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My Midwest Baseball Odyssey Diary


"Slammin" Sammy Sosa at bat for the ...

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With baseball season approaching, I’m digging into my archives for some national pastime stories I’ve done over the years with a decided Omaha flavor. Look for articles in the coming days and weeks related to Rosenblatt Stadium, the College World Series, the Negro Leagues Museum and such baseball icons as Buck O’Neil and Bob Gibson. I will also be posting stories I wrote about some local softball superstars. Here is a Midwest Baseball Diary piece I wrote based on a week-long, multi-state baseball tour of the Midwest I took with a group of Nebraskans and Iowans in the Year of the Home Run.

The 1998 Major League Baseball season became known as the Year of the Home Run for the dual chase of the Roger Maris single season HR record that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire enagaged in. That same summer I joined a group of Nebraskans and Iowans for a Midwest baseball tour that was actually part of a class about baseball and culture offered by Iowa Western Community College. The two young profs who taught the course were both baseball nuts and a few dozen similarly inclined folks spent a week on the road by bus to take in several big league and minor league games as well as baseball museums and shrines in four states. This is my embedded, immersive, first-person recounting of that trip and the many experiences we enjoyed on it. The story originally appeared in The Reader.

HERE IS HOW I ORIGINALLY SET UP THE STORY:

My lukewarm feeling about baseball got raised to a high fever the summer of 1998 because of an assignment I did that found me joining a baseball tour of the Midwest with some two dozen die-hard fans.  The tour was actually offered as part of a local community college class looking at baseball in the context of popular culture.  It was a good if exhausting experience that I may repeat one day.

The thing that sold me on the trip is that it coincided with the great home run race that season between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, each of whom was chasing the single season record of Roger Maris.  The fact that two star players involved in history were on two of the teams that we would be seeing play, in their home ballparks no less, was enough to convince me the timing was right.  That and the fact that I felt a bit stale by then with my usual story projects.  This would be something different, something away from my home base of Omaha, something that would push me out of my comfort zone.

I was happy with the results of the trip and with the story I wrote about it.  The piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

My Midwest Baseball Odyssey Diary

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball…”
Jacques Barzun, French-born historian

Hearts and Minds

An overcast Sunday afternoon last summer found me joining 22 other pilgrims at Iowa Western Community College for the start of an eight day bus journey (July 26-August 2) exploring America via its most cherished game — baseball. As part of IWCC’s first “Baseball and American Culture” class/tour, we made a Midwest circuit of professional ball, attending games, visiting archives and speaking with players and officials, past and present.

Synergy was on our side too as, in the Year of the Home Run, we saw the two men chasing Roger Maris’ single season record in action.

Before departing we filed inside a lecture hall for an orientation by class instructors John Shorey and Bill Ricketts, young professors with the shaggy good looks of sandlot bums. In the spirit of the class, Shorey, a Cubs fan, and Ricketts, a Mets fan, showed their team colors. They laid-out the groundrules for the tour and had Creighton University professor and baseball author, Jerry Clark, steel us with diamond lore.

“Baseball is America’s game,” Clark told us. “There are those who feel this is no longer true. With things like players’ strikes and runaway salaries souring a lot of fans and sportswriters, some have been predicting the demise of baseball. Its demise has been forecast before. But baseball has always bounced back. It survived the Black Sox Scandal, the talent drain in World War II, the coming of TV. Now, we’re seeing a new resurgence of fans, fresh talent and new ballparks. What’s THE story in sports this year? Mark McGwire. He’s a folk hero. I envy you guys.”

Why follow the baseball muse down Mid-American byways? For me, it was about discovering what this game, that looms so large in the collective American conscience, means to people. These diaries are a compendium of what my fellow travelers and I found on our 1,700-mile journey. The result is a road story winding through the very heart of baseball and America.

Day One — On the Road

We look like any other tour group in our assorted ball caps, T-shirts, sneakers, shorts, shades and cameras. Our ranks range from die-hard fans (mainly Cubs rooters) to casual followers. The youngest aboard is 18, the oldest 65. Most squarely fit the demographics of baseball fans: white middle class Baby Boomers with disposable income to burn. Among our ranks are teachers, coaches, professionals, retirees. Most hail from Iowa. The rest from Nebraska. Eight days of total baseball immersion await us.

“Our traveling class,” as Ricketts calls it, finally hits the road at 3:30, bound for Kansas City. Hauling ass south on I-29, the Grant Wood Iowa landscape sweeps by in flat green and gold-speckled corn-row swatches. Marshy fields and roadsides are evidence of recent flooding along this bottomland. Traffic grows heavier the farther south we go, the undulating landscape taking on Thomas Hart Benton dimensions, spilling over itself like a wind-swept ribbon of earth. We arrive, just before dusk, at the Holiday Inn Sports Complex across from Kauffman Stadium. That night, a group of us descend on the sports bar off the lobby for some grub and get-to-know-you gab.

 

 

 

 

John Hazel of Omaha sports the full brush mustache, slicked-back hair, middle-age paunch, seasoned insight and avuncular ease of an old-time manager. His soulful eyes reveal hard times (He’s a recovering alcoholic working as a drug and alcohol counselor at St. Gabriel’s). His wiseguy voice betrays his Chicago roots. This lifelong student-of-the-game and Cubs fan is soon my personal guru on tour. Always ready to talk baseball, he explains what makes the game so special.

“Baseball is very unique in that there’s no time limit. A game can go on forever. It’s a team sport that’s built on individualism. There’s nothing like the one-on-one confrontation of pitcher and batter in any other sport. And there’s so much going on on any given play. There’s always something new, always something unexpected. In most sports you control the ball to score points. In baseball, the other team controls the ball while you try to score runs. It can be as cerebral as you want. It can be as basic as you want. It’s different things to different people.”

Speaking of differences, we’ll view baseball through the prism of the black experience, followed by the Royals-Anaheim Angels game tomorrow.

Day Two –The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Setting out this morning we cross the George Brett overpass and traverse age-old racial lines en route to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at the epicenter of Kansas City’s 18th and Vine historic district, a traditional hub of black commerce and culture in the midst of a revival.

We pass the Holy Ghost New Testament Church, whose sign out front implores passersby “Don’t Give Up!” As we pull up to the baseball museum, which shares the same building as the Kansas City Jazz Museum, the area’s renaissance is apparent in the glut of nearby restaurants, clubs and theaters, which stand silent this early in the day. Lamp post banners proclaim “The Legacy Plays On,” no doubt referring to the legends honored inside and displayed in life-size neon cutout figures above the entrance.

 

 

 

 

We’re led into a small screening room with bleacher-style seating and watch a short film on the Negro Leagues. Later, we tour the museum’s vibrant exhibits, which give a fine sense for the dynamic flavor of black baseball and the heady impact it had on many communities. But the real treat is meeting Negro Leagues veteran Henry “Pistol” Mason, who still cuts a trim figure in his 60s. With the fervor of a Pentecostal preacher (He is a United Methodist minister today.) the former hard-throwing pitcher recalls breaking in with the Kansas City Monarchs . “I dreamed of being in the Negro Leagues. I came up by bus to Kansas City in 1951 from my hometown in Marshall, MO to try out. I can remember it as if it was yesterday.” Arriving with nothing but the clothes on his back, his strong right arm so impressed player-manager Buck O’Neil he was signed on the spot.

Mason toiled with the team during the 1951, 1952 and 1954 seasons, earning $250 a month. After their some 100-game regular season, Negro Leaguers like Mason went barnstorming in the off-season. Then, he says, it was all about “the love of playing baseball.” And wowing the crowd.

“We had a different brand of baseball. People wanted to see our brand of baseball, with its action and enthusiasm, running and bunting. It was more festive when we played. The fans enjoyed the game. Going to the ballpark was just like going to a picnic. We had something to prove too. We wanted to prove we were good enough to play in the major leagues.”

The then recent emergence of black players in organized ball gave new hope. “It meant that maybe, just maybe someday I could be signing a major league contract, and that dream came true when I signed my first contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.” In the Phillies minor league system he played for the Miami Marlins, with the legendary Satchel Paige as a teammate, and for the Schenectady Blue Jays. Off-seasons he earned big bucks playing south of the border. Back home, he endured racism.

“When we sent to spring training in Clearwater, Florida we couldn’t stay in the hotels. I was the only black baseball player in Schenectady. I ran into some difficulties there. When I walked into the clubhouse the first time I could just feel the tension. But you learned not to shoot your mouth off and to let your ability do your talking for you, and that’s what I did.”

Mason finally made it to The Show in 1958, recording only a few innings that year and in 1960. By then the Negro Leagues were dying, a casualty of the majors siphoning off the best black talent. Mason says the end of all-black baseball meant progress, but at a price. “It was good in one way because we were finally getting a chance to play in the majors, but bad in another way because it hurt a lot of black businesses that thrived off it.”

The game that night proves a let down. The reeling Royals lose 6-1 in a boring affair. The action’s scarce. The pace lethargic. The 17,000 fans apathetic. No spark, no panache, no pizzazz. That, and the scarcity of black players today, is why Mason doesn’t care to attend. Kauffman Stadium is a dreary concrete fortress outside and a gentrified gated-community inside. A white bread theme park with all the bells and whistles but minus the grit of the old stadiums or the charm of the new ones.

Day Three — Flirting with History

On the road by 8:30, we head east on I-70 for St. Louis and a rendezvous with destiny, we hope, in the form of a McGwire blast. But the Cardinals rate a poor second on this trip. Fittingly, Shorey  announces, “It’s a great day today. Sammy hit two last night and we picked up a half-game on the Mets in the wild card race.” His fellow Cubbies roar approval. Ricketts stews. A daily tour ritual is getting USA Today or the local daily for overnight game summaries and box scores. The results invariably spark debate.

While in-transit Shorey prompts a discussion about yesterday’s activities. Dan Schleisman, a coach-teacher from Shelby, Iowa who likes getting a rise out of the home fans with his bench-jockeying, remarks, “I was really disappointed in the Kansas City crowd. Here I am cheering for the other team and they’re not even saying anything. Usually you can get a reaction from the home team.”

As for the museum, Laura Barker of Council Bluffs says, “Before I started this class I had no idea what blacks went through in baseball. Now I suppose every time I think about baseball that will be a part of what I think about.” From an educator’s viewpoint, Shorey feels “it reinforced what we’ve been talking and reading about and made it come to life.”

Heading into St. Louis a bridge takes us across the majestic Mississippi River. We check in at the Henry VIII Lodge and Inn and catch a bite before reaching Busch Stadium. First, we wend our way through the club’s front office for a briefing by P.R. man Marti Henden. In keeping with the Cards-Cubs rivalry, the big huckster needles us, saying, “Let me show you something you haven’t see before,” and holding out a fat finger adorned by a World Series ring. Cubs fans are used to such abuse, even revel in it. Calling 1998 “a very abnormal year for us,” he adds, “Thanks in large part to Mr. McGwire we’re going to sell three millions tickets for only the third time in our history.” St. Louis averted losing its fan base (as some cities did) during the ‘94 strike season, he says, by courting fans as never before. “That started the turnaround.”

Next, we tour the Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum across from the stadium. It recounts the club’s rich heritage in loving detail. With the gates opening at 5:10 for the start of batting practice, I join the line. Any other year, you’d find a mere trickle of fans this long before game time (7:10 start), but with the McGwire phenomenon in full swing the queue snakes around Busch. It’s humid, and by the time we settle in the upper right center field bleachers, downright stifling. Hardly prime home run hunting territory as McGwire, a dead pull hitter, rarely hits one out here. The stands are packed anyway. His every move scrutinized. His every swat “Ooohed” and “Ahhhed” by the faithful.

None of his pregame moonshots come our way.

 

 

 

 

In the game Big Mac is kept well in check through the 7th by the Milwaukee Brewers. Even with his Cards trailing 8-5 and the putrid air hanging still in this fish bowl of a stadium, the crowd is alive and involved, a sharp contrast to K.C. The excitement builds as the Cards stage a dramatic comeback in the 8th, loading the bases with Ray Lankford up and McGwire on deck.

Lankford caps the rally with a grand slam, pulling the home team ahead, and igniting a wave of noise. With the place still buzzing McGwire settles in and suddenly, sweetly IT HAPPENS. His powerful uppercut sails a ball directly toward us, carrying up and over into a tangle of bodies rushing the lip of the fence for a crack at the prized souvenir. In the ensuing melee one lean young man emerges with the ball and, improbably, it’s our own Matt Oviatt, 18, of Logan, Iowa, who leaped several rows below. He deliriously holds the ball aloft, twirling around, charged with the good vibrations of 38,000 cheering fans, repeating over and over, “Oh, my God.” For one moment anyway, he shares the stage with a superstar.

The solo shot is only the second opposite field homer of the year by McGwire, his 45th overall, and gives him his 100th RBI.

Later, a still juiced Oviatt says, “I can’t believe I caught this ball. I’m feeling nothing but freaking joy. I was just hoping we could see Mark McGwire bat one more time before we go. I never thought I’d catch a home run ball. Then, I saw it coming and I just jumped for it. It hit my left hand, bounced, and I caught it in my right hand. I just had to squeeze hard when everybody started tackling me. It’d be awesome if I could get it signed.”

An ESPN Magazine reporter on the scene interviews The Kid and tries pulling strings to secure The Man’s autograph, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the Cards’ weak relief pitching falters in the 9th, giving up five runs, and the home team goes on to absorb a numbing 13-10 loss. Later, on the bus, Hazel expresses all our sentiments about Matt’s feat. “It’s got to be the thrill of a lifetime. One he’ll treasure for years. That’s what this game’s all about. It’s one of the reasons people keep coming back.”

Day Four — If It’ll Play In Peoria, It’ll Play Anywhere

The morning after, and The Catch is still the topic of the tour. Matt’s grab even made ESPN’s Sports Center highlights. His celebration must have lasted into the wee hours as he and his roomie straggle aboard some 15 minutes late. A sheepish Matt’s given a good razzing too. “This grandstanding has got to stop,” jokes Ricketts. Our star stores his coveted possession in a backpack he never lets out of sight.

Our next stop is Peoria, Ill. and a date with Rocky Vonachen, general manager and co-owner of the Peoria Chiefs, the Class A Cardinals affiliate we’ll see play this evening. We tool northeast on I-55, crossing the grand Mississippi again into Illinois. Shorey pops in a tape of “Bull Durham” to get us in a minor league frame of mind. You know, the band box parks, the kitsch sideshow antics, the groupies. As groupie extraordinaire Annie Savoy declares: “The only church that truly feeds the soul is the church of baseball…” Shorey asks, “Is baseball a religion?” Nancy Mulholland of Malvern, Iowa replies, “No, it’s an addiction though.” Shorey says we’re getting a taste of what life on the road is like for minor leaguers with the long bus rides, the motel stays, the fast food pit-stops. It’s getting old fast.

Ensconced at the Fairfield Inn, we head for the ballpark. It’s about on par with a major college baseball stadium. The outfield fence screams with ads for River City Demolition. Bliss Implement Co. and Butternut Bread. Dressed in sport shirt and shorts,Vonachen greets us in a small picnic area down the right field line. He’s a genial guy eager to share the ins and outs of running a minor league franchise. His father, Pete, for whom the stadium’s named, owned the club in the 1980s. Then, when the Chiefs languished under outside ownership and were in danger of moving, Rocky and a group of Peorians bought it in 1994. The timely investment came in a booming  market. Where the franchise sold for $100,000 in 1982, it brought $2 million in 1994. Triple A clubs sell for five times that. Gate receipts are up too.

“Minor league baseball is growing by leaps and bounds. Back in the early ‘80s it was more of a Mom and Pop business. Now it is big business,” he says, adding the ‘94 strike provided a catalyst for the minors.“People still wanted to see professional baseball and started going to minor league parks. Parks across the country saw an influx of fans during the strike. As people got to see minor league baseball they found how affordable and fun it was. At the minor league level, it’s entertainment, folks. We do all the goofy promotions and all the giveaways at the gate because that’s what families come out for, and we focus on families.”

Chiefs tickets, typical of the minors, range from $3.50 to $5.50. During a pregame picnic-style repast players (in full uniform) grab supper at the concession stand. The game is marked by sloppy play, including drops of several easy fly balls. Maybe it’s the uneven grass field, which suffers from some kind of rot, or the low wattage lights overhead. The Chiefs’ fan-friendly attractions include a grocery cart race, a mascot, a contraption flinging T-shirts in the stands and Trash Man, a Generation-Xer in black tie, shorts and Day-Glo tennis shoes who dances in the aisles when not retrieving refuse. The distractions include the local groupies, brickhouse babes whose conspicuous primping behind the dugout and bullpen has heads turning all night. Still, far more families than singles are on-hand.

By 8:30, Magic Time rolls around, the setting sun muting the night sky in pastel shades of blue, purple and pink and, with the light towers, casting a burnished glow on the field that etches players in a kind of soft electric haze. Very Rockwellian. The Chiefs win in a rout 9-2 and personally greeting fans on the way out are Rocky, his dad and staff. “Thanks for coming. Hope you come back again.” They mean it too.
“That’s what minor league baseball is all about,” Rocky says.

Day Five — Baseball of Another Kind

By now we’re a caravan of gypsies wheeling from one baseball camp to another. We depart a little past 7 a.m., our earliest start yet. The discussion centers on last night. Everyone agrees the Chiefs put on a good show. Tom Lustgraaf of Council Bluffs, says, “To me, the things they’re doing are the things that will keep baseball alive and make it a positive experience for fans.” Lana Taylor, a nurse from Hastings, Iowa, notes how much more “relaxed” and “friendly” the confines were compared to the big league parks. “The goings-on really got me excited.”

Traveling northeast on I-80, we navigate our first toll roads and pass our first rock quarries. The Holy Scriptures of the tour, “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” is reverently consulted in settling trivia disputes. We’re bound for South Bend, IN, where we’ll meet All-American Girls Professional Baseball League veterans and catch the hometown Class A Silver Hawks. For proper inspiration we view “A League of Their Own.” Later, Shorey strikes a nerve asking why girls play softball, not baseball. A battle of the sexes erupts but nothing’s settled.

The site of our panel discussion with the All-American Girls is the Northern Indiana Center for History, an old stone mansion with extensive gardens. Inside it’s bright, modern, airy. We sit in an auditorium to watch a documentary on the women’s league, with some of the featured players right beside us. When the video shows a reunion of players singing the league’s anthem, the teary-eyed veterans present sing-along.

 

 

 

 

The five panelists, who played in the  ‘40s and ‘50s, soon enchant us. We pepper them with questions about their uniforms (they began with skirts and went to pants), about the charm school set-up for them (“It didn’t rub off,” one quips), about breaking tradition (“We weren’t out to strike anything for women’s lib. We were just grateful we got to play baseball,” explains Janet “Pee Wee” Wiley.). Elizabeth “Lib” Mahon says when a scout asked her, “‘How’d you like to play ball for money?’” she replied, “‘Money? I’d play ball for nothing.’ It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It changed my life completely. I have friends all over the country now because of it.”

Betsy Jochum notes the attention the league’s received this decade “has made us realize how unique it was to have a league of our own.” Frances “Big Red” Janssen adds, “It’s amazing to us people would still be interested in what we did.” Adds Lou Arnold, “It’s a pleasure for us to be meeting you people today. It’s like the feeling at our reunions — so warm.” The feeling’s mutual.

After the Q & A we rush the stage for autographs and a chance to kibitz one-on-one. Then we all go downstairs, where the veterans proudly show us a case filled with league memorabilia. Later, at our Super 8, it’s clear the women left quite an impression.

“The ladies were fantastic. I’d love to sit in a bar some night and really have a ball,” says Mulholland, a lifelong fan who grew up a tomboy on an Iowa farm, played catch with her dad when he came in from the fields and avidly followed town ball. “They’re just plain ordinary women, as common as dirt, who made a great difference in baseball and America in general.”

Chris Hartwig of Logan, Iowa adds, “Hearing the women’s stories and seeing their emotion and excitement about being part of history touched me quite a bit. I think it gives me a more complete love and appreciation for the game.” Hazel, who saw All-American games as a boy with his dad, says, “Once the game began there were no differences. It was a baseball game.”

South Bend Stadium is a spiffy new facility out of character with the old brick and mortar warehouse district it occupies. The immaculate grass field puts Peoria’s to shame. The South Bend-Kane County Cougars game goes by in a blur, overshadowed by nearly non-stop music, promotions, gimmicks. The star attraction is Myron Noodleman, a Jerry Lewis knock-off whose geek show leaves us cold, though the abundance of kids present eat it up. Still, on a cool clear night like this nothing can detract from the magic amber dusk illuminating this Elysian field where men are made boys again.

Day Six — Take Me to the Promised Land

A sound night’s sleep and late start (9 a.m.) buoy us in advance of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, mecca for our Cubs contingent. After St. Louis, we feel fate leading us to Mr. Sosa, who’s been on a tear. As an added bonus, pitching phenom Kerry Wood is on the mound today. It’s gorgeous out and soon the virile Chicago skyline crops into view. Nearing downtown, a Cubs video treats us to a swinging version of “My Sweet Chicago” and Harry Caray’s signature “Holy Cow.” Tidy row houses and cozy bars line the narrow congested streets of the neighborhood around Wrigley Field.

Parked by noon, we walk to the promised land. The Cubs-Colorado Rockies game has a 2:20 start, leaving ample time to eat, shop, browse. The energy is palpable. A Chicago Sun-Times vendor notes my K.C. Royals hat and asks, “Sir, you have the wrong cap on today, don’t you?” Boy, do I.

 

 

 

 

Wrigley is a tavern of a stadium. A homey place where beer flows freely and patrons mix easily. It throbs with the pulse of the city, as fans root atop adjacent brownstones and arrive via L’s lumbering overhead. Back on his home turf, Hazel beams like a kid again on his old stomping grounds.

“That’s exactly what Wrigley Field is — home. So many memories are coming back of my Cubs childhood. I was born and raised within walking distance of Wrigley. I remember coming home from school in the middle of summer to our hot apartment and finding my mother in her bra and half-slip with a quart of Pilsner beer in one hand and an iron in the other, watching the Cubs game on TV. I was about 8 when my folks took me to my first game. Later, I went with buddies after school to catch the last couple innings of games. They let us in free. The homework could wait. Summers, we sat in the bleachers for 50 cents. It’s a fantastic place. There’s nothing like it, eh?”
Nothing indeed.

Even with the Cubs winning handily (by a final score of 9-1) most fans remain boisterously attentive throughout. The few idiots who dawdle in the aisles elicit cries of “Down and front!” The 40,000 Cubs faithful leave happy, having seen Sosa smash his 42nd homer (it lands no where near us) and Wood notch his 11th win. A briskly played game on a crisp afternoon in the Tottling Town. Who could ask for more?

After crawling through rush-hour traffic we spend the night at a Quality Inn. Some do the town, scoring autographs at Harry Caray’s place. I enjoy my first decent meal at a Greek Town eatery. Sated, I sleep soundly.

Day Seven — Dream State

Another fair weather day finds us still in high spirits from the the Wrigley trip, which rates a rave from most. Ricketts sums it up with, “For me it was like going back into history. I feel like I could have been there in 1902 and experienced the same thing. I’m a Mets fan and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Wrigley Field.” Adds Hazel, “On behalf of the city, I appreciate the comments…It is a special place.”

Illinois-20, a classic American back country highway, follows the rolling contour of the planted fields and patchwork meadows spread out on either side. As we watch “Field of Dreams” I realize it’s search for simple truths parallels ours. Seeing it right before arriving in Dyersville, Iowa lends a surreal quality to an already other-worldly site. Sure, it’s a tourist trap, but with a difference. It may only be the film’s influence, but a ballpark merging with a cornfield into an endless horizon is a kind of never-never land come to life.  A place where time stands still and dreams unfold.

The place is crowded, kids and adults alike lined up waiting for a crack at the ball, others jostling for a spot in the field. Why do we come? A pretty young Texas woman, traveling with her sister on a baseball pilgrimage of their own, offers a clue. Peering out at the field, Kris Flabiano says, “I mean, just look at this. There’s people here from every state and they’re all playing ball together. Everybody’s talkin’ to everybody like they’re next door neighbors. Baseball’s a staple. It holds people together.” Our own Lana Taylor adds, “It’s like living a baseball dream out there. It’s reliving things.”

Once back on the Illinois side of the Mississippi we meet two minor league umps who compare their travails of making it to the majors with that of players. They describe a “brotherhood” among The Men in Blue and the restraint needed to weather expletive-filled temper tantrums on the field.

Hopping the border to Davenport, we stow our gear at an, ugh, Super 8 and then make the Quad Cities River Bandits-Burlington Bees game. Davenport’s downtown riverfront provides a scenic backdrop. Just outside the quaint, brick-faced Quad Cities stadium, casino and cruise boats course down the Mississippi on one side and freight trains rumble past on the other. Added to the organ tunes, the vendor barkers, the lively fans and the heroics under the lights, it makes for a carnival atmosphere. After the River Bandits thump the Bees 11-1, a fireworks show sends us off with a bang.

Day Eight — Coming Home

Daytrippers at last. No more motels after tonight. “Headed for the home stretch” is how one of our group puts it. By 8 a.m. we’re bound for the Amana Colonies and a hearty brunch. We hit our first patch of inclement weather nearing the Bob Feller Hometown Exhibit in Van Meter, Iowa, a shrine to the fireballing Hall of Fame pitcher. A sculptual relief mural outside shows “Rapid Robert” delivering one of his high hard ones. Moving ever eastward, we gather at Sec Taylor Stadium in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Cubs, to hear hitting instructor Glenn Adams talk about helping players “be selective” at the plate, pitcher Kurt Miller describe life in the minors as “a job” and G.M. Sam Bernabe extol the virtues of “group sales.”

After a steady diet of Class A ball, this Triple A outing is a welcome way to end the trip. The park, a smaller version of Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium, features 44 skyboxes. Fixtures aside, the scene here or at any ballpark is much the same. Baseball invites fans to take it in their own measure. To banter back and forth about the game or life (maybe it’s the same thing), whether it’s Dan Schleisman yelling “C’mon guys, rally time!” or John Shorey musing why “there’s no phrase for an easy grounder,” unlike, say, “a can of corn” for an easy popout.

“Due to the nature of the game, with its momentary lulls,” says John Hazel, “there’s a camaraderie in the stands among the fans, be they rich-poor, whatever. It’s a real simpatico type thing.” Jack Duggan of Omaha adds, “What I like about it is you can keep up with what’s happening on the field and converse at the same time.”

Yes, the game flows like a great river from town to town, its mighty current rolling slowly, methodically on. You can return to it at your leisure and know it’s still there. “I think that’s the beauty of the sport,” says Shorey. “The times, the players, the issues, the settings may change, but the game itself doesn’t change.” There’s comfort in that. In its continuity and connection to more earlier times, like Nancy Mulholland playing catch with her dad or Hazel sneaking into Cubs games. In its being a proving ground and launching pad for the Henry Masons or Elizabeth Mahons of the world.

If I had to boil it down to one truth, baseball is big and enduring enough to embrace America’s dreams. It’s like coming home.

P.S. Iowa lost 6-4 to the Colorado Spring Sky Sox. But that’s besides the point, isn’t it?

“This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that was good, and that can be good again…”
From the film “Field of Dreams”

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  2. Dan Schleisman
    January 29, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    First time I have seen your blog about our baseball trip. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Am still coaching but am now in Treynor. Retired from teaching a few years ago. Still a die hard baseball and Yankee fan. Still love to bench jockey.

    Like

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