August 22, 2017

Strasburg in Syracuse First Start: Game, Interrupted

May 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Dedicated to ‘Andres:’ Cesar Andres Corrales Moya
Of Quito, Ecuador
And his father
Julio Corrales Leon (1962-2010)

He has been promoted. I drive now out of the cluster of mountains in northern Pennsylvania through the long, glacially carved ridges and valleys of New York state. I pass through Elmira, where I spent much of my childhood watching the Pioneers at Dunn Field, through Ithaca, the buildings of the campus of Cornell University gleaming on the slope to my right, up the right side of Lake Cayuga, longest of the Finger Lakes, through Cortland, (for which the breed of apple was named in 1898), and then onto I-81 for a twenty-six mile run to my destination. That run passes by the Onondaga Indian Reservation, and I wonder if the Iroquois are another subject I must include before this book is done.

Syracuse is the very parody of the ‘City on the Hill.’ Since Maxwell Hall was established on the Quad at Syracuse University in 1937, its ‘iconic ionic’ pillars visited by cameras during one break or the other of every televised basketball game played by the Orange, the city and university planners seem to have made every conscious attempt to imitate San Gimignano, the medieval Italian city of towers. Whether the steel beams support college dormitories or the Children’s Hospital, or the pit dug into the hillside and covered with an inflatable roof which constitutes the Carrier Dome, the result is concentrated concatenation, a rhythmless squalor which wouldn’t even carry a rhythm if it could somehow be translated to audio.

I should confess that my father, myself, my uncle and my cousin are all raging Orange sports fans. Now I pass a billboard featuring last year’s basketball players which touts the tepid brag, ‘They Just Keep Getting Better.’ This is appropriate to what a team with three freshmen did last year, but it is also a code—‘They Just Keep Getting Younger,’ ‘They Just Keep Throwing the Ball Away,’ or ‘They Just Keep Getting Drafted.’ It’s getting harder and harder to watch college basketball these days with much pleasure.

Off Exit Twenty Three and left on Park, I catch my first glimpse of Alliance Bank Stadium. It is back there somewhere, through a plaza featuring a variety of discount shops, beyond a giant white aluminum warehouse. My first sight is a light stand and—another tower, this one rounded, capped with a concrete lid and ball on its top, the fortress/dungeon which whispers of the pleasures—and-perils—of Camelot. Again I join the line. No one in Harrisburg has warned anyone in Syracuse to have the police out directing traffic whenever Strasburg starts. We form two lines towards paying four dollars. One woman stands between them, working first right and then the left. A man and his family slide under a chain link fence. It’s not that they’re sneaking in- we’re nowhere near the park yet– it’s simply that they have walked into an enclosed area of the industrial complex and have no other way out of it. This, I realize, is what Alliance Bank Stadium is, a relic, a dinosaur, a park left over from the days when baseball was shunned by ‘better folk’—it’s a stadium built as an afterthought in the back of an industrial park complex.

Let’s look on the bright side. Let’s call it ‘historic.’ No doubt its habitues love the old joint. True, like the park in Altoona it has been given a brick façade, but the façade is graceless and imposing, a bluff which will be called. That’s presuming I make it inside. Finally I pay my money to park, and am guided around in a circle sort of back where I started from, and find a notch on a grassy gravel knoll which makes me glad I’m parking a Subaru. Low, gray and braided by the wind, altocumulus clouds line the sky. They’re canal clouds, what our ancestors saw often enough in these parts as they rode a packet on the Erie headed to settle in  Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Duluth—the core of Great Lakes cities which in two or three more generations would populate the stands of Ban Johnson’s American League. It’s cold again—I put on my throw-over and my lined Columbia jacket, and will not notice them as a problem all night—and there’s a question of just how long a line of thunderstorms is going to hold off.

I finally make it inside and discover that I’ve forgotten a pen. (There’s a joke here somewhere, the sportswriter at the park without his pen, as if Ruth or DiMaggio walked up to the plate once without a bat in their hands.) I’ve got fifteen minutes to find the souvenir shop and a pen, and then my cousin and Andres, his current student from abroad, and then my seat, which, as a matter of timing in ordering tickets, is apart from theirs. Somehow I manage to do all this. First I find a stand featuring a pile of pens at no charge—the Onondaga County Health Department is pushing lead testing, and for the pen, here’s a plug for them—“At age one and two, testing for lead is what to do!”  I find section 209 and realize my cousin and his guest student are somewhere behind me in the traffic—and then take my seat in 205.

The country beyond the center field fence reminds me of the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge north of Auburn, which is thirty or forty miles west of here—tall reeds and swamp, and out in left, a railroad track cutting past and disappearing at a sharp angle into the wilderness between here and Watertown. This is the very northern edge of the city. The stadium itself is two basic decks, in a very simple ticketing scheme: the upper deck is general admission; the lower seating is more complicated. Considering some of the seating schematics I’ve seen on computers, chalk one up for the Chiefs. Out in the right center field alley, an old scoreboard, a long rectangle, is covered over with a tarp. Four grid iron light towers, painted an ugly green, rise from the reeds and stand evenly spaced around the park.

Next to me a teen kicks over his soda. His conversation stops and we all watch the ice cubes slide over the precipice into the row below us. The PA announces Diane Thomas to sing the national anthem. Timid and nervous, she switches to perhaps five keys during the assault on Fort McHenry, but the crowd lets loose as she sticks the high note on ‘free.’ The Chiefs have posted the game as a sellout, but the crowd is still pouring in around me as Strasburg readies for his first pitch. Worse, they’ve sold SRO tickets: the crowd is four or five deep at the rails, but this gives some fans the impression that they’ve oversold, and all throughout the game spectators will sit down and then be kicked out of seats around me.

Strasburg delivers to Gwinnet Braves’ center fielder Matt Young. Gasps and hoots rise up at the ninety-six mile-an-hour fastball. Young goes 0-2 and manages to foul one off before grounding to second. Left fielder Gregor Blanco steps in to the box. It strikes me that this is perhaps Strasburg’s first confrontation with a batter who has been in the majors. It doesn’t much seem to matter. Blanco goes 2-2 and then watches a sweeping bender finish him. All night long Strasburg’s fastball will be his setup pitch; it’s Uncle Charlie who will don the mask as the Grim Reaper. Right fielder Brent Clevlen sees the same on 2-2, and flails at where the ball used to be.

The Chiefs, now six games over .500 and tied for the division lead with Buffalo, go out twice in the bottom of the first and then put runners on first and second. Right fielder Mike Morse then grounds to short, where Luis Bolivar gloves the ball and catches runner Kevin Mensch, the one time Texas Ranger, rounding third. A rundown ends the inning. A woman with a black polka-dot umbrella leads her two children to the row in front of me. “So are these our seats?” one of the boys asks. “I think so. Just sit down,” she replies.

In the second, Strasburg throws four pitches. Barbaro Canizares grounds to third on 0-1. Joe Thurston picks on the first pitch and grounds it back to the mound, where Strasburg bobbles the ball, but doesn’t rush his throw. Second baseman J.C. Holt grounds his first pitch to second base. As he does a horn sounds and a northbound train passes. (It’s not a real train; none of them are anymore. A real train has a caboose. Now they’re just locomotives.) In reply to the top of the second, Chief’s second baseman Seth Bynum places a double neatly to center with one out. After catcher Carlos Maldonado flies to left, Strasburg steps to the plate. He’ll show you how to hit a first pitch—he hits it up the middle, through the hole before the second baseman and the shortstop can converge, and the Chiefs lead 1-0. The throw home sails past the catcher, but Strasburg does not bother to try for second.

In the third he throws six pitches. Gwinnet shortstop Bolivar grounds to short 0-0. Catcher Clint Sammons tries to work the count.  He has one ball in his favor when Strasburg breaks out the big looper and sends him back to the bench. Pitcher Ryne Reynoso also takes his chances at the first stab. Third baseman Chase Lambin looses the ball in his glove but has plenty of time to throw out Reynoso at first. Now a CN train is heading towards Watertown; it’s all oil cars. The woman with the polka dot umbrella gets moved from her seat by a group of college kids.

BNST, CNW, good old Santa Fe, AGP, GATX.  The Chiefs go down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the third. What are all these cars carrying? It could be poison gas and I wouldn’t know it. What gets shipped by railroads these days?

It’s the top of the fourth now, and I’m beginning to realize some things. First, they’ve told Strasburg to forget all about his motion, to just go out there and throw and the motion will find itself. The result is the strongest game of his minor league career. Secondly, I am greatly disappointed. I had hoped Triple-A would offer Strasburg an entirely new level of challenge, but it is not so; indeed, nothing is truly going to challenge this man until his second season in the major leagues, when the best hitters in the world begin to adjust. Until then, it is all cruise control. Now he takes out Matt Young on a 1-2 check swing. Gregor Blanco swipes a bleeder which second baseman Bynum just barely can’t reach—it is the only hit for the Gwinnet Braves all day. Clevlen goes down looking 1-2. Canizares gets to 2-0 but then pounds a slider into the ground to shortstop. I have only enough time to notice the mascot, a train engineer with a stuffed baseball for a head, before my cousin calls my name.

[If I was a professional journalist writing only about baseball, I might not include what happened next. But I am only a writer who decided to follow the path of Stephen Strasburg and follow where it lead me, come what may. True, in the fifth, Strasburg walks lead off batter Joe Thurston. But Holt grounds into a fielder’s choice, Bolivar grounds to third advancing Holt, and Sammons again swings at the first thing he sees and gets picked clean by Lambin at third base. In the sixth with two out, Strasburg unpacks the curve once more, retiring Blanco on a full count. As he heads off the mound he receives a roar from 13,766, perhaps the biggest ovation of his career since the College World Series in Omaha. But my head is no longer in the game. I must leave as soon as he is finished.]

“Gerry.”

“Hey, Rob!” We shake hands. He is on crutches. This I know. He tore his right achilles tendon two years ago, and just recently the left one. How he steers about on crutches in this crowd, in this weather, with a cast that can’t get wet, I can’t imagine.

“Listen,” he says. “I’ve got to tell you something. It’s going to be sort of upsetting, so hold on.” My cousin Rob is a sort of e-principal for a great many foreign high school students spending a semester in the northeast United States. He himself is hosting Andres, from Ecuador. I met Andres last Christmas. Andres loved it when I told him I received twelve books for the holiday, and by the time he was done watching Rob and his wife Kristin scamper after their daughters Maddy and Molly, he seemed well convinced that he would not want children.

“It’s Andres. He just got a phone call. Gerry, his father, back in Ecuador—his father’s just been killed in a car crash.”

I give out a weak “You’re kidding me.”

“I don’t know if you still want to come tonight. It’s gonna be pretty rough.”

I give out a weak, “I’d better.” Perhaps there is something oracular in this, “I’d better,” as if there was something I could do for them in the long vigil of the coming night. But as I sit through Strasburg’s last two innings I come to disbelieve this. Certainly I will be better off out of their hair. Since I’ve changed my mind and am heading south, and am not a cell phone person, I will now need to get a motel and phone Rob with my whereabouts.

Right now he tries to give me directions. “Never mind, Rob. Ninety and thirteen and thirty-one. I’ve got it. Go take care of your kid.” After Strasburg buckles Blanco to end his night’s performance, I am off like a shot. The twenty-six miles to Cortland stretch on forever.

Let Rob speak for himself now, in an e-mail I received two days later:

“We were late arriving, stuck in traffic, fighting the crowd to get to our seats, and then barely saw an inning before that phone call. . . Here we were, host father and ‘son’ at the first professional game he had ever seen. During this fleeting experience, our entire relationship became much more significant in an instant. No longer did this young man have a biological father, and I sat there in the middle of 13,000 people consoling him like a real father, as he sobbed. . . when you think of the history of the game—fathers and sons—from Bobby and Barry Bonds to all the juniors out there playing the game today (Grifffey, Hairston, Cruz, etc.) and the American tradition of passing on a love of the game from fathers to sons, it takes on an almost fictional significance.”

Cheap motels are also in the tradition of the game. The one I stayed at that night was so cheap the phone system was a mess. I borrowed the owner’s cell and then couldn’t pull up Rob’s phone number on 411. Finally I called my father and had him call Rob to tell him of my whereabouts. I went to a Subway and brought too much food back to the room. I sat at a chair and a pulled-up table chomping on a sub, Sun Chips and a white chocolate chip cookie with a twenty-ounce Pepsi at my side. I watch something on the t.v.—the Suns and the Spurs; the news.

Only the next night, when I am back at home and in my accustomed space, will I understand what is going on: I am ice-cold angry that my project has been interrupted. Compared with Andres’ real agony, and Rob’s anguish, it is a silly, prima donna reaction to have. But there I am having it. How dare this happen in the middle of what I’m trying to create? How dare death interfere with my project?

As soon as I articulate this, I am over it. Back in that hotel room the night before, if I had only thought of it, I saw lots of interruptions. The BP executives who were killed in the oil rig explosion down in the Gulf of Mexico were there to celebrate that particular rig’s safety record. Down in Florida, at the Sawgrass course, Tiger Woods has withdrawn from the The Player’s Championship with a sore neck, swearing up and down that the injury has nothing to do with the controversial car accident that started his downward spiral.  Who does not suffer interruptions? Wouldn’t the game have been better off without the interruptions of the Black Sox and Pete Rose, the strike that destroyed the season in ’94, or, in my father’s case, the Dodgers’ and the Giant’s move to the West Coast? The news winds down to the sports: the Chiefs have gone on and coasted to a 7-0 victory. Strasburg comes on the screen with his blonde buzzcut and says the same things: ‘I felt comfortable out there.’ ‘Kudos to my teammates.’ My mother says he looks like an  ‘unassuming young man.’ Usually my mother’s encomium translates to my mind as the fact that he carries that greatest of assets to any ballplayer: a resounding lack of imagination. Sometimes I envy this and sometimes I don’t. I don’t tell my mother that this ‘unassuming young man’ and his unassuming family held out to the last minute and threatened to wait out another year’s draft. Forget it. Tonight let’s just say he’s an ‘unassuming young man.’ At least he still has his father. I sit in the motel and stare at the screen. All this started as such a simple idea, to trace his starts. How could so much could be piled upon that face that isn’t even twenty years of age yet?

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