Foul Balls

by: David Sweet

A summer spent soaking in the thriving offerings of America’s Pastime….

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Was it only 21 years ago that Major League Baseball suffered a strike, the loss of the World Series and the anger and contempt of fans that lasted into this century? These days, baseball is flourishing, and this summer, I pulled my Buick Enclave out of our Chicago-area garage many times to visit Midwestern baseball parks – both minor and major – as well as the famous Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory.

JULY 11: TARGET FIELD, MINNEAPOLIS

Eating a bagel during my first visit to Minneapolis, with my wife off to the Minnesota wilderness to pick up our daughter Hannah from camp, my son David and I stared at a Saturday of nothingness ahead of us. No plans. No obligations. And then I thought: I wonder if the Twins are playing today?

We jumped on the light rail and emerged at the last stop, Target Field Station. We arrived as the gates opened two hours before the Tigers-Twins game, joining hundreds eager to take in batting practice at Target Field. Ball and pen in hand, my son David perched at the dugout, hoping for an autograph.

“Who did you get?” I said as he returned twenty minutes later, looking glum.

“Some old guy,” he said.

The signature was from Tony Oliva, the best non-banned player not to be in The National Baseball Hall of Fame. My son wasn’t impressed, but I sure was. While the national anthem was played by a string orchestra, a veteran raised the flag up its pole. As Jim Ronda threw out the first pitch, “Help Me Rhonda” played across the stadium. Target is a good-looking field with nice modern touches, such as platforms to recharge cell phones. It features a solid craft-beer selection, including Farm Girl, and favorites for the kids such as Dippin’ Dots. If I had nothing to do in Minneapolis again, I thought, I’d be back.

AUGUST 2: MILLER PARK, MILWAUKEE

Four boys packed in a small car can be deafening. To the driver’s unremitting happiness, we fastidiously reached the parking lot of Miller Park to watch the Cubs face the Brewers. To prove that any player is bobblehead-worthy these days, we each were handed one of pitcher Matt Garza, whose 5.17 ERA at that point in his 10th season hardly justified a $12.5 million salary.

Ensconced in the upper part of the stadium, I noticed the roof was half closed on the 94-degree day. Close it in full, and we would have enjoyed air conditioning. Open it in full, and we would have enjoyed some breeze. Instead, we sat in dead hot air, and the sun beating through the stadium’s high glass windows nearly created a greenhouse effect. Gazing at the retired numbers, the first one I had ever seen for an owner – Selig 1 – was perched high above left field.

AUGUST 6: LOUISVILLE SLUGGER MUSEUM & FACTORY

“This is our Fort Knox,” says Anne Jewell as we walk into a narrow room less than an hour’s drive from the nation’s gold repository. Rather than bullion, this vault is filled with wood – hundreds of Louisville Slugger bats in various sizes created for major league players from Honus Wagner to Buster Posey.

For a lifetime fan, visiting the site where the official bat of Major League Baseball is made is like a Bruce Springsteen aficionado wandering into a studio to watch The Boss record a song. Strolling the factory floor, one sees the final shaping of what once was part of an ash or maple tree. Thanks to modern technology, bats can be created in a little as thirty seconds before they roll onto a conveyor belt, and they are made within 1/100 of an inch of specifications. Nearly two million depart the factory each year for baseball at all levels, despite the dent aluminum bats have made in sales.

Jewell shows me the contract the late Chicago Cubs star Ernie Banks signed with Louisville Slugger more than 60 years ago. One signature had been removed – every contract requires two signatures, and one is seared onto the player’s bat. Back in the day, nearly all players received a set of golf clubs for signing, since the company made those too. Hank Aaron was an exception. Not a golfer, he accepted a $50 bonus check instead.

AUGUST 8: SINGLE A GAME, SOUTH BEND CUBS

Our family is a guest of owner Andrew Berlin and we are fully ensconced in the owner’s box above home plate. After he cheers the singer of the National Anthem following the final stanza, he offers us a buffet along with cold beers from the refrigerator.Berlin – chairman and chief executive officer of Berlin Packaging, which brings in about $800 million a year in revenues – purchased the former Arizona Diamondbacks affiliate on Nov. 11, 2011 at 11:11 a.m. Since then, it would almost be easier to say what hasn’t changed at Four Winds Field in South Bend, Ind.

Renaming the former Stanley Coveleski Regional Field is one alteration. New clubhouses, better food (including prime rib in the suites) and a $1.5 million performance center that features state-of-the-art batting cages open to fans are among the bigger changes. The switch this season to the Cubs, who are enjoying their own rebirth (Berlin is also a limited partner in the major league franchise) has spurred yet another attendance record at the 8,000-seat field, driven in part by the appearance of the Cubs’ No. 1 draft choice Ian Happ, and by endless promotions. On this night, a 40-inch flat-screen television is given away every inning.

During the game, Berlin walks around the stadium, passing children playing in jets of water and throwing away empty cups. Minor league baseball (my apologies, dear readers, if this is a tad arch) is a whole different ballgame. Thanks to Berlin, I was able to hit fly balls to my sons David and Ford in the outfield after the game. They also ran the bases. Entertainment is a huge key to bringing fans to the ballpark – and Berlin has figured out how to do it.

AND FINALLY….

This was the summer of procuring baseballs. Not by me, one who has never touched a foul ball much less grabbed one. But both sons (11 and 8) caught balls tossed by the Chicago White Sox’s catcher and another team member at U.S. Cellular Field, thanks to our seats behind the home team’s dugout. Arriving two hours early at Wrigley Field one summer night, they ended up with two more balls as they pleaded for ones near third base. And each brought one home off the field after the South Bend Cubs’ game.

The best way to top off the 2015 for this Chicagoan? A World Series victory by the Cubs, they of the 107-year-championship drought. Then just like my sons, I would have a ball.

 

David Sweet is a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and for NBCSports.com. His biography “Lamar Hunt: The Gentle Giant Who Revolutionized Professional Sports” about the founder of the American Football League, Major League Soccer and more, is available on Amazon.com. David can be reached at dafsweet@aol.com.

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