Posted by: Ryan | July 17, 2010

Game Ten: If You Build It, They Will Get Annoyed

Date: July 10, 2010
Location: Lancaster, PA
Score: Lancaster Barnstormers 9, Somerset Patriots 6 (box score)
Hat worn: blue faux-distressed Barnstormers cap
If I were coming to bat today, my theme song would be: Silence. Absolute, pure, blessed silence.
photos from the game

When I was in college, I worked for an Amish paint crew during one summer. Since I was the junior member of the crew – and a temporary member, at that – I spent a lot of time driving my boss around in his red van. (Note to non-Mennonites, and to those who didn’t grow up in Lancaster: the Amish are quite good at circumventing their own rules.)

I also spent a lot of time on farms. One night after work, while dropping off supplies at one of those farms, I saw a white halo in the sky behind the barn, and heard a low rabble of voices. Intrigued, I turned the corner of the barn and discovered a hidden world: a baseball field, carved out of a cornfield, lit by banks of lights affixed to telephone poles. On that field was a team of Amish and Mennonite young men, wearing cleats and their regular workaday black pants. The batter laced a sharp grounder to second, and the shortstop turned an impressive double play, even jumping over the sliding runner as he pegged the ball to first to complete the inning.

The team ran off the field to applause from the women in their coverings and the boys in their suspenders sitting in the homemade stands.

I’m not sure what I expect from the Lancaster Barnstormers, the independent Atlantic League team that plays in Clipper Magazine Stadium, on Lancaster’s northeast side. Maybe I want that same sense of hidden wonder I glimpsed on that farm 25 years ago, that cornfield peacefulness, those Amish kids turning double plays. Maybe I want a Portland-like reverence for the game, or that same sense of history and community that I find in Reading.

But what the Barnstormers are selling right now, I’m not buying.

All of the elements are there. The stadium is attractive, built in the faux-ancient style popularized by Camden Yards, with good sight lines and mowed patterns on the outfield grass. It’s located in a part of the city I especially like, among old tobacco warehouses and blocks of rowhouses. The ball is pretty good – not up to Double-A standards, but well beyond Single-A teams like the Vermont Lake Monsters.

Photo of Lancaster crowdAnd the fans are into the game, and clearly enjoying themselves. I liked seeing how the park was a place – perhaps the only place – where Puerto Ricans and conservative Mennonites and Lancaster townies all mingle happily.

But after seeing several Barnstormers games since the team was founded in 2003, I wonder if the people who run the ballclub even like baseball. With the possible exception of Lehigh Valley, Lancaster was the place where I had the hardest time getting into the flow of the game. Never once did I slip into that pleasant reverie of watching a pitcher set up a batter with pitches off the plate, before pounding him inside for a broken-bat grounder. I never applauded spontaneously at a good play, or thrilled at the athleticism or intelligence of the players on the green grass before me.

There’s just too much to fight against. The PA is loud, painfully loud, so intrusive that my father and I had trouble talking. They have a sound effect, an anthem, for everything: foul balls, called strikes, home runs and routine grounders. It was like being in a club, except that I’m 42 and my dad is 71 and neither of us is interested in clubs. There’s a guy who wears a uniform with “I.M.Fun” spelled out on the back, and his job is to run around the stadium and pump people up and lead the wacky antics between innings. He had the voice of a hard-rock-station DJ, the one whose vocal talents are also used to advertise monster track rallies at Maple Grove Raceway.

Photo of boat at LancasterYou can rent bumper boats beyond the right-field wall, and tool around the swimming pool lagoon, under the Party Deck, squirting your friends with water from the push-button guns.

As I’ve said before, I fight hard against my own inner purist, my own inner conservative Mennonite, but there is so much at Clipper Magazine Stadium that has Nothing to Do With Baseball that I found it impossible to enjoy myself, impossible to feel those natural rhythms that have stitched my life together since I was old enough to slip on a fielder’s mitt.

My friend Don (who has sometimes commented on this blog), has a friend who works for Major League Baseball. That friend claims that baseball is committing suicide in a multitude of ways: starting World Series games at 9:00 at night, jacking ticket prices to a level where the average family can’t take in more than one game a year, catering to the luxury box and shrimp scampi crowd instead of to Joe Average.

I hear those concerns, and I share them. But I’ve been able to live with those worries, and still love the game.

Photo of I.M. Fun at LancasterWhat I can’t accept is this: as a culture we desperately need ways to get away from modern America. We need places of contemplation, places with limited distractions, places that counter the noise and clamor and confusion of daily life. Baseball offers all of those things, when it’s left alone to be *baseball.* The game doesn’t have to feature Amish kids playing in a diamond cut out of a cornfield. But going to a game shouldn’t feel like going to a mall. It shouldn’t feel like Disneyland. It shouldn’t feel like football, all combat and war paint and aggression.

A couple of years ago, we took our daughter to see Chocolate World at the Hershey complex in central PA. We went there several times when I was a kid, since my aunt lived nearby. Unlike the famous Hershey Park amusement park, Chocolate World was free. And for a kid who got sickeningly dizzy on a merry-go-round or swingset, Chocolate World was a safe alternative.

You used to clamber into creaky mechanized buckets in the shape of cacao pods for a lurching, slow-motion ride past dusty dioramas that depicted the chocolate production process. Our visit to Chocolate World 35 years later demonstrated the difference between 1970s America and the America of today. It’s still free – amazingly – but Chocolate World now is *Showtime.* Your pod now rockets past animatronic singing cows, simulated waterfalls of M&Ms, and more screens than a multiplex before spewing you, dizzy and hungry, into the gift shop, stacked floor-to-ceiling with Hershey products.

Maybe animatronic cows, and I.M Fun, and “Ev’rybody Clap Yo’ Hands” is what people are into now. I’m sure that Showtime puts more butts in the seats, to quote the departed George Steinbrenner, than does contemplation and study. I’m sure that I’m in the distinct minority, having been raised Mennonite, and having lived most of my adult life in Vermont, a place so far from the mainstream that my wife and I refer to trips out of the state as “going to America.”

But you’re going to be hard-pressed to find someone who loves baseball as much as I do. And although I live in the country, I’ve long been tempted to slap a Lancaster-promoting “I Love City Life” bumper sticker on my car. I’ve enjoyed Lancaster City since I was old enough to drive, when my brother and I discovered Stan’s Record Bar on Prince Street, and Zap & Co. on Queen Street, and the Army Surplus store that used to be on the corner of Prince and King.

Going to a Barnstormers game should be automatic for me, a prospect that instantly brings a smile to my face. But I doubt that I’ll ever go there again.

And if the rants of a lapsed Anabaptist, a chagrined pastoralist, won’t do anything to change the approach of the Barnstormers’ management, or the culture of Clipper Magazine Stadium, perhaps this fact will:

Reading, and Baseball Heaven, is a short drive up Route 222.

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Responses

  1. “Ev’rybody Clap Yo’ Hands” was the biggest complaint about my minor league bicycle trip last summer. EVERY park played it at least once – and often more than once. During the week of baseball, I lamented it with a friend who came with me to a couple of the games. His wife (who is not a baseball fan) joined at one of the games, and as if on cue, the song was played early on. A smile crossed her face and she began to clap. We both realized the genius of this element right away. Even the uneducated fan immediately feels like a part of the action. Such a cheap way to get people to applaud and make noise – but evidently, it works. Painful, but true.

    • So far, Portland is the only park that *hasn’t* played that bit. They deserve a special award. Or maybe I should just take another trip to see a game there as thanks…

      Ryan Newswanger

  2. Well put, Ryan. I was just at another game two nights ago and found I.M. Fun highly annoying. I suppose it helps to keep the kiddos engaged, but if it never lets up, how is the next generation ever to learn and appreciate the real rhythms of the game?
    Also, we ended up beside some guy in a Wendy’s hat and sporting a red, pig-tailed wig like Wendy that, for some promotional reason I must have missed, would get up every inning and yell a long, drawn-out “FROSTY!!” about ten times at the top of this lungs.
    Maybe that’s why the best time I had actually watching the game was when Josiah and I walked out to left field and had a seat on the bench just on the other side of the fence. Much less distraction out there.
    I’m tempted to pass this post on to the Barnstormers management so they can hear the opinion of someone who truly loves the game. Couldn’t hurt, right?

    • Yeah, I thought about sending it to them as well. So much promise for baseball in Lancaster, so much getting in the way of the game itself. Guy in a Wendy’s wig. Wow.

  3. Hi Ryan! Had a birthday party for Lucas last night at Clipper Magazine Stadium and was interested in your response to Barnstormers’ games. I couldn’t agree with you more… Everything you expressed came painfully to light last night. I felt bombarded and harassed. Couldn’t enjoy the ball game (there was a ball game?) due to too much noise and mayhem. If you haven’t already, PLEASE send this to management at Clipper. We need to save them from themselves!
    It will be great to see you again soon! Hugs and Kisses to Sue and Lowry!!

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