This is a bittersweet time in our little town. It is sweet because we've survived the whirlwind season of back to back to back games. Still, the bitter comes from the approaching farewell to the Padres hopefuls we've come to know and enjoy. Our season is mid-June through the end of August (before playoffs). So, forgive me if this seems an overly sentimental Fanpost. I'm about to say good-bye to an entire team of prospects we've emotionally invested in for the last two and a half intense months (not to mention the ballpark of people who have joined us on this ride).
The Pacific Northwest is a different kind of place. We like our temperatures between 65-75 degrees. We don't mind cloud cover and we ALL have opinions. It's probably the only place in the country where a girl can wear a modern shredded fairy godmother skirt into a grocery store (on a baseball theme night) and not get a second look. It's also probably the only place where a baseball park can have a two hour line for a Duck Dynasty fan appearance and an equally passionate fan representation on Grateful Dead Night. So, imagine how we feel about our single-A short season baseball team (and our football but that's a post for another blog)!
In my first season following the Ems, I remember one of my favorite fans trying to explain how to better educate fans in our stadium. It all started with the stat sheet, well... and a roster, and the line-up, and score cards and well... why don't we do a better job announcing pitching changes? He had so many ideas but like I said, we have lots of opinions. Four years later, I've been to every single home game. Admittedly, I have the best seat in the ballpark. I see the field, the fans, and lots of chaos in between. I see children screaming in terror or delight as our mascot approaches and I hear the sighs and groans of our most ardent fans as they "coach" and "umpire" from high in section 7. It is magical.
I realize not all girls would find this magical. I grew up watching my father play USSSA softball around the country. I spent my young life at softball parks. Its not the same as the day after day rhythm of professional ball but you get used to spending hours on end watching a little white ball cross the plate (or not) and players struggling with the mental composure to endure game after game after game. You learn how to keep score in a proper score book, to ump from the stands and to reward your team faithfully with joyful celebration! This upbringing prepared me well for our game last Sunday.
Sunday games at PK Park begin earlier than games on other days of the week (either 1:05pm or 5:01pm) and last Sunday was no different. We began the game at our usual 5:01pm. A few of our regular fans were missing and it was the kind of day when someone might say, "But my seat is in the sun, isn't there anywhere else to sit? (mostly because the majority of our population melts over 80 degrees)" Perhaps here I should also say that Sunday fans seem more serious. They always have their stat sheets, they know their players better and darn it, they are there to watch a ball game.
38 minutes into the game, we were still in the first inning and already were in need of a pitching change (score Ems 5 - Hops - 1). This game was clearly going to last forever. The game was back and forth evening up by mid-five. A recent article highlighted how the heart of young players differentiates them professionally and if there is one thing the Ems showed on Sunday it was heart. It is easy for a team to jump out to a big lead, ride the momentum and just hoping to get out of the remaining innings. Its quite another when your opponent covers that lead in your home stadium in front of your best fans and pushes you all the way down the stretch.
The mental component of baseball is the hardest part for me to watch. I love the player stories, the journey they take and watching them build their careers (i.e. the Ken Burns approach to baseball). What I struggle to watch is the way young players are affected by the mental fatigue that happens when they hit a slump, when they are too tired from playing too hard, or the paralysis that comes when a team gets into a young pitcher's head.
But for nearly five and three quarters hours, the Ems and the Hops battled it out - fatigue and all. At one point even our fan-favorite first baseman, Trea Santos, moved to pitcher to start the 15th inning. The ballpark buzzed with excitement. It snapped the weary faithful to attention. Was he really going to pitch? Ooo! How exciting! (incidentally: He did a great job and got us out of two innings with minimal anxiety. I honestly can say I've never seen an infielder pitch that well in an actual game).
For baseball purists the delirium of a more than five hour baseball game should have been sheer joy. The pitchers dualing out the game and players executing well and then struggling (giving lots of opportunity for stadium-based coaching), each of these things should be a baseball purist's delight. But as I looked around Sunday night at the few hundred people left in the 17th inning, it was a motley crew. You had young and old, baseball enthusiasts and teens avoiding going home, people in unusual dress and preppy business types.
Perhaps it is the delirium of the closing season but the heart and soul of the team, the players (and fans) who stayed after an eternity of innings for autographs, and the beauty of a hodgepodge of people invested in watching these hopefuls begin their journey of baseball are magical to me. I love minor league baseball. It weaves in and out of people's stories and memories and it offers a true taste of summer for those willing to be swept up into its story.
One more homestand left and then its nine and a half months until the story begins again.