Distractions: Party at the Park with the Columbus Clippers
Photo courtesy of Joe Santry.
The world is made for those not cursed with self-awareness. — Annie Savoy, Bull Durham
I arrived early on Friday to Huntington Park, home of the Columbus Clippers, for Party at the Park. The Clippers, like all minor league franchises, understand that baseball alone won’t pull fans through the gate. Promotions are vital, even if mind-numbing to baseball purists. But I have to admit that this promotion was spot on. Party at the Park meant that the local barbeque chain City BBQ — no Allen & Son of Chapel Hill, but no slouch, either — was serving up two-dollar pulled pork sandwiches. Draft beer was a mere two dollars until first pitch. Down the right field line, the delicious smell of wood-smoked pork wafted over the large and milling crowd while a local band with their instruments turned up to eleven shouted out “Too Much Fun.”
I drove to the park from my home in Granville, forty minutes east of Columbus, to watch the Clippers take on the Durham Bulls here in Ohio, a state that has become the crossroads of American electoral politics: the dead center. Families and singles alike poured into the revived Arena District, and there was a palpable buzz among them. I had a feeling this had less to do with watching the first-place Bulls than it did with the end of a long work week and the welcoming and surprising relief of fall-like temperatures as we rounded third for the Dog Days.
I grabbed two barbecue sandwiches and a beer and devoured them while standing beside a condiment station. It was the first time in my life I had ever attended a game alone. And it was an odd feeling to come to the ballpark, this most social of places, without a companion. I thought about the last time I saw the Bulls play, which would have been five or six years ago at DBAP. I had gone to the game with three older writers, all powerful intellectuals and prose stylists, and while we watched and cheered the Bulls on, we also talked about politics (Obama or Hillary), the AL East (Sox or Yankees?), and the state of American Fiction (too many authors to name). There was also plenty of time for a high-level discussion of the game itself. Those deep conversations never seem to happen at basketball or football games.
The ballpark has always been a gathering place: whether it’s DBAP, Huntington Park, or Progressive Field in Cleveland, you come to watch games in pairs and groups. The game’s slow movements and careful deliberations allow for your conversations to be wide-ranging and relaxed. The blue skies and green grass, the overpriced hot dogs and non-premium beer — they’re an elixir for even the most casual fan. You just kind of fall away from yourself at a game, leaving it in the car for a few hours.
Huntington Park, like most minor league venues in mid-sized American cities, is part of a revitalization effort to get people into downtown. The ballpark has been voted Park of the Year by Ballpark Digest three of the last four years. It has spacious concourses and goes only sixteen rows deep. You get the sightlines of high school baseball with major league accouterments: perfectly manicured grass, a first-rate sound system, and impressive computer-generated animation of colonial-era ships being shot down by the Clippers’ cannons on a huge Jumbotron in right-center.
This marks the beginning of the show more than it marks the beginning of the game. Before baseball even begins, we will have seven ceremonial “first” pitches. Then the national anthem is sung by the local barbershop quartet, which is then followed by a slick video montage of past Clippers’ greats spliced with actors dressed to recreate the homerun scene in The Natural, replete with radio play-by-play voiceover.
For a long time now, I’ve noticed that most of what we encounter at today’s baseball games is designed to keep us constantly entertained. It almost feels as if the marketing directors at these clubs are saying, “We get it. Baseball is boring. Here’s something else.” Entering the auxiliary press box — my first time ever in a press box — and secluded away from the sensory bombardment, I was able to pay attention to the game in a much more focused way than I ever have from a seat in the stands. Without the benefit of conversation (my lone press box mate and I did not speak for the entire four-hour game), I noticed how the crowd quiets to a low hum when the game finally starts. The loudest sounds in the park, aside from the music played during a player’s walk to the plate, are the pop of the catcher’s mitt and the thwack of bat on ball.
We have fallen into the rhythm of baseball. A pitcher’s slow windup, a batter’s digging in. The long lull of inaction between innings as the field is raked by the groundscrew and the pitcher throws his warm-up pitches and the leftfielder throws with someone from the dugout. I like watching how the infielders toe the dirt and pound the hollow well of their gloves during these rituals. These are the same movements from their youth, carried on into manhood, emulated by children in Little League games across the country. A perpetual cycle of how to kill the downtime afforded by baseball. The umpire sweeps the plate free of dust, and we start again.
In stark contrast, the park comes alive during these between-innings breaks. As soon as the third out is made, frenetic movements erupt in pockets all around the stands. People cheer for Ketchup, Mustard, or Relish Hot Dog mascots as they race around the field, the standings of which are flashed up at race’s end. (Ketchup has a considerable edge with forty-two wins this season.) The park’s crew of cheerleaders — The Clipper Patrol, an assortment of six young men and women wearing tight-fitting Clippers gear — runs around the park, throwing T-shirts to the loudest fans, setting up the putting green for tonight’s giveaway on the home dugout, and aiding and abetting the mascot in his own version of tomfoolery. In the third inning, one of the young women in this group is charged with finding a small child and escorting him or her to the playing field, where the kid is dressed in an oversized green tee and handed a small yellow rake to help the grounds crew as part of “Scotts’ Third Inning Cleanup,” a promotion for the local turf company. The parents look on from the visitor’s dugout and the PA announcer asks everyone to give the child a hand.
It’s not as if I’ve never noticed or seen these events before at previous games, but from the isolation of the press box they somehow appeared even more ludicrous. They’re like forced gestures of courtship — a little too polite, a little too earnest. They mean well, but for me they only open the divide between what the stated purpose of our attendance is and what is really occurring.
Leaving the box, I roamed the stadium and saw an inflatable castle with children bouncing inside. Next to that, grown men and young boys (never any females) tested their arm speed with three pitches from about forty-five feet, rearing back so hard they risked complete rotator cuff blowouts to hit sixty mph on the gun (an MLB equivalent of seventy-nine mph). Large swatches of fans stood behind the seatbacks and looked on, talking about everything except the game. Out in right field, where there are no seats, only sets of high-top tables for patrons to place their drinks and snacks, men and women congregated and took pictures to post on Facebook and Instagram. They were in the act of courtship. Behind centerfield, thirty people sat on a low brick wall, positioned so they couldn’t see the game. One couple wasn’t even looking at each other. They were fully engaged with their respective smartphones. The game, it seemed, was even more incidental compared to the action out here.
When I came back to my chair, I looked through the glass that divided the main pressroom from ours. The men covering the game had their laptops open, but they weren’t punching away at keys. One of the guys was checking Facebook and shopping for camera lenses. The other writers had their Twitter feeds pulled up, and everyone, at one time or another, was checking gamecasts on the web, which allowed them not to keep book or pitch counts on their own. Armed with only my SLR 35mm camera and a Moleskine notebook, I felt horridly twentieth century.
Baseball, more or less, is what it was from the beginning. The technology we see today on the field is largely evidenced only in the form of helmets and a catcher’s protective gear. Gloves are still made of leather and bats of ash. If the modern ballpark is any indication, those forces of distraction aren’t going away any time soon.
After seven innings of living only in my mind, I succumbed to the strange loneliness I felt and texted a former teacher and first-rate baseball writer, Mark Winegardner. He confirmed for me that beer in the press box is uncouth and told me my press pass entitled me to any open seat in the park. He also said that the box is his least favorite place to watch the game but concurred the free food is a nice perk (burgers Friday, meatball hoagies Sunday). He even “watched” an inning with me, logging onto the webcast of the game just as the Clippers made their move in the bottom of the seventh. When shortstop Tim Beckham’s error allowed the go-ahead run to come in, we signed off with each other. The Bulls lost 3-2. I almost forgot to mention the score.