August 23, 2017

Strasburg In Harrisburg: Education Day

April 23, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s Education Day at Metro Bank Park, and 10:30 a.m. when home plate umpire Joel Hospodka points at Stephen Strasburg and calls for the first pitch. ‘Education Day’ is an attempt to put a noble mask on ‘get-out-of-town’ day: both the Senators and the Reading Phillies need to travel, and what better way to leave early than to invite busloads of children to come out and watch a game? This intent has succeeded mildly: the highest tier behind third base is indeed peppered with overwhelmed chaperones in a sea of kids. But many more educators do not see the instructional value of a baseball game, and by and large the tickets for Strasburg’s third start, and first full start at home, have been snatched up by adults who can figure out a way to wriggle around their work.

When there are no runners on base, the man everyone has come to see stands full-frontal to the plate, and almost bowlegged as he looks for the catcher’s signal and sets. It’s Wyatt Earp daring some law-abiding upstart to reach for his iron. I haven’t seen this before: it’s a deliberate tactic of intimidation, and it seems to work. His feet and then his body turn only at the last split second as the arm heads back. The release point comes impressively low for an overhand pitcher, not more than six inches over his right shoulder.

Strasburg tends to need an inning to warm up. At higher levels this may cause him problems; all it means here is that in the first inning, he usually doesn’t strike anyone out. Center fielder Mike Spidale beats a low one-and-one fastball into the ground. Shortstop Freddie Galvis pops a foul to third baseman Adam Fox on 2-2. Left fielder Tagg Bozied can only ground to the same fielder. In response, the Senators strand two men in their first frame.

Caught in the snare of traffic, I have only reached my seat five minutes before the first pitch. I remember almost nothing of the drive down: I simply seem to have arrived. I spent three days wondering what baseball would look like at ten-thirty in the morning: it strangely resembles itself. Some fans hold cups of coffee; less of them buy beer. But come to a stadium and the rote behaviors take over; a woman passes me carrying a basket of fries; the dogs are already disappearing from the grills.

Nobody’s wasting any time. In the second, Reading first baseman Steve Stavisky bites at high heat and goes back to the bench. Caught off balance, Kevin Mahar waves at strike three outside. Third baseman Brandon Pinckney pops a 2-0 to short. The Senators then work men to first and second, bringing Strasburg to the plate. On the first pitch he lays down a beautiful, competent bunt which is only inches too hard. Opposing pitcher Yohan Flande pegs a fielder’s choice force-out to third. Both runners then advance on a balk, but newcomer center fielder Bradley Coon tries to go with the pitch and taps gently to second.

The sky has promised drizzle, but not enough to roll out the tarp. Now it comes. It will crinkle the sheet of my notebook even though I hide it under my jacket. The scoreboard flashes fifty-six degrees. Wiser for wear, I have put the stadium at my back and sit higher up. With my lined Columbia jacket and a throw-over it’s bearable out here. Between innings, the scoreboard features Senators’ players posing very basic mathematical word problems: if pitcher A has pitched ninety-nine innings, and pitcher B has pitched eighty-four, how many more innings has pitcher A pitched? Most of the kids in the stands are a bit older than this. Despite the patronizing questions, the kids are the ones getting into the game and making the noise.

How shocked would they be, and their chaperones, and the principals of their schools, if they knew the attitudes that the likes of Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Tris Speaker would quietly take towards them? Professional baseball, if we start with Red Stockings in 1867, has been around for one-hundred and forty-three years, and only in the last forty or so, in the course of my lifetime, as the power of advertising has replaced alcohol as the sport’s driving sponsor, has a ballpark been considered an appropriate venue for children. The old-timers knew they were desperate men without many brains, playing a kids game to stay alive. The melodramatic grimness of this attracted morose men, who, in the early days when the game was played under the afternoon sun, came to the stadium in suits and ties.

Reading catcher Toby Gosewisch will look outmatched at the plate all day. Leading off the third inning he lunges at a ball in the dirt for a third strike and is thrown out at first. Keori De Renne, playing at second, lines an 0-1 into center-field for the only hit off of Strasburg today. Yohan Flande fouls a third bunt attempt. On 0-1 to Mike Spidale, Strasburg throws to first. It looks more natural this time, as if he himself elected the toss, but his motion has yet to dirty a runner’s uniform. A wide throw from Adam Fox allows Spidale to reach, but shortstop Galvis, forced to defend the plate 0-2, can only ground out weakly to end the inning. In reply the Senators muster two singles, but first baseman Chris Marrero shatters his bat on a grounder to the right side of the infield.

The Senators will ‘muster’ thirteen hits today, but only three for extra bases, all doubles. Their ‘all-pitch, no-hit’ reputation is now gaining basis in fact. After today’s game the team will lead the league in ERA at 2.23, and strikeouts, with 116, eight ahead of Trenton. But if I say they’re hitting .293, well—that’s their slugging percentage. The batting average is tenth in the twelve-team league at .215, and the OPS trails all eleven nines at only .566. Yet there are reasons for hope. Pitching is dominating the Eastern League in general. After Binghamton, batting .283, the Akron Aeros sport the second-best BA at .256. Although the first week of the season gave me sunburn, the weather has turned again, and these sorts of statistics in April baseball are no surprise.

In the fourth, Tagg Bozied, the bulky left-fielder for the R-Phils, disagrees with Hospodka on his first call, then takes his chances and comes up empty. This is the end of Strasburg’s effectiveness for the day. The opponents will go three-and-out for the fourth and fifth innings before he is relieved, but Strasburg’s taut mechanics are unwinding. He walks Steve Savisky on a full count. “Release point, Stephen!,” yells someone in the crowd. In response to the expert someone else adds sarcastically, “Yeah!” Ahead in the count 2-1, Mahar can do nothing with a fastball but ground it for a twin killing.

Behind me in the stands, a company outing for the day keeps up a banter that might be witty. As catcher Sean Rooney steps up to lead off the bottom of the sixth, a taped organ sounds the familiar six note call to ‘Charge!’ “I don’t know why they do that,” one of the company says, “it’s not like anyone really charges in a baseball game.” “Thanks for that,” his female boss replies. “I won’t do it again.” She leads the pack for my ‘Loudest Female Fan of the Year’ poll.

Maybe she helps: in the bottom of the fourth, after Pedro Lopez doubles to center and Strasburg advances him on a deep grounder, squeeze happens. Lopez breaks for home and Bradley Coon lays the ball exactly down the third base line. Lopez steps over the ball, and Flande and Gosewisch watch helplessly as it rumbles to a rest. A roar goes up in the stadium: we all know this is the winning run.

Strasburg pitches the fifth. He strikes out Gosewisch looking for a second time, but runs two other batters to three-ball counts. Not only the release point but the entire mechanics of his wind-up are now out of sync. He starts to resemble a talented minor-league pitcher who has heard too much conflicting advice and is trying to remember all of it. Little does this matter: unable to catch up to the fastball, De Renne flies harmlessly to center, and Strasburg’s day is done.

The bottom of the frame features two fielder’s choices. You can hear the balloons silently popping. “This game just got really uninteresting,” says one of the boss’s bevy. He is right. The hype of the game deflated, five-thousand and seventy-seven people remember that this is morning. A few of them leave. The line for coffee grows longer. In the restrooms, men may actually have to wait their turn.

It’s the sixth: Flande singles sharply to left off of reliever Rafael Martin, and advances to second on a Spidale single. Martin and Senator’s shortstop Danny Espinosa then work their timing carefully and pick the pitcher Flande off of second base. Bozied ‘taggs’ one deep to right, but Jesus Vadez is at the wall for the catch. The Senators strand two more men on two more singles.

I take the seventh off to grab some lunch. If you’ve been to a ball game, you know how this goes; pick any inning you’d like, and you’re still bound to miss the action. Not only do I miss the one-two-three top half, but Sean Rooney drives in two Senators’ teammates with a double before I am back in my seat. So far I haven’t given Metro Bank Park great reviews. Here I make amends: the food is outstanding. In a niche behind the stands down the first base line, ‘The Spot,’ a downtown restaurant on Walnut Street (“Serving customers since 1939,”), runs a stand during games. Next to it is Memphis barbeque, but that seems excessive for lunch. I get an ‘Ollie’ dog; barbeque sauce, cheese, a strip of bacon, some onions, and ranch dressing on top. It’s delicious, it’s as messy as they come, and you have no more reason to wonder why sportswriters die in their fifties.

In the eighth, reliever Erik Arnesen enters the game for the home team, and pitches as if he’s trying to make it up to Syracuse when Strasburg is called. Gosewisch caps off his night by striking out looking for a third time. De Renne pops out on 2-1. On 2-2, Hospodka rings up new third baseman Ozzie Chavez, (a ‘destined’ baseball name if ever there was one). Eager to catch a bus, the Senators’ Coon and Fox go down on strikes after Bill Rhinehart fouls a first pitch to first base. Reading is left with one chance, but after Spidale singles, Galvis screams a liner to first baseman Marrero, hanging his teammate out to dry. Bozied flies to center on 2-1. The fans go home happy, and two buses are idled but running.

[Because what I’m trying to write is not just about baseball, I do not go home. I throw the game’s accumuli in the back seat of my car and once again cross the pedestrian-only Walnut Street Bridge, the Susquehanna roaring beneath its grid.  It’s a bracing half-mile walk to the Midtown Scholar Bookstore. ‘Great Authors’ beckon to my left, and the back loft holds the largest collection of art and photography books I have ever laid my eyes on. Here I wrestle between projects, poetries and necessities. I should not go into these places: it takes three hours to know what I’ll come out with, and the struggle doesn’t resolve itself until I burst out laughing at how seriously books make me regard myself. Finally this project wins out. I find Frank Deford’s “The Old Ball Game,” his take on Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants, and Eric Greenberg’s “The Celebrant,” a fictional novel of the same scene, on the cover of which W.P. Kinsella promises me that this is the “best baseball novel ever written.” Rob Trucks has written a book entirely about catching, and this goes out the door, too. But the visit wouldn’t be complete without a book about Harrisburg during the Civil War.

The clouds have broken and the play of light is nearly as good as it was on Sunday. I am not finished. I walk back to the garage, dump the books in the car and bring out my camera and my tripod. The river, the piers of the bridges and the joints of the iron grid all suffer my camera. My project is not just about baseball; it’s about the cities where Strasburg happens to land, the cities meteors pass through. This last phase is not very fair to Strasburg; no doubt he is out with all the other members of the club doing ‘community relations’; visiting nursing homes, answering dumb, set-up  questions at Booster club banquets; signing endless autographs for children at the malls. I cannot pretend to know Stephen Strasburg’s heart, what he thinks of going through all these motions. I imagine he just wants to fit in with the guys, and, sure bet as he is to reach the majors, it might be the last thing he is able to do.

I shoot the monument to the soldiers of the Mexican American War that still stands in Capitol Park, I frame the sculptures George Gray Barnard placed on the Capitol steps, as well as Huston’s dome. I want to say something about the lure of fame and the trance of television, and the glitz of the coastal culture, all these things that sometimes distract us from where we are. Look at me, writing like a meteor myself, as if my book didn’t want to ‘make it to New York. I spend too much time finding the glass half-empty every day; photography balances this.

On the lower, wider tier of the Capitol steps a physical trainer drives a class of maybe thirty to run up and down its incline in a square pattern, pausing them now and then only for a stretching Yoga pose, the Salutation to the Sun. Finally out of film I cross the bridge once more. They’ve wedged a set of batting cages between the bank of City Island and the stadium. In its second partition, a high school softball player doesn’t need her father’s exhortations. Nearest to me, a black mother watches over her son. The boy, maybe seven, is standing too far up in the batter’s box. When the huge yellow softball arcs towards him, he throws everything he has into his swings. The ball dribbles to the netting. “There, you hit it,” his mother affirms.  It’s Education Day at Metro Bank Ballpark, and I would like to tell the child to keep his eye on the ball and his head down, to keep his head as still as possible as he drives his swing through the ball. I want to tell him  that this way he won’t see most of his hit, but this is the game in real life, you don’t see most of your hit, you’re too busy running the bases, and this is why there are coaches standing down either line. I would like to say these things but maybe it isn’t my place: it might alarm his mother standing by. With luck he’ll grow into these understandings. I could still take it to heart myself, that you don’t see much of your hit. Now the ball approaches again, the seven-year-old’s eyes grow big, and when he starts his stride, everything flies open.]

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