Minor Tales: The Seventh

There’s something about the idea of a summer evening at the ballpark… (via Dan Gaken)

From spring until summer’s end, there is a time recognized in every baseball game as more magical than any other. Nothing outside the concrete stadium walls matter. No hustle; just the calm. And the calm settles in from New York to Toronto to Vancouver to San Francisco, in every small town in between, all the way from the lowliest minor leagues to the lights of the World series. It happens at all different times of the day, and yet always at the same time. People stand. People stretch. And people sing. From Los Angeles to Lansing, it’s the same, the universal. The seventh is the perfect interruption in America’s imperfect game.

***

It was the middle of the summer, another sweltering, sweat-soaked day. I sat outside on a picnic table at Good Truckin’ Diner in Lansing, Michigan. I wouldn’t call Lansing middle America, but Michigan is a  middle state, swallowed up by two great lakes, an honest strip of land that pierces out into the wide blue on the map. And Lansing, itself in the middle of Michigan, is the home of the Lugnuts, a baseball team in the Midwest League.

While I was sitting on the picnic table outside of this fine American diner, an older lady approached me and asked me where I was from. I told her that I was from Toronto. “I meet lots of y’all Canadians here because of the ‘Nuts,” she said. “They’re a part of the Blue Jays.”

She seemed like a kind lady. I asked her what was good on the menu. “The Reo Town Burger brings the Lord to his knees,” she told me. I’m not sure I believe in the Lord, but I do believe in baseball oddities and the forces behind them. And I also believe that if there was a Lord and a burger could bring it to its knees, I’d want to try that burger.

So I had the Reo Town burger. It’s named after a neighborhood in Lansing that happened to be the neighborhood where this hip little diner operated. The Lord’s burger has bacon, drunken onions, bourbon sauce, and cheddar cheese on it, and it is served on an onion roll. And, to me, it tasted like America. It was perfect. Dangerous. I knew it could kill me, but I didn’t care.

There I was, a Canadian, diving into small-town America and tasting this fine land, holding it in my hands in an onion roll — me, the Michigan sun, BBQ sauce on my hands, and this burger. There I was, in Lansing, on a bench in Reo Town, there to watch the Lugnuts in a few hours.

***

While I sat on that picnic table, juices dripping down my face and a pile of napkins piling up on the old wood, Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, the voice of the Lansing Lugnuts, was hustling around Cooley Law School Stadium getting ready for the first pitch.

I thought about Jesse heading into the office around 11 in the morning, which was about the time I arrived in Lansing from Toronto. I’d hit the QEW at five, just as the sun kissed the western horizon, and drove the pavement south for close to six hours. I had been on the road all morning. Jesse was probably sleeping.

I’ve known Jesse for a few years. He was the first person I ever interviewed. He is a good human. Hardworking, too. He hustles every day, working on stat-packets for the coaching staff, media, and fans. He was probably working on those stat-packets while I was being swallowed up by the Lord’s burger. And I would hold one of those packets that night, once I washed the BBQ sauce and American grease off my fingers.

I remembered, as I thought of Jesse, that he had told me he likes to drop by the team’s English class to see how the players are doing. What a class that must be to teach: Imagine working on superlatives with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., or helping Eric Pardinho with the past perfect verb tense. With the fantasy of that English class playing in my mind, I managed to finish the Lord’s burger.

I decided to walk around Reo Town before the game, take in the sights. I didn’t walk long, though. The burger-induced lethargy got the better of me. I went back to my hotel. My eyes felt heavy, full of fat. I fell onto the mattress and drifted to sleep.

I woke up with a start at 8:30. Late! I splashed some water on my face and hurried out the door. The Reo Burger could bring the Lord or anyone to its knees, the lady had said; now I knew she was telling the truth.

Baseball, You Make It Hard to Love You
Again, a scandal puts fans on the defensive about their game.

By the time I arrived at the park, Jesse was singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” something he does at every home game. It was the middle of the seventh inning, and the Lansing crowd was in the middle of the stretch. Singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is Jesse’s ode to Harry Caray. No glasses, though, but all heart. And I missed most of it. The game. The stretch.

***

That night, the Great Lake Loons were playing the Lugnuts. It’s a classic Midwest League rivalry. I can’t tell you the score, or who won; the Lord’s Burger made sure my memory would be limited.

When I go to minor league games, though, I don’t really care too much for the score. I like to watch for specific players, plays, swings, belts, and pitches — for the moments that players create, the ones that can be held onto. I like to soak in the atmosphere. That night, unfortunately, I had mostly soaked in grease. Most of the game’s moments had been lost to me.

After the game, I went up to the press box and met with Jesse. He asked me what I thought of the top half of the seventh.

“I missed it, man,” I said.

Jesse looked at me a bit confused, as he knew that I drove all the way from Toronto to watch the game. I told him traffic was bad. I wasn’t proud that a burger had knocked me out into my cheap hotel mattress. It felt shameful, really. Shameful enough to lie to a good person.

Once, as a kid, I lied to everyone in my class and told them that I had a black belt in karate. The next day, I showed up wearing my gi and I stole my mom’s black belt that went with her fall coat. I tried to pass it off, but Dwight didn’t buy it, and he made sure to let everyone in the third grade know. I just wanted to be like the karate kid. It was the ’80s. I wanted to be as cool as Ralph Macchio.

Everyone caught me in the act, the act of my lie. It was shameful, really. Me wearing my gi, black belt wrapped around my waist. I was only eight years old. How could I have thought I’d pass that off? I lied to Jesse, too. It wasn’t as bad a lie, but I wore the burger like I wore that black belt. I was defeated. Yellow.

I needed to know more about what I missed in the seventh. So I sat there and listened as Jesse told me about the Loons manager and their starting catcher — how they were thumbed out of the game by the home plate umpire. How, not too long after that, the inning ended when the ump called their batter out on strikes — which didn’t help de-escalate the situation. There may be nothing more mind-boggling in this world than an umpire’s strike zone in the Midwest League. It’s a vast moving space, a place that defies all logic and physics.

The batter looked at the umpire. His temper went from a simmer to a boil. He let the ump have it; ejection number three ensued; the Loons batter let loose. Jesse, who had to get ready to sing in the seventh, switched his microphone on while the dramatic scene at home plate continued — a scene rich with shouting, hand gestures, and cusses that pierced the air.

At this point, the P.A. announcer was looking at Jesse expectantly, but he wasn’t going to interrupt the drama unfolding below. He held up his left palm as to say, “Hold up, not yet.”

The batter finally quit on the fight with the ump and called it a day. And eventually, the Loons began to take the field — but not without more drama. The starting second baseman threw a comment over his shoulder at the umpire, and he was gone, too.

And I missed all of it.

I looked out the press box window and down onto the field, imaging this thrilling baseball scene happening before my eyes, filling in the gaps on the now-empty grass. Six hours of driving. I was probably parking my car while this baseball drama unfolded, or maybe I was running through the Cooley Law concourse. Either way, wherever I was, Jesse was holding a mic and trying to figure out when to start singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Jesse watched as the just-ejected second baseman took his case to the ump. The Loons were still holding back in the dugout. Jesse still held his palm in the air, feeling that it was disrespectful to interrupt this conflict, and knowing that he had plenty of time still to sing. After all, there still weren’t any defenders on the field.

If I were Jesse, I probably would have broken right into the song while all of that was happening, but that’s because I think that would have been funny. But umpires don’t share my sense of humor. Just ask Derek Dye, who was the Daytona Cubs’ intern DJ back in 2012. He decided to play “Three Blind Mice” to poke a little fun at the umpires, who were having a rough game. The crowd was entertained, but home plate umpire Seneca didn’t take too well to the fun. He turned around and, with one gesture, ejected Dye. As the story goes, the ump yelled, “You’re gone. Do not play, ‘Three Blind Mice.’ Turn the sound off for the rest of the night.”

Suffice to say Jesse didn’t want to be the next Derek Dye.

The control room, not knowing what to do, now piped in with some music, thus sparing kids’ ears from the language being spoken down below. Finally, the Loons’ pitcher stuck his head in the dugout, shrugged, and headed out to the mound. Jesse took that as a cue, gestured that he was all set to go, and launched into “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in as respectful a way he could.

“I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life,” Jesse told me.

I will never forget the look in Jesse’s eyes as he said that, closing his story in the fading light of the press box in the evening.

And even after driving for six hours just to miss the game, even after my burger-related misadventures, even though I wasn’t there — I will never forget looking out of his broadcast window and down onto the infield and thinking, “Neither will I.”


Ryan is a lover of birds and all things minor. He writes for Blue Jays Nation dot com.

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