Small Town Baseball Is Major League Fun!

The sun is three hours away from dropping below the western horizon, beyond right field. The late afternoon sky is a deep azure blue and the announcer keeps up a steady chatter of baseball statistics, jargon, and hopeful anticipation as people casually stroll through the cyclone fence gate, hand the attendant their ticket and shove the offered program or game schedule in their pocket or purse. It is rare to see a lone individual enter. Most come in groups-families, friends, church groups, school children, buses full of elderly fans.

Teenagers and adults linger around the concession stands talking and preparing their hotdogs, pizzas and drinks before heading for the grandstands or a seat on the freshly mown, green grass slope just outside the third base foul line.

The long awaited opening baseball game is about to start. My wife and I look forward to this particular evening all year long. It is an event in itself to attend a major league baseball game in a stadium like Seattle’s Safeco field. But we look forward to the season’s opener held in a small town field called Joe Martin stadium in Bellingham, Washington. The Bellingham Bells,, are members of the

The game is certainly the center of attention but we also enjoy all the activities held in the ball park to entertain the crowd. The game mascot, a person wearing a colorful, full size chicken costume, leads the crowd in various cheers, helps the young vendors sell their drinks and popcorn, and of course leads us all in a rousing version of Take Me Out To The Ball Game during the seventh inning stretch.

The same gregarious fowl jumps on top of the home team’s dugout at a signal from the announcer and leads everyone, who’s willing, in a funky chicken dance to an old roller skating tune.

Early on in the game small kids are brought out to don baseball shoes, sweatshirts and caps-all adult size-and race from base to base accompanied by cheers and laughter from the crowd. This is just one of the crowd pleasers involving the youngest fans. Two or three youngsters, selected beforehand, place their foreheads on the end of bats resting upright on the ground and spin in a circle without raising their heads up from the bats. At the completion of ten revolutions, they drop their bats and attempt to race to the finish line, staggering and falling down from the dizziness. Right behind the bleachers a radar trap is set up to measure the speed of young potential major league pitchers, or just kids who love to play baseball.

There seems no end to the imagination of the management. Each new season seems to bring new forms of entertainment. Last year we watched the baseball helmet races. Three or four giant size helmets cut out of wood are held up above the left field fence. At the signal, the helmets all bob down the length of the fence to the finish line, the score board upright, as the crowd watches and cheers for their favorite color. It’s not unusual to see some of the players leave their respective dugouts, joining in the fun to cheer on their favorite helmet.

There are numerous ticket raffles, memorabilia give-aways, contests of all sorts. It is an evening of delightful entertainment that takes many forms beyond the enticing, intermingling smells of foods, oiled leather, the crack of the bat, the sights and sounds of America’s favorite pastime.

The evening is not complete without a visit in the booth by some local dignitary or prominent businessperson. It’s interesting to note the enthusiasm or lack of it some of these visitors receive.

The ball game resumes and a silence settles over the crowd as the pitcher sets and throws. Murmurs of approval flow through the crowd as we listen to the soft whap of the ball hitting the catcher’s glove. We are close enough to watch the players faces, the grimaces and grins, the nervous frowns and the flashes of excitement as the pitcher winds up again. The first baseman is bent over slightly, mitt out and ready, as someone in the bleachers yells instructions to the tall speedy infielder to “close it up”. The batter takes his swing and, with the crack of the bat, every head in the park inclines upward watching the baseball soar up, up, over our heads to disappear behind the fence. We all listen pensively for the sharp crack of ball hitting glass and are rewarded instead with the metallic whump as it bounces off a hood, trunk lid or car top. We all grown in mutual sympathy but no one will move their car. There is plenty of parking space in the large lot across the street from the entrance where the vehicles are safe from errant balls. It’s more a matter of prestige, it seems, to proudly show off the dent or cracked window. It’s probably the only time when damage of this sort is met with a shrug and smile and a comment like, “that’s okay. I have insurance”.

The sun is beginning to set, the air takes on a slight chill reminiscent of the winter so recently past. We all begin to pull sweaters or coats on, adjusting collars and helping friends with theirs. Some had been sitting on blankets but now they shake the blankets out over laps or shoulders as the players return to their dugout for the top of the next inning.

The fresh air lends a special picnic like flavor to the all pervasive odor of hotdogs, pizza slices, peanuts, popcorn, and drinks. Little kids, to restive to remain sitting with their parents, begin to run and play all around the bleachers but no one seems to take notice and no one seems to mind; it’s a part of the small town ball game mentality; it’s what kids are supposed to do there; it’s part of the reason the ball park exists.

Excitement mounts, fans adopt a more serious mood as the final inning begins. Laughing, teasing and casual comments disappear in both dugouts as the players concentrate on raising the final score. It seems as if the entire ball park leans forward slightly to urge their team on to success. Even the little children pause in their play to lean against the cyclone fence or the bleacher rails and watch. The announcer’s voice takes on a tone of quiet urgency as the pitcher winds up and three successive players fall to the weary young man’s fast ball. The sun has sunk below the horizon, as though it knew ahead of time which team would win, and lost interest. But we haven’t. One side of the ball park groans and rises to leave in dejection while the other side, ours, leaps to their feet in wild exultation, shouting congratulations to the team members and one another.

We walk slowly to the gate enjoying, vicariously, the win and, consulting the game schedule, make plans for the next visit to our favorite spring and summer form of G-rated entertainment: Small town, Pacific International League baseball.

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