Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Soul of the Game Part I: God Bless Indie Baseball

What purpose does baseball serve? Sport is often viewed as the great diversion of the modern man. That phrase can have differing definitions. One sees sport as a distraction; a fleeing of responsibilities in place of entertainment. The other holds athletics as a bonding experience that pulls us from the mundane to a place of momentary euphoria. Either way, the feeling comes and goes. But understanding the importance of sport, and namely baseball, is the reason I began this blog in the first place. Over this and the subsequent two posts, I will embark on a journey, with some wonderful people at my side, to discover the soul of the game. Across seven days, I will visit the independent league Gary Southshore Railcats, the minor league Indianapolis Indians, and the major league Cincinnati Reds. There is no pre-meditated story line. No angle for agenda. No character structure. Merely observation and translation. There will be beer. There will be ballpark food. There will be conversation and wandering. There will most certainly be baseball. 

Gary Southshore Railcats v. Amarillo Sox
U.S. Steelyard, Gary, Indiana
July 20th, 2014 - Attendance: 3,412

It was a typical warm July afternoon. The kind of day that smells and feels like childhood, when your only responsibility was to be in by twilight. The rumbling hum of asphalt beneath the wheels of my '99 Escort blended with the radio. My eyes straight ahead as I guided the car toward its destination. Amy was relaxing in the passenger seat. Wearing my old, worn Cubs cap, she seemed to doze a bit from the white noise around us. Exit onto Broadway. North. There we found Gary, Indiana, a city I know all too well. Abandoned businesses, churches, and other buildings beyond repair line the road to U.S. Steelyard. Its something of a fish out of water, that ballpark. A relatively pristine and new building barely a decade old, it sticks out pinned between 4th and 5th Avenues. Yet despite what lies beyond the stadium walls, Gary's ballpark is a thing of beauty. A small shrine with all the familiar scents of a baseball game.

Around an hour before the game, a local family karate dojo gave a demonstration on the field. Most of the participants were middle-school age and younger. One moment that grabbed Amy's attention specifically was the series of rather young children attempting running leg kicks. For what its worth, it was adorable. Shortly thereafter, Jimmy and Mandy arrived. The lineups were introduced. Gary was hosting the Amarillo Sox, a team name that I absolutely love. One thing I have noticed in my decade-plus following the Railcats is the quality of their uniforms. Most teams in the American Association have plain uniforms, typically no name on the back, with either a team logo or word mark across the front. Gary has complex uniforms. I'm not certain, but it appears as if high socks or stirrups are mandatory. The clean uniforms come complete with piping and names on backs. To my knowledge, the team boasts three official caps. The feel is of a very professional and structured organization. Last year, it paid off with the team winning the American Association title.

Over the years, I've battled for and against what indie-league ballplayers play for. I suppose its a case-by-case basis, but the common thought is that its all for the love of the game. That idea, while romantic and whimsical, takes away from the fact that these are real ballplayers who want to make a living doing what they love. Seldom do these players ever see the big leagues, but it has happened. I love the independent league version of baseball because it has that level of purity that never comes off forced or corny. Operating an independent baseball club is a labor of love. The payroll is not controlled by another, more powerful club several states away. Everything is in-house. With that comes a branded loyalty between the fans and the players. Jimmy was an employee of the organization for a few years. He worked just about everywhere and did nearly everything necessary short of making the batting order. A few times during the game, he waxed somewhat fondly upon his days dancing on the dugouts as part of some hair-brained promotion.

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The game started appropriately enough. Amarillo put three runs on the board to the stunned surprise of most in attendance. Amy mentioned how she loves the sounds of baseball. I wholeheartedly agreed. There is a distinct sound that a bat makes when it comes in contact with a ball. The only thing that compares in beauty is the crisp, airy swoosh of a basketball gliding flawlessly through a net. In Major League ballparks, that whip-crack sound can be diffused by the sheer size of the stadium as well as the tens of thousands of spectators conversing. The Sox made that sound quite often early in the game. Gary put up two in the bottom half of the first, but Amarillo added another run in the next inning to push the lead back to two.

Independent baseball has a unique quality not found in any other form of the game- player and fan relationships. Jimmy and I reflected on the Railcats' most-beloved players over the years. Names likely not familiar outside of our realm of baseball understanding, but special to us none the less. We both had met several players on multiple occasions. There is not a metaphorical wall separating the players from those who cheer for them, in fact, its quite the opposite. Most recurring players form bonds with locals. Such is the case of Keith Patterson, Railcats super-fan. He has been at every game I have attended. I had the pleasure of meeting him during last year's postseason. Patterson is seen clad in Gary colors from head to toe, often waiting by the home dugout to greet the players coming in from batting practice. It's that kind of bond that draws me to the "indie" game.

Gary and Amarillo each scored a solo run in the fifth, pushing the score to 5-3 in favor of the visiting Sox. In the bottom of the sixth, Miles Walding, Josh Romanski, and Drew Muren each doubled to tie the game at five. Danny Pulfer knocked a sacrifice fly to score Muren, and the Railcats were ahead by a run. The suddenly boisterous crowd was electric as the rally had nullified the first inning shortcomings. The sun felt like it was right in my face. I recall the muscles around my eyes getting tired from squinting, even with sunglasses. It was a familiar Indiana summer day. Barely a cloud in the sky. The Railcats were leading and all was right in our little corner of the baseball world. But it was short lived. In the top of the sixth, Amarillo tacked on another run, ending Gary starting pitcher Stephen Hiscock's day. The Sox failed to score again in the frame, and the game remained scoreless until the ninth inning.

One thing I have noticed every time I am at U.S. Steelyard is the people strolling beyond the outfield wall. Jimmy and Mandy left for a reason I cannot recall, but it was around the seventh inning. So with the rest of our party gone, Amy and I decided to take a walking tour around the park. Behind the batter's eye in center field sits a playground and patio area for parties. There were a handful of children playing around, completely oblivious to the game on the field. But for them it was probably a fun trip to the ballgame involving junk food, mascots, and a rather high-quality jungle gym. We wandered past and under the mammoth jumbo-tron scoreboard in left-center field. On the other side of a fence is 4th Avenue, with the elevated tollway in plain sight as well. Oddly enough, I feel that gives the park a cozy demeanor much like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. The only difference being that there are few places nearby U.S. Steelyard to go before or after a game. Amy stopped at the left field fence and leaned onto the yellow barrier designating in-play and out. I followed suit, breathing in the aroma of fresh-cut grass. It was a nice moment, separate from the chatter of the seating area. Another wonderful aspect of the independent game- you can almost always find solitude in some corner of the ballpark. We followed the pathway back around to the seats, waiting out the end of the game near an exit. It was a perfect afternoon, and the game was building to a fantastic climax.

In the top of the ninth, Amarillo scored on an error. Jeff Farnham had doubled, setting up the fateful play. Second baseman Travis Weaver punched a bunt down the third base side, but as Pulfer fielded the ball bare-handed, he overshot the throw to first. Farnham sprinted home, putting Amarillo up 7-6. Gary would not respond, and ended their home-stand with a loss to the yellow-clad Sox. Most of the more than three-thousand fans stayed until the end, as is the case with most Railcats games I have attended. For families, its a special day together, and the score is one of the least important things. Yet for the players, it is still a passion and a dream being fulfilled.

There are players from the American Association who have made it all the way to Major League Baseball. For that to happen, their contract with their independent team needs to be bought out, then they ride the Minor League roller coaster, hoping to make a big league roster. When it does happen, it's a great sense of pride for the die hard fans, knowing that someone they followed so closely early on developed into a prospect. For the rest of the team, its a way of living out a dream of playing professional baseball. A children's game, perfected not in the way of Cooperstown, but in the ways that helped build the game more than a century ago. Independent baseball is a community possession. The players are like an extended family for the biggest fans. That close-knit relationship is the soul of independent baseball, and it is alive and well in Gary, Indiana, burning just as bright and proud as the hot summer sun on a July afternoon.

Box Score

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