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 fa├žade 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.               


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