MINOR LEAGUE MEMORIES
A Regular Season
Summer was passing. The intolerable heat and drought under which we'd suffered for two months started to ease— slightly. Just enough that, once in a while, late at night, our air conditioner would actually shut off. Momentarily. There were two or three days where it rained for a few minutes.
We were firmly into August; there was darkness at the end of the tunnel. Michael started school, about three weeks early as far as his mother and I were concerned. We began to receive notices of impending Fall events. And with seventeen games left, the Omaha Storm Chasers clinched their Division.
Before I was exactly ready, it was time to take Michael to the last regular-season home game of the year. There were a few things that would make it special. So—
At noon, my son Michael & I went to the grocery store and bought Sweet Italian Sausages and a can of soup.
That's what I would put on my Twitter tweets if I had some. Because Twits are supposed to be useless that way. I would not tell why we bought groceries. But they would come in handy.
By 12:45 we were at Werner Park, pulling into our usual Super Special Secret parking place. It had rained the entire day before, but now the afternoon was starting to get hot, as the sun began to burn off the clouds. The excessive humidity and blazing sun were about to turn the stadium into a giant steam-cooker.
I grabbed all our gear, and Michael carried a can of chicken-noodle soup which I found particularly unappetizing. Canned chicken-noodle soup always reminds me of a horrible happening at a 1982 Foreigner concert. It doesn't bear mentioning, and luckily, I wasn't involved... but I will forever be slightly repulsed by nasty processed canned chicken-noodle soup.
But today, at the store, I had been indecisive, and Michael picked it out. I didn't care— it wasn't for us.
Most people go to a ball game with little more than the clothes they're wearing, and some money for stuff. I led Michael toward the front gate, feeling like a camel burdened with my Save The Manatees duffel stuffed full of stuff hanging from one hand, a big ol' sleeping bag under my other arm, and pockets bulging with other necessities. Michael carried the can of soup.
Thus laden like Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl, we rounded the corner to the front of the stadium, where Michael exchanged his soup at the Sam's Club/Omaha Food Bank table for a ticket to the game. Just one, for him— this Final Home Game happened to fall on a Sunday Fun Day, so I would get through the gates using his Li'l Chasers Membership card.
We found a couple of Berm Bums waiting nearby, so we barged right up with great fortunstance and began happily chatting with them in order to cut our way in line. The gates promptly opened, and as a bonus, since we were amongst the first thousand fans into the park, young Fun Bunch members handed each of us a super special secret 2012 Storm Chasers Team Photo as we passed through, and the Berm Bums contingent headed off to right field.
Michael and I quickly found some reserved seats we weren't supposed to be in, and waited there for Autographs and Photographs. A pair of white doves flew around, leftovers from a Military Appreciation ceremony a week earlier. They came to roost on the metal roof over our heads and watched us. Michael watched them. The doves and Michael stared at each other for a long time. He decided they were angels.
I unzipped my Save The Manatees bag and carefully stuffed our Team Photos in it, and fished out Michael's 2012 Ball of Scrawls (Part Two) for him to hold. After a couple of minutes, it was announced that the designated players were in the dugout, and people began funneling down through the stands to line up by the dugout gate. I held Michael back until it seemed the line had formed, then we moseyed down to take our place at the end. A couple of times, a kid or two would run up behind us, but I politely let them go ahead of us. Michael asked why I kept doing that. I thought by now he would have figured that out. At the end of the line, there's no one pressing you to move along, so you have more time (and more room) for unauthorized Photographs.
Standing on the red dirt warning track at the edge of the field, and waiting our turn, I saw that the first two players were Kurt Mertins and Blaine Hardy, so I informed Michael that he already had their autographs on his Ball. I had a decent photo of Michael with Blaine archived, but didn't mind getting a second one for confirmation.
On the other hand, we'd seen K-Mert so often that I wondered if he was trying to take over Irving Falu's title as Fan Favorite. I'd gotten him to sign Michael's first Ball this year three times, but had him not sign this one twice, twice. I'll keep taking pictures, though, whenever I can. When we finally made our way up to him, I joked at Kurt that I was gonna have a whole album of pictures of the two of them. I thought Kurt was under-utilized as a utility infielder... almost seemed like I'd seen him more often in my camera's viewscreen than I had on the field.
Besides Kurt and Blaine, there was a New Guy. Now, at the beginning of the year, Jonathan Broxton was the closing pitcher for the big-league Royals. He was really good, with a million Saves. But, as one of the KC announcers put it, it was always a high-wire act with him. When the Royals needed a pitcher to "just hold these guys" in the bottom of the ninth, Broxton did— but not until after he'd loaded up the bases or walked two guys or something equally worrisome. And his salary was really expensive. So the Royals traded him to the Cincinatti Reds in exchange for... somebody, somebody else, and this guy: Relief Pitcher Donnie Joseph.
Satisfied with my meet-and-greet Autographs and Photographs, we left the dugout and made our way back up through the stands to the concourse, and went to get Michael signed in to the Free Because We're Awesome Fun Zone... although today was a Sunday Fun Day so it was free for all Li'l Chasers members. But we were still awesome: one of the girls recognized Michael, and I showed the other one how, on their attendance chart, he had the longest line of X'es next to his name.
The Fun Zone was already quite a bit busier than usual since it was a special day, and Michael found a couple of kids from his school to run around with. So I told him I was going to take our stuff out to the berm, and took off to do that.
Then, as I began trekking to the far corner of the ball park, I heard the P. A. announcer calling a bunch of names to the Fan Services booth, among them Joan Nielsen. Joan and I had gone to High School together, and found we were both regulars at Werner Park when her husband won the other half of the suite that the Berm Bums had won a couple of weeks before. So, curious, I went to the Fan Sevices booth myself, to say Hi.
I found her amidst a group of people and asked why she'd been summoned. She said she'd won a motorcycle. Maybe. Every Tuesday throughout the season, local radio station Z-92 and Werner Cycle Works had set up a table where people could register to win a cool new Harley-Davidson Victory motorcycle. And yeah, I'd signed up once myself. Well, today they had narrowed it down to twenty contestants, who were all filling out forms before being taken onto the field for the big Final Drawing in about ten minutes.
I told Joan that if she was doing that, I was gonna go take her seat. Which I did, for a while. Her family had good Reserved seats right behind home plate, seven rows back. I talked to her mom, who complimented me on my write-up of our suite experience. I waited a couple of minutes, thinking I would get some photos of the drawing that I could e-mail to them later. Then Joan's son appeared, telling his Grandma that he'd been told he could go out on the field to take pictures... and I decided Andrea Stava would also be taking photos for the Storm Chasers' flickr.com albums. So I excused myself and left, to run my stuff out to the berm and tell the guys out there what was going on.
We all watched the contest drawing on the scoreboard video screen as I unrolled my sleeping bag and unpacked my stuff. Phil trotted down the berm to stand, arms hanging over the outfield wall. Across the field, near home plate, on-field Promotions guy Ben Hemmen explained the drawing for any fans who were paying attention, "...it's come down to these twenty contest winners—"
"JO-O-OAN!" bellowed Phil encouragingly, loud like a bull moose echoing off the far stands.
"...And we'll be drawing one name—"
"JO-O-O-OAN!" roared Phil again, enthusiastically.
It didn't help. She didn't win.
And I'd spent too much time away from my son, so I grabbed the souvenir cup out of my bag to get a Giant But Cheap Because We're Awesome drink, and hurried off, completing one full lap of the park by the time I got to the Fun Zone to retrieve him. "What took you so long?" he accused. In answer, I offered him the drink, which he accepted greedily. Then I led him out of the Fun Zone; after all, he had a party to get to before the second inning.
Hidden behind the concessions area on the first-base side of the park was a picnic area. That's where the Storm Chasers were having a Li'l Chasers Club Year-end Party. Clowns, games, balloons, and pony rides... they didn't have any of those things. But we did chat with intern Aaron Cox for a minute about his tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Michael got a free hot dog, and I picked up a souvenir Program.
We sat in the shade under the big tent, relaxing and cooling down. Michael ate his hot dog, while I leafed through the Program, reading about all the things we could look forward to in the coming year that had just ended. Occasionally we chatted with other Li'l Chasers families we'd seen in the Fun Zone, until the game was about to start. I could faintly hear the P. A. system broadcasting a pre-game award ceremony. Our superdude Wil Myers had been selected, through a nationwide fan vote, as the PERT Plus® best player in Minor League Baseball.
Michael and I got up and began wandering the first-base concourse back out to our bermside camp. As we walked along Rosenblatt Way, we could hear other team awards being... awarded. Clint Robinson was officially named Fan Favorite, replacing Irving Falu. And despite his lack of playing time, Kurt Mertins received a Johnny Rosenblatt Community Service Award, so I was glad for him.
The Storm Chasers began their last home game of the year, against the New Orleans Zephyrs, as we arrived at our home on the berm and settled into our spot. Almost immediately, in the bottom of the first inning, Omaha got the bases loaded. The Ducks on the Pond promotion (sponsored by Aflac) had Storm Girls jumping up on the dugouts to throw little plush ducks into the crowd. As I sat watching them do this from our distant vantage point, I pouted and muttered, "I want one of those fuzzy duckies." I turned and called over to Ryan, "You guys with all your Insider-ness should get Michael one of those fuzzy duckies."
"Spin the wheel," he said back. I looked at Michael, stunned— because he'd wanted to spin the prize wheel set up inside the front entrance when we came in; I had told him to wait, and then forgot all about it.
So once Omaha had finished scoring their five runs in that inning, I took my son for another halfway-around-the-ballpark walk, to spin the wheel. I knew they didn't have fuzzy duckies. They had... crap. I mean, I like kitchy cheap swaggy stuff, but these were prizes I didn't want. Not simply meaning a lack of desire; meaning, if I had one of these things, I would want to not have it.
But Michael wanted to spin the wheel, and intern Andrew Madden wanted to take my dollar, so Michael did get a duck. A tiny rubber duck with a baseball and a baseball cap. A red baseball cap. It was totally un-Chaserlike.
Michael liked the duck because when he squeezed it, it blew air on him. I was somewhat disappointed, but moreover, I was beginning to feel questerly. So I headed for the gift shop, and Michael, uninterested, headed back out to the berm.
In the Storm Front gift shop, all the stuffed thingies were marked down to clearance prices. There were no fuzzy duckies. I wished they had little furry blue Casey lions; that would've been neat. Instead, they had green felt Stormy mascot creatures. Michael and I are still not fond of Stormy. There was a small bin of Sock Monkey-looking... monkeys. They were grey, and not fuzzy. No wonder this stuff was clearance-priced. I'd looked through all the gift shop stuff before; I knew what was there. I was just hoping against hope that a perfect thing had somehow miraculously appeared by accident. In the end, I wound up buying Michael a Rally Ape; it was the least offensive fuzzy plushie I could find.
When I returned to the berm, the Chasers were still ahead five to nothing. I handed Michael his furry gift. "Why'd you get this, dad?" he asked, confused. "I don't know," I muttered back. Ryan looked pointedly at the scoreboard. "We don't need a Rally Monkey," he offered helpfully. I sulked, 'cause it really was not as good as a fuzzy duckie thrown by a Storm Girl, or a furry blue Casey lion.
Now well into the ball game, we finally had a chance to settle in. I brought up the subject of Rosenblatt Stadium, so I could tell my uninterested audience how I'd gotten Michael up at 5:30 in the morning a few days before, to go out and watch the explosive demolition of Rosenblatt's press box.
The press box was the most iconic and recognizable part of the stadium's superstructure. And the only part that was left. The company that was in charge of tearing down Rosenblatt, Anderson Excavating, had first thought that explosives wouldn't be needed. But after looking at the press box standing on its steel struts, there was concern that cutting the supports might cause the thing to fall the wrong way. So it would be easier and safer (not to mention, more fun) to attach explosives to the thing and bring it down that way.
I was expecting something a lot more grand than this turned out to be. Got Michael up really early, and we drove all the way into South Omaha, and found the recommended viewing site about a quarter-mile north of the stadium. I pulled our PT Boat into the vacant lot, we got out, and joined the local news teams and a few crazy weirdos like us, who were standing around, waiting in the cool dawn air for an earth-shattering explosion, one that would make the ground rumble and break windows for miles around.
I listened carefully, expecting to hear bullhorn orders, alert sirens, and a countdown to the blast. It would be starting any minute now; we were right on time. I started to say something to Michael and there was a sudden BANG— and the big blue structure seemed to drop a couple of feet. Smoke slowly rose and expanded from the site. "Is that it?" I thought, not finding the event terribly impressive.
And here we were, the only people dressed appropriate— me in my Rosenblatt End Of An Era T-shirt and Michael clad in his Rosenblatt Final Game shirt. WOWT reportress Jodi Baker noticed, and came over with her cameraguy Wayne to talk to us. I told her I wasn't a good interview subject but suggested they could just pan across us wearing our shirts. So she started asking Michael some leading questions, and kind of distractedly began to accidentally point the microphone at him while Wayne did the same sneaky thing with his camera. Then she started talking to me again, acting the same sneaky way. I knew what they were up to, so I was determined to give the best interview answers since Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra hearings testimony.
Watching all the Newses later, it turned out that they got three video files, and in one of them, I was featured, for almost fifteen full seconds, a blithering stammering idiot saying nothings and being ugly and uncomfortable after my three hours' sleep the night before. It was so bad, they only aired it once, and that particular file never made it onto their website... for which I'm grateful.
We were only about a hundred feet away from a McDonald's®, so in order to make it a more special occasion, I took Michael to eat breakfast there. This is special because we only eat McDonald's® brand laboratory-created ingestible product two or three times a year. If that. We had a relaxing, disgusting breakfast until a busload of Mennonites showed up and scared us away. Michael asked me why they were dressed like pilgrims. I didn't know.
I ended up getting Michael to school about half an hour late, but I claimed to the office secretary that the morning had been more educational than the compulsory government-mandated schooling would have been. He got to see something blow up... That's science!
The ghost of Rosenblatt Stadium got its revenge, though. Two days later, 26-year-old Richard Anderson was driving an extra-long dump truck, hauling a load of blue steel and concrete debris away from the site. As he turned from 13th Street onto the westbound I-80 entrance ramp, the load shifted. The truck tipped over, crashing onto its side and spilling diesel fuel— which ignited. Anderson was trapped inside the burning truck, and killed.
Out on the berm at Werner Park, I finished my story, since nobody was really listening. Underneath the blazing sun, while the ball game dragged on, Michael lay miserably, sweating and silently suffering the steamy sweltering sauna. On the field, starting pitcher Chris Dwyer gave up two runs to New Orleans in the fourth, and was replaced by New Guy Donnie Joseph (see photo way up above).
From where we were lounging on the berm, past Tony and Lisa, and Ryan and Jenna, Phil was talking to a young mom with a little girl. In the past, various people had shown up to chat with the Berm Bums, and I would never find out who they were. "Phil!" I yelled over at him, "Who's your friend?!" Thus I got introduced to his sister Steph Anie and her little daughter Kaylee, who called herself Taylor Swift. Which was good, because Michael spent the rest of the game playing with his monkey, and Tony's son Colin, and little Taylor Swift. At least, they played whenever large fluffy clouds moved in to block the sun and make it cool enough to move.
When the ninth inning finally arrived, the Storm Chasers were five runs ahead, so we all began packing up our camp. Since it was Fun Day Sunday, there was one last opportunity for kids to run the bases after the game. So, after the final out, we all ambled to the Rosenblatt memorial concourse where the remaining kids who had suffered the entire gametime had collected, standing by to Run The Bases. Michael didn't want to Run The Bases; he said it was too hot. I told him, "Aww, you have to Run The Bases— it's the last time this year." He thought for a moment, and then brightened. "Okay," he said, "I'll take my monkey."
Ryan and the rest of the Bermese people continued on toward the parking lot, while I moved down behind the first-base dugout to wait for Michael. Eventually, he appeared, running the bases, twirling his Rally Ape over his head and yelling, "Stir up the Sto-o-orm! Stir up the Sto-o-orm! Stir it up!"
For getting the hell off the field, he was awarded a coupon for free Hardee's chicken things, and a popsicle. I caught up with him and, lugging all our stuff, led him right back around to where he'd started.
See, the whole time we were out on the berm, our personal space (and sight lines) had been invaded by this big stage structure.
The stage had been put up for an Uncle Kracker concert two days earlier, and left up for a Jonny Diaz concert last night. But it had rained all night last night, and even though they got the baseball game in after a two-hour rain delay, they postponed the concert 'til today. Some people who wanted to see the Jonny Diaz show couldn't understand why they'd done that. I figured it was because the grounds crew didn't want the general public tromping all over the soggy field just 12 hours before it had to be ready for today's game.
But this was the final home game ever... (until the Playoffs) so the public was invited to tromp all over the field to watch the rescheduled Jonny Diaz concert. I just availed myself of the opportunity to get pictures of my boy tromping all over the field. And what a sweet field! A field of dreams, if you will. Flat and smooth, like a furry pool table. One dad was out playing catch with his son; another group of three boys were playing catch without gloves... I excitedly offered Michael that I could get our gloves out and we could play catch, too, but he declined. Aww, it would've been so much better than playing on our lumpy clumpy drought-ridden hill of a back yard.
The concert started, and Michael and I sat and listened for a while.
Jonny Diaz is a Christian singer, sponsored by the Beautiful Saviour Lutheran Church. (Or, as Ben Hemmen once misspoke over the P.A. system, the Beautiful Lutheran Church.) Which ought to tell you something. The band was talented, their sound clear and tight. Very pleasing... but I found the Message of Christ's Love a mite overbearing. So, after a couple of songs, Michael and I took our demons and our monkeys and fled.
After all, we had a party to get to. I lugged all our stuff (while Michael lugged his monkey) out to our car in the Super Special Secret parking area. I started the car, cranked on the air conditioning full blast, and we breathed great sighs of relief. I pulled out, drove around to the front of the stadium in second gear, pulled into the regular VIP lot, and parked again. 'Cause that's where the Berm Bums were having a tailgatey shindig. ZMBSLYR, Ryan's really nice Ford Raptor, was all opened up, blaring Z-92 radio rock over the distant Message of Christ's Love. A grill cooker was perched appropriately on ZMBSLYR's tailgate, already sizzling with a couple of dozen hot doggy things. The groceries Michael and I had bought at the store to begin our day were in a cooler on the back seat, so I had Michael retrieve them, to use as our Bring Your Own price of admission.
We all bonded and made our own fellowship. Michael and Taylor Swift seemed to hit it off. Michael devoured an entire tin of Colossal Oysters by the time I'd thrown away the greasy lid. He thinks Nebraska is the CornOyster State. And he liked the Sweet Italian Sausages so much he said I had to bring one to school the next day for his lunch.
The sun wasn't high overhead, baking us, anymore; it was way off to the west, halfway down toward the horizon, casting an orange tint over everything. A pair of hot air balloons hovered motionless in the sky to the north.
I couldn't help but feel a sense of end-of-summer wistfulness. Everyone agreed that we would all be back for Conference Championship Game One, in a week and a half, but I still had a slight sunset feeling of finality. The Regular Season was over. Anything from here on was called Post-Season play.
But at the same time, it felt good. I mused about how— and why— I'd started taking Michael to ball games. Every now and then I have to remember where I've been, to gain some perspective on where I'm at. It occurred to me that part of my intent was just to share something I liked, with someone I liked... and Michael was the only person I could force to constantly accompany me. I thought about our first big Day At The Ballpark, when I started trying to turn my son on to baseball. I wanted him to love going to ball games as much as I did. Three years ago, I'd written:
"Since "The 'Blatt" was one of my favorite places, I was determined to mold my son's brain in such a way that he would associate any future mention of Rosenblatt with pleasurable experiences."
Now I'd begun to realize that my fond memories of Rosenblatt were not of the baseball games that were played there. When I thought of how much I liked Rosenblatt Stadium, it's because that was where I had good times with good friends. Taking my son to ball games, just the two of us, was a fine bonding thing, but a different kind of fun... and rather solitary. It would be impossible for Michael to feel about it the same way I did. His memories of the place were different from mine.
But now, we were starting to share what I really enjoyed, and Michael seemed to like it better that way. It wasn't the pitchers' duels, or the home runs, or the double plays on the field... but the whole Fan Experience.
Which was mostly, having a blast with friends.
Oh, yeah... almost forgot.
The Chasers won, seven to two.