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.

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