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.

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