Posted by: Ryan | May 23, 2010

Game Two: Here in Allentown

Date: May 22, 2010
Location
: Allentown, PA
Score
: Buffalo Bison 4, Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs 1 (Box score)
Hat worn
: Blue Phillies cap with retro logo
If I were coming to bat today, my theme song would be:
Silence Kit, by Pavement
photos from the game

It took me a while to warm to the Iron Pigs and their gleaming new high-fructose-corn-syrup-sponsored ballpark.

I’d flown from Manchester to Philly, rented a car (a Chrysler PT Cruiser, which made me feel foppish and ridiculous), and spent an enjoyable hour trying to find my wife’s childhood home without a map. I eventually did locate 222 Blue School Road, and was pleased that not all that much had changed with the property since Sue’s folks moved to Vermont in 2003. Feeling like a local, I swung the gangstermobile down another back road, crossed a covered bridge, ascended past the high school to the ridge that runs above town, and turned once more onto Route 309, tickled at how well I was doing.

And then the traffic came to a near standstill among the strip malls of Quakertown. It started to rain, and I began to feel fatigued and vaguely nauseated from the drive and the flight and the ribs I’d eaten at a butcher shop in Perkasie. I chastised myself for buying barbecue from Mennonites, for overpaying for rental car insurance that I didn’t need, for taking a detour into Bucks County instead of heading straight to Allentown from the airport. I worried that the game would be called on account of rain.

Eventually, the traffic thinned. I found the proper exit, and after following a narrowing street into the tired downtown, turned left and crossed a bridge past a defunct factory, trailing cars that were turning left into the Coca-Cola plant.

I parked in the second row behind the plant, well over an hour before game time, and ascended a flight of steps out of the parking lot. At the top of the concrete stairway, I saw an immense edifice that seemed to be made out of those stackable landscape blocks they sell at Home Depot, and I was greeted by a harsh wave of noise, rolling toward me across the parking lot.

As I got closer, I saw that a group of shaggy college students were playing a Pearl Jam-inspired concert inside the stadium, near the Budweiser party deck. After getting my ticket scanned, I fought the urge to cover my ears as I hurried past the stage to see if batting practice had ended.

My father, a former industrial arts teacher, enjoys the term “pig iron,” which describes the first stage of the steel-making process. While the Iron Pigs’ name must refer to the much-diminished steel plants in Allentown and in the neighboring city of Bethlehem, the team’s image speaks more of Harley-Davidson than Industrial Revolution. The ballcaps feature a snarling pig, lip curled to show sharp tusks. And the sound from the PA was punishing, even on the far side of the stadium, well removed from the concert. The tinnitis I’ve had in my left ear since I was a college sophomore (thanks, Ramones) returned in force as AC/DC’s Thunderstruck pounded off the brick walls.

Keeping with the porcine theme, I bought an ear of roasted car from a freckled girl with braces, who pointed out where I might find the starting lineups when I asked. Hey, at least the local beer is good, I thought as I took a sip and scanned the lineups.

photo of infielder and umpireI’ve gone to far more Single-A and Double-A games than Triple-A, and I was surprised by how many of the names I recognized from big-league rosters. Cody Ransom, who played for the Yankees last year, was the Iron Pigs’ starting third baseman. The pitcher was Brandon Duckworth, who has bounced among three major league clubs, most recently the Phillies.

And the Iron Pigs’ catcher was Brian Schneider, a free-agent signing for the Phillies this winter. He was making a rehab appearance with the farm club, and, as I was to learn several times over the coming innings, his rehab stint was being sponsored by a local orthopaedics practice. Just as any foul ball hit out of the stadium was sponsored by a local auto glass company. And every double play was sponsored by, oh, hell, I can’t remember. Just shut up and let me enjoy my pastoral game and my ear of corn and my local Pils in peace.

So I really didn’t warm to the experience until I saw the guy in the wheelchair, two rows over, at the edge of the concession walkway behind home plate. It was the middle of the game, and the Iron Pigs had finally gotten two runners on base.

“Let’s Go Pigs!” instructed the JumboTron. The man, eyes bulging with effort, shouted at the top of his lungs. “Let’s Go Pigs!”

“Let’s Go Pigs!”

He was wearing a red Iron Pigs hoodie. Behind his wheelchair – a motorized scooter, to be more accurate – he had fastened a red and white golf umbrella. Bound to the umbrella was an American flag.

I thought of the old guys in yellow polo shirts who work as ushers at the Fisher Cats games, who watch the action intently when they’re not helping people find their seats. I thought of the group of neighborhood geezers who kept up a hilarious, profane, and accurate description of every player and every play at a PawSox game I saw when my daughter was a baby. The guys had sat in the second row, arms folded, watching everything with a discerning and disapproving eye. They scolded the players like sons when they did something wrong, and muttered quiet, “attaboys” when they came through in the clutch.

I noticed how the ushers here in Allentown talked to the mothers with kids who arrived late to the game, calling them by name. Maybe the women were ballplayers’ wives – they were good-looking enough – or maybe they were just from the neighborhood, swinging by to watch a couple of innings before putting the kids to bed.

A friend once told me of a woman he knew who attended college in Boston in the mid-’80’s. This woman and her boyfriend lived in the neighborhood, and they would routinely swing by Fenway to catch a few innings, three dollar bleacher seats, three or four nights a week during a home stand.

I’m sorry, but those times are gone, at least at the major league level. Most people won’t ever have the chance to buy season tickets to Fenway Park. For individual games, bleacher seats are now $27 each, plus online ordering fees, and that’s only if you’re lucky enough to make it out of the Virtual Waiting Room on the day the tickets go on sale.

No college student nowadays is walking three blocks to Landsdowne Street to catch a couple of innings, unless said college student is also piloting Daddy’s yacht up the Maine coast to Blue Hill for the weekend.

Photo of man in wheelchairBut our gentleman in the motorized wheelchair: I’ll bet he’s at every Iron Pigs home game. The least-expensive season ticket package will get our friend into Coca-Cola Park for every one of the Iron Pigs’ 72 home games for $432. He’ll see rehabbing major leaguers, future stars, and role players who have maximized their modest gifts for less money than it would cost for him to attend a single Red Sox game with a friend, and sit in the Fenway Dugout Box seats.

You can look it up.

I don’t wish to condescend. Maybe our friend, possibly in his early 60s, most likely on disability, has a rich and varied social life, and a meaningful career. But I’ll wager you the cost of a cochlear implant that the Iron Pigs are central to his existence. That all of the stuff that is supposed to come with building a gleaming new stadium on the outskirts of a depressed town – the construction jobs, the concession franchises, the luxury suite income and the gate revenues – pales next to the fact that this guy has a reason to get up in the morning, six months out of the year. He wakes up thinking about how he’ll again guide his wheelchair into his customary spot behind home plate, say hello to the ushers, see if one of them can get him one of those ears of corn, and scream, “Let’s Go Pigs!” at the top of his lungs at the barest hint of a rally.

So I will do my best not to begrudge the Iron Pigs their name, or their corporate stadium, or the nearly intolerable noise level inside the ballpark. That kind of community commons, that lived-in space where we see each other, night after night, only happens for the priviledged few in Boston, and Philadelphia, and New York.

But it’s happening for all kinds of people, here in Allentown.

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