Follow the River
Strasburg Was Here
Follow the River
September 6, 2010:
Harrisburg 6, Binghamton 5
Â “No, I shall neverÂ drink Â my fill,
for it is sweeter even than the water of the well
that was muddied by the drops.”
As I Crossed a Bridge ofÂ Dreams
Â Â Â Â There may be no victory and no defeat in the floating world of the pedestrian-only Walnut Street Bridge that spans the Susquehanna in Harrisburg, Pa., but the team that plays in the stadium next to the river continues into the playoffs on a streak of magical wins that ought to send a chill down the spine of their first post-season opponents, the Altoona Curve.
Â Â Â Â It’s Labor Day, the last day of season for all of the minor leagues, and the Harrisburg Senators greet the sun one game ahead of the Bowie Â Baysox for the second and last playoff spot in the Western Division of the Eastern League. Bowie plays at Richmond today, while the Senators follow the river upstream for the final game of a five game series against the Binghamton Mets.
Â Â Â Â Binghamton is the Eastern League site closest to my house: I have seen signs for the stadium from the highway. Sad mistake it proves not to have looked up the directions on the computer, for the marking from the highway to the park is scattershot to miserable, where it exists at all. I might complain to the management, but then again, who does this anymore, I think as I navigate the streets; who in the digital age drives anywhere at random? I run into a convenience store to ask for directions. I am not so far off, after all: only a right over a bridge, and one left at aÂ traffic signal, and there are the Â light stanchions gleaming against an afternoon sky. I park and walk my way against the first base line side of the stadium. Di Renzo’s Bakery and Deli fattens the neighborhood withÂ boisterous Italian hospitality. Mad Monk’s bar shares a building with LL Pet Groomers. This last might lead to some ‘hairy’ situations, except that the two businesses are never open at the same time of day.
Â Â Â Â Â I pay my dues at the gate and walk through the stile. “Did you know,” a sign asks, “that former B-Mets Jose Pagan, Luis Hernandez, Ike Davis, Nick Evans, Josh Thole, Rueben Tejada and Jon Niese drove in fourteen runs in yesterday’s 18-5 win over the Cubs?” Another sign tells me that Rudy Owens, Altoona’s twenty-sixth round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise, (and the first opponent Stephen Strasburg faced in the minor leagues) is about to win the Eastern League E.R.A. title at 2.46.
Â Â Â Â I walk out towards the field. Underneath the hot sun the green grass is remarkably well-kempt . The stadium looks to be the smallest I’ve seen yet on this project, but on second look, seating capacity may be near any other in the league: it’s only the press box, drab, and cramped looking, and alone, unsurrounded by a flotilla of corporate sky suites, that tricks the eye.
Â Â Â Â With a few minutes to go yet, I walk the other way to see what’s there. Past the first base runway loomsÂ a big blue inflatable alien in a Mets uniform. It sports bats for ears and an oversize baseball for a nose, none of which seems to put off the kids who jump up and down inside its stomach. Next to it is a speed pitch where our editor Mike Lynch might reassure himself that his two-seamer can still fly at 80 m.p.h. I go back for a kielbasa. One man works the grill alone as his customers watch. Iam just beginning to compare him to the hot-dog vendor in the red-and-white stripes at Harrisburg when he slops the makings of a cheesesteak on his shorts, and then onto the ground. “I’ll take that one,” the old man beside me brags. His wife and granddaughter search the girl’s I-Phone for anything about the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which theÂ grandmother has seen, and loves.
Â Â Â By the time I reach my seat I have lost my ticket. (Later I will find it right where it ought to be, in my wallet). I take a stab at remembering section, row and number, and indeed it doesn’t today greatly matter: the B-Mets are nine under, and eliminated from contention long ago. Even with the Fan Appreciation day giveaways, the stadium is only a bit more than half full.
Â Â Stephen Lombardozzi is already leading off for the Senators. I have lost my pen. There is no mirror by which I could check that my head is still on my shoulders, but I decide thatÂ ifÂ I Â sit down and eat and watch, therefore I am. Against the B-Mets Dylan Owen, Lombardozzi strikes out; shorstop Josh Johnson lines softly to first; and left fielder Jesus Valdez pops to second. There is no doubt that I am rooting now, that in tracking the Senators I have become involved. As they go down in order, there is even less doubt that this must be a terrible burden for them to bear.
Â Â Â Â What I and many of the fans in the stands do not know is that the drama is over; Bowie had lost today in Richmond, and the Sens knew it before they took the field. Gradually some of us guess this from the Sen’s starting linuep and some of the substitutions during the course of the game. Odder is the fact that never does the scoreboard run through the out-of-town scores; perhaps trying to keep the fans in the seats, no mention is made of any other game, or any other context than the action before us.
Â Â Â Â Perhaps it is the drive, the heat, or the kielbasa, but concentration is not my forte early on today. The players, all ready to move on to fall and winter plans, seem to share the predicament. There is no scoring in the first three frames. With one out in the top of the second, Michael Burgess lines a ball to left field for a double. The next batter up, Ofilio Castro, bloops one down the line in right. It looks for a sure base hit and a run, but the Mets’ first baseman Josh Satin turns his back, sprints all-out, leaves his feet and cones the ball inches from the ground. The fans are immediately out of their seats applauding. Burgess stands between third and home, and Castro stops running and stares at the spot of his ill fortune as Satin throws to shortstop Jose Coronado to record the double play. Senators’ starting pitcher Tanner Rourke fans the side in the bottom of the third.
Â Â Â Â By now I have borrowed a pencil from the college kids behind me. Juniors at Cornell University, they drive down for a break from studies, perhaps twenty times in the course of the year. The talker of them is a Labor Relations major from Chicago. He tells me of he and Â his family walking from their house three times to Wrigley in ‘eighty-four to watch the Cubs lose three playoff games in a row to the Padres. (He must have been about negative two years old at the time, but this is a minor detail.)Â He and his friend are planning the full tour of the American Hockey League this winter: Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Adirondack. The best hockey they will see all year is already on their own campus.
Â Â Â Â In the bottom of the fourth Brahiam Maldonado breaks the spell. For hisÂ fourteenth home run of the year,Â Â the Mets left-fielder catches Roark by surprise as he drives a ball with the wind and watches it drop over the fence beyond his own postingÂ . For a minute we are woken from reverie. It soon reutrns as Roark downs the rest of the inning one-two-three.Â The Sens return the favor in the top of the fifth. In the bottom of the frame pitcher Dylan Owen raps out his second hit but is rubbed out on a fielder’s choice; second baseman Jordany Valdespin is stranded on base in his stead.
Â Â Â Â It looks likeÂ both sidesÂ are mailing it in. The P.A. announcer drawls his pefunctory ads. He is both the best and worst I’ve heard all year, his voice deep and suave, trailing away at the end of his sentences. He should be hosting a game show, not a game.Â A teen employee mounted in a medieval horse costume bobs his horses’ head andÂ its behind as he runs the track trying to throw hot dogs into the stands. Only some of them reach the fans.
Â Â Â With two outs and Maldonado on at first, the B-Mets break things open. Catcher Salomon Manriquez singles Maldonado to third. On a full count third baseman Eric Campbell bangs a ball into left field, scoring Maldonado. Roark is then called for a balk, shifting the runners to second and third. Pitcher Eddie Kunz, who has replaced Owen apparently by pitch count, sends a bounder to Lombardozzi. Waiting at first to receive the throw is Devin Ivany, the Sens back up catcher who has now replaced Chris Marrero at first. Lombardozzi’s throw pulls Ivany off the bag. Manriquez has crossed the plate, and behind him Eric Campbell never stops running as Ivany glares at the umpire. Three runs are in for the inning. The B-Mets lead 4-0.
Â Â Â Â Just my luck, I think, or just the Senators’, now that I can’t hold my objectivity. Jhonatan Solano leads off the seventh by pulling off Maldonado’s trick, driving the ball into the wind out to left field, and watching it settle as a golf drive as it clears the fence. It’s one run back but center fielder Brad Coon, pitcher Hassan Pena and Lombardozzi close out the side. In the bottom of the inning Valdespin singles, but Satin nails a mean line drive into the glove of Pena, who doubles off the runner. Sean Ratliff grounds to first.
Â Â Â Â “Kunz sucks,” my Chicago-an tells me. Indeed, Kunz has issued sixty-seven balls to sixty-two strikeouts, and his E.R.A., at 5.19, has suffered accordingly. Mets manager Tim Teufel apparently wants to build up his confidence in the last game of the seaon, and leaves him out for the top of the eighth. Josh Johnson singles 0-2. Edgardo Baez, now in left, drills a 1-1 up the middle, stopping Johnson at second. Devin Ivany draws Kunz’ sixty-eighth free pass. A conference with manager and infield ensues. Michael Burgess smacks a ball that flicks off the glove of Satin at first base. Valdespin is backing up the play. He throws toKunz covering as Johnson scoots home. Ofilio Castro drives a sacrifice fly to center, plating Valdez. Teufel has seen enough. He brings in Erik Turgeon, a reliver who has only seenÂ eight Â innings of work in five games at this level. Turgeon works a 1-1 count and then Solano whacks a soft liner at shortstop Coronado, stranding the tying run at third.
Â Â Â Â Â Bullpen meltdowns seem to be a common occurence in Binghamton this year. The fans are not surprised, but take on an anxious and nursing air. Â “Anyone good has been rushed to Citi Field,” the guy from Cornell via Chicago says. “What we have left is really development work.”
Â Â Â New York State Electric and Gas Stadium (NYSEG for short) is jammed against a set of rails that runs itsÂ length behind the outfield fence. The track is never empty. Now two black Norfolk Southern engines lead a new string of cars south. In the seventh and eighth innings the sky has gone light overcast, relieving us from direct sun. Maldonado grounds to short. Right fielder Raul Reyes has struck out three times; now he pops to short 1-2. Victor Garate has started the eighth for the Senators. Now manager Randy Knorr brings in his closer Cole Kimball. After his eight alloted warm-up tosses, B-Mets catcher Salomon Manriquez greets Kimball by clocking a solo home run into the left field alley. Kimball walks third baseman Eric Campbell, but the Mets bring pitcher Turgeon to the plate rather than a pinch-hitter.Â Apparently they will settle for the 5-3 lead. Turgeon strikes out looking.
Â Â Â Â Even with the insurance run, these fans seemed trained to expect the worst. It starts as Brad Coon doubles into the right field corner for the Sens. Third baseman Tim Pahuta, batting ninth after a double switch, swings and misses 3-2. But back to the top of the order, Lombardozzi draws a walk. This is enough of T urgeon. Teufel calls for his current closer, Roy Merritt, eighty-one innings pitched, sixty four K’s, twenty-seven walks, nine saves, the most on today’s roster. All this leads to a 3.78 E.R.A.; a competent closer but not airtight.
Â Â Â Â I am still filling in his name in my notebook when I hear the crack of the bat. Behind me, my labor relations major and his friend chorus, “Oh, my God,” at the same time. A great groan has risen from the crowd. I don’t see the ball, I only try to trace it from the trajectory of Josh Johnson’s bat.Â It is long, long gone, only his fifth homer of the year. We think it may land and hit one of the boxcars on the rails. Perhaps it traveled over them.Â The entire team in bright red jereys are out to meet Johnson at the plate. Â I didn’t have time to so much as root before the Senators are ahead, 6-5.
Â Â Â Jesus Valdez pops out on the first pitch. Devin Ivany singles before Michael Burgess gets plunked in the back. Everyone in the stadium is laughing at this, probaby even the Sen’s bench.Â Now Cole Kimball stays in the game and watches a 2-2 fastball whiz by him.
Â Â Â It’s one last chance this year for the Binghamton Mets. All through the game, fans have come back to their seats with door prizes: a David Wright bobblehead, a pink Mets visor; a windshield scraper that may or may not last out the first good snow of winter. Coronado twists as he waves at a three-two breaking ball. Solano drops the ball and must peg to first for the putout. Valdespin grounds to short, 1-0. Satin takes the first pitch to center for a base hit. In to run for him comes Hector Pellot. Center fielder Sean Ratliff cannot catch up. He swings 1-2 and the Mets season is over. Wait ’till next year.
Â Â The Sens rush the field like they’re doing a slap line for a normal victory, and only gradually develop a celebratory pile-up on the mound. After all, they’re in, but only barely, and now they must face a five game series against the Altoona Curve, who finished the season six or seven games ahead of them. The Mets mill back onto the field to salulte their fans. They throw t-shirts into the crowd. One lands near to me and I grab it. I’ll get home and discover that this is only a t-shirt for the 2010 U.S. Census, and only ‘large’ at that. My hands are full: I have garbage in one hand, my pen and notebook and coat and census shirt in the other. One of the Mets takes aim and gently lofts another shirt. I laugh it off as it hits me in the face and bounces away.Â It’s Labor day, only four-thirty in the afternoon, and I want to join my family for a picnic.
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