MINOR LEAGUE MEMORIES
September came, like it does almost every year. By that time, the Omaha Storm Chasers had already become the first team in all ten Minor Leagues to clinch their Division. They'd done that with fifteen games left in the regular season, so they had spent the last two and a half weeks just messing around until twenty-two other teams in Triple-A finished their schedules so the Playoffs could begin.
In the Playoffs, the Chasers beat the Albuquerque Isotopes to win the Conference Championship, and advanced to the final series, where they would challenge the Reno Aces for the League title. In the first game of that series, the Chasers lost, 13 to 1 — their worst defeat of the entire year. But they were able to come back and win the second game, thanks in part to Ryan Verdugo's pitching, and a trio of home runs in the fifth inning. Over a day of travel time, the teams returned to Omaha. The Triple-A Pacific Coast League Championship would be determined at Werner Park.
"Blue Out Werner Park" came the proclamation from the official website and TV ads. As devoted fans of the team, Michael and I were supposed to show our support by wearing blue Storm Chasers apparel. And the Storm Chasers management had helpfully marked down a bunch of blue merchandise we could buy. Michael and I had closets full of appropriate Storm Chasers shirts, but none of them were blue. So instead, I dug out our two-year-old Omaha Royals T-shirts, to signal that we weren't newbies, to show we had a long-standing dedication to Omaha's team. Mostly, to avoid buying more stuff. Fortunately, with summer coming to a close, I felt the nights would get chilly enough to provide an excuse to forego the blue-wearing commandment, and allow us to wear our customary (and favorite) jerseys as jackets.
So with my Save the Manatees bag stuffed super-full of necessities and extra clothing, we headed to the ball park, arriving almost half an hour later than our usual earlybird gate-opening time. I was pleasantly surprised to find there was still an empty slot waiting for us in our Super Special Secret parking area. But as we carried our luggage to the front entrance, I told Michael we'd still have to go wait in the long ticket line since we had no discounts or passes for admission. And by this time, the line was building, even though all six ticket windows were open and people were being funneled through to the gate fairly efficiently.
I've raised Michael to follow the axiom Wait Your Turn. In the real world, "waiting your turn" usually ends up with us being last in line. So we stood patiently at the end of the line, burdened down and shuffling forward with all our camping supplies. We had barely moved when Ballpark Operations Manager Brett Myers came walking past, and then stopped to ask me, "Are you by any chance heading out to the Berm?" Somewhat startled, I answered yes, hefting my sleeping bag in confirmation. He explained that he had a Berm ticket that he couldn't use, and offered it to me. I accepted it with profuse thanks and appreciation. It was an unexpected bonus, and as they say, don't look a gift horse in the eye.
But we still had to get another ticket, so when we got to the ticket window, I recognized intern Andrew Madden and greeted him by yelling, "Andrew!" so that the other people waiting in line would understand Michael and I were awesome people to be admired and feared. After saying quick greetings at each other through the metal glass speaker hole thing, I pointed to Michael and asked suggestively, "Is he one of the First Fifty kids?" This refers to a promo from Jensen Tire & Auto...
"Yeah, I still have some of those left," he said. Therefore, Michael's Berm ticket was only a dollar. What a deal! We made our way in, stopping to get a Giant But Cheap Because We're Awesome drink on our way out to the right-field Berm, where we set up camp. I unrolled and opened up our sleeping bag, weighing it down with baseball gloves, and set Michael's Rally Ape in a position to Save Our Place.
We were the first ones to make camp out there, and Michael waited nearly a full minute before deciding he was bored enough, and the evening was cool enough, to go to the Fun Zone. I opted to compromise; perhaps we could find a way to meet both his desires and my Objectives. So we embarked on a journey around the park to the Fun Zone, after I fished a Sharpie and Michael's 2012 Ball Of Scrawls (Part Two) out of my bag.
And that was a good thing. With perfect timing, just as we got to the far side of the outfield, I saw some players heading into the tunnel that runs under the left-field concourse. At the entrance to the tunnel, a few autograph-seekers can usually be found holding station, to accost passing players on their way from Parts Unknown to the field.
Just as we started to walk past, a couple of players heading to the field paused to sign stuff. I shoved Michael with his ball and pen in that direction, and he ran over in time to get an autograph from Mitch Maier. "Ha!" I inwardly dialogued at Mitch. "That'll teach you to snub my kid. Not gettin' outta here without giving us an autograph!" Then I remembered that I had gotten an autograph and a couple of photographs from Mitch before... but still, it was the point of the thing. Or... whatever.
Enthused by this success, I led Michael past the Fun Zone and down through the stands to try for more autographs. There was a pair of front-row Reserved Seats we weren't supposed to be in, right by the rail, so we brazenly sat in them to wait. And after a couple of minutes, two players in Storm Chasers uniforms came over, and Michael jumped up to have them sign his Ball. I didn't know them because they were September call-ups from the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, so fresh that they didn't even have names stitched on the backs of their jerseys yet. Players I don't recognize, with no names, scrawling indecipherable scribbles on Michael's Ball... means I had to do a lot of late-night websurfing to figure out that they were pitchers Michael Mariot and Justin Marks.
And when they walked off and my son turned back to me, I pointed excitedly over to the dugout, where Max Ramirez was signing stuff for some kids. So Michael raced over there, while I smiled because Max was not the most fan-friendly of players. I thought maybe he was still annoyed at the woman who'd asked him for David Lough's autograph a couple of months earlier.
After Ramirez finished signing and disappeared into the dugout, Michael came back, and thrust his Ball at me. "There!" he said petulantly. "Is four enough?"
Michael didn't care. When I'd watch the Kansas City Royals play on TV, I'd point out all the guys we'd got Autographs and Photographs from, but there were so many that he didn't realize it was special. But I was satisfied, so I let him lead me up the steps and out to the Free Because We're Awesome Fun Zone.
As we walked up to the sign-in stand, the girl there opened her giant Book, and before I could say anything, found Michael's name and added to his long line of attendance X'es. "Wow, you recognized us," I stated, slightly disbelieving. "Sure," she replied, "You guys are here all the time..." I accepted that, and Michael darted in to romp about the bounce-houses. Before long, he was schmoozing with chicks on the carousel, and making their heads spin.
This late in the year, the sun was beginning to set behind the stadium by game time. From the Fun Zone, I peered across the ball park to our spot on the distant Berm. Movement by little tiny figures way over on the far side proved that the Berm Bums had arrived and were arranging themselves near our little camp. So as the pre-game ceremonies commenced, Michael and I headed back out there... Mostly because that's where we'd left our drink. We arrived to find Michael's Rally Ape was still guarding our stuff, Tony had brought his wife and son, and Ryan & Phil were wearing matching official "Blue Out Werner Park" shirts to commemorate the occasion.
Soon came the time where we stood, hats on hearts, and watched the flag over our heads while some girl sang about it surviving through a parrowless fight. "Parrowless?" I muttered, as I seem forced to do every single time someone sings that song. From the corner of my eye, I caught Phil's smile of acknowledgement. Then the crowd cheered, a quick Storm Chasers video played excitedly on the scoreboard, some kid who wasn't Michael yelled, "Play Ball!" and the game began.
For the first three innings, our veteran pitcher Doug Davis (oldest man on the team) held the Bad Guys scoreless. Unfortunately... the Bad Guys' pitcher held us scoreless. At the end of the inning, On-Field Promo Guy Ben Hemmen led the crowd in this weird sing-off. It doesn't bear explanation; I only bring it up because the crowd was divided into two parts: "The third-base side, from section one-eleven out to the Home Run Porch," and "The first-base side, from section one-ten all the way out to the Berm Bums in right field." Hey, everybody loves recognition. We all slapped each other enthusiastically.
But Michael and I couldn't stay. Kansas City Royals Hall-of-Famer Willie Wilson was on the concourse behind home plate doing a meet-and-greet and signing autographs. He'd been there for quite some time, and we knew it, but we'd watched the game and Waited Our Turn until about fifteen minutes before he was scheduled to be done. So we embarked on another journey, and on our walk over I reminded Michael of what I'd already told him twice. Beginning with, "When I was your age..."
As a kid just a few years older than Michael, I lived with my parents in the suburbs of Kansas City. And, as a kid in the late 1970s, a time before cable TV, computers, and video games, I became a fan of the hometown Kansas City Royals. I'd watch their games on WDAF Channel 41, the only UHF channel in the area. (This meant you had to turn the TV knob chunk chunk chunk past thirteen, and then turn the second TV channel knob to tune it in.) Sometimes at night, after my bedtime, I'd listen to the games on KCMO radio. I pretended to be the Royals line-up when playing tennis ball catch against the garage door. On a few occasions, my folks took me to see real live Royals games at the giant Royals Stadium. Center fielder Amos Otis was my first Sports Hero.
We moved to Omaha in 1978, which was Willie Wilson's first full year in Kansas City. As I struggled to keep up with my favorite team from a distance, for three years Willie shared the outfield with Amos Otis, and eventually replaced him. My fandom drifted a bit, but I started paying attention again in 1985, and Willie Wilson was a familiar name when the Royals eventually won the World Series against my mom's favorite team. I kept watching for a while as Bo Jackson became a sensation, but his career was over too soon, and by the early 1990s he, and George Brett, and Willie Wilson were all gone. So were the Royals' winning records... and so was I.
Now, with a couple of decades gone by, I only remembered Willie Wilson as the lead-off batter for every single Royals game ever played, and a guy who stole second every time he got on base. But he was here at Werner Park, being a World Champion Baseball Player and making me wax nostalgic for my youth. Michael didn't understand any of this, even when I called Wilson "the Jarrod Dyson of his day", but did grasp that he was somehow important when I explained that Wilson's autograph didn't belong on any of Michael's Balls of Scrawls, but instead would be the only time I'd had anyone sign his shirt.
We got done with that quickly, and suddenly achieved another Objective I had: getting a picture of Michael with Casey the blue lion mascot to add to my collection. I kept saying I had a million pictures of Michael with Casey, but at the time I really only had twenty-six different good ones. Since we met in passing, I didn't have time to get creative, and just got a typical stop-for-a-second snapshot before moving on to the Omaha Steaks concession stand to refill our Giant But Cheap drink, and get three Dollar Dogs. (End-of-the-year clearance priced for quick sale.)
Apparently us talking to Willie Wilson caused the Bad Guys to get three runs. By the time we took our Dollar Dogs and drink out to the Berm, the sun had set, the Storm Chasers were coming up to bat, and the scoreboard was playing a video piece of superfan Jan Huff leading the crowd in yelling the catchphrase, "Stir up the Storm! Stir up the Storm! Stir it UP!"
Responding to the Chasers being behind 3-0, Ryan hollered back in disgust, "Serve up the Storm! Serve 'em UP!"
I said, "I'm serving up Dollar Dogs." While Ryan continued stomping around the Berm in irritation, Phil looked at our box of Dogs with great relish... and said, "Who's the third one for?"
"Maybe the Rally Monkey." I replied, denying him. 'Cause Phil had already had Dollar Dogs. And would again.
Michael and I each wolfed down a Dog, then Michael dug around in my Save the Manatees bag until he found the special treat he'd packed— a tin of Colossal Oysters. To my surprise, he'd been planning for it, brandishing a plastic spork he'd picked up back at the concession stand without my noticing. And for the second time in a row, he devoured them without offering me any. In retaliation, I ate Rally Monkey's spare Dollar Dog.
Meanwhile, Tony and Lisa were sharing some nacho plate or something. Michael watched their two-year-old son Colin spastically hurling a squeezy ball about, playing fetch with himself. So, upon finishing his meal, my boy joined in to play with their boy, since they both had squeezy balls. Michael later said it was the most fun he'd ever had at a game. He enjoyed feeling like a big brother, and the two of them kept each other entertained most of the rest of the evening.
Things were kind of quiet in the top of the fifth. The Chasers were still scoreless, three runs down, and unable to stir up a Storm. So the Bad Guys were batting again. Michael and Colin played with themselves, and the rest of us were just watching the game and chatting.
Suddenly, a sharp Crack! split the night— an unmistakable, definite sound. I instantly located a home run ball arcing through the air toward our position, but in one practiced motion Ryan had already slid his hand into his glove and taken off across the Berm to catch it on the run. A rather impressive play, I thought, as he made a looping turn back toward us. But since it was a home run from the Bad Guys, Phil yelled, "Throw it back!" Somebody else echoed that sentiment, whereupon Ryan hurled the ball back at the field with the grace of a gazelle— a gazelle being hit by a tranquilizer dart. Actually, his form reminded me more of the time Michael had thrown the ceremonial First Pitch earlier that summer. The ball lobbed to perhaps a few feet in front of right-fielder Mitch Maier, but I don't know what happened to it after that, as we were all too busy laughing.
There were a couple of young dudes who were sitting on a blanket nearby, and they came over to offer congratulations and mingle briefly. They'd played on the Creighton University baseball team the year before, so they had a special appreciation for Ryan's play, which was worthy of a highlight reel. Or maybe a blooper reel...
In the bottom of the inning, we were joined by Community Relations Director Andrea Stava with her camera, and Promotions Guy Ben Hemmen with his cordless microphone. They weren't there for us, though. They'd just known Ryan and Phil for years, and were hanging out while a pair of Storm Girls and a CCTV camera guy prepared a man and his son nearby for a between-innings gag called Custard or Pie. This was a promotional thing they did at every game, that always ended with a kid shoving a pie in dad's face, but winning a bunch of frozen custard anyway. Since it was a messy bit, they usually tried to perform this act on one of the Berms.
For this Championship-deciding game, Ryan and Phil quickly figured out how to amuse themselves. The Chasers were set down in order to end the inning quickly, and after groaning at that, the staffers hurried off to go On The Air with the delightful Custard or Pie thing about forty feet away. At that point, the Berm Bums ran up to the walkway behind the action and proceeded to photo-bomb the event. While Ben's spiel with the father and son was being shown on the scoreboard, I watched the background with great amusement as Ryan walked casually through the frame from one direction... and then Phil slowly sauntered past from the other... and then they both came from opposite sides, and greeted each other in the middle with big ol' hugs and dancing around and such. I grinned, finding their background antics far more entertaining than the Custard or Pie promotion thing.
Things were kind of quiet in the top of the sixth. The Chasers were still scoreless, five runs down, and unable to stir up a Storm. So the Bad Guys were batting again. Michael and Colin played with themselves, and the rest of us were just watching the game and chatting.
Suddenly, a sharp Crack! split the night— an unmistakable, definite sound. Like déjà vu, I instantly located a home run ball slicing through the air toward our position, in exactly the same way as the one hit an inning earlier. In one practiced motion, Ryan had already slid his hand into his glove and taken off across the Berm— but misjudged the ball. Running barefoot on the grassy hillside, he couldn't adjust at the last second to catch the ball arcing down inches over his raised glove. As it hit the Berm about six feet away from me, one of the Creighton boys who'd been chasing it did what I'd trained Michael to do: Not yell "Ball", and without thinking, pounce on it like it's a live grenade.
The Creighton guy came up with the ball and excitedly ran past us to show it to his friend. But fair is fair, and since it was hit by the Bad Guys, Phil and I called, "Throw it back!" I didn't think he would, because the guys were both studying the ball while the runner rounded the bases. As he headed into the dugout and the next batter stepped up to the plate, the Creighton guy who'd snagged the ball finally turned around, ran a couple of steps down the Berm, and fired a one-hopper to the infield. That was an impressive throw, and it startled first-baseman Clint Robinson and second-baseman Rey Navarro, who didn't expect a ball to come bouncing between them from behind.
As we all settled back down, little Colin decided he'd be safest with his parents, and Ryan decided he'd be safest zipped up in his sleeping bag with just his head sticking out, hopping around the Berm like a big blue burrito. So Michael decided it was time to get another drink.
In the bottom of the seventh, the Storm Chasers finally scored— twice. Now we were only down by six. To celebrate, when the inning ended, mascots Stormy and Casey were driven around the perimeter of the field, using a hot dog cannon to fire bundled T-shirts into the crowd from the back of a John Deere ATV. And since it was probably going to be the last game of the year, the ATV was cruising the warning track at a slower pace than usual, and the mascots were loading and firing T-shirts as fast as they could.
I knew the T-shirts were sized too small for me and too big for Michael, but I stood up anyway, just in case one came straight to me. And one did! I got right under it, surprised that I was actually going to catch one without even trying. I mean, it was a given. Dropping so perfectly toward me, there was no way I could miss it.
And as it fell, in the space of about a second, I realized that over a dozen kids were all running at me full-bore. I thought about how I'd look, a great big mean old man snatching a freebie from over the heads of sweet innocent children. I thought of how our closets were full of appropriate baseball apparel and T-shirts already, and decided neither Michael or I really needed another T-shirt. So... I took three giant, definite steps backward, and let the falling bundle be caught by a lanky pre-teen girl who ran off gleefully to gloat over her prize as the mob of kids continued chasing after the mascots. I didn't expect a Thank You, exactly, but I was a bit put out that nobody'd noticed what a cool thing I'd just done.
As the game— and the Storm Chasers' year— drew to a close, the Berm Bums received an assortment of visitors. Photographer Minda Haas stopped by with her giant lens...
Minda was a former employee of the Omaha Royals in some capacity, and she still frequented Werner Park, taking lots of really good photos. Many times, the Storm Chasers staff would use her shots for the official website. I didn't know her story, but I did know her work. She came over to say Hi, and stayed to chat briefly before roaming off to hassle the players in the bullpen.
Then Casey joined us for a while, but he didn't say much. He's usually pretty quiet, so we didn't take it personally.
And it appears that the Berm Bums were rallying up to defend our territory from invasion by this green amoebalike alien thing. Maybe. Michael is still not terribly fond of Stormy.
In the bottom of the eighth, Wil Myers— the PERT Plus® Minor League Player of the Year, the Baseball America® Minor League Player of the Year, and the USA Today® Minor League Player of the Year— struck out for the third time in the game, going 0 for 4. "Heluva time to begin slumping," Phil noted.
The Storm Chasers were losing the Pacific Coast League Championship 8-2 when the ninth inning arrived, so with a depressing air of glumness, we began packing up for the winter. Tony and Lisa took off, to get their little Colin to bed. As I started zipping up my sleeping bag, Michael tried to cheer me up by offering to take his glove to try to get a ball from the bullpen guys. I handed him his glove, and he bounded away, probably more happy that he didn't have to help clean up. He was a Cub Scout and knew you should always leave your camp the way you found it, or better.
I mentally reviewed this Final Game, comparing it with the Objectives we'd had for the Championship game the year before. Um, getting an autograph on Michael's Ball of Scrawls? Yeah, four of 'em. Getting hot dogs, yeah, three of 'em— and oysters. Getting another photo of Michael with Casey for the collection... yeah, two different ones. And winning the Championship for the first time in twenty years... well, we'd done that last year, and come pretty close this year. Besides, this loss was mitigated by an even better factor: hanging out with fun people and making friends.
About a minute later, Michael came running back, exclaiming, "Dad! I got a ball—" He paused. "But it was from one of the Bad Guys." I grinned, "Cool, that's okay. Good deal. Hang on to that." Because getting an Official PCL ball is always an Objective. This was his sixteenth.
So with everything rolled up, packed up, and zipped up, and the Storm Chasers beginning a token bottom of the ninth, we followed Ryan and Phil up to the sidewalk, and we all slowly headed out along Rosenblatt Way.
"Sucks that we lost," said Phil, "But overall, it was a pretty good year." I agreed, and went on to tell him why it was good for us. How, besides just going to ball games like normal people, I'd wanted to get autographs from some players, and maybe even a few photos of Michael with them. But this year, we'd got two balls covered with autographs, and a bunch of photos. And besides that, Michael had been in all these Super Special Secret places in Werner Park, been invited into the dugout and on the field a lot, and even been broadcast over the P. A. system four times.
"Wow, you guys should be more famous than we are," he smirked. We all stopped inside the front gate, exchanged bro-hugs and fist-bumps, and said our goodbyes. Mention was made of future get-togethers and I warned them that I now had their facebooks. And then they were gone.
Michael and I stayed behind, waiting for the final out like good baseball fans. We stood on the concourse behind home plate with all the concessioners and seasonal staffers watching their jobs come to an end. I knew better than to go down through the stands during an at-bat; that's considered bad form, blocking people.
The hometown crowd was silent, making the stadium as quiet as a day game at Rosenblatt Stadium used to be. The P. A. wasn't playing sound bites, and the fans weren't cheering or heckling. It was eerie— as if the baseball gods had hit the Mute button. Everybody seemed to be holding their breath, and just watching silently.
The last man to bat was 2012 Gold Glove left fielder Derrick Robinson, who cracked a high fly ball to center. The Aces' player stood under it, and when it fell into his glove, the silence in the stadium was broken by the triumphant yells of Reno players running in to mob their pitcher in jubilant celebration. Game over, people all began moving again. Workers went back to finish up their jobs, and the spectators started getting up to leave.
I hurried down the steps behind home plate to find Joan Neilsen and her family, and say goodbye. Which we did. And then she said, "Oh— I have something for Michael..." She dug around in her purse and pulled out an Aflac® fuzzy duckie!
I was stunned, and amazed. I thanked her as ponderously as I could, and said she didn't know how perfect that was. But she did. She admitted that she'd read my most recent story, in which I wrote of my yearning for a fuzzy duckie. Humbled at receiving such a wonderful gift, I thanked her again and fled.
I raced up the steps in time to catch Barry and Linda Bernet and say some farewells to them, even though I was still jealous that they had season tickets for the best seats in the house.
Taking a last long look around as they turned off the lights and locked the doors, I almost missed the Bionic Cornhusker. We'd only met briefly, once, during the final week at Rosenblatt, but I couldn't forget this guy. I'd even written about our brief encounter in one of my stories. We talked for a minute; he said he wasn't able to get to as many games at Werner Park as he had at Rosenblatt. I thought it was probably hard for him to get anywhere, since he was... all loaded up with weird stuffed thingies and things.
The Bionic Cornhusker had an assistant waiting to take him away. And I had Michael waiting for me to take him away, so we ambled out to the car, now parked all alone in our empty Super Special Secret parking place. Pulling away from the half-throttle lights of the stadium, we made our way slowly along the access roads. Waiting at the nearest traffic light, I glanced over at Michael toying with the Official Pacific Coast League ball he'd gotten from one of the Reno Aces. Part of what minor league baseball is. The light turned green, and I pulled out onto the highway. The glow from the stadium disappeared in my mirror as I accelerated into the darkness... and entered the real world again.
At home a few days later, I surfed onto the Storm Chasers' official website. There was a Fan Survey available, and I'm an opinionated guy, so I began answering its questions. But when it asked what they could do to make next year better, I got stuck.
As a poor boy who never escapes his minor-league town, just taking Michael to the ball game at the ball park to watch ball players play ball was the biggest thing going. Once, a player tossed him a ball, and that was a memorable occasion. Now, I thought back to all the experiences we'd had this year. We'd been invited into the team's locker room, the indoor batting cages, the announcer's booth, watched a game from a spectator suite...
Michael had been allowed in the dugout and out on the field more times than we could count. He'd been taught techniques by the players, shot a commercial, yelled Play Ball to start the game, thrown out a ceremonial First Pitch, led the crowd in a countdown to fireworks...
Going to a baseball game is nice. Having some extra coolness happen, to make you feel Super Special, makes the experience ten times better. Having good times with fun people (or fun times with good people) makes it exponentially great.
It was a quandary. Maybe we'd been spoiled, but Michael and I had been able to do a lot of cool things. I thought of his dresser covered with Storm Chasers trinkets; his closet full of Storm Chasers T-shirts. But even better than those things, were the people we'd met. The players, the staffers, but moreover, the kindred spirits in the stands who became familiar faces and friends.
I stared at the computer screen, which still asked, "What could make next year better?"
I didn't know; couldn't think of anything.
"More of the same" sounded just fine to me.