Saturday, July 20, 2013

Serendipity at the Snappers' Park: Game 81 in Beloit

Game notes transcribed to my netbook.
Following the scare about losing my little black book of game notes in Davenport, I wanted to transfer my daily scribbles to Word files as soon as possible after retrieving it from the River Bandits’ staff.  So Bonnie took the wheel of Toad and drove much of the way to Beloit for the evening game there, allowing me to type and correct notes from five games on my small netbook, which routinely accompanied me in my camera bag to the ballparks.  Heading into Illinois, we followed I-88 and the East-West Tollway to Dixon, where we exited and skirted Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home.  Following Illinois 2 along the scenic Rock River, Bonnie shared her adventures of the previous weekend with a group of women whose retreat site had been one of the river homes that we passed between Dixon and Byron.   

Although we were backtracking much of a route that we had driven a few days earlier, the home schedules of several of the Midwest League teams required that we move first one way, then another, and finally reverse—twice.  Consequently, we took advantage of the opportunity to anchor Arby for three days at a reasonable and commodious public RV park just west of Davenport, and from there tethered out in Toad to home games for Quad Cities, Beloit, and Peoria.  

Two hours before game my scheduled arrival for the Snappers, we stopped in McDonalds for coffee, a snack, and easy WiFi. As we targeted possible RV parks for our hook ups, we consistently looked for cleanliness, easy access, cable TV, and WiFi.  Often we found that the distance of our site from the WiFi router prevented us from having dependable use.  So McDonalds, Starbucks, and Panera Bread became our favorite spots for coffee, snacks, lunch, and yes—of course—fresh bread.  Initially, we had planned simply to sip coffee and check email before heading to the ballpark for batting practice and perhaps to visit with Dee Maxson, a friend from our church choir in Tustin, California who was vacationing at a summer home near Lake Geneva and who had let us know that she’d come to the game.  But when a thunderstorm blitzed through the area with the suddenness of a blown save, we settled in for snack, and I continued to work on transcribing my notes and uploading an entry to my blog. 

In Beloit, the municipal stadium blends like a boarding house in an established neighborhood, a setting and style for the ballpark that shape its welcoming character.  Contributing to its family-room feel, its simple architecture spreads across open spaces that encourage kids to play catch within the reach of foul balls, and in the grandstands its field level front row seats are exactly that, front row and field level, a kind of commoner’s precursor to the dugout level seats popular at several new Major League stadia.  

Beloit's front row field level seats.
Beloit’s ballpark design also locates the team clubhouses beyond an open concession area that divides the lockers from the diamond and dugouts.  While fans routinely interact with players along the fence between the bullpen and dugout in most of the Minor League parks, here the autograph hounds are able to intercept them, literally blocking the way between their separated sanctuaries of the field and the clubhouse.    
Ignoring players, a young fan gets
mascot Snappy's autograph.

Standing in this area before the game, I was greeted with smiles by several of the visiting Kane County players, some of whom seemed to recognize me as they passed the concession line.  Within the past few days, they had heard me sing twice, once at their ballpark in Geneva, Illinois, where the introduction identified me and the tour, and the previous night in Davenport, where the PA announcer made no mention of my anthem efforts.   Among the pride of passing Cougars was starting pitcher Jason Adam, who looked at me with a blink of recognition. 

“You guys will get tired of me,” I suggested.  “Not at all,” he responded with a smile, “You’re good.”  With that, I wished him good luck for the game and suggested that his teammates could help by doing more than they had done the previous night in Davenport, where they had been shut out.  He did.  He got unexpected support from catcher Kevin David, whose lofty prayer to centerfield was answered by the ballpark’s short dimension—380 feet to dead center, a distance deadly for fly-ball pitchers.  The hit was his first—and only—homerun of the season.  Then to balance homerun fields a few innings later, Brett Eibner hit one to right before Jacob Kuebler hit one to left.  Propelled by these drives to a six-run lead, Adam held the Snappers scoreless through his six strong innings and eventually got the win.   

Also pausing to chat on his way to the dugout was injured pitcher Julio Pimentel.  While other players continued to scratch across the concrete in their cleats, he beamed and said that tonight would be the sixth time that he had seen me this season.  I did a double-take faster than his electric smile.  What?  How?  Quickly, he rattled off the list of places. “In the Carolina League at Winston-Salem, Lynchburg, and Wilmington.  Last night in Quad Cities, and last week at our place in Kane County, and tonight.”   

Julio had spent the first half of the season with Wilmington, the Kansas City affiliate in the Carolina League, before being shifted to Kane County.  On the DL for the entire year, he had seen me behind home plate more often this season than he had seen a catcher flash a sign for a curve ball.  As he left I encouraged him to sing with me, perhaps as a duet.  He smiled.

Moments before the pregame introductions, a father approached the Snappers’ staffer and asked if his son Dawson, who was turning 10 that day, could throw out the first pitch.  It happened.  At other ballparks the selection process or the birthday request takes place in formal ways through competitions, applications, purchases, sponsorships, or even as a scratch-off prize, as the kid in Kane County had enjoyed a week earlier.  Here, a simple, familial request proved effective; and Dawson tossed a decent ceremonial pitch.

Now it was my turn to follow through on a series of applications and appeals that had begun more than a year earlier.  Taking my position between home and the backstop, I scanned the crowd and did not see our friend Dee among the few fans in the stands.  (The reported attendance of 414, the second-smallest crowd that I had encountered, included all of the late arrivers, folks waiting for burgers and fries, and kids playing behind the first-base concession booth.)  After finishing the anthem with gusto, I turned toward the visitors’ dugout to see if Julio had signified “thumbs up,” but I couldn’t pick him out from the players along the dugout rail. 

Then turning to walk past the Snappers’ bench, I heard more than congrats from their manager Nelson Prada, who must have remembered me from the previous weekend when I had sung for the Snappers’ victory over the Timber Rattlers in Appleton.  Moments earlier, I had been introduced minimally like the previous night:  “Tonight’s national anthem performed by Joe Price.”  Prada stepped up to the track and started to ask me about my tour:

Prada: “You’re the guy who’s making the tour singing at ballparks.  Where have you been?”

Price: “All over—Texas, the South, Florida, the East Coast, New England, Indiana, Ohio, here.  Now I’m heading west for the rest of this month.”

Prada: “How many games?”  He glanced toward the mound where Manuel Soliman, his starting pitcher, was starting to warm up.

Price: “This was number 81.”

Prada: “Ever forget the words?” 

Price: “Nope.  I rehearse it at least once right before every performance.”

Prada: “Did you sing for any games before this year?”

Price: “In twenty Major League ballparks.”

Prada: “Which ones?”

Price: “The White Sox, Cubs, Brewers, Twins, Royals…”

Prada: “The Twins?  In the Metrodome or Target Field.”

Price:  “The Humphreydome.”

Prada sighed, perhaps recalling his dream to play there.  More than a decade earlier, he had spent four years as catcher in the Twins’ organization, never advancing above their high A affiliate.

Prada turned to watch Snappers’ catcher Toby Streich fire a throw to the shortstop covering second. “Thanks and good luck,” he called out as I moved through the gate, and the first hitter stepped into the batter’s box.
The leadoff batter for Kane County.
Moving toward Bonnie in our seats behind home plate, a woman approached and introduced herself as Cindy Schliem.  “I’ve read your blog,” she smiled.

How? again I wondered.  There had been no Beloit publicity, no public address recognition, merely an identification of me by name. 

Cindy explained.  Her life-long friend Cheryl McClain was the Keys’ staff member in Frederick, Maryland who had handed me my tickets at the Will Call window when I had sung there a month earlier.  Then I had learned that Cheryl had sung the anthem for the Frederick team some years ago, and we had struck up a conversation about anthem performances and my tour.  Following my appearance there, Cheryl had checked out the information on the website and let Cindy know of my schedule and blog.  I love the serendipitous connections that the anthem facilitates!

And I love the support of friends who made significant effort to participate with me on the tour.  In the second inning, Dee Maxson found us easily in the grandstands, introduced her daughter and her son-in-law, Donna and Rob Grisham, and apologized for having missed the anthem.  Their forty-mile drive had been delayed by a different experience of heat.  Because the air conditioner in their car had broken, they had wanted to minimize their exposure to the heat and humidity of the hour-long trip by procrastinating their departure, hoping that the prospect of the waning afternoon might offer an illusion of cooling.  But the plan backfired because the thunderstorm that had passed through Beloit while Bonnie and I sat in McDonalds had interrupted their drive, causing them to raise the windows and suffer the sauna of their closed car before capitulating to reason, abandoning the rush to get to the ballpark by game time, and seeking storm refuge in an air conditioned cafĂ©.  Thus the delay. 

Since they had not gotten to hear me sing the anthem, I followed Dawson’s father’s last-minute request and asked—for the only time on tour—the Snappers to let me lead “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch, thereby giving Dee and the Grishams at least a chance to see and hear me sing at the ballpark.  Graciously, they stayed for that quick refrain, then bid adieu for their return toward Lake Geneva. 

With two outs in the top of the seventh, I'm anticipating "Take Me out to the Ballgame."
An inning later, Bonnie and I also bid the ballpark goodbye before the Snappers rallied in the bottom of the ninth, then scoring their only runs in their defeat, 6 to 2.  Since we needed to get back to Arby before the county park locked up at midnight, we returned to Davenport via the faster, more boring all-Interstate route of I-90, I-39, I-88, and I-80.  Still, we missed the curfew, and had to park Toad alone outside the gates before walk a hundred moonlit yards to Arby.   

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