Routing headaches and traffic miseries rarely had worried me on our way to ballparks, partly because of Toad’s maneuverability, partly because of Bonnie’s access to web reports about different directions, and partly because I insisted on having an arrival cushion that often deposited us at ballparks well before my scheduled pregame meeting with staff.
In San Antonio road construction in the heart of the city had prompted us to Google an alternate route to the Missions’ ballpark, only to find that we had been directed to an authentic San Antonio mission on the opposite side of the city. Even so, we made it to the baseball park a half hour before the game’s start, exactly at the time I was scheduled to meet the game-day staff. Approaching New Orleans, we had learned that the causeway over Lake Pontchartrain was clogged or closed, prompting us to take a more circuitous approach that still gave us plenty of time to get to the Zephyrs’ ballpark. The miracle of iPad access allowed us to circumvent clogs in Birmingham and Gwinnett. Yet in Massachusetts while Arby still had Toad tethered, we found no escape from the freeway repair that kept us inching along for more than an hour, a pace so slow and with unpredictable end that we worried about reaching Lowell in time for the Spinners’ doubleheader.
Not since that Northeast construction delay had I worried about getting to a game on time, especially having budgeted extra hours for driving from the northern Chicago area to Appleton, Wisconsin on a Saturday. But my anticipated three-hour drive eventually doubled in length, causing me to fret most of the miles. Since Bonnie had taken a weekend leave from ballgames to join a women’s (non-baseball) retreat on the Rock River, I could not rely this time on her navigational trouble-shooting with her iPad.
The woes unfolded in this way: From the RV park in Volo to Appleton, the most direct route coursed like a crooked river over county roads, which, on a weekend, I feared might be slowed with tractors and farmers and in-laws reluctantly heading to remote reunions. So instead, I turned east, not north, heading toward Lake Michigan and the I-94 corridor between Chicago and Milwaukee. I hoped to capitalize on its regular freeway flow on an innocuous Saturday in July.
To get to the Interstate, however, I had to drive through several villages and towns crouching toward Lake Michigan. Approaching Grayslake around noon, I ran into traffic backed up on the single lane of Route 120 and waited through three changes of the traffic signal before I could move through the intersection at Milwaukee Road. I probably should have heeded the omens of the travel deities at that point and turned north. Yet, I persisted in my direction toward Lake Michigan.
Rather than being relieved when I reached the Interstate, I thought that I had returned to L.A., seeing that its traffic was at a standstill. Not wanting to chance that the clog might be temporary, I continued on 120 to U.S. 41 North, not far beyond the freeway and there found an easy flow toward the Wisconsin border a dozen miles away. But a few minutes later, an orange sign alerted me to construction and delays on 41 North as it merged with I-94. While a smaller sign marked an alternate 94 to the right, I naively persisted in my move toward the freeway ramp until the traffic stopped. Luckily, a gravel lane crossing-over the grassy median provided a means to escape, and I U-turned around toward Illinois 173, which was identified as the alternate 94 route.
Alas, the traffic backed up right away on 173 because of a one-lane bridge with restricted flow controlled by another traffic signal. Delayed by two red lights in that construction, I was relieved to resume normal speed momentarily for about a mile before having to stop in the line waiting for a freight train to clear the road’s crossing. Once it had passed and the arms blocking the tracks had lifted, traffic accelerated in its flow to the posted limit.
What else might impede my progress, or lack thereof, I wondered, since I had come less than 20 miles in the first hour of an anticipated three-hour drive? I didn’t have to think long. Ahead, police action—merely a traffic citation being issued to a motorist—constricted traffic to a single lane before I could turn north on Illinois 131, approaching the Wisconsin state line. Yet one more kind of delay: Some event was being held there at the stadium near the crossroads, and traffic clotted yet again with turning vehicles slowing to pay for parking while pedestrians—some daringly darting, others ambling unconcerned—across my path.
Four miles later, I finally felt deliverance as I entered Wisconsin, finding its highways wide, clear, and without potholes. I didn’t even mind that there were partial barriers on I-94 as I approached Milwaukee and made my way through downtown since traffic there slowed only moderately.
Beyond Milwaukee, I drove in clear skies above Highway 41 until I reached the Oshkosh area, where I could see dense storm clouds to the northwest. I hoped that I would be spared another rainout since there was a chance that the ballpark might lie south of the storm line that was perceptibly moving toward the northeast.
At a few minutes after 4:00 I finally reached the Appleton exit for the Timber Rattlers’ ballpark and noticed flags briskly slapping toward the east. I looked heavenward, to no avail—other than noting the imminence of the approaching storm. Yes, at 4:20 the downpour—that’s putting it mildly—began while I sat in Starbucks, sipping coffee and starting to write about the day’s delays and frustrations and worrying anew about whether I would get to sing that evening. Mid deluge, my hope started to slip like the person sloshing and sliding through the parking lot, finally spilling his coffee, not into a puddle but into his SUV.
For almost two hours the skies emptied time and again with arpeggio flourishes. But after 6 o’clock, the thunderheads started to break as I splashed in Toad toward the Timber Rattlers’ ballpark a mile or so away. What an incredible surprise! Despite the intensity and duration of the thunderstorm, hundreds of fans had already convened for parties in the parking lot, setting up tailgate barbecues.
Perhaps they knew that the Timber Rattlers’ promotion for that night was an umbrella give-away to the first thousand fans entering the ballpark!
Although Charleston and Durham had deeper outfield pools and more splash spots behind home that required removal before their games, I hadn’t seen players assist the grounds crew in sweeping water away until T. J. Mittelstaedt, the Rattlers’ starting left fielder, picked up a broom and began to clear puddles in the dugout.
During the game I also saw a play that I hadn’t seen before. In the second inning, Wisconsin pitcher Matthew Miller, perhaps rattled by Burlington runner Yordy Cabrera’s break from first, dropped to the ground to avoid the catcher’s throw to second, which never came.
Other “firsts” also distinguished my experience at Appleton’s
ballpark, whose concessions featured
several unique snacks and drinks. I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised
that Wisconsin was the only place where cheese curds were available. Another
unusual offering from the grill was “Fang’s Venom Burger,” dressed with hot
spices, peppers, salsa, and cheese, although it was made with beef rather than
rattlesnake. And two of the micro brews adopted complementary serpentine
names: Snake Tail Ale and Rattler Brau Scottish Ale. Similarly, the team
store picked up on the herpetological motif, identifying itself as the “Snake
Pit.” One can only imagine its merchandizing possibilities, especially
novelties associated with the team mascot Fang.
Fox Cities Stadium also featured fan interactivity via smart phones. By accessing www.rattlersingame.com, fans could order concessions to be delivered directly to their seats, and they could play various rattler games, post ballpark pictures, provide twitter feeds and link Facebook posts. Socializing more immediately were groups in the Picnic Pavilion. While various wedding celebrations occasionally had been held at other Minor League ballparks, the picnic area at the Rattlers’ ballpark simultaneously hosted three distinct wedding groups on this last Saturday in July: Bridget’s Bachelorette Party, the Geiser and Knier Wedding Party, and Dave Selan’s Bachelor Party. One can only hope that specially ordered cakes were appropriately delivered to each group.
Other gathering spots included the berm along the right field line and the sandbox beyond the centerfield fence. With so many activities supplementing the baseball game, it’s no wonder that, despite the rain, the ballpark sold out for the game.
After finishing the final notes of the anthem, I detoured past puddles in front of the Rattlers’ bench, and their third base coach applauded my rendition, calling out, “Good job!” Since he had heard me sing when the Timber Rattlers had struck the Loons in Midland at the beginning of the week, he added, “Are you following us?” Then Wisconsin had won handily, 6-3. But this night the venom of the Rattlers couldn’t match the sting of the Bees from Burlington, which won 8 to 2, thanks in large part to a bases-loaded double and a two-run homer by A. J. Kirby-Jones.