Family of the Night

As June turned into July, the midwest was blessed with a heat wave that created daily high temperatures in the upper nineties... with humidity that, as Scott Price wrote, "lies on your skin like a tarp."

But I had to invite Michael's Grampa to visit Omaha for a hot and steamy ball game— after I answered a phone call from Rob Crain, the Assistant General Manager for the Storm Chasers. At first I assumed he was stuck calling everybody on some mailing list to tell them about some upcoming promotion. I have received a call like that before; but they have interns for things like that. I thought it was strange that the Assistant GM would be asking for me by name; he was a bigwig— two weeks later he became the President and General Manager of the New York Yankees' triple-A affiliate.

Rob Crain was not manning a phone bank. Instead, he was calling to tell me that an online contest entry that I had pretty much forgotten about had won, and my family would be American Family Insurance's Family Of The Night that next Friday. That meant a lot of goodies!

Even though we were being honored, and Jennifer'd had me buy her a Storm Chasers visor so she'd be dressed appropriately at games, she refused to go with us. She claimed it was too hot, but I wish she'd have come along to take some of the heat off of me, so to speak. I was just wanting to watch Michael do cool stuff; it didn't occur to me that the Family Of The Night was supposed to be some kind of... well, family. With my dad essentially supervising, it ended up that Michael and I had to represent a Family Unit. But the people we see there all the time rarely ever see us other than as a father/son duo anyway. To me, it's all about my son, and having a good time.

So after my dad showed up that Friday afternoon, he and Michael and I headed off to the game. Our complimentary tickets were waiting when we got there; seats behind home plate and just off to the right side. Good seats for your typical visitor— but being a Mac user has taught me to Think Different. We were behind the net, which protects people from pitches tipped foul, but also acts as a barrier between me and anything happening on the field. People behind the net don't get autographs, or baseballs tossed by players. Also bad is that photographs taken by a little auto-everything point-and-shoot camera will show that net more than anything else. Not to mention our seats were in the back row, which is a little farther away than I like to be. But my dad knew that I like to move around, so we established that our seats were a sort of base camp, and he took off to find pizza.

Meanwhile, even though it was nearly a hundred degrees out, I told Michael that he needed to warm up... because he was going to throw a ceremonial First Pitch. So we headed to the Free Because We're Awesome Fun Zone, where they have a couple of throw-ball things. On the way, we stopped by the dugout to check in with Community Relations Director Andrea Stava. And since his seats were right there, we also checked in with season-ticket holder Barry Bernet. Then we went to the Fun Zone to practice Michael's pitching.

Soon the pre-game festivities commenced. My dad was back at our seats with a camcorder, and I was angling through the stands to get some video from a better vantage point. I saw On-Field Promotions Guy Ben Hemmen lead Michael to a spot behind Home Plate, and started to take pictures, but Michael pointed at me and Ben motioned adamantly that I was to join them. I wasn't ready for that, and forgetting I was wearing my reading glasses, hurried out and stood stunned and deer-headlighty while he announced to the disinterested crowd that we were Big Winner Chicken Dinners.

Annoyingly, despite what Jennifer calls my delusions of grandeur, deep inside I am shy and reserved. I wish I would have been prepared, so that when Ben pointed the mic at me, I would say, "That's right, Ben—" and launch into a nice promotion of the Storm Chasers' website, American Family Insurance, and my son Michael... but instead I stood smiling and horrified as all erudition left me, and said things like, "Uh huh," "Sure," and "Ummm." Barry Bernet would later call me a Man Of Few Words.

After my embarrassment had fully settled in, we were led to the sidelines where I stood awkwardly until, eventually, the time came for Michael to throw his Pitch. At home, I had measured out roughly 60 feet— the distance between the pitching mound and home plate— and practiced with Michael. He could make it with his 28-mph fastball; at worst, he'd throw a one-hopper. And now he'd just warmed up for a few minutes in the Fun Zone, and had targeted pretty well. But running up to the mound with the pressure on, he was overexcited and swimming in a hugely oversized Storm Chasers jersey. He forgot all the pitching mechanics he'd learned, so his form was a complete mess. Facing forward, off-balance, with no stride or arm extension, he threw high and short. (He does that a lot when we play catch at home if he tries to throw in a hurry. It's kind of a spastic thing.) But he did it happily and unapologetically, because— as has been proved so many times— he's Awesome.

Afterward, we escaped back to our seats with what I called Super Mega Swag (in accordance with our motto: Stuff / Free / Grab some / Run). Being Family Of The Night got us that jersey, along with the promotional baseball he threw, and four Special Giveaway (read: cheapie) Storm Chasers baseball caps. (Don't get me wrong— I'm not complaining that they're cheap caps... I'm just sayin'. They won't replace my super-trendy and somewhat pricey Official Royals On-Field New Era 59Fifty KC lid. The official cap worn by all Major League Baseball players. But I appreciate the giveaway caps; they are super swag.)

I crammed all the apparel into my bag, and left my dad guarding it at our seats behind home plate while Michael went back to the Fun Zone behind left field... and I went off to right field.

There, I found the Berm Bums Ryan and Phil, and joined them to visit for a spell. We talked about the game the night before...

Ryan had attended the game alone while I was watching it at home on TV, and the Chasers got clobbered. Our top prospect pitcher Mike Montgomery had given up a grand slam home run in the first inning, and I told the guys that Michael and I had watched him do the same thing in a Conference Championship game last fall. This time, Monty had been pulled in the second inning. By then, the New Orleans Zephyrs had scored eleven runs... and had the bases loaded with one out, just in case anybody else wanted to hit a grand slam.

Montgomery had entered 2011 ranked by Baseball America as the Royals' top pitching prospect, and 19th best overall. But after two seasons at Omaha, he was 8-17 with a 5.46 ERA— and only had three wins in 17 starts this year. His latest performance was enough to get him demoted to Double-A ball a week later.

But that spanking was last night. Tonight, the Storm Chasers were doing well enough, and were ahead 5 to 3. For the next couple of innings I continued to chat with the guys, until Michael showed up, all wet from running through the water-misting cooling fans set up next to the Downdraght Bar behind center field. At that point we said goodbye and rejoined Grampa to watch the rest of the game.

Omaha was still leading five to three in the seventh inning when Wil Myers came to the plate. I explained to my dad that Wil was a 21-year-old "hot new superstud" who'd been promoted to start the season in double-A ball before being promoted to triple-A Omaha in mid-May. Even starting a month-and-a-half late, he had become the team's home run leader. And at this point in the season, he had the most home runs in all of professional baseball— both Major and Minor Leagues.

And even though he had only been in triple-A for about six weeks, in a few days he was going to be playing in the 2012 Triple-A All-Star Game. (And when the time came, he was named the All-Star Game's Most Valuable Player.)

I joked to my dad that Myers was complaining about not getting very many singles and doubles 'cause every time he hit the ball, it left the park. To prove my point, with two guys on base, Myers hit a home run into the metal bleachers beyond left field to extend Omaha's lead.

When the time came for the Chasers to take the field again, reliever Jeremy Jeffress came in, pitched two scoreless innings, and the game ended with the Storm Chasers beating the New Orleans Zephyrs, 8 to 3.

But it was Fireworks Friday... and we were still Family Of The Night. So just after the final out, On-Field Guy Ben Hemmen made Michael and I go stand in front of the crowd again. And now, people weren't Just Arriving any more— everybody was there, and everybody was paying attention, because they were waiting for the fireworks to begin! And Ben had to make us stand there as he promoted the American Family Night for a full two minutes while (per stadium instruction) the fans on the outfield berms moved into the stands. Again, I occasionally grunted monosyllables into the microphone. My dad was shooting video, but since he's too restrained to actually move from his seat like a good cameraman, in his footage Michael is hidden by my big ol' backside. Not even my front side. And I was too brainless to play towards his camera; I was frozen in place facing Werner Park's closed-circuit TV cameras.

Earlier, I'd told the Berm Bums that Michael was going to be doing the countdown for fireworks. Phil suggested he should do it really slow, like: "Ten...


"Eight (Hi, Phil.)

"Seven. (Hi Ryan.)" But Michael didn't get the chance to fool around. Announcer Ben led the crowd— and the scoreboard graphics, with a "Ten, Nine" to set the pace before letting Michael yell into the microphone. By that time, he could only count with the crowd instead of leading it.

But the lights went down, and as the fireworks started, we were ushered over to watch them from the dugout. The sunflower seeds were all gone, but Michael was happy to find a giant bucket of bubble gum, and filled his pockets.

After all the official stuff was done, we collected my dad and filed out through the gates with everybody else. A couple of the Storm Chasers' "Fun Bunch" interns were beseeching people to take a survey about our baseball experience, so I made my father and my son wait while I hastily filled one out. After all, I had to let them know what a great time we'd had.

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