Circle of Trust

By Bob Socci

Day 7 – Friday, May 11:  Norfolk Tides at Indianapolis Indians

They are coming at me in waves.  I am trying to navigate the maze connecting my hotel to its more luxurious neighbor on the same block of downtown Indianapolis.  I’m in khakis, a polo shirt and a sporty Nike pullover.  Though my face is stubbled, casting a shadow long before 5 o’clock, I represent a clean-cut exception to the masses I suddenly find myself in the midst of.

All I want is a cup of coffee before heading to the ballpark.  I left my room at The Courtyard a few minutes ago, figuring it was hardly out of my way to stop by the Starbucks next door at the JW Marriott.  A grande Pike Place, room for cream, that’s what I’m after.

A timely exhibit, across the street from the 27th annual National Convention of Motorcyclists.

Rolling my briefcase in tow, I am wading against a current of rugged-looking individuals who walk not in groups, but in gangs.  To a man, their garb is essentially the same: steel-toe boots, well-worn jeans and black leather vests.  More than a couple wear their long beards in twists, stretching from chin to oversized belt buckle.  Just about all bare arms covered by tattoos.

It’s a strange juxtaposition — them and me — I think at first.  They roared into Indy, riding their Hogs and Steel Ponies to the 27th annual National Convention of Motorcyclists.  I came in the quiet of night, to paint pictures with words about something long ago described as a pastoral game.  But the more I see — and I see a lot — the more I realize we aren’t just sharing the swank surroundings of a 5-star hotel.  We — well, most of us — are bonded by the coffee bean.  Everywhere I look I see not-so-lonesome riders sipping from white and green cups wrapped in cardboard sleeves.  I even chuckle — only on the inside, of course — at the sight of one particularly-menacing figure indulging in what looks to be a Frappuccino.  Tough guy, enjoying a fufu drink.

I reach the counter, where I stand behind someone ordering a Cappuccino.  Waiting my turn, I check out the name of his posse, embossed on the back of his vest: “Bikers For Christ.”  Had I not known any better, I would’ve expected to read, “Hell’s Angels.”  Yet, I do know better.  Besides having a brother and sister-in-law who regularly hop on their Harley’s, my church back home in Massachusetts recently staged a mass blessing of motorcycles.  Not exactly in my element, I’m not entirely out of it either.  We’re not so different, them and me, after all.  We all get our kicks from caffeine.  And we’re all in Indianapolis this weekend because of something we love.

Across the street from where the motorcyclists convene, there’s a gathering of Triple-A baseball teams at Victory Field.  The Norfolk Tides are beginning pre-game preparations, as they re-pay a visit to the home-standing Indians.  Two weeks ago in Norfolk, the Tides rebounded from two Indians’ wins with two of their own, before leaving town.  They’ve since been to Durham and Louisville.  Day One in Indy is Day Seven of this trip.

Here as the team’s radio announcer, I’ve reached the point where I think less of the time we’ve been away than the time we have remaining.  A baseball fan since age 3, I first dreamed of broadcasting it not long thereafter.  I am still enamored by the those late-afternoon hours when a ballpark awakens, and still thrilled by the late-inning confrontations of pitcher and batter.  There aren’t many places I’d rather be than at a ballgame.  One of them, however, is anywhere my wife and children are.  On this trip, they are hundreds of miles away.

My wife texts pictures of the kids — a toddler boy and infant girl — daily, and tries to fill me in on everything each is up to.  With every photo or anecdote, I miss them more.  In this light, seven days out mean there are three more to go until I see — and hold — them again.

But I know I have it good, really good, even in comparison to coaches and players.  I’ve been on the road for a week.  They’ve been at it since spring training, grinding away some of February and all of March to get to games that truly count.  May is only the second of five months of a minor-league campaign.  And yet, I imagine, it’s already getting difficult for some to keep count of the days on the road.  The longer the season goes, the more challenging it becomes.

Whatever the day, and wherever it’s spent, the Tides have a skipper who prefers to start it a certain way.  It goes back to when Ron Johnson was managing the Pawtucket Red Sox, and regularly did something completely out of the ordinary in comparison to his counterparts.

The Tides form their Circle of Trust.

In my many years of shadowing pro ballclubs, I’d observed men whose managerial styles varied greatly.  Some seemed hardened; others laid back.  There were curmudgeons and cheerleaders, firebrands and far steadier hands.  Where one kept an open-door policy, another hid behind closed doors.  But Johnson was the one manager who consistently huddled all his players — pitchers included — on the field before batting practice, the way a high school or college coach might.

I remember times the Tides took batting practice, while Paw Sox players organized into a large oval.  Between the cracks of the bats and songs from the loudspeakers, you’d hear lots of laughter emanating from Pawtucket’s ring around RJ.  Their pre-game formation, I learned from a friend with the Sox, was known as the Circle of Trust.

Johnson now manages the Tides, and today in the Circle City, as Indianapolis has long been called, it’s the Tides who shape the Circle of Trust.  Indians hitters take swings at BP fastballs, while Norfolk players surround Johnson in foul territory, just past the first-base bag.  Stadium speakers are silent, so Johnson is heard revisiting details from last night’s victory at Louisville.  He praises infielder Blake Davis for his two triples.  I didn’t think you were going to make it, Johnson says with a laugh about the second, but good job.  Whatever’s said a minute later is inaudible outside the circle, but obviously funny.  There’s more laughter, from Tides players.  Johnson offers a parting statement, meant to be taken to heart.  If you play the game the right way, he tells them, you will be rewarded.  He repeats it for effect.  Whether or not it sinks in with the Tides, it registers with an eavesdropper.  If you play the game the right way, you will be rewarded.

Impressed, I decide I must get the back story to the Circle of Trust.  Before the weekend is done I inquire about its origins.  It all started, Johnson reveals, when he was managing the Red Sox Double-A affiliate in Portland, Me.

“You’re always looking for a way to get your day started, and through the course of a baseball (day) you have pitchers who go down (to the bullpen) and do their work, guys who get here early (and) do side work,” Johnson explains.  “They stretch, they throw.  There’s all these different programs.  But I really believe there needs to be a starting point for everybody daily, one time we can all be together in the same place.  Even if it’s for five minutes, (when) we can address in-house issues.”

Initially, the circle was mostly a means of keeping everybody in the loop.  What resulted reflected sheer geometry.  Twenty-four men standing in a circle are forced to keep an eye on each other.

“It really started just to eliminate the questions (like) ‘What are we doing tomorrow?’” Johnson continues.  “Everybody knows what’s going on.  And what happens is that peer pressure will lead guys.  You’ll hear somebody say, ‘Hey, what are you talking about?  We talked about that yesterday.’  It takes me out of the equation.”

Players police themselves.  Often with tongue — sharp as it can be — in cheek.

“It’s kind of evolved,” Johnson says.  “We have a little fun with it.  We get personal.  The guys can call each other out.  It’s that one time every day.”

Tonight’s game is a matter of trust for Tides starting pitcher Chris Tillman.  Drafted in the second round by Seattle, Tillman was traded to the Orioles and got to Triple-A before reaching the legal drinking age.  He broke spring training camp with the Tides in 2009 at age 20, a right-hander standing 6-foot-5, with an even taller upside.  Later that summer, after turning 21, Tillman was invited to both the Triple-A All-Star and Major League Futures games, before debuting with Baltimore.  The following spring, he returned to Norfolk and no-hit the Gwinnett Braves.

Ever since, Tillman has been up and down, in more ways than one.  As an Oriole a couple of years ago, he dominated Texas, only to get roughed up by Tampa Bay the very next outing.  The next start after that was in Triple-A.  But Tillman is still a youngster, his big-league ‘stuff’ still recognizable.  Before his last outing at Durham, Johnson wanted to see Tillman more aggressive against a predominantly left-handed lineup.  That he was, in a 4-2 victory.

In Indianapolis, he is even more assertive.  He throws his fastball with mid-90s velocity, and commands a wicked breaking ball.  Old-timers would tell you it’s the kind of curve that “falls off the table.”  Tillman shows faith in all his pitches, retiring 15 of the first 18 Indians.  He strikes out the side in the 4th inning.  And again in the 5th.  Six straight batters, not a ball in play.

The Tides, however, have scored only once off another imposingly tall right-hander who was once in the Oriole rotation, Daniel Cabrera.  Less impressive than Tillman this evening, Cabrera manages to minimize the scoring.  Finally, his teammates reach Tillman in the 6th inning.  They take a 2-1 lead, before loading the bases with one out.

Tillman is at a crossroads.  He is pitching to keep his team within a run.  And for his own sake, to prevent a single inning from ruining what had the makings of a brilliant performance.  Instead of buckling, Tillman bears down and gets the next two hitters.  Norfolk is still very much in the game.

The Tides, however, won’t score again this evening.  They will fall farther behind in the bottom of the 8th, when Indy pins two more runs on the bullpen, and drop a 4-1 decision.

Regardless, Chris Tillman should feel good about himself as walks back to the dugout for the final time.  On this first night in Indianapolis, he has every reason to believe in his ability.

And here on out, every reason to see the round mound of clay and dirt in the middle of the diamond as his very own circle of trust.

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Possibility City

By Bob Socci

Days 4 thru 6 – Tuesday, May 8-Thursday, May 10: Norfolk Tides at Louisville Bats

Wind is wreaking havoc along Fourth Street.  Two city workers in bright yellow shirts, on a beautifully sunny but breezily cool afternoon, are wrestling with a vinyl banner.  It’s supposed to be hanging from the post of a streetlamp, but instead flutters uncontrollably.  Walking past the two men trying to get a grip on the sign, I read the greeting it bears: “Welcome to Louisville, City of Possibility.”

City of possibility.

That’s exactly why I’m here, and have been the last three days.  Later tonight I’ll be watching baseball’s Norfolk Tides and Louisville Bats engage for the eighth and final time in 2012, ending their second series in less than two weeks.  When last they met, each won twice.  But apart from playing one another, neither has fared very evenly overall with the rest of the International League.  The Tides are 13-18, five games from .500, a third-place club in their division.  The Bats stand fourth in theirs, due to a dozen more losses than wins.  Just yesterday they ended a five-game losing streak, rebounding after Norfolk started its stay here with back-to-back victories.

Collectively, there’s a possibility the Tides will prevail in this series, and thus the season set, or Louisville will once more manage a split.  Individually, however, there’s a much different possibility everyone is playing to make reality.  For some it’s actually more of a probability.  For a few it’s an inevitability.  It has little to do with the standings or head-to-head records of these two Triple-A teams.

On this level of the minor leagues, a roster allows for 24 active players.  In the case of every last one, there’s somewhere else he’d rather be.  Today for the Tides, that somewhere else is Baltimore, where the Orioles host the Texas Rangers.  As Norfolk’s parent club, the O’s are one of the spring’s biggest surprises.  Recent bottom dwellers in baseball’s toughest division, they currently sit atop the American League East.  Still, the Orioles are under stress, particularly their pitching staff.  Their week began with a victory in Boston.  Nonetheless, achieving it in 17 innings took a toll.  More taxing were the following two nights versus Texas, and the prospect of two more games yet to come against the Rangers.  Two-time defending pennant winner, Texas scored 14 runs Monday in Baltimore.  On Tuesday, Josh Hamilton staged a one-man slugfest by hitting four — four — home runs.  Under siege, the Orioles made several players moves the last 72 hours.

There’s a possibility of more to come.  And so for every Tide, particularly the pitchers, there’s a possibility the next call could be for you.  Already on this trip to Durham and now Louisville, big-league summons have been served to pitchers Jason Berken, Stu Pomeranz, Zach Phillips and Dana Eveland, as well as infielder Steve Tolleson.  Unfortunately for Berken, his stay was short.  Up by Monday, he is back down on Thursday.

Like any other Triple-A club, the Tides are an eclectic group.  They are American, Latino, Canadian and Australian.  They are pretty old — at least by pro baseball standards — and extremely young — by any measure.  Among them are seven-, even eight-figure earners, as well as those whose paychecks include fewer digits to the left of the decimal point.  Two nights ago Norfolk’s starting pitcher was Joel Pineiro, a veteran of 12 major league seasons, featuring more than a hundred wins.

Last season Joel Pineiro went 7-7 in the second year of a lucrative free agent contract with the Angels.

According to the website baseball-reference.com, he’s been paid in excess of $48 million for use of his right arm.  Last year alone Pineiro made a reported $8 million as an Angel, which computes to $1,142,857.14 for each of his seven victories.  In contrast, last night’s starter Steve Johnson is an eighth-year pro, a one-time 15th-round draft choice in his second organization.  He didn’t get to Double-A until his fifth season, Triple-A until his sixth.  In his first go-around in the International League, Johnson closed 2011 with a 2-7 record and 5.56 ERA.

And yet age, experience and income aside, they take the ball looking to seize the same opportunity.  They pitch for the same possibility.  Pineiro need only call upon his own past to know it’s so.  There’s a reason four big-league teams rewarded him with such riches, for so many seasons.  As for Johnson, the only example he needs is the man who raised him.

In 2012 Pineiro is trying to pitch his way back to the big leagues as a member of the Norfolk Tides.

David Wayne Johnson was, is a ‘Bawlmer’ guy.  Born in Charm City, he pitched professionally for the first time as a 22-year-old Pirates farmhand.  It took until his sixth season to reach Pittsburgh, for all of five games and little more than six innings.  Signed that winter by Houston, Johnson was traded to his hometown team on the last day of March, 1989.  Sometime in between, he helped make ends meet by working as a truck driver.  Those Orioles were the game’s laughingstock, a year removed from the infamy of an 0-21 start to a 107-loss finish.  But through the spring and into the summer of ’89, while Johnson toiled in Rochester, baseball in Baltimore went through a renaissance.  In August Johnson joined the Oriole upstarts, and beat the likes of Minnesota, Boston and Milwaukee.  Then, as a last-minute replacement for an injured Pete Harnisch, Johnson opposed Toronto in a final-weekend showdown for first place.  He left ahead, 3-1, in the 8th inning, only to see the Blue Jays rally to the divisional title.

As disappointing as the outcome was, Dave Johnson retains a warm spot in the hearts of longtime Oriole fans.  He also remains a presence, in their ears and before their eyes commentating on radio and television.  Meanwhile, his son Steve strives to become a second-generation Oriole, with the Tides in Louisville.

Dave Johnson remains a favorite son of Charm City.

The starts by Peneiro and Johnson, like their careers to date, unfold differently.  The 33-year-old Pineiro quickly gets into a groove.  In his second game since being released by Philadelphia out of spring training and signing with the O’s, he retires 18 of the first 21 Bats.  Entering the 7th inning, Norfolk has five runs; Louisville has two singles.  But with one out, five straight hits force Pineiro from the mound.  The Bats pare the difference to one, before the Tides rebut in the 8th with six runs of their own.  The final is 11-4, and the decision belongs to Peneiro.

Johnson, 24, follows to the mound with a mere 2.60 ERA, allowing a meager .206 opponents’ batting average.  With a 1-0 lead, trouble arrives in various forms.  First, a blast ties it.  Later, after a walk and hit batsman, Johnson’s own throwing error off a bunt puts him behind.  A sac fly makes it, 3-1, after two innings.  Another base on balls and another hit batter lead to another three-run inning, this time in the bottom of the 4th.  The key play involves a misjudged, wind-aided fly ball resulting in an RBI double.  But thereafter, Johnson silences Louisville’s bats.  He sets down the last 10 hitters he opposes.  Not enough to avoid a 6-5 loss, nevertheless Johnson has an outing to build on.  In five more days, he will return in his role, armed with the power of possibility.

Steve Johnson aims to become a second-generation Oriole.

The wind dies down as the Tides conclude their stay in Louisville.  Blowing off the Ohio River, from the North at eight miles per hour, it’s enough to cool the temperature to 71 degrees.  But not nearly enough to impact the game the way it affected earlier efforts to hang a welcome sign.  Norfolk pitcher Brad Bergesen bids goodbye to Possibility City by hanging zeros; five of them in a 54-pitch, 38-strike spot start.  He is backed by 10 hits, including five from lineup bookends Xavier Avery and Blake Davis.  Avery’s three hits as leadoff man include a two-run homer and a double.  Davis, batting ninth, triples twice.  Three relievers handle the final four innings.  The Tides take the series finale, 4-1, in 2 hours and 32 minutes.

It’s exactly as ordered on a get-away night; a fast-moving game sending Norfolk on its way.  Only, there’s a problem.  On this night, pitchers work at a much different pace than the bus driver chauffeuring the team to Indianapolis.  A 120-minute, late-night commute on a lightly traveled Interstate is taking much longer than two hours.  As Indy’s skyline comes into view, there are 20 rows or more of backseat drivers.  Quips start in the back of the bus, working their way to the front.

The culture of baseball rarely cuts anyone slack, and a good laugh is too hard to pass up.  One needs thick skin to survive in a clubhouse.  Ballplayers always have, and always will, give each other grief.  In a good-natured way, of course.  And generally, they’re no different when it comes to others on the team periphery.  Almost unfailingly, there’s one or two players whose wit is especially sharp.  Again, these Tides are like the rest.

Laughing in my seat, four rows behind him, I feel a bit for the driver too.  Thank God, I think, at least we’re not lost.  To his credit, the busie handles the colorful commentary as well he handles the wheel.  From where I sit he shows no signs of any weight piling on his shoulders.  Or enough, anyway, to force him to press a little harder on the pedal.

Safe and sound, we eventually pull up to our hotel in the early minutes of tomorrow morning.  Nineteen hours from now the Tides play the first game on the last leg of this baseball journey.

No longer in Louisville, Indianapolis is now their city of possibility.

Black, and White

By Bob Socci

Day Three – Monday, May 7: Norfolk Tides at Louisville Bats

As the Norfolk Tides complete their 2012 tour of baseball’s International League they will be welcomed to 13 different cities, as guests for more than 70 dates spread across a five-month span.  At every stop, the same handful of factors determine how much I enjoy, or whether I have to endure my stay.

In Louisville I definitely “Imbibe with Enthusiasm.”

Most important are those that shape the game-day experience.  How nice is the stadium?  Will there be big crowds?  Some are specific to my job (not that it’s exactly work I do).  What’s the press box like?  Am I going to enjoy the view from the booth?  Can I count on a strong internet signal?  And one is simply about sustenance.  Thumbs up or thumbs down on the press box buffet?

Of course, I also concern myself with accommodations.  Is the hotel nice?  Any good places to run in the area?  Are there ample eating choices nearby, and do they serve late at night?  I’m also interested in sights to see, basically boiling down to this: What else is there to do?  

A place really earns points if ballpark and hotel are within walking distance.  And, yours truly being the coffee snob that I am, it’s a major coup if I find a cool cafe to rest my laptop for awhile.

Here as a fill-in, this is my first trip actually traveling with the Tides this season.  I’ve lucked out.  The Durham leg of our journey met most of the critical criteria.  It would have been better had we stayed downtown, per usual in the past, at the Marriott.  But then, I’m in no position to complain about a Hilton.  So what if it was a bit farther away from the park.  Next up is Indianapolis.  There, no doubt, I’ll check all the boxes upon taking inventory of our surroundings.  It’s a major league home to a minor league ballclub.

Louisville literally, and metaphorically, sits in between.  We stay at the Galt House, an enormous old hotel whose wallpaper is somewhat tattered, carpet a bit worn and furniture dusty.  But, as the saying goes, real estate is about location, location, location.  And this property, comprised of two high-rising towers overlooking the Ohio River, is in close proximity to more good eats than I can possibly sample in four days.  Plus, Louisville Slugger Field is blocks away.  At a good pace, I can cover them in well under 10 minutes.

Our first day here is off to a good start.  I head up Fourth Street, computer satchel slung over my shoulder, in search of a coffee ‘house’ I recall from past visits.  It’s a corner cafe, across the street from a Starbucks inside the Sheraton.  As much as I like the big-name competitor born in Seattle, I trend toward local brew when I can.  Which is why I grab a stool at vint coffee, where you’re encouraged to Imbibe with Enthusiasm.  I boldly do, ordering a dark roast.  The staff is friendly yet laid back, and the Wi-Fi is strong and fast.  I’ll be here for awhile.

But not too long, not with a 6:35 start between the Tides and Bats, who are affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds.  I still have to grab lunch and try to get a little exercise, before heading to the park.  It’s a little past 2 o’clock when I leave the hotel and start down Main Street.  A block away, on my left, is the still-new KFC Yum! Center, home of the University of Louisville basketball teams.  It’s a shining centerpiece in an area undergoing much development.  Old warehouses which appeared vacant a few years ago are converted into restaurants.  There’s an actor’s theatre on the other side of Main.  This is the new Louisville.

I reach the far end of the arena and come to a stoplight at the corner of Main and Second.  Traffic barrels across a bridge from Indiana into downtown Louisville.  I am standing next to a young African-American woman.  We make eye contact waiting for the walk signal.  I say hello.  She asks how I’m doing.  The light changes and we step off the curb into the crosswalk.  We’re not walking together, just alongside one another.  We are separate but equal, stride-for-stride, a few feet apart.  Halfway to the other side of Second Street, I hear a voice from a car passing by on Main.  Hey!, someone shouts, Don’t you know she’s black?

The young lady and I each hesitates for a split-second, though it seems longer.  Again there is eye contact.  She wears a pained expression, clearly stung by words of the anonymous passer-by.  Flabbergasted, I can only shake my head and say to her:  Some people are just stupid.  I wish I had something more profound to offer.  It’s all I can come up with in the moment.  I continue on my way.  She does the same.  I will never see her again.  I also will never forget her, or the moment we’ve just shared in this city that proudly embraces Muhammed Ali as its own.

Minutes later I am still on Main Street, walking along the first-base side of Louisville Slugger Field.  I’m headed for an entrance near the visiting clubhouse.  The door is beyond the right-field corner.

To get there, I must walk past another famous son of Louisville, Harold ‘Pee Wee’ Reese.  The Captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers is immortalized here in statuesque form, ostensibly leaping and throwing to complete a double play.  Staring at his statue, I see Reese in a more permanent pose.

Favorite son of Louisville “Pee Wee” Reese is immortalized on Main Street.

He is the shortstop of the Dodgers, and teammate of Jackie Robinson.  It’s the late 1940s, and time — without overstating it — for something seminal.  Robinson has broken baseball’s color barrier, but remains subjected to the taunts of racist hecklers in the stands.  One day, in full view of others, Reese has heard enough.  Eying Robinson, The Captain has seen enough.  Son of the South, Harold ‘Pee Wee’ Reese sidles up to Robinson and delivers a gesture that will long transcend the ballfield they stand on.  In fact, that very moment is memorialized by another statue found outside a stadium.  It’s in Brooklyn, where the Class A Cyclones play.  It shows Pee Wee, with his arm around Jackie.

Inside the park, journeyman lefty Dana Eveland is terrific for the Tides.  He limits the Bats to four singles in 5.0 innings and owns a 4-0 lead.  Surprisingly, Eveland is removed after only 63 pitches, 44 of them strikes.  Or, perhaps, not so surprisingly.  By the following day, reporters in Baltimore will speculate about a pending call-up for Eveland.  If promotion comes to fruition, the Orioles will be his seventh major league club.  Right fielder Jai Miller hits one of the highest and longest home runs I’ll ever see.  It orbits out to straight-away center field and lands high beyond the wall, between a black screen and a row of trees.  An announcement is made in the press box.  Miller’s longball traveled an estimated 440 feet.

In Brooklyn, Reese is remembered for a gesture transcending the game he played, and time in which he lived.

Miguel Gonzalez retires the six batters he faces in the final two innings.  Opponents are now an astounding 2-for-55 against the Norfolk right-hander, who wraps up a 4-2 win in a tidy 2 hours, 15 minutes.  The fast-moving contest has me thinking:  If I hustle, I can get to a TV before the Rangers and Capitals end Game 5 of their Stanley Cup series.  I’m out the door, race-walking toward a sports bar at the Marriott.

Leaving, I return to the episode that occurred while going to the park.  I am talking on the phone to my wife as I repeat the words of a drive-by bigot.  Her moral compass is unerring; she is open-minded and open-hearted.  And she is equally appalled by what I tell her.  I reach the lobby of the Marriott, say goodnight, and take a seat at the bar.

The Capitals are on the verge of taking a series lead.  The Rangers are in need of a miracle on ice.  They empty their net for an extra skater.  Then, with less than a half-minute left, they find themselves with two extra skaters.  Joel Ward inexcusably commits a double-minor penalty, with a high stick to the face of Carl Hagelin.  If there weren’t 22 seconds left, he’d get four minutes in the box.  Playing six against four, New York produces the improbable.  Brad Richards flicks a rebound into the goal with 6.6 seconds on the clock.  There’s bedlam in Gotham, as overtime awaits.  Not long  — 95 seconds, actually — after a brief intermission, Ward still sits idle when Mark Staal drives a dagger past Washington’s goalie Braden Holtby.  Madison Square Garden again erupts.  It’s the Rangers who own the series edge.

No more than two weeks ago Ward was on the spot to seal the first-round fate for defending champ Boston.  In overtime of Game 7, his game-winning goal advanced the Caps into the next round.  But as one of a handful of black players in the NHL, he was instantly vilified for his heroics and assaulted with epithets.  Not unlike a bigot shouting from a moving vehicle, there were those who exposed their ignorance despite the cowardice cover of Twitter and other internet messages.  Enough of them, anyway, for The Boston Globe to publish a front-page story on a wave of racial slurs aimed at Ward.

Tonight Ward is again under attack.  Soon there will be more reports about more senselessness — slander over the color of someone’s skin.  At the same time Ward will be praised.  Writers and commentators will recognize the class and grace he shows by waiting in the dressing room to answer every last question.  He takes full responsibility for a foolish penalty; full responsibility for a devastating loss.

Joel Ward handles his situation like a pro.  He handles it like the man that he is.

As the ballclub’s lead announcer from 2006-10, Bob is traveling with the Norfolk Tides on their current 10-day trip.  Tides broadcasts can be heard via www.norfolktides.com or www.espnradio941.com.  For highlights of Bob’s work calling baseball, football and basketball, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

Flashing Back, Moving Forward

By Bob Socci

Day Two – Sunday, May 6:  Norfolk Tides at Durham Bulls

The manager just about everybody in baseball knows as ‘R.J.’ sits at a desk inside a cramped office he shares with his coaching staff in the visitor’s clubhouse of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.  He is discussing the night before, when his Norfolk Tides and Durham Bulls played 44 minutes of baseball between a pair of rain delays totaling 3 1/2 hours.

Some — perhaps most — in his position would harbor lingering bitterness over what they’d consider the fiasco of an entire afternoon and most of an evening devoted to less than 2 1/2 innings.  Not Ron Johnson.  True, the Tides have a 3-0 lead before he has to return to coach 3rd base in about an hour and a half.  That itself is surely reason to smile for someone with more than 1,200 managerial victories in the minor leagues.  But Johnson’s outlook is formed more by philosophy than the practicality of an early lead in a game soon to be resumed and resolved.

While Ron Johnson seemed to be shouting for joy as manager of the Pawtucket Red Sox…

“It was fine, you just sit around and wait,” Johnson says into a microphone recording words that will later be played back to a Virginia radio audience.  “An old-time coach told me a long time ago when I first started breaking in…I’ll never forget him — Joe Jones, he was a coordinator for Kansas City — he said, ‘Put the uniform on, sit down, wait (and) when they tell you to take it off, take it off.’”

There’s another reason Johnson isn’t angry over the uncontrollable.  It has to do with someone in a different uniform.  While R.J. was playing a Saturday-night waiting game, Chris Johnson was reaching a milestone in Houston with his first major-league grand slam.

“He had a good week, two homers and six ribbies the other day and then he hit a granny yesterday,” R.J. beams with pride, and a chuckle.  “And for those people who don’t know, that’s my son who plays third base for the Astros, and I’m proud of him.”

Can anything Dad do — or did as, albeit briefly, an ex-Royal and Expo — in the game top that?

“No, no.  That’s the bottom line,” Johnson says, in all seriousness.  “It doesn’t even come close.”

…he was beaming with pride after Chris Johnson launched three homers in a week.

A year after joining his kid in the big leagues, as first base coach for the Red Sox, the elder Johnson is in the Orioles organization.  On this Sunday his Tides and the Bulls each will wind up with a win.  Norfolk’s three runs from the previous night prove the difference in a 5-2, 9-inning affair, before Durham triumphs, 2-1, in 7 innings.

Those of us witnessing the split do so with divided attention.  Because in Boston an epic involving Johnson’s former and current employers makes for compelling scoreboard watching.  Off to two of the spring’s most surprising starts — one for better, the other for worse — the O’s and Sox are entangled in a 6-6 tie deep into extra innings.

As they soldier into the 16th, Baltimore and Boston have utilized eight pitchers apiece.  In the last of the 16th, the Orioles opt to throw a last resort at the Red Sox lineup.  Chris Davis sheds his Designated Hitter label to take the mound.  Six years removed from his last pitching appearance, at a Texas junior college, Davis posts a zero to prolong the proceedings.  Boston counters in the top of the 17th by dispatching its DH, Darnell McDonald to the hill.  McDonald doesn’t fare as well, allowing a three-run homer to Adam Jones.  Davis completes another inning to end a 6-hour, 7-minute marathon.  He is the first position player to win an American League game as a pitcher since Rocky Colavito in 1968.

In Durham, my mind rewinds to June 9, 2006.  That’s when a backup catcher for the Bulls earned victory in relief.  The game started with a matchup of the late Jose Lima and Jason Hammel, a then Devil Ray prospect and a present-day Oriole.  And the first of eight Durham pitchers.  In need of a ninth, the Bulls called on Kevin Cash.  He completed a scoreless top of the 14th inning of a 5-5 tie, before Luis Rivas singled home Kevin Witt with the game-winner in the bottom half.  Also in the Durham lineup, none other than left fielder Darnell McDonald.

Looking ahead, I experience another flashback.  It’s one everybody who’s ever spent considerable time in the minors identifies with.  The Tides are leaving Durham tonight for Louisville.  By land, not air.  That’s more than 500 miles and roughly nine hours on a bus, from Sunday evening into Monday morning.  Not that any of us is worthy of sympathy, especially from others who’ve beaten the bush leagues.  The ride may be long, but the Tides still travel better than most, even Triple-A contemporaries.  Ours is nothing like the mode transporting fictional Durham Bulls Crash Davis and Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh, or many real-life clubs confined to the narrow seats of a single bus.

The real-life Tides left Durham in far more comfort than the fictional Nuke LaLoosh and the big-screen Bulls.

Traveling with the Tides, there’s a choice between two.  On this particular trip, you can elect to recline in a wide, comfortably-cushioned seat aboard an ‘executive’ bus.  Or you can choose to take a ‘sleeper’ bus outfitted with bunk beds, card tables, internet service and satellite television.  This night, for this tag-along, it’s the only way to go.

Within an hour of the final pitch of Game 2, clubhouse attendants load equipment into luggage bays and leave coolers of drinks and boxes of pizza on the buses.  Climbing onto the sleeper, I’m mildly surprised to see several players congregating in the front.  In the past, this space was occupied mainly by staff.  But my surprise is pleasant, because they’re here to watch a Stanley Cup playoff game on TV.  The interest in the Devils-Flyers is mutual.  I used to count on missing the best postseason in pro sports anytime a baseball trip conflicted with a hockey telecast.  Tidesvision, if you will, was generally tuned to West-coast baseball, Seinfeld reruns or re-airs of Caddy Shack.  All entertaining, no doubt.  Still, none as passionate as the quest for the Cup.

Thankfully — even if it costs me any extra space — this year’s group of Tides include the likes of Canadian Chris Robinson and Minnesotan Jamie Hoffman, a one-time draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes.  One knows hockey as his national pastime.  The other nearly made it his profession.

I take a seat on a bench alongside pitching coach Mike Griffin.  Though he resides in New Jersey, ‘Grif’ is too busy to pay much attention to the Devils.  Studying charts filled with copious numbers and notes, he resembles a college professor reviewing mid-terms.  But in his case, Grif grades only two of the 144 tests Tides pitchers are scheduled to face in 2012.  All the information is painstakingly condensed into a computer report for Oriole brass in Baltimore.  He hits the send key and leans back.

The home-state Devils hold on for a Game 5 win, and the channel changes to Lakers-Nuggets.  The NHL postseason gives way to the NBA playoffs.  Must-see television late on a Sunday drive through the mountains of West Virginia.  Not exactly wild and wonderful, but our ride could be a lot worse.

We pause at a truck-stop convenience store and re-load to continue the journey.  Getting back on the bus, the TV gets turned off and lights go out.  I hop into a bunk, turn on an iPod Shuffle set to a mix of relaxing jazz and classical.  Smooth music for a bumpy ride.  Sleep is had in intervals.  At least it adds up to a decent amount by the time we roll into Louisville at about 7:30 a.m.

As father to a toddler and infant, and nighttime nemesis to family cats crowding the bed, uninterrupted sleep isn’t anything I’m used to anyway.  I’m ready to start a brand new day in a different city.

Two down, eight more to go on the Tides’ longest trip of the season.

As the ballclub’s lead announcer from 2006-10, Bob splits time on the road with the Norfolk Tides calling baseball and following hockey.  Tides broadcasts can be heard via www.norfolktides.com or www.espnradio941.com.  For highlights of Bob’s work calling baseball, football and basketball, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

On The Road Again…

By Bob Socci

Day One – Saturday, May 5: Norfolk Tides at Durham Bulls

The alarm goes off, and an annoying tone sounds from the cell phone left atop a nearby bureau.  I reach to silence it, still in denial.  Seriously, it can’t be time to get up so soon.  Literally, it seems, my head just hit the pillow.  Is it really 4:30?  Already?

I stay in bed briefly, needing an extra five minutes to face the day.  In another couple of hours, I’m supposed to travel from New England to North Carolina.

Barely awake enough to shower and dress, I whisper goodbye to my wife and our baby daughter, who sleeps peacefully and beautifully a few feet away in her bassinet.  I then cross the hallway for a peek at our son in his crib.  He too is sound asleep, surrounded by stuffed animals, as well as the blankets he routinely kicks off in his nightly state of unconsciousness.

Night one of the Norfolk Tides’ longest road trip of 2012 includes 3 hours, 26 minutes of delays before play in suspended.

“Love you buddy,” I say, turning away.  And then I walk out the door for the next week and a half.

Waiting on me is a taxi to Boston’s Logan Airport.  From there I will fly to Raleigh-Durham to join the Norfolk Tides baseball club on a three-city, 10-game trip.  Two days in Durham mark the first leg, followed by four in Louisville and four more in Indianapolis.  I’ll accompany the Tides on a long bus ride, then on a shorter drive; each taking me back to a childhood dream of broadcasting baseball.

The cabbie is familiar.  Actually, he’s unforgettable, in a good way.  I recognize him from a trip to the airport during last football season.  He’s been dispatched, I’m convinced, from South Boston central casting.  Right away he correctly pegs me as a sports fan, launching into a recap of the previous night’s playoff win for the Celtics.  He sounds like so many others I regularly hear on local sports-talk radio.  For instance, he tells me that Paul Pierce has taken the last shot of regulation at least 70 times and, disregarding the fact that Pierce is one of the team’s all-time best, probably made one of them.  Somehow a postseason victory is spun forward in a negative way.  Conversation shifts to the Red Sox, and the tone is far harsher.  Hair slicked back and seat reclined, the cabbie deftly steers the wheel of his mini-van with his left hand while sipping from the cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in his right.  Undeterred, he continues expounding on the disappointing state of the Sox.  All while wearing a throwback Washington Redskins jersey, his three-quarter sleeves homage to Slingin’ Sammy Baugh.

Before I know it, we’re curbside at Logan’s Terminal C.  The cab pulls away, and I think of that driver as the kind of character who gives a place its character.  My ride was definitely entertaining and, in an odd way, enlightening.  I’m also struck again by how effectively sports serve as starters between people.  The success of the Celtics, the struggles of the Red Sox — each easily each sparks conversation.  I’m sure I’ll see that cabbie again, perhaps when my football weekends resume this fall.  No doubt we’ll pick up where we left off.  Unless the subject of the Patriots comes up first.

Once safely in Durham, I check the team’s itinerary.  There are generally two trips made from hotel to ballpark before each game.  The first bus is filled with pitchers reporting for early work and position players looking to log extra time in the batting cage, or simply anxious to get to the park.  The second bus always includes the starting pitcher and, early in the season, a few others.  When the schedule lengthens, more and more players will opt for the later departure.

There’s something else that’s almost always bound to happen: changes will be made.  The printed itinerary can be trusted only so much.  This is one of those days.  I hustle to the lobby for the 1 o’clock bus.  Several Tides are there as well.  Unbeknownst to us, the 1 o’clock bus is now scheduled to depart at 2:30.

There won’t be batting practice on the field at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, so there’s no need to arrive too early.  Leaving later rather than sooner will turn out for the better.  We’re all about to spend far more time at the DBAP than anyone could possibly expect.  Game time is 5:05 p.m., but it too becomes subject to change.

Raindrops begin falling at about 4:30.  There are thunder storms close by, and it’s about to come down a whole lot harder.  It won’t stop for several hours.  The infield remains under cover at 5 o’clock.  An hour later, the scene is unchanged.  Roughly 6,000 tickets were sold for today’s game.  Even now, most who turned out hours earlier remain.  They eat, drink, talk and laugh.  And they watch the left-field video board, as the Mets beat the Diamondbacks, before I’ll Have Another runs to the roses at Churchill Downs.

But they’re here expecting to see the Bulls and Tides.  As another half hour passes, many decide they’ve waited long enough.  The P.A. announcer tells the departing fans that even if a game is eventually played, the club will honor their tickets on a future date.  I’m not sure how rare such a gesture is, I just know it’s a classy and smart move by the Bulls.  And evidence of why they remain remarkably successful, more than a quarter-century after Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon put the franchise on the national map.

Finally in the next half hour, between 7:30 and 8:00, the rain relents and the grounds crew goes to work.  A cadre of stadium staffers and groundskeepers pull the tarp from the infield, roll it up and return it to the third-base sidewall.  Players emerge in full uniform, the Tides and Bulls trickling out to left and right field, respectively.

Among them is Durham starter Matt Torra, a 27-year old righthander who joined the Tampa Bay Rays organization last July.  He was the 31st player drafted overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2005, after leading the nation with a 1.14 ERA for the University of Massachusetts.  But after only five pro outings, Torra’s career was jeopardized by shoulder surgery.  He progressed as far as Triple-A Reno of the Pacific Coast League, before the D-Backs dealt him to the Rays for “cash considerations.”

Two weeks ago Torra’s earned run average was a bloated 8.22.  However, his last two appearances — a tough-luck loss at Norfolk and a masterpiece vs. Indianapolis — lowered the mark to 5.04.  Torra hasn’t allowed a run in his last 10.0 innings pitched.  In fact, against the Indians five days ago, he didn’t surrendered a hit until there was one out in the 8th inning.  Torra won that start by a 1-0 final.  It was Durham’s first victory in 14 games.

While Torra warms in his bullpen, Norfolk’s Jason Berken does the same across the outfield grass, along the line in left.  Also a righty, Berken is off to a much better beginning to 2012, though his won-loss record doesn’t reflect it.  Actually, he has neither a win nor a loss to his name this spring, as mainly a victim of non-support from the Tides’ offense, bullpen or both.  Berken owns a 1.35 ERA, yielding just three earned runs (five total) in his first 20.0 innings.

For three days in late April, as he had done the previous three seasons, Berken joined the Orioles.  But he was unused out of Baltimore’s pen, and returned to the Tides.  Tonight’s start can be viewed one of two ways: it’s either his second assignment since coming back to Triple-A or his second opportunity to prove he belongs back in the big leagues.

At 8:01 — 2 hours, 56 minutes after he was scheduled to deliver his first pitch — Torra starts Xavier Avery with strike one.  Avery is a promising young outfielder in his first Triple-A season.  He chose to sign with the Orioles out of high school, bypassing an opportunity to play football at his home-state University of Georgia.  As you’d expect of an SEC recruit, Avery combines strength with speed.  He unveils the former on Torra’s next offering, pulling a hard line drive into the empty blue seats beyond the right-field wall.  Two pitches in, Norfolk leads, 1-0.

Trouble continues for Torra by the time Bill Hall comes up.  A single and walk have set the table for Hall, who represents the customary contrast of a Triple-A roster.  On this level of pro ball players are either stepping forward (like Avery) or stepping back (like Hall).  One is a 22-year old moving up in an organization, perhaps within a hot streak of getting to the big leagues for the first time.  The other was 22 when he broke into the majors with the Milwaukee Brewers — a decade ago.   Hall is trying to make Baltimore his sixth different MLB club.

As a Mariner, Red Sox, Astro and Giant since the Brewers traded him in the summer of 2009, Hall went to spring training with the New York Yankees.  Unable to make the major league club, he became a free agent and signed with the O’s on April 25.  Now he is in Durham, N.C., having waited more than three hours for this first at-bat of the night.  On the third pitch, he doubles to left-center to give the Tides a 3-0 lead.

The iconic Bull is left standing in the rain atop Durham’s “Blue Monster,” while fans watch baseball and the Kentucky Derby on the stadium’s video board.

It will be Norfolk’s last hit until the 8th inning, which means it will be the last hit until late the following afternoon.  Before Hall’s next turn in the top of the 3rd, the game is again held up in the midst (and mist) of wet conditions.  Only this delay is man made.

Groundskeepers had set the field’s sprinkler system on a timer, assuming the scheduled contest would be over by 8:30 p.m.  Someone, however, forgot to hit the reset button when the game time got pushed back.  Sure enough, four sprinkler heads begin spraying water around the infield, forcing batter and fielders alike to briefly scatter.  The fact that this is happening here is entirely too convenient.  In Norfolk a radio listener instantly pictures the Bull Durham scene in which Costner’s character, Crash Davis, leads teammates on a clandestine, overnight mission to flood the field (You want a rainout, I can get you a rainout).  The listener calls the studio, repeating the Costner line: What we have here is a freakin’ natural disaster.

What we’re really about to have, in the words of Norfolk manager Ron Johnson, is something bordering on the super natural.  Hall is back at the plate.  Torra delivers a 1-2 pitch for a called third strike by umpire Travis Carlson.  The sky opens up.  Slightly obscured through the sheet of rain, Hall argues with Carlson.  Meanwhile, first-base ump David Rackley waves the teams off the field.  Everyone else is sprinting for cover, but Hall and Carlson remain in the downpour long enough to have their say about strike three.

Unlike the previous hold-up, this one will take awhile.  This is the work of Mother Nature, and she isn’t in the mood for a ballgame tonight.  Thankfully, the umpires understand.  Not a second after waiting the requisite 30 minutes, they suspend play.  It’s 3-0 Norfolk with two down in the 3rd inning.  The third out will have to wait until tomorrow.

It’s nearly 10 p.m. when players start boarding the first bus to the hotel.  Many, if not all, are anxious to get moving.  They want to get where they’re going — and now! — so they can catch the Mayweather-Cotto boxing match somewhere on pay per view.

Not me.  I’m in a hurry, alright.  But I just want to get to bed.

And no, I won’t be setting my alarm.

Bob was the Tides’ lead announcer from 2006-10, before opting to become the Manny Mota of Triple-A broadcasters as a pinch-hitter.  Broadcasts can be heard via www.norfolktides.com or www.espnradio941.com.  For highlights of Bob’s work calling baseball, football and basketball, please visit www.bobsocci.com.