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Opening Day 2011: How Baseball Helps Padre Steve Make Sense of the World

The Church of Baseball Harbor Park Parish

“This is my most special place in all the world, Ray. Once a place touches you like this, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child.” Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams

“I love baseball. You know it doesn’t have to mean anything, it’s just beautiful to watch.” Woody Allen in Selig (1983)

We are approaching Opening Day for baseball and in a couple weeks more the Norfolk Tides will play their home opener at Harbor Park against their rival the Durham Bulls. Unfortunately this year I cannot keep my season tickets in The Church of Baseball at Harbor Park and in particular my little corner of the world in Section 102, Row “B” Seats 1 and 2.  My assignment at Camp LeJeune will keep me from this place of sanctuary in a world that seems to have gone mad.

Baseball has always meant a lot to me but even more so after returning from Iraq in 2008.  Until recently Harbor Park was one of the few places that I felt safe, I have added to the “safe” zones since 2008 but Harbor Park has a special place in my heart a place of solace and community that has been a constant for me. While I will not have my season tickets this year I will still make games whenever I am in town at the same time that the Tides are at home and I will catch some games in Kinston North Carolina where the K-Tribe, the Kinston Indians will play their last season before moving to Zebulon and it’s wonderful ballpark.

Baseball is reassuring.  It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.  ~Sharon Olds

The ball park is important to me.  When I was really suffering from depression and a major crisis in faith related to my tour in Iraq and battle with PTSD and feelings of abandonment after the tour I would go to Harbor Park just to talk with staff and sit in the concourse.  There is something about baseball people and my seats down in section 102 that help me even when there is no game being played.  There is a peace that I have when I walk around the diamond and I feel close to God when I am around a ballpark, even without the game being played there is something almost mystical about it.  To me there is nowhere more peaceful than a ballpark and every time I watch a game on TV my mind goes back to how much baseball has been part of my life, and how in a very real way that God speaks to me through this special game.

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will

Me with California Angels Manager Lefty Phillips in 1970

Baseball became part of my life as a child when my dad introduced me to it in our back yard in Oak Harbor Washington.  Even before I played an organized game dad played catch with me, showed me how to grip a ball and told me about the great ballplayers.  He made me learn the fundamentals of the game and whether we were attending a game in person, watching one on television or playing catch, pepper or practicing infield or pitching dad was all about the game.  Of course he was the same way with football, hockey and basketball, but the sport that he seemed most passionate about was baseball.  As a kid he was a Cincinnati Reds fan.  His mother, my grandmother who hailed from the hollers of Putnam County West Virginia was a diehard Dodgers fan, though I am sure that God forgives her for that.  She was an independent woman of conviction and determination that has to in some way influenced her love for the game, even as a little boy if there was a game on television she would have it on and could talk intelligently about it.  I still wonder about to this day how she became a Dodger’s fan but it probably had something to do with her independent streak.  “Granny” as she chose to be called was a woman who as a widow in the late 1930s went to work, raised her two boys and bought her own house.  Unlike most of the people in West Virginia she was also a Republican, a rare breed especially in that era. Likewise she left the Baptist church of her family and became a Methodist. As independent in her choice of baseball teams as she was in her politics Granny was a Dodgers fan in a land of Reds, Indians and Pirates fans, so even with Granny we were immersed in baseball.

Dad always made sure that we got to see baseball wherever we lived. In 1967 he took us to see the Seattle Pilots which the next year went to Milwaukee and became the Brewers. The Pilots were an expansion team in a town with a long history of minor league ball. They played at an old park named Sick Stadium, which if you ask me is a really bad marketing plan.  The game that we went to was the “Bat Day” giveaway.  Then they gave out regulation size Louisville Slugger bats.  Mine had the name of the Pilots First Baseman Mike Hegan on the barrel.  That was my first trip to a Major League stadium and I still can remember it as if it was yesterday.  Somewhere in my junk I have a button with the Pilots logo on it.  I’ll have to fish it out again sometime.  The next year I played my first organized baseball with the Oak Harbor Little League “Cheyenne’s.” My coach was a kind of gruff old guy who stuck me out in right field when as any little kid would I was pretty much a spectator as almost nothing came my way.  I don’t know why but our team uniforms did not match, half of us had white and the other half gray. Unfortunately due to military moves I didn’t get to play organized ball again until 1972.

In the elementary schools of those days our teachers would put the playoff and World’s Series games on television in our classrooms as then many of the games were played during daylight hours.  I remember watching Bob Gibson pitch when the Cardinals played against the Red Sox in the 1967 series.  It was awesome to see that man pitch.   I remember the Amazin’ Mets upsetting the Orioles in 1969 and seeing the Orioles take down the Reds in 1970.  I never will forget the 1970 All Star Game where Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse at home plate for the winning run.  I watched in awe as the great dynasty teams of the 1970s, the Reds and the Athletics who dominated much of that decade and the resurgence of the Yankees in the summer of 1978 when the Bronx burned.  Back then every Saturday there was the NBC Game of the Week hosted by Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and Joe Garragiola.  It was a sad day when that broadcast went off the air.

When we were stationed in Long Beach California from 1970-1971 my dad had us at Anaheim stadium watching the California Angels all the time.  I imagine that we attended at least 30 to 40 games there and a couple at Dodger stadium that first year and a good number more before we moved to Stockton California in the middle of the 1971 season.  The move north was disappointing, it took forever to get adjusted to Stockton and I think that part of it was not seeing the Angels every week at the Big “A.” At those games I met a lot of the players and coaches and even some opposing players.  The Von’s grocery store chain and the Angels radio network had a “My Favorite Angel” contest when I was in 5th Grade.  I submitted an entry about Angels First Baseman Jim Spencer and was named as a runner up.  This netted me two seats behind the plate and legendary sportscaster Dick Enberg announced my name on the radio.  Spencer was a Gold Glove First Baseman who later played for the Yankees on their 1978 World Series team.  My first hat from a Major League team was the old blue hat with a red bill, the letters CA on the front and a halo stitched on top. I still have a hat from the 1971 team with the lower case “a” with a halo hanging off of it.  It has numerous autographs on the inside of the bill including Sandy Alomar, Jim Spencer, and Jim Fregosi, Chico Ruiz, Andy Messersmith, and Billy Cowan and sits in a display case on my kitchen wall.

While we didn’t live as close to a major league team baseball did not cease to be a part of my life.  While we were not at the ballpark as much it got more interesting in some aspects as for the first time I attended playoff games and saw a no-hitter. We saw the A’s dynasty teams including games one and two of the 1972 American League Championship Series between the A’s and the Tigers.  Across the Bay a few years later I got to see Ed Halicki of the Giants no-hit the Mets a Candlestick on August 24th 1975.  In those days I got to see some of the greats of the era play, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Steve Garvey, Vida Blue, Harmon Killebrew, Rollie Fingers, and so many others at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and Candlestick Park.

While in Stockton I became acquainted with Minor League Baseball through the Stockton Ports, who then were the Class “A” California League farm team for the Orioles.  I remember a few years back talking to the Orioles great Paul Blair who played for the Ports in the early 1960s about Billy Hebert Field and how the sun would go down in the outfield blinding hitters and spectators in its glare.  I would ride my bike over in the evening to try to get foul balls that came over the grand stand when I didn’t have the money to get a ticket.

When I was a kid I had a large baseball card collection which I kept in a square cardboard roller-skate box.  I must have had hundreds of cards including cards that if I had them now would be worth a small fortune. Unfortunately when I went away to college I left them in the garage and during a purge of my junk they were tossed out.  Last year I started collecting cards again, mostly signed cards that I obtained at the Church of Baseball at Harbor Park.  In a sense they kind of serve a purpose like Holy Cards due in the Catholic Church for me.  They are a touch point with the game and the players who signed them.

As I have grown older my appreciation for the game, despite strikes and steroids still grows.  I am in awe of the diamond.  I have played catch on the field of dreams, seen a game in the Yankee Stadium Right Field bleachers seen games in many other venues at the Major League and Minor League levels and thrown out the first pitch in a couple of Kinston Indians games.  I am enchanted with the game. The foul lines theoretically go on to infinity, only broken by the placement of the outfield wall.  Unlike almost all other sports there is no time limit, meaning that baseball can be an eschatological game going on into eternity. The Hall of Fame is like the Calendar of Saints in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches.  There are rituals in baseball such as the exchange of batting orders and explanation of the ground rules and the ceremonial first pitch.  Likewise there are customs that border on superstition such as players not stepping on the foul line when entering and leaving the field of play, no talking about it when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter and the home run trot. Even the care of the playing field is practiced with almost liturgical purity. The care of a field by an expert ground crew is a thing to behold, especially when they still use the wooden box frames to lay down the chalk on the baselines and the batter’s box.

We have travelled to many minor league parks often in tiny out of the way locations and even to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville Iowa where once again Judy indulged me and let me play catch. Likewise my long suffering wife has allowed our kitchen and much of my dining room is as close to a baseball shrine as Judy will let me make them; thankfully she is most tolerant and indulges this passion of mine.

Since I returned from Iraq the baseball diamond has been one of my few places of solace.  For the first time last season I bought a season ticket to the Tides and in section 102, row B seats 2 and 3 was able to watch the game from the same place every day.  It became a place of refuge during some of my bad PTSD times, and I got to know and love the people around me; Elliot the Usher, Chip the Usher, Ray and Bill the Vietnam Veteran Beer guys behind home plate, Kenny “Crabmeat” the Pretzel Guy and Barry the Scorekeeper.  Last year the Vietnam Vets and the Veterans beer stand were moved down the first base concourse where they were relegated to the boring beers.

Even still there is some sadness in baseball this year as there was last year and the year before.  My dad passed away last year after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.  I miss talking baseball with him and wish he was alive and in good enough health to play catch.  However that will have to wait for eternity on the lush baseball field that only heaven can offer.

The season is about to begin and God is not done speaking to me through baseball as I close my eyes and recollect the words of Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams: “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

In a sense this says it all to me in an age of war, economic crisis, natural disasters and bitter partisan political division.  In a sense it is a prayer, a prayer for a return to something that was good and what could be good again.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under Baseball, faith, norfolk tides, philosophy, PTSD

Padre Steve’s Road Trip

David Thomas rips a 3 run home run in the bottom of the 4th inning

Well friends, countrymen and baseball fans Padre Steve was able to take in one last ball game in Mudville aka Stockton California before flying back tomorrow to the home of the Navy and site of the first landing by English Colonists in the New World, Norfolk and Virginia Beach Virginia.  While I look forward to coming home and being with my wife Judy, the Abbess of the Abbey Normal, I shall miss the lack of humidity here in the “Big Valley” aka the Central Valley of California.

The weather has heated up to the kind of weather that I remember growing up with, 100 degrees plus but low humidity which if you ask me makes all the difference in the world. Even though I have adapted to the mugginess of the East Coast and Mid Atlantic region I am always amazed when I can sit comfortably through a day game with temps in the high 90’s and low 100’s without much effort other than adding copious amounts of 50 weight Banana Boat sun screen to my fragile Northern European genetically engineered skin.

Grant Green gets tied up and struck out while Jermaine Mitchell attempts to run, Mitchell was thrown out at second base

Today I attended the second game of the Stockton Ports series against the Bakersfield Blaze with my old high school classmate and US Navy Master Chief Petty Officer, retired Tony Melendez. It was great to see the game with Tony sharing what was happening in our lives and talking baseball while enjoying Tecate beer and an Alpine Hot Dog.  The game was interesting because it was an 1105 AM start, early by my books but with the heat of the Central Valley not a bad idea as the temperatures only get hotter until about 5 PM when they begin to cool down.  The game was the first Ports game ever televised on the Major League Baseball Network and Comcast Sports Hometown.

Lance Sewell got the Win for the Ports

In preparation for the game I wore my Norfolk Tides road jersey and the orange and black hat which has been worn interchangeably at home and on the road this season.  Additionally I made pilgrimage to Wally World to get some poster board and black and orange Sharpies to make a double sided sign with one side saying “Padre Steve’s Road Trip….Go Tides!” and the other “Steve Loves Judy” only with a heart in it.  I think that I got on TV at the 7th inning stretch so if anyone saw it let me know. Since I was the only person in the park with a sign I figured that I should get on at least once.

Paul Smythe got his 11th save for the Ports

The game was much more of a hitters show today than the pitcher’s duel of the preceding night and was error free.  The Ports had 8 runs on 9 hits with no errors leaving 3 men on base. The Blaze, the affiliate of the Texas Rangers in the California League had 6 runs on 10 hits and no errors leaving 8 runners stranded.  Lance Sewell (2-0 3.12 ERA) pitching 2.1 innings of perfect relief got the win for the Ports and Paul Smyth, (3-2 1.80 ERA) got his 11th save of the campaign.  Kennil Gomez (2-6 6.24 ERA) got the loss for the Blaze.

The Blaze led early scoring 2 in the 2nd inning and 1 in the 3rd inning but the Ports scored 4 in the 4th to take the lead. The Blaze would take the lead again in the 6th inning but surrendered it in the 7th when Ports shortstop Grant Green pounded a two run shot while Jeremy Barfield added a solo blast in the 8th inning.

The hitting was driven by the long ball with each team having three apiece the difference that the Blaze homers were single shots with no runners on base and two of the Ports homers came with men on base, one a three run homer by David Thomas with 2 on and 2 out in the bottom of the 4th inning.

Shipmates: Master Chief Tony Melendez USN Retired and Padre Steve also classmates from Edison High School Class of 1978

After the game I met Pat Filiponne the President and General Manager of the Ports through Tony. Pat knows the Tides Owner Ken Young and General Manager Dave Rosenfield and is also the owner and President of the Del Marva Shorebirds in the Orioles organization.  I was able to take in a light dinner at Arroyo’s Café, a Stockton fixture and tradition for many years and enjoyed some really excellent California Mexican Food.  It was interesting to listen to the men at the bar talking about the state of the city, state and country.  If they are any barometer there is a lot of discontent in the country and anger at politicians of all stripes as well as the corporations they feel they are in cahoots with.

Tomorrow I head home the road trip to help my mother and brother following the death of my father and to honor his memory.  When I get back I still have some leave and the Tides who won in Charlotte this evening defeating the Knights by a score of 12 to 3 will return home to Harbor Park on Thursday to play three at home against their southern division rival Knights and I expect to be there.  So see you there.

Peace,

Steve+

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Road Trip to See the Stockton Ports

Bakersfield Blaze outfielder David Paisano slides in ahead of the throw to third in the 1st inning

With my dad’s memorial service now in the past and having done all that I can do in fighting through government and business bureaucracies I went to see my old “home town” team play at Banner Island Park. As you all know by now baseball is one of the few things that help bring order to my world in times of stress, grief and loss which pretty much describes the past week.

My association with the Ports goes back to the days in the early 1970s when they played a Billy Herbert Field and were the “Single-A” affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.  They enjoyed that relationship from about 1958 to 1972.  The fact that they were an orioles farm team and that on “hat day” they gave away Orioles caps caused me to have some interest in the Orioles throughout my life to the point now that I can say that with the Giants and A’s that they are one of my favorite ball clubs despite the fact that they have not had a winning season in 13 years.  The Ports now belong to the Athletics’ organization playing in the California League which along with the Carolina League are consider “High Single A” leagues, so they have some good talented players that do have a legitimate chance to get to the big leagues.  Their new home which replaced the venerable Billy Herbert Field is a marvelous facility that sits on the Stockton Channel with a “splash down” area over the right field wall and concourse. It is a wonderful venue to see a ball game and I recommend it if you are ever around Stockton when the Ports are in town.

Ports Catcher Ramon Soto after applying the tag at home to Andres James in the 2nd inning

Tonight the Ports played the Bakersfield Blaze of the Texas Rangers farm system the first game of a three game home stand prior to the July 4th Weekend. I got to the park a bit early and got my ticket for a seat directly behind home plate in the first row. Like about any minor league park on a really hot day, it was well over 100 today in Stockton, but no humidity, the Monday night crowd was sparse and I sat near some gents that knew the Ports, California League and the A’s system well. I also as is my custom struck up a conversation with one of the ushers as well to ensure that I could move around to get some photos.

Michael Madsen gets a called strike against a Blaze hitter

The game was low scoring; the Blaze scored one run in the 1st inning when John Whittleman singled off of Ports starting pitcher Michael Madsen to score David Paisano from third. They scored another in the second when Andres James doubled to score Doug Hogan who had been hit by a pitch with two outs.  Apart from those two runs the pitching staff of both teams shut down the offense of the other team. The Ports mounted no real threat and scattered only 6 hits scoring none of the 4 runners that reach scoring position.

Ports relief pitcher Scott Deal fields a sacrifice bunt by Andres James in the 7th inning

While I was at the game I found out that former Norfolk Tides infielder Brandon Pinckney who hails from Elk Grove up by Sacramento had just been picked up by the Athletics and signed to a minor league free agent deal with the Ports. At the end of last season Brandon became a free agent and signed with the Phillies who released him on the 15th of June.  After the game I was able to welcome Brandon back to California where while it is definitely hot in Stockton there is no humidity.  Once the sun set tonight the temps were very comfortable.

In Norfolk the Tides dropped the final game of their home stand to the Louisville Bats by a score of 7-2 and in Baltimore, don’t look now but the Orioles have won 4 in a row sweeping the Nationals in Baltimore this weekend and face the Athletics tomorrow at Camden Yards. The Orioles designated First Baseman Garrett Atkins for assignment.

Tomorrow my Road trip continues and I will see the Ports take on the Blaze in a game that will be nationally televised on the MLB Network at 11:05 Pacific Standard Time and 2:05 Eastern Standard Time. I will be wearing my Norfolk Tides black road jersey and hopefully will have a sign to say hello to any of my friends watching the game. I will be attending it with an old high school classmate and retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Tony Melendez.

See you there.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Dallas Braden; Perfect Games and Memories of Home in Stockton California

Dallas Braden celebrating with teammates (Getty Images)

On Sunday Dallas Braden of the Oakland A’s did what only eighteen men had done in the history of Major League Baseball, he pitched a perfect game.  However there is more to this story than meets the eye and some that touches me personally.

The setting of Braden’s feat was the venerable Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the “other” ballpark in the Bay Area.  Sitting in an area just off of the Nimitz Freeway the coliseum and its surrounding parking lots are in one of the most un-picturesque venues in the Bay area.  While one can see the Oakland Hills to the East the Park is just far enough away from San Francisco Bay to lack the ambiance of the San Francisco Giant’s home across the bay AT&T Park which sits on the bay with views of the Bay Bridge and the Skyline of the City of San Francisco.  While the ballpark has been the home of multiple World Series Champion A’s teams, numerous League Championship teams and had its share of Hall of Fame players tread upon its natural grass it has never been considered a great ballpark for either pitchers or hitters.   The fact that it is a multi-use stadium and the home of the Oakland Raiders football team contributes to un- remarkableness as a baseball venue.  All of this said it is a place where magic has occurred before when in 1968, in fact almost 42 years to the day of Braden’s magical win, May 8th 1968 Jim “Catfish” Hunter threw a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins.  Like Hunter’s win in 1968 the A’s won the game by a score of 4-0 however Hunter’s win came before the American League adopted the Designated Hitter meaning that Hunter had to hit for himself in the game.  That being said he did hit and I mean that he really did hit.  Hunter went 3-4 including a double and knocked in 3 of the A’s 4 runs.  That was no fluke as Hunter had a .226 lifetime batting average with 6 career home runs and 51 RBIs.

Dallas Braden with Grandmother (Getty Images)

With that little bit of trivia said Braden who is not your typical power pitcher that usually pitches perfect games pitched a solid game which was far different than one year ago when he was hit in his pitching hand with a 109 mile an hour line drive off of the bat of Vernon Wells which left the imprint of the seams on his hand.  Braden as I said is not a power pitcher.  He has one of the 10 slowest fastballs in the game topping out at a mere 87 miles an hour.  Normally an 87 mile and hour fastball is a dish served at a perfect temperature for most good hitters and they eat the pitchers that throw them for lunch.  However Braden has a remarkable equalizer, it is not his curve or slider but his change up.  I drive faster than his change up on a typical commute to and from work.  Braden’s change up comes in at a leisurely 72.9 miles and hour.  This pitch is the slowest change up in the league and it baffles batters by making his fast ball seem faster than it is. Batters at the Major League level are not used to this type of ultra-slow deception for a pitcher and it served Braden well but even so coming into the game he had a lifetime record of 18 wins and 23 losses and a 4.49 ERA.  He is not the pitcher that one would put money on to throw a perfect game and I’m sure that Jimmy the Greek, Larry the Latvian, Johnny the Walker and even Pete Rose would have wagered against him pulling this off. Yet he did it against the hottest team in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays.

Braden’s biggest notice came earlier in the year where he and Alex Rodriguez had an exchange of rather terse barbs following an incident where Rodriguez ran across the pitcher’s mound during the game.

Braden pitched for 5 or parts of 5 years in the minors for 7 different clubs in the A’s organization, the Kane County Cougars of the Midwest League, the Vancouver Canadians of the Northwest League, the Arizona Athletics of the Arizona League, the Stockton Ports of the California League, The Midland Rock Hounds of the Texas League and the Sacramento River cats of the Pacific Coast League.  This year he has stayed in the majors and now after the win has a record of 4-2 with a 3.33 ERA in 7 starts.

Braden’s story is that of a young man who lost his mother Jodie Atwood in his senior year at Stagg High School in May of 2001.  His parents had separated when he was young and his father was estranged from the family.  His grandmother Peggy Lindsey took over and helped him through that last year of school providing the stability, love and care that he needed to survive his mother’s loss and not fall into the mire of Stockton’s often violent and crime ridden streets.  The story of this young man and the women who raised him is the story of how mother’s day ought to be.  Braden had the love and support of his late mother and grandmother during the turbulent times of his youth and as a result still remains closely connected to his grandmother and his home town.  In fact he commutes the 67 mile trip daily from Stockton to Oakland which means unlike many professionals, athletes, businesspersons, those in other professional fields to include the military that leave their home town and only make occasion visits home is able to keep himself ground in reality.  He does not live in a glamorous town; he plays for a very blue collar city on a very “Green Collar” team.  I think that is one of the stories that some people will miss, not all, Jeff Passan mentioned Braden’s connection to home in his column on Yahoo Baseball.

Downtown Stockton

You see there is something about this story of relationship and connectedness that I think may be uniquely Stocktonian.  You see for the past number of years Stockton has been ranked number one or at least in the top 5 of the nation’s “Misery index.”  This year it dropped to second as it was edged out by Cleveland Ohio, I guess Cleveland does rock. It is routinely in the highest percentage of crime, violent crime and murders in the nation.  In the economic downturn and the real estate crash it was hit particularly hard and for a fair amount of time led the nation in foreclosures, or may still I just haven’t checked.  It is a town that in many ways has experienced for many years and reflects the reality that many other locations in the country are just beginning to know in today’s economy.

Foreclosure capitol (Getty Images)

All this said there is still something that native Stocktonians appreciate about our city, even those of us that have moved away.  We tend to remain in contact with our friends who still remain in town or have moved away.  I currently am in contact with over 100 friends on Facebook alone. My Edison High School Class of 1978 still has well attended reunions and is very well connected to each other and the classes that came before and after us. I look at the Stockton Record website every day. I used to read the obituaries until the Record started charging for them.  When I go home there is a certain familiarity with the city and though it has grown to a rather sizable city it still has a small town feel to me. I can still go to Arroyo’s Café when I go home and see the same people. The same is true with Donut King, Chucks , Manny’s burgers, the Fox Theater and a bunch of other places.  While other cities built huge super-malls Stockton still has Weberstown and Sherwood Mall.  Yes they have changed some over the years but they are still much the same. Yes much has changed but much is still the same in Stockton and I think that it one of the things that makes Dallas Braden’s story so remarkable to me he has not forgotten where he came from.  He still loves and cares for Stockton.  In an age where the really “successful” people move to New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco Braden didn’t cut himself off from his roots.  Are there others who have done such as this one that comes to mind is Joe Mauer in Minnesota but why leave if they will pay you more money than God gets in a season?

Another interesting thing that stuck me about Dallas Braden was his mother.  She was close to my age and I remember her, I thought it was in Junior High School but I couldn’t find t  find her in the yearbooks, it could have been the church youth group when I was in High School but regardless I am sure that I knew her.  I mentioned this to my mother today and she remembered the name.  Interesting how closely peoples’ lives are linked together.

My Oak Park Little League team back in 1972

I guess what strikes me the most about this game even more than the game itself which I must say that I am in awe of is the story of a man, Dallas Braden  who despite pitching in the Major Leagues still remembers home and family and stays connected to them.  This is becoming rare in our society and maybe given the state of the nation and how deeply divided we are it is time to return home, maybe not physically but returning to relationships with the people that we grew up with, schools, workplaces, churches and other activities.  Maybe Dallas Braden points us to something that matters more to many of us than the achievements of athletes or entertainers but to where we really need to be connected to one another as Americans, friends and families.  Yes it is wonderful to succeed and all should strive to be the best at what they feel called to be or do, but if that success destroys and alienates people from family, friends and home is ti really success? Maybe it is the pastoral environment of the baseball field that makes this happen for some of us.  Maybe like Terrance Mann played by James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams we can understand that

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

Thank you Dallas Braden for helping to remind us what is important as you play this game of baseball.  I do hope that you do well in your career and that this perfect game is a foretaste of a great career for you.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Minor League Road Trips

grainger stadiumGrainger Stadium Kinston NC

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.” – James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams (1989)

There is something about baseball that is healing.  It is part of the fabric of our American culture something that somehow overcomes the political and religious divisions that so divide our country right now.  We were at Gordon Biersch watching the last couple of innings of a qualification game for the Little League World series between a team from Peabody Massachusetts and one from Rhode Island.  It was one of those magical games that ended with a walk-off Grand-Slam home run in the bottom of the 6th.  It triggered a flood of memories for me and ait got Judy, the Abby Normal Abbess and I talking about some of our own expereinces travelling the country and watching baseball.

I love the game of baseball especially going to a ballpark and seeing a game.  The experience of this for me has been life-long though difficult to continue from about 1983-1999 due to a tour in Germany with the Army a very difficult four years of seminary followed by residency, my first hospital job where I worked the second shift, a mobilized tour in Germany prior to coming in the Navy in early 1999.  During those years getting to games was a rare event, either due to time or money.  Despite this we as a couple got to a few games and I got in a couple on my own when traveling.  Thankfully, Judy, the Abby Normal Abbess tolerates and even joins me in my own baseball journey.

When I went into the Navy and moved to North Carolina that began to change.  North Carolina of course is the setting of the classic baseball movie Bull Durham and once can visit some of the same ballparks as are shown in the movie. The adventure of going to the ballpark again became a regular part of our lives.  It began in a little town in Eastern North Carolina called Kinston, the home of the Kinston Indians.  Kinston is a town that has seen better times, but the Indians, or the K-Tribe as they are known is part of the lifeblood of the community.  They play in Grainger Stadium, which though an older ballpark is still a great place to watch a game.  The Indians Carolina League which is advanced “A” ball and for a number of years dominated that League. When were stationed in Camp LeJeune we would make the trip to Kinston on a regular basis when I was in town. At the time the Indians farm system was producing a lot of great prospects, many who now are major leaguers, including Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta Shane Victorino and Victor Martinez.  When we left LeJeune we were stationed a brief time in Jacksonville Florida, where we lived very close to the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, home of the Jacksonville Suns then the Los Angeles Dodgers AA affiliate in the Southern League.  The ballpark is a great venue to see a game and the Suns management led by Peter Bragan and Peter Bragan Jr. who are part of a great baseball family run a great show, and the Dodgers staff was a class organization.  I got to meet Tommy Lasorda in Jacksonville as well as Steve Yeager.  I have 2 game worn special issue jerseys from the Suns.  When we moved to Norfolk in 2003 the season was already over but beginning on opening day of 2004 I began to worship at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish.  This if you follow this site is the home of the Norfolk Tides.  Ever since then I have had the opportunity to see the game close up on a very regular basis.

In addition to attending the games near us we would travel and see other games. We would make trips down to Kinston from Virginia.  Once we went to a reunion of a singing group, the Continental Singers and Orchestra that I ran spotlight for back in 1979 which was being held in Kansas City.  On the way we saw a game in Louisville with the Louisville Bats, followed by a game in Cedar Rapids Iowa where we saw the Cedar Rapids Kernels play the Battle Creek Yankees and followed it with a trip to the “Field of Dreams” outside Dyersville, where that film was made.  Judy indulged me by playing catch with me on the field and taking my picture coming out of the cornfield.  It was almost; well it was a spiritual experience.  Occasionally when we visit Huntington West Virginia we try to see the West Virginia Power in Charleston.

Until I went to Iraq Judy and I used to take trips to Minor League ballparks around our Wedding anniversary.  We would take about four or five days and travel city to city to see some of the most fascinating baseball venues around.  We haven’t made a trip like that, even outside the wedding anniversary in a while mainly due to time as my much leave time has been spent going home to assist with my parents, especially the past 18 months where my dad’s Alzheimer’s Disease has progressed to the point of him being in a nursing home on palliative care.  Despite that I would always try to find time to see a game when in Stockton.  Before Iraq we would see the Stockton Ports in Billy Herbert Field.  The Ports now play in Banner Island Ballpark which is a great place to see a game.  If the Ports have not been in town we have occasionally been able to see the Giants, the A’s or the Sacramento River Cats, the AAA affiliate of the A’s.

The anniversary trips took us to some of the most interesting places to see games.  I have already mentioned Kinston where on one of our anniversaries we got to throw out the first pitch.  We have also travelled to Winston-Salem, when they were the Warthogs and Charlotte home of the Knights, the AAA affiliate of the White Sox.  Actually, Charlotte’s stadium is just down the road a way in Round Rock South Carolina.  We got rained out in Winston-Salem as a major storm hit at game time.  To our north we have been up to Frederick Maryland, home of the Frederick Keys, the Carolina League affiliate of the Orioles and Harrisburg Pennsylvania to see the Harrisburg Senators, the Montreal Expos-Washington Senators AA Eastern League affiliate at Metro-Bank Park on City Island.  This park was used in the movie Major League II as the Spring Training facility. There were two really cool things that happened at Harrisburg which was on our anniversary.  First we saw Phillies Slugger Ryan Howard about tear the cover off a ball hitting a double down the right field line and the General Manager had a ball autographed for us by the team.  That was really cool.  Likewise when Atlanta still had its Richmond affiliate, the Richmond Braves, we made a number of trips to “The Diamond” in Richmond.  This was the worst stadium I had ever watched a game in, though the team was always good.  We saw a playoff game there in 2004 between the Braves and the Columbus Clippers, who were then the Yankees AAA affiliate.  Sitting behind home plate I saw Jason Giambi play for the Clippers on a rehab assignment.

I have done some parks on my own when travelling.  Any time I have been on the road in baseball season and have the chance I try to see the local team if circumstances permit.  I have seen a number of games in the Pacific Northwest seeing two Seattle Mariners short season single A Northwest League affiliate the Everett Aquasox and AAA Pacific Coast League affiliate the Tacoma Rainiers.  Everett is an especially interesting place to see a game.  The games are well attended and the team management has some great promotions including “Frogfest” where the team wears tie-dyed jerseys and there is a kind of 1960s hippy theme.  The Rainiers play in Cheney Stadium in Tacoma.  In Tacoma I saw Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez pitch his first AAA game. Both Everett and Tacoma are nice places to see a game.  While on the USS Hue City at the Maine Lobster Festival I worked a deal with festival organizers to get tickets for our sailors for two games watching the Portland Seadogs the AA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.  When the Seadogs hit a home run a lighthouse rises up from behind the fence and a foghorn sounds.

However the two most interesting place that we have seen games together are Ashville North Carolina, the home of the Ashville Tourists and Zebulon North Carolina home of the Carolina Mudcats.  Ashville has quite a history with McCormack Field dating back until 1919.  The grandstand was rebuilt a number of years back, but the playing field is the same.  The outfield wall backs up into a tree covered hillside into which home runs hit at night almost seem to dissolve.   Zebulon is another matter.  The stadium is about a mile out of town surrounded by farm fields.  When you drive to it down US 64 from Raleigh the stadium almost seems to emerge from nowhere as if it were beamed down from a orbiting starship.  It is a fairly new stadium and very modern a great place to see a game.  We went there to see the Mudcats, who were then the Marlins AA Southern League affiliate play the Mississippi Braves.  We got to the stadium and found that somehow I had left our tickets at home.  Since the game was in an hour and home was bout a 6-8 hour round trip I knew that going home to get them was not an option.  So I went to the ticket manager and explained the situation.  He had remembered taking my ticket order by phone as we had talked about shared military experiences.  He was able to print us duplicates for the seats that we had previously purchased and we saw the game, as always from down behind home plate.  In this game we saw Braves All Star catcher Brian McCann play the week before he was called up to Atlanta.

I hope that we have some time next year to make at least one trip out to see some other Minor League venues.  They are a lot of fun and part of the fabric of our country and somehow I believe if we reconnect in these locations, watching this timeless game that maybe just maybe we can overcome the emnity of all that divides our country and learn to be Americans again.  We will never all agree on politics, religion, domestic, foreign or economic policy.  No Americans ever have, but we can discover what it means again, through this wonderful game called baseball.  I do think that the Deity Herself approves of all of these local parishes of the Church of Baseball scattered about our land.  At the same time I always have my place in Section 102, Row B Seat 2 at Harbor Park.

Peace, Steve+

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Dad’s Gift of Baseball to Me

Note:  This is a substantial re-write of a post that I did toward the beginning of this site. At the time I had very few readers and of course it had very few views.  I think sometimes there are times in life when you have to go back to things that are important.  Revisiting the better times in the past is sometimes a way for me to get through the more difficult days of the present. My dad has been in End Stage Alzheimer’s Disease for some time now. He is down to 112 pounds and when I last saw him in May was only occasionally able to have any meaningful communication and I was blessed to get a few minutes on a couple of consecutive days where we had conversation s that bordered on better times.  The funny thing they revolved around baseball for for dad and me was a point of connection through most of our lives.  If we could talk about nothing else, there was always baseball. I have been kind of down about his condition lately as he for all intents and purposes hangs between life and death, not really the man that I knew, the man who taught me to love the game of baseball.  My mom and I talked this week and she asked when I was coming out next.  The thing is I don’t know.  I just had to tell her that we would wait and see.

Me and Lefty PhillipsMe with Lefty Phillips of the California Angels in 1970

Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.” George Will

Baseball has always been a source of enjoyment for me.  I’ve noted in numerous other posts that God speaks to me through baseball.  For me there is something mystical about the game.  It extends beyond the finite world in some respects and there is symmetry to the sport unlike any other.  George Will’s quote at the beginning of this post is dead on.  Not all holes or games are created equal.

Oak Harbor Little LeagueMy First Ball Field, Oak Harbor Washington

Though I had played Little League Ball in the 1960s and well as a lot of backyard or sandlot games, it was  1970-1971 when my dad began taking us to California Angels games while stationed in Long Beach California that the game really captured me.  The seed of course had been planted long before games on a black and white TV, playing catch, teaching me to throw, field and run the bases.  We even saw the Seattle Pilots in person while stationed in Washington State. While my dad thrived on all sports, baseball was the one that he gave me as a gift.  He gave my brother golf, another spiritual game, which Zen masters love, but which is not to be compared with baseball because it is not in its purest form a team sport.

1972 Oak Park AL RamsOak Park Little League 1972 American League “Rams” I am at top left

Growing up with baseball was something that I cannot imagine have not done.  It was part of life from as far back as I can remember and this was because dad made it so.  It kind of reminds me of the beginning of the movie For the Love of the Game where home movies of a child playing ball with dad are shown during the opening credits and score.  I can close my eyes and remember vivid details of ball fields and backyards where dad would play catch with me play pepper and fungo and teach me to pitch.  He never did much with hitting.  When I had him in a brief lucid moment when I visited in May I thanked him for teaching me to love the game, told him I still heard his voice telling me to keep my butt down on ground balls and that he did not teach me to hit.  He simply said “you can’t teach someone to hit, it’s a gift, lots of people can’t hit.”

Binkley and baseballI wonder if my Dad felt this way at times?

Those days at Anaheim Stadium when it was called “the Big A” due to the scoreboard shaped like a large “A” with a halo ringing the top were magical.  I met players, got signed balls and hats, and was even selected as a runner up in the “My Favorite Angel” contest.  For that I met my favorite Angel, First Baseman Jim Spencer a Golden Glove Winner who later played for the White Sox and Yankees, and two tickets behind home plate.  I met Spence at the game as well as an autograph signing at a local Von’s grocery store.  When trying to look him up in 2003 I found that he had passed away on February 10th 2002 while I was deployed.  He wasn’t very old, only 54 dying of a heart attack. Before his death he was lending his expertise to the Naval Academy baseball team. In 15 years in the majors in which he played in 1450 games and only made 55 errors, a .995 fielding percentage, one of the best in baseball.  During the 1970’s he was considered one of the premier defensive First Basemen in the game.  He played in the 1973 All-Star Game, won the Gold Glove in 1970 and 1977 and played on the Yankee’s 1978 World Series team. He was one of my favorite players growing up. I think that is why I like sitting behind the plate in my little world of Section 102, Row B, Seat 2 at Harbor Park so much now.

jim_spencer_autographJim Spencer’s 1979 Signed Yankee Card, I have one of these

When we moved to northern California we reconnected with the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s.  This was during the A’s dynasty years and we saw a number of games including an ALCS game against the Tigers.  Seeing the greats like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Campy Campaneris and Vida Blue was awesome.  However our first love was the Giants.  We only occasionally got to Candlestick Park where they played in those days.  Candlestick if you have ever been there is a miserable place to see a game for nothing else that it is colder than hell, if hell were cold.   One game we did see was Ed Halicki’s no-hitter against the Mets in 1975.

halicki no hitterEd Halicki’s No-Hitter, Dad took me to this

While dad was deployed to Vietnam my mom would drop me off at Billy Herbert Field in Stockton California where we lived and let me see the Stockton Ports who were then the California League single A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.  Those games were always fun.  I remember talking to Orioles great Paul Blair when he visited a military base that I was serving and he told me how he remembered playing in Stockton as a minor leaguer.

billy hebert fieldMy Childhood Haunt, Billy Hebert Field, Stockton CA, former home of the Stockton Ports

In high school and college due to other diversions I stopped playing baseball and did not have as much contact with it.  However it never completely left me, I always longed to be either playing in or watching a game.

Other major sports do not hold me captive the way baseball does.  I think there is the nearly spiritual dimension that the game has which makes it timeless.  Other sports such as football, basketball, hockey and soccer are limited to rectangular playing surfaces of set dimensions determined by their leagues. With the exception of a few old hockey rinks there are no individuality to these venues, save perhaps for team or sponsor logos.  Likewise all of the other sports play a set time clock.  If a team gets way ahead early, it is likely that the game will be over.  While it is possible that a game could go into “overtime” the overtime in these games has different rules than regulation time.  “Sudden death” “Shootouts” and truncated times show that these games are not meant to go past regulation time.  It is an aberration from what is considered “normal.” In these games a team with a big lead can simply sit on the ball and run out the clock. Earl Weaver put it well: “You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”

Baseball is not like that.  In order to win you have to throw the ball over the plate and give the other team a chance to come back. The nine innings could in theory go on for eternity, as they nearly do in W.P. Kinsella’s The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, A story which is patently eschatological, though not in a pre-millennial dispensationalist manner.  Foul lines in theory go on for eternity, only the arbitrary placement of the outfield wall and the physical limitation of hitters keep the game within earthly limits.  I’m sure that outfields are a lot more spacious and have a wonderful playing surface in heaven.

Save for the late 1960s and early 1970s when fascists took over the design of stadiums in order to make them suitable to play football on, baseball parks have had their individuality.  Outfield dimensions, type of grass, the kind of infield and warning track soil which is used, are all determined by the team.  Some fields cater to hitters, others pitchers.  And with the overthrow of the stadium fascists at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, the baseball park regained its dignity.  Gone were the ugly, drab oval stadiums, fields covered in often shoddy artificial turf.  The unsightly and even hideous venues such as Riverfront, Three Rivers, Veteran’s Stadium and others, even dare I say the Astrodome and Kingdome were demolished and made nice piles of rubble, replaced by beautiful ballparks each with its own unique character that reflect the beauty of the game.

three run homer by fiorentinoJeff Fiorentino Hits Three Run Homer at Harbor Park, my view from 102

This year for the first time in my life I bought season tickets for my local AAA team, the Norfolk Tides who are the AAA Affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. I also went Norfolk’s Harbor Park to see the Commonwealth Classic an exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals.  Harbor Park was one of the first of the new generation of minor league parks and a wonderful place to see a game, or as I like to say “Worship at the Church of Baseball.”   When Harbor Park was built the Tides were affiliated with the New York Mets. As such the outfield dimensions are nearly identical to the former Shea Stadium, making it a very large yard and pitchers playground.  The outfield backs up to the East Fork of the Elizabeth River, shipyards and bridges dominate the view.  There is not a bad seat in the house. Since coming back from Iraq the ballpark is one of the few places that I have been able to consistently go where I am at peace, not hyper-vigilant and anxiety free.  In a way my season ticket has been both therapeutic and pretty essential to me getting a bit better in the past year.  Last year when the minor league season ended  it was difficult.  I am not looking forward to 6 months without a ball game here.

harbor park opening dayOpening  Day at Harbor Park: One of the few places of peace in dealing with my PTSD

With every home game the gift that my father gave me begins to unfolds again as I gaze in wonderment at the diamond.  This year is different; my dad is in a nursing home in the end stage of Alzheimer’s disease.  Last year he still knew enough of what was going on to talk about baseball, especially the San Francisco Giants and bad mouth the American League. Dad was always National League fan and he loathes the designated hitter. He used to call the American League the “minor league.”  He told me stories about the greats of his childhood and he was an avid fan of Pete Rose, he loved his high intensity play and hustle, something that he passed on to me. I can still recall him yelling at me to “get your butt down,” “stay in front of the ball,” “hustle down the line any time you hit the ball” and “don’t be afraid to run over a catcher or go in hard to break up a double play.”   Rose’s banishment from baseball for gambling hit him hard.  I guess it was for him like the banishment of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and for me the agony of the Steroid Era which was a stain on game but now is now history. Unfortunately it is being used by self-righteous politicians a bureaucrats to make baseball and baseball players look bad so they can look good.   At this point I say reinstate Shoeless Joe and Pete Rose and stop with the endless illegal leaks of documents and alleged positive tests of players whose names are being leaked out one or two at a time.  I think my dad would say the same now, if only he could.

Me and last last picMy Dad Carl and I, May 2009 Giants fans to the end

Dad gave me a gift, a gift called the game, the game of baseball.  Sure, it’s only just a game.  Right… Baseball is only a game in the sense of the Grand Canyon just being a hole in the ground and the Pacific Ocean a pond.  I’m sure that the Deity Herself must agree.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under alzheimer's disease, Baseball, Loose thoughts and musings