Home of the the Cubs' AA affiliate...
“Come to think of it, Rich, we’ve never been to a game over there”, Zack reflected when I firmly broached the subject. Whether he and Penny decided to join us would never sway my plans to drag Phillip ninety plus miles to a AA baseball game.
“Good, then you’re in?”
“Yeah, we’ll do it!” Under other circumstances, I’d mention that he should ask Penny, but instincts told me she would be on board. “We just have to make a stop at a Lexus dealership to pick up a garage door opener that was forgotten.”
Uh oh, problem here. When it comes to baseball, I do not fool around. To arrive late for a game would ruin the night for me. It is almost as repugnant as leaving before the final out, even if one team has brought in their utility outfielder in the eighth to pitch with a twelve-run lead. Zack added, “It’s on the way there, this side of Knoxville. Should take no time.” I gasped a sigh of relief. It had already taken me too much time and effort to figure out when to leave and compensate for the hour difference between time zones. Just how does it work?
With Children In MInd
The fun starts even before the game...
If the game is at 7:15 Eastern time and it takes seventy minutes to get to Knoxville…wait, what if there is rush hour traffic? Oh, and the stadium is twenty minutes east of the city! Now that it’s 3:45 Central time, do we add, subtract, or take the square root of the next four hours and add pi? Best bet is to leave in early April. Sure enough we’d be there in time for the first pitch.
Or would we be late?
Baseball is therapeutic and its parks are stress-free retreats. It is the proper answer to cure winter’s anxieties, a renewal of which we are all in need. Reality is temporarily deferred to dreams. School children (some incorrigible and in need of a parental instep in their bottoms) on vacation pound their fists into the pockets of their gloves in hopes of catching a foul ball. Some gather in left field during batting practice to chance the ones that bounce among the plastic folding seats, batted by players who also fantasize of their careers advancing beyond the secondary urban mediocrity of Knoxville and Chattanooga. The bright lights and lifestyle of Chicago and Los Angeles is where they long to
At & T Field
Home of the Lookouts...
be, though so many will wind up having their aspirations crushed by superior talent.
Retired season ticket holders speak of each on the lineup as if they have breakfast with them twice a week. They invest their time and emotions in the players and refer to them by first name. At the minor league level, it is likely they cross paths in restaurants and at the grocery stores, inconceivable when multi-million dollar salaries forever sever the relationship and lifestyle between player and fan.
At a minor league baseball game, the National Anthem actually means something. Fathers remove caps from their sons’ crowns. The players bow their heads and heed a poignant moment; there are no thoughts of stock quotes on investments or closing on their second home in the Caribbean. Instead they and a youngster from a local little league stand side by side and face the Stars and Stripes. But for the singing, you could hear a pin drop, the way it should be. Between-inning entertainment includes a life-sized mascot of a taco and a “Ballapeño” in San Antonio. In Connecticut, folks resort of such sophomoric foolishness such as sumo-wrestling (participants have to suit up in stuffed costumes), a
Is he famous, Dad?
snorkel and flipper race, and a bungee cord tug of war. During one of the middle innings, a small child races one of the come-to-life food products from the Chick-fil-A “fowl” (get it?) pole to home plate. It may be hokey, but it appeals to our universal need to have fun.
Smokies Park, carved into a hillside alongside Interstate 40 east of Knoxville, is home to one such AA team. Penny took her fifty-dollar lottery winnings from the night before and bought the four of us tickets on the third base side. Phillip set up camp, having scouted out empty seats on either side of the stadium.
“Dad…” he tapped me on the shoulder. He pointed to the stands across the field from us by craning his neck and awaited my approval. I granted it by nodding my head and he was off just after he stowed his pack under one of our seats.
Penny and Zack watched as he took off. “What was that? Where is he going?” Zack lifted an ice-laden Mountain Dew to his mouth.
“He’s surveying. He always does this before a game.”
“Surveying? For what?”
“Where the best spot will be for a foul ball. He knows to go up the first base line for right-handed batters and over here for the lefties.”
“And you just let him go?”
“Not always.” I scanned to stadium to confirm my initial instincts. “But I have an eye on him and the place will not fill up. There comes a time where I have to give him some slack, even if I don’t want to. Anyway, I put his ticket stub in his jeans pocket and he has to check in with me at the bottom of every inning. Otherwise, he’s glued to me. His freedom is highly conditional.”
The game came down to the final out, tying run on third, and two strikes on the batter. “Strike three!” screamed the umpire, as he jerked his right arm across his chest like a piston. The batter never attempted a swing. The strongest cry of disappointment came from Penny. She had been in the game from the very beginning.
I reached for the backpacks and the four of us headed for the exit. Where is Phillip? Not on the first base line. Not in the left field pavilion. Then from behind came a tap on my shoulder, “Dad, look!” He held up his prize in his right hand in front of my nose, a baseball so new I could still smell the stitched cowhide. Over the red stitches I detected his smile, proud of his prize, even more so right before the end of the game. The printed script letters in black had been scuffed where the bat made contact with it before it was sent out of play. It was effortless to read the insignia, “Southern League.”
Chattanooga’s contribution to the Southern League is the Lookouts, or the Dodgers of tomorrow, as they advertise on their merchandising. Their mascot, emblazoned on their home and away caps, is an animated pair of eyes, the black pupils of which point up and to the right as if to keep vigil over a nearby mountain. The comic-book illustration wrapped in the letter ‘C’ would fit in ideally at the entrance of Rock City. The symbol is emblazoned on the tickets we received at a local grille where Phillip and I barely made a dent in the heap of jalapeño peppers we ordered sprinkled with a few chips, tomatoes, and melted cheese. Our waitress included them as a treat for having topped the bill over the magical $30 amount. Phillip’s assistance in running up the bill comprised of a steam shovel full of chocolate ecstasy cake, the antidote for any “Dad, I can’t finish anymore” comment.
The corporate connection to the Lookouts’ home at AT&T Field connotes a ballpark of greater proportions than its capacity of nearly 6,000. Unlike Smokies Park in the suburbs of Knoxville, it is a jigsaw piece nestled snug between a sharp bend of a highway and two four-star hotels in downtown Chattanooga. Of all the attractions in town, it is by far the most economical, and of course, the one “must see”. Its primary design flaw punishes spectators for the first three innings or so, as the sun sets ever so slowly over left field. From any other angle it appears as though fans are saluting the players on the field when in reality there are simply trying to avoid permanent damage to their retinas. Phillip inexplicably stayed put for the game, only pacing the first base line for spherical projectiles.
While adjusting his glove, a massive, rotund man approached him, having walked up from field level. I took little notice of him as I was engrossed in viewing recent pictures of Lookout Mountain and its legendary native gnomes. The elderly man with long strands of white hair combed straight back stuck out his hand at Phillip. “Hi there, partner!” he greeted my son. Phillip, having shaken many hands since his arrival in the South knew exactly what to do. His hand and wrist vanished in the palms of the older gentlemen surrounded by two Lookout staff members.
“Hi.” was all Phillip could muster.
“You gonna enjoy the game, right?”
“Good job” the man answered upon letting go of Phillip and walking onto the mezzanine level.
Phillip turned to me and inquired, “Dad, do you know who that was?” I peered back to catch a better glimpse of him as I had not when he spoke to Phillip. One look at him and there was zero doubt. Put him a Dodgers uniform with a red ‘8’ and the image would be complete.
“Uh, yeah, Phil. That was Tommy Lasorda who came up to talk to you. You might want to remember that.”
“Oh. Is he kind of famous you think?”
“Yeah, Phil. I think so.”
And with that Phillip uttered the unforgettable, tangential, yet timely comment, “I have to pee now.” He scattered off to the Mens room. His encounter with one of baseball’s greatest managers had come and gone.
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