Thursday, August 1, 2013

Storm Chased near Omaha: Game 85 in Omaha

No team name had a more convoluted interaction with my tour than the one in Omaha.

In preparation for moving into a new ballpark after calling Rosenblatt Stadium home for more than forty years while sharing the facility with the NCAA World Series, which had been holding its tourney there for six decades, the Omaha Royals AAA team sought a new identity.  After a public competition to create a new name for the team’s first season in Werner Ballpark, the moniker “Storm Chasers” was chosen.  Little did I anticipate how fitting—even in a twisted way—that name might be for my experience in the Omaha area.  Although I had not chased active storms on the tour, I had retraced routes of recent tornado wreckage through northern Alabama, central North Carolina, and Wales, Massachusetts. 

While Bonnie and I had prepared Arby for his arduous cross-country trip, our RV service center near Whittier had offered advice about storm preparation, specifically, what back-up sources of power we should have and how to stay best informed about tornados and violent thunderstorms.  Yes, along the way we had lost power at an Indiana RV park, and we had endured prolonged lightning strikes within earshot when we had been docked in Illinois.  But on neither of those occasions had we worried for our safety.  Then came the evening in Papillion, Nebraska, the new home of the newly named Omaha Storm Chasers.

In the bottom of the third inning, rain began to fall, driving the crowd to the covered areas of the concourses.  Yet their movement seemed at best ironic by reversing the course of action designated by the team’s name:  The fans were being chased by the storm rather than pursuing it.  The cloudburst, however, was short lived, not even giving the grounds crew time to roll out the tarp; and the Storm Chasers scored four runs to take the lead from the wetter Sacramento River Cats who stayed on the field throughout the downpour.  Thankfully, I thought, the storm was brief.  But when clouds to the west intensified and lightning began to slice through the horizon an inning later, I considered options and decided to leave the game early, to return to Arby where I had left Bonnie after a hot and strenuous day of travel. 

Few fans exit early as the storm approaches the ballpark.
Although the RV site in the Walnut Creek Recreation Area was less than five miles from the ballpark, I didn’t make it back to Arby in time to prevent major damage from the gustado that charged through the area.  That’s right, a “gustado.”  Although the term hasn’t made it into the official meteorological lexicon, it was used by an Omaha newscaster to describe the tornadic force wind that sheers directly downward at the front end of “a fast moving T-cell.”

Having difficulty retracting the awning running the RV’s full length, Bonnie had phoned me as I left the ballpark.  While she asked what to do to minimize the turbulent rocking caused by the invading storm, she stopped abruptly and said, “There it goes.”  A torrid burst ripped the awning off Arby’s ribs, tossing it up onto his roof.  I heard the crash and worried about her safety.  “Just get here soon,” she implored.  There was little that could be done when three minutes later I drove up and saw the compound fracture of the awning.  After I dashed into the storm-tossed RV to comfort Bonnie, we considered abandoning ship and checking into a hotel.

The morning after the arm-breaking winds.
Despite clear skies that had prevailed throughout the morning and afternoon, an unpleasant feel had hung over the day.  I had waked with a ruptured blood vessel in my right eye, causing it to look more inflamed than if I had had an allergic reaction, a drunken splay, or even pink eye.  Although my ocular condition did not affect my vision or cause discomfort (other than to others who might look me in the eye), it seemed to color the entire day with difficulties. 

Heading west from Des Moines, Arby had struggled with the unyielding undulations in the terrain of western Iowa.  Down a slope on I-80 we’d go as fast as possible, reaching about 70, clinging to the right hand lane and still moving as the slowest vehicle on the road while 18-wheelers easily passed us. Then we’d huff and puff our way up the opposite grade at 45-50 mph.  Throughout the alternation of these speedy descents and arduous climbs, Arby’s temperature needle consistently hovered at a millimeter or two shy of the red zone. 

Through construction on Omaha’s freeways we continued, reaching the sun-drenched, hilltop site in the Walnut Creek Recreation Area by mid-afternoon.  While the outside temperature crested at 92 degrees in the shade, Arby’s gage on the slab registered 104.  I placed sun shields in the front and side windows facing west, plugged in the cord for air conditioning, and extended the awning, the last, and fatal, extension of that marvelous, full-length awning.  Even so, the air conditioner struggled to provide a cooling effect, enough comfort, however, to enable Bonnie to fall asleep before I slipped out to game alone.

Clear skies above pre-game tailgate parties proved deceptive.
About a half hour ahead of schedule, I arrived at the ballpark and stopped at a couple of tailgate parties to sample fan enthusiasm and appreciation for the new stadium.  Approaching the Will Call window I was a bit concerned when I saw that 16 or 17 people were already in the line, but I reasoned that at 6:15 I still had ample time to make it to the field in time to meet the contact person as scheduled at 6:30.  But seven minutes later when I identified myself as the anthem singer, I was whisked through the gates by a waiting staffer since the game time had been advanced by a half hour to accommodate a Faith Night musical performance.  Incredible!  With less time to warm up than a middle innings reliever, I was handed the microphone, oriented toward the flag, and told that my cue would be my name.  I should have sensed the swift pursuit of the subsequent storm!

A few of my anthem renditions are ones that I’d like to forget.  This was one that I could easily put in a storm cellar.  Nothing was really wrong: it was simply that I didn’t feel comfortable since I hadn’t been able to complete my warm-up routine.  Even so, while walking toward my position behind home plate, I hurriedly sang through the song in my mind to make sure that the words wouldn’t burst out of order. 

Still harried after my performance, I neglected to find out the name of the pre-game staffer who assisted me.  As she escorted me back to the entry to get my ticket scanned, I asked her about what happens when an anthem performer cancels or fails to show up on time: “Do the Storm Chasers play a recording?”  “No,” she responded. “Usually we draft one of the staff or get a season ticket holder to lead everyone in the anthem.”  Hmm, I wondered, who would have pinch-sung for me this night and how much advance warning would he or she have received?  I had thirteen minutes between Will Call and the opening triad.

Although my pre-game routines had been disrupted, I left the Storm Chasers’ staff member and began my usual ballpark maneuvers as the game began by checking out the concession stands, locating walls of recognition and banners featuring former players, scoping out the children’s play spaces and entertainment options, exploring artistic displays and architectural features, and reading notices of ballpark rules and other signs posted throughout the concourse.

Right away, I scanned the 19 Werner Park rules bilingually displayed at the entry gate.  While many of these directions for ballpark behavior duplicated standard codes of etiquette, several of the instructions were distinct, if not unique, to the Storm Chasers.

Tailgating is allowed only in designated areas of the parking lot.  Only one parking space per vehicle is allowed.

Umbrellas are permitted.  Lawn chairs are not allowed.

In the event of an evacuation, all guests are to abide by the directions of authorized personnel.

Naively, when I read this last regulation, I did not immediately associate the need for possible evacuation with stormy weather; instead, I thought that the instructions might apply in the event of an accident, a fire, a terrorist act, or other human-generated catastrophe.   About an hour after I had read the sign, the lightning, wind, and rain chased me from the ballpark before I could learn whether this gustado would command an evacuation.

Another bilingual sign behind the bullpen.
Other signs, art, spaces, and player recognitions throughout the ballpark also reflected the particular character of the community.  Most prominent among the local baseball heroes honored at ballpark was Bob Gibson,
Gibson feted as "our hometown hero."
a native of Omaha, a graduate of Creighton, and a pitcher for Omaha’s AAA team then affiliated with St. Louis.  A perennial Major League All-Star with  the Cardinals, Gibson won the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1968 while hurling 13 shutouts, compiling a miniscule 1.12 ERA, and leading the league with 268 strikeouts.  His season set the modern standard for pitching untouchability. 

In simpler ways other former Major League All-Stars—Nebraskans Wade Boggs and Richie Ashburn—were recognized by having VIP suites named after them.   Like Gibson, Boggs had been born in Omaha, and nearby Tilden claimed to be the birthplace of Ashburn, a Phillies’ star from the Whiz Kids’ era.  Others players who had enjoyed successful seasons in Omaha before becoming accomplished Royals in Kansas City were also “suitely” celebrated: catcher John Wathan, pitcher Paul Splittorff, and slick fielding second baseman Frank White.  Yet without having been identified specifically with Omaha, Dick Howser and Frank Robinson also had VIP quarters named in their honor.  Howser’s baseball career was shaped by the parent Royals in Kansas City who signed him after graduating from Florida State, started him at shortstop in his rookie year in 1961, and finally managed them for six years in the 1980s.

Like the name plates for other suites, Robinson's featured Braille letters.

What I couldn’t figure out, however, is why the “Nut-free Suite” was named for Frank Robinson, an All-Star with Cincinnati before winning a Triple Crown with Baltimore.  Why would he be so extoled in Omaha where, even during his few Minor League seasons, he never played a game?  Certainly, his role as the color breaking player for the Redlegs merited commendation, even as his baseball exploits secured his first-ballot election into the Hall of Fame.  But what, I still wonder, was his connection to Nebraska?  

What wasn’t a mystery was the cause of the chorus of laughter and squeals of delight from children playing in the areas known as the Family Fun Zone and the nearby Borsheims Diamond.  Their joyful sounds erupted when they slid through corkscrew tubes or hit Wiffleball homeruns.  Joining the kids in laughter were several adults, including me, at the Wiffleball game when one pre-school batter finally hit the plastic ball.  At the pitcher’s mound a Storm Chaser’s staffer purposely dropped the boy’s pop fly and intentionally continued to fumble the ball while the batter ran and ran and ran, never hesitating in his flip-flops until after he had circled the bases and slid into home.

While the River Cats rallied, a young boy finally wallops a pop fly "homerun."
In additional ways to the formal spaces and informal activities provided at the ballpark for children, the family and faith culture of Omaha—the theme for the night’s promotion—was evident.  On the family front, baseball loving kinfolk gathered for tailgate barbecues in the parking lot before watching the game from their picnic blankets spread on the ramparts beyond left field.  
While children hang out at the fence hoping for a homerun, families watch from the grassy slope.
On the faith front, Lutherans in particular congregated to enjoy the game and to participate in the public celebration of faith.  And for the faithful fans who, unlike me, had not been chased away by the immersing rain, a post-game Christian concert capped off the evening of the Storm Chasers’ 7-5 victory over the River Cats.

The post-game concert was sponsored by the Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church,
whose ballpark placard featured a ball and bat as the image for "Connecting Others to Christ."


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