MINOR LEAGUE MEMORIES
A cold rain was falling in the pre-dawn darkness of September 3rd, 2009. Michael was sleeping, a gusting wind spattering the rain against his bedroom window. Through the curtains, headlights flashed past, early-morning traffic splashing along the street outside. I flipped on the light to awaken him for school, and while he got dressed and ate breakfast, daybreak lightened the black of night to a dreary dark grey.
I drove him to school, and all day long the gloomy skies continued to rain. The weather stayed unseasonably chilly, the temperature never rising above the lower 60s, and the rain was still falling when I picked him up in the wet, lead-grey afternoon at the end of his school day.
The school had declared this cold, wet, dismal Thursday "Curriculum Night". This means parents were invited to attend classroom briefings where the teachers would be "explaining curriculum, assessments, expectations, and procedures." I'd had it marked on my calendar since the beginning of the school year.
Fortunately, in the late afternoon the rain stopped. As evening drew nigh, the clouds thinned, allowing some partly-sunsetty skies to help the drip-drying world warm up a few degrees. Michael's education is important to us, so I excitedly got him ready for Curriculum Night at his school, and after a meager supper of hot dogs, we jumped in the car— and went to a baseball game.
After all, it was the last Omaha Royals game of the year. I had my bases covered, so to speak; Michael's teacher had said she had some things she could send home with him in the event we were unable to attend Curriculum Night. Meanwhile, years of experience has shown me that Closing Night at Rosenblatt Stadium is historically cold and rainy. It was serendipity! Or deja vu. We had to go.
We would be prepared— I filled a Royals tote bag with a blue towel to wipe down wet seats, an extra hooded sweatshirt for Michael, his Giant Foam Finger, an autographed Royals baseball and Rosenblatt Stadium pen, sunglasses, binoculars, and my camera.
Things began going our way as soon as we parked. Instead of being stuck way downhill in the boonies, we were right up against the rope that marked the boundary of Super Special Permit Parking. And then, on our short walk to the entry gate, our path converged with a guy who asked, "Do you have tickets yet?" I said no, and he explained that the Omaha Youth Softball League had a bunch to give away that they hadn't yet; since he had a sizable stack of 'em, he gave us a pair.
Entering the concourse, we found a Super Special table with real live Royals, so I got out Michael's baseball and pen, and he got some autographs of baseball guys. They turned out to be pitchers who weren't playing this game. I now wish I had bought an Official Program so I could figure out who's who.
Michael wanted to play in the Fun Zone— a collection of what he calls "bouncing machines" and other inflatable devices.
That was three dollars, but the guy who gave Michael an all-night wristband was relieved by a girl who accosted me and explained that since two of the bouncehouses were packed up for the season, she was giving me a dollar back. It was serendipity! Or deja vu.
And since it was Thirsty Thursday, that dollar got us a small Sprite.
One of the stadium staff's Fun Bunch was pacing around handing out celebratory bead necklaces, and gave Michael one. I love Mardi Gras beads; they're so... kitschy. But game time was fast approaching, so we went in and found seats along the third base line, where we sat when we were children and cheered our heroes. And we'll watch the game and it'll be as if we dipped ourselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick we'll have to brush them away from our faces. People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been base ball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good, and could be again...
Sorry— I digressed into my mind for a moment.
At these Royals games, there is a thing called Fan Cam where, between innings, the closed-circuit TV camera guys single out people in the stands and the feed goes up to the big scoreboard. You end up seeing a lot of people all happily waving off-screen to their left. There are two stationary cameras, positioned at the end of each dugout, and there's one guy who wanders around the stands with a giant handheld camera.
Well, all year I'd been waiting for one of them to find Michael, trying to be ready with my little camera to take a photo of him on the scoreboard. Some things just look better when they're not Photoshopped. And when the time finally came, I was busy trying to hold a pretzel and just stay out of the frame as the guy with the giant handheld TV camera got right in Michael's face from two seats away— and zoomed in! For almost fifteen agonizing seconds between innings, there was a big ol' laughing Michael head looming all fifty-foot and god-like over left field! I was so proud!
Best I could do was get a blurry picture of him with Herman McNutt...
...and the scary clown he calls Old Macdonald. He'd already met Old Macdonald at the front entrance on our way in and got a sticker for his shirt, but when the clown came walking past us in the stands, he recognized Michael and gave him another one.
I have photos of my favorite third-base view taken in the daytime, the nighttime, with sunny skies, and overcast. Now I have one in the twilight.
This is Spike. He's a lion.
Spike only started showing up 10 years ago (right after the Golden Age of Section P) when the Union Pacific bought the majority of the team and changed the name to the Omaha Golden Spikes. (Yuck. I'm glad they sold it and the name got changed back.) Michael has come to know Spike, even though he still thinks Spike is a bear. But this is the first time I've taken a photo of them together at night.
Eventually, Michael got cold, and exchanged his jersey for the sweatshirt I'd packed. The Royals were down seven to four in the middle innings, and he was getting restless and wanted to go back to the Fun Zone. I took the opportunity to drop my tote bag full of stuff off at the car, on the way to letting Michael play for a couple of innings.
Oh— he's friends with Casey, too. Here, Michael's outside the Fun Zone, running barefoot around the main entrance. That's how "at home" we are at Rosenblatt.
I didn't realize as we were just hanging out around the front gate that all three mascots would show up. By that time, I wasn't shooting Spike or Herman McNutt anymore, 'cause we'd already run into them so many times. I was just hoping that some folks would leave because it was cold, some would leave since it was a school night, some would leave discouraged that the Royals were down three runs... and once again, we'd pretty much have the park to ourselves.
But it was closing night— the last game of the year, so a lot of people stuck around. Meanwhile, out front, the mascots were signing little baseball cards of themselves. I have never been fond of the idea of mascots' autographs. I don't think they're real. Perhaps I lack imagination. (Oh, to see Disney as the magical world of wonder that Michael does, instead of a frightening conglomerate of saccharine corporate greed.) With all the childlike qualities inherent in my heart, I told Michael about "swag", and proferred a lesson that I learned in High School: Stuff/ Free/ Grab some/ Run. So now he's got autographed baseball cards of the mascots.
I didn't want to miss the end of the game, so we went back in at the bottom of the 8th inning. The Royals were still behind 7 - 4 and, although they got a couple of hits, stranded those runners on base. Things were looking pretty typical for the worst team in the entire league. By then, many people had indeed cleared out, so Michael and I moved down to the good seats for the top of the 9th inning, about four rows behind the dugout.
The Bad Guys, up to bat, started the inning by getting two outs in as many pitches. I told Michael it wouldn't be long now, and presently the Royals did get the third Bad Guy out.
So it was the bottom of the ninth, the last inning of the year, and our chances of coming back from three runs down looked pretty slim. The effort began well enough, with the Iowa Cubs' (Bad Guys') pitcher walking J.R. House. I call him "How-ooooooooose!" House has an atrocious bedside manner and treats both his staff and his patients with disdain, but he always has the right diagnosis in the end. Michael thinks we should play House more often.
At some point, with House on first (not the famous Abbott & Costello routine)— we suffered One Out. Then Alex Gordon came up to bat; he's a home-town hero, as he played on the Cornhuskers team that actually made it to the College World Series in 2005, and then went on to play for Kansas City. He was on a rehab assignment with the Triple-A Royals, recovering from some injury. Well, he did his part by hitting a double. House was held at third. Two runners on base, along with incessant coaching from the P.A. system, got the fans starting to make some noise.
The tying run at the plate got worked into a full count... and he took ball four to load the bases. The crowd was really getting into it now, and on the next batter, the Iowa pitcher proceeded to walk in a run!
Down 7 to 5, with the bases loaded and one out, the fans were beginning to see some hope. So the Iowa manager called in a new pitcher.
This inning was taking far longer than I had led Michael to expect, but he was a trouper. As the new pitcher warmed up, I told Michael that now, the longer the game took, the better our chances were of winning. At the same time, every single pitch thrown had the possibility of ending the game— and the season.
Finally, the relief pitcher was ready, the crowd got loud again, and the first guy up— walked! Another run in, and the air was rife with tension and excitement. Now we had a chance; the game's not over 'til... you stick a fork in it! Our winning run was on second base— scoring position! But, annoyingly, the Bad Guys' pitcher was up to the task, and thwarted our hopes by striking out the next batter.
Classic... Bottom of the 9th, two outs, bases loaded, behind by one run. It could go either way. Ground ball, we lose. Fly ball, we lose. Any kind of out, we lose. It was up to Mario Lisson, bottom man in the batting order.
The fans were yelling, clapping, and stomping in the stadium, when Lisson cracked a long line drive to left center field! The baserunners launched and the fans screamed with hope! As the ball soared toward the gap, the outfielders sprinted to converge on its landing point— but it hit the ground between them, the crowd erupted, and the winning run crossed the plate!
Amidst the crowd's exuberance, the announcer began babbling something inaudible about next year, and the stadium lights went to half-throttle as a signal telling everyone Thank You And Get Out. After all, even though we were big winners that night, this was the final game of the year. It was official now: the Omaha Royals finished the season last in their division, 13 games behind. As we ambled toward the Main Gate, Michael encountered and high-fived the mascots (again), and we were given 5 coupons for free lines of bowling. At the car, Michael declared that he was hungry.
But I was still grinning, thinking, that's a 9th-inning rally; that's pulling one out of your... trunk. The whole night was the sort of night that makes memories. Making those memories is, of course, what I'm trying to do to Michael... and the reason I started writing all this in the first place.