Saturday afternoon I took on the “simple” repairs to my grill, which turned out to be a royal pain in the ass. More than an hour in and I was drenched in sweat and covered in grill soot; I finally figured out that they’d sent me the wrong part. I covered the grill, yelled at the kids to get shoes on, showered and rushed off on the drive to Wilmington.
It was the Blue Rocks, class A baseball, we had interviews lined up. Our last one.
The drive up sucked. The kids kept sniping at each other over song selection and singing over each other’s music picks. At one point I did the angry dad “brake stomp” and barked something threatening. Tears ensued. At 3:15 we reached the ballpark and I’m thinking: “Hoo boy, this game doesn’t even start for three hours.”
At the front office we were soon met by Geoff Arnold, the broadcaster for the Blue Rocks. Geoff whisked us up to the press box, told us to hang out, rushed out the door, came back a while later, got halfway through a tour of the room, left again…he really didn’t seem to know how to deal with us.
Still, Geoff’s interview went pretty well. Similar to answers we’ve heard from the broadcast guys we’ve interviewed. And like all of the guys we’ve met, Geoff was a heck of a nice guy.
“Batting practice ends in a bit, then we’ll set you up with a player to interview, I’ll be right back…”
Then he returned with an intern named Ben, and rushed off again. Ben is a junior at Rowan and turned out to be super nice. He talked baseball with Jack, asked Alex nicely to stop climbing things, and finally took us down to the field. The players were coming off the field and a black guy in mirrored glasses comes right up to us.
“Guys, this is Justin Trapp,” said Ben.
Jack shook his hand. Then Alex. Then me. Then Jack again. Then Alex again.
“Should we get out of the sun?” Justin said, and led us all up to the concession area. He found a table with folding chairs. I handed Jack the mini-recorder and the sheet with his questions. Justin took off his glasses and hat. Alex began vulturing with his camera.
I tried describing this interview to Shani the next day. Part of it was that they were sitting down, so they were at eye level – that made a difference. Jack usually looks at the ground and his paper during the entire interview. This one he looked right into Justin’s face the whole time. He spoke clearly and nodded as he heard the answers. Justin gave real answers too, especially when Jack asked him who his hero is.
Either way, they really connected. Something about Jack really seemed to hit Justin, I think. He seemed somehow invested in Jack and Jack’s project. It was 10 minutes tops, but really something special.
After that, Ben the intern got us our free tickets (!) and we headed into the stands, right behind home plate. Jack took his bat and sharpies and hustled off to get autographs – which at this point he is an expert at. Maybe that should be what the article is about – how to get autographs and snag foul balls. Jack got a TON more signatures and is now mentoring other kids. He was showing some other kids where to stand and loaning them his Sharpie. Some dugout worker even gave Jack a bag of sunflower seeds.
Back at the seats, Alex and I ate a bag of Cracker Jacks that I bought him because Jack refused to share his sunflower seeds. I’m getting to know the ritual and rhythm of the two hours before the game. The players go through their fielding warm ups in the outfield. The season ticket holders (baseball mutants) come in and mingle, chatting with the ushers. The field crew rakes and hoses down the basepath, then paint on the baselines and the strike zones. It’s like a Japanese rock garden – peace. And this time Elvis was blaring over the speakers – it was “Elvis Tribute night”.
Jack returned and we get dinner. The boys got pizza and Dr. Peppers. I got a big beer and peanuts.
The game was awful from the start. The Blue Rocks pitcher seemed to think it was still batting practice. It didn’t help that the first baseman made a series of exaggerated errors. The guy was like a security guard in a Disney movie trying to stop a mob of kids from rushing by him. Every ball would bounce right by him. Bad pitching plus bad fielding make for innings that last way longer than they should.
“This is gonna be a long one, boys,” I sighed.
In the 4th inning we went shopping. I’d told Jack he could get a souvenir from all these minor league games and he wasn’t taking no for an answer. He got himself a nice Blue Rocks hat (with a flat brim – grr) and Alex got…
[Photo taken the next day.]
“Alex, what the heck is that?”
“It’s Mr. Celery.”
“Yes – I’m definitely going to keep him in my carnivore basket.”
“I keep my stuffed animals separated between herbivores and carnivores. Mr. Celery definitely has to stay with the carnivores.”
“Are you seriously buying a stuffed celery…ahh..fine!”
I don’t know how, but it somehow, almost imperceptibly, became a good game. The whole thing had been played under the dead weight of being 6 runs behind. After eating their ice cream in the 7th inning, the boys had a big peanut shell fight. They scooped up handfuls and showered each other, and then started shoving them down each other’s backs, laughing wildly the whole time. Suddenly the boys were being nice to each other.
Justin Trapp got up to bat in the 8th inning. Jack stood in the aisle and pretended to be batting as well. Jack would watch the pitch come in and time his imaginary swing with the ball. Jack seemed oblivious to the crowd around him, but they sure weren’t oblivious to him. (You can kind of see it in this photo.)
Trapp walked, the next guy singled and then a huge double that brought in 2 runs. Suddenly some maniac in celery suit came rushing onto the field and the crowd roared. The Blue Rock’s mascot is a moose, so I didn’t know what the hell this celery guy is about.
Then Alex was bursting out of his seat and holding Mr. Celery high in the air. The boy ran down the steps and then charged down the main aisle, holding his stuffed celery like it was the Olympic torch. The crowd leapt to its feet and went utterly bullshit in response to Alex’s victory lap.
But alas…the Blue Rocks lost. The final score was 8-5, and in spite of the deadly start, the game was still under 3 hours.
“It’s late,” I said to Alex. “Where’s your brother?”
Jack was back down by the dugout leaning out at Justin Trapp. Justin was signing Jack’s hat. Then as Jack rushed over to us I noticed he was holding out a baseball.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Justin Trapp gave it to me. Look…”
Not only had he gotten Jack a ball. He’d gotten every player on the team to sign it. Needless to say, Jack was beaming.
All the guys we’ve interviewed have been nice, and the Nuckols crew officially wishes they all make it to the big leagues. But right there we decided that not only do we hope Justin Trapp makes it to the big leagues. We hope he is someday the league MVP. We hope he’s in the Hall of Fame someday.
“Technically, I know a player now,” Jack said sheepishly.
“That’s amazing, Jack. You guys ready to get out of here?”
“What do you mean?”
“We want to watch the concert. We want to stay up late!”
“It’s an Elvis impersonator.”
“We love Elvis! We want to stay up late!”
It was dark now and we moved over to a spot in the bleachers where the remaining crowd was gathering to watch the show. Then out rolls a John Deere tractor towing a stage with the giant letters: E-L-V-I-S. And you know what happened from there.
You could not have asked for a more perfect night. I had one of my boys on each side of me leaning against me. The raised highway of route 95 goes across left field and the skyline of Wilmington is in right. And an Elvis impersonator was right there shimmying and jiggling and singing his heart out. Minor league baseball at its absolute, picture-perfect best.
“We do find ourselves in some crazy situations, don’t we boys?”
So…I thought that was the ending. Fadeout to Elvis — the perfect finale to our tour of minor league parks. I could feel it as the ending. But I was wrong.
Elvis went long. Way long. The guy played over 75 minutes, and the boys refused to leave until it was over. On the drive home they got snippy with each other again, until Alex konked out. At 11:45 I finally got them home. Alex crawled into bed and fell asleep with one flip-flop on. Then I went in to say good night to Jack. In the dark room he spoke.
“Thanks, Dad,” he said. His voice was quiet.
“Thanks for helping me with this project. Thanks so much.”
And then his arms got around my neck like Venus Flytrap. (Shit, I’m even a little choked up as I write this.)
“Thanks so much, Dad.”
Hmm. We’ll see if he’ll still be thanking me once we start writing this article.
Now we’re done.