outfield fence.
More so than other ballparks in the Northeast, the outfield fences at Joseph Bruno Stadium featured an extensive range of commercials for local businesses, regional enterprises, and national products like JIF peanut butter, Sunkist citrus, and Dunkin’ Donuts.  Among the more than seventy displays double-decking the fence from foul pole to foul pole, several of the promotions were noteworthy because of their particular placement.  Above and beyond the highest sign in the left-handed hitter’s power alley was Cooley’s lure to win a car by hitting a homerun through a basketball-size hole.   Nearby, the ad for a fence company seemed ironically placed because it was a billboard looming above the outfield fence.  And a right field placard plugged the law office of Hank Bauer.  Although the lawyer was unrelated to the former major league player by the same name, I wondered whether right field had been strategically chosen for the placement of the ad because of the familiar association of the name with right field, where the Yankees' Hank Bauer had starred for a decade.

Following the seventh inning stretch with the Ironbirds leading by five runs, I retired from the game as quietly as the ValleyCats’ batters had been prone to do.  Back-to-back homers in the second inning had been the only solid contact that Tri-City’s batters had made, and a bunt single in the fifth had been their only other hit.  Although I missed the their ninth inning rally during which they scored four runs and advanced the tying tally to third with only one out, I faced a 90-minute drive back toward Monterey, Massachusetts in the heart of the Berkshires.  Mid-afternoon I had parked Arby at a friend’s house there so that we could enjoy two days off in the beauty of their home, the serenity of the landscape, and the comfort of their companionship.  And the return drive along the New York State Thruway beneath flooding moonlight provided a good beginning to the recess in my schedule.

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