The Sweet Seats

Most of the games Michael and I attend are, as they say, nothing to write home about. Like the one on August 5th. The Omaha Storm Chasers were back in town for a home stand, hosting the Colorado Springs Sky Sox (the triple-A affiliate of the Rockies). It was the only time this season that the two teams would meet.

The record-breaking hundred-degree daytime temperatures had lasted for almost two months. And the drought of the century was worsening. But it was a Sunday Fun Day, so I had to take Michael out to Werner Park to get Autographs and Photographs.

The Colorado Springs team had played at home the night before, and the scheduling of their flight into Omaha resulted in an unusual late afternoon starting time for the game. So it was just before four o'clock that Michael and I left for the ball park. Michael used his Li'l Chasers Club membership pass to get in, while I used a family size can of Campbell's Vegetable Beef soup.

Attendance was sparse; the stadium seemed quiet and empty. We wandered over to the Free Because We're Awesome Fun Zone and got Michael signed in, just to get another X added next to his name on their list. Then, skipping the clowns and balloon animals and bounce houses, we walked away to the shady area behind home plate. There was a wary, watchful usher standing guard over the reserved Club seats. So, oozing confidence, we blatantly sat in a pair of aisle seats right by him, and waited patiently.

Michael asked why I had him sign in at the Fun Zone when he wasn't going to use it. I explained that it was just one small way of showing support for the team; if anybody ever checked to see how many kids were using the Fun Zone, it would seem like he was there all the time. Which would indicate his parents were paying admission at the gate all the time. We're just making our presence known, I said.

Eventually, three players in their batting practice uniforms came out of the left-field tunnel, slowly heading for the dugout, and the announcement came that autographs were happening. But I made Michael wait, and we just watched as a few kids converged on the dugout from various points around the ball park, parents and assorted adults trailing behind. There still weren't very many people, not enough to form an actual queue. After they'd cleared away, I handed Michael his Ball of Scrawls, and we moseyed on down to the field and into the dugout to meet-and-greet pitchers Vin Mazzaro and Ryan Verdugo and utility infielder Kurt Mertins— again.

Michael with League All-Star pitcher Ryan Verdugo (12-4 with a 3.75 ERA.)

I had planned a few short, friendly, general comments that I could make to players while we moved through the line... but there wasn't a line. I used up my comments while Michael got his autographs (agreeing that Kurt didn't have to sign again) and I got my photographs. And then, having achieved those goals, Michael and I found ourselves alone in the dugout with the three Chasers. For quite some time. There was nobody waiting behind us; there were no stadium staffers there to move us along. This was the perfect opportunity to— what? Befriend and bond with them? Dig out our gloves and play catch? Invite them out for dinner after the game? Instead, looking around, I wondered out loud, "Where is everybody?"

"Mmm," thought Kurt. "Traded?" The guys chuckled; he was referring to a last-minute change in the line-up for the game. Since nobody came to kick us out, I talked at them for a bit, telling them a couple of things I've written about in these pages. I explained why I appreciated them doing Autographs and Photographs, and told the pitchers about Kurt throwing ground balls at my son. Then Michael and I just waited with the three of them, watching the grounds crew water the infield.

After a really long minute or two, manager Mike Jirschele came into view and the boys straightened up. Not wanting to overstay our welcome any further as the boss approached, I told the guys Good Luck and escorted Michael out, beaming all friendly-like at Jirsch as we left.

With nothing better to do, we went out to the right-field berm for a while and joined Berm Bums Ryan and Phil in throwing a ball around to kill some time.

Finally, the game started. The Sky Sox won, ten to three. Like I said, it was nothing to write home about. Except— Phil invited us to another game... which was.

Phil had "registered for a chance to win" at a Budweiser Designated Driver kiosk— and won! Nine tickets in the George Brett suite that Tuesday night. Since I was sitting on the berm next to him at the time, he asked if I wanted a pair.

With great ceremony I knelt, as if receiving a knighthood. I wiped a tear of joy from my eye, and in a voice choked with emotion said, "It would be an honor, sir, to accept your gracious invitation."

Actually, what I said was something along the lines of, "Whoa, cool! Thanks!" I love going to new and different places— as long as they're inside the general ball park area.

So the next night, all showered and shaved and laundered, Michael and I put on our best baseball jerseys and went to the ball game. It was another T-shirt Tuesday, where the Storm Chasers organization was giving out T-shirts to the first fifteen hundred fans. That wasn't important, though; I wasn't too keen on the particular design they'd chosen this time. But what the heck, since we were going anyway...

We rolled up in time to get our usual Super Special Secret parking, and right outside the front gate, met Phil and Ryan walking in from the main parking lot. We went in together and got our T-shirts. Then we separated; they went off to the suite. But Michael followed me around the concourse while I spent a few minutes signing up for some things, registering for others, and stuffing my bag full of free promotional trinkets. Then we went to check out our new digs.

Not quite as grand as Rosenblatt's Stadium Club, but more exclusive. And air-conditioned. With a patio.

I opened the door for Michael and followed him in. There, we spent a few minutes getting acquainted with our fellow suite-ees. Joan Nielsen (who was Joan Wallace when we went to high school together) recognized me as soon as we walked in. It seems there were two winners of the Budweiser Suite deal, and Joan's husband Scott was the other. So they were there along with Joan's mother, her brother and his wife. The Berm Bums Phil, Ryan, and Tony were there; Tony had also brought along his wife and son. And somebody had thoughtfully provided other children for Michael to play with.

But we couldn't get acquainted for long— I was on a mission! A mission of nebulous and unclear intent, but a mission nonetheless, so I took Michael for a walk around the park.

It was an exciting night; the atmosphere was electric. Literally. Heat lightning was flashing in an approaching storm front that people were watching with cautious anticipation. After two hot summer months with no rain, it would be welcome— as long as it didn't rain on our ball game.

I got Michael signed up for the Free Because We're Awesome Fun Zone, just to get another X by his name. He felt Super Special because now he had another wristband to go with his suite-accessing yellow VIP wristband. And, as we'd been doing more and more often lately, we walked away from the Fun Zone and went to find reserved seats we weren't supposed to be in, near the third-base field gate, to wait for autographs.

So that's where we were sitting when halfway across the stadium, Big Voice Craig Evans, Z-92 radio personality and part-time Storm Chasers public address announcer, announced the Big Winner Chicken Dinners in the Budweiser Designated Driver suite... and the scoreboard showed a video feed of all our suite-ees, waving and being happy without us. I stood up and Michael and I waved back using Big Arms. But since we were about four hundred feet across the stadium, down and to the left, I'm pretty sure nobody saw us.

But it was worth it; Mitch Maier started to walk past a few minutes later, and turned to head in our direction. A couple of pages ago, I wrote a story about Mitch and our encounter with him. Cool— I was pleased that he was coming over to sign another one of Michael's Balls.

There were only four kids waiting, so Mitch autographed something for the biggest one... and then just walked off! Totally snubbing the other three kids without so much as a how-de-doo! Michael spun to me with an angry, confused expession, holding out his Ball and pen and mouthing "What the hell?"

I beckoned him over to sit next to me... leaned in and told him, "First, don't even mouth that kind of language, and second, you're absolutely right." We glared at Mitch disappearing into the dugout. And I'm pretty sure nobody saw us.

Pretty soon an usher-guard woman came down to shoo away the various autograph-seeking kids and parent-types that had accumulated at the rail. But Michael and I had Magic VIP Wristbands, so I wanted to see if she'd try to make us leave the seats we weren't supposed to be in. After she followed the others up the steps, I figured we were okay. So— we left.

We stopped to get a Giant But Cheap Because We're Awesome drink, and then had to stop again and stare at the distant outfield flag for two minutes while some guy sang, and then we went back to the suite for the beginning of the game.

The kids were running in and out, the way kids will if allowed. Most of the adults were out mingling on the patio; by this time heavy cloud cover and a healthy breeze had made the weather cool and comfortable, which was a welcome change of pace from the past few weeks. For the first couple of innings, all sorts of assorted stadium personnel, concessions vendors, and seasoned fans came past, invariably stopping to hassle Phil and Ryan good-naturedly about being in the suite seats instead of out on the berm.

In the bottom of the second inning, I was watching the game, seated next to Tony when the Chasers' Anthony Seratelli was hit by a pitch. He trotted off to first base, and Mitch Maier stepped up to the plate. I told Tony how Mitch had totally snubbed Michael earlier. "I liked Mitch, and felt bad for him being sent down... and I like all the Storm Chasers, but I'm sorry— I have to jinx him," I said, and proceeded to waggle my fingers all hex-like in Maier's direction.

Mitch immediately responded by smacking the ball out of the park to score two runs and give Omaha the lead. As he ran around the bases to the cheering crowd, Tony suggested, "Hey, you should jinx all our guys!"

For the next two innings, Chasers starting pitcher Ryan Verdugo (see photo way up above) held the Sky Sox hitless. Then, when the teams switched sides in the middle of the fourth, I became distracted by checking on the concourse. When I stuck my head out of the door, I was blasted by gusting winds. While we were sitting on the lee side patio, the skies had darkened ominously, but we'd been sheltered from the wind. "Wow, it's really windy out here," I stated to no one in particular, which caused a bunch of people to step outside to check it out for themselves. Maybe it was that wind that had sent Mitch Maier's ball over the wall.

Michael was hovering around me as I scented the wind like a wolf. Actually, I was listening. The crowd was noisy, four thousand people shouting in the wind, trying to talk to each other and have their individual conversations be heard over the constant chatter of the P. A. announcer. On the other hand, I was trying to hear the chatter of the P. A. announcer over the ambient noise of the crowd. And I almost missed it in the audio mix: a faint "Michael Berry... Fan Services..."

For his part, Michael did miss it. So he was startled when I excitedly grabbed him and yelled, "Come on, let's go!" Then I stopped, spun around, and went back to tell everybody that Michael was going to be the Child P. A. Announcer for the bottom of the next inning, and then took him away, still stunned and trailing a flurry of encouragement and well-wishes.

We went to the Fan Services kiosk near the main entrance, where I'd signed him up when we came in. The girl there spoke into a walkie-talkie, and a few minutes later, Community Relations intern Aaron Cox showed up to lead Michael up to the press box.

catwalk corridor

Walkways leading to the inner sanctums of Werner Park.

On the way up the Super Special Secret stairs to a catwalk, Michael told Aaron that he was scared, but Aaron reassured him. When we'd first come in to the park and I signed him up, Michael had said the same thing to me, but I reminded him that he had been on the field with a microphone in front of everybody before, yelling "Play Ball" and counting down fireworks and such; this wouldn't be any worse than that. And once we got to the Media Room, Aaron prepped him well. They went over all the players' names together, and Aaron filled out a form so when the time came, all Michael had to do was read it out loud— and then turn around and wave at the girl with the camera that would show him on the scoreboard.

Pitcher Ryan Verdugo allowed the Sky Sox to get two hits, but escaped the inning without giving up any runs. After a mid-inning on-field promotion, the Storm Chasers were up, and it was Michael's time to shine.

Big Voice Craig introduced him, and I looked forward to a blowout inning where the entire line-up gets to bat; nine hits for five runs or something. "Now batting," read Michael, "The second baseman, number two, Anthony Seratelli."

"Aaaay, MY kulll! Yeahhh! MY kaaalll!" came some distant shouts that made me grin. Phil and Ryan can be very loud, and they're not afraid to be. I've heard them out on the berm, bellowing loudly enough that the echo rings off the opposite side of the stadium. I wanted to lean out and wave at them in acknowledgment, but there were staffers hogging all the window seats.

And as instructed, Michael turned and waved at the camera, but I couldn't see him on the scoreboard because I'd forgotten my glasses.

On the field, Seratelli cracked a little dribbler straight back to the pitcher, who grabbed the ball and fired it— past the first baseman into right field. "Ant" rounded first and booked on to second base for a double! And didn't stop— the ball was fielded and thrown across the diamond in plenty of time to get him out at third.

One down.

"Now batting... the Dee Aitch, number eighteen... Mitch Maier."

"Turn and wave, smile, keep waving... " came the calls from around the Media Room.

"Aaaaayy MY kulllll! MIKE-ulll!" came the calls from faraway first base.

Oh, no— I remembered that I'd cast a spell of evil on Mitch. I'd better get that jinx offa him, I thought to myself, and mentally I set about to un-hexing him. With the onus of my vengeance lifted— he grounded out to the shortstop.

"Now batting... the left fielder, number twenty-six, Derrick Robinson."

"Smile and wave..."

Faintly: "My KULL!"

And Robinson grounded out to the shortstop. That inning went fast... I only got a couple of video clips to upload.

With that, Michael engaged in a few high-fives, Aaron told him he could keep the sheaf of game notes, and we were left to find our own way out. Michael was all amped-up, skipping along the concourse ahead of me, brandishing his Magic VIP Wristband all the way back to the George Brett Suite. There he was greeted with a hero's welcome. More high-fives, and heaps of praise and congratulations were lauded upon him. He glowed with pride.

But alas— fame is fleeting. Michael's star was eclipsed in the sixth inning with the arrival of Storm Chasers President Martie Cordaro and Chief Executive Officer Gary Green. Gary Green is one of the Managing Partners that had recently bought the Storm Chasers franchise, and in interviews he'd expressed a desire to be more visible than previous owners. So now we had an Owner and the General Manager hanging out in our suite.

I took a couple of photos, but they turned out blurry. Probably because I wasn't really paying attention. I was trying to watch the game.

Chasers owner Gary Green in the blue shirt, and GM Martie Cordaro in the black.

Shortly thereafter, Community Relations Director Andrea Stava showed up with her camera.

And so did Promotions Manager Ben Hemmen, with his microphone.

And so did Senior Sales Executive Rustin Buysse, with two Fun Bunch girls.

I didn't know why all the Front Office people were there, but everybody seemed to be trying to socialize with the Insiders, so I just tried to stay out of the way.

On the field, the Chasers had loaded the bases. The scoreboard graphic calls that particular situation Ducks on the Pond... sponsored by Aflac. To celebrate, Storm Girls jumped up on the dugouts and pranced about with little plush duckies that they threw into the crowd.

"Hey, Kacey!" Ryan yelled down at this one. "Up here!" She looked up with an amused helplessness and mouthed back, "You know I can't throw that far," and the duckies went to little kids in the Box Seats. Yeah, right. Actually, they went to older guys, because grown men are taller, more belligerent, and can jump higher and reach farther than little kids.

While the Front Office staff was mingling around us, and the Storm Girls were being a distraction in front of us, there was still a bases-loaded ball game happening, with nobody out. David Lough hit a sacrifice fly to score Wil Myers from third. But then Anthony Seratelli hit into a double play. Still, all told, by the end of the inning the Storm Chasers had sent seven guys to the plate and scored three runs. I wondered why they couldn't have done that an inning earlier, when Michael was announcing.

Then I found out why all the honchos were there. Apparently, winning the Budweiser Designated Driver suite was a big deal. Ben Hemmen interviewed both winners, but I couldn't hear them. There were prizes for them in the big boxes the Fun Bunch girls had brought in, but I never found out what they were. Andrea Stava took photos but I wasn't there. I'm not sure what I was doing. I must've been checking on my son.

Moving into the seventh inning, Omaha was ahead five to one, and Ryan Verdugo was still pitching. He gave up a base hit, but got the next three guys out. And it was time for the Seventh Inning Stretch. All the Storm Chasers staff had slipped away except for Andrea, who snapped this photo for the official Storm Chasers flickr.com albums.

L to R: Michael, unknown goofball, Ryan Lybarger, Tony Barker with son, and Tony's wife Lisa.

At the end of the eighth inning, after Omaha had scored once more, the evening was winding down. Ahead six to one, it looked like the Chasers were going to win. I said some goodbyes, exchanged some information, packed my bag and left a smidge early in order to take Michael out to the berm with his glove, and see if he could get a ball from one of the bullpen guys. I didn't think he would; it just didn't feel right. I waited at a safe distance, watching our new reliever Donnie Joseph strike out the first two Sky Sox. The third grounded out to end the game. A moment later, Michael came back and told me, "I asked, but that guy said he didn't have any."

No baseballs in the bullpen? Who did he ask? "That's okay," I said. "While I was sitting here, I found a pair of sunglasses somebody lost in the grass." They were cool, hip and trendy. I wanted them, but they were sized to make Michael look cool, hip and trendy. And he doesn't like wearing shades.

We fell in with the departing crowd, shuffling along to get the usual coupons on our way out. There we separated from the madding throngs and took a lovely solitary constitutional all by ourselves to our Super Special Secret parking spot. We happily reviewed the evening's events with each other while we waited for traffic to clear. Content with ourselves, we had a quiet, pleasant ride home with the windows down for a change. It was a beautiful night— just the right temperature after two months of scorching heat. And all night, storm clouds had threatened ominously, with constant flashes of lightning throughout the evening, but thankfully nary a drop of rain had fallen.

Or so we thought. Three miles away from the stadium, I turned off the highway onto a smaller street in our neighborhood. I first noticed that the traffic light wasn't working, and at the same time realized it was because all the street lights were out, and the convenience store on the corner was dark. Okay, power outage, I thought; and responded accordingly. Meaning... I kept driving.

Winding through the last residential blocks to our house, the world seemed to be a solid black, except for the cone of light from my headlights. Puddles of water lined the sides of the road. Fallen tree branches began to appear; and the streets were scattered with leaves and debris. I drove slowly through the darkness, telling Michael it seemed we had just missed the Zombie Apocalypse.

And our house was dark, too, when we pulled in. I shut the car off, Michael and I got out, I got my bag out of the back seat and shut the door... and we just stood there in the driveway, looking around blindly. And, what the heck, I took a picture. Surprisingly, my little point-and-shoot actually got something from just the ambient light of the city reflecting off the low clouds.

Then, across the street, I saw a ghost. So I axed it, "How long ago did this happen?"

"About an hour and a half ago," said the darkness, using our neighbor Wayne Braegelman's voice. "We had 85 mile-an-hour winds, and about an inch and a half of rain in twenty minutes." The phantom voice went on about calling the power company and stuff, but I was thinking about other things and smiling.

I understood that Wayne, and Jennifer (judging by the ficker of candlelight I noticed inside our house), and everybody in this neighborhood would be all excited about the storm. I just grinned in the darkness— this power outage was nothing. They didn't realize that the real excitement that night had been with the Storm Chasers.

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