Sunday, August 26, 2012

Replacing Hubcaps with TinCaps: Game 74 in Fort Wayne

The morning after the game in Indianapolis we left the RV park near Greenfield, and Arby was happy for a change in traffic.  For an hour or so we followed county roads and state highways through flat fields and fields of blistered corn and soy.  Despite the stunted crops along the way, the rural route provided much needed refreshment from the thick truckage and furrowed surfaces of Interstate highways 71 and 70 across Ohio and Indiana. Two days earlier in his trek along those freeways, Arby had lost three of his four hubcaps, each of which had been bolted on.  But the cracks and holes in the highways that opened almost to Hell had won the wheel-cover battle.  By contrast, we now made our way along a smoother, more remote road through Eden—really, that was the small town’s name—on our way to Anderson, where we merged onto I-69 north to Fort Wayne.   There I’d sing for the TinCaps in their evening game with River Bandits from Quad Cities.
Although the territory in northeastern Indiana was new and refreshing to Arby, Bonnie and I had traveled this way before.  In the summer of 1974 when we had left Louisville, a city that we love since we had met and married there, we headed north for a summer job in Bluffton, Indiana.  In Bluffton, which lies halfway between Ossian and Petroleum on Highway 1 south of Fort Wayne, Bonnie and I sweated through July and August in an attic apartment provided by the church where I served as summer assistant pastor.  The apartment was so inadequately wired that it required a gas refrigerator because the simultaneous use of an electric skillet and a fan would blow the entire circuit.  To escape the sultry and claustrophobic condition of our rooms after dinner, we would drive to the local grocery store to window shop the treats in its open-chest freezers.

Normally, folks would say that summer in the early mid-1970s was one to forget.  For us, however, it was memorable in a stimulating way.  We were so delighted to leave northeastern Indiana that we thought of the South Side of Chicago—particularly our apartment in the University’s married student housing—as the Promised Land.  We experienced the city and the University as liberating.  By contrast, two of our seminary friends who preceded us directly from Louisville to the same complex in Hyde Park, considered Chicago as, at best, purgatory. 
Arby must have intuited our dismal history in the region since he didn’t blink while we peered straight ahead and passed the Markle exit, the nearest freeway access to Bluffton.  We cruised on through and beyond Fort Wayne, continuing north for about 20 miles to Auburn where we docked Arby at an open RV site in the Fireside Campground within earshot of the interstate.  By driving a few extra miles that day, we could reduce our travel time the next day since we’d need to get to Lansing in time for a late afternoon Lugnuts’ game.  

Although Bonnie had thought that she would take a night off from the TinCaps’ game after the extra-inning game in Indianapolis the night before, roiling dark clouds rolled across the fields toward us and prompted Bonnie to reconsider her plans.  Accessing a weather website to track the density and direction of the approaching storm, the park’s manager pointed out that Fort Wayne was beneath the path of the isolated thunderheads, and he showed us the shelter where we might find safety if, meantime, we needed to retreat from Arby.  Looking at the thunderheads and hearing the gusts whir past Arby, Bonnie decided to join me as I left for the TinCaps’ game.  
And what a spectacular and surprising evening it turned out to be!  The ballpark was as open and aesthetically stimulating as any that we’d seen.  The fans—especially young Asa Eames—were as charming and cordial as any.  The in-game entertainment was absolutely delightful, particularly with the comic routines of BirdZerk and his sidekicks, and the dancing spoofs of the grounds crew.  The game itself featured the play of Cory Spangenberg, the tenth overall selection in the baseball draft held a month earlier.  And the threatening weather dissolved into an expansive sunset that seemed to linger through the seventh inning stretch.
Well before game time, fans picnic on the concourse at Parkview Field between the amphitheatre and the grandstands.

The impressive home of the TinCaps is Parkview Field, a dually appropriate name since its rights were purchased by Parkview Health System prior to the ballpark’s opening in 2009 and since its architectural design—especially its integration of various performance and leisure spaces—creates such a park-like ambiance. 
These lounge seats seem displaced from the home field of the felled Adirondack Lumberjacks.
Beyond deep centerfield and its picnic patio, the stadium expanse includes an amphitheater whose angle of vision overlooks centerfield and home plate so far away that even Mark McGwire couldn’t launch one of his steroid-homers to the front row of the theater tiers.  Recognizing the significance of this section of the ballpark’s grounds, a bronze plaque names the area as the Robert E. Meyers Park and publically acknowledges how the facility advances the city’s “parks and recreation” mission: “to enhance the quality of life in Fort Wayne by providing positive opportunities for leisure time, and by being stewards of our parkland facilities, public trees, and other resources placed in our care.” 
The reserved, Treetops section offers rooftop views.
Additional attractive areas of the ballpark resemble other new and theme-oriented stadia. Most notable is the elevated section above the right field concourse and picnic concessions.  But unlike the third-floor bleachers above the restaurant at Huntington Park in Columbus that were also constructed in the style of the summit seats opposite Wrigley Field, the rooftop section at Parkview is reserved for large groups, and its seats are like those at a bistro bar rather than a backless bench.

The TinCaps derive their name from the tin-pan hat that Johnny Appleseed reputedly wore “backwards” as he crossed the upper Midwest planting apple trees in the early nineteenth century.  During his crisscrossing Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, he frequently stopped in Fort Wayne, eventually settling and dying there.  Until the Fort Wayne team’s move to a new ballpark in 2009, it had been known as the Wizards.  But in conjunction with the completion of the new stadium, the team adopted the TinCap signature, an identity deeply rooted in the region.
The enticing waterfall on the rock climbing apparatus feeds
the roots of the apple tree curling around the base.
Throughout the ballpark the apple theme also comes into play.  A large mural of the team’s apple-face logo brands the wall behind the right field, rooftop grandstand named “The Treetops.” In the opposite corner of the ballpark, the rock climbing structure in the kids’ play area features the image of an apple tree on one face that is fed by a waterfall represented on the other side.  Fans can pluck sweet souvenirs from the shelves in the team store called “The Orchard,” and the suite level of exclusive seating is known as J. Chapman, the legal name of Johnny Appleseed.
Apple names also apply to the team’s entertainers and food selections.  The TinCaps’ mascot Johnny roams through the stands personifying the team’s namesake, and the grounds crew known as “The Bad Apples” also regularly gets into the playful act.  Pausing amid their mid-innings raking of the infield dirt, the group of guys mocks Rockettes’ routines.

Since their infield manicure and dance take place between innings, many fans miss their missteps while getting snacks, many of which are apple related.  At several concessions stands, “TinCap” punch and salads can be purchased at multiple stands, and the Apple Cart situated on the concourse near the main entry offers a range of apple-only treats: turnovers and pies, dumplings and wontons, sauce and cider, and of course, caramel and candy-coated fruit. 

I guess that I must have seemed rotten, breaking this apple momentum since I didn’t take photos or record the anthem with my iPhone.
After their tosses, the apple-sweet
sixteen first pitchers leave the field 
During the prolonged, pre-anthem ceremonies that included 16 first pitches (I have seen first innings with fewer tosses to the plate!), I talked with Dominic Latkovski, an entertainer who dons the BirdZerk costume and develops that playful character.  Having been amused by his shenanigans in Louisville—particularly his dancing antics with the first base umpire impersonator and his stolen glove frolic with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre third baseman Kevin Russo—I told him that his skits were the most entertaining baseball routines since Max Patkin’s gags as the Clown Prince of Baseball.  Like Patkin’s parody of players and umpires, BirdZerk’s stunts engage players on the field while lampooning their work.  As we talked about the ball glove sketch, Latkovski let me know that Quad Cities’ first baseman Jonathan Rodriguez would be his partner a few innings later.

While I enjoy the playfulness associated with ballpark names, exhibits, and entertainments like those in Fort Wayne, I am much more of a traditionalist when it comes to performances of the national anthem.  I prefer that “The Star-Spangled Banner” be sung at a crisp tempo and without embellishment so that all might embrace it as our nation’s song, not as an individual’s improvisation.  Simply, I consider the anthem to be somewhat sacred, a hymn of our civil religion.  Even the occasional, dramatic accompaniment of the anthem with fireworks detracts, I think unnecessary, at best, if not fully distracting.  So I was taken a bit aback by the launching of fireworks during the anthem’s phrases about “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.”  The pyrotechnic display seemed to deflect the crowd’s attention from the flag and the words’ historic significance. 

A few innings after I had sung, a woman approached me at the concession stand and said, “Thanks for not doing something crazy.”  I wondered whether she had regarded the fireworks as crazy or coordinated. 
More accustomed to the harmonization between the fireworks with the lyrics, usher Sam Stokes also expressed appreciation for the straightforward rendition of the anthem.  As an elementary school music teacher, he indicated that he wished that fans would routinely join in singing the anthem.  If they had simple choral lessons in grade school, he mused, they would more easily overcome their hesitation about singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which he regarded as a “singable tune, even with its wide range.”  The anthem, he concluded, “brings together the joys of patriotism and singing.”
Charming Asa Eames.
A particular source of joy for me throughout the tour was observing preschoolers during games.  Occasionally, they would pay close attention, watching pitchers wind up and batters swing while they waited expectantly for a foul ball to ricochet their way, as did the little girl in Fort Myers.  More often, they invented their own games, like the enchanting child in Jackson, Tennessee, who climbed through the hand rails as though they were a jungle gym.  And a few, like Samantha in Augusta, drew pictures in a sketchbook or colored portions of a scorecard.  But no child captivated my attention more than four-year-old Asa Eames in Fort Wayne.  His brother Eli—older by three years or so—had been one of the first pitchers preceding the anthem.  That meant that his family’s seats and ours were in adjacent rows. 

When Asa’s father Billy showed him the program blurb about BirdZerk, Asa enthusiastically shared the information with his brother.  Then he turned excitedly to me and, pointing to BirdZerk’s picture, told me that we would see him soon. 
Asa points out the promo about BirdZerk.
Asa and I struck up a conversation about everything—his piece of chicken, his brother’s name, his trip to the game, and so on.  I was further charmed when he set his soda cup in the holder in front of my seat, making it easier for him to turn and sip through the straw without losing his balance by leaning forward.  Of course, it also made it much easier for him to talk with me.  He was happy, uninhibited, and well-mannered, except for not having asked permission to use my cup holder. 
Asa sips his soda.
Following the next inning when BirdZerk started to dance with his partner impersonating the first base umpire, Asa smiled and talked on and on, describing in some detail BirdZerk’s gymnastic display with “the ump.”  A short time later Asa gurgled with laughter when BirdZerk pulled the stolen glove trick with the River Bandits’ first baseman.
BirdZerk elicits enthusiastic participation from Rodriguez at the start of the glove routine.
My delight in chatting with Asa and his family extended beyond our mutual enjoyment of BirdZerk’s entertainment.  On the occasions when I left my seat to buy an apple snack or simply walk the stands, Asa would turn to Bonnie and inquire, “Where did your guy go?” 

Asa won our hearts while the TinCaps surprisingly won the game, especially given their pitching woes and fielding miscues. 
While some of the hometown fans groaned during the TinCaps’ inept defensive play—which included 7 walks, 1 balk, 1 hit batter, 3 wild pitches, 2 passed balls, and 4 errors—they applauded the play of Cory Spangenburg and Wes Covington.  A hot prospect and recent addition to the TinCaps’ roster, Spangenburg collected three hits, doubling his season total in his 10 games, and Covington knocked in six runs, setting a career high.  With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, they combined to produce the winning run: Covington got the walk-off hit, scoring Spangenburg, who had led off the inning with a single.  Final score: Fort Wayne 8, Quad Cities 7.
The afterglow lingers at Parkview Field.

Friday, August 17, 2012

When Indians might not be Indians: Game 73 in Indianapolis

For three consecutive games in Ohio I had sung for minor league teams affiliated with the Cleveland Indians; but none were named the Indians.  In sequence the teams were called the Scrappers, the Captains, and the Clippers.  Yet when I arrived at Victory Field in Indianapolis, the string of the Indians’ non-Indian-named teams took an ironic twist: the Indianapolis Indians haven’t been aligned with Cleveland for more than half a century.  In fact, for only a five-year period since the team’s founding in 1902 have the Indians been associated with the major league team in Cleveland. 
At the entry to the team offices and executive suites, this glove sculpture celebrates 125 of baseball in Indianapolis.
This nominal duplication of a major league team by a minor league team affiliated with another organization is highly unusual. Most frequently, teams either adopt their parent club’s name or identify with a distinctive regional characteristic.  But since 2005, the Indianapolis Indians have been the Triple-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a connection that later in the evening occasioned one of the more serendipitous and delightful encounters with fans during my tour.  
Like the weather the previous day in Columbus, temperatures soared to record levels in central Indiana.  When we arrived at the ballpark a couple of hours before the game, we sought an air conditioned space where we might retreat from the afternoon swelter until game time.  Even the souvenir store didn’t prove too alluring, perhaps because it was named the “Hot Corner Gift Shop.”  Then told that we could not wait in the team offices, we walked across the street to the JW Marriott Hotel. 
The view of Victory Field from the JW Marriott.

 A father assists this young fan
as she dons the promotional T-Shirt.
From our perch there in the Starbuck’s bistro overlooking the centerfield gates to Victory Field, Bonnie and I sipped ice coffees while we watched early fans line up to enter the ballpark and claim their Indians’ T-shirts—the evening's promotional give-away.  Wondering how long it would take some of them to wither in the heat, we overheard a brief heat-exchange between two staffers leaving the hotel.  Looking out onto the crowd waiting to enter the ballpark, one intoned with rising pitch in her voice, “There’s a game tonight?”  To which, the other replied, “It’s too hot for baseball.”
But not for me.  Probably never. 

Even as “there’s no crying in baseball,” there’s no weather too hot for baseball. 
The hottest game for which I ever sang was in Palm Springs, where the Angels’ California League team had operated during until 1993.  Following an afternoon brown-out caused by a transformer overload, the August  temperature had soared to 119 even though by game-time, the official temperature had cooled a bit—to 116.  On the sunny field, however, a thermometer almost burst as it surged a dozen degrees higher. While the heat had been dry in Palm Springs, the humid broil in Indianapolis was comparably uncomfortable since the temperature at dusk in the city officially registered 95 degrees.
Avoiding as much of the scorching heat as possible, we lounged as long as we could in the cool of the Marriott where we discovered that a baseball meeting—the Jerry Maloy Negro Leagues Baseball Research Conference sponsored by the Negro Leagues Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research—was adjourning for the day.  Several of its participants began to make their way past us, proceeding down the escalator, across the street, and through the turn-styles since several of the former Negro League players would be participating in the pre-game ceremonies.  
Several of the Negro League verterans talk about their baseball exploits before the game.
Although I was unfamiliar with the local Negro League veterans who attended the conference and appeared during the pre-game events, I recalled having met Andy Porter, a pitcher for the Indianapolis Clowns, fifteen years earlier when he had spoken at Whittier College for a Black History month celebration.  During their brief membership in the Negro American League, the Clowns won the pennant in 1950, Porter’s final year with the team, and they also became the first professional men’s team to hire a female player, second “baseperson” Toni Stone in 1953.
Accompanying the group of former Negro League players and conference participants to the game was Rebecca Alpert, a friend and author of Outof Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball.  Although I was then unaware of her presence at the game, I learned of the coincidence of our gigs in Indianapolis when, months later, she introduced me as a panelist at a religious studies conference on sports and religion.  That surprise is one of the lagniappe delights that I have experienced in singing the anthem at games throughout the last two decades. Days or even months after several of the Major League games for which I’ve sung, I have occasionally found out that friends attended one of “my” games and shared in the fun of telling seat-mates about their connections with the performer.
Nearing the time for my scheduled re-check-in with the Indians’ in-game staff, I left Bonnie in the comfort of the Marriott to await the arrival of my youngest sister Fan and her son Samuel, both of whom were driving up to join us from their home in Bloomington.  Before the game I also expected to meet Tom Akin, a friend of the organist and choirmaster at Tustin Presbyterian Church where I regularly sing.  Tom is the former tympanist for the Indianapolis Symphony as well as former broadcaster for the Indians’ games.  Familiar with the broadcast booth, its adjoining suites, and the ushers controlling access to the area, Tom later took us to a vacant penthouse where we could view the game in comfort for a few innings.  A more avid and accomplished baseball card collector by far than I, Tom shared his love and lore about the Indians’ history and the city’s ballparks; and I was delighted when he complimented the pace and pitch of my performance.   

Yet the life of a ballpark and the temper of its crowd cannot be fully enjoyed from the isolation of a luxury suite.  So back to the grandstands and their open concourses we went.
The view of the game from our seats with the crowd.
From our seats behind home plate, we enjoyed more facets of a Minor League night: the antics of the mascot, interactions with ushers and fans, the score-keeping of the scouts, and of course, plays of the game.  Most obvious was Rowdie, the Indians’ mascot who played with fans throughout the game, personally interacting in ways that typify a minor league ballpark experience.  After posing for photographs by one ardent fan, he demonstrated a particular nose for the action by displaying a distinct scalping technique of mouthing the head the photographer.

Is Rowdie demonstrating a new scalping technique?

The scout's player notes recorded in Japanese.
As usual, in rows directly behind the backstop a troupe of scouts sat making notes about players, especially two of the Pirates’ highly touted prospects, outfielder Andy Marte and third baseman Pedro Alvarez.  Although we had routinely seen and interacted with scouts at other ballparks, for the first time on the tour we saw one using a different method to keep score, this time in Japanese.   Nearby, we also saw our new friend from Trenton, affable Thunder usher Mike Nolan, whom I had seen the previous day in Columbus.  Mike was making a quick tour of various ballparks in Ohio and Indiana in his years’ long quest to see games in all of the ballparks throughout the country.  In another prime box seat, an indifferent fan—the oxymoron describes her well—seemed oblivious to her whereabouts, trying more to keep up with friends on Facebook than to watch the game, cavort with Rowdie, or mingle with the crowd. 
Perhaps unable to face the game, this bored fan checks Facebook.

With the evening heat continuing to sear our senses, I retreated toward the concession stand to get an icy treat for Bonnie.  En route, Matt Wolfert stopped me to express appreciation for my traditional and enthusiastic performance of the anthem.  As our discussion expanded, our encounter became one of the most felicitous experiences of the summer.  
An associate Athletic Director at Ball State University, Matt was intrigued by the scope of my project of singing the anthem at so many parks throughout the country.  Gesturing to his brothers to join our conversation, he introduced me to Dan and Mike, both of whom also worked in sports management: Dan as the Athletic Director for Yorktown High School near Muncie, and Mike as a sports marketer for IMG College in North Carolina. 
The Wolpert brothers: Dan, Mike, and Matt.
Curious about how I had set up tour, where I’d been, and where I was headed, they focused on the Pirates’ affiliates that fed Indianapolis. In particular, they expressed interest in my experience in the Florida State League.  When I described my process of making initial queries to general managers a year earlier, Dan revealed that he had held that position at Bradenton at that time.  “Did I respond?” he quizzed.  “What did I say?” 
“Yes, I remember your email address and reply,” which I later confirmed with my email records.  “You indicated that it’d work out.”
“I knew that I’d be gone and I’d let others make it happen,” Dan grinned again. 
On my way back to give Bonnie the frozen lemonade dessert, I paused to talk with usher Joe Zaharako, who also expressed appreciation for my unembellished anthem rendition.  As we talked about my tour and our mutual love of baseball, he shared with me his copy of the program from the day’s Negro League conference presentations and invited me to join him the following morning for the final sessions.  Alas, I wouldn’t be able to do so.  We’d need to be on our way to Fort Wayne for the night game there between the Tin Caps and the Quad City River Bandits.

While our eyes and ears often turned and tuned to these genial encounters and subtle observations, the game itself repeatedly reclaimed our attention because of so many “team” efforts, a contrast to the spectacular, individual achievements that thrill the fans.  One of the plays was one that I had never seen.  In the Indians’ second turn at bat, Marte came stepped into the batters’ box with runners on first and second.  When he scalded a ground ball past the pitcher, Rochester’s centerfielder Brandon Roberts, rushed toward the diamond, scooped the ball cleanly, and threw a bullet to the shortstop covering second base to get a force out on the runner sliding into the bag.  What normally would have been a single to centerfield, loading the bases, ended up being a force play at second! 
Less unusual was a pick-off move by Indianapolis pitcher Garrett Olson, although it did catch the runner so far off first base that he fled for second, where he was tagged out by the shortstop on a quick relay from the first baseman.  Another exciting, defensive play demonstrating close teamwork occurred at the plate when Rochester’s third baseman stabbed at a wicked hopper and threw home to nail the Indians’ runner who slide into the sweeping tag by the catcher.  Adding to these collaborative efforts were five double plays: three routinely turned on ground balls, another initiated on a liner caught by the pitcher, and a final one featuring a soft infield fly on a hit-and-run play. Teamwork also typified the offensive efforts for both teams, who successfully layed down three sacrifice bunts and lofted a sacrifice fly.
After Rochester tied the score in the seventh inning, the game went into extra innings.  With two outs in the bottom of the tenth, Indians’ centerfielder Gorkys Hernandez slapped his third hit of the night to right and collected his fourth RBI of the game when Pedro Alvarez slid past the tag of Rochester’s catcher with the winning run on the game’s final play: Indianapolis 5, Rochester 4.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Voyage to Columbus: Game 72 in Columbus

I’m not sure whether Arby felt a kinship with the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria—the pioneering vessels of Columbus; but like them he did encounter a new horizon in a venture associated with Columbus.  By contrast, of course, Arby’s Columbus was hardly personal, merely the capital of Ohio. 
For the first time, Arby went to a ballpark simply because we were on such a tight schedule.  Immediately after breakfast we had left Mansfield, about two hours north of Columbus, and we approached Huntington Park at the time of my scheduled arrival.  We knew that following the mid-day game we would need to drive on to Indianapolis in preparation for the next day’s game.

In its urban setting, the ballpark enjoys more than 14000 parking spaces within a ten minute walk.  Yet  Arby was challenged to find an accessible lot with enough contiguous spaces where he could cool down with Toad in tow.  Regrettably, we did stall traffic for three or four minutes while a parking assistant walkie-talkied for directions to an open, large lot, whose entry required our back-tracking a couple of blocks.  So we paid for three spots—only the second time that we had had to pay for parking at any game—and pulled Arby over the curb, onto the grass, thought the dirt field, and to a spot in a partially shaded area adjacent to the far fence.
Arby waits in a lot near Huntington Park.

From our approach along the street and sidewalk, Huntington Park—built in2009—looked inviting, in a sense by looking backward.  At the main entry a bronze sculpture of Howard Cooper stands tall, seeming ready to make a pitch for Columbus baseball.  The previous ballpark in Columbus had been named for Cooper, a former County Commissioner, general manager of the Columbus team, and president of the International League.   At the foot of Cooper’s statue multiple steles trace the storied, local history of professional baseball, with each of the plaques providing blurbs about the teams in Columbus: the Senators (1900-1930), the Red Birds (1931-1954), the Jets (1955-1970), and the current Clippers (starting in 1977); its Negro League Teams in the early 20th century (the Black Tourists, the Buckeyes, the Keystones, the Turfs, the Blue Birds, and the Elite Giants); and its late 19th-century major league predecessors, the Buckeyes of the International Association and the Reds of the Western League (a team that eventually became the American League’s Cleveland Indians).

Even more pleasant than the ballpark’s foyer of foliage and historical tributes is its stunning design. Along the left-field line a picnic terrace as wide as a throw from third to first is framed by the promise of shade from a few young trees. 
Shade dapples the picnic terrace and the sculpture.
Nearby, the sculpture of an oversized bat, ball, and glove lures young fans to get a feel for the game, and the installation of the victory bell, which had hung at the Clippers’ previous ballpark, reminds everyone of the home team wins that its ring had signaled.  
The Victory Bell also adjoins the picnic terrace.
Beyond left field a multi-purpose, three-story pavilion rises above the bleachers.  From the promenade adjacent to its first level, fans can enter the team store thematically named “Clippers Cargo.” 
The left field pavilion with second story decks and rooftop bleachers.

In the stairwell leading to a second-floor restaurant, color sketches of starting players from select Columbus teams enliven the walls.  The gallery effectively demonstrates the roster of star players who have worn Columbus uniforms, including Don Mattingly and Deion Sanders.

One of the displays on the stairway walls.

So popular that it’s always crowded, the air conditioned restaurant upstairs provides refuge for hundreds from the blistering heat and blinding glare of mid-day sun.  With one side opening onto decks overlooking the field, its opposite wall is decorated with photographs of bygone players, memorabilia from earlier teams, and framed quips and quotes by baseball notables about the game itself.  Jerseys from various teams also hang from the exposed pipes in the ceiling.  And on the open-air floor above the restaurant, a section of bleachers resembles the distinct rooftop seats across the streets from Wrigley Field.
The restaurant with a crowd as thick as its baseball memorabilia.
View of the field from the far side of the restaurant.
Different areas of the ballpark prove equally fascinating to younger fans.  Behind the centerfield fence in a public area accessible from the sidewalk during games, a water fountain draws children to play in its spray, and a perch above the wall in right-center field allows kids to mimic the knot-hole viewers of years long ago.

While kids spash through the water behind the centerfield screen, another peers through the fence in right-center.
On the field players also find the ballpark stimulating—and challenging—with its asymmetrical outfield dimensions and quirky fence.   Extending the power alley in right field, a long bay juts out from the fence line, and a mini-green monster looms above the short warning track along the line in right.   
The little green monster dips deep into right field's power alley.
In addition to these distinctive design elements and ornaments, several other factors contribute to Huntington’s appeal, especially its amenities and its creative array of advertisements, most of which feature historic or playful baseball themes. 
An ad for an early childhood school.

Another promotes hair care products.

What's the score with the Ohio Lottery?

Funds are safe at the Credit Union.

Even the foul pole bears an artistic twist or two.
Fan friendly throughout, the ballpark enjoys wide concourses and a large concession stand set in the round—so that hungry and thirsty folk can approach from any angle while keeping an eye on the field (rather than a TV screen) to keep up with the action.  With food in hand, then, fans can either return to their seats or to one of several open spaces like the sloped lawn where blankets can be spread for lounging, the bar and bistro-style seating in the balconies above the little green monster, or the spacious, covered picnic area deep down the right-field foul line. 

Rarely has a ballpark offered so much.  Because of its dynamic design, its artistic and historic features, its welcoming amenities, and its excellent sight lines of the field, it’s not too surprising that in 2009 Huntington Park was recognized by several publications as the best new ballpark in the country, beating out Yankee Stadium, which also opened that season.   
On the field before the game I sought out Kevin Russo, the third baseman for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.  I wanted to talk with him about his experiencing in dancing with BirdZerk several weeks earlier in Louisville.  (For the complete story, see the blog entry for Game 33 in July 2011.) When I let him know that his acting job had sold me on the stealth of his glove, he smiled.  As we talked further, he acknowledged that he had fun dancing and faking surprise during the routine. 

Nolan reconnects with Krum.
Russo’s teammate Austin Krum also expressed delight when he saw the familiar face of Mike Nolan, the “super usher” from the Trenton Thunder where Krum had played earlier in the season.  Weeks before when I had met Mike in Trenton, he had indicated that his annual journey to select minor league parks would coincide with my schedule in Columbus.  It was fun to see their grinning faces and to hear them talk about their good, good times in Trenton.    

While Mike and Krum reconnected, I was joined near the dugout by Allen Hye, a friend from the Dayton area who had driven up for the game.  About 25 years ago, Allen and I had met when we participated on a baseball panel at a meeting of the Popular Culture Association.  On several occasions in recent years, we have collaborated on several projects: He invited me to lecture at Wright State University, and he published The Great God Baseball: Religion in Baseball Fiction in the series that I edit for Mercer University Press.  Allen had also joined me when I had sung the anthem for the Cincinnati Reds some years earlier.   
A lagniappe joy that I experience when singing at ballparks derives from seeing the expressions of delight on the faces of friends when they accompany me to the field during the pre-game ceremonies.   For many, it is a unique experience, almost like a child being chosen to play a game—with permission—in a sacred place.  As usual, Allen smiled while joining me behind home plate, and he added a different twist to my appearance by taking photographs from atypical angles. 

From Allen's view, the stands appear almost as empty as the dugout during the anthem.

Also unusual for my performance in Columbus was the fact that the staff assistant told me that the anthem should start “precisely” at 12:02 following my brief introduction.  Because the game was being televised as the featured Minor League game of the day, the timing needed to be exact.  The staffer also reminded me that my rendition should last less than 90 seconds.  Of course, that didn’t mean that I would be on camera during that time.  Instead, it assured sufficient time for ads and a prompt beginning of the game’s telecast.
Attendance for the final game between the Yankees’ top farm team and the AAA National Champion Clippers exceeded 7000.  But during the anthem the grandstands looked empty because the official game-time temperature, which was recorded in some undisclosed shady spot, registered in the low 90s.  And in Ohio in July the discomfort level could be more effectively gauged by adding that number to its equal measure of humidity.  Consequently, the bleaching sun and the tacky humidity beat almost everyone into retreat, including Bonnie, who returned to Arby after three innings.  

Sharing our passion for baseball, Allen and I spent the rest of the game exploring various parts of the park, examining the old photos and framed aphorisms in the restaurant, and evaluating the Major League potential of players on the Yankees and Clippers.  Russo already had appeared in more than two dozen games for the parent Yankees during the previous season, and his teammate Greg Golson, who started in centerfield, likewise had played for New York in several games.  The Clippers’ starting lineup similarly included two players who had spent time with the Bronx Bombers: Shelley Duncan, who had clubbed seven homers for them in his initial appearance in the big leagues at season’s end in 2007, and Nick Johnson, who had played extensively for multiple teams during nine seasons in the Major Leagues. 
While we speculated about the performance of several players, I focused on Russo and Krum, wondering how pre-game interactions with fans and friends might affect a player’s performance.  Does it matter if the fans merely exchange pleasantries with the player rather than asking for his autograph?  Does it help or hurt if friends provide encouragement rather than distracting banter?  Does a player perform better when he has been smiling and laughing before a game? 

If we consider the micro-sample of the performance of Russo and Krum in a single game, the answer to the last question would certainly be “yes.”  Russo had three doubles in five at-bats, and Krum went three-for-three with a double.  In short, Russo and Krum were responsible for all of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s runs, knocking in three and scoring the other three in the Yankees’ 6-5 win.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Triple Jumping in Ohio: Game 71 in Lake County

To include as many Ohio teams in my itinerary as possible, I had to execute a triple jump through the state.  In sequence I had agreed to a night game in Niles (where the Mahoning Valley Scrappers make their home), reserved the next evening for Dayton, and planned to hop back to Columbus for the following mid-day start.  But when the Dayton Flyers, who hold the record for most continuous sell-outs, stepped back from their initial willingness to work with me on scheduling and wanted me to participate in their on-field auditions, I skipped them and jumped instead at the chance to include the Lake County Captains in Eastlake, a suburb of Cleveland.  This sequence also would mean that I could mimic the childhood counting song of “One Little, Two Little, Three Little Indians” since Mahoning Valley, Lake County, and Columbus are affiliates of the Cleveland Indians.
However, the distance from Eastlake to Columbus posed a logistical problem: After singing for a night game for the Captains, how could I arrive in Columbus by late morning the following day in time for my check-in?

Throughout the first half of the tour, I had devised and completed a number of jagged routes to Arkansas, through Alabama, and around Massachusetts.  Now I tried to figure out how we could minimize Arby’s expense, work with his pace, and get from Cleveland to Columbus well before noon.  The solution seemed to be to split the distance.
So when we drove out of Niles the morning after Scrappers’ game, we turned south toward Columbus rather than north toward Cleveland, drove three hours over the roughly plowed surfaces of Ohio freeways, and secured a room at a Hampton Inn—now quite familiar—in Mansfield, just 75 miles north of the Columbus ballpark.  Then leaving Arby in the hotel parking lot and Bonnie in the comfort of the room, I boomeranged in Toad up to Eastlake for the early evening game before swinging back to Mansfield a little before midnight. 
Entry to Eastlake's ballpark.
The plaque honoring Moss.
At the entry to the Captains’ ballpark, I found evidence of a conundrum that had gotten resolved when Lake County shifted its alliance to the Midwest League in 2010.  Until then, Lake County had fielded a team in the South Atlantic League.  Only a few miles from Lake Erie, the ballpark in Eastlake is hardly in the South or near the Atlantic shoreline.  Even so, like so many of the other facilities in the SALLY League, the ballpark pays tribute to John Henry Moss, the League’s former president, with a bronze plaque featuring a relief of his bust.  During his fifty years of service in that capacity, Moss led the South Atlantic League and its predecessor, the Western Carolina League, to locate teams in more than forty cities in eight states.   Having provided tallies in both of those counts, the Captains continue to display the plaque even though it does not specify their historic participation in the the South Atlantic League or their “move” to the Midwest. 

Before the game I roamed through the concourses taking pictures of Classic Park’s distinct concessions, exhibits, and architectural elements. Two of the more interesting features that captured my attention were the nautical attire worn by the ushers and the lighthouse rising beyond the centerfield fence. 
The Captains' usher sports nautical attire.
Does the lighthouse signal a homerun?
As playful as these elements were, the Captains’ most innovative feature appeared at the bottom of the erasable, daily line-up board.  Although the posting of the starting line-up is common at ballparks, the creative twist at Lake County was the addition of the QR Codes that could be read by smartphone apps.  
Quick-Read Codes provide access to the Captains' roster and stats.
Missing from this roster, however, was Skipper, the Captains’ mascot.  Like the players, he was willing to sign autographs, even the shirt of a quizzical youngster. 

The young fan seems uncertain about feeling Skipper's signature.

Also meandering through the stands before the game was a fan snapping photos of the ballpark rather than the game.  Armed with a large lens on his Nikon, Ron Vetter (as I later learned his name) seemed similarly fascinated by Classic Park’s design.  Hailing from western New York, he enjoys making excursions to ballparks in the region.  As we shared stories about our baseball adventures, he inquired about my anthem project, and he recalled a few, distinct national anthem performances that he’s heard.  The best, he said, were by Charlie Pride, Mudcat Grant, Tony Tenille in Buffalo, and Josh Groban, whom he heard sing twice on a single day.

First he had seen Groban perform for an afternoon Major League game in Pittsburgh before hearing his anthem coda at a night game for the Washington (Pennsylvania) Wild Things in the independent Frontier League.  Talk about your day-night double headers: That’s a feat that I couldn’t manage to schedule on the tour, even with the night-to-noon sequence between Lake County and Columbus.  Ron also brightened when he related that although he hadn’t heard John Elway sing the national anthem, he had seen him hit a triple while going 2 for 5 when Elway had been a Yankees’ baseball prospect and had played in a game at Batavia.

Overhearing our conversation about anthems at ballparks, usher Bob Dew joined our discussion and indicated that Lake County’s most distinct anthem performances have been on heritage nights when ethnic groups have performed the national anthems of their heritage nations—especially the Italian night—as well as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
When Andrew Grover, the Captains’ staff member who assisted with the anthem, learned of my tour, he asked, “Do they put you up in a hotel?”  “I wish,” I replied.  “Most teams provide free parking along with a couple of tickets to the game.  Otherwise, teams provide few perks.”

Astonished, he snorted, “You really must be a fan!  Where are you going next?”

“To Columbus for a noon game tomorrow.”

“How will you get there in time?  Are you staying for our game?” He continued.  Within the past few days he had attended a ballpark staff conference that Columbus had hosted, and he raved about their stadium, calling it the Trump Tower of minor league facilities.
For my anthem performance at Eastlake I took the field in an unfamiliar position—at the base of the pitcher’s mound.  Immediately after I voiced the “V” in “home of the brave,” Lake County's starting pitcher Cole Cook tapped me on the shoulder, extended his hand, and introduced himself by saying, “My brother attended Whittier College!” 

Regrettably, of course, I couldn’t proceed with questions while he warmed up, nor could I find him after his departure at the end of the fourth inning.  But Ben Hill, who writes a playfully vivid blog for the Minor League Baseball website, had interviewed him a month earlier and learned about his California connections.  Because Cook’s father is a character actor in Hollywood, he had grown up around movie lots, even getting to play inside the brain set on Hermans Head, the FOX sit-com in which his father had filled the recurring role as Genius.  With such routine stimulation, it’s not surprising that he eventually majored in creative writing at Pepperdine.

While I made my way to my seats where long-time friend Jon Moody waited to greet me, I got intercepted by two fans who commented, “Great job, not like some Yahoos.”  A former colleague at Whittier, Jon is an emeritus religious studies professor at nearby Hiram College.  The night before, he and his wife Jane had driven from their home down to Niles for Mahoning Valley’s game during which we struggled to sustain discussions over the blaring music broadcast over the ballpark PA system.  By contrast, thankfully, the Eastlake’s ballpark proved friendly to ongoing conversation. 

I always look forward to talking with Jon since he is so passionate and reflective about his favorite teams and about sports in general.  A life-long Boston fan, he years ago shared with me a story the about the true measures of baseball joy.  As a child his father had given him a baseball that he and his playmates took and hit again and again on rough fields and into streets.  With great delight they played day after day until the scuffed seems gave way and the cover fell off.  Even tattered as a ball, they continued to play with it until it finally dissolved or disappeared. 

A few years later his father told him that he had been given the ball by Babe Ruth.  Telling me the whole story, Jon derived great joy from the fact that the ball had brought such deep delight to so many children for so many games and hours.  Really, what greater connection with the Bambino might the ball have provided than to supply such extensive and enduring baseball pleasure?!     
Seeing a game with Jon is special.  Throughout the evening we talked about our passions for teaching and our fascination with baseball: While we developed a proposal for Jon to return to Whittier to teach a short-term course on comparative ethics, we interspersed our ideas with observations and evaluations about the two levels of play that we had seen on consecutive nights.  Although we couldn’t determine whether the players at Niles were significantly more skilled than those at Eastlake, we did agree that the umpires seemed to be more secure and steady in the Midwest League.  

For the record, the Quad Cities River Bandits didn’t get cooked by the Captains.  Instead, the visitors pounded out 17 hits en route to a 15-3 win over Lake County, which meant, regrettably, that Cole Cook didn’t pass the test that night, giving up four home runs in as many innings.
Still, Jon and I were able to enjoy another night of baseball—watching the game, sharing stories, and completing a trade between our fantasy league teams, a move that buttressed Jon’s position in first place and allowed me to build for the next season.