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.
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.
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.
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.