Perhaps Toad (our towed ’95 Saturn sedan) was homesick. Having spent most of his odometer’s 75K miles in and around Whittier, the week in remote New England might have prompted his distress.While corkscrewing up mountain roads in Vermont where Arby could not venture, Toad had begun to fret about feeling feverish. In an effort to cool him down, I had given him a dose of antifreeze and noticed that his fluid looked rusty. At that time I hoped that our use of the air conditioner had really been the cause of his temporary high temperature.
Then with Toad in tow Arby descended from Brattleboro into Massachusetts, and headed east on the Mass Pike to Palmer, continuing on US 20 toward Brimfield where we turned south on state highway 19 to Wales. A month earlier a series of tornadoes, a freakish storm cluster in the Northeast, had swept through the region, leveling homes in Brimfield and cutting a half-mile wide swath through the dense forests along the route to Wales. (The Google Earth images still show the lush forests that stood before the storm scoured the landscape)
|Part of a house hangs from the remains of one of the few surviving trees.|
|Despite the destruction, one homeowner maintained a sense of humor.|
Thankfully, the Oak Haven Campground in Wales had narrowly missed the destructive path of the whirlwinds, and we were able to nestle Arby among several RVs in a forested area. We had planned to anchor Arby for several days in this relatively central location and to use Toad daily to tether out to ballparks a two- or three-hours’ drive away.
En route to the first game in Lowell, however, I began to suspect that Toad’s circulatory problem was more critical than I had perceived on Vermont’s steep slopes. And during the late-night, 90-mile return from Lowell to Arby, I found it necessary to stop twice for coffee and a break—to let the engine cool.The next morning Toad rebuffed the chance to see Manchester, New Hampshire, our itinerary’s farthest point from Southern California. So I dropped Toad off at the D&M Auto Repair on Highway 20 at the eastern edge of Palmer. Because the mechanics wouldn’t be able to complete a circulation diagnosis and radiator flush until the following morning, I faced a big problem: That very evening my one game scheduled in New Hampshire was about 125 miles away. Understanding my predicament, the manager of the shop called a used-car rental operation on the other side of town.
About 45 minutes later, the owner arrived with a wreck rental, which I was delighted to see even though it looked more decrepit than Toad and smelled like a high-school boys’ bathroom—scuzzy and smoky. Yet I couldn’t beat its rental rate—$38.52 for the day—and its availability. I was relieved that it easily ambled along the Mass Pike and the Interstate highways around Worcester, northward through Nashua, and on to Manchester to get me to the game ahead of schedule. Later, of course, I was equally pleased that, battling inclement weather and running well past its normal curfew, the car had behaved respectably during our safe return to Wales.
Having rented the car to keep on schedule, I worried when we arrived in Manchester that the darkening sky might forebode thunderstorms. As the pre-game ceremonies started, deafening approached from above, but they weren’t the reverberations of thunderclaps. They were the engine roar of a flyover, not by an Air Force squadron or Navy fighter timed to coincide with the final strains of the anthem, but by a UPS transport altering its final approach into the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in order to circumvent the threatening thunderheads.
|The storm approaches during final pre-game preparations.|
Unlike other ballparks on the tour, the Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, which was home to the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, cordoned off an area for pre-game participants. Was the rope there to prevent us from straying toward the field? Was its purpose to keep us clustered together so that we could be efficiently sequenced for our respective turns to sing the anthem, toss out the first pitch, and say, “Play ball”?
|In the cordoned area, theTooth Fairy crouches to assist the girl awaiting her turn|
Or, perhaps, its function was to discourage players from approaching the staff intern dressed as the tooth fairy.
|The players crown above the Tooth Fairy, who remains separated from them by the chain.|
At some of the ballparks where fans occasionally remained seated during the national anthem, I could often see others continuing to talk while I sang. But in Manchester, I enjoyed a different experience. Beyond the warning track and wall in left-centerfield, a Hilton Hotel rose higher than the grandstands behind home plate. In many respects, it resembled—at least in concept—the integration of the Renaissance Toronto Hotel into the design of the Blue Jays’ SkyDome, as that ballpark was initially known. In Manchester, the Hilton Garden Inn’s terrace adjoined the fence, faced the ballpark, and featured table umbrellas to shield guests from the shriek of the sun more than the splash of rain, all the while enabling patrons to enjoy bleacher views of the ballgame. As I began to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I noticed that the Hilton’s guests stood at their tables and faced the flag waving beneath the left-field light standard.
|Diners on the Hilton's terrace stood for the game's national anthem.|
Although the ballpark’s Chowdah House seemed more enticing than most ballpark concessions since New Orleans, I resisted the temptation to order its chowder or lobster roll, waiting instead to dine at Republic following several innings of the game. Our opportunity to eat there, where local farms, dairies, and fish suppliers are featured, came sooner than expected.
In the second inning, rain delayed the game for about an hour, during which I huddled on the first-base concourse with Brian Moynahan, a blogger for the Bus Leagues Baseball site. He and two of his colleagues had contacted me about conducting an interview about the anthem tour. Regrettably, I was not as clearly focused or articulate as I would like to have been, partly because of the distractions of the crowd crushing toward us during the rain delay and partly because of the loud entertainment that blared over the loudspeakers throughout our conversation. Nonetheless, we completed the interview before watching the grounds crew remove the tarp from the field.In the next inning, New Britain scored a run without a hit. Its second batter reached base on a fielding error—a sloppy throw by the third baseman that allowed the hitter to reach first safely and advance to second. (Did the wet infield cause the fielder to lose his grip on ball, permitting it to sail past the first baseman?) Moments later, the pitcher also lost his grip, or perhaps his release point, and threw a wild pitch, allowing the runner to advance to third. (Did the ball get wet and cause the Fisher Cats’ ace to lose control, or did the rain delay adversely affect his delivery?) Whatever the case, when the downpour resumed in the middle of the third inning, play got halted (and eventually suspended), and Bonnie and I left for Republic and its delectable array.
Although I had already experienced rain-delays on multiple occasions and although I had suffered a soggy cancellation at Potomac (as I would again two nights later in New Britain), this game—the farthest from home in Whittier—was the only one throughout the tour that got suspended: New Britain 1, New Hampshire 0, middle of the third inning.