Thursday, July 26, 2012

Featuring a Different Ball: Game 69 in Jamestown

Outside the front gates of seventy-year old Diethrick Park in Jamestown, New York, a historic marker pays general tribute to Baseball—its players and fans.  Yet the community in this grape-growing region of the state more specifically and significantly celebrates its love for a different a Ball: The town is the home of comedienne Lucille Ball.   And if Lucy herself wasn’t one for the birds, the other famous former citizen of Jamestown was—Roger Tory Peterson, the popular ornithologist who published guidebooks for birdwatchers.
Inside the ballpark one of the signs on the left-field wall publicized the upcoming centennial celebration of Lucy’s birth, an event that would attract to a lone place a world record number of Lucy impersonators aflame with red hair and thick lipstick.  I know that almost everyone loved Lucy; but a hundred impersonators at a single event might be too many for even re-run TV networks to enjoy.

Lucy Fest was scheduled for the first week in August.
However, the comic spirit might come naturally to the Jamestown Jammers and their fans.  With a name that conjures up flavors of the fruity spread for toast, the team personifies its logo by placing a face on a cluster of grapes, and it calls its mascot “Bubba, the Grape Ape.”  That playful spirit prompts creative expressions by the fans, demonstrated by one small girl dressed in pink who, after hugging the big Jammers’ Bubba, turned to her mother and asked, “What color bananas does Bubba eat since he’s purple?”  I grinned at this budding Lucille Ball! 
Getting a grape hug from Bubba.
The young girl was ready to take the stage, not at a comedy club but on the field with the other children participants in the pre-game “Dream Team” that accompanies Jammers to their respective starting positions.  Obviously already dreaming of his professional possibilities, one small member of the Dream Team bent down to touch the rubber as he crossed the mound on his way to his second baseman position.  Did he perform this ritual act routinely in his Little League games, or was his gesture the response to some dare from a father or teammate?
Holding the hand of her "little bubba," the embracer of Bubba Grape listens to instructions about pre-game activities.
While these images and actions provoked me to smile, I did not otherwise enjoy my experience at Jamestown.  When I had checked into the ballpark as the anthem singer, the staffer asked me what my name was, not for the purpose of verification but for the purpose of knowing whom to present.  Minutes later, the PA announcer identified me simply as “Joe Price.”  Miffed by the minimal, impersonal character of the introduction, I sensed that they might as well have mocked Ed McMahon on The Tonight Show, “Here’s Joe!”  

Although I was disappointed with the introduction at Jamestown, I realized that their inattentiveness wasn’t a personal slight.  The staffer who had met me upon arrival was consistently careless.  She spent much of the pre-game period complaining about kids who show up late and still ask to participate in one of the “in-game” entertainments.  She hadn’t selected someone to throw out the first pitch until three minutes before the ceremony, nor had she secured a player to sign the bat that would be given to the “fan of the game.”  And once he agreed to sign, she turned to another player and asked, “What’s his name?” 

"What's his name?" paints his shoes to complte his game preparation.
For the record, the game itself seemed unremarkable, other than eleven runs, twenty hits, and five errors.  Jamestown beat the Mahoning Valley Scrappers 6-5, coming from behind with three runs in the seventh and, despite an error advancing a runner to third with two outs in the ninth, holding off the visitors for the victory.

Although I was disappointed in the overall Jammers’ experience, I loved being in western New York.  Earlier in the day we had explored the Amish country near the Village of Randolph, where we had anchored Arby in the Pope Haven Campground for a couple of days coinciding with my singing in Erie and Jamestown. During the morning we had meandered in Toad on back roads past family farms, each offering different items such as lawn harnesses or buggy wheels, cedar chests or hickory rockers, bird houses or wicker works; products in iron, tin, leather, and wood; as well as women’s handiworks in rugs and quilts and baskets and, of course, pastries, pies, and canned goods. 

Lured by the simple sign “Hill Top Toy Shop,” we stopped at Dan Raber’s workshop where he designed and supervised the construction of wooden toys.  To our surprise, when we entered we could hear and see craftsmen working with power tools in an adjacent room.  How could these Amish artisans use power saws without electricity?  After generations of the Amish requiring that  their craftwork be hand-tooled, this western New York community had begun to allow generators to power some tools used for making initial cuts as long as the finishing touches would be completed by hand.  While we looked over toys and other items on display, one of the customers rocked back and forth on a rope-hung horse swing in the middle of the shop, and two friendly dogs nuzzled Bonnie and me, encouraging us to pet them.   It’s reassuring that good old dogs can bridge both cultures and generations.
Shortly after leaving the toy shop, we pulled into a neighbor’s place to see his ironwork before we headed to a younger Raber’s shed to admire the simple designs, fine woods, tight joints, and lustrous finishes on his furniture.  If only Arby could have opened wide enough to carry a chest, we would have bought and boarded a bureau!  

In our interactions with the Amish, two of their particular products intrigued me since they seemed incongruous with my understanding of an Amish lifestyle.  At the toy shop we saw a bin full of clothespin-loaded, rubber band guns selling for $2.50.  Not only was I confounded by the fact that gun culture was being marketed to children by pacifists, I also wondered how many mothers, in response to their young sons’ fondling of the toy, had repeated Santa’s line of “maternal worry” uttered to Richie in A Christmas Story: Not a chance, kid.  “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
The other befuddling item we found in a leather shop where belts could be punched and custom cut to fit.  The sale of belts seemed to mismatch Amish ways since Amish men only wear suspenders.  Impressed by this irony and concerned that I needed to tighten my belt both physically and metaphorically, I bought two of the tooled black straps and wore one daily during the last six weeks of the trip.

Having paid for the belts with the remaining bills and coins in my pockets, we needed to find an ATM to replenish our cash.  Looking at the map Bonnie saw that the nearest town was Dayton, toward which she directed me along rural roads through fields and fields of flourishing, sun-drenched crops.
A half-hour later as hunger started to gnaw at us, we drove into the charming community—no traffic lights, no fast-food restaurants, no national hardware stores.  What we found was diagonal, unmetered parking in front of the Jenny Lee Country Store and the County Bank of Cattaraugus, where two tellers behind an open counter pleasantly greeted me.  When I asked about where I could access an ATM, they directed me to the only one in town, two blocks south, inside the South Dayton Super 303 grocery store.  Finding the machine, I inserted my card, punched in numbers, and got crisp twenty-dollar bills.  Now reloaded with these yuppie food coupons, as my younger son calls ATM dispersals, we returned to the same parking spot in front of Jenny Lee and went inside for hot meat loaf sandwiches.  

Resuming our wandering through the countryside after lunch, we discovered a world-class quilt shop run by Elizabeth Wengerd and assisted by six year-old Amanda, one of her 28 grandchildren.  Although Amanda responded to our smiles and facial expressions, she did not understand our words since German is the language spoken in Amish homes.   Elizabeth explained that Amish children begin to study English when they enter their schools, which continue through grade 8.  Typically then, the boys begin to apprentice within their extended family or community while the girls focus on improving their craftworking and homemaking skills.  As we talked with Elizabeth and admired her handiwork, Amanda joined her in turning back the stack of quilts. 
On a wall-map of the world close by, push-pins located the hometowns of quilt purchasers, and Bonnie showed Amanda that we lived near the cluster of customers whose location was in Los Angeles.  California's far away,” Elizabeth translated into German.  So far, in fact, that she wondered how many days it had taken us to drive across country.   (I'm not sure that Toad looked any more comfortable than the buggies in which she often rode.)  Learning of our circuitous route, she then asked why we had come to the area. 
“To sing tonight in Jamestown,” I replied.  “At the baseball game,” Bonnie added.  “He’s singing the national anthem at ballparks throughout America.”  
Now I wondered how she might respond, especially since non-Amish farmers throughout the area often distinguished their identity by painting American flags on the road-side of their barns.  But as we left, Elizabeth simply said, “Sing tonight for me.” 
And I did, still mystified by her polite expression of patriotism, Raber's power tools, and the belt snugged against my waist. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

An Erie Birthday: Game 68 in Erie

In Amish country near Randolph, New York, I awoke on my birthday thinking about baseball and birthdays while I planned a scenic route for the drive in Toad to Erie for an afternoon game between the SeaWolves and the Altoona Curve.  As a child my birthday celebrations had featured trips to St. Louis, where I saw Musial hit a homerun, and Chicago, where Mantle and Maris homered in two games in their record-smashing summer of 1961.  For another birthday during the lean years of grad school, Bonnie had bought box seats for a game again between the Yankees and White Sox.  And, of course, throughout their childhood years my sons had found that mid-summer baseball gifts—caps and shirts and license plate holders and autographed balls—would bring me certain delight.

In a distinct way my birthday had already proved pivotal for my anthem tour.  A year earlier when I had sent out my requests to teams for pre-approval to sing the anthem, I had included a link to a streaming video of me singing for a game between the Rockies and Reds in Cincinnati on my birthday several years earlier.   Like that day in Southern Ohio, this sunny birthday in Erie would be a scorcher, with the temperature in the shade—if any could be found—settling in the 90s and the humidity level, well, next to the Great Lake, don’t bother to measure it.   

In most of the grandstands and on the field, of course, the sun proved tenacious, blistering fans and fielders alike.  Although I try to be cool when I sing the anthem a cappella, intense heat vies to accompany my performances.  Already on the tour Bonnie and I had encountered record high temperatures in Texas, Tennessee, and Alabama, and within the next few days and weeks we would continue to swelter through another record-setting heat wave sweating its way slowly across the Midwest.  Even so, Erie’s singeing afternoon could not match the on-field temperature on my birthday in Southern Ohio some years earlier.  Then on the artificial turf at Riverfront Stadium, the game-time temperature had crested above 120 degrees, a few degrees cooler, believe it or not, than two days before when a thermometer on field had registered more than 130.  A vivid series of non-anthem images comes to mind when I recall that afternoon.  After the fifth inning the batboys took a liter of water to each of the umpires.   Standing behind second base, one ump quickly guzzled a portion, then removed his cap and splashed a little on his hair, and finally poured the last half of the bottle in a circle around his feet, letting the immediate evaporation cool his cramping legs.

In Cincinnati, I had been offered a chance to view the game from an air conditioned suite where my college alumni group was holding a reception.  Yet in Erie the only shade and breeze that we could find was in the row of seats in front of the open broadcasters’ window, through which we could faintly feel the wafting of his words past our ears.  So there we sat in semi-shade for several innings, enjoying his play-by-play descriptions and color commentary, and imagining how we might have differently filled the long pauses interspersed with action on the field.

Despite the scalding heat at birthday baseball games, my anthem performances were well received.  As in Cincinnati, the Erie team provided me with a video of my performance, only the third ballpark on the tour where I had received a DVD of my rendition.  The first had been in Frisco, Texas, and the next in Winston-Salem.  In both of those cities new ballparks relished the chance to utilize their sophisticated recording systems.  By contrast, Erie’s Jerry Uht Park seemed to emit aromas of history.  So I was surprised at the stellar quality of the video and sound systems, as well as the all-star caliber tech crew at this urban ballpark, not simply because they recorded my performance but also because they personalized my introduction with comments about my making a national tour and celebrating a birthday.

Politely, the crowd preceded my rendition with applause, and following my straightforward presentation of the anthem two fans approached me, one with the familiar expression of appreciation that I had sung it as written and another with terse praise: “You did a damn good job.  That’s a hard song to sing.”
The sense of history that fans get at “the Uht,” as the SeaWolves’ ballpark is familiarly known, derives in part from its memorials, its simplicity, and its street placement in an established neighborhood.  Constructed in 1995 and renovated about a decade later, the ballpark celebrates civic leadership and baseball achievements rather than corporate sponsorship.  The ballpark did not auction naming rights to local enterprises or corporations.  Adhering to an older tradition, it preferred to be named for a long-time area resident who had established an endowment with the Erie Community Foundation for the maintenance of the ballpark and support of its operations.
The Uht's urban setting bounded by commercial buildings behind third...

... and an established residential area beyond left field.

In addition to its recognition of Uht, the ballpark also achieves a personal sense of history by displaying bronze steles of former Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey, who was instrumental in securing funding for the ballpark’s construction; Dick Agresti, who was the founder of Erie’s Boys Baseball, for which he built fields and organized volunteers to enrich the lives of the areas youth; and Mike Cannavino, who was a mid 19th-century city council member responsible for saving the Erie Sailors (the SeaWolves’ predecessor) for the city. 
Jethroe's plaque.
The other historic plaque honors Sam “the Jet” Jethroe, a notable Major Leaguer who began to play baseball in Erie following his professional career.   After achieving stardom in the Negro Leagues where he won two batting titles, Jethroe became the first African-American to play for a Boston team, breaking the color line in Beantown when he won the Rookie-of-the-Year award in 1950 for the Boston Braves.  That year, he also led the National League in stolen bases, and for three years he roamed centerfield before the Braves departed for Milwaukee.  For most of the rest of the decade, he played in the International League before retiring and settling in Erie.  While employed in a factory there, he resumed playing baseball in the Glenwood League, Erie’s prominent amateur league that has operated as a wooden-bat league for most of a century.

Jethroe’s number 5 is also one of only two displayed on the outfield wall.  When I saw the baseball with his name and number, I asked a staffer who he was and why he was associated with Erie.  She didn’t know but suggested that the memorial was from long ago.  (I discovered Jethroe’s identity a few innings later when I photographed the series of plaques in the undercroft of grandstands.)  The other honored number in left field is uniform, Jackie Robinson’s 42—uniform both in the sense that it was the numeral on his jersey, and uniform in the sense that it is the single number retired throughout the Major and Minor leagues.  Curiously then, the only honored numbers at Erie are for former Negro League stars who became Major League pioneers yet who never played for an Erie professional team.
The outfield numbers of Robinson and Jethroe.

Even though kids at a 21st century ballpark might not seem to be drawn to history and its traditional practices, the children at Erie this afternoon enjoyed their time at “the Uht” in old-fashioned ways.  Without the lure of techno-pitches and swings  or the chance to careen off the walls of bouncy rooms, they anticipated foul balls with eyes glued toward home and gloves poised, and later they lined up for the simplicity of a run from the centerfield fence across the first base line during a between-inning dash known as  “Kids’ Stampede.”
Kids ready to catch a foul ball.

Kids stampede across the outfield between innings.

There is also other, hidden evidence at the ballpark that contributes to its historic aura: its left field foul pole.  Routinely at ballparks, I tried to take a photograph looking from a foul pole down the line to home plate.  That perspective occasionally provided distinct pictures.  When looking at the shot that I had taken from beyond the left field fence at “the Uht,” I discovered that rusty holes had pocked the pole as though it had endured more than twenty winters.  I also saw a fascinating difference in the construction of the pole: a gap of six to eight inches extends above the fence and below the “fair screen,” which aids umpires in making the right call of “homerun” or “foul” on long drives that clear the fence.  I wondered if a ball had ever been hit through the gap, avoiding hitting the screen and causing an ump to call a homerun “foul”!
The rusty view through the gap of the left field foul pole.

I wouldn’t be so lucky that afternoon to witness such a rare feat, even though Diek Scram did hit a homer for the SeaWolves in their 9-3 victory over the Curve.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

An Ironic and Elegant Sty: Game 67 in Lehigh Valley

I love teams and ballparks that display a sense of humor like the Lehigh Valley IronPigs who make their home at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania. 

When I had first seen the team’s logo of a steely-faced boar, I had assumed that the name IronPigs suggested the character of the baseball team—that it plays with a kind of pig-headed determination.  Yet the team’s name really derives from the region’s primary industry.   Pig irons are smelted ingots produced in the process of refining steel, and the steel workers in Eastern Pennsylvania who produce the bars of pig iron are themselves often called “iron pigs.” 

Ballpark references to the region’s dominant industry also extend to the names of the team mascots, Ferrous and FeFe.  Certainly the pair must be male and female representatives of their fuzzy species, for “Ferrous” connotes a male creature with iron strength (even if not the man of steel himself, Superman), and “FeFe” playfully fuses the effete pet name Fifi with the chemical symbol for iron, Fe.
A young fan gets her shirt autographed by Ferrous

While “iron pigs” refers to a by-product of local industry, the team nonetheless puns its name with porcine images and labels throughout the ballpark.  Posted at the entry are signs displaying ballpark rules and decorum—what’s not permitted inside the stadium, like chairs and coolers, “outside” food and drinks, as well as pets, except for service dogs.  Oddly, then, the final order to fans is, perhaps, to forego decorum and to “Go Hog Wild!”  

As they enter the concourse, fans can pick up free copies of the program—“Pork Illustrated,” whose lettering resembles the font and format of the banner of the iconic magazine Sports Illustrated.  Not only does the “I” in “Illustrated” feature a swine’s swirling tail, it also represents the iron ingots produced in steel refining. 

Immediately past this trough filled with information for fans’ consumption is an “IronPiggy Bank” emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo.  Painted annually from a winning design submitted by a child (this year, there were more than 2000 entries), the big piggy invites donations and raises awareness of IronPigs Charities presented by the Air Products Foundation.  With a mission to provide educational and recreational opportunities for youth in the region, IronPigs Charities collected and distributed a record total of more than $106,000 in 2011 despite the economic woes that affected the Lehigh Valley.  Recipients of awards ranged from a local school system, Boys and Girls Clubs, churches with sports teams and leagues, a community bicycling group, and the area’s Special Olympics. 

While most of the funds were raised from a golf tournament, a winter banquet accompanied by silent auctions and a bat raffle, and a mid-season luncheon with manager Ryne Sandberg and several players—a luncheon that coincidentally had taken place a few hours before my appearance for the anthem— the IronPiggy Bank also proved to be effective in encouraging fan participation in the charitable efforts.  On average, about $10 in loose change was slipped into IronPiggy’s slot at each home game.  And the ban on pets at the ballpark is lifted each summer on two evenings when dogs are welcomed, on leash with the purchase of a one-dollar ticket whose proceeds go to IronPigs Charities.  During the 2011 more than $700 was collected in this way for distribution to the Animal Food Bank and the Center for Animal Health and Welfare.
A young fan gets extra luck by kissing IronPiggy.
Part of the charm associated with IronPiggy is its playful solicitation “that good fortune goes to ye who feed me change and then rub my nose.”   So if feeding the IronPiggy and rubbing its nose might bring good luck, then what greater benefit might come from kissing its snout?

As one might expect, food stands easily played with the piggish theme.  One of the permanent concessions was known as Pig Out, and a temporary tent offered pulled pork.  Although the Philadelphia Pretzel Factory didn’t offer a bacon infused treat, it did exhibit a playful spirit, naming its pretzel bits for one of the products associated with the steel industry.  The box of bites was called “rivets.” 

While a whimsical spirit characterized the young ballpark, it was also distinguished by its architectural design, which provided superb sight lines throughout the stands and wide concourses.  In 2008 Baseball Digest had recognized Coca-Cola Park as an ironic and elegant sty, naming it the Ballpark of the Year.  One of the artistic—and playful—facets in its design is the scoreboard, which features a gigantic Coca-Cola bottle “Roman candle” that fizzes with fireworks when an IronPig hits a homerun.  

Other sportive artistic expressions could be found at the main gate, where the sidewalk welcomes fans to traverse a giant baseball with red-brick seams, and next to the doors to the executive offices.  There, an eight-foot IronPigs bat abuts the coin-operated newspaper stand was shaped like a baseball. 

As distinct as these features were at Lehigh Valley, the ballpark shares with most other minor league ballparks the intimate contact between its seats and the field, between the fans and the players.  And like many other stadiums, Coca-Cola Park touts scores of advertisers on outfield fences.   At few other ballparks that I visited, however, were there more than the 76 billboards on the fences in Allentown. 
From afar, right field appears to be a commerical mosaic.

Since the ballpark was otherwise so inviting and the team was playing so well, it’s not surprising that during the 2011 season attendance at Coca-Cola Park topped that at all other minor league venues.  And with the IronPigs enjoying the best record in the International League and with a double-header this evening because of a rain-out that had occurred during the opening week of the season, 10000 fans flooded to the ballpark, about ten percent more than the year’s average attendance. 
Even the terrace seating was filled to capacity.

While the crowd was among the largest that I encountered during the summer, so too was the number of “first pitches” that were thrown: 16!  I have seen first innings with fewer pitches than the number of first pitches that were tossed that evening.  And despite the outstanding architectural features and the multiple forms of entertaining at ballpark, the delay in the sound system was among the most challenging that I encountered.  Even so, as I left the ballpark, a woman clasped my arm, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Thanks for not making it a funeral dirge like so many.”

The seven-inning contest, the normal length of games in AAA double-headers, was distinct in a couple of ways.  With Syracuse leading by two runs in the bottom of the fifth inning, Jeff Larish took a lead off second, rounded third on a single to left field, and collided with the catcher as slid into home.  Not only was he out at the plate, he also was out for the season, suffering compound fracture of his right leg that required stabilization before he was carried off the field. 
With his leg immobilized, Larish is carried off the field.
After Syracuse tallied another run in the top of the sixth, the IronPigs finally scored in their half of the inning when Brandon Moss hammered a two-run homer to right center field, prompting the Coke bottle atop the scoreboard to blast off its fireworks.  Following Moss’s blast, Josh Wilkie relieved the starting pitcher and smelted the final four IronPigs, striking out three of them to secure the victory for the visiting Chiefs 3-2.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Goulden Recess between Games 66 and 67

After a week of bungeeing out in Toad from Wales to ballparks in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island, I looked forward to two unscheduled days that Bonnie and I could spend with her friends Pam and Bill Johnson in their home in the Berkshires.  Months earlier when I had been developing possible itineraries and scheduling the anthem performances, I had bemoaned the fact that, during my stay in the area, I couldn’t coordinate my schedule with home dates for the Portland Sea Dogs in Maine or the independent minor league team close by in Pittsfield, which recently had restored one of the oldest ballparks in the country.  Yet at that time my colleague Charles Adams had cautioned me about compacting my schedule, suggesting that I’d benefit from a few days off now and then, here and there. 

Then, I had scoffed at the idea of needing a break.  Now, as I returned to the Johnson’s home in Monterey, Massachusetts, following the evening game in Troy, New York, I reveled in the prospect of a respite from daily driving and interacting at ballparks.  I lowered the windows in Toad and let the cool night air blow freshly across my forehead and through my mind, and I savored the picnic supper that Pam had packed for me a few hours earlier. Although I couldn’t see the salad in the dark while I was driving, I enjoyed feeling the texture of the lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, and pepita seeds as I fingered bites to my mouth.  I followed this first course with a marinated chicken breast, amazingly moist despite having been chilled for a few hours.  And then there was fruit—sticky and delicious chunks of melons and berries.  Only recently had I met Pam and Bill, and I already thought of her as my newest friend, someone who sensed my needs and tastes.
Bill and Pam Johnson
When I entered the Johnson’s house shortly before midnight, Bonnie and Pam were catching up on their mutual interests in art and gardening and literature.  Among her many talents Pam is an accomplished fabric artist whose primary medium is quilting.  The design of two of her pieces hanging in the house rivaled award-winning quilts on exhibit at the National Quilting Museum, which we had visited si weeks earlier during our stay in western Kentucky.

Meanwhile, Bill offered me a chance to be soothed and stimulated simultaneously by listening to one of Dvorak’s symphonies on his theatrical sound system while we sipped a night-cap and shared perspectives about our professions, mine in academics and his in corporate leadership.  Initially he had served as an executive in the computing industry, and recently he had assumed the role of Executive Director of Gould Farm, a residential therapeutic community located nearby.
Tired though I was, I was enthralled by his characterization of the mission and therapy afforded by Gould Farm, which was founded a century ago to provide a radical alternative to the treatment of persons suffering from mental instability and illness.  Even more than my fascination with Bill’s enthusiastic description of the program and several of its recent successes, I sensed a moral integrity in Gould Farm’s distinct, restorative method, which offers guests (as its participants are called) an opportunity to pursue mental health by engaging in meaningful agricultural teamwork, individual counseling, respectful relationships, and a healthy diet—all in the context of a supportive community that provides ongoing encouragement and progressive levels of independence.
Bill identifies various rounds of cheeses.

Two days later Bonnie and I walked through a pasture on the 650-acres of Gould Farm, toured its dairy and cheese production facility, and saw and smelled its goats and chickens and cows.  In addition to the guests gaining familiarity with daily dairy chores, they regularly harvest sap and refine maple syrup, bake breads and pastries, and blend granola, all of which can be purchased by the public at the Farm’s Roadside Store and Café along Route 23. On our return to the Johnsons’ house we stopped there to replenish Arby’s cereal supplies with a bag of the granola, which didn’t last long.  Bonnie claimed that it was “that good.”

During much of the two days that we spent with the Johnsons, I enjoyed the freedom to write in a refreshing retreat in Bill’s study that overlooks the wooded hillside sloping down from their house to the lake. Not only was the setting spectacular, but the Internet access was uninterrupted! 

A restful spot at the Johnsons'.
Yet my writing and walking through their lush gardens and surrounding woods were interrupted when Arby begged for special attention. Because the Johnsons’ driveway is so steep and twisted, Pam had arranged for us to park Arby near a neighbor’s house.  But when we learned that workmen needed access past Arby, I went to move it and discovered a red oil leak near the right front tire.  Ugh!  Fingering the wet spill and fearing a transmission malfunction, I gingerly drove Arby to a truck repair shop in Lee, where mechanics easily and efficiently replaced the cracked hydrolytic line controlling the right front automatic leveler. 

Even the frustration of this vehicular problem could not dim the deep refreshment of our visit.  The Johnsons engaged us with stimulating conversation, inspired us with their commitments to Gould Farm, and served incredible meals.  Turning her artistic skills to the culinary medium, Pam created amazing salads with fresh produce and cheeses from Gould Farm, and she baked a delectable fig torte garnished with fresh raspberries.  I was convinced that she could compete with the Iron Chefs.  Taking on the air of one of the show's judges, I imagined myself describing the presentation and taste of her creations: “The salads blended the artistries of Brahms and Baryshnikov,” I would begin, “by permitting the béchamel sauce to lift and twist the harmonic flavors of the chilled shrimp, fresh greens, and blanched asparagus beyond two octaves.”  
Pam's elegant shrimp, asparagus, and mango salad.

Pam adds the final raspberries to the fresh fig torte.
But unlike the food judges who sit conference style at a table under floodlights, we enjoyed the ambiance of an elegant table situated on the porch beneath towering trees and set with colorful china. 
Pam and Bonnie toast friendship, our meal, and the refreshing view.
Then in preparation for our final evening meal, Bill took Bonnie to the fresh fish market in Stockbridge to pick up live lobsters, which sloshed in the bucket that Bonnie stabilized during the return drive.  I do believe that my lobster must have weighed more than three pounds, and I savored the experience for the rest of the month.
Bill serves Pam one of the lobsters.
Nourished by the Johnsons’ friendship and hospitality, Bonnie and I descended the mountain from Monterey, slowed to avoid a speed trap in Tyringham, and made our way back to Lee to access the Mass Pike and aim along the New York Thruway toward Allentown, Pennsylvania, for a double-header that night between the Syracuse Chiefs and the host Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Nursery Rhyming Ironbirds: Game 66 in Tri-City

At Tri-City in New York, the words of a different song threatened the familiar strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Lines from a nursery rhyme—“Four and Twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”—kept humming through my mind because the ValleyCats’ opponent that evening was the four and twenty Ironbirds from Aberdeen.  Not that their roster was comprised of twenty-four players: their record stood at a dismal four wins and twenty losses! 

Named the Ironbirds because of their affiliation with Baltimore and their ownership group headed by Cal Ripken, himself the iron Oriole, the team from Maryland began the game watching the ball spray beside the plate like buck shot. The leadoff batter was hit by a pitch and scored on a wild pitch later in the inning.  And that run would prove decisive for the tin-foil birds as they would hold on for a 7-6 victory over the ValleyCats who, despite a losing record of their own, had been favored to win as the NYP League’s defending champion.
The NYP League Trophy on display.

Before the game, I assured the ValleyCats’ manager that my anthem renditions did not produce bad luck for his team.  When Tri-City had played at Burlington, Vermont a week earlier, they had lost the game when a rally was ignited in the bottom of the ninth when their catcher dropped a third strike.  Days later, when I had seen them play in Wappingers Falls, New York, they had lost to their Hudson River rivals when, again in their opponents’ final at-bat (this time, in the tenth), the ValleyCats’ reliever unleashed a wild pitch that brought the winning run home: a walk-off wild one. 

When I told the ValleyCats’ manager Stubby Clapp, “Really, I’m not a jinx.  You’ll win tonight,” he responded in playful kind: “What’s your number?  If we win you’re coming back.”  So I quickly handed him my card. 

It’s no wonder that he was superstitiously searching for any answer to improve his team's performance.  At that point in the season, the ValleyCats were four games under .500.  Three of his starting players were hitting below .150, and one a paltry .040!  Alas: not even the launch of distracting fireworks during the anthem’s phrase about “the bombs bursting in air” would turn the fortunes of Tri-City.  For the third time in less than a fortnight with me singing, the ValleyCats would lose by a single run.

Our interchange anticipated my interaction with the sports reporter for News 13, one of the TV channels in the Albany area that had sent a film crew to the game.  While I had been singing the anthem and thinking “A Song of Six-Pence,” I had noticed that there were five TV cameras positioned on the media pad at the concourse level behind home plate.  So when I moved to my box seat during the early innings of the game, I asked the sports anchor why there was so much attention on the game between two losing teams.  I wondered if a recent high draft choice had signed and were making his professional debut.  Not the case.  “Simple,” the reporter said.  “It’s a slow Monday sports night.”
TV cameras prepare to capture home team highlights, perhaps.
Immediately, I handed him my anthem tour business card, described my project, and suggested that he had a distinct story to tell, leading it off by playing a phrase or two of me singing.  “Wow!  I didn’t run the tape then,” he responded.  “Tell me ahead next time.”  Right!  As though there might be a next time for me, a Californian in Troy, New York!  Regrettably, during the pregame introductions, the ValleyCats had identified me merely by name, which meant that no one in stands—including the reporters—knew about the anthem project or my journey until I approached them.
Usher Dan Carubia dances with a fan.

Overhearing my conversation with the reporter was an usher, Dan Carubia, who expressed delight in my patriotic mission.  During the next few batters he recounted stories about memorable anthem performances in Shea Stadium and Madison Square Garden where he had served as an usher for several years.   And few innings later I watched him dance atop the dugout and then make the evening for two young teens with general admission tickets by escorting them to vacant seats behind the backstop.

Even as it was a slow sports night near the Berkshires to the east and the state capital a few miles to the southwest, so too the pace of the game was equally lethargic: there were 5 walks, 4 wild pitches, 3 errors, a hit batsman, a passed ball, and a balk.  These plodding plays must have affected the public address announcer as well since he apparently sought to intersperse his game description with filler announcements, such as one about preventing the spread of a destructive tree beetle.  He urged homeowners and campers to avoid burning firewood away from the premises where it had been cut.
Having scored on a wild pitch, the Ironbird and ValleyCat appear to do a chorus line routine.

While the home team’s loss might have merited little news coverage in the region and while the PA announcer’s repartee might have strained for sporting relevance, the ballpark itself prominently paid tribute to baseball legends who had played in Troy.  Positioned near the entry to the ballpark were plaques and portraits honoring Hall of Famers Johnny Evers (of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” fame), Buck Ewing (the first major leaguer to hit 10 home runs in a single season), and two nineteenth century stars, Tim Keefe and Roger Conner.
Notable ads above the outfield fence.
More so than other ballparks in the Northeast, the outfield fences at Joseph Bruno Stadium featured an extensive range of commercials for local businesses, regional enterprises, and national products like JIF peanut butter, Sunkist citrus, and Dunkin’ Donuts.  Among the more than seventy displays double-decking the fence from foul pole to foul pole, several of the promotions were noteworthy because of their particular placement.  Above and beyond the highest sign in the left-handed hitter’s power alley was Cooley’s lure to win a car by hitting a homerun through a basketball-size hole.   Nearby, the ad for a fence company seemed ironically placed because it was a billboard looming above the outfield fence.  And a right field placard plugged the law office of Hank Bauer.  Although the lawyer was unrelated to the former major league player by the same name, I wondered whether right field had been strategically chosen for the placement of the ad because of the familiar association of the name with right field, where the Yankees' Hank Bauer had starred for a decade.

Following the seventh inning stretch with the Ironbirds leading by five runs, I retired from the game as quietly as the ValleyCats’ batters had been prone to do.  Back-to-back homers in the second inning had been the only solid contact that Tri-City’s batters had made, and a bunt single in the fifth had been their only other hit.  Although I missed the their ninth inning rally during which they scored four runs and advanced the tying tally to third with only one out, I faced a 90-minute drive back toward Monterey, Massachusetts in the heart of the Berkshires.  Mid-afternoon I had parked Arby at a friend’s house there so that we could enjoy two days off in the beauty of their home, the serenity of the landscape, and the comfort of their companionship.  And the return drive along the New York State Thruway beneath flooding moonlight provided a good beginning to the recess in my schedule.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Legacies in Norwich: Game 65 in Connecticut

What do you call the offshoots of stars?  Perhaps asteroids, if you’re focusing on heavenly bodies, or starlets, if you’re thinking of Hollywood.  But if you’re talking about ballplayers, their names might include Colin, Bo, and Patrick, all of whom played for the Connecticut Tigers in 2011.  As offspring of former Major League stars, Colin Kaline and Patrick Leyland seemed to have been born with the gene of Tiger stripes.  Colin’s grandfather Al, of course, had been a perennial all-star for Detroit for more than two decades, and Patrick’s dad had managed the Tigers to a divisional championship in the American League during the previous season.  They were joined in their Tiger legacy by pitcher Nick Avila, the son of one of Detroit’s vice presidents.

But what about Bo?  Although he did not come naturally by his Tiger paws, McClendon’s father Lloyd had played for the Pirates in the late 90s before becoming their manager for five years at the beginning of the 21st century.  Although Bo got drafted by a different team than his father’s, he had earlier followed in his father’s footsteps as a university ballplayer, having starred, like his father, at Valparaiso.   
Unlike his Hall of Fame grandfather, Colin did not enjoy an outstanding start to his professional career.  Al, of course, was well known for skipping the Minor Leagues altogether and for making his Major League debut as an 18-year-old outfielder in Detroit in the early summer of 1953.  In case Colin needed to be reminded of his grandfather's prowess, he could note the street sign leading to the Tigers' Spring Training ballpark in Lakeland.   It bears his grandfather's name.  
The street leading to Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland features the Kaline name.
This afternoon, Colin himself starred.  In the second inning his single advanced a teammate to second, positioning him to score the game’s first run on a subsequent hit.  And in the sixth inning Kaline singled again, enjoying one of his best offensive outputs of the summer.  In the short season of the NYP League, he hit safely only 26 times.  A second baseman, Colin finished the season with a .222 batting average, striking out in one-fifth of his plate appearances while collecting only 6 RBIs with no homeruns. 

While Patrick Leyland, a catcher, sat on the bench throughout the game, he fared about the same as Kaline during the season, getting an equal number of hits in one more at-bat, but including one homerun total while doubling Kaline’s number of RBI’s.
The influx of Tiger prospects was most welcome to the Connecticut team since this season represented only the second year its affiliation with the Tigers and its demotion to a Short Season A level schedule.  In previous years the Connecticut team had operated at the AA level in the Eastern League, first for the Yankees, who moved their franchise to Trenton, and more recently for the Giants, who moved their AA team to Richmond.  The last Connecticut Giants’ team had included six players who were on San Francisco’s World Championship roster in 2010.  After losing these Giants’ highly touted prospects, the fans were delighted to welcome the arrival of recognizable Tigers’ names in Dodd Memorial Stadium.

While the pride of Detroit Tigers’ progeny honed their skills on the field, the Connecticut Tigers’ mascot—C.T., the Tiger— flubbed a couple of his standard routines.  Typically, the team mascot tries to tease fans, often playfully embarrassing them.  This afternoon, however, C. T. got his own tail twisted, twice to the point of blushing through the feline mask.  
Alex Russo smiles after besting C.T.
After the third inning, C.T. invited a young fan to race him from first to third, with a planned joke coming at the foul line when C.T. would shoot the winning kid with a water gun.  But this time 11-year-old Alex Russo upstaged C.T., not merely winning the race, as would be expected, but foiling the water gun ambush by cart-wheeling safely across the third base bag and sprinting on into the stands behind the dugout.  Dumbfounded, C.T. merely put his hands akimbo on his stripes and shrugged.
A couple of innings later, the mascot muffed another effort.  This time, C.T.  was supposed to shoot a souvenir T-shirt into the stands.  But his sling-shot aim went awry, and the shirt thwanged into the dugout, narrowly missing the manager!  

Despite these glitches in the mascot’s routines, the staff at Norwich was most cordial and supportive.  When I arrived at the ballpark, Dave Schermerhorn, the team’s Director of Community Relations and Promotions, greeted me warmly and asked to see Arby.  He had hoped that we’d be driving the RV to the ballpark, and he had alerted the parking lot staff to reserve several spaces for it.  Regrettably, I let him know that Arby was still moored an hour’s drive to the north in Massachusetts.  By driving Toad to the game, we had been easily able to follow blue highways from Wales to Norwich, first taking Highway 19 south through Stafford Springs and then connecting with Highway 32 down through Willimantic and for several miles along a low ridge above the Shetucket River.
In Norwich another gracious welcome was extended on the field.  Minutes before I moved to home plate to sing, hitting coach Scott Dwyer came out of the Tigers’ dugout to express appreciation for my anthem effort.  A few nights earlier he had seen me in Lowell.  Since he had attended Menlo College, a Bay area rival of Whittier, he wanted to connect with a fellow Californian. 

Following the pre-game ceremonies an appreciative usher asked if Bonnie and I wanted to move from our assigned sun- bleached boxes to more comfortable seats.   Bonnie didn’t hesitate in turning to follow him up the aisle and staircase to the air conditioned suites and their concession lounge.  According to the official statistics for the game, the temperature at the time of the first pitch was 90 degrees in the shade, which existed in a single row of reserved seats.   
A single row of seats enjoys some Sunday shade at Dodd Stadium.
As memorable as the skybox was because of its relief from the heat and glare, the space made a greater impression because most of the other patrons paid more attention to the game on telecast—the U.S. women’s soccer miracle against Brazil—than to Connecticut’s contest with Brooklyn.  One who was more interested in baseball than the Women’s World Cup was the brother of Eric Ammerer, the broadcaster for the Tigers.  Confessing that he had been a philosophy major in college, he queried me for several innings with philosophical concerns about the nature of good and evil, the relation between justice and peace, and the prospects for universal salvation.  While we puzzled through these issues and shared stories about our love of baseball, a foul ball crashed off the glass in front of my face.  I didn’t react quickly enough to duck or to throw my hands up.  Talk about divine protection!  And I thought that headers should have been restricted to the women’s soccer game on TV!

By 3:30 the game was over.  The Tigers beat the Cyclones 2 to 1, and Bonnie and I leapt into Toad and headed south, not north back to Arby.  In half an hour we wound our way toward the harbor at Mystic and parked at the Captain Daniel Packer Inne.  Descending its narrow flight of stairs, we imagined that we might be moving down the steps like Ben Franklin or John Adams, either of whom might have visited the Inne when it was new.  An open table by the crackling fire in the stone fireplace beckoned to us.  What a contrast to our high seats in an air cooled skybox only hours earlier:  Now sitting adjacent to the hearth in an eighteenth-century pub overlooking Mystic’s harbor, we reveled in the romance of the lapping fire while we enjoyed the daily specials featuring shrimp and scallops.
The harbor view from the Packer Inne.
After dinner, we strolled along historic streets lined with rock walls and sprays of blue and yellow flowers, and we sat on a bench by the harbor listening to weekend sailors tying up their skiffs as we smelled the salty air.  When dusk began to envelop the evening, we headed back to Arby, retracing our path along the state highways.  As we neared the Massachusetts state line, Toad drew unnecessary attention from a Connecticut state trooper, perhaps because his California plates seemed so out of place or because he was hopping along so leisurely, drawing suspicion simply because he was so contented, as were we.
The floral aura of a Mystic street.