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.




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