Championship Double-Header

On a Friday night in September, Michael and I went to Game Three of the 2011 triple-A Playoffs. In Round Rock, Texas, our Storm Chasers had already won the first two games of the best-of-five series that would decide the Pacific Coast League's American Conference Champion.

The two Conference Champions then play a best-of-five series for the League Championship. If the Chasers made that series, the first two games would be here, but any "clinching" game would be Away—

In other words, this Conference Championship was the only level at which they could be declared Big Winner Chicken Dinners here, instead of elsewhere. So I had to go to this game, 'cause the Storm Chasers might have swept the series and done that.

So we went early (like I do) and I dragged Michael out to the left field bleachers, where we sat all alone and watched a few of the players warming up, playing catch and stuff. Following my instructions, Michael made himself obvious with his glove so they'd know he was there, and then waited patiently. Kind of.

Meanwhile, I was keeping an eye on the big scoreboard behind us, which was showing the on-air Pre-Game Show. Storm Chasers' broadcast guy Brett Pollock was interviewing Martie Cordaro: Baseball Digest's Executive of the Year, the Pacific Coast League's Executive of the Year, Omaha Storm Chasers President and General Manager all wrapped up into one. I of course knew who Martie was, and had briefly accosted him enough times by then that whenever we met at the ballpark, he recognized me as That One Guy I Keep Seeing.

Anyway, I was watching him on the scoreboard being interviewed, and listening to him tell the world how the Storm Chasers have tripled, both in attendance and merchandise sales, the best year they ever had as the Omaha Royals. And for anybody who thought they should change the name again— or change the name back— there's a three-year something against that happening in the first place, and they're quite happy with their own identity, not being tied to Kansas City, so they plan to be the Storm Chasers for quite a while.

I wondered why they wouldn't want to be tied to Kansas City— I thought that was kind of the point. I'd been watching the KC Royals games on the cable TV, and their entire starting infield was made up of recent Storm Chasers. As was half of their pitching roster. And suddenly, they were winning all the time.

From our bleacher seats, Michael kept watching the players warm up in front of us while I kept watching the scoreboard show behind us. Eventually, Martie was done and the announcer began interviewing Luis Mendoza, a veteran pitcher for the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals.

In Memphis on July 18th, Mendoza had pitched all nine innings in a complete-game no-hitter against the Redbirds. Sort of...

In the ninth inning of that game, Memphis Redbirds' Tyler Greene hit a line drive to left field that bounced off David Lough's glove— so he got on base, but the play was ruled an error instead of a base hit. Mendoza's no-hitter was intact. But after the game, the Memphis scorekeeper changed the error to a double. Omaha disputed the change, and an hour later the official scorer reverted the play back to an error. Two days later, the Chasers were overruled by the Pacific Coast League, which said: "In response to the request by the Memphis Redbirds to review the scoring decision... with the benefit of additional time to review the play, the PCL office and its official statisticians at Major League Baseball Advanced Media will recognize the batted ball by Tyler Greene of Memphis as a double. The change in the ruling will nullify a no-hitter by Omaha pitcher Luis Mendoza."

Anyway, here we were, a month later, watching Mendoza on the scoreboard show because he'd just been named the PCL's Pitcher Of The Year. At the time, these pre-game interviews were shot out in the open, on a camera at the edge of the concourse on the third-base side. Like this one, with pitcher Kevin Pucetas the week before, blissfully unaware that he's moments away from giving Michael an autograph...

And when they were done being interviewed, the players would walk off to the nether regions of Parts Unknown. But for the short walk between the third-base concourse and the No Admittance area, they were exposed. There I'd lurk, waiting to pounce...

For now, Michael and I were still lurking nearby, in the left field bleachers, while I kept one eye on the scoreboard show. The players on the field in front of us were finishing up their practice, and the catcher (a number 45 who was not listed in any of the rosters anywhere, so I had no idea who he was) caught Michael's eye and tossed up a ball, which Michael missed (annoyingly, since we've been practicing). I made an apologetic look at the guy and hollered, "I'm working with him...!" He smiled and walked off, and Michael retrieved his ball all excited-like. But the scoreboard interview had just ended, so I sternly told Michael "Wait here!" and turned to rush off. He said, "Where are you—" "Wait here!" I repeated, and fled up the stairs with his Ball of Scrawls and a Sharpie.

I caught PCL Pitcher Of The Year Luis Mendoza approaching and got his autograph on Michael's Ball, thanked and congratulated him, and went back to my boy, who seemed unimpressed with his eighteenth signature. Mendoza eventually went on to be a key starter in Kansas City's pitching rotation.

Minor league baseball doesn't get a lot of credit. But according to baseball-reference.com, fifty guys played for the Storm Chasers in 2011, and 32 of them came with Big League experience. These guys aren't sandlot players goofing around.

Thus, I was pleased that Michael had gotten an Official PCL ball and an autograph. Not everybody gets such sweet souvenirs. But I also planned to be In Attendance for the game where the Chasers would get their first Championship in twenty-one years.

We ran across the silly Stormy creature-thing, so I took a picture, but couldn't find Casey the Lion and Michael in the same place at the same time, all night. At least the photo below left shows Michael's "Playoffs" shirt. And his haircut. It also shows you should not take full-length pictures with your camera on the super-close-up Macro setting.

Above is also a photo of Michael chatting recently with this night's starting pitcher, Mike Montgomery. Acclaimed as a Top Prospect for the Royals at the beginning of the season, he had turned out to not be the PCL Pitcher Of The Year. For this game, he got off to a fine start by giving up a Grand Slam Home Run, and by the bottom of the third inning, we were down five to nothing.

Now, tickets pre-purchased for Playoff games that weren't played could be exchanged for any home game next year. Discussing that with the guy sitting next to me, I said, "I was hoping I had tickets for next year's Opening Game, but it looks like I have tickets for tomorrow instead."

But "Monty" started to strike out a bunch of guys, and by the sixth inning, we had closed the gap to 6-4. A man sitting in front of me said it's a lot easier to come back from two runs down rather than five, so there was still hope. And in the next inning, the Chasers did rally, and tied it up!

The 9th inning was troubling; with the game still tied, the Bad Guys got two men on base with one out. At that point, I told Michael we needed a double play. He axed what a double play was, so I explained a classic 6-4-3 double play. Just as I finished, the batter hit a ground ball to the shortstop— who as everybody held their breath fired it to second while I yelled "Do it! Do it!" and second to first OUT and everybody screamed "YAY!"

I called it, man! That was fun. And Michael was shocked that I had known exactly what was going to happen. I just played Dad Knows Everything.

In the bottom of the ninth, we got men on base and it was looking good. But it was not to be, whereupon I shouted "Free baseball!" amidst everybody else shouting "Extra Innings" and such. My friend Dwane taught me that, back in the eighties. Free Baseball— made the guy next to me laugh.

The tenth inning was disturbing. The Round Rock Bad Guys got the bases loaded with one out... but we escaped unscathed. Then Omaha loaded the bases... and they didn't score, either.

"How many innings are there in a game of baseball?" I quizzed Michael. "Nine," he said. "Right. So now we're in the eleventh." And it was not good, 'cause the Bad Guys got three runs. I had learned from the TV that a "Big Inning" for a team consisted of three or more runs, so that was disheartening. But in the bottom of the inning, the Chasers scored one run, and had guys on second and third with nobody out. Scoring positions...

But Lance Zawadzki popped up so nobody could move, and there was one out. Irving Falu hit a sacrifice fly that got us one run, but now there were two outs. So the tying run, to keep us alive, was on third. With two outs, the final batter— our last hope— came to the plate... and struck out. That was Joaquin Arias, who was with the NY Yankees, traded to the Texas Rangers, traded to the NY Mets, traded to the KC Royals, sent down to triple-A, and was now here, where in the top of the eleventh, he had just let a ball go between his legs for an error that allowed two of the Bad Guys' runs in the first place! So I wish him all the best, but he's my official Goat for this game. (Two months later, he was sent to the San Francisco Giants' triple-A team in Fresno.)

As we left, all dejected and droopy, there were fireworks. By this time Michael was wearing his Kansas City Royals Kid's Club shirt, which at the time we got it was only available in an Extra Large.

Suddenly, it was morning. Jennifer, Michael and I were all up watching the NASA TV piped through our big television, in order to watch a GRAIL satellite rocket launch. And we did, and it did, and then the solid rocket boosters separated, and then the fairing thing separated, and then they had the remaining Single Engine Cut-Off, and finally the NASA narrator said they'd put the craft into a Parking Orbit. A second burn would take place in another hour and a half or so, but until then, the rocket-powered satellite was just doing a slow roll, about one degree per second. NASA was calling it the Barbeque Maneuver.

This was September 10th. Now— since 2008 I've called 9/11 Barbeque Day. That's because on 9/11/2008 my dad and I were making a trip to Southern Illinois. I had breakfasted on leftover Barbeque before we got together, then midway we stopped for lunch at a Barbeque place our family had frequented since I was a kid, and when reaching our destination, we'd finally had a late dinner at another Barbeque place (the nearest place that was open)— so I said from then on I would always call Sept. 11th Barbeque Day. Well, I do. So, with NASA saying their satellite was performing the Barbeque maneuver, it was an Official 9/11 Barbeque Weekend.

And exactly twelve hours after coming home from the ball park, Michael and I headed back out to the ball park.

The temperature was warmer than when we'd come home the night before, and now the temperature was accompanied by a blinding blue sky with a big ball of hydrogen burning in it. Michael wasn't terribly keen on going right back to another baseball game. I told him that neither was I, really— and I'd bet the ball players weren't very excited about it, either. A day game, right after a night game, is almost like working a double shift.

But, I explained, I had pre-paid non-refundable tickets that I had to use. So of course, I also had four main objectives that I'd like to achieve. One: get another Official PCL baseball. Two: get another player's autograph. Three: get another picture of Michael with Casey the blue lion. And four— "Get hot dogs, 'cause we didn't get hot dogs last night," Michael interrupted.

Really, number Four was: to win the game and the big Conference Championship for the first time in 21 years. And I told Michael the Chasers had better win, 'cause I didn't want to have to go again the next day. Which I probably wouldn't, anyway. So if they won the next day, I'd be miffed that they'd waited until I wasn't there, and if they lost, I'd be miffed at that. So they'd just better win today. On the way, I had to explain to Michael what "miffed" meant.

We were so Johnny-on-the-spotly that we arrived a couple of minutes early, and found there were only about a dozen or so people waiting around. It sure felt like early morning. Except for the sun beating down on us. They promptly opened the gates and Michael got his Free-Because-We're-Awesome wristband for the Fun Zone, but we just wandered around for a while, 'cause I didn't want him to get all hot and sweaty just yet.

Here's a photo showing the absence of teeming throngs on the concourse, the empty stands in the distance, and the lack of clouds to shield us from the sun. I thought of the Field of Dreams question, "Is this heaven?" I thought definitely not. Maybe the opposite. That noontime sun was brutal.

These are the left-field bleachers, where we wandered over to watch a trio of earlybird Storm Chasers throwing a ball around. The catcher was again the mysterious number 45. Later, he appeared in a game uniform with the name Mazur on his back. It took months, and a case of happenstance, to find out he was Josh Mazur, a local boy hired as the bullpen catcher.

This time, he saw Michael, and they warily kept their eyes on each other for a while, and then Mazur left to go through the tunnel to the secret Parts Unknown. He said something in passing, and when I asked what he'd said, Michael told me he'd just said Hi there— while escaping without giving Michael a ball. And presently, we noticed the other players had disappeared, too— leaving an equipment bag on the field which I knew was filled with balls.

There was another fan in the front corner of the bleachers with whom I'd been comparing notes. He'd caught a foul ball the night before and showed it to us, a pretty white pearl of a ball. (It was all pretty and white because a baseball in the pro leagues has an average lifespan of six pitches). I was appropriately flattering, saying that Michael has only gotten used-up Practice Balls. (However, I mitigate that by saying Michael's balls have been touched by countless professional players. Yeah. While a real foul ball or home run has hardly been used at all.)

Surrounded by emptiness and watching nothing, Michael was getting grumpy. He was sitting on aluminum bleachers and being scorched by the sun. This is exactly what you do to potatoes in order to make them delicious— especially on an Official 9/11 Barbeque Weekend. So I grudgingly decided it was a bust— no free balls, no autographs, and we left for the Fun Zone, picking up a Super Giant But Only Two Dollars Because We're Awesome drink on our way.

Time passed and I tried to stay in whatever shade I could find until a lot more people had shown up and the game was about to start and Michael was all hot and pink and blotchy and sweaty. At which point I smeared water fountain water all over his face and neck and we went to find our real seats... as usual, second row, aisle, next to the dugout. Dadgum if we didn't recognize a few folks who were back from last night. At least I was wearing a different shirt. Michael was again clad in his most appropriate Playoffs shirt, but I was wearing my obstinate "I Still Call It ROSENBLATT" shirt. But there are no photos of us doing this.

So we watched a few players stretching along the baseline, others taking equipment to the dugout, and I suddenly noticed a pair of guys giving autographs to a small knot of kids a section away. I quickly opened my bag and grabbed Michael's Ball of Scrawls and Sharpie, and told him to run get that one guy who was already leaving. But— he was already leaving. Also, Michael's approach was impeded by various dugout-protectant fencing. So Michael turned back, and I pointed, "Go get that other guy—" but he was now leaving too, and Michael's face became all dismayed. I assured him it was okay as he glumly settled in beside me again.

I watched, trying to identify the guys as they, singly and in pairs, decided they were stretched enough and wandered over to the dugout. (See, they do things like this— although I didn't take pictures this time; this photo is from a previous game. Pretty much the same seats, though):

Shortstop Irving Falu was ambling along, surveying the crowd on his way to the dugout, and caught my eye, or maybe my Rosenblatt shirt. He pointed at Michael, and I glanced over to see my boy absently looking at some invisible thing in the sky behind us. Quickly backhanding him in the chest, I gestured out toward Irving. In a panic, Michael slipped his glove on and held it up, and Falu threw a ball to him, and Michael caught it! Falu smiled at the look of astonishment Michael was giving his glove, and went on into the dugout. That's probably why they call him Fan Favorite Irving Falu. And after a stunned moment, Michael was giddy with elation that he'd actually caught a ball. And it came from Irving, who we've been watching for years while hollering, "Fa-LLOOOOOOO!" (Turns out we're no longer alone in doing that; now when he comes to the plate, all the cheering turns into a hoooooooo kind of noise.)

Here's a photo of Irving and Michael:

So my son was all pleased with himself, and happy that he'd single-handedly accomplished Objective Number One. I made an invisible check mark in my hand at him.

There was a guy in front of us who had a "First Pitch" print with a couple of scribbles on it. One of these:

Suddenly this guy jumped up with his print and a pen, and accosted a passing player. Carping the Diem, I grabbed Michael's Ball and pen and sent him scrambling to follow suit. So he got John Whittleman's autograph, a guy who'd just been called up from the Single-A Wilmington Blue Rocks. Well, it works; he was now a Storm Chaser (although it was just for one game, going 2 for 4). And as Michael turned to come back, I pointed to the little knot of kids a section away who were now getting outfielder Lorenzo Cain's autograph— so he ran down and scored one of those, too. (Lorenzo Cain came from the Milwaukee Brewers, and after I wrote this, became the starting Center Fielder for the KC Royals.)

But for now, Michael and I were both pleased at achieving two objectives. Now he had eight Official pro-used PCL baseballs— (Eight? Yeah, I defend. Zack Hample has snagged over six thousand balls - from Major League stadiums - so don't call me names.)

And for the year, Michael's 2011 autograph Ball of Scrawls got twenty-one Storm Chasers signatures (a sphere has four sides, you know):

I even have a key that tells what all these indecipherable scribbles say. By the end of the season, four of these signees became Major-Leaguers. But think about this: there are theoretically nine guys on a baseball team; twenty-five on a triple-A roster. Michael has twenty-one signatures. We're calling that Just About Everybody.

So, today's game began, and having scored a ball and an autograph, Michael was ready to accomplish Objective number three: getting hot dogs. There followed a discussion of whether or not Extreme Pizza qualified for objective-achieving purposes; he was happy to say it did. I had heard great things about this Extreme Pizza. Those things turned out to be not entirely true, in my opinion. But a little pizza cost about the same as two hot dogs, and its box was easier to carry, and it was not bad... so I was okay with that.

While I carried my Bag of Goodies, the Pizza Box, and another Giant-But-Cheap-Because-We're-Awesome drink, we suddenly ran into our Objective number— whatever. A couple of entries ago, I said "I have a million pictures of Michael with Casey. And I'll keep taking more." So I did. That's what mascots are for.

We went back to our seats, ate our pizza, and watched the game. Or, as usual, I watched the game while Michael ran back to overheat himself in the dang Fun Zone.

The Storm Chasers got two runs, while pitcher Sean O'Sullivan kept a no-hitter going into the eighth inning. Somewhere in there I retrieved Michael and washed him down in the bathroom, 'cause it was crazy hot and he just doesn't need to be making himself all red and blotchy.

I had to entice him to come back and watch the game.

In the eighth inning, the Bad Guys ruined Sean O'Sullivan's no-hitter. Worse, the hit in question went over the outfield wall and scored two runs. Again, the game went into Free Baseball.

Reliever Kevin Pucetas (in the photo way up above here) pitched a 1-2-3 top of the tenth. The Bad Guys were out, and we were safe for now...

With one out in the bottom of the tenth, two of Kansas City's 40-man Roster optioned batters were due up. Clint Robinson drew a walk, bringing veteran big-leaguer Kila Ka'aihue (kye-a-HOO-ay) to the plate. After a couple of pitches, Kila hit a long drive down the right-field line that hit the foul pole, "...giving the Storm Chasers a dramatic 4-2 series-winning victory over the Round Rock Express, setting off a celebration at home plate and an even more wild party in the clubhouse moments later." (Said their website.)

This is not my photo, as it was taken in the Parts Unknown. (Afterwards, the Chasers did go on to win the Pacific Coast League Championship. Kila Ka'aihue got traded to the Oakland A's.)

So, with all our Objectives achieved, Michael and I came home. I switched from my game-winning Rosenblatt shirt into a Nebraska shirt, and soon there was a Nebraska football game. Because of my apparel choice, the Huskers won— which, to people around here, is also a big deal.

← Previous Page

Back to Top ↑

Next: Post-Season →