Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Like Death and Taxes: Fan Appreciation and the Closing Day* for the American Association

It is often said of baseball that there is always a tomorrow. No matter how awful you or your team perform, tomorrow is a new day with new possibilities for success. The game's forgiving nature only lasts so long, however. As the daylight hours steadily shrink in number and crisp air rushes in from the Northwest, baseball's promise of tomorrow is broken. The season must end. For some, life goes on in the postseason. For most, it is merely a final chance to step into the box before spring. On Labor Day, September 2nd, the Gary Southshore Railcats and El Paso Diablos played the final game of their respective regular seasons. El Paso would win, but Gary would live to play on at least one more week. For those who filled the seats on the ceremonial last day of summer, the day would be won ultimately by the calling card of independent baseball- unparalleled fan experience.

It was a gorgeous day. Just enough cloud cover to rationalize not coating myself in sunscreen, but plenty of sunshine to make me regret that decision later. I arrived at U.S. Steelyard an hour early, as I had on my previous two visits. Upon entry, I was given a promotional item that seems common sense, but has been sparingly done- a team photo. For those in attendance who wished to wait in a serpentine line of forest-and-burgundy-clad fans, there were several players stationed to autograph the photo. Such gestures are seldom seen in baseball, and made me realize how relevant the team is to the community. For what its worth, the ballpark was around one-half full at its peak on Monday, but a stunning holiday afternoon will often keep locals stationed in close proximity to a grill. Still, the fans in attendance made their presence known throughout the afternoon. I was the pale soul baking in section 117. Before the game began, a ceremony for season ticket holders took place. Those who attended over ninety percent of the season's games were given special recognition. Having experienced their beautiful ballpark a few times, I was unable to plead anything but guilty on the charge of jealousy.

For the El Paso Diablos, Monday was the end. There was no changing their fate now, as they fell well short of even a wild card spot. The Railcats were alive and well, having already clinched a spot in the postseason. There was still baseball to be played, and in independent baseball, the love of the game often counteracts the heartbreak of a losing season. For both teams, defense was spectacular. There were major-league caliber saves throughout the ballpark, but in the first, the play of the game silenced the crowd. Following a line-drive double to center by Christian Guerrero, the Railcats were in prime scoring condition. Gary infielder Reid Fronk drove a soft liner to right, which was quickly gloved by El Paso outfielder Welington Dotel. In one rhythmic stride, Dotel rolled his body back and fired the ball with pinpoint accuracy toward home plate. Guerrero had been sent on the hit. Catcher Rolando Petit gloved the laser from Dotel, spun, and tagged the steam-engine Guerrero. Plate umpire Joe Stegner pumped his fist and unleashed a swollen groan from the Railcats faithful. Inning over. Game tied at zero.

In the third, it was Dotel's bat to put the Diablos ahead 2-0. With the score, El Paso would have all the runs they needed. With the win, the Diablos made sure they would not finish with the worst record in the American Association. Ending the season on the road, I was surprised by the effort by the visitors. For a moment, it was almost as if El Paso was gearing up for the playoffs. This is not to discredit the quality of Gary's play, as there were several moments that proved why the team is moving on. With nothing to play for but individual season statistics, both teams put on more than an adequate performance before the Northern Indiana crowd. Each half inning, the playoffs were mentioned in a boastful, but never disrespectful manner. Gary earned the right to play on, and in an act of self-promotion, proclaimed their success to raise the volume of cheers and advertise postseason tickets. Despite the team's shortcomings that day, the focus was still on the fan experience. At one point between innings, a stampede of children was unleashed from the left field corner. It was made well known that upon the game's completion, all fans would be given the chance to run the bases.

When I chose the Gary Southshore Railcats to be my first independent league team to profile for this blog, I was well aware of their history as a winning organization. My plan was to visit a few times and note the long, slow ride that is the baseball season. Along the way, I met many kind souls willing to have a few words with a rookie baseball writer. It is a much different game played in Gary than that of the Major Leagues. Fan experience is the primary goal, and baseball is often a diversion from that. There is a beauty to the escape that baseball creates. While the sport itself gives the team's fans something to talk about during a long work day, at the park itself, the game plays second fiddle to the grand scheme of interactive entertainment. While their team did not win on Monday, the thirty-five hundred and change in attendance left knowing that their team is a winner. Yet beyond the box score, the impact of a winning baseball team in an area built on the daily grind of blue-collar wage can best be measured by the laughter of the children so enamored with a six-foot-plus humanized cat in hawaiian shorts.

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