Once Bonnie had decided to join me in the cross-country journey in Arby, I wanted to make sure that we could be in the Chicago area at end of July for her birthday. She loves to visit friends in the city where we spent a decade during my graduate studies. And since art, not baseball, is one of her passions, Chicago also lures her with the Art Institute and its adjacent Millennium Park.
When we arrived in suburban Chicago three days before her birthday, we anticipated a couple of tourist days before and after my appearance with the Kane County Cougars, the only Minor League team within earshot of a Harry Caray homerun call at either Wrigley Field or US Cellular Park. When we have returned to Chicago, we usually have stayed with friends on the South Side or at one of the hotels near the river or on the Miracle Mile. But with Arby to care for, we selected an RV park north suburban Volo, a location near one of the commuter rail lines to the Loop and within a few miles of a truck repair shop where we had scheduled a mechanic to replace the bushings on our bouncing beast Arby.
Thus far throughout our trip—to our great surprise—we had found that few of the RV parks where we stayed were peopled with RVers on the move. Most were locations where permanent RV residents lived, as in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which had a single space unoccupied by “long termies”; or they were primarily vacation locations, like the park in Wales, Massachusetts, where most of the sites were set up as summer second homes. Sometimes they were simply destinations for mutli-day stays, such as the Zooland Park in Ashboro, North Carolina, which was near the North Carolina Zoological Park and the Potter’s Museum in Seagrove, an oddly named community hundreds of miles from the nearest shore. Yet few parks had been like near Memphis and Fort Wayne, ones that we had expected to find more frequently: easily accessible, adjacent to the freeway, with plenty of pull-through sites. Our place at the Fish Lake Beach RV Park in Volo fit the vacation home category: Of the 550 sites there, 90% were permanently docked motor and mobile homes for weekend and summer escapes for folks in the Chicago vicinity.
Throughout the week before our arrival there, record-breaking heat had blanketed the upper Midwest, making afternoon and early evening games miserable. The Chicago area greeted us with a different weather threat. Throughout the night thunderstorms raged and the downpour continued past the second pot of morning coffee. Finally as the storm started to break, our site resembled the shallows of Fish Lake itself. Puddles had swelled into ponds.
Concerned that my Kane County appearance might be rained
out, I began to wonder whether Ann Lindner, one of our Chicago friends who
planned to join us for the game that evening, might be a thunderstorm jinx. A month earlier she had coordinated her
family’s vacation to Washington, DC to correspond with my schedule for singing
for the Potomac Nationals. But that game
had been rained out by a microburst that deluged the municipal park, unprepared
|Boys bike through the rain while Arby and Toad remain on dry ground.|
|Even Nationals' staffers had used umbrellas at Potomac in the covered concession area.|
Several calls to the Cougars’ front office assured me that the evening game would proceed as scheduled. Even so, I hoped that there would be at least one shift from the guidelines that the Cougars’ anthem coordinator had sent to me received several weeks earlier. They included the recommendation that I should purchase my tickets early. Hmm. Purchase tickets? For several ballparks along the way I had been warned that I would need to pay for parking—a fee that was waived by appreciative lot attendants on all but two occasions—but no team had suggested that I would need to pay for entry to the game for which I would sing.
|#45's pants near the entry.|
So when we neared Elfstrom Park in Geneva 35 miles south of Arby’s mooring, I took the late afternoon sunshine as a brilliant omen. Walking toward the ticket office I noticed the pants of a Cougars’ player hanging from a branch in the tree near the exit from the home team clubhouse. While the sunshine might have been a good omen, I didn’t know how to interpret the half-scarecrow of trousers: Had #45 been found guilty in the Cougars’ kangaroo court? Or did the dangling pants portend me getting pantsed during my tickets request? Warily, I approached the Will Call window and identified myself as the anthem singer, indicating that Assistant General Manager Jeff Ney had set things up as part of my national tour. Twisting her mouth to the right side and raising her eyebrows, the Cougars’ staffer then shrugged a little, handing me three tickets, probably in Ney’s box since they were in the first row behind the backstop.
|Bonnie and Ann relax in front row seats.|
To a certain extent Minor League baseball attracts fans in relation to the promotions that are offered. Each Wednesday at Kane County, attendees receive a “Winning Wednesdays” scratcher, which might offer a discount on a featured concession, tickets to a subsequent game (my ticket),
or the chance to throw out a first pitch (like that of the young boy who proudly claimed his opportunity while I talked with the promotions staffers).
|A winning first pitcher!|
During the game, an upcoming celebration of promotions was also promoted. The extravaganza would feature 100 different promotions offered throughout the game, and it would spotlight Nancy Faust (the Chicago sports organist extraordinaire who accompanied me at old Comiskey Park in 1977 when I first sang the national anthem for a baseball game) and Mike Veeck (son of the promotional innovator Bill Veeck, part owner of five Minor League teams, and the person who set up my initial singing for the White Sox). Mike himself is also an inventive promoter, once having arranged for a pig to deliver baseballs to the home plate umpire and on another occasion having offered fans a chance to receive a therapeutic massage from a Roman Catholic nun. I only wished that I could hang around Kane County long enough to attend the Cougars’ promotional festival and witness the shenanigans that might be in store.
In a different way I also experienced a promotion at the ballpark. On the announcement board along the concourse behind home plate, the Cougars had posted an article from the Kane County Chronicle about my appearance at Elfstrom Stadium. Standing nearby while I read and photographed the piece was its author, Kevin Druley, who had talked with me several days earlier following a feature that had run on The University of Chicago’s website.
That story had also prompted an interview
with Manya Brachear, a reporter for the Chicago
Tribune who sent Nuccio Dinuzzo, one of the newspaper’s staff photographers,
to record my rendition that evening so that it could accompany her story the
following day. After Jeff Ney saw Nuccio shooting my
performance, he expressed a shocked delight that the Trib was finally noticing the suburban Cougars. “I’ve tried over and over to get them just to
print our scores,” he bemoaned, “and they always ignore us. How did you get them to come out here?”
|The posted version of Druley's piece.|
While the publicity about my appearance at Kane County was unusual, there were
customary displays and experiences at Elfstrom. Like several other Minor League ballparks,
current Major Leaguers and former team stars were recognized. On the awnings above the entry to Elfstrom,
action images of Cougar alumni Josh Beckett, Joe Blanton, Ryan Dempster, and
Adrian Gonzalez greeted fans. And inside
the ballpark former Cougar catcher Charles Johnson was recognized by his retired
number—35—the only one so honored by the team.
Twice a first-round draft pick (initially by the Montreal Expos after graduating
from high school and then by the Florida Marlins in 1992 while he was finishing
his collegiate career at the University of Miami), Johnson slugged 19 homeruns
and collected 94 RBIs for Kane County in 1993, his first season as a pro. Within two years, he was playing regularly
for the Marlins, and during his twelve-year Major League career, he won five
Gold Glove awards and twice was named to the All-Star team. Since both Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez
wore 19, I’d expect that number to be the next one retired by the Cougars.
|The entry gates to Elfstrom Park.|
Like clusters of fans at a number of other parks, a quartet of regulars—Sue, Dan, Pam, and Judy—sat in a shady set of seats behind the backstop and congratulated me when I walked up to the concession stands. They commented specifically on my tone, pace, and articulation, as well as the fact that I appeared to enjoy singing the anthem.
Dan had attended games in about 100 ballparks, and Judy enjoyed watching
her grandson play for the Cougars. They let
me know that they regularly grade anthem performances; and so I asked about my
score: a 93, a low A, a grade that fits with the low A level of the Midwest
League. Curious about how my rendition might
rank with others that they had heard, I inquired about distinct anthem
performances that they recalled. While
they assured me that they would remember mine favorably because of my tour and
our conversation, they squinted as shook their heads, recounting only several face
puckering ones with sour pitch that they had heard throughout the season.
|Dan, Pam, Sue, and Judy|
The game itself also caused the hometown fans to cringe during a seventh-inning disaster. After starting pitcher Yordano Ventura and reliever Antonio Cruz shut Cedar Rapids down following a first-inning run, the Cougars’ seventh-inning pitchers created distress rather than relief, allowing three singles, issuing three walks, adding a wild pitch, and permitting the Kernels to score four times, enough to assure the visitors’ victory 6-3.