The Power of Baseball

When we consider “power” in baseball, it usually involves a Ruthian swing and that special sound off the bat. Or it could mean a sizzling fastball nearing triple digits that pounds the catcher’s mitt. The power I’m thinking of is much more understated, more subtle, and plays out over time.

I wanted to treat my father-in-law to baseball, which he loved all his life. What I didn’t count on when we got to our seats for the first time were the folks surrounding us just beyond first base at the Harrisburg Senators ballpark on City Island. We all became fast friends. After a season or two, we became more like a family — a family brought together through the power of baseball.

What became “our section” was lost to the park upgrades a decade ago or more. However, our group of fans became so close that we all decided we wanted to move to the same new section so we could continue to sit together.

One of those fans was Barb Thomas. Although “fanatic” isn’t strong enough a word to describe Barb’s love for the Senators.

I mean, who else remains in her seat through blistering cold winds, torrential downpours, and searing heat? Who else, upon retirement, drives to Spring Training and stays at the players’ hotel for a month? Who else has been to every Eastern League ballpark multiple times … including some no longer used by Eastern League teams?

She even hosted a player in her home. That player and his wife kept in touch with Barb since that unique season. And, yes, Barb was there for Milton Bradley’s rainy walk-off grand slam to bring a fourth consecutive EL championship to Harrisburg in 1999.

Barb wasn’t at the game to predict a 3-2 slider or second guess a decision. Barb loved the Senators as people. She cheered their successes and offered standing ovations for home runs and victories.

More so, Barb became everyone’s friend. Staunchly independent, Barb could make everyone feel welcome in any situation. She got to know many of those players during spring training. She became friends with a Washington Nationals usher and visited with her whenever we took in a game at Nats Park.

Barb had a smile for everyone. She always reminded me of the Colonel Potter line from M*A*S*H: Barb had a drawer full of them. And she was great at letting you borrow one whenever you needed it.

Her soft-spoken demeanor never changed. In the two decades I knew Barb, she never raised her voice nor spoke negatively about anyone.

I could show up at the ballpark stressed over a project or traffic, and Barb could easily make me forget about whatever it was. She had the same calming effect over Senators Fan Club business. I would pick up Barb to attend a meeting with a thousand loose ends on my mind. By the time we arrived, everything seemed better.

Over the years, Barb became a regular guest at our home whenever Mindy made spaghetti, Barb’s favorite dinner. She would always arrive in a red top (very practical) with a bouquet of flowers for the table (very appreciative).

She also became a regular at our family birthdays, holidays (whenever she wasn’t visiting her family), ABC Mug Club events, and sometimes just a relaxing dinner with friends.

Barb’s social calendar never seemed to pump the brakes. She enjoyed bus trips, former work friends, family events in Pittsburgh, Penn State home games, and Senators road series to the far reaches of the Eastern League. Barb would cheerfully participate wherever her calendar took her.

That was the way Barb was. She could brighten any situation without any effort. That was just her nature.

Section 105 isn’t the same without Barb. She was so woven into our baseball and friendship landscape that we weren’t ready to let go. I’m thankful that we’ve gotten to know her family and that we have so many fond memories. As Barb would have wanted, we laughed much more than shed tears at her visitation.

As we toasted an empty pint glass at last Monday’s Mug Club gathering, here’s to you, Barb. Through the power of the baseball diamond, thank you for letting us into your circle.

Shhh

While we’re hearing nothing but crickets from MLB teams and free agents, I want to share about two baseball-worthy events. This past week featured the first Senators Fan Club Diamond Talk of 2019. Yesterday marked the SABR Babe Ruth Chapter meeting in Baltimore. So while MLB struggles for new headlines, please allow me to shout from the rooftops … from the keyboard.

We introduced a lot of new content during our Diamond Talk. We voted to update our bylaws, discussed the Nats’ moves so far this off-season, and previewed what the club has in store through the Senators‘ Opening Day.

SABR historian and Fan Club member, Ted Knorr, shared some insights about the 1960 World Series. Ted and Fan Club member, Fred Walker, attended the Game 7 rebroadcast at the Forbes Field wall back on October 13th. They projected stats, photos, and told us about their annual APBA Game 7 replay.

This year’s event, played near the left field wall, featured unique qualities that you’ll only find in baseball. Their game even elicited some curious onlookers, which opened up a fun baseball conversation.

Speaking of conversation, I’d been fretting the forecast all week because Fan Club member, Terry Hartzell, and I had committed to the SABR Baltimore Chapter meeting on Sunday. Never underestimate the power of baseball! Like magic, the storm fizzled, the state of emergency lifted, and we were on our way to Peabody Heights Brewery on North 30th Street.

On the way, we encountered rain showers and fog, but spotted lifting clouds and even some blue sky after crossing the Mason-Dixon Line. We arrived in plenty of time to strike up some Hot Stove talk.

The first person I saw was Dick O’Keefe, the brewery owner. I met Dick more than a year ago when Terry and I visited for our historical baseball parks tour. Dick’s such an inviting gentleman! He offered the venue, built on the site of a former Baltimore Orioles’ minor league park (1916-1944), gratis to the local SABR Chapter. He also supplied free beer to all attendees!

We all enjoyed presentations throughout the day. The only time out was for all of us to enjoy a Mission BBQ catered lunch.

Author David B. Stinson, who was a Fan Club guest speaker after releasing “Deadball”, emceed. We heard from authors, long-time SABR members, researchers, even a former ballpark chef (named Grill) told their stories. A former Orioles Rookie of the Year, Ron Hansen, approached me after the meeting adjourned and warmly shook my hand. Since I’d never officially met Mickey Morandini, Ron becomes the first to greet me and turn an MLB unassisted triple play.

Larry Haney and Ron Hanson

Ron and former Orioles’ catcher Larry Haney informed and entertained our group throughout their appearance. Both seemed would be just as comfortable sitting down to chat over a cup of coffee. Both enjoyed long coaching careers following their playing days and each has been married more than 50 years. Ron and Larry truly appreciated their time associated with MLB and it showed. Ah, respect for the game…

A few years ago, I received a wonderful gift. “The Last Boy” by Jane Leavy is one of the most comprehensive baseball biographies I’d ever read. Without referring to one note, Jane fed us details about her latest effort, “Big Fella,” a unique look at Babe Ruth. Just when you thought you’d read everything about George Herman, Jane unearths more about The Babe’s childhood and persona. I instantly purchased a copy onsite. And I wasn’t the only one. Jane spent a few minutes chatting with me while personally signing my copy.

After seeing Ken Mars and David Stinson‘s video presentation, I gained a new appreciation for their level of research on John McGraw. Our day was filled with wonderful baseball surprises like these. And then, we switched gears.

A former client when Terry and I were creative directors at a recording studio penned his own sports book and released it last fall. Jack GIlden’s “Collision of Wills” tells of the relationship between Don Shula and Johnny Unitas. Although I lost interest in football long ago, I have two relatives who grew up as Baltimore Colts fans.

After Terry and I said our SABR goodbyes, we secured two copies of Jack’s book and met with Jack at The Corner Stable. Jack kindly personalized each gift. We visited over refreshments before parting. Terry and I rolled toward Harrisburg (on dry I-83 North) with a terrific day full of fresh memories.

So nothing’s happening on the free agent front? Shhhh. Keep your eyes and ears open. You’re sure to find satisfying Hot Stove action nearby.

Brian Williams
From Deep Short

Less Than 30 Minutes

Once upon a time a young broadcaster is hired as a member of the team to take an automated FM station (licensed to Harrisburg) live for the first time. He now needs a place to live that’s close by.

Someone else on that new on-air staff informs the young man that an air personality from another Harrisburg station is seeking a new roommate. (His former roomie left the area for a radio gig in another state.)

That air personality is 29-year-old Chris Andree from WKBO. I’m that immature 20-year-old, yet had already pulled shifts on four different stations.

We meet for the first time in the parking lot of Rock 99 in Wormleysburg. As we talk for less than 30 minutes in Andree’s car, we decide to sign a lease together on a townhouse right down the hill on Third Street.

First of all, that’s a commute to make anyone envious. Secondly and much more importantly, that’s how friendly Andree is.

That quality comes across on the air in the Harrisburg market for more than 40 years. It also creates an unmatched continuity and fun feeling during his 15 year stint as the Harrisburg Senators PA announcer.

We share a townhouse for two years before I take a position at Q106 and rent a house south of York. But the broadcasting community is close-knit. Andree and I see each other occasionally at area events and just to get together.

Fast-forward a few years. I’m hired as program director to take 97.3 FM live for the first time. I’ll handle afternoon drive. The midday shift will be covered by a current employee.

Who can we hire for morning drive and to help me with music? Andree agrees to bring his passion for music and enthusiasm behind the mic to Broadcast Center!

My contract ends after three years. New management doesn’t renew it. However, Andree continues to thrive through several position, format, management and even ownership changes into 2017.

He also continues to make his mark on the Harrisburg market through regional commercial production and ABC-27 News bumpers. And, of course, the magic he creates during Senators games. Since the millennium no voice has been heard more in this area.

During games we text each other suggesting clever walk-up music for opposing batters. We meet after games and continue to share in each others’ lives. The same Andree smile. The same signature, “Yeah.”

We attend out-of-town baseball games together: Reading, Philly, DC. I see my only NBA game ever … with Andree. Andree meets me downtown at the Harrisburg Brewfest last June.

That same month I schedule our mutual friend Dan Steele as guest speaker to the Senators Fan Club. Andree shows up. Dan hired Andree away from his hometown radio station in Bellefonte 42 years earlier. We all enjoy dinner and laugh over radio and baseball memories after the meeting adjourns.

I receive a call from Dan two weeks later on July 4th. Not a happy holiday call, but a shocking Andree-has-big-health-related-challenges-ahead-of-him call.

I get to play one-hit-wonder music trivia with Andree around his birthday. He beats Todd Matthews and me a number of times by quickly naming an artist after Randy Whitaker calls out a title.

The same Andree smile. The same passion for music. They’re still there.

Three months later there’s suddenly worse health news.

Two weeks later I’m notified that Andree’s fight has ended.

No more smile.

When I was very young and very immature, I still knew within 30 minutes that I not only was compatible with Andree, but that I’d found a lifelong friend.

Dan brilliantly conducts the Harrisburg Senators tribute to Andree at FNB Field. Surrounded by his family, his friends, the broadcasting community, the Senators front office, his favorite music over the PA and great photos on the big screen, I can see that Andree affected more than just me within the first 30 minutes of meeting him.

That was reiterated at his memorial service in Bellefonte yesterday. Andree is still radiating positively … just as he did to his listeners over several decades behind the mic. In fact you can still enjoy hearing his unmistakable voice on recorded messages prior to any Senators home game. I have to smile every time I hear them.

SABR 48 – The Closer

Let’s start our SABR 48 Saturday with a 1979 Pirates players’ panel featuring pitchers John Candelaria and Grant Jackson. Nothing like a cup of coffee and two former major leaguers telling stories out of school. Both personalities contribute to a fun session with tales from the field, the clubhouse and even from the streets of Montreal.

SABR48-Candy-Grant

Three different committee meetings follow, including BioProject, Nineteenth Century (which I attended) and Statistical Analysis. [If you’re not a baseball fan, you’re probably thinking — if you hadn’t already throughout this series of posts — “What’s wrong with this guy?”]

Now it’s time to learn how to perform baseball research with SABR’s Cecilia Tan. Very interesting discussion with a variety of authors of research articles. I’m impressed with how these folks are willing to dive into an extensive baseball research project and submit their results for SABR publication. I learn quite a bit from this session.

At noon I take time to soak in poster presentations. SABR offers this medium to present your research project without having to speak to a roomful of other researchers.

Friends from Virginia, a husband and wife whom I met through baseball [Imagine that!], display their poster on Pirates’ season openers. Great work, Lisa and Gordon!

SABR48-Poster-Lisa-Gordon

I attend Branch Rickey’s Pirate years, the Baseball and the Arts research committee meeting, Negro Leagues = Major Leagues presentation, and wrap up the day with Ford Frick’s 61* ruling by Dave Bohmer. There’s one more round of sessions; however, it’s a beautiful Saturday and there’s a new ballpark to visit.

We say our goodbyes, tip our caps to SABR 48, and then we’re on our way to West Virginia. A straight shot down I-79 gets us to Monongalia County Ballpark as the Pirates’ Class A short-season affiliate West Virginia Black Bears host the State College Spikes (St. Louis farm team) in a New York-Penn League tilt.

The artificial turf reminds me of Washington, PA, where the independent Wild Things play alongside I-70. The ballpark proves cozy featuring a few suites, standing room in right field (near the craft beer stand) and a beautiful mountaintop view.

Monongalia-County-Ballpark

The concession stands feature a variety of selections. While in line I notice a fan walking away with a fine-looking cheese steak and seasoned fries. I immediately call an audible and order one to accompany my WV-brewed IPA.

Black-Bears-Food

We enjoy our standing room tickets from beyond 1st base. The Pirates recent 2018 #1 amateur draft selection, Travis Swaggerty, collects three hits from the three hole and gets good jumps in centerfield.

As a bonus, the home team rallies from a 5-0 deficit to score 9 unanswered runs. We join the Black Bears and the crowd in celebrating the home victory with a post-game fireworks display.

Our final SABR 48 destination is one of Mitch’s go-to diners for Sunday brunch. Eggs-R-Us serves omelettes and the largest breakfast burritos I’ve ever seen.

Before I head back east on the turnpike we tentatively arrange our bottling at Copper Kettle Brewing. That’s when the curtain will officially fall on our SABR 48 experience (and where we’ll pick up next time). Thanks for reading!

SABR 48 – Middle (and Extra) Innings

SABR 48 sessions don’t begin until 8 AM today. We take advantage of an extra 30 minutes of sleep.

Larry Lester, chair of the Negro Leagues Research Committee, leads that meeting beginning at 8 AM. Larry casually asks committee members what they’re currently working on. I’m amazed at the shear number and depth of research projects. A few match with others so those researchers can collaborate.

Larry played an integral part on Thursday’s Wendell Smith panel. I eagerly introduced myself to him following the session. He warmly welcomed me and immediately wanted to exchange business cards. We may work together on some audio books.

I remain in the front row in Grand Ballroom 1 for the Media Panel. Curt Smith moderates Pirates’ broadcasters Steve Blass, Greg Brown, Joe Block and Lanny Frattare, whom I got to meet beforehand.

From the moment Joe Block is introduced as “Joe Buck” this session is wall-to-wall entertainment. This hour of funny baseball and broadcasting stories (and attendee Q&A) concludes before any of us are ready. I could listen to this group all day!

SABR48-Media-Panel

However, we have the Warhol Triple Play to attend, featuring Maris, Rose and Seaver. Paul Ember teaches me so much about Andy Warhol and his baseball art in this 30-minute session.

I remain in Grand Ballroom 2 for “In Harmony: The National Anthem for the National Pastime.” I expect to learn some history of playing our nation’s anthem prior to baseball games. Joseph L. Price throws me a curve ball instead.

He takes sabbatical from Whittier College to buy an RV and travel all corners of the US to sing the National Anthem at more than 100 professional ballparks. Joseph’s “Perfect Pitch” includes his favorite ballpark, favorite fans, food, ballpark architecture, mascot, etc. Talk about entertaining!

Then comes the final question from the audience: “Why don’t you sing it for us?” All rise as Joseph sings a cappella his favorite verse #4 in less than 1:15. Following this proud performance and rousing applause, I now vote for verse #4 to be sung prior to every game.

We now have some time to mingle prior to the SABR Awards Luncheon. We enjoy chatting with other SABR members before VP Leslie Heaphy presents prestigious awards to several dedicated and deserving baseball researchers.

After lunch we all stroll across the Roberto Clemente Bridge for an exclusive SABR 48 ballpark session. We sit behind the Pirates dugout to hear Joe Block moderate featured speakers such as Clint Hurdle, Neal Huntington and Dan Fox.

Following Q&A we talk with other members as the tarp and a threat of rain eliminates BP. As it opens we meet with friends in the Jim Beam LF Lounge until game time.

We settle into our seats just under roof between the Pirates dugout and left field foul pole. Occasional sprinkles don’t affect us as we end up with free baseball. The D-Backs eventually win in extras and the Pirates only manage four hits all night, but there’s nothing like being at the ballpark.

SABR 48 offers one more day of sessions. Our morning reprieve lasts until 9:15 Saturday morning for the Pirates Players Panel.

Ahhh. Extra rest after our late night at PNC Park.

 

SABR 48 – The Opener

To immerse oneself in the SABR experience, one needs stamina, coffee and energy bars. SABR 48 presentations and research committee meetings are scheduled from 7:30 AM until 7:30 PM. No break for lunch. Two or three sessions running simultaneously.

Good thing I’m prepared with my travel mug and lightweight Senators Fan Club backpack to hold my bars, apples, variety of nuts and a pen. (Thankfully, I never got hungry enough for the pen.)

SABR48-1st

I’m mesmerized from the very first session featuring two veteran Pirates’ official scorers. I know the official scorer in Harrisburg and enjoy hearing his take on hit/error disagreements from the dugouts, using video replay to make calls, etc.

This hour-long session flies by as do each of the rest. I attend presentation after presentation until 7:30 PM. Between sessions I meet more inviting SABR veterans. I share our great flood story from last evening with a few of them.

Highlights include Pirates’ President, Frank Coonelly, offering opening remarks. I learn much more about Roy Sievers’ baseball career and Negro League exhibitions in Pittsburgh. A research committee meeting featuring Women in Baseball and a panel discussion of Wendell Smith prove particularly enlightening.

As a former broadcaster, I enjoy Curt Smith’s history of Pirates’ baseball announcers. A sneak peek at Aviva Kempner’s upcoming film on Moe Berg takes us to 7:30. Aviva treats us to some incredible footage to be included in her project.

Tonight’s dinner is scheduled for the strip district. The good news is no flooding. The bad news is no parking.

Industry-Public-House

After circling and diligently trying side streets and alleys, we head for Industry Public House, which pinch hits nicely for our original plan. Following fish and chips and Hop Farm IPA, we need to pick up Mitch’s formerly stranded SUV and rest up for Friday’s SABR events.

 

 

SABR 48 – Who Ordered Water?

We walk through the hotel lobby and into a sea of black and yellow lanyards. Each SABR 48 registrant also carries a yellow canvas bag with convention goodies including a Pirates cap. We register, meet a few friendly folks and then duck outside to walk over to Pork and Beans.

Mitch wants to introduce Chris and me to one of his favorite pizza restaurants later, so this is simply a happy hour refreshment stop. Fortunately there’s room at the end of the bar for each of us and our drafts of choice: Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale for me, please.

Soon we’re on our way to our pizza dinner, except … the place is closed. Not to be deterred, we simply head for Mitch’s next pizza choice, except … we never arrive there.

Rain has begun to fall during our drive. Then it comes down harder. Then it rains so hard that visibility suffers. Then water doesn’t have time to leave the street.

Mitch pulls into a strip mall parking lot because he doesn’t trust the depth of the water on Washington Avenue. That’s when the show begins.

Driver after driver decides to push forward or pull over. Some high clearance pickups barely escape through the waves of water. A few cars and a white van aren’t so fortunate.

Washington-Aveune-Flood

An audience gathers on higher ground on either side of Washington Avenue. We’re all shocked to see how quickly the street has become Washington Avenue Lake.

Stranded cars bob in the water. One man exits his passenger door and wades to the parking lot where we all stand. The rain has stopped, but the lake persists.

A police SUV arrives. A fire truck blocks both ends of the lake to turn away more potential swimmers.

The lot where we park has no safe exit. It’s fenced off from adjacent lots. We and about a dozen others are stranded here.

Fortunately, there’s a small pizza shop directly behind us. Tomatoes II becomes our favorite pizzeria for a large special and a small pepperoni/mushroom. The workers are welcoming and very happy to wait on customers. Obviously, they can’t deliver. And soon after we finish our pizza feast, the rain pelts down so hard during a couple of thunderstorms that they can no longer serve others.

Finally, our next choice is simple: we either rest in the car or page Uber and walk to a dryer pick-up point. We choose Uber. Our driver gathers us up quickly, but we’re detoured twice due to high water and a downed tree.

If this is our first night’s experience of SABR 48, what can the rest of the week bring?