Posted by: Ryan | July 23, 2010

Game 11: Scout’s Honor

Date: July 11, 2010
Score: Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs 5, Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees 4 (box score)
Hat worn: 1979 maroon Phillies, with old-school logo
If I were coming to bat today, my song would be: American Idiot, by Green Day
photos from the game

When our daughter was two, we rented an apartment in Montreal, about three hours north of our home in Vermont. It was a great week, though hot. We ate lots of paté, located all of the kid-friendly parks within walking distance, and enjoyed pretending that we were urban Francophones instead of Swiss-German hicks.

The last night of our stay, I went to see an Expos game at the stadium built for the Olympics in 1976. I knew it would be the club’s last year in Montreal, and I wanted to add a ballpark to my Life List.

Never before or since have I attended a game in an environment so removed from baseball’s pastoral roots. I took the Metro to the stadium, exited the train, walked up a flight of stairs, and entered the domed ballpark, all without going outside. The game was played under artificial lights, on artificial turf, before about 5,000 people, in a stadium made from the same dingy gray concrete blocks as the Metro station. It looked like a place more suited for motorcycle races, or for the Bachman-Turner Overdrive reunion tour, than for baseball.

Once the game was over, I walked down that same flight of indoor stairs, right onto a train, and clacked underground back into the heart of the city. I felt the same sense of dislocation you feel after seeing a movie inside a mall on a summer afternoon.

PNC Park in Scranton, PA has that same sense of violating the natural order of things. It’s the only minor league park I’ve been to that has an upper deck, and the stadium – for it truly is a stadium, not a park – stands beneath a ski hill like an orange-and-blue ode to the power of poured concrete. It was supposedly modeled on Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia, but it looks like any regrettable stadium built during the cookie-cutter, multipurpose 1970’s: Riverfront Stadium in Cleveland, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

I learned later that the stadium was built in 1989, way too late for the club to claim 1970’s amnesty, too late to earn the wry nostalgic chuckles you give those photos of your dad sporting sideburns, checked pants, and a wide striped tie.

Photo of Scranton stadiumInside, the place was strangely devoid of hype, especially for a Yankees franchise. There was barely any merchandising to speak of, and the fans dribbling into the park seemed hung over, or heat-dazed, or too tired by the drudgery of life in Scranton to get excited about a ballgame. The music on the PA during warmups played like an homage to the Vet, a tribute to the time when people drove to games in gigantic Oldsmobile Cutlasses, with the windows rolled down against the heat, the kids in the back without seatbelts. Radar Love? Rock with You?

But after the pounding entertainment juggernaut of Lancaster the night before, I was ready for some neglect, and for a quiet afternoon of baseball. PNC Park, and the SWB Yankees, and the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, complied.

The game was played at a deliberate pace. It was Getaway Day, the last game before the All-Star break, and I thought the pitchers would be firing the ball over the plate, and the batters would be swinging early in the count, to hasten the exit from Scranton, to hurry the arrival of vacation.

But the stakes are higher at Triple-A, and every at-bat is a small referendum on your future. The batters stepped out between pitches – something I haven’t seen in Double-A – as if this mannerism could be the missing piece that finally pushes them to the Bigs, finally makes them Major Leaguers. The Scranton pitcher had trouble settling into a groove, earning several visits from the pitching coach, and when I checked his bio in the Prospect Handbook, I saw that he was referred to as “potential trade bait.”

Photo of scoutAnd there, behind home plate, was the wolf, licking his lips at the bait: a scout from the Kansas City Royals, wearing a long-sleeved white dress shirt with the collar turned up against the sun, team gimmie cap on his head. He had a radar gun in his left hand, a pen in his right, a clipboard on his knees, and he was charting pitches. An open nylon valise, stuffed with scouting reports, slumped on the empty seat beside him.

I studied him for a while. What would that life be like, I wondered? TGIFridays and Ruby Tuesday’s and hot afternoons in Scranton and sunburn and laying on the sagging bed in the hotel room after the day game, talking to your wife, wet washcloth over your eyes, rental car keys on the beside table. Drinks in the hotel bar and the Dodgers on the TV until midnight. Coffee and the complementary continental breakfast and a drive to Toledo or Norfolk the next day.

He outlasted me. I retreated from the sun into the shade of the upper deck, where I again found deep satisfaction in the geometry of the game: the infield swiveling around like clock hands on a sacrifice bunt; the dying quail over the first baseman’s head that plates two runs as the right fielder and second baseman chase the ball across the foul line.

Photo from the upper deckI eavesdropped on a couple several rows in front of me, their feet on the concrete berm, their eyes on the game 30 feet below. I watched the way they leaned into each other to share small jokes, the way their bare legs touched, their lazy and casual ability to sit in silence during lulls in the action, and I felt certain that their union would be a good one, that afternoons like this were a solid base to build a life upon.

I watched as a freckled kid with a ballglove – the kids always have ballgloves, no matter how far they are from the action – let his empty potato chip bag slip from his fingers, and I watched the bag rise above the empty orange seats of the upper deck, catch a thermal over the stadium, and keep rising into the blue sky, headed for the ski hill and the Lackawanna River beyond.

And I thought about the afternoons and nights I spent in the upper deck at Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia as a kid. About the way our family used to go to one game a year, to appease me, and how the rest of the family must have been bored silly as I sat, rapt before the unnatural green artificial grass, my Neat’s Foot-scented glove pressed to my lips in wonder. I refused to leave until the last out, when we’d spill down the concrete ramp to buy soft pretzels at a bargain price, mustard on our forearms in the car, the sound of the turn signal like a metal band being bent and released, as Dad turned onto Route 1, then Route 41, then Route 741, each turn taking us further and further from the city, closer to home, closer to the manure-scented Amish farms that led to our house on Lancaster Avenue.

I never knew that baseball could be better than that.

Eventually, I made it to Yankee Stadium, where I was stunned that I could actually see the ball in flight, could actually hear the bat making contact. I made it to Fenway, which redefined my idea of heaven. I made it to Reading, which brought my love closer into focus, until I understood that my affection was less about the names on the backs of the uniforms and more about the game itself.

Photo of Scranton home pageIn the 7th inning, I left the upper deck, and returned to my seat behind the plate, now in the shade. The scout was still there, radar gun still planted resolutely beside him, a fresh sheet of paper on the clipboard, the future of another pitcher being charted in heartless blue ink. The Yankees, down 4-1 at one point, roared back to tie the game: a bloop, a bleeder, and a walk, and they were back in it. But their relief pitcher – a lanky lefty named Boone Logan – gave up a home run, and they were behind again.

The game came thrillingly to the bottom of the ninth, to that back-yard Whiffle ball situation: bases loaded, full count, down by a run, two outs. The light-hitting shortstop with a chance to be the hometown hero.

The Lehigh Valley pitcher struck out the shortstop, the crowd groaned, and I sprinted ahead of the crowd, out of the stadium, backpack thumping against my spine. I drove back to the hotel, to the blessed air conditioning, to the World Cup Final on the television. To dinner in a Mexican restaurant that was more home than business, where I ate revelatory molé and insisted on practicing my Spanish with the bemused waitress/daughter/hostess.

A phone call to my wife as I sprawled on the bed. The Dodgers on the TV until midnight. Breakfast in the hotel lobby, the USA Today, the packing of the suitcase, the turning in of the key at the front desk.

The drive to Binghamton, the game, the story, the joy.

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