Baseball Memories

His voice was gravelly, not particularly low in pitch, and strident. You could hear him clearly from his stance behind the catcher at home plate to the top row of the filled large grandstand and beyond, to the parking lot. This resounding voice was one that I emulated.

I don’t even know the name of my childhood hero. My dad knew his name, though. I went to the American Legion baseball games downtown on summer evenings with my dad and younger brother. My older siblings probably were busy with their friends, and my mother didn’t go to the games, either. She was always interested in sports; in fact, she particularly loved basketball. But I suspect she was happy to have a little peace and quiet after a busy day with the four of us “monsters,” as my dad referred to us kids. “Hi, Carl,” a friend of my dad might say. “Are these two your youngest?” “Yea!” my dad would affirm. “I have four monsters.” We weren’t really monsters. I liked it when Dad called us that, though. The way he said it, it sounded like he was serious and funny at the same time. On the nights when our home team played out of town, my dad, two brothers and I would toss around a baseball in the backyard. Sometimes Dad or my older brother would pitch a wiffle ball to us for a little batting practice, but usually, we just grabbed our mitts and threw a hardball.

My dad always would sit in the same section of the grandstand with other men he knew; down the middle aisle a few rows, and then to the right. I don’t recall other kids sitting in the group, but there may have been. These were special times. I knew my way around the park, but I rarely left my spot on the bleachers. Baseball was serious business. I knew all the players by sight and by uniform number. I knew which positions they played. I knew if they were right- or left-handed batters and pitchers. I knew if they were good hitters. I knew which players were most likely to hit foul tips, pitch after pitch after pitch. I remember when the team started hitting with aluminum bats, with that high-pitched dink echoing in the park, and thinking that I much preferred the crack of a wooden bat. I frequently pondered why I had never seen a ball sail over the center field fence, and one time when I mentioned it to my dad, he told me that the center field was so deep, I probably would never see a home run hit there.

During this time, I remember going to Yankee Stadium with my dad and uncle and cousin and younger brother. It was a thrill, but the playing field actually disappointed me. My hometown ballpark’s outfield was at least as big, bigger, actually. But one thing we didn’t have at home was this crew of guys in uniform unrolling and then later rolling tarps over the infield. It was like watching a precision drill team. In seconds they were done. And unlike my hometown’s park, this stadium held thousands of fans, and we sat in real seats, not bleachers. The usher showing you to your seat dusted it off with this big mitt he wore on his hand. It was a very hot day, and my dad and uncle bought us sodas to drink. Cokes. What a treat. Carrying large trays of soda cans, these guys would run through the stadium, going up and down the stairs, yelling with a strong New York accent, “Soda Here! Get your iced-cold soda here!” Then, dad or my uncle would call the guy over, and pay a dollar for each soda they bought. That was a lot of money. The guy positioned a metal opener with his thumb on top of it and punched a circular row of triangular cuts through the top of the can. He was fast! Punch. Turn. Punch. Turn. Punch. Turn. Then he would drain the entire can at once, upside down, into a large paper cup, hand it to you, and repeat the process, rapidly filling cups until the order was complete. Throughout the game there was so much to see. People held signs. “Yankees eat Tiger meat!” was one I’ll never forget. The baseball was great, the crowd was loud, we clapped to the stadium’s organ music, cheered for double plays and stood and yelled for home runs. What a day!

This was major league baseball. I couldn’t believe how many different baseballs the umpire had handed to the catchers. We saw some famous players on the field that day. These were people I had read about in the sports pages and watched on TV. But I just couldn’t get over a couple of things. I didn’t want to complain to my dad and uncle; I had been taught that you just don’t do that. Yet this feeling, this thing, gnawed at me. For starters, how come our hometown field was larger than the professional field? That just seemed wrong. Weren’t the major league fields huge? And in the eyes of this little kid, something was off with the umpire. He called the strikes with a quick punch of his right fist and yelled “Strike” loudly and briskly. He did a fine job calling the game. I don’t remember any plays that angered the crowd. We never saw players brawl, and no one was tossed out of the game. Yet, we had driven all this way and this was supposed to be professional. What was it?

And sitting in the back seat of the long drive home, something in me crystallized. I decided then and there that someday, when I grew up, I was going to be the first American League woman umpire. I had never seen a woman umpire at any of the high school games or American Legion games we watched. I had not seen women umps at Little League games in town. And I certainly had never seen one on televised games. But why not? I knew I could do this. I loved baseball. I went to games. I studied the pitches as they came over the plate, and though I was always on the first base line at the local ballpark, the calls that I made in my head were usually good. I compared them with what the umpire called, and also with how my dad and his friends described them. I watched baseball on television; there the camera angle was great and it was fun calling the game with my dad and brothers. I figured I had what it takes. I read, watched, listened, and practiced. I practiced hard.

Back in town, every time the hometown umpire called a strike, I reiterated the call in the stands, just as loud, and with as much gusto, complete with arm movements. He’d yell, “Stir-RIIIKE,” in two syllables, accent on the second, elongated syllable. I yelled, “Stir- RIIIKE!” He would pump his fist and right arm, swinging back to front at the elbow and back again, many times, while yelling “Stir- RIIIKE.” I pumped my right fisted arm back to front many times. He put a lot of energy in his fist and arm pumps. I put a lot of energy in mine. I practiced his call for “balls”, but this wasn’t as dramatic as the strikes call, so that wasn’t my main focus. This umpire was the best! And someday, I would be just like him. This was the thing that bothered me ever since going to Yankee Stadium; that umpire had fallen short in my eyes. He was not as good, as compelling as my idol behind the plate at the American Legion games.

One Saturday afternoon I heard my mother and father talking at home. I was breezing through the house on my way outside to play. I heard my dad say the word “baseball.” I had to listen; they were talking about the most important thing in the world. Dad told my mother how I would sit in the stands and emulate the umpire’s calls. Every single one! I think I even heard the word “embarrassing” once when he described my behavior at the park. But I never heard another word about it. I actually forgot about it for a long time. My dad didn’t mention it to me. My mom never pulled me aside to ask me to stop practicing at the park, or at least not to yell so loudly. They never said, “Stop screaming ‘Stir-RIIIKE’ all the time!” At some point that summer I told Dad my plans to be the first American League woman umpire. He never laughed. He just kept playing catch with us after dinner, and taking us to the games.

I see now I had two heroes.

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The Chase Is On (Part II, following “Ready, Set, Launch!”)

Even when the kids are all grown up, a mother can’t help being a mom. I insisted on sharing my warmest clothing with my daughter, who was going to wake up in the middle of the night to attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with me. She was jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, and a very good sport, but at least I could help her stay warm. The locals called the temperature the previous morning “chilly,” my California senses found it “freezing,” and my daughter, an East Coaster, might handle it well now, but I’m an unapologetic mom.

We grabbed a coffee and breakfast at one of the many booths set up next to the field. So early, and all these people are working, making and selling food, inviting the public into their spaces, offering jewelry, native Indian art, handmade clothing, furniture, trading pins, all things balloon-related, and tchotchkes. High school band kids walking through the crowds sell balloon Fiesta calendars as a fund-raiser. The temporary lighting in this area is good even though the sky is star-filled. And in the adjacent dark giant field, balloonists, the pilots and the crews, are also hard at work.

After the warm breakfast, we are ready to hit the field. Balloons are carefully being spread out and inflated on the cold, wet grass. We look at all the different types of balloons and marvel at them, the colors popping, even against the dark sky and unlit field, the styles, artistic swirls, timeless patterns and whimsical themes, and the woven baskets, those Old World vessels of beauty in a high tech world. We talk to team members. Some people have accompanied a single balloonist for years, using their hard-earned vacation time each year “to crew.” Others volunteer at this event and assist many different pilots, with a love for the sport and a hope of being asked to ride in the gondola during a mass ascension.

The public can pay to ride. There is a tent set up with long lines of people waiting to secure a spot in one of the larger gondolas that hold a dozen people or more. On my plane flight to Albuquerque, I spoke to a person who had arranged for his entire book club, on board that flight, to ride in a gondola that weekend. Their sense of excitement was contagious.

And as my daughter and I wandered through the field, photographing, pointing, smiling the whole time, talking to people, and trying to stay warm, we began to feel a connection with this place, with the energy of this crowd, with something so foreign to us and yet so comfortable. We connected with these people, these balloons, and the passion for something requiring hard work, practice, knowledge, experience, a love of beauty, and a desire to explore, to test oneself, and to do it the way it has been done for generations.

One pilot was unrolling his balloon alone. I stopped and asked him if he needed a hand but he looked up at me and said, “No.” He preferred to do it alone. Everybody else had other people helping; perhaps he had a crew coming? I didn’t know the first thing about this process except for what I had witnessed that morning, and the day before. So my daughter and I wandered on through the field and talked and enjoyed our time together; how I loved sharing this incredible event with her.

Over the years, my family has been quick to point out to me that I am always talking to people, “To Strangers!” they would exclaim. I thank my Dad’s Italian heritage for that – he and his siblings, and our relatives in Italy are not reserved individuals. We love to talk to people, to listen to others tell their stories and to add our own to the mix. It’s cultural. It’s who I am. And it’s a good way to connect with others. It’s not something I set out to do, it’s just what happens, and this day was no exception.

So we started to talk to a gentleman with this one beautiful balloon. He and a couple of other people were preparing it, opening it on the ground, and I just asked again, “Could you use any help?” “Yes!” I had to ask if he meant this. Maybe he didn’t understand. “Yes” again. My daughter looked at me with this huge smile on her face. We had seen the balloons being prepared and filled, tilting as the heated air turns them skyward, and ascending, but now we were going to be a part of it!

It turns out that the pilot, a Mr. David “Lopper” Lopushinsky from the Province of Quebec, Canada sewed this remarkable balloon himself. This one piece of information is unfathomable to me. I am no sewer, and have trouble seeing things “spatially.” And this gorgeous, multi-colored spiral step balloon was created by hand? On a sewing machine in his living room? It’s striking and it’s perfect, pure and simple. The pilot’s wife, Ms. Leslie Manion, is the Crew Chief. They were very sweet to us and told us that they were a little short-staffed that morning and welcomed the help. My daughter and I think they were magnanimous and could have taken care of business just fine without a couple of neophytes in tow, but we will remain forever grateful.

As we held the strong rope lines of the balloon, the pilot turned on a powerful fan that rapidly inflated it while crew members continued to spread out the uninflated sections. I had stashed my camera near the towing vehicle, and a passer-by used it at my request to take a few snapshots of “the Mother and Daughter” team doing something we were fairly certain would not be believed without the shot. My daughter playfully said, “Only my mother would get us on a crew!” I laughed. Well within the time allotted to us by The Zebras, the folks sporting the black and white referee-style shirts who manage the order of balloon ascension, Pilot Lopper told us to continue holding onto those lines, but to turn our heads away. Oh man! Out came the flames! The heat! The noise! The thrill! And the energy it took us to keep “Wicked,” the name of this beautiful baby, in one place really surprised me. We were holding our lines with everything we had as the propane burner did its job. I’m not too weak of an individual, and my daughter is an athlete. But this was work! And we loved it. And soon, Wicked tilted, and then you could see her colors spiraling upwards, and there she was. Vertical. Stunning.

The pilot jumped into the gondola and we were invited to put our weight on the sides of the basket, Quickly! We were holding onto Wicked right before ascension. Amazing! There were two men in the gondola now, and the next thing I knew, we were told to let go and off she went. (I really have no idea if balloons are given female status, much like sea vessels, but it seems right to me.) I grabbed my camera to photograph this sight being directly underneath her. Wicked was now gaining altitude along with dozens of balloons. I thought we could pick out this balloon from all the others, but then I realized that many of the balloons were spirals, and so in less than a minute’s time, I started to doubt that my eyes were following the correct balloon.

Knowing that the ground team was about to take off for the chase, I asked if someone could please just let us know when the balloon landed; the mother in me that always demands a safe-arrival call, text message or email from visiting family and guests, wanted to make sure that Wicked descended safely and that her team was well. Minutes before, we had been told that the winds were Easterly. The pilot said that when winds go toward the East, he looks to put the balloon down quickly. There are too many hazards to contend with when the balloonists don’t have the “Albuquerque box.”

“The Albuquerque box?” We learned about wind conditions next. This is when the lowest winds move in one direction and the higher winds move in the opposite direction, and pilots take advantage of these winds to steer. So the way I understand it is that pilots take off, fly, and land in the same spot, and the ground gazers never have to move to witness the whole thing. Pilots ascend to the lower area where winds push the balloon from the north to the south.  After a time going south, they ascend a bit by turning on the burner, and the winds carry the balloon back to where they started. Then they can descend again, and catch the lower wind and once again drift towards the south, and re-ascend to catch the north-bound winds. Pilots do this for quite a long time, keeping an eye on their fuel gauge, descending, ascending, and the winds will bring the balloon back each time.

But today, there is no Albuquerque box, and Wicked’s pilot, and all the other pilots, need to avoid the high tension wires and the mountains in the not too distant East, and find a landing site. Now the mother in me is getting even more anxious about the crew’s safety, even though they have been doing this for years. But they just looked at me strangely when I asked them to keep me posted on their flight. “Aren’t you coming with us?”

Again, my daughter and I exchanged meaningful and puzzled looks, and I asked them to repeat, please. “Aren’t you coming with us?” “You want us to come and be on the chase team with you?” They didn’t seem to think this was out of the ordinary. My daughter and I smiled at each other and at our good fortune and at our most wonderful hosts, and jumped in the chase vehicle. What a rush!

Leslie communicated with her husband, and we were off. Our Crew Chief handed us cards with the photo of Wicked so we could identify their balloon among all the balloons in the sky. From the air, it must be tough to keep an eye on which exact streets you are crossing, and my daughter and I activated our own phones’ GPS systems which were different from the Crew Chief’s system, and after a short drive through town, the team found the street where Lopper told us he was descending. We didn’t know it but there are two parks on that residential street, and we took a right on the street because we could see a large park, instead of a left. It took us several long minutes to turn around and reach the second, much smaller park, where “we” found “our” balloon, because the entire street was jammed with chase vehicles. Balloon after balloon had descended in that large park.

By the time we reached Wicked, a dad and his young son and some other people had helped Lopper land. The story is that as the pilot targeted this area, making his descent over the homes in this residential neighborhood, a family about to sit down to breakfast saw Wicked passing over their house. They realized the balloon was headed straight for their little park. So dad and his son took off, running down the street, following it. Dad had “crewed” before! Lopper fixed his spot on the grass next to another balloon, still fully inflated, and with no room to spare, came down softly without a hop. The kind neighbors grabbed hold of the gondola to secure it, and even helped prepare the balloon to be re-packed.

My daughter and I also helped squeeze the air out of that colorful fabric. According to the autographed cards we were given, Wicked, a 77,000 cubic feet balloon, weighs 180 pounds! It takes a fair amount of strength to work the balloon, tie it up in sections, fold it, and pack it back up. Leslie handed out a little keepsake pin to the father and son team who had been so helpful. When done, the crew playfully “stuffed” the little boy in the basket much to his delight and our cheers.

On the ride back to the field, my daughter and I were so happy. Everyone was safe. The balloon was in perfect shape. We had learned so much. The team was wonderful. We had experienced something we could only have dreamed about. And then, we were asked if we would like to relax with everyone and share a beverage upon return to the field? These people were amazing!

I don’t know how many times we said, “thank you” to our hosts, but it never seemed like enough. Their “Yes” reply to my silly little question asking if we could help was a life-changer for me and my daughter. We have the photos, the treasured pins and cards they gave us, and our memories. Also, we have the experience of what happens when you ask a simple question without giving thought to exactly what that question and request means for the people answering it, and they still respond in the affirmative. We have glimpsed a world of old-fashioned beauty, of industrious, creative, tenacious, smart, thoughtful people with a great sense of humor who seek adventure and drive thousands of miles to practice their craft. We have witnessed humanity at its best, most giving and open-hearted, sharing in the magic they make without reservation. And it was magic.

The Balloonist’s Prayer

May the winds welcome you with softness.

May the sun bless you with its warm hands.

May you fly so high and so well that God

joins you in laughter and sets you gently

back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

For more information on the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and this prayer, please go to http://www.balloonfiesta.com