Wednesday night at the ballpark.
Me, my father, a family friend down from Philadelphia and my ten year old nephew Jake, the budding baseball fanatic. On our last outing together, he asked me to take him to a sporting goods store to look at catching gear. He's always talking about his baseball cards - the new hotness is the Mariano Rivera he just picked up. "Hang on that one for five years," I tell him. "They're going to have to let him in to the Hall of Fame."
Anyway. Boys night out. Second row seats at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, right by the visiting dugout as we watched our hometown boys take on Rochester. The Bulls were on a 3 game losing streak, trying to hold off their first 4 game skid of the year; their status as having the best record in organized baseball was getting a little shaky. To be fair, between injuries and callups the roster was looking a little threadbare, a little 20th-Maine-on-Little-Round-Top. Five outfielders from the opening day roster were gone, promoted or lost on waivers or hurt. The lineup was a thing of threads and patches. One outfielder was a recent callup from AA. Another had been pulled in off waivers from Arizona. The third was an out-of-place catcher. Surprise stud at second base Vince Belnome was at first. The DH - another catcher, ex-National Jesus Flores - was hitting below the Mendoza line. You get the idea.
Rochester, for their part, were in first place in their division. The Twins were going nowhere, but their AAA team, by God, was playing their hearts out.
"Why do their uniforms say Red Wings?" Jacob asked at one point. I asked why they shouldn't. "Because uniforms usually say where you're from," he replied. "Red Sox uniforms say Boston. Dodger uniforms say Los Angeles."
You can't argue with a ten year old. Unless, of course, the home team is wearing jerseys, at least for that night, that say "Bulls".
I have some rules about heckling. One, keep it clean. Two, nothing personal. Heckle the ballgame, heckle the organization, but keep it all in good fun and everyone has a good time. I'm originally from Brooklyn, after all; the spirit of Hilda Chester and her cowbell lives on, just a little bit, in me.
So there's a series of close plays at first, and every single one of the calls goes Rochester's way. There are no obvious blunders here, no Denkinger-level blown calls, but after a couple of plays, the crowd's having none of it. And after the third or fourth one, I yell something to the effect of, "Does Genny Cream Ale make you blind, ump?" Genesee Cream Ale, for those of you who have not have the exquisite pleasure of tasting it, is a budget beer made from the waters of the Genesee River, which flows through Rochester. It is, in a word, terrible, but hey, there's a Rochester connection.
I then have to explain to my nephew what Genny Cream Ale is. That goes about as well as you'd expect.
Nephew Jake loves foul balls. He has one from a Mudcats game - one my father simply reached out and snagged as it bounced past us in the bleachers. He has one from a Duke-Maryland game earlier this year. That one nearly got us killed, as I was so busy showing him the ball that I didn't notice that the batter had launched another one to the exact same spot. Two steps to the left and it would have brained me; as it was it bounced off the steps and landed in the groundskeepers' area where Wool E. Bull normally keeps his go-cart.
But he'd never gotten one from a Bulls game, despite anxiously scanning every at-bat for the possibility. We normally sit third base side, which means Jake scans the staring lineups for lefties who are more likely to launch a ball our way. He also brings his glove to games, which I heartily encourage. Guys my age shouldn't wear gloves. Kids his age should.
Sitting in front of us was a gentleman who clearly had some connection to the Red Wings, and his party. He was an older gentleman, wearing a polo shirt embroidered with a Red Wings logo, and he chatted with the Rochester players as they came on and off the field. Called them by their first names, too, clearly familiar and comfortable with them as they seemed with him.
I thought I heard a chuckle from his row when I made the Genny Cream Ale joke, but the ballpark was loud. Later, after I mentioned my friendship with Prof. Stephen Jacobs at RIT, he told me his father had been the basketball coach at RIT for 16 years, and had steered the team to their only undefeated season. But that was later, and he never told me his name.
A couple of innings in, the Bulls are down. Jake's getting nervous for the home team. Rochester is batting, and a left-handed hitter - up-and-down guy Chris Parmalee, if I remember correctly - is up. He hits a foul ball, left side. It hits the concourse, takes a couple of bounces, and lands at the feet of the gentleman from Rochester. He picks it up, turns around, and gives it to Jake, who positively levitates. A couple of folks in the gentleman's party ask to see it, and Jake passes it over. They ooh and ahh over it, and pass it back, and the Jake gives it a gleeful microscopic once-over.
It spends the rest of the game in his glove, even if for a good chunk of the game Grandpa was the one holding said glove.
Jake thanks the man in front of us. I thank him, too, and promise no more Genny Cream Ale gags. That gets a laugh, and starts a conversation. As, really, it should.
Later, the Rochester left fielder trots past our seats, ball in his glove from the third out. All the kids in our section and the adjacent ones are on their feet, asking PLEASEPLEASEPLEASE. He grins and tosses it to one group of three kids, obviously siblings. They scramble for it, which means of course none of them catch it and it falls into the camera well. Later, they'll get it handed back to them, and another one besides. But for now, that's what happens, and Jake looks a little sad.
"Why are you upset," I ask. "You already have a ball."
"I know," he says. "I wanted to get another one so I could give it to you."
The Bulls lose. We leave a couple of innings early. It's late, it's a long way back to Cary and Jake's bed, and it's a longer drive from there back home for Dad. We listen to the last few innings on the radio on the way home, with the game wrapping up just before we hit Jake's driveway. It's the fourth loss in a row for the Bulls, the first time they've had a losing streak that long all year.
But in the back seat, there's a kid playing with a foul ball. And that's what matters.