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.
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.
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.