Entertaining to the End In Lakewood
9:30 a.m. is the earliest I have ever arrived at a professional ballpark in order to take in a game. 12:40 a.m. is the latest that I have ever stayed. Remarkably, both of these personal records were set on the same day — June 15, 2009.
As always, an explanation is needed. And, as always, I’ll do my best to provide one. What follows is part two of my latest not-so-amazing Minor League saga.
Part Two: The Late Show
(click here for part one)
The best part about attending a ballgame that starts at 9:35 a.m. is that it leaves plenty of time in the day in which to do other things — such as watching even more Minor League Baseball games.
So, after taking in the Reading Phils morning game at FirstEnergy Stadium, the next stop on our agenda was Lakewood’s FirstEnergy Park (I know, it’s easy to get confused). There, the Class-A BlueClaws were slated to take on the Delmarva ShoreBirds in a 6 p.m. doubleheader. With a less than a week to go in the season’s first half, the BlueClaws had a three game lead over Delmarva in the SAL’s Northern Division.
Therefore, this game had PLAYOFF IMPLICATIONS.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love PLAYOFF IMPLICATIONS, to the extent that I compulsively boldface those two words whenever they appear together. It’s just how I was raised. But, to me, PLAYOFF IMPLICATIONS were secondary to the opportunity to simply check out a ballpark I hadn’t been to. I mean, I write about Minor League Baseball for a living. Time to get out of the office and start living (even if it means charging it to the personal credit card).
Despite the near identical names and the fact that they both house Phillies affiliates, FirstEnergy Stadium and FirstEnergy Park couldn’t be any more dissimilar. Whereas Reading’s facility has that quintessential old-time feel, Lakewood is very much a 21st-century ballpark. Upon entering the stadium, one is immediately struck by its vastness. A wide, open concourse runs far down the baselines on each side before giving way to a paved path that loops around the entire outfield. There is plentiful grass berm seating, and room to spread out in nearly every direction. The park has over 6,500 seats, but can fit nearly double that many people because of its overall spaciousness. Behold, a diagram lifted from the team’s website:
The BlueClaws dropped the first game of the doubleheader by a score of 5-1. During the contest, fans were entertained between innings by spectacles such as a potato sack race, hoagie toss, and, of course, the eyeball race:
I was going to make a joke about why the red eye is in last, but, you know, it’s just too easy. So, moving on…
One thing that caught me off-guard was the blowing of the “last call” foghorn after the sixth inning. After all, it was still Game One of a doubleheader. Weren’t they going to sell beer in Game Two? My question was answered when an announcement came over the PA that “beer sales would resume after the first pitch of the second game.”
I am still confused by this temporary cessation of alcohol sales. I should have done some investigation reporting on the issue, but my predatory journalistic instincts had been dulled by nacho consumption (email me if you know the reason beer sales are halted between games of a doubleheader).
Between games, I introduced myself to BlueClaws director of promotions Hal Hansen. He graciously extended the invitation to participate in Game Two’s scheduled mascot race — an extravaganza in which pork roll, egg, and cheese are pitted against one another. These three ingredients form the basis of New Jersey’s signature sandwich (although the BlueClaws have discontinued it as a concession item due to low sales), and I immediately said yes to this most generous offer.
Hal told me to meet him on the concourse in the middle of the fourth inning, and that we’d run the race in the middle of the fifth.
The thing was, it took a LONG time to get to the middle of the fourth. While a light rain had been falling throughout much of Game Two, during the fourth inning a true deluge began. Play was summarily halted.
The skies cleared, eventually, and the game resumed after a 79-minute delay. At this point it was past 11 p.m., and only several dozen fans (out of an announced crowd of 5,314) remained in the ballpark. A gaggle of young hecklers took advantage of the situation and set up camp right behind the Delmarva on-deck circle, providing derisive commentary on the team’s every move. But beyond these boisterous individuals, the atmosphere could best be described as “tomb-like”. What had begun as a vibrant and well-attended evening had degenerated into a surreal late-night spectacle witnessed solely by hard-core fans.
And aspiring mascot racers.
Despite the delay, I had not forgotten Hal’s invitation to suit up and race. In the middle of the fourth, I wandered over to our designated meeting spot, fully expecting that he would tell me the race was canceled.
And that’s what he did tell me — at first. After all, the team’s on-field mc had already left, and there didn’t really seem to be a point in running for a virtually non-existent crowd. I took it in stride, but mentioned to Hal that I’d have to come back another time, because racing as “Pork Roll” was on my bucket list.
This comment was off-the-cuff and facetious, but it nonetheless seemed to strike a chord with Hal. “Let’s do it,” he said, his expression suddenly becoming one of steely resolve. “We entertain to the end.”
With that, we made our way into the bowels of the stadium, past the BlueClaws’ dugout and into the mascot room. I was Pork Roll, Hal was Cheese, and an intern whose name I neglected to take down (sorry, it was late) suited up as egg.
I had never been dressed as a Pork Roll before, and I soon learned that the bulky, wire-framed outfit provided limited range of movement and visibility. When the top of the fifth inning ended, we made our way through the tunnel (passing the befuddled grounds crew along the way), walked into the BlueClaws dugout, then up the steps and onto the field.
It was 11:56 p.m., raining, and I could barely see. Our presence was announced over the PA and the response was…dead silence. As we lined up next to one another, facing toward first base, all I could hear w
as the pop of the catcher’s mitt as Delmarva’s pitcher threw his warm-up tosses. The crowd, if it could be called that, remained quiet. Then, over the PA, I heard the following: “Ready, Set, Go!”
Now here is where I admit to being a bit too precious. Despite the fact that we were playing to an audience that was perilously close to zero, I wanted to put on a show. I purposely got off to a slow start, giving Egg and Cheese a nice 15-foot lead before I even began running. My thinking was that I would surpass them both en route to a dramatic come-from-behind victory. My thinking was flawed.
I was able to pass Cheese (sorry, Hal), but Egg was a veteran racer and therefore never in any real danger of relinquishing his lead as we raced around the basepaths. I had to settle for second place, and will forever be haunted with the thought of what could have been. For reasons not worth getting into, I have very little photographic evidence of this race. This is all that exists (wiggling through that dugout entrance was hard work, and one can observe that I had retracted my arms in order to consolidate myself as much as possible):
In the bottom of the fifth inning, we were once again the recipients of a torrential downpour. It was past midnight, and the game was official (the BlueClaws were up, 6-4), so I thought that the game was going to be ended right then and there.
But, no. This game had PLAYOFF IMPLICATIONS, so the tarp went back on. With no more mascot races to look forward to, all I could do was wait dejectedly on the concourse. Here’s a photo of my brother, Andy, and I as we attempt to stick things through to the end:
Fortunately, the end was near. The rains showed no signs of abating, and at 12:40 a.m. the game was officially called. While walking back to the car, I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that my day of Minor League Baseball had begun more than 15 hours earlier in Reading. But at that late hour my mind lacked the proper elasticity to fully embrace such information. So I gave up my efforts at mental expansion, opting instead to take a nice little nap in the car.
And during my nap, I dreamed. And in this dream, Pork Roll ran much faster than Egg. That’s the way it should be. One day, God willing, it will.