Ninety Degrees Further

A couple of weeks into July, most of the nation was still locked in the grip of a record-setting heat wave. Heat warnings and advisories were in effect in 16 states from the Midwest to the East Coast. The worst drought since 1956 was expanding through the plains states. Dry ground tends to bring higher daytime temperatures, which in turn raises evaporation rates, creating a vicious cycle of heat and drought. AccuWeather.com meteorologists were predicting that new and frequent waves of near-100-degree temperatures and stingy rainfall would persist into mid-August. Meanwhile, authorities had declared more than a thousand counties in 26 states as natural disaster areas.

But the Storm Chasers were playing an eight-game home stand before going on the road for the last two weeks of July. And I wanted to go to a couple of them— at least the weekend games where swagginess seemed promising. There was a Saturday night game where we could get super special giveaway Eric Hosmer replica jerseys. I thought the advertised jerseys sounded nicer than the standard giveaway T-shirts.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one who thought so. We cruised up about five minutes after the gates were supposed to open, and found a couple of spots left in our super special secret free parking area beside the stadium. Casually walking around the corner to the front, I almost stopped in my tracks. To my horror, there was a long line of people queued up, stretching from the front gate far out into the main parking lot. I'd never seen that many people lined up at Werner Park. My dismay increased when I realized that this line was just one leg of a vee, and there were just as many people standing in another line that wound along the sidewalk in front of the stadium. Worse yet, in the distance I noticed a third line of people waiting at the left-field entrance, which is usually closed.

Official Storm Chasers photo. Berm Bum Tony is in the blue cap with red brim. By the time Andrea Stava shot this, Michael and I were already inside. I know because she took our picture on her way out.

Calming my panic, I eased my mind by guesstimating that there would probably be jerseys left by the time we entered... and there were. Upon later inspection, I found the graphics were screen-printed rather than stitched on, and the jerseys didn't fit well. The smaller one was far too big for Michael, while the larger one was a bit snug on my ample frame. But still, I can't complain; they were free, and they do look good. Nicer than T-shirts.

The minors are often called the Bus Leagues, for all the travel time a team spends on buses going to different towns. But lower leagues will stay somewhat regional; the Texas League, Florida State League, Carolina League, Arizona League... and fifteen others affiliated with Major League Baseball. Not to mention numerous short-season independent leagues that aren't affiliated. All of these teams playing in each other's towns means there's a lot of bus travel.

But in the two leagues at the triple-A level— one step away from the Bigs— things are a little different. Generally, the Pacific Coast League is supposed to cover the western half of the United States, and the International League, the eastern. In the Pacific Coast League, the Storm Chasers' rivals ranged in distance from the New Orleans Zephyrs to the Tacoma Rainiers. Even allowing for the use of commercial air travel, scheduling games took careful planning. The team's road trips were often a regional tour. Four games versus Fresno were followed by four games at Sacramento. Usually they'd play the Reno Aces and the Las Vegas 51's back-to-back. Same with the Memphis Redbirds and the Nashville Sounds.

The most distant teams might only face each other once in a season. Teams with closer proximity were scheduled against each other more often. Hence, the "I-80 Rivalry" that I wasn't aware of; the Iowa Cubs, based in Des Moines, played the Omaha Storm Chasers a lot.

Like this weekend. Although I disagree with the evident animosity of the slogan, I decided the "Beat Iowa" I-80 Rivalry shirt that I got at another recent giveaway night would certainly be appropriate. Besides, it was clean, and I couldn't think of any other occasions where I'd feel comfortable wearing it. After entering the ball park, a lot of people— especially kids— put on their giveaway Eric Hosmer jerseys. But Michael and I were blatantly being like so totally Insider with our specialty garb. Our giveaway jerseys got crammed into my bag.

Once the game started, we found the Berm Bums Ryan, Phil, and Tony out sitting in their usual spot, and spent most of the evening watching the game with them. Michael occupied himself with my camera for a while.

Over the course of the game, Omaha's young prospect pitcher Jake Odorizzi went six full innings, only giving up one run. Meanwhile, the Chasers blew the game apart in the second inning. Two runs came when future superstar Wil Myers knocked another baseball out of the yard. Typical. David Lough didn't have as much fun. He got on base by being hit by a pitch. After the entire Chasers line-up had been to bat and run the bases for seven runs... Lough was up again. And got hit by a pitch, again. Twice in one inning. Ouch. That was the shot that got Iowa's manager to change pitchers.

Looking back, I guess it was too hot for Lough to expend energy charging the mound, so fans weren't treated to an uproarious bench-clearing brawl. Those usually result in players getting thrown out of the game, though, so it's probably best to keep a cool head. On the other hand... within the context of old-time hardball, with its code of an eye-for-an-eye, the job of all pitchers is to protect their team's batters by retaliating in kind after their teammates have been hit. As Cleveland Indians pitcher Chris Perez famously tweeted in April: "You hit us, we hit you. Period."

He was referring to a game in which Kansas City's Jonathan Sanchez hit Cleveland's Shin Soo-Choo, who had already lost part of 2011 after his thumb was broken by a pitch. The umpire issued an Official Warning to both teams. But soon, Indians pitcher Jeanmar Gomez hit Royals batter Mike Moustakas. Both Gomez and manager Manny Acta were tossed from the game, and third baseman Jack Hannahan was ejected and fined 500 dollars for arguing about it. Chris Perez' "We hit you" comment on the Twitters got him a $750 penalty from Major League Baseball.

So it was probably for the best that nobody did anything about David Lough getting hit. To appease me since I am so ferocious, the Chasers obeyed my shirt's dictum and Beat Iowa, seven to one.

And once again, it was about twelve hours later that Michael and I were headed back out to Werner Park under a blazing summer sun. The weather forecast called for highs for the day nearing a hundred. Just like the last three weeks. And the next three weeks.

To sweeten the pot for Michael, I had to compromise my ethics; giving him a choice between playing Senior Bingo in the hot hot sun or Tae Kwan Do class. As part of some sponsorship deal with a local Retirement Village, the Storm Chasers Community Relations people had arranged a few days throughout the summer for Senior Bingo at the ball park. I explained that I knew the ball park wasn't going to be the most enjoyable thing ever, but the Chasers were leaving town so I wouldn't be asking him to go with me again for another couple of weeks...

He seemed happy to skip his Tae Kwan Do class. The week before, he'd been tested to advance a rank. He had worried and fretted about the test for days, although everybody knew his advancement was practically a given except for him. When the time came, he passed easily. But it seemed that now, after being so concerned about it, that he was more than ready to take some time off.

But I also wondered how much I might have persuaded him. I had to ponder the fact that maybe he'd opted for the ball park just because he knew it's what I wanted to do. So at the same time that I was proud of him for making this sacrifice so agreeably, I felt a little guilty for what I was going to put him through. And maybe a little selfish.

It kept nagging at me— in the beginning I'd wanted to take him to the ball park as often as possible in hopes that he would grow to love the game, the experience. But now I worried that maybe I was pushing him, and that my pushing might have the opposite effect. I already realized that I was going more for my own enjoyment than his, but I was still trying to "turn him on" to baseball. I wanted our ball games together to comprise enjoyable memories. I certainly didn't want him to remember them as a repeated suffering. I hoped he would grow to love it, not grow to hate it.

Nevertheless, for now, we were going.

It was morning, but the heat was already infernal. We followed our usual procedure for Sunday Fun Days. I took a can of Pork & Beans for admission. Too bad I had to give the can away; the Pork & Beans would've gone good with what we saw on the way in.

Some Westlake Ace Hardware people had their tent-awning-thing set up outside the main gates, demonstrating the Big Green Egg outdoor cooker. I stopped to try one of their samples— huge chunks of grilled bratwurst, speared by pretzel sticks. Since I always feel guilty about taking samples, I let one of the guys sales-talk at me for a while. Finally, Michael pulled me away to safety.

Making our way in, Michael told me that I'd distracted the salesman for so long that he'd eaten about seven samples when I wasn't looking. Good for him. They were delicious. And he was following our credo: Food / Free / Grab some / Run. He likes samples— when we go to the store, if his mom and I don't pay attention he'll often slip off to the Deli section and ask for samples. His Cuteness Quotient usually gets him some.

Now in the ball park, it was time to collect our Autographs & Photographs. One (of each) was of relief pitcher Vin Mazarro. Vin was originally from New Joisey, where he led his high school to two consecutive state championships. A little over three years after the Oakland A's selected him in the third round of the 2005 draft, he made his big-league debut against the Chicago White Sox. He pitched almost seven innings, without allowing any runs. Truly major-league stuff. He became part of Oakland's regular rotation, pitching in 41 more games there before being traded to Kansas City at the end of 2010.

Michael with Vin Mazzaro.

RoyalsReview.com tells the story of Mazzaro's May 17, 2011 outing against the Cleveland Indians: "Mazzaro had one of the worst games in the history of baseball, as he became the first player in Major League history to allow fourteen runs in less than three innings. Given that there have been thousands of games played each season, for over 100 years, that's saying something."

Vin was instantly demoted to Omaha. Here, he did okay; he won Game 2 of the Conference Championship series, and then Game 2 of the League Championship series, helping the Storm Chasers get their 2011 PCL title.

Now, in 2012, he was one of the many pitchers who were shuttling between Omaha and Kansas City, pitching 16 games for the Storm Chasers and nine for the Royals. He didn't struggle in the Big Leagues, but he didn't dominate, either. As a Royals pitcher, he had six starts, for a 3-3 record. (At the end of the year, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates organizaton.)

Following the meet-and-greet, I spoke for a while with the recurrent and irrepressible Barry Bernet. The night before, the Omaha players were clad in unique special-edition jerseys, powder blue with white pinstripes. When the game ended, the player-worn jerseys were autographed and auctioned off to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Barry complained that he'd won two of them. I allowed him his pride by mock-pouting that I had to just be content with my freebie giveaway Hosmer jersey. But I continue to be jealous— what a way to build up a wardrobe of appropriate ballgame apparel! He's probably got four or five of those authentic jerseys. The Berm Bums also have a modest collection of jerseys; if not game-worn, the guys at least have a variety that dates back a few years to establish their bona fides.

I have one— the one I got from being Family of the Night. But quite a few T-shirts.

I pulled Michael away, slightly irritated by my inadequacy. We went up the steps and out onto the concourse, where Michael turned one way and I turned the other. He protested quietly, "You said we were here to play Bingo." I told him to follow me, it'd just be a minute, and led him over to the Free Because We're Awesome Fun Zone, and signed him in.

I just like to get his presence noted. On their giant list of Li'l Chasers members, his is the name that has all the attendance X marks following it. To avoid confusing the worker girls, Michael allowed them to fit him with an all-day wristband... and then we spun on our heels and headed to the HyVee Pavilion tent way over at the far corner of the ball park.

Because we were there to play Senior Bingo. Although we weren't technically Seniors, I had called before, and been told it was okay for us to crash their party. So when we arrived at the tent, we said Hi to intern Blake Stroth, found a table, and sat, waiting and watching all the rookie-level visitors wandering the concourse out under the sweltering summer Sunday Fun Day sun.

We were just in time— almost immediately, Blake distributed paper Bingo cards, and Hi-Liter pens, and... we proceeded to play Bingo.

Blake was trying to handle all the little things by himself— picking the number-balls out of the Bingo number-ball thingie, announcing them into a microphone, writing them on a dry-erase board, and repeating the procedure. I knew he was supposed to have a helper or two who hadn't shown up yet, so I pressed myself into service and played Assistant Intern until a real colleague arrived a few minutes later.

Eventually, Michael won and yelled Bingo! and went up to select a prize from a table of swag. He came back with a Souvenir Program from Rosenblatt's Final Season. I was pleased because at the time, I had never bothered to get one of those. Back then, the players were still just names on the scoreboard I didn't really care about, so I didn't need a program. (In an opposite way, now that I do know and avidly follow the players, I still don't need a program.)

And then, as I leafed through it during the next Bingo game, one photo caught my eye. For years, at the end of a game, in deference to the phrase "It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings," promo guy Ben Hemmen runs out on the field in a Fat Lady costume, singing things. Badly. But I had to show Michael this picture:

"What are they doing in there!" exclaimed Michael.

It's Ryan and Phil!" I shot back, being obvious.

"I know! And how'd they get in Fat Lady suits?" he demanded. I couldn't answer that. So I didn't.

After two or three more games of Bingo that he didn't win, Michael grew bored. And hot— did I mention it was almost a hundred degrees out? He was done playing Bingo and he wanted a drink. Picking up after ourselves, we left and made our way back around the outfield to the completely opposite corner of the park; back to the third-base side that I enjoy so much. I stopped and rummaged through my bag and pretended to suddenly have a Great Idea.

I pulled out the super special secret cup that gets us Giant But Cheap Because We're Awesome drinks, along with Michael's 2012 Ball of Scrawls Part Two... and sent him with his Ball to wait in the super special front row reserved seats for an approaching player while I got our Giant Drink.

The concession stand was just a few feet away, and there was no line, so it was only a moment before I went back to the stands to meet him stomping up the steps angrily accusing me, "He won't sign it another time!" Seeing the player in question walking off, I recognized Kurt Mertins, who had already granted us seventy-three autographs and a dozen photos (or thereabouts).

"Oh, hey, you're not done," I demanded right back. We argued about who was hungry and who wanted autographs and who had money and who had to wait down in the sun next to the field. So I went back to buy Michael a Half Price Burger, and when I joined him in the super special front row reserved seats— which were empty— he'd already obtained Chris Dwyer's autograph on his Ball. And smeared it.

Chris Dwyer was a decent pitcher, beginning 2012 ranked as the Royals' seventh-best prospect. He'd spent three years making his way up the minor league ladder at a slightly better-than-average pace. Four days earlier he'd been called up to triple-A Omaha, swapping places with hapless former superhope Mike Montgomery.

I watched the players warming up and stretching on the field while Michael inhaled his burger, and when he was done we got up and fled from the giant burning ball in the sky... heading back to the tent on the other side of the field. Senior Bingo would be wrappng up by now.

On our way around the park, Michael wanted to throw a ball. Or maybe he just wanted to make me spend the dollars it would take for him to throw balls. The Fun Zone had air-filled ball-throwing things... but the cage we were passing in the outfield was radar-equipped. So we squeezed our way through the crushing throngs of people to the front of the line, and he pitched.

In the two months since his Clinic, his 28 mph fastball had improved to 30.

We moved on, continuing around the outfield until we found our berm buddy Ryan had claimed a table in the Pavilion tent. That was smart. It was actually pretty nice watching the game from there. The tent had shade... and blowing fans... and a breeze. And everybody else was sitting in the sun. Ryan's only complaint was that he had to spend the whole game looking at a dog. Michael spent most of it looking in the opposite direction, at the arid fields of dry brown grass that stretched to the distant highway beyond.

The game itself, against the Oklahoma City RedHawks, wasn't that memorable. Mitch Maier, at the beginning of his second career as a Former Big-leaguer, maintained a .000 batting average after 16 at-bats. Wil Myers broke with tradition by not hitting a home run. David Lough got hit by a pitch... for the third time in two days.

The Chasers were leading 6-2 after five innings, but then starting pitcher Doug Davis— thirteen-year Big League veteran, cancer survivor, and oldest man on the club— gave up a three-run homer in the sixth. Reliever Francisley Bueno allowed the RedHawks to tie it up in the seventh.

Throughout the game, stalwart fans, who were forcing themselves to suffer through, began to notice our super special secret tent, so the HyVee Pavilion was packed full of people by the time the ninth inning ended and the game went into Free Baseball. To relieve our suffering, Jeremy Jeffress quickly gave up a run in the tenth that went unanswered, so the Storm Chasers lost, 7-6.

As the crowd of sun-baked diehards departed, we ambled out along the first-base concourse after them. I was idly watching across the park as bullpen catcher Josh Mazur walked the center-field warning track toward the clubhouse tunnel. The players had already fled the field but the bullpen catcher is local help (from Gretna) who had to pick up after them. There was a solitary kid standing motionless at the top of the left-field berm, and as he walked past, Mazur tossed up a ball, which stuck in the grass about six feet in front of the kid. Oh, if only Michael and I were there, I thought half-heartedly.

The kid stared at the ball. I stared at the kid staring at the ball. The kid stared at the ball. I saw a set of parents approaching him, the dad pointing at the ball. The kid stared at the ball. Jeepers, I thought. Finally the dad picked it up and handed it to him. I shook my head and kept walking. My son is trained in how to react to such situations: "Ball!" you don't yell, and without thinking, pounce on it like it's a live grenade.

The Storm Chasers were leaving for a long road trip to play teams in Austin, New Orleans, and back through Oklahoma City. Ryan was leaving town, too— he and Phil were going to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame. (The late great Chicago Cubs' Ron Santo was being inducted.) I told Ryan to look for Rosenblatt's home plate.

Except for our team losing, and being hot and mildly sweaty, I was satisfied. Michael didn't have a horrible time, although he claimed he was daydreaming for most of the game. He'd also avoided the Easy-Bake Fun Zone and almost certain heatstroke. We got Autographs & Photographs. We played Bingo and won.

And if Michael didn't enjoy it enough, at least maybe he gained a better appreciation for his air-conditioned Tae Kwan Do class.

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