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.

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