Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Cracked Windshields and Free Beer on a Bush League Nebraska Night

While baseball may not hold the preeminent place in American culture that it once did, its metaphors still permeate the American vernacular. To fail is to “strike out.” A major success is a “home run.” When making an estimate, we provide a “ballpark figure.” The president is fond of saying “big league” as a positive adjective. The opposite term, one used to connote low quality or shoddy performance, is “bush league.” While I now work in the president’s big league hometown, the biggest league city in all of America, I grew up in a literal bush league town. I have spent so much time in the big leagues of New York that while I still hold it in my heart, my hometown feels more and more distant to me.

Last July I was back in Hastings, Nebraska, a small city of 24,000 in the stereotypically flat south central part of the state, 150 long miles west of Omaha. It is the smallest of the triangle of the “tri-cities area,” completed by Grand Island and Kearney. While Hastings’ population has remained static, those other towns have been growing for the past forty years. Interstate 80, the Cornhusker State’s grand trunk road, bypassed Hastings for those other cities. The local state college in Kearney was elevated to a state university, and Grand Island has grown by 50% since I was born. With Hastings’ mall now officially dead and the local department store closing, residents of my hometown have to drive twenty four miles north to “GI” to do any shopping that can’t be done at the hulking Wal-Mart that sits like a cancerous growth on the edge of town.

There is little in the way of opportunities for those with a college education or ambition. Those like me who left town to get an education rarely come back. This is mostly down to the economic situation, but also to an insular attitude that has only worsened as the town has lost its relevance. There is a vicious feedback loop whereby young people leave for better chances, making the people left behind even more rooted in the town, which then drives more young people out, thus making the locals that much more obstinate in their dislike of the outside world. When I tell strangers I meet in Hastings that I live in New Jersey the mask of “Midwestern nice” suddenly drops. They don’t even try to hide their judgment and contempt. One total stranger I talked to after Superstorm Sandy actually told me that we were parasites on the government for asking for rebuilding money. Incidents like this have made coming home to visit feel like going to a hostile foreign country, not the place I grew up.

On my last summer visit, however, I found something that made me feel more at home in my hometown than I had felt in years: a minor league baseball game.

The wonderfully named Sodbusters are not a minor league affiliate, but a member of the Expedition League, a new wood bat summer league made up of college players trying to get noticed by scouts. Even such a lowly rung on the baseball ladder is exciting to have in a town where people are used to having to drive several miles to Grand Island or Lincoln for entertainment. My heart swelled to think that for once WE had something THEY didn’t. I also felt part of that WE for a change.

It was as if the clock had been turned back to the town’s heyday when I heard about the new team. When you drive around Hastings you notice that it must have been a real jewel in the early 1900s. The ornate fa├žade of one downtown building is a sign that it was once a department store where the well-to-do traveling by rail from Chicago to Denver got off and bought luxury items. The Dutton-Lainson Company, a manufacturer and the town’s biggest employer also owns the tallest structure in town, a warehouse called the “Victory Building” for its commemoration of the just finished World War I. The war brought prosperity to Nebraska’s farming country even as it sent doughboys back home in coffins. Hastings was a railroad junction too when the railroad was king. The railroad brought in speakers to stand on the rostrum at the town’s Chatauqua pavilion, built in 1907 for the cultural edification of the growing town’s residents. That included the prairie populist William Jennings Bryan, whose political power coincided with the Plains’ rise. Hastings had always prided itself on its more refined nature, whereas sister city Grand Island was a rough-hewn, Western cow town full of saloons and brothels.

Hastings had even played a part in one the early milestones of world baseball history. In 1888 AG Spalding took his team of all-stars on a world tour to promote the game. On the rail route to the west coast they stopped off in Hastings and played an exhibition game. Hastings fielded minor league teams in its 1910s and 1920s zenith, including one nicknamed the “Third Citys” [sic]. Despite the boosterish claim in their nickname, Grand Island was already ahead of Hastings as the third biggest city in Nebraska.

Hastings’ combination of early 20th century prosperity, boosterism, love of baseball, and civic-mindedness created the thing that made it possible for Hastings to even host a baseball team in the 21st century: Duncan Field. Completed in 1941 as a municipal project, it has a subtle grandeur from another time. The outfield wall is brick, a reminder that Hastings was once known for its multiple brickyards. Unlike Wrigley Field in Chicago, the wall is not covered with ivy and is too tall for a player to scale. Also unlike Wrigley, it is impossibly far from home plate.  The wall is 380 feet down the lines, and 405 to the “power” alleys. There’s a flagpole by the wall in dead center, but it hardly constitutes a hazard since no ball will ever get that far. A home run there is a truly notable experience, a kind of throwback to the dead ball era when John “Home Run” Baker could get that nickname after smacking only a dozen round trippers in a season.

Duncan Field once hosted regional American Legion youth baseball championships and a Hastings side in the D-level Nebraska State League. Legend has it that when a young Yogi Berra played there in an amateur playoff game that he managed to clear one over the wall. As the minors started contracting, Hastings lost its team in the late 1950s, but for a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s Duncan Field hosted the American Legion baseball World Series. (Take that, Williamsport!) After that, it was home only to local Legion games. (In rural Nebraska baseball is still a club sport and high schools don’t field teams.) When I played in little league, the ultimate goal was to play for the league championship at Duncan Field. For nine year-old me Duncan Field may well have been Yankee Stadium.

So on a surprisingly temperate Nebraska July evening I went there to see a Sodbusters game with my family. I’d last been there as a young child to watch the Legion high schoolers play. Now the old metal benches had been replaced with actual seats, and the facilities updated. The wall was still there, of course. There is something about really large diamonds that I find aesthetically pleasing, that huge green jewel stretched out before my eyes. The game really seems to be being played on a field in the literal sense as opposed to a sports complex.

That 405 is not to straightaway center, but to the supposed "power alley"

While Duncan Field has an illustrious history and beauty to it combined with infinitely better bathrooms than Wrigley, it is still most definitely bush league, in both senses of the word. The Burlington Northern’s tracks run right next to the stadium, trains blowing their mournful horns all through the game. The lone parking lot sits behind the home plate grandstand, and my dad insisted on parking the car as far away as possible. The reason soon became obvious, as many foul balls left the park and made ominous thudding and cracking noises. In the kind of bush league humor I always appreciate, the announcer read off a paid advertisement for a local windshield repair shop right after the first foul ball went into the parking lot.

That was a sign that the Sodbusters, like most minor league teams, have a fan experience policy of laying it on thick. They are apostles of the great Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who when accused of sullying the game with gimmicks, wrote that “All I was saying was that a losing team, plus bread and circuses, was better than a losing team and a long, still silence.” The Sodbusters, like a lot of minor league teams, might be rightfully criticized for their hatred of silence and overabundance of bread and circuses. Every pitch and play seemed to be accompanied by some kind of sound effect or short canned movie quotation aimed at Generation X nostalgia.

I’m not going to complain, because this kind of hucksterism ended up netting me a free beer. I was pulled out of the crowd for a trivia challenge and got all three questions right, and a gratis brewski was my reward, so much more fulfilling than getting corporate swag or a gift certificate to a mediocre restaurant. The fact that I was able to get an IPA with my free beer certificate was a sign that perhaps my hometown is getting a lot hipper these days.

This made me a fan for life

In another malted barley based gimmick, a Sodbuster player was given special status for the game. If he scored a run, all Busch and Budweiser beers would be two for the price of one. When that player in fact scored, there was a roar of joy and a mass exodus from the stands to the beer concession.

Despite all the noises and gimmicks, baseball is experienced more palpably in a bush league game. For one, you are right on top of the action, and the noise of the crowd does not drown out the noise on the field. I also found myself watching it much differently than a major league game. When a player for either team muffed a routine play I felt sad, knowing that their chances of hitting the big time were on the line. I felt especially bad that the starting Sodbusters pitcher, a local boy from Grand Island, got shelled worse than the trenches at the Somme. This was not the bad feeling I get when say Zach Wheeler gets crushed against the Nationals, but a personal feeling of empathy for another human being.

This is why it was great to go to the game with my father, who probably could not name five current major league players but still knows more about baseball than I ever will. He noticed the small things that most fans at major league games miss, like the positioning of the fielders, the pitch selection, and the swings of the various batters. At a Mets game I might talk with other fans about who hits where in the lineup, the latest trade, or which relief pitchers are most effective in the eighth inning. My father is much more likely to be concerned with a pitcher’s throwing motion or the way an outfielder closes on a fly ball. That eye is especially important at a bush league game, where you are looking to spot the future big leaguers

In those moments with my father I was reminded that baseball is so much more a “game” than other popular sports. Baseball people regularly refer to it much more often as “our game” or “the game.” Notice as well that baseball was once dubbed “the national pastime” rather than “the national sport.” In fact, central Nebraska is a place where baseball as a game played locally by local teams, rather than as a major league sport, managed to hold on longer than elsewhere. In old times every town big and small had its own organized teams. That culture still existed in rural Nebraska in the 1950s, and my grandfather played on the local team for his little town of about 350 people well into his fifties.

Much of this probably has to do with the fact that Nebraska is so isolated that it does not fit naturally into any one team’s fandom. Both of my grandfathers had an affection for the Cardinals because they were the closest team and could hear their games broadcast over the radio, but neither was a Cardinals fan, per se. My mom’s father used to love to tell the story of “Pepper” Martin’s exploits in the 1931 World Series, but knew nothing of Ozzie Smith and Whitey Herzog. South Dakota is just as isolated, but it is firmly Twins country. The same goes for Kansas and the Royals. You’ll find Cardinals, Royals, Rockies, and Cubs fans in Nebraska, but no one team has any kind of hegemony.

This was kind of a gift I was given as a baseball fan in Hastings. I developed a love less for any team, but for the game of baseball itself. Some of that came from my dad’s father. Tiny Lawrence doesn’t have a hospital, and he stayed with us for awhile in Hastings while getting some treatments. During that time in 1986, almost every day I came home from school he was watching the Cubs game on WGN. It wasn’t because he was a Cubs fan, he just loved watching baseball. While I was initially miffed I couldn’t watch my GI Joe cartoons, that was the moment where baseball really put its hooks in me. My grandfather died less than two weeks after the next opening day, but by that time I was buying packs of baseball cards and poring over the box scores in the paper every day after school. My memories of him are faded, but his impact on me lives on.

So thirty-two years later I found myself at a game in my hometown, now 1500 miles away from where I live in a place so alien from rural Nebraska that it might as well be another country. In front of the massive green expanse of Duncan field beneath the impossibly large Nebraska evening sky talking baseball with my dad and trying to get my six year old daughters to share my enthusiasm. As always, my dad talked wistfully about how much his father loved baseball, and I could tell that my enthusiasm for the game was something that made him happy. That night I felt like I was still a link in a chain I feared was getting broken in my exile.

The Sodbusters got destroyed 15-4, but it didn’t matter. I felt happier leaving that game than any other I’ve been to, including seeing the Mets win in extra innings in their wild card run in 2016. The night was proof that being in the bush league doesn’t have to be bush league.

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