A Mini Odyssey

I freely admit that I’m a baseball fan. Every spring I look over a few baseball schedules and pick out a couple of games I’d like to see, and drop a note to a few buddies of mine who share a passion for the game — or at least a passing interest and a passion for the comradeship of the outings — and we get together for a field trip. This year I noticed an odd quirk in the schedule of the Madison Mallards — my local, college-level team. They were scheduled to play a doubleheader on one day in two different cities. The other team, a brand new outfit in Rockford, Illinois called the Rockford Rivets, would host the first game at 11 AM. Then everyone would pile into their team buses and drive the 75 miles north to Madison, Wisconsin for game two, with a 7:05 PM start time. It seemed like the perfect opportunity: an easy drive for an early game, a quick drive home with plenty of time (and opportunities) for places to stop and refresh ourselves, then another game, and we’d already be home — well, most of us, anyway.

My list of baseball companions has grown a bit over the years, but it’s still a small group. Matt McElroy, one of my most frequent companions in life these days, seems always up for a trip like this, unless he’s away at a convention for his work with Drive Thru RPG and its affiliated sites. Also one of the usual suspects is Matt Forbeck, my friend and colleague for many years. John Kovalic often joins us too, when he’s not gallivanting around the world or taking secret meetings in the entertainment capitals of the world. Today, John has had some minor catastrophies to deal with at his office, so he’s not able to join us for the first leg of the trip to Rockford, but he’ll meet us at the ballpark back in Madison. We missed having Doug Niles join us this time by virtue of his out-of-town relatives in for a visit, and Jim Lowder also couldn’t make it, having to take his son to visit prospective colleges.

The Matts and I arrive at the stadium of the newly formed expansion team, the Rockford Rivets, around 10:30 or so, and our tickets were waiting at the Will-Call window as promised. Once inside, I can’t help but notice the utter lack of shade to be found ANYWHERE in the stadium except for two covered pavilions earmarked for group outings and other private events. As it turned out, I failed to dose myself thoroughly enough with sunblock, for which I would still be paying three weeks later.
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Dead center, feet up on the dugout. From the Aisle: my empty seat, Matt McElroy, and Matt Forbeck, as we slowly roast in our own juices while watching a baseball game in Rockford, IL.

Our seats in Rockford were directly behind the visiting team’s dugout, which also meant we needed to pay close attention to the game or potentially wind up needing emergency dental work. As if we needed a reminder, in the first half of the first inning a vicious foul ball was lined into the seat where Matt Forbeck had been sitting a second before. For an old guy, Forbeck has pretty decent reflexes.

Normally, trips like this are a good chance to catch up, not to mention talk a little shop. This trip is no exception, but today I find myself distracted, unable to concentrate on the conversation. The two Matts seemed to have plenty to say, and I listened in when my attention came back from time to time.

This league, the Northwoods League, is made up of an assortment of players from colleges and Universities across the US and Canada. Because they are college level athletes, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has very strict rules about players not being compensated, thus destroying their amateur statues and making them ineligible for participation in college athletics. The players cannot be paid, or given anything for free by the team, coaches, team boosters or fans. As a work-around, the teams recruit host families to house and feed the players for the ten-week season.

The crowd at today’s game is sparse. It speaks poorly of the community’s support for the team, and yet it’s also tough for most people to get to a weekday game at 11 AM. First-year teams usually have a difficult time drawing a crowd, and with Rockford’s depressed economy, this is doubly challenging — which explains the enthusiasm of the person I talked to when I ordered these tickets (YAY! Somebody’s ordering tickets!). A large group of elementary school-aged children are here as part of some summer program, and their enthusiasm is simultaneously charming and teeth-rattlingly shrill. I get up a few times — to walk around the park, to visit the bathroom, and to grab some food and beverages — to give myself a break from the shrieking moppets.

Baseball has been a part of my life since 1977. I went to my first professional baseball game then, accompanied by my dad and my brothers, and we saw the legendary Vida Blue pitch for the Oakland A’s against our home-state Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers were able to hit against Blue pretty effectively that day and won the game handily. The hook was set; I’ve been a baseball fan ever since.

The Mallards and the Rivets trade scores, and for the first half of the game it’s tied, one to one. Then the Mallards pitching gives way, and the Rivets win by a final of 7-3. Disappointed, but still happy, we retire to Chez Forbeck for some water and air-conditioned chatting.

We depart an hour later for the drive to Madison. Forbeck, needing to drive back home, is in his own car; McElroy and I are in mine, and we make to to Chez Kovalic in good time. We are plied with cool drinks and chat with John a bit before piling back into cars and making the brief trek from John’s house to Warner Park.

As we sit in the swanky seating area behind home plate with free food and beverages until the 7th inning (John knows people), my mind harkens back to one of the Mallards’ recent predecessors, the Madison Black Wolf, and their failed experiment with a woman as a pitcher. Ila Borders may not be a household name, but I was excited to see her pitch. She was the first woman to pitch in the independent Northern League, to which the Black Wolf belonged. She pitched well enough the night I saw her back in 1999, but not spectacularly well. She was out of baseball within a few years; sadly, this is the fate she shares with the vast majority of professional baseball players. I wonder when we will see women competing regularly in baseball at any level; that day cannot come soon enough for me, but I know too well there are many others who would prefer it not be so. Baseball as an institution remains rigidly conservative at it’s heart, and change comes at a glacial pace, if at all.

The Mallards and Rivets trade single scores in this game as well; after nine innings, the score is tied one to one. After getting the Rivets out in the top of the tenth, the Mallards start a rally, and with the bases loaded, a home run ends the game in dramatic fashion. The Mallards win the second game five to one.

It was a satisfying day for me, though I wish I’d been more attentive to the conversations around me. Even so, I enjoy hanging out with my industry pals; we don’t get to do so often enough any more. Freelancers in the gaming biz lead such isolated lives most of the time that having chances to socialize with colleagues is a welcome respite from the daily grind in the text mines. I’m already looking forward to getting the gang together for another game next year; maybe this time we’ll see a game in Chicago, or even another college-level game somewhere else. Wherever we end up, here’s hoping for warm burgers and cold drinks as we while away a couple of hours under the sun.

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