MINOR LEAGUE MEMORIES
In the middle of June, the Storm Chasers went on a road trip for about a week and a half. I took Michael out to the ballpark anyway.
I had received a super secret special invitation to an Event. When we got there, we found about a hundred other people had, too. When the staff opened the gates, it still took a while to get in because everybody had to stop and sign a paper. I don't know what it said, though; I couldn't read it 'cause I didn't have my glasses. But the PA system announced that we could all have hot dogs and lemonade as soon as we signed the Confidentiality Agreement.
So in all confidentiality, I'll tell you: We were there to shoot a commercial!
And for some reason, they felt the need to have a Confidentiality Agreement. And the entire time, there were production-assistant types constantly scanning the crowd. Actually, we weren't really a crowd; more like a "small assemblage". Which made the job of scanning us even easier. And sure, they were just looking at camera angles and how best to shoot us and stuff, but I would have been really obvious sticking my hands up in the middle of everyone to take pictures, and I didn't want to be That Guy With The Camera. So I didn't get many.
First, the plus-or-minus hundred of us were jammed into a section and a half, and made to cheer on command 5 or 6 times. I felt like I was at a taping of The Tonight Show— "Tonight Jay welcomes... Someone you may have heard of!"
Yaaaay!! screams the crowd, no matter who it is.
"And... somebody else!"
And because of scene play that's too boring to detail here, our Yaaays had to last a long time.
The day was getting hot and humid, a typical Nebraska summer day. After a break to get drinks and to rest our applauding hands, we were moved to a different couple of seating sections, and arranged not as high, but wider. There, we got to do The Wave. About ten times. Back and forth. And not just standard Waves, but TV Waves, which meant we had to POP up and down. That became exercise.
On the drive out to Werner Park, Michael had mugged at me for a while, and informed me that he was going to make a Cute Face for the commercial. I told him we were probably just going to be blurs in a crowd. Analyzing the finished product months later, it turns out I was right. In one motion-blurred camera pan, a glimpse of us can be seen in four whole frames of video— about an eigth of a second. The blink of an eye. So... we didn't quite become stars.
After another break, we were all sent out front. We were arranged in a nice tight group... told to remember our positions, and on cue... we Happily Went To The Ball Game. Then we were gathered up, sent back to our original positions... and again Happily Went To The Ball Game. Then we went back to our positions... and Happily Went To The Ball Game. Then we shuffled back to our positions... and Happily Went To The Ball Game. Then we staggered back to our positions... and Happily Went To The Ball Game.
After nearly three hours of waiting patiently in the sun, then popping up and down, then striding back and forth, we were released. In the silence on the way out to the car, Michael said, "Dad... can we never do this again?"
That same week, the College World Series began, and one of the associated events was a Youth Baseball Clinic sponsored by the NCAA. Michael enjoyed the Clinic at Werner Park a month or so earlier, so I signed him up. The Werner park one only took a hundred kids, and this one was limited to four hundred. It was in downtown Omaha, and advertised on the ncaa.com/cws website, so I figured it was a huge thing, and he'd be baseballing at the gigantic new stadium downtown where Creighton plays. I soon realized it would be at the Creighton Sports Complex— which is the frumpy field that Creighton doesn't play on anymore since they have the gigantic new stadium downtown.
Determined not to be disappointed, we arrived early and found there were a lot more kids than at his first Clinic. The other one had been staffed by four Storm Chasers (and some attendants), but this one had well over a dozen college players and coaches standing by. Registration went smoothly, and before the start I got a picture of Michael sitting with the rest of his Red Team. A bit of foreshadowing: He's the only kid who looks like he thinks it'll be fun.
After the preliminary introductions, I was ready to scout for positions where I could watch (and take pictures of) my son fielding, throwing, batting... But first, the parents were invited to a presentation in a nearby lecture hall. Which became the most interminable and tedious hour-and-a-half I've suffered in years.
It started off as a lecture about sports-related injuries, and soon devolved into a kind of sales pitch for the NCAA. All about student athletes, their injuries and opportunities, "at-risk" students, athletic scholarships, and the resources available wherein the NCAA can help parents, droning on and on and on...
For an hour and a half. It seemed that for some reason, the NCAA felt the need to promote itself. It occurred to me: during the Chevy Youth Clinic at Werner Park, nobody tried to sell me a Chevy. I was pretty annoyed that they kept us in here instead of letting us watch our kids.
I should have just left, but I kept waiting, thinking the thing had to end soon... wondering why I was here learning about how soon we need to prep our kids to take their college entrance exams when all I wanted from the day was some pictures of my 4th-grader fielding grounders. But there was still time; an hour and a half out of a four-hour clinic, okay. I'll suffer, and then go watch my boy. And as the wait became hell, the announcement came that because of the storms outside— What!? Storms?— they were wrapping it up and all of the kids were inside waiting for their parents; thanks for coming.
Driving through the rainy streets of downtown Omaha, I tried to hide my irritation from Michael, asking if he had fun. He said it was... okay... so I pressed him for more information. What did the kids do while I was trapped inside for all that time? He said they learned about nutrition, the food pyramid and stuff. Then they pretended to swing a bat, got in a long line, ran to a base and got in line again. For clarification, I asked, "Did you actually swing a bat?" "An imaginary one," he replied. "Did you ever catch a ground ball?" "Nope." "Did you ever catch a fly ball?" "Nope." "Did you ever get to throw a ball?" "Nope."
For the half-hour driving home in the rain, I had to explain to my son that God doesn't hate us... and rain is neither good nor bad, but can be either one, it's just something that is... and part of life is learning to deal with disappointment, and sometimes that's hard to do— "Especially for a kid!" he said.
In the end, he got a T-shirt, a matching visor, cheap sunglasses, a bottle of Powerade, and one free ticket to a CWS game. He won't ever use any of those things.
Hopefully, our conversation during the half-hour drive home gave him something else that day that he can use.
Since the College World Series was underway, almost two years after its final game, Rosenblatt Stadium was opened to the public one last time in tribute to its history with the CWS. I thought Mitch Sherman from espn.com put it best: "It's like saying farewell to a beloved friend at a funeral, coming to grips with the loss, then getting called back two years later to exhume the corpse for one more glance."
When speaking of the difference between our experiences at Rosenblatt and Werner Park, I've mentioned that at Rosenblatt we were never allowed on the field or in the dugouts. I thought it amusing that now, everyone could wander the field and the dugouts, but nobody was allowed in the stands. There were Gatekeepers clad in neon yellow to make sure of that. I asked if I could just go up to snap a few pictures with my son, but was denied.
However, as I told Michael: Where there's a will, there's a way. And if you're super special like Michael is, you can boldly go to the Forbidden Zones. If there's a Gatekeeper, Michael is the Keymaster.
Undaunted, we came up with a plan. When nobody was looking, I started to duck past the Security Guy to distract him. As he turned to grab me, Michael brought his awesome martial arts skills into play. He used a Tae Kwon Do sweep to drop the overwhelmed guard to the field, and followed that up with a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu choke-hold to subdue him.
We quickly wrapped the unconscious gatekeeper in some orange storm fence and dragged the body into the nearest weed-overgrown concourse entry behind the dugout. Nobody'd noticed our speedy actions, so we casually went on up into the seating bowl to shoot our photographs.
Okay, it wasn't quite that dramatic. After a while, people were allowed up into the stands in little groups of two or three, but only if you were selecting which of the few remaining stadium seats you were going to buy. So Michael and I stood in the line to buy seats for about twenty minutes, and eventually the time came for us to make our selection.
Oddly (and fortunately), people were being admitted through a gate by the third-base dugout, but the seats we were supposed to choose from were on the right-field side, all the way across the stadium. So, as we circled the ballpark, I cut loose with my camera and got a variety of angles. Not a lot of good composition, though, 'cause I was shooting on the fly.
Then I officially Changed My Mind. Of course I didn't want to buy seats in the first place, but let me add that these were the cheap outfield seats added on during the last NCAA-mandated renovation, not the red seats from Section P that I knew and loved. But I was happy, I got what I wanted— which was a bunch of pictures and a photo of the view from the third base side to go with all my others.
A couple of years ago, when we went to three games during Rosenblatt's last week of baseball, I would have thought an occasion like this would bring on sad feelings of nostalgic melancholy. But it didn't... and as Michael and I wandered around the derelict stadium, I wasn't dwelling on wistful memories; I found myself simply observing the other people there.
Parents were playing catch in the outfield with their kids. Quite a few people were digging up dirt to put in Ziploc bags. I was amused by the thought that they were scooping up baggies of two-year-old, vacant-lot, wild prairie range dirt... not Authenticated, game-used, Diamond Pro® brand infield-skinning real dirt. But who am I to marvel at the strange ways of people. Perhaps the actual ratio of clay to silt to sand wasn't important. Maybe the lowliest of dirts became sanctified merely by its association with consecrated ground.
I overheard small groups discussing pertinent trivia— and getting their facts wrong. But I realized that a lot of these people were out-of-towners, just here for the annual College World Series week, rather than everyday season-long Omaha Royals fans. Could be, if I thought my memories had more depth, theirs may be more sharp.
Later, on the phone with my friend Dwane, I brought up the time in 1988 when we'd gone to see a no-hitter. I told him that I'd just looked it up; Omaha hadn't had a no-hitter since then, Luis Aquino was the pitcher, and the high that day was 101 degrees. "Farenheit," I said, since Dwane was in Canada.
"I had to laugh when you said that," he replied. "It wasn't me."
"Yeah... We were going to the game, and invited Ray but he didn't go 'cause it was too hot," I reminded him.
"No... You and Ray went, and I stayed at the hotel 'cause it was too hot," he said. "Then you guys came back and told me all about it."
"But, but—" I sputtered. "Fine. But it's my story, and when I tell it, it's gonna be you."
So, back roaming the ruins of Rosenblatt with Michael, the misinformed and unknowledgeable people bantering amongst themselves didn't bother me. Neither did anything else. I found myself feeling curiously apathetic. And I slowly realized that my fond memories of Rosenblatt and the good times I'd had there had been supplanted. Werner Park is more fan-friendly; it was designed to be. To me, the Omaha Royals were the local ball team that played at Rosenblatt whenever my friends and I went there. Through a bunch of autograph sessions (among other things) I've developed a far greater affinity for the Omaha Storm Chasers. The O-Royals players were names I'd recognize on the scoreboard; the Storm Chasers are young men we've met. Basically, Michael and I have been treated far better by Werner Park than Rosenblatt.
To me, they both represent places of refuge, but in different ways, probably depending on what point I was at in my life. But maybe I don't need to psychoanalyze my relationship with ball parks. Maybe I just need a simple reminder that, whether it's a grand and hallowed Camelot, or a friendly hometown field, fun is wherever you make it.