Foul Balls in Any Territory

Foul balls, as we all know, are as ubiquitous to baseball as hotdogs and homeruns. When they’re hit deep into the bleachers, we see the kids (old and young) scramble across benches and aisles to latch onto that treasure. We also see fans reaching out across fences and barricades attempting to snatch the ball from the air, or off the ground–sometimes upending the reacher onto the field. We all get a thrill seeing that ball bounce close by (at least far enough away not to hit us) and perhaps having that urge to run for it. Of course, getting hit by a foul ball is no fun, especially if you don’t even get to keep the ball afterwards. Somehow that’s just not fair! But having that souvenir ball from any park–major or minor, triple A or rookie league–seems to be an intricate part of the whole baseball experience.

When we first began our trips to minor league ball parks, we didn’t think much about the idea of chasing down foul balls. It’s a kids’ pass time and we always sit behind home plate where the netting normally shields us from the dangers of an errant ball–for the most part. (Of course, there have been times when a pop-up has soared over the net into our “protected” area. Ginny ducks under her scorebook and Dan uses his hat to try to catch the ball.) So, it was much to our surprise and pleasure when we discovered our first foul ball.

We were in Durham, North Carolina, at the AAA league Bulls’ stadium. It had just opened that year and it was a treat to see such a beautiful new park. We had seen a great game–the Bulls had defeated the Prince William Cannons 5 to 4–and we were just leaving the park. The exiting crowd was thin since the park was having fireworks and we were leaving before they started. We strolled across the street that runs in front of the park, stepped up onto the sidewalk, and there it was: our first souvenir foul ball. It was lying in the gutter between a parked car’s rear tire and the curb. Dan saw it first and gasped, “Look! A ball!” He was on it before Ginny knew what was going on–just like one of those kids in the stands, except that he didn’t have to fly over benches to get to it. The ball was definitely not a practice ball. It was too new and clean for that. It was marked with the official stamp of the Carolina league and was now ours. And that’s when we got hooked. (The Bulls were still in the single A Carolina League that year. The following year they moved up to the triple A International League.)

Now when we visit a new stadium, we always show up early for the game so that we can walk around the outside area to see if there are any errant foul balls that have been left behind by the kids who also scrounge around during the games. Some areas surrounding parks are easily accessible, allowing us to walk the entire perimeter. Others are fenced off in certain areas and we can’t make a circle around the park. We have to just make do with where we can go. But we’ve found foul balls in many, many areas close to many, many parks. In fact, Ginny has had her hands scraped and scratched many times by poking them into hazardous areas. There was even one time that Dan wanted a foul ball that had ended up on the other side of a chain link fence across from the park and he convinced Ginny she could fit her hand under it to grab the ball. Of course, this was after a night game and it was rather dark around the area where the ball lie. So, Ginny, not one to be squeamish, got down on the sidewalk, wiggled her hand under the fence–right into a patch of thistle. Not daunted, and saying an assortment of words that would make a sailor proud, she managed to get a finger onto the ball, roll it to the fence, and coax it under. She came back to the car, picking thistles out of her hand.

In Las Vegas, we managed to scrounge up three foul balls from a grassy area behind the park after a day game by using a long stick to roll the balls to within grasping distance. Of course, we were sweating after that one. It was 104 degrees at 7 p.m. We have also dug balls out of rushing creeks, from under thick bushes, down gullies, out of ditches, and from under cars. But one of the best times we have found a foul ball was in Reading, Pennsylvania. We had gone to pick up our tickets and it was raining so hard we could barely see. As we drove away from the park, which is in the middle of the downtown area, we passed an alleyway between two buildings. Dan shouted to Ginny to go around the block (she was driving). She did, although she thought he was crazy–why drive around in this rain any more than need be? When we reached the alleyway, he told her to turn into it. There, smack in the middle of the road, was a foul ball. Ginny slowly drove up to it so that the ball would be just below Dan’s now-open door. He reached out into the pouring rain and grabbed the ball. Sure enough, it was stamped with the Eastern league seal, to which the Reading Phillies belonged and was quite waterlogged. But we had another ball to add to our growing collection.

We keep all these balls in a type of shrine area where we also have signed baseballs by old-time players. Dan also keeps some of the balls on his bookshelves at work. They’re fun to look at and to remember just how we retrieved them and where. Of course, our young nieces and nephews will shake their heads and think how crazy their aunt and uncle were when it comes time for them to clear out all our stuff after we’re gone. In the meantime, we’re having fun collecting our mementos.


Finding Pearl Buck

Many times on these baseball trips, we stumble across sites that we had no idea existed and are intrigued and entertained (or at least mildly amused) by them, for instance, when we found the Marble King factory, or the Borax Museum, or the Weightlifting Hall of Fame (all stories for another time). Then other places that we set out to see give us grave difficulties in finding them, such as the Pearl Buck home outside of Dublin, Pennsylvania.

Being that Ginny teaches in an English department and is a great lover of fiction, Dan says she drags him to every author’s house that we come within 50 miles of. Secretly, Dan also often finds these museums interesting, but wouldn’t admit that over a hot bed of coals. Yet, on our eastern Pennsylvania and western Tennessee baseball trip, Ginny had planned for us to visit Buck’s home.

According to the AAA Guide, the house is located in Perkasie, PA, a small town about 20 miles north of Philadelphia. We were coming from Doylestown (home of the Mercer Museum, another story for a later time), also a small town north of Phillie. The key is that you can’t get from one of these towns to the other without great difficulty and a great deal of swearing. But we managed to make the twisty trip to Perkasie, only to be stymied by where Buck’s house was in the town. The directions in the Guide simply stated one mile south of SR 313 at Dublin Road, but there was no SR 313 on our map and after driving here and beyond, no signs of it in Perkasie. So, Ginny in her wisdom, stopped in a mall parking lot to further peruse the map and the Guide for any clues. Instead, though, she spied a police vehicle parked in the same lot. She confidently got out of the car, walked up to the police officer (who was talking to another citizen of this fair town—a man driving a pickup truck) and asked boldly, “Excuse me, sir” (always be polite to our civil servants—you never know what kind of trouble you’ll be in on any trip). “Could you tell me where the Pearl Buck house is?”

After a short exchange with the truck driver, in which they hemmed and hawed, then settled on a definite answer, the police officer took out a piece of paper and drew a map explaining what each line meant and what turns to take. Then he handed it to Ginny stating emphatically, “If this doesn’t work, you never saw me.” She laughed taking the makeshift map and hurried back to the car. Finally, some directions we could really follow! Or not.

Turns out—or not. (Notice I haven’t mentioned the officer’s name.) We drove and drove and drove, until we knew we couldn’t possibly be on the right track. So, we turned around, made our way back toward Perkasie. On the outskirts of town, we spied an ice cream parlor set up in an old Victorian house at an intersection. It stood out clearly because it was the only structure in acres of farm land. It looked as though the original farmhouse had been converted into some sort of oasis of cool refreshing enjoyment in a sea of leafy green. Ginny pulled into the parking lot. Dan said, “Is this really the time for ice cream?” Ginny only scowled at him and jumped out of the car.

Inside the shop, which was empty save for the woman behind the counter, dressed in a red and white pinstriped apron, Ginny asked where the Pearl Buck house was. The woman stared at her like Ginny had spoken in Swahili. “We had directions from a police officer, but it seems he wasn’t quite right. We missed a turn off or something,” Ginny explained. The woman shook her head, but added, “I think you take this road out front down to the light and turn right, then you should find 313.” Ginny thanked her and fled back to the car. We were back in business. If we could find 313, surely we could find the house.

Think again. After we had followed the ice cream woman’s directions, we found ourselves in a residential area of mostly ranch homes with good-size yards, probably built in the 1950s-60s. It was a very pleasant area with manicured lawns and well-kept homes. But no sign of the Pearl Buck house. As she was driving through the neighborhood, admiring the homes, Ginny spotted a yard sale with several cars parked out in front. She made an executive decision and pulled in behind the last car. Dan snarled, “Now what? See something you can’t live without?” Ginny snapped back, “Since you won’t ask for directions, I’m improvising.” Obviously, spending too much time in a car being lost takes its toll on good humor.

When Ginny reached what looked like the homeowner and sponsor of the sale, she said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but do you know where the Pearl Buck house is?” The woman frowned a bit and called to one of the women browsing through the yard sale treasures, “Phoebe, you know where the Pearl Buck house is, don’t you?” Before Phoebe could answer, two women standing to one side getting money from their wallets in readiness to pay for their purchases, both spoke up, “Yes, we do.” Ginny began to ask where, hesitating about receiving more faulty directions, when one of the women said, “If you could wait a moment while we pay for these, you can follow us over there. I drive right past the place to go home.” Ginny almost kissed the woman’s hand! She said thank you so many times, the woman must’ve thought she was crazy. She finally said, “We’re in the white convertible over there. Thank you!”

The woman was true to her word and in about five minutes, we were at the driveway to Pearl Buck’s house. Ginny honked the horn in another “thank you” gesture and the women waved as they continued on home. We drove up the long winding driveway to the out building of the home. Here was housed the business area, with a museum store, a video room, conference areas and ticket sales. We were so relieved when we finally got into the building that we were almost giddy. Until they told us that the last tour was at 2 p.m., and it was now 4 p.m. We could not believe our luck. After searching all afternoon for this place and to be told we couldn’t get in was almost too much. We looked at one another and started laughing. The sales people and docents looked at us perplexed. So we had to explain. They apologized profusely—although none of it was their fault—and pointed out that they were open the next day. Unfortunately, we had tickets to a baseball game the next day and couldn’t return. But we could possibly rearrange our schedule some to return in three days.

Before we left, we asked for directions to Dublin where our motel was located. They told us to turn left out of the driveway and we’d run into State Route 313. Oh no, 313 again, the bane of our existence. But we followed their instructions, turned left out of the driveway, went one-quarter mile and found SR 313. Our motel was about two miles away. We had actually passed this turn off for the Buck house when we had left that morning. If we had returned to our motel the way we had come that morning, we would have been a quarter mile for the Buck house.

The moral of this story is to use Google maps before you go. And always stop at neighborhood yard sales—those people know what they’re doing.


Dancing with Mr. Shoeless

Dan is a great fan of bluegrass music. Ginny has a respect for it—on a limited basis. So in 2009 we made our Baseball and Bluegrass Tour to West Virginia and southwest Virginia (with some Pennsylvania and Tennessee thrown in on the side). We saw six new ball parks, saw many historical and famous geographic sites, and attended two live bluegrass venues—where they danced and sang and played and danced some more, or I should say clogged.

For those of you not familiar with this particular Appalachian form of dancing, you’re missing a treat. This form of dancing uses loose metal taps on the heel and toe of a leather shoe (usually cowboy boots), so that when the dancer’s foot hits the floor, the metal pieces clink together like castanets. The sound becomes an integral part of the music, tapping rhythms in time to the dance. The clogging we witnessed was done by individuals, not couples as other dancing would be. However, there are team competitions across the country (with a grand championship at Opryland in Nashville). According to “A Brief History of Clog Dancing” by Jeff Driggs, modern clogging descended from the Irish and Scotts, as well as from square dancing, and was influenced by Cherokee, African and Russian step dances. Clogging in turn has influenced street dancing and hip-hop.

People clogging in southwest Virginia.

People clogging in southwest Virginia.

One of the bluegrass venues we attended was at Lay’s Hardware Center for the Arts in Coeburn, VA. The place was a former hardware store in the middle of the downtown area. Although it had been converted into a small concert venue in the middle, there was still much evidence of the old store left behind. All along the walls were drawers and shelves, including a general-store-like counter. In the center of the “store” were rows of chairs taken from some old movie theater. In the back of the “store” was the stage and in between that and the chairs lay the dance floor.

Lays Hardware in Coeburn, VA, one of our bluegrass venues.

Lays Hardware in Coeburn, VA, one of our bluegrass venues.

We arrived an hour early for the performance, but we weren’t the first in line. A couple of local people sat outside smoking and waiting for the place to open. They eyed us somewhat suspiciously since we were conspicuously not locals. When the doors opened, the ticket sellers were quite curious about our state of origin, since we definitely did not sound local, either. They were delighted when we announced New York and, as always, wondered why we had come so far. Dan explained our obsession with minor league baseball and his personal interest in bluegrass. They welcomed us heartily. But that wasn’t all….After the band had taken the stage (we had snagged front row seats), but before they began to play, the M.C. for the evening announced that they always liked to acknowledge new visitors and that people who travel long distances were special guests. He asked us to come up to the stage, which we reluctantly did, and he presented us with a signed and numbered print by a local artist. The picture was of the Lays Hardware sign surrounded by several of the most prominent bluegrass artists who had performed there. We were speechless. And for both of us—that’s a miracle.

After the presentation, the players finally got down to playing and the dancers got down to dancing. It was fascinating! We watched, enthralled by the music and the rhythms of the feet as people tapped their way past us, again and again. First, the band played several faster numbers where clogging was the dance. Then they played slower songs, where couples actually danced together a type of two-step that neither of us had seen before (despite seven years of ballroom dancing lessons). Ginny watched intently for the patterns: two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward, one step back. Some dancers were better than others, but even the children were trying out their skills on the floor.

One particular man caught our attention. He was sitting in the front row of seats that completed an L with our front row. He sat at the far end with a woman we supposed was his wife. He was short, probably about five foot six or seven, wore a cowboy hat of straw and brown cowboy boots. His red shirt was ornamented with a brown vest. He looked ready to take on the town. When the first song started, he popped up from his seat and clogged his way around the floor. He danced every dance and was always the first one on the floor. Then a strange thing happened. Seated behind the man and his wife was a little grizzled old man, who, we found out later, was the oldest person there, being in his 90s. The dancing man wanted to get the old man onto the floor—apparently his clogging skills were something of a legend in the area. However, the old man didn’t have any clogging shoes. The dancing man sat down, took off his boots and handed them to the old man. In no time flat, the old man was on the dance floor, clogging as if he were 25 (well, at least 55). It was amazing to watch. But no shoes didn’t stop the dancing man—he was up whenever there was a slower song where he didn’t need to pound his feet into the floor.

After intermission, during which several people approached us to ask about our travels, the music started up again and the dancers clogged their way around the space. Then came a slow song and here came the man with no shoes. He walked right up to Ginny and asked her to dance. Flustered, she stuttered out that she didn’t know the dance. Yet, Dan prodded her out of her seat, saying, “Oh, you can do it. Go ahead. Go ahead.” She gave him a dirty look, then smiled at the stranger and said, “Okay.” And it was okay; she caught on very quickly and only stepped on the poor man’s toes once. While they danced, the man said his name was Jim and that he’d been dancing his entire life. Ginny asked him about the clogging tradition and he bemoaned the fact that not many young people were interested any more in the centuries old dance. He was afraid that their type of dancing would die out with his generation. After the song ended, Ginny thanked Jim and retook her seat.

With the end of the concert, we said our goodbyes to the organizers, saying how much we enjoyed the music, and waved to shoeless Jim and his wife. The people here had been more than just friendly; they had been the epitome of Southern hospitality. Just another great example of how to enjoy our nation, with a side of baseball.


The House that Money Built

If you’ve been following the last couple of posts, you know that we’ve been talking about our New York City trip in 2004. When planning that trip, Ginny stated that we had to see Yankee Stadium (the old stadium, pre-2009), but she had to do some major persuading to get Dan to go. Neither of us is a Yankee fan—in fact, we’re far from it. Ginny’s argument, however, was that the stadium was such a major part of baseball history, that we couldn’t possibly go to NYC on a baseball trip and ignore the “house that Ruth built,” especially since a new stadium was on the horizon. And the team was in town that week. So we coughed up the $45+ a seat on the left field side (who can afford box seats behind home plate, except the overpaid players themselves?) and ordered the tickets.

That week, when we got into the stadium, we were immediately funneled into a line to see Monument Park. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, except that it was hyped as the must-see baseball site in New York. We knew those particular players were not buried there, but it didn’t seem so “great” to us. To us, it seemed small and unimposing. The area was about the length of a school bus, situated down the left field side of the stadium and consisted of slabs of granite with players’ names. We’re sure that a true Yankee fan would be awed by this. In fact, there was a type of reverent silence, or whispers usually reserved for church, from those moving along the little path. Ginny took the prerequisite pictures; after all, this was baseball history. And we left to get food.

We thought the price of the tickets outrageous. By the time we had gotten a souvenir program, three hot dogs, two beers, a bag of peanuts and two ice cream bars, we were out another $60. How did families do it? We know now how the housing crisis happened—too many families had to mortgage their house to come to one game!

When we finally found our seats—waaaaayyyy passed third base about 30 rows back—we settled in for an evening of baseball. Surprise! First of all, we were so far from home plate, we couldn’t hear the crack of the bat. What kind of game is it if you can’t hear the crack of the bat! Why do people bother coming to a game when all they can see is a tiny person waving around a tinier stick? And all we could hear were conversations around us, particularly the one behind us. It was more like a soap opera out here.

One of the two men seated behind us was on the phone most of the game, thanking the person on the other end for his wonderful birthday present. “Yeah, these are the greatest seats. I can’t believe you got them for me. Thank you so much.” His tone was like one of a father to his daughter, kind and parently. Of course, when he said these were great seats, we looked at each other with “are you kidding me!” eyes and snorted our derision. The next call asked, “Who helped you get the tickets, anyway? These are so good, you had to have somebody help you out.” How cute, we thought, a young daughter maybe getting Mommy to buy the tickets for her to give to Daddy. In between calls, he also made calls to the beer vendor, but not on his phone. By the fifth inning, his responses on the phone were beginning to show the warm glow of the beer. “You were so thoughtful, getting these tickets. When I get home, I can show you how grateful I am.” That statement was a bit lurid for a daughter. What was really going on here? In the seventh inning, the call included, “Wait till I get home. I’m really going to give you a good time as a thank you.” The tone was so sleazy, we finally figured out that the “daughter” was either a girlfriend or wife who he treated as a sexual child, which was made even more disgusting by the fact that every time an attractive—and some not quite so attractive—woman passed by him, he would nudge his buddy and say, “I’d do her.” This was topped off by his racist comments about the Japanese players on the team. Ginny desperately wanted to turn around and let him have a feminist tirade (as she had done before in other places, much to Dan’s chagrin), but he was a New Yorker, drunk and muscled. She knew Dan couldn’t outrun him.

Our experience at Yankee Stadium can be summed up with the first phrase Ginny wrote in the scorebook: “Is this hell on earth?”

But our adventure to the stadium did not end there. After the game, we followed the crowds back to the subway to make our way a hundred blocks or so to our hotel. There we encountered a man trying to break into a public phone coin box. He was quite audacious about it. Some 50 people or so were all milling around with him standing smack in the middle of the platform trying to jimmy the lock with a bent wire coat-hanger. Never before had we seen someone so oblivious to those around him AND how blithely the populous allowed him to go about his business freely. The gentleman worked diligently for some time, but finally gave up and walked away unmolested. The subway train arrived and we all got on. It was New York City after all.

Beyond the disappointments with Yankee Stadium and the Brooklyn Cyclones, we had an exciting time in New York City and are anxious to return. Maybe not to those stadiums, but certainly to Staten Island and the theaters and the museums and the restaurants and the shopping and….NYC really does have an infinite charm.