Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Children's Game: Wide Eyes, Rain Delays, and the Gary Southshore Railcats

Summer is for the young. As I have grown up and into a day job, the significance of August has faded from my yearly routine. When I was a kid, August meant the end of summer vacation and the ever-dreaded start to the school year. Yet there was always this urgency to make the last few weeks into something special. I would adventure a little further than I had before and stay up as late as possible in attempt to relish every last moment. Attending a baseball game was always the high-water mark of any summer vacation. Walking through the gates and seeing the finely manicured field felt like the first time, every time. As I traveled back to Gary, Indiana's U.S. SteelYard, I found a similar sentiment in the school-age children in attendance.

As I made my way up I65 early Friday evening, black clouds loomed in the direction of my destination. A brief spell of torrential rain slowed the traffic that was already giving me its best impression of molasses in winter. Stuck on an overpass just into Gary, I hoped the storm would pass so that the trip would not be in vain. As if the prayer could be answered before it could leave my lips, the sky lightened and I managed my way to the ballpark. As I turned toward the visibly temporary parking lot, I could not help but be a bit stunned by the volume of cars already there. In my mind, the weather and lack of significance to this individual game would see only a peppering of fans. I was delightfully mistaken. Another wave of rain came through the area, sliding the game's first pitch to half past eight, then a quarter to nine, then five past nine. Despite this obstacle, the seats were more filled than not; many with children. Their eyes, as mine once were, are trained to seek out mascots and any staff member with the potential to possess a free shirt or ball of some kind.

Where I grew up, the only local games were over an hour away and cost more than what was often in the budget. Major League games were things planned weeks and months in advance. Big city prices were never something spontaneous. As I wandered Gary's ballpark for the better part of the rain delay, I spoke with a few families about their experience at the ballpark. For some, the game was a fun night out with the kids. Speaking with Balentin and Ruby, a young couple with two small boys, I took note of the difference in why they were excited to be at the ballpark. While the parents were enjoying the prospect of a baseball game and the subsequent happiness of their children, the older boy, named for his father, wore wide eyes in the direction of the field. It was that kind of wonder that stuck with me as a youngster. No, this is not Tiger Stadium, but the beauty of the Steelyard is not without its own magic and grace. Their youngest, stroller jockey Emmanuel, must have caught Railcats' mascot Rusty out of the corner of his eye. Their priorities changed, and I let the couple tend to their children's newest obsession, a human-sized and personified cat in fishing shorts.

Despite the primary purpose of the building being a venue for baseball, the games tend to come second in the family experience. Ice cream, hot dogs, cotton candy, and souvenirs are all vastly more important to the younger crowd. But these things plant the seed of a passion for baseball. Progressively, those souvenirs and memories will turn to tickets and lifelong fans who will bring the next generation to the old ballpark to experience what they had those many years ago.

Much like the last time I was at a ballgame in Gary, the game went late into the night. The crowd thinned shortly after ten o'clock, and a light mist fell that resembled snow if only in appearance. As the visiting Saint Paul Saints tied the game at two run apiece in the sixth inning, I began to wonder if the realistic possibility of extra innings would wear on the eyelids of the younger patrons. I was quickly found wrong again, as a few of the most vocal fans were of school age. Their ferocious lion cub roars must have been heard in the bottow of the eighth, as their hometown heroes posted three runs, an insurmountable lead on a damp night such as this. The Saints went down in order in the ninth. Gary kept pace with the American Association Central Division leaders, the Wichita Wingnuts, but the youngest fans left postgame only cared about the present. Their favorite team had won, and they would be able to end their summer with the feeling that their cheers helped spur the team to victory.

There were not many left at the end of the night. The ballpark nestled between fourth and fifth avenues was a lone beacon of light in a dark area of town. The rain was long since passed, but the miniature lakes left behind reflected the stadium lights as I walked to my car. Quickly running through my notes, I turned toward the vehicle parked next to mine. A boy who couldn't have been more than five years old was slumped over his father's shoulder, wiped out from the long night. On his head was a tightly buckled Railcats cap. I couldn't help but imagine that as me at his age over my father's shoulder leaving the Metrodome many years ago.

Each season that passes will always include some child's first baseball game. The availability of baseball in a community creates more opportunities for nights like Friday. Early August for the Railcats means the start of the playoff push. Autumn comes and brings the drama of the postseason, and in equal hand for the young, it brings about the start of a new school session. This idea of overlaying beginnings and endings is steadfast in the heart of the game. With each year, fans grow older, but bring with them new eyes to widen at the sight of a few thousand seats, a scoreboard, and a finely manicured diamond.

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