April 4, 2020

Strasburg In Harrisburg: “When You Hear the Moos, You Know What to Do”

April 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Yesterday I heard Stephen Strasburg throw eight pitches. By the time I realized I could listen to the game on the Internet and got myself connected, it was the top of the third inning in Harrisburg. Leading off the inning, New Britain Rock Cats’ catcher Alec Soto worked Strasburg to a three-two count, fouled a ball back, and then grounded to short. This brought up center fielder Ben Revere, who took one pitch before the game was called for the second time that night. Thunderstorms had been forecast all day. Heeding the warning, I refrained from a long drive in a downpour and switched tickets, gambling that the game would be called Friday night and that Strasburg would pitch on Saturday. I should have known better. Not only will leagues do anything to get their games in, not only was it a sellout crowd and not to disappoint, but the Nationals want Strasburg strictly on a schedule that will mesh with the fifth spot in the rotation when his call to the bigs comes.

That call may be delayed by at least an extra start, as Strasburg’s rain- shortened performance in his home opener yielded no new information. He pitched two-and-a-third innings, striking out three but yielding an unearned run due to a throwing error by third baseman Adam Fox. All in all, it amounted to a repeat of his debut in Altoona: young, talented, and on-edge a bit yet.

The Rock Cats gained their first victory of the year Friday night in a 2-1 game that probably should have been called but ended sometime near 1a.m. Having a ticket for the next day, I decide to use it anyway. I will see the new stadium on City Island, see what Strasburg’s teammates do and feel like without him on the field, and find out when he’s pitching next.

There’s another truth behind this. I’ve been following Stephen Strasburg for two games now, and through no fault of his own, I’m already tired of the golden boy. He’s not what the minor leagues are really about. Everybody knows he isn’t staying, that he won’t impact their team for the rest of the year. A meteorite passing over the Great Lake states this week caused a sonic boom and a fireball in the sky—you’ve probably seen the video. Strasburg is this meteorite; when he pitches the stands fill and everyone oohs and aahs. But the meteorite perishes in fire, and as for the famous-already pitcher, well, I’ve come to realize from Altoona until now that he cannot be scripted for anything but circus; as for the stage, or serious opera, those are five years or so into his major league career. But for right now, watching Strasburg pitch can be boring. It’s even supposed to be boring; when it’s boring enough, he’ll be promoted to Syracuse.

Here’s what the minor leagues are really about. First, a good minor league game is about getting there. No subways, no taxis, no tall buildings dominating the views, but me, the car, and the joys of landscape and geography. The minor leagues are part of the way you nourish the region you live in. I cut down out of the Endless Mountains and catch the North Branch of the Susquehanna in Williamsport. All the way down I will be following the water; the Senators play on an island in the middle of it. From here, the road falls further until it emerges into the broad plains of the middle of the Pennsylvania. I pass the Federal prison in Allenwood. In Lewisburg, I pass Bucknell University. Outside Christy Mathewson Stadium stands a diamond with a tall chain link backstop, and although it’s only in the high forties, I’m happy to say some of the students wear sweatshirts with hoods, and  have gotten  together to form a game. The traffic slows as I reach Selinsgrove and Sunbury. The sign for the house where chemist Joseph Priestly came to live, crossing the Atlantic in the eighteen hundreds, is gone now, probably closed and maybe even sold in these days of deficit. All I ever see of Selinsgrove are the gigantic strip malls on either side of Route Fifteen. I often wonder where the town is. Rare for a team not closer to Pittsburgh or Philly, the high school football team, the Seals, won the State Championship for their class this year, finally pounding the ball into the end zone for a come-from-behind 10-7 victory in the one game they had lost the season before.

At the end of the strip malls I loop south, and now the main body of the Susquehanna flows under a bridge and ends up on my left. It will stay there, lending me the air of its own current as I drive the right bank, past broad Amish farms, changing lanes to give space to a horse and buggy. The farms clash with scattered ‘adult outlets’ which lure the truckers. I pass Weaver’s Fruit Stand, where we stop often for fresh jam and huge melt in your mouth ‘Whoopie Pies.’ To match Weaver’s, someone a notch farther down the road has now opened a restaurant called ‘Dreamers.’ The light stays on at the New Buffalo Diner, the best greasy spoon in central Pennsylvania. Finally as we near the city the road narrows and the speed limit drops. The suburb of Perdix is a line of cramped tree-occluded houses tucked into the hill on the right, while left and below the massive complex of Harrisburg’s railroad yards begins its city-length run. The driver of the blue Toyota in front of me has a split-personality. The top of her back window says, DRIVE LIKE JESUS. A bumper sticker at the bottom asserts, KICK-ASS GIRLS DRIVE KICK-ASS CARS.

This is the minor leagues; getting there is half the fun. The city itself is a little less fun until I understand where I’m going. Finally parked on City Island, I need a long walk to stretch myself. I can see hints of Metro Bank Park across the street, but, compared to Altoona where the vista from center field is exposed from the parking garage and the surrounding slopes, here on City Island, Metro Bank Park is entirely enclosed. I suppose it has to be, to control foot traffic, and yet, for some reason, it’s a bit of a downer. Closed proceedings are not good advertising. The box office and the main entrance to the park sit down the left field line. Behind them, on the city side of the island, a ‘village’ of stall shops lines the vista. The clouds are iron gray yet, but soon I will regret not bringing my camera as a strong mix of sun and clouds will emphasize the slant and play of light until the sun goes down. Beyond the stadium a playground includes an adult workout area, where a sign gives instructions for push-ups, sit-ups and curls to be performed on rusted but sturdy metal benches.  The instructions for those in wheelchairs is a thoughtful addition. At the tip of the island, the bath house, a famous Harrisburg landmark from the nineteen-tens or twenties with a terra-cotta roof, is decked out these days in whitewash with bright blue trim. Circling around to the other side of the island, a putt-putt golf course is already open for business, although today no one is likely to score against the wind. A couple and their child walk ahead of me.  The girl, running forward, finds a branch on the road and exclaims as she holds it up for her parents to see. Only then do I notice the snapped limbs ahead of her and the jagged yellow wounds where they have fallen off the trees. The storm was here last night, and I am happier that I was not.

Turning again to complete my circuit, I pass a carousel and a couple of carnival games. Near to the entrance where I began, a historical marker raises my estimate of the site and the entire franchise. The plaque commemorates the Harrisburg Giants, a franchise here of Eastern Colored League, run by Colonel William Strothers from the turn of the century to his death in 1933. On this very site, finishing as high as second place in 1925, played Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, and his contemporaries such as Spotswood Poles, Ben Taylor, John Beckwith, Fats Jenkins and Rap Dixon.

This too, is minor league baseball: it’s a city you can actually walk in. I cross a footbridge to First Street. Underneath the iron grilling the Susquehanna rushes past and gives me vertigo until I switch to the sidewalk. On First Street stand the quaint ‘mansions’ of Governor’s Row, now respectable townhouses occupied by law firms and overshadowed by the city skyline. It’s three or four blocks to the top of the rise where the State Capitol sits. John Hartranft, a former governor,  has earned a mammoth equestrian statue not for his service in the Civil War as an adjutant, but for founding the Pennsylvania National Guard among other political feats spanning a long career.  On either side of the front steps pedestals support sculptures. Fashioned from Carrara marble by George Gray Barnard in 1909, they are crowded with writhing figures and represent “Love and Labor: The Law Unbroken,’ on the left, and on the right, “The Burden of Life: The Broken Law.” Raised by Architect Joseph Miller Huston in 1906, at the height of the Beaux Arts movement, this third version of the Capitol might seem gaudy by today’s standards, but increasingly this seems to mesh with what occurs inside its walls.  On the other side of the Capitol I walk through Soldier’s Grove, where a succession of arched walkways feature three or four graves apiece from history’s wars; the last and farthest out contain men from the disastrous raid in Somalia in 1993 that became the basis of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down.

Beyond the grove a stately bridge, in line with the Capitol and guarded by fifty foot pediments topped by ugly Art Deco lions gives off its best impression of Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. The bridge spans not the river behind me now, but a ravine filled in by railroad yards. I watch a cargo train headed north and count a mix of cars and stacks of containers on separate platforms as they pass beneath. Fortunately it’s a short train, less than a hundred total. Working my way back to the river, another historical marker touts the Review of Colored Troops organized here in 1864 to match a review held in Washington, from which the negroes were excluded. I find Chinese food and make notes from the day, and realize that before Strasburg’s sojourn with the Senators is done I will need to re-visit Gettysburg.

This is minor league baseball: on top of everything else, there’s actually a game. It’s less than fifty degrees out, there’s a consistent Zephyr rather than a wind that comes in off the river, and the two teams between them have won three games in fourteen attempts. But these are the men still trying to make it to the majors, and the game goes on. The real fans will show tonight. More than a thousand of them do. I stop back at my car and pull on a sweater over a throw-over on top of a t-shirt, all beneath my lined coat. It will be of little use. My box seat behind first base down the right-field line is unprotected by the main bulk of the stadium, and the wind pours over us from right to left. The Senators haven’t had a winning season since 2002, and now I know why. They play the first month of their games in Candlestick East and couldn’t possibly get off to a good start; the stadium on the island on the river, which sounded so romantic, turns into a miserable venue.

As the Rock Cats, a franchise of the Minnesota Twins, strand two runners in the top of the first, I begin to realize the score: a woman behind me has brought gloves; now she dons them as she spreads a blanket between herself and her husband. The two guys in front of me are wearing their thickest coats, and hooded sweatshirts underneath them. The Senators’ left fielder Jesus Valdez singles to center, but Bill Rhinehart, tonight the DH, a scrappy Californian no more than six feet tall who I’m beginning to like a lot, swings at the first pitch and pops the ball to short to end the inning. The top of the second features an incident that I’ve never seen in a live game; with Rock Cats’ right fielder Michael Dolenc on first and two outs in the inning, third baseman Toby Gardenhire connects on a grounder. Dolenc, leading off first, goes into a panic of flurried feet but cannot escape. The ball hits him and the inning is over.

If it was warmer it would never have happened, but there are bound to be flat feet in April games. Senators’ third baseman Adam Fox toasts us all up with a run-scoring triple in the home frame. Behind me, the couple with the blanket spread over their knees are debating the relative merits of baseball and—hockey. She’s the hockey fan. Her husband, who gives his opinions freely, ends the conversation with a disgusted and unconceding, “Yeah, but there’s nothing like a baseball game.”

In the third, Rock Cat left fielder Juan Portes bashes one to right. Right fielder Michael Daniel throws to second too late, but Steve Singleton, on base ahead of the play, who is off and running with two outs, rounds third looking to plate a run. Senators’ shortstop Josh Johnson has an easy peg home to close out the inning. Harrisburg pitcher Matt Chico, playing his second season in town, has allowed five hits and walk through three innings, and his luck can’t hold much longer.

Center fielder Leonard Davis sparks the home crowd with a 2-0 homer to right that fights the wind and just clears the wall. After the inning I take a break, and when I return, the man in front of me gives me a greeting and shakes my hand. “How ‘ya doin?” It’s not that he really wants to know me. Stadiums have existed from the beginning of time, and will persist not only as palaces of sport, but as a place where men can come and talk without actually having to know each other. No, his gesture tonight is a man to man thing. They thought I had left for home already; it’s only the start of the fourth, and he’s congratulating me for returning to my seat.

“Is it always this cold here?,” I ask him.

“Yeah.” He pauses. “Early in the season, anyway.” He was not here last night to wait out Strasburg’s start between the storms, and I’m beginning to discover that when I ask fans about Strasburg, all they can say is, “Oh, shit.” I hear others saying that on top of the storms, the game featured a blackout, every light in the stadium going down.

In the fourth, Chico again strands runners on first and third. Adam Fox singles for the Senators with two outs and then gets caught stealing second. Compared to Altoona, the mascots here are more understandable. Rascal is a bright blue and red Yogi Bear with floppy ears. His sidekick Rounders is a beagle. The between innings diversions are simpler, less funny, but more pro-active for the fans. The PA declares the Senators have the largest t-shirt launch in the country. It’s followed later by a hot-dog launch into the seats. Through the innings, the scoreboard works through a progression of Kiss Cam, Laugh Cam, and Smile Cam, and then urges us to do the Chicken Dance. Many of us are shivering so badly that it already looks like we’re complying.

The ‘Rally ‘Roni’ falls on its head. ‘Rally ‘Roni’ is available in the park or at the supermarket; it’s a box of uncooked pasta. The idea is that all the fans shake their boxes simultaneously, urging the home team to rally. For no particular reason, the cue for this is a mooing cow. “When you hear the moo, you know what to do.” At the end of the game you can put your box in a donation bin for distribution to local food kitchens. It’s a nice thought, but the fans haven’t caught on yet, or think it’s too silly, or are too cold. The cow moos and they have no idea what to do.

In the fifth, luck catches up with Matt Chico. Opposing center fielder Joe Benson catches the hook on his breaking ball and homers smartly over the wall in center field. Steve Singleton obeys his last name, advances on a ground out and takes third on a Juan Portes rap to center. First baseman Chris Parmelee scores him on a sacrifice fly. It’s getting increasingly hard to take my hands out of my pockets and keep score. The middle finger of my right hand is beginning to tingle, and what comes out of the pen are not the squiggles I’m looking for. Out of the game but in its rhythmic trance, I find myself imaging a long, vicious home run over the left field wall.

And this is what happens. Michael Dolenc slams a 1-0 count over left and entirely out of the park. The ball’s trajectory is shorter than my imaginings, about three-hundred and seventy five feet, and yet entirely satisfying. It rings memories of a shot in the second game of a double header by Jim Rice at the Mistake by the Lake.

Behind me a seven or eight-year-old boy loves and hates, loves and hates. This is baseball, not just the minor leagues. By the time I leave, his mother is getting increasingly concerned. “I don’t want to hear it.” I would like to tell him, ‘What fun would it be if the visitors’ bus broke down and there was no game at all?’ But he will learn this the hard way at a riper age.

After a conference, Chico remains in and gets shortstop Estarlin de los Santos to swing at a ball in the dirt that requires a throw to first. The Rock Cats have taken the lead, 4-2, and already the Senators are developing an all-pitch, no-hit reputation among their fans. Once again I can feel the stadium deflate around me.  The Rock Cats’ starter, Deolis Guerra, has gotten stronger as the game progresses. Now in the sixth inning, after a double and an infield single to third, he induces Chris Marrero into a 6-4 double play.  He’s spread six hits over six innings with two runs, four strikeouts and no walks, and earns the rest of the night off.

I give myself another break in the seventh inning stretch, but this time it is not a good concession to my psyche. When I come back I begin to shiver uncontrollably. The New Britain reliever, Cole de Vries, has already retired Michael Daniel, how I don’t know, and now he jambs Adam Fox into a foul pop down our line. Chris Parmelee makes a nifty over-the-shoulder catch of this, and then does it again in an easier fashion as Senators’ catcher Jhonatan Solano records the same result.

I’ve had it. There are fireworks after the game, and I suppose these will be beautiful as they freeze in the air and fall as icicles. I have no intention of being there, or of getting trapped in the parking lot before the long ride home. I need the heat of the car and I go to it primaly, as a caveman drawn to fire. A beautiful sight that must cost a fortune, the footbridge is outlined all the way across in lights.  I guess the wrong way out of the lot, circle a city block back over the bridge and am on my way. The drive back in darkness seems shorter for I am in no hurry to arrive. There goes Duncannon, the town in rows of houses across from the river; here comes Lewisburg. No; reduced to the thoughts in my head, I am ahead of myself.

This too is minor league baseball; the return. Once you reach the pros there is no going back, and even a fan can strand themselves in the utopias of the stadiums and the streams of statistics. Not so at this level; in the minors everything is connected, the trains labor their cargo, and the thought that the players may have to concede and do something else for a living is always there in the back of their heads. As a batter steps from the plate and adjusts his helmet and then steps in again, and the pitcher gets the ball and throws it again, gets the ball and throws it again, so I cross the tracks and the water, and cross them again.

At home I talk about my day and then hit the computer. As I thought, the Rock Cats held on for a victory, five to three. A reliever for Harrisburg, name of Adam Carr, struck out the side looking in the top of the ninth inning. It would have been something to see, and then again, just maybe the umpire extended his zone, rushing things along. In the bottom of the ninth first baseman Chris Marrero tagged De Vries for the fourth home run of the game, but the fizzle-out beyond that confirms my pet theory that nothing kills a rally like a home run. Before I set down to work on this article I snap on the news, and oh, yeah, there is our shooting star. Fragments of the fireball have been found on a lonely farm—in cold Wisconsin. As for our our human hero will pitch again on Wednesday—in the morning.

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