Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Jay B. Webster, baseball fan and father (and sports journalist), takes in a game with the family on a recent trip back to the US of A
As an American living abroad, I look forward each summer to traveling from my adopted home in Ireland to the Upper Mississippi River Valley in Western Wisconsin to reconnect with family, friends, food and the types of things that are only just right in the context of the place where I grew up.
As a baseball fan, these trips are also a chance to catch a game or two and enjoy an aspect of American life that has always been a big part of my life, and this year was no different.
On a sultry July evening, my wife, eight-year-old daughter, six-year-old son and I pull up to Copeland Park in the town of La Crosse, Wisconsin, population 52,000, where on this night we will take in a Northwoods League game between the La Crosse Loggers and the Mankato MoonDogs, who hail from across the Mississippi River in Minnesota.
The Northwoods League is a wooden bat circuit comprised of 20 teams made up of top players from university teams across the country. They play a 72-game summer season over 76 days, meant to expose players to a minor league experience as they chase their dreams of big league glory, while allowing them to maintain their college eligibility. The league, so it seems, has more teams, draws more fans and plays more games than any other summer collegiate baseball league in the country.
After walking up to the ticket window and purchasing prime box seats for the princely sum of $11 a piece, we stroll into the park. We intermingle with other families, tempted by alluring smells of hamburgers, hot dogs, popcorn and nachos wafting on the breeze, a palpable tinge of anticipation in the air.
We are in luck as it is Logger Dog bobblehead night, and we each get a small box with a figurine of the team's mascot inside, who appears to be a cousin of Scooby Doo with a Loggers jersey and baseball hat on. And while it's labelled as a bobblehead, his head doesn't actually bobble much.
Nonetheless, our kids are excited and delighted, taking in the sights and sounds, and I am infected by the sense of childhood wonder as we get brats (short for bratwurst, and while German in origin, an integral part of the Wisconsin summer diet) and a cold local microbrew for the adults, French fries, slushies and cotton candy for the kids, and make our way to our seats. The excitement ramps up a notch when Logger Dog himself appears on a four-wheeler that enters through the left field fence, joined by the team's other mascot, Louie Lumberjack.
The grass of the manicured field gleams a lush green in the evening sunshine, players get loose, playing catch on the outfield grass, the crisp white of the home uniforms gleaming, baseballs popping as they hit the gloves. Time slows as we settle in to watch another exhibit of America's pastime unfold before us.
As I peruse the program, I see that the Loggers are in their 15th season in La Crosse, playing in Copeland Park – also known as the Lumberyard – on the banks of the Mississippi. On the screen above the left field wall a message appears congratulating the starting pitchers of the upcoming Major League Baseball All Star game, Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox and Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals, both of whom, it turns out, were once La Crosse Loggers.
This strikes me as a fairly impressive circumstance, highlighting the various and meandering pathways that baseball players make while learning and plying their trade in order to reach the bright lights of the highest echelons of the sport.
Scherzer, a two-time Cy Young winner and five-time all star, pitched in 17 games for the Loggers in 2004, compiling a 2-1 record with a 1.91 ERA while striking out 50 batters in 33 innings pitched.
A six time All-Star, Sale pitched for the Loggers in the summer of 2008. Over 17 games he posted a 2-3 record with a 3.23 ERA. He also struck out 74 batters in 53 innings pitched.
The program also informs me that over 100 Logger players have gone on to play professional baseball, with 12 of them making it all the way to the big leagues, including current Milwaukee Brewer Eric Thames, who was the Loggers' MVP in 2007.
As game time nears, a crowd of 2,482 fans take their seats, the game-time temperature a comfortable 86 degrees (Fahrenheit), while the managers and umpires perform their pregame ritual of meeting at home plate to exchange lineup cards.
The PA announcer stokes the home fans with a rousing introduction of the hometown team as each player trots out to his position on the diamond. Then we all rise to 'honour America' as a young man belts out an impressive a cappella version of The Star Spangled Banner. The starting pitcher completes his warm up tosses, and it's time to "PLAY BALL".
And as the first pitch hits the catcher's mitt, we settle in for nine innings of baseball. The sun makes its way towards the horizon and a different sort of time takes over: baseball time. Baseball time has no clock. Baseball time is ticked off by balls and strikes, punctuated by the crack of the bat, and measured by outs and innings, rather than minutes and seconds.
Baseball time is timeless
Baseball time is timeless. It connects you to a million other baseball games played out on fields across the land, from village little league parks to Yankee Stadium, across decades, generations and centuries. Played out just like this game on this summer evening in this place.
Between innings we get dance-offs, kids racing around the bases with shopping carts to win a prize from a local supermarket, trivia questions. An usher comes and asks if our kids want to carry a sign through the stands between innings. They are rewarded with lollipops. Louie Lumberjack comes by for high fives.
Kids chase coveted foul balls. We join a steady stream of folks making trips back to the concession stand for popcorn, then ice cream. The innings tick by. The game turns into a pitchers' duel. Both teams put runners on base, but neither can push any runs across. The sun dips. The sky darkens, the lights take over, aglow in the summer eve.
It goes scoreless into the seventh inning before the MoonDogs plate the first run of the game, a solo home run over the right field fence.
It's time to stand and stretch between the top and bottom of the seventh, and we rise with the crowd to belt out "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "Roll Out the Barrel" (a Wisconsin favourite) with two and a half thousand strangers. "Root, root, root for the home team. If they don't win it's a shame."
Legend has it that the origins of the seventh inning stretch go back to an opening day game between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics at Griffith Stadium in 1910.
President William Howard Taft was in attendance, and according to reports, when the leader of the country decided he could keep his ample girth in his chair no longer and stood to stretch his legs before the home team batted in the seventh inning, the entire crowd followed his example out of respect, and a baseball tradition was born. Or so the story goes.
Back to 2017, and Mankato adds another run in the top of the eighth. While it has been a close and well-played game, there has not been a lot for the home team fans to cheer about.
Then in the bottom of the eighth, the Loggers put two on before Luke Rasmussen, a junior from Long Beach State in California, launches a blast into the summer night which clears the fence in right field. A jolt charges through the crowd, who are on their feet cheering as Rasmussen circles the bases. Our kids are delighted, jumping around, eyes shining. Three runs with one swing. Can you believe it?
Looks like they've got it in the bag now with just three outs to get. But no, the MoonDogs move ahead with five runs in the top of the ninth. It's getting late. Our little troopers are drooping after a long day, and we make our way toward the exits. We are hardly the only ones.
Logger Dog is hanging out by a gate down the left field line. He signs the bobblehead boxes and poses for pictures with the kids. Logger Dog is the best ever.
We trundle home, tired but happy. I check the game report the next morning and groan. Wouldn't you know it? The Loggers score five runs of their own in the bottom of the ninth, thanks to a grand slam home run by South Florida's David Villar.
It goes to the tenth, before Kennie Taylor from Duke lines an RBI single to give the Loggers an improbable and thrilling 9-8 walk-off victory.
In my pre-children life, I would never have left a baseball game early. It was a matter of principle. But times change, and children change their parents. No regrets. Ten innings would have been too much for us all.
But we got to spend that time as a family, to take in a game at the old ball yard, to step outside of time and participate in the timeless traditions that make up the game of baseball. Living abroad, it's one of the things I miss most. It doesn't have to be a trip to a big league stadium. Wherever you are in an American summer, you are never far away from a game. Every town in America has a ball park and a home town hero to play there.
Coming back to experience it anew gives me a renewed appreciation for the game, the comfort and familiarity of its rituals unfolding on a nightly basis across North America. We sat in a small town baseball stadium with 2,400 locals in what seems to be a somewhat fractured and divided country these days, but any differences were set aside. We were all simply baseball fans.
And so it has been for generations. Baseball is a part of the fabric of the country, it's a glue that helps to hold the heartland together, in town after town, from sea to shining sea. Where dreams of glory are played out again and again. Where dreams are born in a child's eyes as twilight fades on a warm summer's eve.
And it warms my heart to see it in my children's eyes, to help pass it on, as it was passed to me – a connection to history, to family, to community, to America, to memories; and to dreams, big and small.