Sweeping the Series

Two days before the big Star Wars Home Stand, the Storm Chasers sent me an e-mail, inviting Michael to be one of 100 participants in a baseball clinic that Saturday morning. I promptly signed him up, listing his qualifying league as I Don't Know. So once again, we came home after a night game, went to bed, got up, and went back to the ball park. That's what Triple-A ball is.

Doug Henry was a relief pitcher with the San Francisco Giants when they won the National League Western Division in 1997 and 2000, and he was with the Houston Astros when they won the Central Division in '98 and '99. After being a big-time ballplayer, he turned to coaching and was now in his third year as Omaha's Pitching Coach. Here, he helped Michael with his throwing mechanics. Over the past year, Michael's fastball had improved from 23 miles an hour to 28.

Outfielder David Lough (pronounced Lo, as in no and go and Tae Kwan Do) was soft-tossing baseballs in the Chasers batting cages. He's pretty good with a bat, too; I'll bring that up later. I wondered how Michael would do— the first time he'd ever held a bat in his entire life was at about 7:00 that morning. At sun-up, sloshing through the dewy grass, I'd pumped him full of information gleaned from YouTube and television. Here, he makes the most of his half-hour of experience.

Then came fielding. Out on Werner Park's wiffleball field, Kurt Mertins was teaching kids how to catch grounders. Michael paid attention attentively...

And was able to make some plays. Kind of.

I didn't take any pictures of Jamie Romak throwing fly balls at kids in the outfield because it was in the outfield and my little Nikon point-and-shoot camera has its limitations. I knew any photos I took would just render the kids as little multicolored pixel-clots. So I relaxed in the sun, section one-twenty-one, watching my son. I did find a low-res photo (with Michael) on the Clinic's website later.

After all the playing around was over, the kids got free hot dogs and autographs. I handed Michael his Ball of Scrawls and told him that when he got to the big guy (Romak), to tell him "Thanks but you're already on here." Kurt Mertins is on last year's Ball, but now he's on this year's, too. But what bemused me was, looking at the thing later, I found David Lough had signed it twice, and I couldn't remember when he'd signed it the first time.

Michael also got a signature from Doug Henry, but I'm not sure that counts as a Player Autograph. I mean, he was a ballplayer, but not with the Chasers. Guess I'll have to call the rules bent, since it's in permanent ink. Besides, he went on to be named the Kansas City Royals' bullpen coach, proving that more often than not, if you sign one of Michael's Balls, you'll eventually get to the Big Leagues.

While we were in the outfield Pavilion eating free hot dogs, Chasers Assistant GM Rob Crain wandered around offering complimentary tickets for that night's game. I spent about ten seconds pondering: I brought Michael last night, and he was here this morning, and I was bringing him again the next day, and he was already overdosed on the baseball thing... so I said Sure, and got three tickets.

Neither Jennifer or Michael wanted to go, even though they were giving away little piggy banks in the shape of Warren Buffet Heads. So I took the opportunity to go, get a Warren Buffett Head, and actually watch a game free of the distractions of child and family. The complimentary tickets were in left field, sighting right down the third base line. And Jennifer would've hated it and vowed to never return...

That's because all night, this section was pelted with foul balls. One line drive came screaming straight at me, and I couldn't even react. I just watched it, thinking there's no way I'd be lucky enough to actually have one come to me... and I watched it get bigger and bigger until it smashed off the empty seat in front of me, six inches from my knees. But even if I'd been sharp enough to snag it, there were so many kids around, I would've had to give it to one of them.

That was the second one I missed... Before the game, I had been sitting in my assigned seat, with the section pretty much all to myself. The RedHawks players were walking off the field after batting practice, and one of them tossed a ball to a guy in the stands a few sections away, who got all happy and gave it to his kid. As the player came closer, he called up to me, "Hey, you want a ball, too?" I called back, "You bet!" As he walked past, he pointed at me and said, "You're not trying very hard," and continued on into the tunnel.

I was confused. That was rude. Not trying very hard— what did he want from me?

I figured it out a few minutes later when some pre-teen kid ran over to the empty aisle two rows in front of me, bent down, and came up holding a ball that had been sitting out there in the open the whole time. Aaargh— I'd forgotten one of the principal rules of ballhawking: run to the empty outfield sections and scan for batting practice balls.

Another ball I might have caught came late in the game; to my left, there were three empty seats between me and a woman who was sitting with her family. Another line drive came in and ricocheted off her knee, over the rail and down onto the field. Community Relations Director Andrea Stava and a medic eventually showed up to have her sign some forms, but she was okay. Pretty much.

As far as the game went, the Storm Chasers were ahead, 7 to 5 going into the final inning. But in the top of the ninth, relief pitcher Jeremy Jeffress was sent in to let the Bad Guys score four runs. (Jeffress was actually called up to Kansas City at the end of April, but after four days and less than two innings pitched, they sent him right back.)

So I watched the game as a giant orange moon rose above right field. It was a beautiful Saturday night, except that the Storm Chasers were losing.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Chasers needed two runs to stay alive, three to win. Here I almost paraphrase Goldilocks: Max Ramirez hit a home run to left field. But it was too small, and we were still down a run. Then, Anthony Seratelli hit a home run to right field. But that made the game too big, and it went into Free Baseball. The Storm Chasers held in the tenth, and when their turn came to bat, Johnny Giavotella hit a home run that was just right, and won the baseball game.

And the next morning, I was taking Michael right back out to the ballpark again. It was another Sunday Fun Day, and Michael brought his friend Sean. I call Sean the underprivileged kid from down the street for a lot of reasons, none financial. Mostly because he has a psychotic big brother, he wears pants with holes in the knees, and he keeps eating supper at our house. And also because he hasn't been to Werner Park. I figured Michael could show him around the place, and while they entertained each other, I could actually watch at least part of another baseball game.

For Michael and me, the Sunday Fun Day routine has become pretty... routine. Kind of got it down to a science. But it was all new to Sean, so I ended up taking more photos of him, to put on a CD for his mom.

He was dressed nicely enough when he showed up at our house. Without explanation, I got him a different shirt to wear, because you don't have to dress nice— you have to dress appropriate. Then I raced them out to the park, in time to get more player autographs and such.

This is Sean, with Kevin Kouzmanoff (on the left) and Kurt Mertins. Kurt Mertins played for the Omaha Royals in the last half of the final season at Rosenblatt, including the Last Game Ever. In 2011, he started with the Double-A Naturals, but got called up here for about half the season, and played in the big Championship games.

Now this year, he started in Double-A again, but got called up when Irving Falu was promoted to Kansas City. Kurt had just got into town on Friday, and on Saturday morning he was working the Baseball Clinic (see above). Then he played the night game, and got up this morning to do a meet-and-greet before playing a day game. That's what Triple-A ball is.

I was talking to Kurt, saying I thought it funny that someone would say, "Congratulations, you get to go back up to Omaha, but you have to get up early in the morning and throw balls at kids." Telling him all this threw off my timing, so I got the picture with Sean but not with Michael. Meanwhile, I had distracted him so he signed Michael's Ball again. Now I have a Pitching Coach and two duplicates... We're gonna need a bigger Ball.

This Sunday Fun Day was also the mascots' birthday (I don't know how that was decided), so there were lots of strange plushy creatures roaming around. The Omaha Public Library system has a ground squirrel named Scamper. The U.N.O. Mavericks have Durango, who obviously drinks Red Bull. (It gives you ho-o-o-o-orns.) My Credit Union sent their bear Rafferty, and there was a Sniffasaurus from the Omaha Children's Museum. There were even mascots visiting from the Millard High Schools.

We bought Giant But Cheap Because We're Awesome drinks, and found our seats. I explained that this was Home Base, where we could keep our drinks and stuff, and then took the boys to the Free Because We're Awesome Fun Zone.

They became occupied there, so after shooting some more photographs for Sean's parents, I took my leave and went back to watch the game.

By the sixth inning, the Storm Chasers were ahead 7 to 5, and it stayed that way. The boys came to check in from time to time, drinking drinks and staying to watch a half-inning or so, and then taking off again to explore the park. By the time the ninth inning rolled around, we were ready to go. Three more outs and the game was done— except the RedHawks had other plans, and scored two runs to tie it up. So now there had to be a bottom of the ninth.

Catcher Cody Clark

The kids were all lined up on the other side of the stadium, to Run The Bases after the game. A mom sitting behind me was fretting that they'd only stayed this long so that her son could do that, and like a true helicopter-mom, she was concerned about the extra time her child would be all alone in the great big scary ballpark.

I mentioned that last night's game was tied in the ninth until the Chasers won it with Giavotella's walk-off home run, but I didn't think that was gonna happen twice in a row. Indeed, just after I said that, Gio took strike three for the second out. As the mom seemed so anxious to leave, I happily reassured her, "All right! This thing's going fourteen innings!"

We had two outs, but we also had a man in scoring position. The Bad Guys would not want to give up a base hit that would win us the game, so when Pacific Coast League all-star slugger Clint Robinson came to the plate, they Intentionally Walked him. Cody Clark was up next, and decided he might as well hit a game-winning walk-off home run. The Chasers won 10 to 7, the mom was relieved, and pretty soon all the mean ol' baseball men had left the field so the kids could run on it.

After Michael went to bed that night, I pondered: I'd been to the ballpark four times in three days. Over a two week period, the Chasers were only in town for this brief four-game home stand. There was one game left, the next morning, and it started at 11:05— earlier than any of their other day games. I had enjoyed watching the Saturday night game by myself... and the Monday morning crowd would probably be pretty small... the game would probably be over in time for me to pick Michael up from school... and the weather was supposed to be nice...

So I talked myself into it. After I dropped Michael off at school in the morning, I was home beginning to get psyched up but thought it would be nice to go with someone. And Chris, a friend I met at Michael's martial arts class, had recently mentioned going to a day game sometime this summer... so I called him up to see if he'd want to go today, with about two hours notice. And he did.

I thought that on a nothing-special weekday, especially before noon, most people would be at work, and kids would be in school. There'd only be a couple of hundred people in the whole place. We'd get good seats, and move to even better ones. We'd be certain to snag foul balls and toss-ups in our empty section.

Morning at the ballpark— I like those. All peaceful and stuff.

But when we arrived, we found Head Honcho Martie Cordaro himself directing traffic— someone had imported dozens of school buses! With growing horror, I realized they were having some kind of Education Day At The Park. I was chagrined that my son's school, if the administration was even aware of this educational opportunity, had not notified me. The place was filled with rampaging kids, teachers, chaperones... of course, none of them fans, just excited visitors. Look at 'em all, rockin' their Storm Chasers gear... Not!

So Chris and I got drinks and headed to our not-so-good seats to find some schoolwoman had already claimed them. I didn't press the issue; our seats were in the midst of a mass of kids, but the next section over was relatively empty. Pros and cons. I was just discouraged that we didn't have the place to ourselves. That baseball clinic Saturday morning had spoiled me.

Earlier, I wrote about David Lough— he signed Michael's ball a second time after teaching him to bat? Well, in the bottom of the third, Lough hit a grand slam home run that bounced off the top of the right field wall, and this guy caught it. That's because all the kids were either in the reserved seats or swarming about the concourses, and he had the outfield berm almost all to himself.

His name's Ryan, and meeting him would turn out to be very important...

The rest of the Education Day game was pretty routine. Chris and I got sunburned like... like... really burnt things. The Chasers beat the RedHawks 8 to 4, so they ended up sweeping the series, and leading the PCL's American Northern Division by 8 games. (That means the Iowa Cubs would have to win eight, and Omaha would have to lose eight, just to tie for the lead.) The Chasers also led the entire Pacific Coast League in runs, hits, home runs, and stolen bases.

Well, after spending Star Wars Night, Baseball Clinic Day, Buffett Head Night, Sunday Fun Day, and Education Day at the ball park, that was a long weekend. I would have to wait two weeks to do it again.

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