Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Bottom of the Ninth

Not seeing Carl Furillo Anywhere On That Field
Went to the last home game of the season for the Carolina Mudcats on Sunday, taking my father, my nephew and my brother-in-law for a bit of a family outing. Baseball games - Durham Bulls or Carolina Mudcats - have become much more of a thing for us since my parents moved down here. When I was growing up in Philadelphia, we were lucky to make one game a season. Too expensive, too much of a hassle, too crazy a schedule - my father's professional travel made mine look positively sedate - you name it. But once my folks got down here (by way of Atlanta - don't ask), it turned into a thing. A place to go where we, sometimes joined by nephew and/or brother-in-law and sometimes not - could just go, and sit, and not have to do anything but be in each other's company for a couple of hours while guys in long pajamas ran around the bases and won or lost as the circumstances dictated. 

This was a nothing game, except that it was the last game. The Mudcats, a freshly minted Braves farm team, were sliding along just over .500; their opponents from Lynchburg had sewn up their division. In terms of practical importance, there was no ballgame to be had here, except for as a stage for players desperately making their cases for promotion or continued employment.

And yet, there was a game. Multiple lead changes. Home runs, Pickoffs, Caught stealings. A balk. Diving catches. Mitt-popping fastballs whose speed we didn't know, because the radar gun in right field had been turned off for the day. One of the Hillcats players - we were seated right on top of their dugout - uttering an audible, "Oh, God, no" when "Sweet Caroline" came over the PA system. Frenzied high-fives and fist bumps after every inning, and the Lynchburg first baseman awkwardly leaving a titanic relief pitcher hanging in possibly the day's most awkward moment. A little girl came by and tried to con us out of the prize my nephew had won by dint of sitting in a particular seat; "Are you sure you know who's sitting there?" she kept demanding, while my father kept answering, "Yes. My grandson." 

The prize, incidentally, turned out to be a pack of Mudcats baseball cards. I wonder how many else the little girl collected through sheer force of will. 

The Mudcats won, this last home game of their 25th year. The right field wall is now covered in tributes to famous Mudcats past; Tony Womack and Matt Holliday, Miggy Cabrera and Tim Wakefield, Juan Pierre and more. The scoreboard in centerfield is titanic, covered in ads from tip to warning track, and with no sign of the lightning bolt that hit it a year or two ago. After the game, the team gathered on the infield for the presentation of a couple of awards and an address to the rapidly thinning crowd by manager Luis Salazaar. Back in the day, I had him on a couple of fantasy baseball teams that always finished 3rd, and I hadn't realized he'd tumbled into the area. 

Dad heckled the speeches, mildly, while nephew and brother-in-law wandered off to do some sort of promotion where you threw marked tennis balls onto the field in hopes of having them land in laid-out hula hoops for prizes. If you got one in the bucket strapped to a team employee, you got a hundred bucks. Nobody got one in the bucket. I'm not sure anyone got anything at all. But Dad and I watched the endless rainbow of Slazengers and Wilsons rain down on the field, and took those last few minutes of the season together, as daft as they might have been. 

After all, they were at the ballpark, and we were together.

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