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.

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