Friday, July 26, 2013

Kinsellas and Kernels: Game 83 in Cedar Rapids

Driving past Iowa cornfields on our way from one ballpark to another, I recalled scenes from W. P. Kinsella’s magical baseball settings in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Shoeless Joe, which served as the basis for the cinematic hit Field of Dreams.  First among the images that came to mind was the cornfield diamond built by protagonist farmer Ray Kinsella.  Perceived by some as heaven on earth, the field of dreams lured a crowd of baseball characters to fulfill their destinies: Shoeless Joe Jackson and his fellow banished teammates from the Black Sox scandal; deceased doctor and former baseball hopeful Archie “Moonlight” Graham; reclusive software designer, alienated fan, and former author Terrence Mann (the film’s remodeled persona to replace the novel’s character novelist J.D. Salinger); Ray Kinsella’s late father John, an ex-minor leaguer and worn out factory worker; and Ray himself, the unfulfilled farmer who, as an emerging teenager, had refused to play catch with his dad. 

Depending on who's playing, Perfect Game Field might be a Field of Dreams.

While I knew that neither the riverfront field in Clinton nor the urban diamond in Davenport nor the residential ballpark in Cedar Rapids could resemble the dream field on the movie set near Dyersville, I kept gazing beyond the passing crops, hoping to catch a glimpse of an ephemeral field that could transform long passed promise into the karmic consummation that Kinsella’s field of dreams had facilitated for so many of his characters.  Yet instead of being wooed by such wonder on the route between Davenport and Cedar Rapids, I was brought back to earth by the sight of the world’s largest truck stop along I-80, a place with spaces for 800 big rigs. 

However, when I arrived at Veteran’s Stadium in Cedar Rapids, I did find a tribute to some of Iowa’s historic players that resonated with Kinsella’s fictional world.  The Cedar Rapids Hall of Fame, which is located in the ballpark’s souvenir store, recognizes more than fifty players—including Cooperstown luminaries John McGraw and Lou Boudreau—who starred with the Kernels and their predecessors dating back to the city’s first pro-team, the Canaries in the Illinois-Iowa League of the late 19th century.

Expanding on this celebration of notables in the city’s Hall of Fame, a timeline display of posters, sample jerseys, and memorabilia line the walls of the suite level of the ballpark.  Additional Cedar Rapids’ standouts like Trevor Hoffman, Bengie Molina, Paul O’Neil, and John Lackey are recognized with stars embedded in the walkway of the concession concourse; and by-gone greats Rocky Colavito, Allie Reynolds, and others are featured on directional placards to seat sections.
Add caption

Even with all of the outstanding players who had played for the Kernels in their half-century history, only one former player was honored with his number retired on the outfield wall: Nick Adenhart, who posted 10 wins for the Kernels during a partial season and who was killed by a drunk driver around midnight following his first start for the parent Angels in 2009 after making their Opening Day roster.

Nick Adenhart is honored by his number and image on the centerfield wall.
Joining Bonnie and me for a not-quite-historic evening at Perfect Game Field in Veterans Stadium were former Whittier colleague Gerry Adams and his wife Sara.  Two decades earlier they had immigrated to Iowa and had become immersed in its corn culture.  Having taught chemistry before moving to Grinnell to become the registrar of the college there, Gerry regaled me throughout the game about the advantages and challenges of the genetically engineered corn that had increased the productivity of the Iowa crops, which now were primarily destined for cattle consumption or use as bio-fuels.

Gerry and Sara Adams with Bonnie
Meeting me to provide pre-game orientation was Kernels’ staffer James Odegard.  A first tenor who was studying biology at Luther College, James had subbed three or four times during the season for scheduled anthem performers who cancelled. Since the Kernels, like most of the other teams, did not schedule a sound check for me, I asked James about what kind of delay and feedback I might encounter.  “Don’t listen to the sound system,” he suggested.  “When I heard myself I slowed down and then thought I should speed up.” 

“What key did you sing it in?”  I asked. 

“B-flat,” he said, adding that the low notes had seemed a bit low.  When I countered that I sing it in F-sharp, he smiled and said that would be far too low for him to join me in a duet. 

A short time later when I was introduced, I was pleased to hear the Cedar Rapids announcer read the brief introduction that I had sent to teams when I confirmed arrival information. 

If possible, I'd appreciate your PA announcer identifying my affiliation with Whittier College during the introduction.

...  national anthem by Whittier College Professor Joe Price. 

And if a few more words could be added to stimulate conversations with the fans, I suggest:

During the 2011 baseball season, Joe Price is singing the national anthem at more than 100 minor league ballparks in 40 states while he examines how baseball and "The Star-Spangled Banner" combine to shape the national pastime.


At the recent games in Kane County, Davenport, and Beloit where I had been introduced simply by name, few fans had interacted with me about the tour.  But in Cedar Rapids, the twenty-second introduction prompted numerous comments and fruitful discussions with fans during several innings.  


Among those responding so positively to the brief description of my tour was Teresa Dvorak, who stopped me on the concourse to introduce me to her mother.  A week earlier Teresa had attended the game at Kane County where my introduction had been minimal. When she heard the announcement during the Kernels’ pre-game ceremonies, she had thought that my name sounded familiar, and when she heard my voice she knew that I had been the one singing for the earlier game between the Cougars and the Kernels, a team that she has followed since she was a young child.  Her fascination with the team was tied, in part, to her mother’s ongoing support of its players.  More than twenty years ago, her mother had begun to provide room and board for the early hopefuls since her five-bedroom house is within a homerun’s cheer of the field. Without divulging the identities of players who might have needed such accommodations, her mother added, “When they have had a bit too much to drink, they can safely walk to their rooms at my home.”

While we were talking Kyle Swaney approached and identified himself as a Whittier alumnus from a few years before my arrival at the College. Favorably recalling his major professor David Volckmann (still my colleague and fellow bass in a community choir), Kyle discussed his current work with ACT, the college admissions and placement test organization whose home office was nearby in Iowa City.  As part of his work with the organization, he has co-authored research reports related to career groups and career counseling, studies that drew from and affirmed his undergraduate, liberal arts education. 

Our conversation was disrupted by a foul ball that took aim toward us, caroming off the façade above us back toward the front row seats.  Retrieving the ball on the rebound, a man turned and handed it to a boy whose face exploded with delight.  The response personified the inscription on the statue of Pete Vonachen that I had seen in Peoria the previous night: “There is nothing more rewarding than the look of joy when you give a kid a baseball.”

Peoria's statue of Pete Vonachen.
Rob Thompson, the ball retriever, had returned to Cedar Rapids to attend his high school reunion the following night.  He had arranged his itinerary to include a Kernels’ game, a schedule that he had  tried to follow each time that he had returned to the city to visit family.  Self-described as an inveterate baseball fan, he said that giving the ball to the boy was “really no big deal” since he already had Major League balls from Rangers’ games near his Texas home, signed souvenir balls, and a Minor League ball that had been given to him by the mascot at a game in Hickory, North Carolina.  I wondered if “Mr. Shuck,” the Kernels’ mascot, would similarly favor him.  But a different chance presented itself to him a few innings after our conversation:  He was selected to be the person interviewed for the trivia contest. Rather than needing the prompt or hint from the staffer, he knew already that the answer to the question was option B, Eric Davis, a star for the Kernels in the early 80s.

Near his seat, season ticket holders Greg and Maria Camburn summoned me to sit by them for a half inning.  “We’re envious,” they said. “We’d love to explore America through Minor League ballparks.”  And their questions might be answered by the complete account of my tour: When did you start planning?  Where did you begin?  How many miles have you traveled?  Where have you stayed?  What ballparks have been your favorites?  Why?  What surprises have you found?  Which places were the most exciting?  What unusual baseball plays and players have you seen? 


In the section behind the Camburns, Jim Hutton sat in a wheelchair, confined to that means of mobility after having suffered multiple injuries in a biking accident years earlier.  A former lead tenor in a barbershop quartet, Jim was most complementary about my anthem rendition, especially since, as he put it, “you didn’t add any stuff or do something personal.”  Following his accident the damage to his jaw had required that it be wired shut, a treatment that necessitated a tracheotomy, which then caused damage to his larynx and regrettably ended his singing with the group.  Now, he said, he enjoys evenings at the Kernels’ games, often harmonizing with the anthem singer.  

While I enjoyed stimulating conversations with old friends and new acquaintances, the Kernels reached new levels of support from corporate sponsors for local charities by performing effectively on the field.  The ten strikeouts of River Bandits batters by a quartet of Kernels hurlers earned $250 for Kids First, the first American law center with a mission to mitigate the negative effects of divorce on children.  Additional support for better-known charities was generated by the Kernels’ six runs (for Meals on Wheels), Travis Witherspoon’s two stolen bases (for Camp Courageous), and Randal Grichuk’s homerun (for Veterans Group).  
A different scoreboard tallies the Kernels' efforts for charities.
Throughout the game the whole cob of Kernels enjoyed clutch hitting, going 5 for 11 with runners in scoring position.  And the game itself finished with a flourish.  After the Kernels cut the River Bandits’ lead to a single run on a solo shot with two outs in the bottom of the 8th, the 9th inning was filled with bases-loaded drama.  With two outs Quad Cities mounted a final threat, filling the bases with an error and two walks before Geoffrey Klein, who had homered earlier in the game, fanned to end the inning.  In the bottom half of the frame, the Kernels scored the tying run on a pinch-hit triple before loading the bases with only one out.  But an unassisted double play on a line drive to the River Bandits’ third baseman sent the game into extra-innings.  Then in the 10th Cedar Rapids rallied to win 6-5 after a hit batter was followed by a couple of singles.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Playing in Peoria: Game 82 in Peoria

After a wee-hour return to Davenport from Beloit, we whiplashed back into Illinois merely hours later, heading south this time to Peoria’s O’Brien Field, as it was then known, where the Midwest League’s Chiefs share their home with the Bradley University Braves.   

The urban setting of O'Brien Field
To say that there are competing or conflicting baseball alliances at the ballpark and in Peoria is to put things mildly.  When Peoria joined the Midwest League in 1983, it played its home games in Bradley’s ballpark, which was then named for its longtime athletic director John “Dutch” Meinen.   A decade later, the stadium, which was still home to the University’s baseball team, was renovated and renamed for the owner of the Chiefs, Pete Vonachen.   The complex relation between the Chiefs and the Braves continued when both teams transferred their homes to the city’s new ballpark in 2002.

While the stadium was built by the Chiefs, its display of retired numbers and tributes to area baseball heroes creates some confusion about who actually controls the facility.  On the concourse behind third base is a permanent display case featuring the numbers, photographs, and brief biographies of former Bradley Braves:
outfielder Kirby Puckett (#14), a first-round draft pick by the Twins in 1982 and subsequently a perennial American League all-star, Gold Glove award winner, and Silver Slugger recipient; pitcher Mike Dunne (#11), a seventh-round draft pick by the Cardinals in 1984 who ended his five-year, four-team Major League career with a losing record (25 wins and 30 losses); and coach Leo Schrall (# 2), an inductee into the Hall of Fame of the American Baseball Coaches Association for his twenty winning seasons, seven Missouri Conference Championships, and two College World Series appearances.  Their numbers are also displayed on baseballs at the top of the right field wall adjacent to the foul pole.  In addition, while most Minor League ballparks feature a roster of former players who made it to The Show, the prominent list of honorees in Peoria’s ballpark is of the former Bradley Braves who were signed by Major League teams to Minor League contracts.

By contrast, I couldn’t locate a list of former Chiefs who had made it to the Majors.  There were, however, large action images of several former Peoria stars in their most appreciated Major League uniforms, at least for the fans at the ballpark.  And two of the recognized players had had their numbers retired by the Chiefs: Greg Maddux (#31), who started twenty-seven games for Peoria at age nineteen and later won almost 200 games while pitching for the Atlanta Braves and winning three Cy Young awards with them, is portrayed as a Chicago Cub, the parent club of the Chiefs at the time that he broke into the Majors and achieved initial stardom; and Mark Grace (#17), a “doubles machine” and lifetime .300 hitter who played for the Chiefs in 1986, similarly appears in Chicago gear, his identity for most of his career.  Replicas of their Cubs jerseys—featuring their names and numbers—are also found on a banner slung over the lower outfield wall in deep centerfield.  Missing from the honorees, however, are current stars, and perhaps future Hall of Famers, Albert Pujols (whose action image swings near that of fellow first-baseman Grace) and Yadier Molina, both of whom achieved All-Star honors and other accolades as Cardinals.

…. which brings me to another confusing aspect of Peoria’s baseball allegiance. The city itself lies on the chalk line between upstate and downstate Illinois, the Cubs’ den and the Cardinals’ nest.  Baseball fans in northern Illinois have long followed the Cubs on WGN while those in the southern part of the state have cheered for the Cardinals on KMOX.  Memories of the Brock-for- Broglio trade—infamous for Cubs and divine for Cards—continue to slash the divide.

Now to complicate these matters of baseball identity further, here’s the Chiefs’ imbroglio: After a decade of functioning as the A-level affiliate of the Cubs during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Chiefs aligned with the Cardinals’ system for almost a decade before resuming their formal connections with the Cubs.  (And as I write this paragraph in a season following my tour, Peoria’s organizational vacillation has continued with the Chiefs’ shift back to an alliance with the Cardinals!  Does that portend that Pujols and Molina will soon get their numbers retired?)  Is it any wonder, then, that Peoria might suffer from baseball schizophrenia?

Thinking about Peoria’s muddled baseball identity as Bonnie and I approached O’Brien Field, I found a parking spot in front of the Rescue Mission on Walnut Street about a block from the front gates.  Opening the car doors, I could hear a choir singing gospel hymns, the most robust being “Amazing Grace.”  I figured that the doors to the chapel must be open as an invitation for wanderers to join the service before the soup supper.  Yet as we walked away from the Mission and toward the ballpark, the music got louder.  It was coming from inside the ballpark!  Did the Chiefs or visiting Bees from Burlington use Evangelical music to inspire their batting practice?  Did the ballpark play recordings of hymns as pre-game entertainment for the crowd?  Yet the blend of voices and the articulation of phrases suggested the performance had a local character.

One of Bethany Baptist's hymn-singers.
At the Will Call where I gave my name as the anthem singer, the agent looked startled when she could not find tickets filed under my name, nor could she locate my name on the list for complementary admission. “What group are you with?” she asked.  When I replied, “None,” she looked puzzled as my anxiety soared, especially since the choral music, now sounding live, poured past our ears.  Had I been replaced at even “a laster-minute” than the game-morning notification that I received from the Naturals when I had been replaced by an enclave of grade-school choirs at Northwest Arkansas?

“Who set up your appearance?” she continued. 

“Megan Miller,” I said as I checked my notes.  Thankfully, that name spelled relief.  The tickets had been filed under her name; and the choir, from nearby Bethany Baptist Church in suburban Edwards, simply provided live entertainment before the game, finishing their repertoire with a rendition of “God Bless America” immediately before I sang the anthem.

Also a part of the pre-game ceremonies were two Goth-dressed guys whose costumes looked like a rejected wardrobe for archenemies in a failed, super-hero comic strip.  They were there to throw out the first pitches to celebrate “Asian Carp Night.” 
Modeling carp fishing gear.
Initially, it wasn’t clear whether the garb of these first pitchers was meant to mimic the ugly, thistle-finned fish or whether the spikes on the helmets, shin guards, and breast plate were to protect prospective fishers from possible attack by the carp.  When asked, one of the guys smiled, confirming that the jocular gear was designed to protect his jugular. 

The satirical tribute, as I later learned from advocates at kiosks along the concourse, was to heighten awareness about the invasive piscine species in the Illinois River, which flows through Peoria at the base of the hill a half-mile below the ballpark.  Information about the fish and methods to control and eradicate it were also featured in mid-inning fan activities and video clips throughout the game.

In recent years the spread of the fish throughout the river has begun to threaten Lake Michigan; and in a protective move, the Illinois wildlife authorities have spent millions of dollars erecting an elaborate, electrical set of gates to prevent the fish from moving upstream to Chicago.  That effort, however, has not proven very effective.

A different set of carp gear.
One of the tragedies about the Asian Carp invasion is that the fish’s introduction into the Southeast was intentional.  Hoping to control various weeds and parasites, aquaculture industries in the Southeast interjected the species into their operations, only to suffer worse destruction by their incursion into the Mississippi River watershed.  Not only have the fish rapidly reproduced, they have also moved into the River’s tributaries through their own aggressive behavior and through unintentional transportation its roe by boaters moving from between bodies of water.   Flooding has also facilitated the carp’s spread into lakes and ponds normally separate from the free-flow of streams.  In fact, following expansive high waters in central Illinois, one fisherman killed—rather than caught—a forty-pound carp in a cow pond by using a pitch fork to spear it.  The dangers posed by the fish are not simply its encroachment into other species’ habitats or its decimation of plant life; the fish also pose a safety hazard to humans since they are able to jump eight feet out of the water and potentially injure unsuspecting boaters or knock them into the water.

In the playful spirit so typical of Minor League promotions, the Chiefs had floated a number of thematic ideas about the evenings opportunities, such as offering free admission to anyone escorting an Asian carp to the game.  But fearing the possibility of fetid fish driving away fans, the Chiefs rejected that idea.  Still, MiLB Blogger Ben Hill mused in anticipation, maybe the Chiefs could transform Ladies Day—one of Bill Veeck’s earliest promotions—by providing a discount for female fans wearing “fishnet stockings.” 

Such ideas lend credence to the cliché that if it (an event or product) will play in Peoria, it will be well received throughout America.   Yet while it’s not clear whether the Asian Carp Tribute had positive, educational and environmental effects on fans, it is certain that the Chiefs played well enough to win 5-2, with clean-up hitter Richard Jones leading the offense with two hits, including a home run, and two RBIs.

In front of the sculpture of Pete Vonachen giving a ball to a kid, Bonnie and I pose
with good grad school friends Kathy and Bob Fuller who joined us for the game
and then hosted us for dinner. 



Saturday, July 20, 2013

Serendipity at the Snappers' Park: Game 81 in Beloit

Game notes transcribed to my netbook.
Following the scare about losing my little black book of game notes in Davenport, I wanted to transfer my daily scribbles to Word files as soon as possible after retrieving it from the River Bandits’ staff.  So Bonnie took the wheel of Toad and drove much of the way to Beloit for the evening game there, allowing me to type and correct notes from five games on my small netbook, which routinely accompanied me in my camera bag to the ballparks.  Heading into Illinois, we followed I-88 and the East-West Tollway to Dixon, where we exited and skirted Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home.  Following Illinois 2 along the scenic Rock River, Bonnie shared her adventures of the previous weekend with a group of women whose retreat site had been one of the river homes that we passed between Dixon and Byron.   

Although we were backtracking much of a route that we had driven a few days earlier, the home schedules of several of the Midwest League teams required that we move first one way, then another, and finally reverse—twice.  Consequently, we took advantage of the opportunity to anchor Arby for three days at a reasonable and commodious public RV park just west of Davenport, and from there tethered out in Toad to home games for Quad Cities, Beloit, and Peoria.  

Two hours before game my scheduled arrival for the Snappers, we stopped in McDonalds for coffee, a snack, and easy WiFi. As we targeted possible RV parks for our hook ups, we consistently looked for cleanliness, easy access, cable TV, and WiFi.  Often we found that the distance of our site from the WiFi router prevented us from having dependable use.  So McDonalds, Starbucks, and Panera Bread became our favorite spots for coffee, snacks, lunch, and yes—of course—fresh bread.  Initially, we had planned simply to sip coffee and check email before heading to the ballpark for batting practice and perhaps to visit with Dee Maxson, a friend from our church choir in Tustin, California who was vacationing at a summer home near Lake Geneva and who had let us know that she’d come to the game.  But when a thunderstorm blitzed through the area with the suddenness of a blown save, we settled in for snack, and I continued to work on transcribing my notes and uploading an entry to my blog. 

In Beloit, the municipal stadium blends like a boarding house in an established neighborhood, a setting and style for the ballpark that shape its welcoming character.  Contributing to its family-room feel, its simple architecture spreads across open spaces that encourage kids to play catch within the reach of foul balls, and in the grandstands its field level front row seats are exactly that, front row and field level, a kind of commoner’s precursor to the dugout level seats popular at several new Major League stadia.  

Beloit's front row field level seats.
Beloit’s ballpark design also locates the team clubhouses beyond an open concession area that divides the lockers from the diamond and dugouts.  While fans routinely interact with players along the fence between the bullpen and dugout in most of the Minor League parks, here the autograph hounds are able to intercept them, literally blocking the way between their separated sanctuaries of the field and the clubhouse.    
Ignoring players, a young fan gets
mascot Snappy's autograph.

Standing in this area before the game, I was greeted with smiles by several of the visiting Kane County players, some of whom seemed to recognize me as they passed the concession line.  Within the past few days, they had heard me sing twice, once at their ballpark in Geneva, Illinois, where the introduction identified me and the tour, and the previous night in Davenport, where the PA announcer made no mention of my anthem efforts.   Among the pride of passing Cougars was starting pitcher Jason Adam, who looked at me with a blink of recognition. 

“You guys will get tired of me,” I suggested.  “Not at all,” he responded with a smile, “You’re good.”  With that, I wished him good luck for the game and suggested that his teammates could help by doing more than they had done the previous night in Davenport, where they had been shut out.  He did.  He got unexpected support from catcher Kevin David, whose lofty prayer to centerfield was answered by the ballpark’s short dimension—380 feet to dead center, a distance deadly for fly-ball pitchers.  The hit was his first—and only—homerun of the season.  Then to balance homerun fields a few innings later, Brett Eibner hit one to right before Jacob Kuebler hit one to left.  Propelled by these drives to a six-run lead, Adam held the Snappers scoreless through his six strong innings and eventually got the win.   

Also pausing to chat on his way to the dugout was injured pitcher Julio Pimentel.  While other players continued to scratch across the concrete in their cleats, he beamed and said that tonight would be the sixth time that he had seen me this season.  I did a double-take faster than his electric smile.  What?  How?  Quickly, he rattled off the list of places. “In the Carolina League at Winston-Salem, Lynchburg, and Wilmington.  Last night in Quad Cities, and last week at our place in Kane County, and tonight.”   

Julio had spent the first half of the season with Wilmington, the Kansas City affiliate in the Carolina League, before being shifted to Kane County.  On the DL for the entire year, he had seen me behind home plate more often this season than he had seen a catcher flash a sign for a curve ball.  As he left I encouraged him to sing with me, perhaps as a duet.  He smiled.

Moments before the pregame introductions, a father approached the Snappers’ staffer and asked if his son Dawson, who was turning 10 that day, could throw out the first pitch.  It happened.  At other ballparks the selection process or the birthday request takes place in formal ways through competitions, applications, purchases, sponsorships, or even as a scratch-off prize, as the kid in Kane County had enjoyed a week earlier.  Here, a simple, familial request proved effective; and Dawson tossed a decent ceremonial pitch.

Now it was my turn to follow through on a series of applications and appeals that had begun more than a year earlier.  Taking my position between home and the backstop, I scanned the crowd and did not see our friend Dee among the few fans in the stands.  (The reported attendance of 414, the second-smallest crowd that I had encountered, included all of the late arrivers, folks waiting for burgers and fries, and kids playing behind the first-base concession booth.)  After finishing the anthem with gusto, I turned toward the visitors’ dugout to see if Julio had signified “thumbs up,” but I couldn’t pick him out from the players along the dugout rail. 

Then turning to walk past the Snappers’ bench, I heard more than congrats from their manager Nelson Prada, who must have remembered me from the previous weekend when I had sung for the Snappers’ victory over the Timber Rattlers in Appleton.  Moments earlier, I had been introduced minimally like the previous night:  “Tonight’s national anthem performed by Joe Price.”  Prada stepped up to the track and started to ask me about my tour:

Prada: “You’re the guy who’s making the tour singing at ballparks.  Where have you been?”

Price: “All over—Texas, the South, Florida, the East Coast, New England, Indiana, Ohio, here.  Now I’m heading west for the rest of this month.”

Prada: “How many games?”  He glanced toward the mound where Manuel Soliman, his starting pitcher, was starting to warm up.

Price: “This was number 81.”

Prada: “Ever forget the words?” 

Price: “Nope.  I rehearse it at least once right before every performance.”

Prada: “Did you sing for any games before this year?”

Price: “In twenty Major League ballparks.”

Prada: “Which ones?”

Price: “The White Sox, Cubs, Brewers, Twins, Royals…”

Prada: “The Twins?  In the Metrodome or Target Field.”

Price:  “The Humphreydome.”

Prada sighed, perhaps recalling his dream to play there.  More than a decade earlier, he had spent four years as catcher in the Twins’ organization, never advancing above their high A affiliate.

Prada turned to watch Snappers’ catcher Toby Streich fire a throw to the shortstop covering second. “Thanks and good luck,” he called out as I moved through the gate, and the first hitter stepped into the batter’s box.
The leadoff batter for Kane County.
Moving toward Bonnie in our seats behind home plate, a woman approached and introduced herself as Cindy Schliem.  “I’ve read your blog,” she smiled.

How? again I wondered.  There had been no Beloit publicity, no public address recognition, merely an identification of me by name. 

Cindy explained.  Her life-long friend Cheryl McClain was the Keys’ staff member in Frederick, Maryland who had handed me my tickets at the Will Call window when I had sung there a month earlier.  Then I had learned that Cheryl had sung the anthem for the Frederick team some years ago, and we had struck up a conversation about anthem performances and my tour.  Following my appearance there, Cheryl had checked out the information on the website and let Cindy know of my schedule and blog.  I love the serendipitous connections that the anthem facilitates!

And I love the support of friends who made significant effort to participate with me on the tour.  In the second inning, Dee Maxson found us easily in the grandstands, introduced her daughter and her son-in-law, Donna and Rob Grisham, and apologized for having missed the anthem.  Their forty-mile drive had been delayed by a different experience of heat.  Because the air conditioner in their car had broken, they had wanted to minimize their exposure to the heat and humidity of the hour-long trip by procrastinating their departure, hoping that the prospect of the waning afternoon might offer an illusion of cooling.  But the plan backfired because the thunderstorm that had passed through Beloit while Bonnie and I sat in McDonalds had interrupted their drive, causing them to raise the windows and suffer the sauna of their closed car before capitulating to reason, abandoning the rush to get to the ballpark by game time, and seeking storm refuge in an air conditioned café.  Thus the delay. 

Since they had not gotten to hear me sing the anthem, I followed Dawson’s father’s last-minute request and asked—for the only time on tour—the Snappers to let me lead “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch, thereby giving Dee and the Grishams at least a chance to see and hear me sing at the ballpark.  Graciously, they stayed for that quick refrain, then bid adieu for their return toward Lake Geneva. 

With two outs in the top of the seventh, I'm anticipating "Take Me out to the Ballgame."
An inning later, Bonnie and I also bid the ballpark goodbye before the Snappers rallied in the bottom of the ninth, then scoring their only runs in their defeat, 6 to 2.  Since we needed to get back to Arby before the county park locked up at midnight, we returned to Davenport via the faster, more boring all-Interstate route of I-90, I-39, I-88, and I-80.  Still, we missed the curfew, and had to park Toad alone outside the gates before walk a hundred moonlit yards to Arby.   

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A River Bandit Rescue: Game 80 in Quad Cities

Bonnie and I had experienced oppressive heat at a number of games on the tour: at the sun drenched, pre-noon start in San Antonio; at the mid-day, broiling ballpark in Columbus; and at the blistering, previous afternoon in Clinton, to name a few of the most uncomfortable.  And in earlier years I had sung for a game in Palm Springs when the official temperature at game time was 116 and in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium when the temperature on the artificial turf registered almost 130 degrees.  But I had never been as uncomfortable at a game as I was at dusk in Davenport’s Woodsmen Park where the combination of 90-degree temperature, still air, and humidity reaching at least 118 percent (or so it felt!) created suffocating conditions.  According to the local radio station, the heat index had climbed above 110.  I thought, “Is that all?” 

While urban redevelopment projects in minor league cities have often selected riverfronts (like Louisville and Little Rock, Trenton and Charleston) as ballpark sites because of their scenic beauty as well as their potential for reviving area economies, there are baseball challenges presented by these locations.   For one, the expanse of their waters can make the air feel as thick as their bottom mud.  This was certainly our experience at the picturesque ballpark in Davenport, Iowa, home to the Quad Cities River Bandits.   

Over the years, the ballpark’s proximity to the Mississippi River has also allowed a different, weather-related problem to affect games: high waters on the river.  In 2001 when future American League MVP Justin Morneau was tearing up the Midwest League during his partial season with Quad Cities, the Mississippi River flooded, and the River Bandits had to flee, playing many of their scheduled home games on the road. 

A decade later as new ownership and management assumed operations of the team, Modern Woodmen of America, a fraternal benefit society and financial management organization, purchased the naming rights of the ballpark.  And therein lies a fundamental irony.  Originally the Modern Woodmen society restricted membership to white men in non-urban areas in the twelve healthiest states, all of which were deemed to be in the upper Midwest (including Iowa) and Great Plains.  The irony is this: Excluded from possible membership were men engaged in unhealthful and dangerous occupations, including professional baseball.

An impressive aspect of the now handsome Modern Woodmen Ballpark is that its location was set long before redevelopment initiatives spurred cities to make riverfront properties into viable entertainment sites.
5th grader Katie Walker's winning entry of Rascal.
Back in the early part of the last century, Davenport’s Municipal Stadium was erected there.  Occasionally throughout its history modest improvements were made to the ballpark, which did not enjoy a thorough renovation until months following the 2003 season.  While the ballpark’s site and façade remained the same during the reconstruction, the field itself was rotated slightly to provide fans with a prime view of the river and Centennial Bridge; and luxury suites, picnic areas, new clubhouses, and a video scoreboard were added.  And now, too, like ballparks in Richmond and Huntsville that display children’s paintings and promotions of the team mascot, the Modern Woodmen Ballpark features winning entries by school children.

Before the game, a man in the front row behind home plate called out to me about the previous day’s game in Clinton, expressing appreciation for my straightforward, anthem rendition.  Len McMorrow and his sons Quinn (age 12, a catcher) and Parker (age 9, an outfielder) had attended the game as part of their week-long tour through the Midwest League.  On this day, they had already heard one anthem performance at a Kernels’ game in Cedar Rapids 75 miles away; following that game, they had driven to Davenport in time to catch the second half of what he called “a McMorrow Double Header.”  When Len indicated that he especially appreciates anthem performers who avoid embellishments, I strongly encouraged him and his sons to sing along with me. 
Len, Parker, and Quinn McMorrow
Because I was facing the flag in left field rather than the fans behind home plate, I couldn’t see whether they joined me in singing, although I imagine they were distracted by an audio system malfunction that mangled the broadcast of my performance. 

Thankfully, I had been made aware that the audio transmission was out of sync with the video display on the scoreboard.  The staff member who assisted me on field described the delay as being “about 3 seconds” and warned me not to at the scoreboard.  “You don’t want to see yourself singing what you’re not hearing,” she added.  The misalignment, however, was not as severe as the three-second description, even though the sound delay created a kind of self-dissonance.  I expect that my experience was much like that of the composer Charles Ives, whose father taught him to sing in one key while playing another.   In addition to the distractions caused by the mismatch between the melody and my apparent lip movement, a metallic reverberation persisted throughout the audio transmission. Even so, the anthem went well.

Since the video display had lacked coordination with the sound production, I wondered whether it was experiencing a melt-down from the heat when its player introductions started featuring unusual photographs.  When Geulin Beltre, Kane County’s second hitter came to the plate, the image of a seductive woman flashed on the screen.  Behind Beltre’s his name and number appeared a picture of a bikini-clad brunette framed by ads for Modern Woodmen and a collision repair center.  Moments later, Beltre struck out “looking.”  The only question I had then was whether he was looking at the called third strike or at the sparsely covered girl on the video board.

When the River Bandits’ centerfielder Oscar Tavares stepped into the batter’s box in the home-half of the inning, the playful approach to player profiles continued.  Behind his name and number was the photograph of a hunk, a body-builder flexing biceps the size of most guys’ thighs.   Around that portrait appeared multiple ads for Pepsi.  Perhaps Tavares, too, was distracted by the picture or was thirsty for the soda since he promptly grounded into a double play.

While the displays certainly added a bit of levity to the sluggish pace of a three-run shut out that would run almost three hours, Bonnie and I were more enticed by the prospects of dinner in air conditioned Arby rather than munching ballpark fare in the sweltering conditions.  So with the River Bandits leading 2-0 after three innings, we left a game much earlier than usual.

Disoriented by the discomfort of the weather, I didn’t realize that I had lost my little black book of game notes until we returned to the comfort of Arby.  After searching high and low in and around Toad, I called the ballpark shortly before the game ended and left a message with anthem coordinator Shelley Heyward that I had lost my little black book perhaps near my seat in section 8, row N.   Although I had transcribed most of my notes about ballparks and games in Word documents, I had not yet transferred the information from the last ten days, as well as detailed notes about days off museum visits that Bonnie and I had enjoyed. 

Needless to say, I slept poorly during the night, waked at six, slipped out of Arby quietly, and returned to the ballpark.  I retraced steps through the parking lot and to the locked entry to the stadium.  Nada.  Frustrated, I drove back to the county park where Arby was anchored, stopping along the way at a front yard tomato stand to buy a few ripe heirloom varieties.  Something about my early morning venture needed to be worthwhile—and it was: the tomatoes, which we sliced for lunch a couple of hours later, were among the most flavorful that I’ve ever eaten.

Within an hour after rejoining Bonnie at the Scott County park, I received a call from Shelley, indicating that she had found my book, which I then retrieved right away.  Who would have thought that a bandit would find and return a lost item?  Not even Robin Hood restored stolen goods to the proper owners, much less finding booty and not keeping it to boot.  Yet in Davenport, a River Bandit rescued my sanity, at least temporarily, by finding and returning my little black Moleskine book.               


An Iowa Anthem Caucus: Game 79 in Clinton

In Clinton, Iowa, for only the second time on the tour, Arby accompanied us to a game.  Like his first ballpark visit in Columbus, Arby’s appearance was necessitated by the mid-day game in a city between morning and night RV dockings.  This time, his mooring at dawn had been near Chicago and the evening’s destination and next game were in Davenport.  But unlike Arby’s earlier urban lot parking in Columbus where he had waited while I sang for the Clippers, he was able to get street parking adjacent to the ballpark in Clinton.  So there we rolled out the awning, turned on the air conditioner, and read and wrote for the two hours before the Alliant Energy Field opened.

Sandwiched between two transport corridors, Clinton’s Riverview Stadium—its original name—was constructed as a WPA project in 1937 and renovated sixty years later.  The left field wall adjoins the road atop the levee holding back the mighty Mississippi River, and the parking lot adjacent to the first base grandstands is an active rail line along which chugged freight trains about every 45 minutes.  While river traffic ferries grain south towards the port of New Orleans, rail cars haul imported goods north toward Minneapolis.  Although Clinton is the corporate home to Nestle-Purina and International Paper, its commercial district near the ballpark appears twisted and conflicted by these opposing currents, strangled to the point of economic suffocation.

Beyond the outfield fence, a riverboat churns up the Mississippi.
A few minutes after I had entered the ballpark and begun to photograph its historic markers, a fan approached me and asked leading questions about the history and location of the ballpark.   I confessed that since I had been in Clinton for only a couple of hours, all that I knew was on the plaque toward which I beckoned. 
From Omaha, Bill Messenger hadn’t known that there was a team in Clinton until he had seen a notice about the game while driving through town.  He smiled as he took in the charming, antiquated character of the ballpark.  In Omaha, he had lived fairly near old Rosenblatt Stadium where the minor league team had played until 2011, when the new fields opened for the AAA Omaha Storm Chasers—Werner Ballpark in nearby Sarpy County—while the NCAA World Series shifted sites in Omaha to the TD Ameritrade Park. 

Even upgraded in recent years, the Clinton ballpark features no luxury boxes—perhaps a reflection of the populist ethos of Iowa and the public funds used for the stadium’s construction and renovation. 
And unlike many ballparks where burgers, fries, and a brew might cost almost twenty dollars, reasonable concession prices prevail.  I could lunch on a hotdog and soda for less than $5.00, and other drinks and foods were priced about half what they had cost at most other A-level Minor League parks: taffy for a quarter, sunflower seeds for 75 cents, and cotton candy for two bucks.

Missing the historic character of Rosenblatt, Bill was delighted by the no-frills intimacy of Clinton’s riverfront stadium and the city’s century-old legacy of professional baseball.  Established as the Owls when the ballpark had opened during the Great Depression, Clinton’s league championship team that year eventually sent more than a half-dozen of its players to The Show, most to the parent Brooklyn Dodgers. More recently, Clinton’s baseball alumni include former Major League All-Stars Orel Hershiser and Steve Sax, as well as World Series managers Jim Leyland, Tom Kelly, and Mike Scioscia.   The only remaining charter member of the Midwest League founded in the mid-1950s, the team is now known as the LumberKings in recognition of Clinton’s former designation as the Lumber Capital of America.

Having scheduled my appearance at Alliant Energy Field, Mitch Butz greeted me as I entered the ballpark and told me that he wanted to convene a small caucus of Clinton’s anthem performers.  In preparation for my arrival, he had let David Wubenna from a nearby farm community in Illinois know about my project and scheduled appearance in Clinton since David had frequently sung the National Anthem for the LumberKings in recent years. 

More than 30 years ago, David first requested the chance to sing the national anthem for a local civic celebration, but when he auditioned, he was told that he needed to practice more.  So he did, rehearsing the anthem hundreds of times to improve his pitch, tone, and tempo.  Self-taught as a singer—in fact, he had been dismissed from the volunteer choir at his Baptist church about a decade earlier—David practiced again and again, often singing in the silo at his farm where the resonance was better than in a shower stall.  He persisted in his efforts and eventually got the chance to perform the anthem for a public event in 2003.   

Frequent LumberKings' anthem singer David Wubenna and his wife.
Now, he has performed the anthem on more than 40 occasions for Minor League games in several Midwest League ballparks, local volleyball games, the dedication ceremony for a high school gymnasium, city council meetings, and other civic gatherings.  In addition, he has gotten the chance to sing “O Canada,” which he learned by playing it on his cell phone, before a hockey game for the Rockford IceHogs, a minor league affiliate of the Chicago Black Hawks.  Simply, David loves to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” proudly showing that almost anyone who persists in practicing not only can learn to sing it, but can learn to sing it for others.

On this blistering sunny Sunday, my rendition was among my best, with several of the LumberKings calling out as I passed the dugout: “Nice job.”  “Way to go.”  “You scored!”  “Thanks,” chimed in hitting coach Terry Pollreisz.  “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”  And from the box seats behind the dugout, one woman yelled, “Great job.”  Intimate and friendly: that’s Clinton.

Clinton's quaint character displayed in its hand-printed welcome.
Umpire Mike Terry sips heat relief between innings. 
During the early innings of the game the bats of both teams seemed to wilt on the sun-seared field, neither team scoring off the starting pitchers.  Still I hoped that there might be some offensive energy derived from the seventh-inning stretch.  Yet when the public address announcer invited the fans “to take time now to stretch and sing America’s favorite song,” not even the crowd could rouse a motivating rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”  While I understood how fans might consider the song a favorite, I thought that it should be belted out.  Even more, I wondered, shouldn’t “America’s favorite song” be the National Anthem?

Immediately following the recording of the organ accompaniment to the traditional seventh-inning refrain, the speakers blared a medley of other rollicking tunes, including “Roll Out the Barrel” and “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.”  Still, the crowd’s disposition seemed to be muted by the heat and humidity. Or perhaps its lackadaisical participation resulted from the absence of an impromptu choir of kids to lead the singing.  Or perhaps the crowd would have celebrated more if Louie, the LumberKings’ mascot who was a fan favorite throughout the League, had been at the ballpark that afternoon. 

In a rare retreat from front row box seats, fans seek the shade of the grandstands.

Not surprisingly, the feeble flexing in the mid seventh inning failed to enliven either team; and through all nine innings and then a tenth, the line scores for both teams read the same: no runs on five hits and two errors. Perhaps the 11th inning would prove luckier than the 7th, especially with new relievers anticipated for both teams.  With two outs and none on in the top of the inning, Peoria strung together three singles to take a one-zip lead.  Not to be out dramatized, with two outs and none on the bottom half, the LumberKings spliced a hit batter among their three consecutive singles, with two runners scoring on the game-winning hit by Carlos Ramirez. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Rattled by Routes and Rain: Game 78 in Wisconsin

Routing headaches and traffic miseries rarely had worried me on our way to ballparks, partly because of Toad’s maneuverability, partly because of Bonnie’s access to web reports about different directions, and partly because I insisted on having an arrival cushion that often deposited us at ballparks well before my scheduled pregame meeting with staff.  

In San Antonio road construction in the heart of the city had prompted us to Google an alternate route to the Missions’ ballpark, only to find that we had been directed to an authentic San Antonio mission on the opposite side of the city.  Even so, we made it to the baseball park a half hour before the game’s start, exactly at the time I was scheduled to meet the game-day staff.  Approaching New Orleans, we had learned that the causeway over Lake Pontchartrain was clogged or closed, prompting us to take a more circuitous approach that still gave us plenty of time to get to the Zephyrs’ ballpark.  The miracle of iPad access allowed us to circumvent clogs in Birmingham and Gwinnett.  Yet in Massachusetts while Arby still had Toad tethered, we found no escape from the freeway repair that kept us inching along for more than an hour, a pace so slow and with unpredictable end that we worried about reaching Lowell in time for the Spinners’ doubleheader. 

Not since that Northeast construction delay had I worried about getting to a game on time, especially having budgeted extra hours for driving from the northern Chicago area to Appleton, Wisconsin on a Saturday.  But my anticipated three-hour drive eventually doubled in length, causing me to fret most of the miles.  Since Bonnie had taken a weekend leave from ballgames to join a women’s (non-baseball) retreat on the Rock River, I could not rely this time on her navigational trouble-shooting with her iPad.
The woes unfolded in this way: From the RV park in Volo to Appleton, the most direct route coursed like a crooked river over county roads, which, on a weekend, I feared might be slowed with tractors and farmers and in-laws reluctantly heading to remote reunions.  So instead, I turned east, not north, heading toward Lake Michigan and the I-94 corridor between Chicago and Milwaukee.  I hoped to capitalize on its regular freeway flow on an innocuous Saturday in July.

To get to the Interstate, however, I had to drive through several villages and towns crouching toward Lake Michigan.  Approaching Grayslake around noon, I ran into traffic backed up on the single lane of Route 120 and waited through three changes of the traffic signal before I could move through the intersection at Milwaukee Road.  I probably should have heeded the omens of the travel deities at that point and turned north.  Yet, I persisted in my direction toward Lake Michigan. 

Rather than being relieved when I reached the Interstate, I thought that I had returned to L.A., seeing that its traffic was at a standstill.  Not wanting to chance that the clog might be temporary, I continued on 120 to U.S. 41 North, not far beyond the freeway and there found an easy flow toward the Wisconsin border a dozen miles away.  But a few minutes later, an orange sign alerted me to construction and delays on 41 North as it merged with I-94.  While a smaller sign marked an alternate 94 to the right, I naively persisted in my move toward the freeway ramp until the traffic stopped.  Luckily, a gravel lane crossing-over the grassy median provided a means to escape, and I U-turned around toward Illinois 173, which was identified as the alternate 94 route. 

Alas, the traffic backed up right away on 173 because of a one-lane bridge with restricted flow controlled by another traffic signal.  Delayed by two red lights in that construction, I was relieved to resume normal speed momentarily for about a mile before having to stop in the line waiting for a freight train to clear the road’s crossing.   Once it had passed and the arms blocking the tracks had lifted, traffic accelerated in its flow to the posted limit.  

What else might impede my progress, or lack thereof, I wondered, since I had come less than 20 miles in the first hour of an anticipated three-hour drive?  I didn’t have to think long.  Ahead, police action—merely a traffic citation being issued to a motorist—constricted traffic to a single lane before I could turn north on Illinois 131, approaching the Wisconsin state line.    Yet one more kind of delay: Some event was being held there at the stadium near the crossroads, and traffic clotted yet again with turning vehicles slowing to pay for parking while pedestrians—some daringly darting, others ambling unconcerned—across my path.

Four miles later, I finally felt deliverance as I entered Wisconsin, finding its highways wide, clear, and without potholes.  I didn’t even mind that there were partial barriers on I-94 as I approached Milwaukee and made my way through downtown since traffic there slowed only moderately. 

Beyond Milwaukee, I drove in clear skies above Highway 41 until I reached the Oshkosh area, where I could see dense storm clouds to the northwest.  I hoped that I would be spared another rainout since there was a chance that the ballpark might lie south of the storm line that was perceptibly moving toward the northeast. 
The field was sheltered under the tarp while I was sequestered in Starbucks.
At a few minutes after 4:00 I finally reached the Appleton exit for the Timber Rattlers’ ballpark and noticed flags briskly slapping toward the east.  I looked heavenward, to no avail—other than noting the imminence of the approaching storm.  Yes, at 4:20 the downpour—that’s putting it mildly—began while I sat in Starbucks, sipping coffee and starting to write about the day’s delays and frustrations and worrying anew about whether I would get to sing that evening.  Mid deluge, my hope started to slip like the person sloshing and sliding through the parking lot, finally spilling his coffee, not into a puddle but into his SUV.

For almost two hours the skies emptied time and again with arpeggio flourishes.  But after 6 o’clock, the thunderheads started to break as I splashed in Toad toward the Timber Rattlers’ ballpark a mile or so away.   What an incredible surprise!  Despite the intensity and duration of the thunderstorm, hundreds of fans had already convened for parties in the parking lot, setting up tailgate barbecues. 

Perhaps they knew that the Timber Rattlers’ promotion for that night was an umbrella give-away to the first thousand fans entering the ballpark!
The umbrellas came in handy while raindrops persisted.
Although Charleston and Durham had deeper outfield pools and more splash spots behind home that required removal before their games, I hadn’t seen players assist the grounds crew in sweeping water away until T. J. Mittelstaedt, the Rattlers’ starting left fielder, picked up a broom and began to clear puddles in the dugout.  
Outfielder T.J. gets an odd pregame assist.
During the game I also saw a play that I hadn’t seen before.  In the second inning, Wisconsin pitcher Matthew Miller, perhaps rattled by Burlington runner Yordy Cabrera’s break from first, dropped to the ground to avoid the catcher’s throw to second, which never came. 
Miller ducks the unthrown throw.
Other “firsts” also distinguished my experience at Appleton’s
Fang himself.
ballpark, whose concessions featured several unique snacks and drinks.  I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised that Wisconsin was the only place where cheese curds were available.  Another unusual offering from the grill was “Fang’s Venom Burger,” dressed with hot spices, peppers, salsa, and cheese, although it was made with beef rather than rattlesnake.  And two of the micro brews adopted complementary serpentine names: Snake Tail Ale and Rattler Brau Scottish Ale.  Similarly, the team store picked up on the herpetological motif, identifying itself as the “Snake Pit.” One can only imagine its merchandizing possibilities, especially novelties associated with the team mascot Fang.

Fox Cities Stadium also featured fan interactivity via smart phones.  By accessing, fans could order concessions to be delivered directly to their seats, and they could play various rattler games, post ballpark pictures, provide twitter feeds and link Facebook posts.  Socializing more immediately were groups in the Picnic Pavilion.  While various wedding celebrations occasionally had been held at other Minor League ballparks, the picnic area at the Rattlers’ ballpark simultaneously hosted three distinct wedding groups on this last Saturday in July: Bridget’s Bachelorette Party, the Geiser and Knier Wedding Party, and Dave Selan’s Bachelor Party.  One can only hope that specially ordered cakes were appropriately delivered to each group.

Other gathering spots included the berm along the right field line and the sandbox beyond the centerfield fence.  With so many activities supplementing the baseball game, it’s no   wonder that, despite the rain, the ballpark sold out for the game.
Despite the wet hillside, fans spread out below the Bunyanesque big chair.

After finishing the final notes of the anthem, I detoured past puddles in front of the Rattlers’ bench, and  their third base coach applauded my rendition, calling out, “Good job!”  Since he had heard me sing when the Timber Rattlers had struck the Loons in Midland at the beginning of the week, he added, “Are you following us?”  Then Wisconsin had won handily, 6-3.  But this night the venom of the Rattlers couldn’t match the sting of the Bees from Burlington, which won 8 to 2, thanks in large part to a bases-loaded double and a two-run homer by A. J. Kirby-Jones.