Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Barking at Ghosts: Game 86 in Casper

The panoramic view from Mike Lansing Field in Casper.
During the fifteen-minute drive from Arby’s berth at the River’s Edge RV park to the ballpark in Casper, Wyoming, Bonnie mentioned that she missed Winston, our lovable three year-old dog that we had left in Whittier with our older son, who was house sitting and dog training.
On my desk before the tour, Winston
is chagrinned about our departure.

To our surprise when we arrived at the game, the evening’s promotion was a “Bark in the Park” celebration, my third on the tour following ones in State College and Trenton.  Unlike the two earlier events where dog foods and supplies were promoted, the one in Wyoming was designed to raise awareness about the local Paws2Help Fund, a resource to provide medical care for pets in animal shelters and foster homes. The occasion also served as a fundraiser for the organization by offering at silent auction several custom ceramic serving pieces—Ghostly party platters for human festivities and autographed water or chow bowls for humans’ reputed best friends.

Volunteer Rebecca Grube displays a serving platter offered in the silent auction.
Ceramic water bowls autographed by the Ghosts.
Dogs of all sizes and breeds were everywhere in the ballpark:
Several dogs seem bored by the Ghosts' 7-1 lead in the 5th inning.
waiting in line at the concession stands for treats, panting at the entry to the grandstand, or lounging along the grassy median between the left-field foul-line fence and the walkway to the seats. 

Wylie, a MaltePoo, gets ready for the concessions.
Lucy, a bloodhound, continues her training as a hospice therapy dog.
Jackson, a golden retriever, studies the balls in the bullpen.
The only restrictions were that they were not allowed on the field or in the grandstand.  I loved having the chance to approach the dogs, offer them the back of my hand to sniff,  and wait for their approval before scratching behind their ears or stroking the backs of their necks.  Yet I kept hoping that some foul fly would bound past me so that I could see whether the retrievers might revert to primal instincts, lunging to run to fetch. 
When raindrops started to fall shortly before the scheduled start of the game, I chuckled, imagining that cats might start falling from the sky since the dogs in that hackneyed stormy phrase were already around me.  My good humor, however, quickly morphed into anxiety when I noticed that there was no tarp for a grounds crew to unroll over the diamond.  Yet I needn’t have fretted because the shower passed quickly, and I later learned of the uselessness of a tarp in Casper since the region’s average rainfall throughout July and August is less than two inches.   With only 38 home games scheduled during the summer season, the expense of a tarp for use during rain showers and between games proved unnecessary.   

A second distinct feature of the ballpark was something present, not something absent.  Beyond the right field fence, an alluring billboard featured a portrait of local real estate agent Jim Edgeworth standing with legs crossed, left hand hidden in his pocket, and right hand extended in a friendly greeting.  Extending across his photo was his name in foot-high letters with a large red arrow swooping toward an open hole “O” just below the crook of his right elbow.   

Baiting the arrow was a somewhat familiar, outfield sign plea: “Hit it here.”  But unlike other ballparks’ homerun targets for a free suit or dinner or carwash, this sign’s appeal was its promise of $20,000 for hitting a ball through the open “O.”  To certify the flight of a homerun through the hole, a net extended behind the opening to catch a ball worth twenty grand.   Now with fewer than a dozen home games remaining in the season, Edgeworth’s escrow seemed secure.  But during the third game of the season, Edgeworth might have considered foreclosure on the sign when Ghosts’ third baseman Sam Mende had hit his portrait’s right wrist, missing the reward by less than a foot.

In addition to a rainbow whose end almost placed its purported pot of gold behind Edgeworth’s “O,” a number of customary minor league practices enlivened the evening.  Like several other ballparks, Casper identified one of the opposing hitters as the designated “beer batter” for the game.  If that hitter struck out during the game, draft beers would be sold for ten minutes for only $2.  So When Darian Sandford struck out in the 5th inning, he created a rush past the dogs to the concession stand for cheap suds.  An inning earlier, a similar soda promotion had spotlighted $2 Pepsis during a ten minute hubbub following an around-the-horn double play turned by the Ghosts.

At other ballparks I had occasionally heard and sometimes sung “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch.  In Casper a different—and perhaps more regionally fitting—patriotic song preceded the customary chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” While the “purple mountains’ majesty” could still be discerned in the dusky distance above “the fruited plains,” a local student sang “America the Beautiful.”   Fans stood in reverential attention, and players came out of the dugouts and bullpens, faced the flag, placed their caps over their hearts, and appeared truly moved when the song implored Americans to “crown thy good with brotherhood.”  I wondered whether “The Star-Spangled Banner” evoked similar sentiments among the teammates who heard the anthem before every game.

The Ghosts' mascot prepares
to present flowers to
"The Sweetheart of the Game."
Another new feature that I encountered at Casper was the Ghosts’ recognition of a “Sweetheart of the Game” by providing a lucky female fan with a bouquet of flowers presented by the team mascot.  According to some of the staff, the bouquet encourages wives and girlfriends to attend the game, especially since the practice seems to have given baseball blinded guys ideas about the effectiveness of flowers.   Flowers for female fans at the ballpark?  Did that mean that tears of happiness would follow, that crying would soon be allowed in baseball?

Earlier on my way to our seats after singing the anthem, the Ghosts’ Executive Director Tim Ray grinned broadly and high-fived my rendition.  Before he had begun to talk with me, Tim had been approached by two wide-eyed, season ticket holders who had exclaimed, “Wow!  Who was that guy?”  To a certain extent, they already knew since they had heard the brief intro that I had provided to the Ghosts hours earlier when Tim had confirmed my appearance. 

“I told them, a professor who loves baseball,” he said.  So simple and so true.

From our seats then below the press box, I spied a small dog discreetly held in the lap of its owner who sat in the third row behind the backstop.  It looked exactly like Winston—black with a white mustache, white eyebrows, and white paws.  So Bonnie and I quickly moved to a row adjacent to Terry and Phyllis Letz and her mother, Evelyn McClure, owner of Riley, a ShiDoodle.  The Shih Tzu line of Riley’s mixed breed is cousin to Wintson’s Havanese pedigree.  Although dogs were restricted from the grandstand area, Ghosts’ must have thought that Riley was a stuffed animal since Bonnie held him so comfortably for so many innings!
Bonnie hugs Riley, the ShiDoodle Winston look-alike.

Nearby, two sisters joined our fun time of talking about dogs and baseball.  From the Yosemite area Kathy Moline was visiting her sister Sharon Sullivan for several days.  When they get together baseball usually fills part of their itinerary.  On several occasions they had coordinated shopping and adventure trips to Denver to coincide with games at Coors Field so they could watch the Rockies in person.  And Kathy had made sure that her visits to her sister in Casper would include Ghosts’ games.  For them, baseball resonates with childhood and family. 

As young girls in South Dakota, each week they had gone to their grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner.  There the telecast of a Minnesota Twins’ game was always on, no question.  Enthusiastically, then, I shared my fortunate encounter and conversations with Tony Oliva days earlier at the ballpark in Des Moines.  Although as Wyoming residents they had begun to root for the Rockies (as the only Major League team in the Mountain Time Zone) and its Rookie League affiliate Casper, they seemed to have been transported to their grandmother’s house by my story about my encounter with the Twins’ not-yet, but deserving Hall of Famer whom they had adored. 
Tony Oliva and me before the Iowa Cubs' game in Des Moines.

They regaled me with Oliva’s accomplishments.  A perennial All-Star, he had won the Rookie-of-the Year Award and multiple batting titles, led the Twins to their first World Series, and retired as a career .300 hitter.  A native of Cuba, Oliva was one of the last Major League players from that nation for several decades since he had signed his professional contract only two months before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

While we talked baseball, Sharon also lauded the nearby National Historic Trails Interpretive Center, an interactive museum paying tribute to the pioneers along the Oregon, Mormon, and California trails, all of which had followed the North Platte River past Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, and Ft. Laramie, the route that we had traversed during the previous day. 

Since I was not scheduled to sing the next night, Bonnie and I delayed our departure from Casper the following morning so that we could explore the Trails Center.  I wish that I had taken a picture of Arby in the parking lot there as a modern counterpoint to the Conestogas of the pioneers’ era.  Equipped with its own sanitary system, Arby stood in stark contrast to the covered wagons displayed throughout the exhibit, and we, unlike the trailblazers of yesteryear, had not been exposed to cholera during our coursing across Nebraska.  That disease had killed so many prairie crossers in the early 1850s that pioneer traffic decreased for a period following the epidemic.  

While Bonnie and I had often paralleled the trails in previous days, she had read aloud several chapters of Bill Bryson’s At Home, a fascinating history of the stuff and fixtures in the rooms of typical houses.  The coincidental relevance of Bryson’s book is this: In its intentional digressions about the development of toilets and plumbing systems, the chapter on the bathroom included a brief medical history about the discovery of the cause of cholera, the fecal contamination of water supply.  And in the museum we learned about the decreasing frequency of deaths from cholera as pioneers made their way up the Platte.  Because the river served as their constant water supply, the people followed it closely, all too closely, often infecting its adjacent watershed with their waste.  Consequently, folks downstream increasingly contracted the disease borne through the water that seemed to be their source of sustenance and hope.  

Displaying personal accounts of some who trekked along the trails, the museum’s exhibits brought to life the threats of death that pioneers so frequently faced.  As I reflected on the multiple stresses that the pioneers endured during their westward journey—painfully jettisoning furnishings and goods, and more traumatically experiencing accidents, illness, and death—I felt lucky that our only loss had been Arby’s awning as we had headed west from Omaha.
In the distance between the light standards, the Trails museum faintly glows on the hilltop.

In an extended metaphorical way, the label of pioneers also applied well to Cas per’s baseball team.  At an obvious level, the Ghosts competed in the Pioneer League.  But more than that, like the other novices in the Rookie league classification, the players were on a quest upstream through the Minor Leagues.  While the increasing competition at each higher level of play promised to hone their skills in preparation for their possible Major League debuts, more often it killed their chances to reach the Show.  And in Casper on the night when we were there, the Ghosts and visiting Chukars from Idaho Falls played as roughly as pioneers, amassing 17 runs on 18 hits, while committing 7 seven errors.  But the Ghosts could bark at the moon that night because they won 11-6.


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