Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Loony Christmas Tune: Game 76 in Midland, MI

Months before I had hummed the starting pitch for my first rendition on the anthem tour, I had mapped out possible routes for connecting sites, minimizing mileage, and maximizing landscape beauty and other passing attractions.  While trying to figure out how I could pass through areas of the country that I had not previously seen, I had tried to align consecutive games in Midland, Michigan, where the Great Lakes Loons make their home, with other teams in the Midwest League.  And because I had never been to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I had hoped that it would be possible to aim Arby north from Midland, cross the bridge to Mackinaw Island, loop through the U. P., and then descend through Wisconsin to Appleton for a Timber Rattler’s appearance.  Although that route might exceed my daily target for mileage, I figured an extra night between games would be worth the northern exposure.   And if the trek north couldn’t be navigated, then taking Arby and Toad on a ferry ride across Lake Michigan from Ludington to Manitowoc, just an hour’s drive from Appleton, might be equally adventurous.

Alas, neither schedule could be worked out.  Meanwhile, Midland didn’t seem to lie along a route to anywhere, much less half way to somewhere—thus confounding the appropriateness of its name “Midland.”  Even so, I set up a date with the Loons following a game in Lansing and two days before one for the Kane County Cougars in suburban Chicago.

So while Bonnie and I headed north in Toad from the comforts of the Cottonwood RV Park in Lansing, I wondered if Midland would be worth our jaunty spur since neither the Mackinaw route or the Lake Michigan crossing had become feasible.  Added to my concerns was the fact that the Midland team enjoyed the support of Dow Chemical,
whose home office and primary plant are in Midland!  As an ardent supporter of ecological initiatives, I could hardy fathom appreciating the alignment of the Loons with Dow.  Yet few teams, ballparks, and cities proved as receptive, supportive, and innovative as Midland.  And it also enjoyed alignment with one of my hometown teams, the Dodgers, as their Low-A farm team.

The Loons' tribute to Lasorda, who appeared at the ceremonies announcing the Loons' affiliation with the Dodgers.

Often, staff members who escorted me during the pre-game ceremonies were unaware of my anthem project, and some had to request my name, which occasionally had been omitted from the day’s flow chart of pre-game activities.  More than two dozen times, I was introduced simply: “Tonight’s national anthem performed by Joe Price,” with no mention of my affiliation with Whittier College while first pitchers and dream team players received more extensive introductions.   On a number of occasions, staff greeted me appreciatively and graciously; and Midland led the league in this category. 

The credit for such incredible hospitality must go to Linda Lones, the game-day staff member who coordinated my visit.  
Linda Lones and me
During the staff gathering before the gates opened, she informed ushers and game-day entertainers about my tour while emphasizing the evening’s theme of “Christmas in July.”  The meeting ended with a cheer, and the staff, appearing jubilant like carolers, dispersed to their respective duties, many stopping to welcome me and thank me for including Midland on the tour.

Familiar with positive experiences that I had written about in my blog, especially the fun at Altoona where she had worked the previous year, Linda indicated that she wanted to do something special to distinguish my visit to Midland; so she proposed that I throw out the first pitch, an opportunity that I had not been offered at any other ballpark.  Moments before the anthem, then, I joined Santa on the mound and threw a pitch over the heart of the plate—but on a single bounce! 

Thankfully, my delivery of the anthem went without a hitch. Then for only the second time all tour, the home team manager—John Shoemaker— approvingly stopped me and handed me an autographed ball.  Fans also expressed their appreciation in more typical comments: “Thank you for your project.”  “What you’re doing is good.”  “Thanks for coming to Midland.”

Kuo's bobble-head bounced happily in Arby.
After I joined Bonnie in the stands, Linda appeared with Santa sacks filled with Loons loot: T-shirts and blankets, trinkets and candies, and two bobble head dolls, both from earlier promotions—one of Michigander Kirk Gibson and the other of former Loon and then Dodgers pitcher Hong-Chi Kuo.  When we returned to Arby later that evening, we mounted the mini-Kuo on the shelf above the door to the RV, letting him function like old St. Christopher statuettes mounted on dashboards of sturdy station wagons.

Modeling yuletide joy, staff members wore Christmas ties and tucked Santa hats into their belts.  Their merriment extended to the introductions of the Loons whose representations on the scoreboard featured the winter holiday theme by using a candy-cane font to identify uniform numbers.  When right fielder Nick Akins came to bat, he was depicted as St. Nick with a white beard and Santa’s cap.  At the plate, Akins experienced a game like Christmas, getting on base in all five plate appearances, slapping two singles and working three walks.  

And other Loons joined him in the Christmas hit parade: doubling was “Cold” David Iden, who was represented in ice attire; and singling were John Garcia, who was portrayed in an elf costume, and lumbering first baseman Chris Jacobs, who stole no bases during the entire season, but nonetheless appeared as “the Grinch who stole Christmas.”

Despite the scoreboard’s festive portrayal of the Loons, the game itself featured umpires almost as much as players.  In top of the sixth inning after a close play at the plate, the home plate ump, Dane Ratajski, tossed the Loons’ catcher Michael Pericht who argued the call. 
Ratajski, Seneca, and Peritch during the calm of pre-game ceremonies.
And in the next inning Ratajski ejected designated hitter Bobby Coyle after striking out.  While it’s not uncommon for a player to argue a called third strike, nor even a checked swing, I had never seen a player tossed after swinging and missing strike three.

Not to be out argued by Ratajski, base umpire Mario Seneca blew two calls, prompting protests before reversing his rulings:  With runners on first and second and none out, Iden hit a soft liner to the edge of the infield grass in front of the shortstop.  Too low for the infield fly rule to be called, the Wisconsin infielder snared the ball on a short hop while the runners, thinking it would be caught on the fly, returned to their bases.  The shortstop tossed the ball to the third baseman, who tagged the base, forcing the runner who had retreated to second.  Then he threw the ball to the second baseman, who tagged second and the base-runner, standing on the bag, just to make sure.  Finally, he threw the ball to first, where the runner had crossed the base and stood with his teammate who had retreated. 

In the confusion of runners and throws, Seneca called a triple play, and the Rattlers left the field.  Iden, meanwhile, was instructed by the first base coach to stay on first—alone.

Shoemaker argued mildly, asking Seneca to consult with Ratajski, the home plate ump.  He did.  After they sorted through the sequence of tosses and tags, Iden was ruled safe and the Timber Rattlers returned to the field to record a different final out of the inning.

I still haven’t seen a triple play in person.

In the next inning Seneca blew another call, another based on familiarity with the rules rather than simply a judgment decision, like calling a strike, a balk, or an out on a bang-bang play.  This was the situation: With a runner on first and none out, Wisconsin’s batter bunted down the first base line, fielded by the first baseman who made a sweeping tag attempt on the hitter.  Seneca called him safe.  Again Shoemaker argued and asked for him to confer with Ratajski, who ruled correctly that the batter had been out for swerving out of the base runner’s lane.  The score: Shoemaker 2, Seneca 0.

As magnetic as were the plays and calls in the game and as gracious as was the reception of my appearance by staff and fans, the experience in Midland was made even more engaging by the character of the Loons’ organization and the architecture of the ballpark.  While some Minor League teams like the Arkansas Travelers are community owned, the Great Lakes Loons are unique in their ownership by a non-profit, public charity, the Michigan Baseball Foundation.  At the end of each baseball season, the Foundation awards its year-end balance to various Midland and mid-Michigan charities.  And the previous year’s donations had exceeded a hundred thousand dollars.

The salutary mission of the organization was also reflected in the ballpark’s design and facilities.  Built on the site of the original headquarters for The Dow Chemical Company, the stadium was completed in 2007 in time for the Loons’ inaugural game after the purchase of the Southwest Michigan team and its move from Battle Creek.  In that initial year, the Dow Diamond won Baseball Digest’s award for the Best New Ballpark. 

The organization and the ballpark are the only ones that I encountered with a thorough commitment to sustainability, evinced by their pledge to cut their water, waste, and energy use by half in the next decade.   For starters, the huge video board is powered by more than 150 solar panels installed adjacent to the park’s right field gate.  (Although there is no direct connection between the panels and the scoreboard, the energy annually generated by the solar system basically equals that required for the video board’s operation.) 
The park of panels beyond the right field wall.
Manifesting its ecological initiative in a different way, the ballpark’s construction crew crushed and repurposed the red brick salvaged from the original Dow complex for use in the warning track.

A distinct ballpark design element also enhanced the Christmas in July promotion: a grand fireplace dominates the intersection of the main entry and the concourse, allowing stockings to be hung by the chimney with care.

And adding warming possibilities to the ballpark in another way, two fire pits on the terraces promise to lure Loony fans on cold, early season evenings—hardly the situation on the 90-plus degree day when we were there.   
Loons' staffers Eric and Shelley stay warm without the benefit of the fire pit.
All said, you gotta love the Loons, even though they lost 6-3 to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

Loons' staffer Emily provides a yuletide wave.

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