Rehab Assignment

One fine Saturday— the last Saturday of the school year— I took Michael to his School Carnival. They had bounce-houses, and he likes bounce-houses. I mused that Werner Park had nice ones to play in, all day in the Free Because We're Awesome Fun Zone. The somewhat smaller bounce-houses at the School Carnival were each 75 cents, and you only got to go through once. But someone said the Parent Teacher Organization was a worthy cause...

So I sent Michael to bounce in the School Carnival bounce-house, where he was immediately injured. He took a nasty hop that resulted in what we later diagnosed as metatarsalphalangeal joint sprain. Basically, it's what happens when one or more toes gets bent too far backwards. When it's the big toe, athletes call it Turf Toe. There's no treatment except to immobilize the joint, yet at the same time do physical therapy on it. Michael had sprained his two littlest toes instead, but it caused him to become a hobbling hopping limpy cripple boy.

On Monday morning I encountered Michael's P.E. teacher, Scott Cogswell, in the school parking lot. I explained that Michael probably wouldn't be participating much in P.E. because of his injury. Mr. Cogswell glibly replied that was too bad; he had lots of running and relays and stuff planned. After a moment's thought, he got serious and said, "Turf toe— that could take a while...?" I said yeah, he's on the 60-day Disabled List, and could be out for the season.

"Good thing the season's only two more days," he replied.

Later that night, my injured boy was sleeping when just before midnight I received a telephone call. A robot told me that I was receiving a text message from a Sprint customer at— a string of numbers I didn't recognize. If I wanted to hear it, press one. Curious at receiving a text message since I don't even have a cell phone, I did press one. After a pause, a different robot questioned, "Tuesday night baseball?"

I was amazed that the robot, reciting a text, had actually asked it as a question. My mind simply answered, "Yes." Tuesday's ball game was marked on my calendar. Then I thought, "But how did you know, and who are you, robot text-voice?"

I had my computer search itself for that string of numbers, and it found them in my address book, belonging to Chris, the guy who went to the game two weeks earlier where we got really burnt. I called him and got a voice-mail, where I left a message (like I do) saying I don't leave messages.

Eventually, on Tuesday morning we found each other. I said Michael was skipping martial arts that night, due to his foot injury— but I planned to drag him off to Free T-Shirt Night at the ball park. Chris said he and his son Jack were going to the martial arts class, but he thought they might go to the game afterward. I told him Michael and I would be sitting kind of where we always do, and we left it at that.

So that night, I had Michael accompany me to the ball game; he'd progressed from hobble-hopping to ambulating with a severe limp. But it was Free T-Shirt Because We're Awesome Night. The T-shirt is supposed to replicate Clint Robinson's jersey. Here, Michael was holding it up, but I didn't notice he'd let go of it in an attempt to make thumbs-ups.

I'd had to bribe him with promises of a funnel cake when we got there. Neither of us had ever had one before, but I haven't missed it. I suggested perhaps we could eat something carnivorous and savory first, as a meal, and have a funnel cake as a treat sometime later. But he's a kid, not inclined to reason. He wanted a funnel cake, pronto. So that and a Giant But Cheap Because We're Awesome soda pop ended up being his supper. Here, he's getting powdered sugar all over himself.

After finishing, and with nearly an hour before game time, Michael thought that maybe, just maybe, he might be able to withstand a brief spell in the Free Because We're Awesome Fun Zone. Darn. I had hoped he'd sit quietly and his adorableness would net us many prizes and baseballs tossed by players warming up. At one point he hobbled over with his Ball of Scrawls to where a group of kids was beseeching dugout guys for autographs. He missed getting Manager Mike Jirschele's. I don't think that counts as a Player Autograph exactly, but he's already got the Pitching Coach on there, so it would've been fitting. He did get Anthony Seratelli's autograph... Again. Hmph— now his Ball has three duplicate signatures.

But that also gave me a chance to do something I'd been waiting to do. Seratelli calls himself ARS*1 Productions in his off time, and I've seen some of the videos he put together. I ran over to where he was signing Michael's ball (again) and called, "Anthony! I saw you try to move an apple with your mind!" It took him a second to get the context, then he smiled and said, "Yeah? What'd you think?" "Well done," I replied, "You do good work." And the exchange made me seem godlike to the kids, who probably had no idea whose autograph they were receiving in the first place, and certainly didn't know what Secret Insider stuff I was talking about.

So, somewhat mollifed, I accompanied Michael to the Fun Zone. At least I got some shots of him using the lessons he learned from Storm Chasers Pitching Coach Doug Henry. Michael's form was really off, though, because pitchers do need to use their feet...

When the game started, we went back to our seats. Being pretty good seats, we soon found ourselves surrounded by people, so we moved a couple of sections further away. Sometime around the second inning, Michael was beginning to get bored, and I wondered how long I'd be able to keep him there. Then I suddenly remembered, and commented to Michael, that his martial arts classmate Jack and his dad were supposed to be there... sometime... And just as I began looking around, they appeared in the row behind us.

Both Chris and I had agreed that we'd probably be forced to take our respective sons home early, but Michael and Jack entertained each other, keeping themselves occupied the entire time. At one point, in reference to his injury, I taught Michael the word "exacerbate", and told him not to do it to his foot. The boys played throughout the game, while we dads conversed, both to such an extent that I didn't get any pictures of anything.

During the bottom of the ninth inning, Chris and I joined our boys where they were romping on the outfield berm. As the Chasers finished losing to the Salt Lake Bees, 5 to 3, the bullpen guys began to pack things up. I quickly dug Michael's glove out of my bag and told him to go try to get a ball from one of them. What I meant by "try to get", I left up to his interpretation.

Here's a shot taken in the daytime... You can see the Chasers' bullpen behind the outfield fence, set at field level. The visiting teams' pen is behind it, and elevated. Michael joined a small group of kids who were gathering in the niche where the concrete trench (behind the outfield wall), the downsloping berm, and the Chasers' bullpen all intersect. Ignoring them, the players left.

What none of the kids noticed as the stadium lights dimmed was— in the upper bullpen used by the visiting Salt Lake team, one of their relievers, walking away with two balls in his hand, casually tossed the pair of them over the back fence to the outfield walkway. I had been standing up on the sidewalk, just observing the whole scene, so I hurried over to where the nearer one rested on the grass and looked to see if anybody else had seen that. Only one kid was clambering excitedly up the berm, so I left that ball for him and retrieved the other one from the tall weeds over the hill.

I met Michael limping back up the berm, unsuccessful but stoic. As I packed his glove into my bag I sneaked the ball in as well, because I felt guilty about greedily hoarding it for myself— er, for him.

A week later, another Free T-Shirt Night was scheduled. Although Michael seemed to have recovered from his foot injury, I decided to keep him out of one more martial arts class. And Chris decided that he and Jack would again meet us at the ballpark. Not only that, but my dad decided to accept an earlier invitation and drive down from Sioux City to join us. Well, I enjoy sharing the ballpark experience...

So I took my father and my son out to Werner Park at Gate-Opening time, arriving early enough to get our Special Secret Free Because We're Awesome parking. But since it was Free T-Shirt Night, there was already a line of people waiting for the gates to open. Not many, but what that means to me is that by the time we got in, any early batting practice balls that might have been hit into the stands had already been recovered.

At least we got Free Because We're Awesome T-Shirts. Omaha was hosting a 4-game series against the Iowa Cubs, so these shirts promoted (literally) some "I-80 Rivalry" that I'm not sure anyone knew existed. They read "BEAT IOWA" in great big blue and gold letters on the front, which I thought was kind of rude, since I sympathize with the plight of minor-league ballplayers wherever they're from.

We found our seats and had over an hour to wait until Game Time. Knowing that would be the case, I'd allowed Michael to bring his Nintendo DSi device, and he became engrossed in it. Which bothered me, because then I realized that in a perfect world, he would sit with me constantly prepared— to grab his Ball and get an autograph, to grab his glove and beseech passing players; to generally use his Cuteness Quotient to score me many fabulous goods and services and photo ops.

To my mild consternation, for whatever reason, there were no opportunities for autographs or photographs or player-tossed baseballs. Eventually, I saw Storm Girls wandering around. Since one had a clipboard, I took Michael to intercept them so I could get a picture.

My plan didn't work, though. I got the photo, but they didn't invite Michael to be the Play Ball Kid or anything. Maybe because he didn't have a bouncy happy joyous attitude. Maybe because he wasn't wearing a BEAT IOWA shirt.

We sat back down, and I noticed Anthony Seratelli at the rail again. This time, instead of signing stuff for kids, he was talking to a woman. He hugged her and walked off, and she turned to come up the steps by us, where I accosted her. Turns out she was his mom, and we spoke briefly. Now if I see him in another autograph line, I can startle him with more creepy stalking-ish non sequiturs.

Eventually, the rituals of Game Time started— the ceremonial First Pitches, the player introductions, the National Anthem, the scoreboard videos. As the game got underway, Michael, Grampa, and I all moved over half a section so we could see better. Pretty soon, Chris and his son Jack found us, and the boys went to play in the Free Because We're Awesome Fun Zone.

It was all pretty pleasant as we settled in. In the bottom of the second, Clint Robinson hit a home run, befitting his status as a perennial Four-A player. And Michael and I were not wearing our brand new Clint Robinson Free T-shirts.

For the third inning, I left my dad in his seat, and Chris with the boys, while I went to meet someone else...

Matt LaWell and his wife Carolyn were living outside Cleveland, Ohio. And Matt had an "offbeat" idea. So, after saving up for a year or two, they quit their apartment and their jobs, put most of their stuff in storage and packed the rest into their Honda Element. They would spend five months touring the country, attending a home game at every affiliated, full-season minor league stadium. They were posting stories, photos, and videos about the places and the teams they visited on their website, AMinorLeagueSeason.com, as well as maintaining a facebook page and a Twitter account.

To misquote ZZ Top: They're bad, they're nationwide!

I had e-mailed the LaWells as soon as I noticed their stop at Werner Park coincided with a night I was planning on taking Michael, and left a facebook post telling when, where, and how they could find us on the concourse. And they did.

We established a conversation, and after a while Carolyn left to take photos around the park. Michael figured I no longer needed him as an identifier, and ran off to play with Jack in the Fun Zone. I found Matt pleasant to talk to, someone who wasn't yet weary of hearing me talk about baseball stuff. He told me about other teams around the country, and minor league ball in general, and I told him about the Storm Chasers— and minor league ball in general.

Snappy D. Turtle

Snappy D. Turtle

We discussed the horrors of Education Days; as Casey the blue lion walked past, we talked about branding and mascots; neither of us was fond of Stormy, the Phake Philly Phanatic. Coincidentally, MiLB.com was conducting a bracket-style "playoffs" called Mascot Mania, where 64 of the minor leagues' mascots are put to a fan vote. Stormy lost in the first round to Snappy D. Turtle of the Beloit Snappers.

The subject of Special Give-Aways (and Warren Buffett Heads) came up, and Matt offered, if we met after the game, to let me grab something from their Bag of Swag. "I love swag," I laughed. I thought I might take him up on it— not that I wanted anything, but I would have liked to get a photo of Michael grabbing from their Bag, to put here.

We talked for almost four innings while Matt kept score of the game. We noticed the sudden silence that meant one of the Bad Guys had hit a home run to tie the game. But I was so engaged in my conversation that I missed Yuniesky Betancourt hitting a two-run shot in the sixth.

Betancourt was Kansas City's two-million-a-year second baseman, but he'd been on the Disabled List for a month due to an ankle injury. Chris Getz initially filled in for him, but then he got hurt as well. So— in the words of nbcsports.com, "the Royals turned to 28-year-old career minor leaguer Irving Falu along with 24-year-old prospect Johnny Giavotella."

Michael with career minor-leaguer Irving Falu (left), and prospect Johnny Giavotella (right)

But tonight was Yuni Betancourt's first game rehabbing in Omaha. Hitting that home run in the sixth inning meant he was fine, and after playing the quick four-game BEAT IOWA series, he got recalled to Kansas City. That meant Fan Favorite Irving Falu— even after an outstanding start to his major league career— was demoted back to Omaha, where he'd been stationed since forever. Johnny Giavotella was relegated to being the Royals' bench-warming back-up... and once Chris Getz recovered, Gio was sent back to Omaha, too.

That's what Triple-A ball is.*

Up on the concourse, Matt from AMinorLeagueSeason.com and I had been talking for a long time. I believe I could have annoyed him a lot longer, but I had to beg off, feeling that I was being a bad host by ignoring my family and friend. So we parted ways, and I went back down into the seats to keep my dad company.

I found that it had become the seventh inning, and the Omaha Storm Chasers were ahead 4 to 1. But then we started using relief pitchers. Doug Davis was first. He'd played 13 years in the big leagues, on five different teams. Davis was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2008 when he was a pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Doctors caught the cancer early and he was back on the field in just 35 days. In the last couple of years, his performance had dropped off a lot, and somehow this year he had bounced from the Chicago Cubs to the White Sox to the Royals. As soon as the Royals got him, they sent him to serve a stint in Extended Spring Training in Arizona before allowing him to play in Omaha. At 36, he was four years older than anybody else on the roster. The Iowa Cubs proceeded to score two runs before letting him out of the inning.

In the eighth, Davis was replaced by Ramon Colon— by a two-year gap, the second-oldest player on the team. He couldn't get the ball over the plate. He had played 120 games in the Big Leagues— with the Braves, the Tigers, and the Royals— but tonight he walked three guys, and threw a wild pitch, so by the end of the inning Iowa had scored twice more (and left the bases loaded just to look good).

Apparently incensed by all the fans wearing BEAT IOWA in big letters, the Cubs got all uppity and won 5 to 4.

Michael's Grampa isn't really a T-shirt guy, and also said that his BEAT IOWA T-shirt might not go over so well in Sioux City. So, since Chris and his son had arrived too late for the Special Giveaway, I axed Chris if he'd want an XL for himself or a Medium for Jack. He said the latter and I replied, "Just like a Dad," and gave him the Medium I'd gotten for my son, since Michael's already got plenty of appropriate baseball garb.

After Grampa left on his drive back to Sioux City, and Michael had fallen asleep on the couch, I stood out on my front step (like I do), looking out into the night and feeling fine. I hadn't accomplished any of the Achievements I usually like to try for: Obtaining a used PCL ball, nope. Player autographs on Michael's Ball of Scrawls, nope. Million-and-first picture of Michael with Casey, nope. Remembering to take lots of photos for this bloggy e-book, nope. Cheering because my team won, nope. Eating ballpark food... wow— just plain forgot.

But Chris had said he had a good time... and my dad had said he had a good time... And I grinned, because despite so many things not going according to my Plan... I'd had a really, really good time.

Whatever causes that* must be why I like to go so often.

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