Posted by: Ryan | May 2, 2010

Game One: Old Joy

Date: May 1, 2010
Location
: Manchester, NH
Score
: NH Fisher Cats 10, Reading Phillies 9 (Box score)
Hat worn
: Blue Phillies cap with retro logo
If I were coming to bat today, my theme song would be:
Man on the Moon, by Sugar
Photos from the game

By all accounts, it was a terrific day at the ballpark. I had driven to Manchester for the 1:35 start, wearing cargo shorts and a T-shirt, listening to pump-me-up tunes on the car stereo, thrilled that it was 80 degrees outside. Feeling like I was playing hooky from the Indoor Life we had led since early October.

I bought a small foil packet of sunscreen from the Fisher Cats gift shop, got a steak sandwich at the D’Angelo’s stand, and found a nice seat at the edge of the concession walkway, one of dozens of unassigned seats thoughtfully perched at the top row of the infield grandstand. Perfect for folks like me who had a backpack, a camera, books, a sandwich, and a beer to juggle.

I put my Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat in the cup holder in front of me, opened my Baseball America Prospect Handbook, and felt the contentment wash over me. There’s Domonic Brown, the Phillies’ top prospect, loose with confidence and natural purpose, a full head taller than his teammates. There’s Ollie the bat dog, bringing the bat back to the Fisher Cats’ dugout in the first inning, ready for the vigorous praise and ear-rubbing of his trainer. There are my winter worries and inside thoughts, flitting out over the right field wall, last seen skirting the tops of the trees beyond the railroad tracks.

The first three innings passed quickly, a pitcher’s duel, and I focused on the small pleasures of live baseball: the studied concentration of the on-deck batter, the third baseman flipping a ball into the first row behind the dugout after the end of an inning, the catcher throwing out the leadoff man at second by a wide margin, even though the runner had a good jump. The two old guys to my left – also occupying the floater seats in the shade – whistled and said, to themselves, to me, What a gun. What a friggin’ gun that catcher has.

Although Domonic Brown had laced a brisk double to right in three at-bats, the Fisher Cats built a 5-1 lead going into the ninth. By then I had moved on to Coca-Cola and fries, and had migrated down behind the visiting team’s dugout, where a season ticker holder – taking in my camera and notebook – asked me which newspaper I worked for.

He and his wife told me that they had season tickets for both the Portland Sea Dogs and the Fisher Cats, but that Manchester was the best. We talked about the major leaguers we had seen on rehab stints in this stadium: John Smoltz for them, A.J. Burnett for me. They left after the eighth, getting back on the road to Maine, and I watched Brown sting another double to right to lead off the top of the ninth.

And then things got crazy. The Fisher Cats’ reliever – a five-foot-seven lefty who nonetheless threw in the mid-90s – gave up several runs, and the ‘Cats had to turn to their closer, Danny Farquhar, to try to shut down the rally.

But as Baseball America says, “[Farquhar] battles his command.” He promptly walked the bases full, bringing up Brown again.

The kid in front of me – right arm in a cast, feet propped up on the dugout wall, maybe 14 years old – called it when Brown just missed a fastball. “Throw him that pitch again, and he’ll hit a grand slam,” the kid said.

I know it’s a cliché to say that a home run was still rising when it went over the fence. But the ball Brown hit smacked off the  scoreboard in center field – 400 plus feet away – so fast that the strongly partisan crowd wasn’t so much deflated as amazed. If the scoreboard hadn’t been there, the ball might have nailed one of the windows of the hotel in deep center field.

Brown high-fived his teammates, and walked back to the dugout with the barest of smiles on his face, as if to say, This is what I do.

By this point the score was 9-5, Reading, and though I was stunned by the reversal of fortunes, I considered it a good day at the park. Time to get out the sun, drive home, and replay how the season ticker holder had asked the 14-year-old after a runner was picked off second, “Got him?”

“Yep,” the kid said. “Got ’em.”

As I was walking past the old brick mill buildings that line the Merrimack River, back to my car, I hear a massive cheer come from the stadium behind me. Two minutes later, still not at my car (parking is only a buck on the street, for an unlimited time on game days), another massive cheer. I tuned in the local radio broadcast as I cranked up the A/C. The announcer said, “I’ve done about a thousand Fisher Cats games, and I’ve never seen an ending like this one.”

The Fisher Cats had hit two home runs in the bottom of the ninth, to win, 10-9.

Oh, well. The joy of attending minor league games is in the little things, not the winning or losing: the laser-like pegs to second, the nodded agreements with the people around you that it was crazy to send a runner with the team down by four with your best hitter at the plate.

For me, on this day, joy was in finally realizing what I had anticipated all winter: sitting in the shade on a hot day, drinking a beer, watching a ballgame, surrounded by people who know and love baseball as much as I do, who don’t think I’m weird for bringing a camera and a notebook to a game.

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