Minor League Odyssey – Day Five (Game Three) - Elizabethton
by, 08-05-2012 at 02:39 PM (1182 Views)
I show up at the ballpark not really knowing what to expect. It is, by far, the smallest of the parks I will be attending (cap. 1500), which is to be expected for a rookie league team. It turns out to be basically a junior college or division III field. That being said, it does have character. It turns out I am visiting on a busy night. As I park the car and walk to the gate, I hear live music coming from inside the concourse. There is a fundraiser going on for the local United Way, with prize giveaways and an opportunity to make a $5 donation, which gets you into the game (I assume the United Way and the city have negotiated in advance how that will be divided between them). In addition, they are celebrating “Christmas in August.” Sitting in the reserved seats behind the plate one can look left and see a green plastic inflatable Christmas tree; Santa Claus prowls the field before the game and walks the concourse during it, greeting young and old fans alike; in between innings Christmas carols come over the loudspeaker, instead of the normal between-inning music.
The ballpark itself is fairly standard – a small section of $6 reserved seats behind home plate (with a banner commemorating Kirby Puckett’s 1982 season in Elizabethton) and two general admission stands (a larger one down the first base line and a smaller one down the third base line) for $4. I checked the website before the game, and a season ticket for reserved seating (34 games) will set you back a whopping $100. I suspect the setting will be the most inspiring of the cities I visit. Looking out over the center field fence you see the Blue Ridge Mountains rising up before you. Turn your head over to the left and slightly behind and you can watch the Watauga River flow silently but swiftly along the green area surrounding its banks. There is a one concession stand (which I have not sampled yet but will Sunday) and a souvenir stand, selling all your traditional gear.
I enter the game itself hoping for great things from the Twins, based on their record, but it turns out not to be their night. The umpires come out and meet with the managers, the anouncer gives the starting lineups, and it is only then that I realize who I’m looking at – Dale Ford, a former MLB umpire whose 25-year career ended during the ill-advised mass resignation in 1999. Currently serving as a member of the Tennessee legislature, he must still find time to be involved in the game, as there he is calling balls and strikes behind the plate. I find out later that he lives in the Johnson City area.
Unfortunately, the rest of the highlights of the night belong to Danville, whose starting pitcher, Lucas Sims (Atlanta’s top pick in the recent draft, from a high school in Georgia), is basically untouchable for five innings. Regularly getting ahead in the count and seemingly inducing ground-ball outs at will, Sims shuts down the Twins lineup, surrendering only one hit (a shallow blooper from Rhodes in the second) and only letting three other balls leave the infield (all fly outs). He leaves the game after five innings, striking out five and walking one. Meanwhile, on the other side, Angel Mata keeps it close for four innings, pitching well if not quite as commanding as Sims. He also has five strikeouts and, with a solo homer in the first being the exception, looks like he is dueling Sims fairly close. He does also give up a run in the second, but while he did put the runner on base it is a poor throw on a stolen base attempt and an error on the shortstop that allows him to score. Then, in the fifth inning, in a deja vu of my second game in Beloit, the wheels come off for the Elizabethton starter. His control vanishes, he ends up walking three batters and giving up another single, and before you know it the Twins are down 5-0. Josh Burris, Tyler Herr and Luke Bard do a good job preventing any further damage, but it will end up costing the Twins the game. Elizabethton does finally get a couple across in the eighth inning, with Jorge Polanco hitting a nice blast over the right field fence for a two-run homer, and when the ninth inning comes around you do get the sense that anything is still possible (as the Twins have pulled off comebacks like this more than once this year). When they get a couple men on with one out, you can feel the palpable anticipation and hope from the crowd (most of whom have stayed this long). Only to end with a whimper and a 5-2 Danville victory.
Like most clubs, Elizabethton has it’s share of between-inning contests for kids. I was surprised at first that the announcer doesn’t bother to explain how the contests work; they just say “Now it’s time for the rubber chicken toss” or “On the field we have our twirling bat contest.” I suppose they just assume that everyone there has seen them so many times they already know how the thing works (which in most cases is probably correct). The one I appreciated most was the “Hillbilly Horseshoe” contest, where a T-ball stand is placed on the sideline and two small children take turns throwing painted toilet seats trying to get them around the post. Gotta love that self-deprecating humor!
While my focus in this blog is on my baseball experiences, I may also take some time to talk about other parts of my journey. The previous two days were spent driving down from Janesville to Johnson City, Tennessee, stopping to visit some friends overnight in Illinois and then stopping again in Kentucky at a Super 8. I’m using my Tom-Tom GPS to guide me, and I have it set to “shortest route” rather than “shortest time.” As a result, while I still spend a fair amount of time on the interstate highway system, I am also getting some miles on other highways, giving me a chance to really see good chunks of this country (which is one of the secondary reasons I am on this trip). The strategy really pays off once I get into Kentucky and head toward Tennessee. Winding my way through the Appalachians on curving two-lane roads gives a thrill that you just can’t get when you’re going 70 in a straight line on a bland piece of concrete. Both the scenery and the driving experience may turn out to be some of the non-baseball highlights of the trip.