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.
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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.


1 comment:

  1. How do you REMEMBER or more accurately, record all this information? It's so rich in description, personalities and history. Can you could write fiction as well as you can record history? I'm not saying this just because I'm your brother-in-law.