Thursday, July 11, 2013

Old(s) and New: Game 75 in Lansing

Leaving the RV park in Auburn, Indiana just north of Fort Wayne early Sunday morning, we headed three hours north to Lansing, Michigan, old home of the Oldsmobile factory (until 2004) and still home of the Lansing Lugnuts.  Initially named Oldsmobile Park for the oldest brand of American automobiles, Lansing’s relatively new ballpark, built in 1996, oddly stands as a kind of relic to the automotive industry since it witnessed the demise of the trademark car’s manufacture within less than a decade following its construction.  Now the ballpark is legally known as the Cooley Law School Stadium
—a paradox, of sorts, since Cooley Law School, which purchased the naming rights, doesn’t field any athletic team.  Even so, the ballpark’s old Olds name is a cherished one, and one emblazoned in my memory. 
For the decade preceding its death, Olds had promoted a television ad campaign that featured a slogan designed to appeal to a new generation of prospective Olds owners: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”  But that is exactly what the car had been, my father’s Olds 88, a cherished gift in 1963 from the church that he had pastored for almost twenty years.  And, yes, it was the car in which I learned to drive and the one on which I put door dents and side scratches during the first weeks of my license. 

Although I had never been to Lansing, the name of its ballpark evoked the deep sense of satisfaction that the 88 had prompted decades earlier.  Completed in anticipation of the inaugural season for Lugnuts, Oldsmobile Ballpark hosted its very first game between Big Ten, in-state rivals Michigan and Michigan State, with the Wolverines winning an extra-inning decision by a single run over the Spartans.  About the time that the nearby factory towed the last Olds off the production line, renovations to the adolescent Oldsmobile ballpark were completed, and various fan pit stops in the ballpark assumed names aligned with the automotive industry and its products.  The picnic porch was designated as Gasoline Alley, and the souvenir store was tagged as Nuts and Bolts,

while the hot dog and burger stand—the Chrome Plated Grille—crouched under the hood of the grandstand’s canopy. 

Although the concession stands adopted automotive names, they didn’t thematize their super-size snacks with names like a “trunk full of fries” or a “tank of tea.”  Even so, they did toss a change-up toward the down-home favorite of a fried bologna sandwich, which they distinguished by serving the seared and warped deli slice on a toasted waffle bun.  Yet it's too bad that they didn't label that snack as a tire tread delight.
As usual I arrived at the ballpark well before game time, indicating to the parking lot attendant that I was the anthem singer and asking where I should park.  “Not here unless you have a printed pass,” he offered.   “But you can park in that space while you go to the office to check on the availability of a pass.”  I did.  And there I learned that all of the lot’s spaces were designated for the day.  “So where should I park?” I asked Nick Grueser, the Assistant GM who was working at the Will Call window.  “In a metered space on the street,” he replied, “since parking is free on Sundays.” Then shoving a five-dollar bill into my hand, he added, “If you can’t find a spot nearby, this should cover the charge of one of the lots across the street.”
Michigan's Capitol
Welcomed by Nick’s gesture, I smiled at the attendant as I exited the small reserved lot, turning right toward the State Capitol perched above Main Street less than a mile away.  Toad hopped into the first open spot about a block away, prompting the return of the five-spot to Nick a few minutes later. 
The walk back to the ballpark was surprisingly stimulating.  Several sidewalk sculptures and brilliant banners, which had been installed as part of the City’s Street Exhibition, remained on display.  Nearest the ballpark’s entry was a welcoming and intriguing installation, “C’ood: a democracy experiment” by Margaret Parker.  Airy and interactive, the colorful sculpture invited fans and even passersby to detour through its space to see the Lansing world and sky through its steel-laced portals.   

Margaret Parker's inviting "C'ood"
Also welcoming fans to the ballpark were memorial and tribute bricks interspersed throughout the walkway leading to the main entrance.  Curious about who might be honored with sentiments, I paused and found a grandchild’s tribute to “Clare Warner—1880-1953/Grandpa Loved Baseball”; and the simple affirmation, “Friends of Joe,” offered by “Le Legion du Lugnuts.”
Before Lansing, Sunday afternoon games had produced several unpredictable spiritual expressions.  At my first Sunday afternoon game in Fort Myers three months earlier, I had witnessed a genuine act of grace when an eight-year-old girl dashed for a foul ball bouncing through the box seats, retrieved it gleefully, and then gave it to a disappointed pre-school aged boy whom she had beaten to the prize.  Weeks later at a Sunday game in Mississippi, muted recognition of the Christian Sabbath was ironically displayed: while the public address announcer acknowledged several church groups attending the game, the primary evidence of its being Sunday was the closure of the Chick-Fil-A concession, a corporate policy to permit employees to join their families for worship, and the pre-game singing of “Amazing Grace” by a choir from a secular school.  And prior to the Sunday game in Asheville, I heard—for the only time on my tour—a public invocation delivered from behind home plate before my singing the National Anthem.
Yet in Lansing, Sunday manners and patterns appeared more typical, even if more secluded than in the previous ballparks.  In the undercroft where I was taken to warm up or wait without distraction for the pre-game ceremonies, a sign on the door to the Lugnuts’ lockers invoked silence and respect: “Chapel in progress.”  Minutes earlier, Baseball Chapel had concluded its home-game Sunday Bible study and meditation under the leadership of two chaplains, both members of Lansing’s South Church.
Rolando Quiroga had led the Spanish language Bible lesson, focusing on the challenges of sexual temptation and biblical teachings about resisting temptation.  Although members of the visiting team often participated in the Sunday services, none from Beloit had joined the four Lugnuts and ballpark staff members who had attended this morning.  While Rolando had conducted the Bible studies for Spanish speakers, seminary student Jeremy Focu had led an English language devotional.  In his first year serving as a leader for Baseball Chapel services, Jeremy was in the process of assuming the mantle of his father-in-law, who had served as Lansing’s chaplain since the team had been founded.  On this morning Jeremy focused his message on the epistle to Titus, emphasizing the need to exercise control over temptations.
By the time that I entered the locker room, a single Lugnuts’ staffer remained talking with Rolando Although I take seriously the performance of the anthem as a kind of patriotic consecration of the game, I delayed my usual vocal exercises until I noticed that Big Lug, Lansing’s mascot standing nearby, did not distract their discussion as he playfully donned his silly purple costume that featured big bolts as nostrils on his mask.  Then I was distracted—and inhibited—by trying to warm up adjacent to Big Lug.
Often at Single-A ballparks, interns who escorted me to field had little interest in the anthem or my tour. 
Gabe appears in a different kind of screen test.
By contrast, Lansing staffer Gabe Esquivel inquired about my singing of the anthem game after game, each with different settings, procedures, and acoustics.  She acknowledged that earlier in the season she had already performed the anthem at a Lugnuts’ game as a last minute replacement.  Hours before a performer had been scheduled to appear, she had received a call to pinch sing.  
The most memorable part of her experience, she recalled, was that she had rehearsed her rendition in the car while driving to the ballpark. 

At Lansing, my rendition a short time later continued a week’s run of stellar performances in my estimation; and my evaluation was confirmed by a vacationing Methodist minister who remarked on my performance as “crisp and undecorated,” as she put it, “making it possible for all to join in, like a congregational hymn.”  That’s success—because it’s our national anthem, not my theme song, however I might be associated with it.
During the fourth inning a carefree kid abandoned his ball and glove, shoving them under the bench a row or so behind his grandfather Leonard Burns, who angled back toward the boy’s stuff while I focused my camera on the innocent equipment.   
Assuring him that I was simply photographing the deserted gear, I enjoyed another serendipitous encounter, learning that he had been on Whittier’s campus.  When he had served as the superintendent of Bellflower Schools near Los Angeles, Dr. Burns had attended the inauguration of Eugene Mills as President of Whittier College a few years before I joined its faculty.
At most minor league ballparks, a roster of players who have on stage in “The Show” is prominently displayed, and often banners or posters throughout the concourse celebrate current major league stars who played for the home team.  At several of the ballparks, there are team “halls of fame”—bronze plaques or photographic exhibits that identify the most outstanding players of bygone years.   At Salem, Virginia, an elaborate “hall” stood adjacent to the miniature Fenway replica that featured a little Green Monster where children played Wiffle ball.
At Lansing there was a different pitch for its few Hall of Fame inductees, who included Carlos
Beltran and Carlos Zambrano, current, accomplished Major Leaguers.  Also celebrated by Lansing with Hall of Fame honors was Brian Dopirak, a former Lugnut inducted in 2010 after toiling in the Minors for almost a decade.  The impressive thing is that, after eight years playing primarily for small-town teams, he had not yet sipped a cup of coffee in the big leagues.  Still, he was honored because in 2004 he had set Lansing records for HRs and RBIs in a season—39 and 120—also socking 38 doubles while batting .307.  Now having risen for a full season to AAA, I saw him in a single plate appearance for the Oklahoma City RedHawks when they had lost two months earlier to the Nashville Sounds, also on a Sunday.  Alas, then he carried a .259 average into the game and walked as a pinch hitter in the 6th inning.
In this game between the Lugnuts and Snappers, no plays or players stood out other than the Lugnuts’ starting pitcher, Marcus Walden, who departed with a win after five strong innings of one-hit ball, only to see the Snappers chomp the lead to a single run before the home team held on for a 6-4 victory.

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