Coulda been a contender
On Sunday, we finally got around to something I've wanted to do all summer: take the kids to a Portland Beavers baseball game. For those of you who don't follow such things, the Beavers are a minor league team at the AAA level, just one step below the major leagues. They play their home games at PGE Park, an old, city-owned stadium which was spruced up and renamed in a financially unwise, overly expensive, but aesthetically pleasing refurbishing a few years back.
It was a day game -- exactly what I had wanted, as for me day baseball is so much better than night baseball. And the weather turned out perfect. Partly cloudy, low- to mid-70s. We snagged a parking spot on the street a few blocks away, stepped right up to the ticket window, and bought four good seats.
There's nothing like a baseball game, especially with the little ones in tow. They didn't pay too close attention to the game, but they enjoyed the scene, and they seemed content to watch me watch the action. "If they throw you a bad one and you don't swing at it, that's a ball," I announced, no doubt annoying everyone else around us. "And after four balls, you get to walk over to that base over there."
"Is that cheating?" asked daughter no. 1.
"No, honey, that's what you're supposed to do. Now if they throw you a good one and you don't swing at it, that's a strike, and you only get three strikes. Like the song says, 'It's one, two, three strikes, you're out.'
"Oooh, he swung at a bad one."
We ate some pretty decent ballpark fare -- the prices were high, but unlike at the Blazer games, it somehow seemed like it was for a good cause. I chowed down on a bratwurst with kraut -- my first in many years, so don't tell Dr. Lou -- and relaxed with the girls while the players went through their paces. We didn't know a single one of their names, but we were together as a family in a nice place on a great day. If we wanted to, we could listen to what the friendly announcer was saying, because the sound system was just loud enough. But mostly we were too busy concentrating on the sights, the smells, and the company. I was grinning from ear to ear.
Now, on the way into the stadium, I had filled out an entry form for a raffle to win a grill. The contest was sponsored by the Oregon Chicken people, and the prize was a Traeger pellet grill. I had seen one of these in action before, under the well-tempered spatula of none other than Master Chef Randy Leonard, of all people, and I would have been willing to let go of my beloved 20-plus-year-old Weber for this kind of upgrade.
Wouldn't you know it? About halfway through the fourth inning, a couple of park personnel came by. "Are you Jack?" They invited me to head down to the seating area behind home plate, just next to the visiting Tucson Sidewinders' dugout, to participate in the final phase of the contest to get the grill.
And so at the next break in the action I said goodbye to the girls and headed down there, where I assumed a position on the bench next to seven other folks who had been weeded out of the crowd of several thousand for a chance at the big prize. We were soon separated into two groups of four, and told to await further instructions.
What a great vantage point. We were actually sitting right at field level, with nothing but a mesh screen separating us from home plate, seemingly 25 feet away. I've watched a fair amount of baseball in my life, but never from such a good seat. From there, it definitely does not look like a video game any more. It's leather and wood and brown dirt and sweat and spit and brute strength and speed.
After a while, some young gals came by and explained how the grill would be won. Between innings there would be two simultaneous games of musical chairs on the field, which would narrow the field down from eight to two. The two survivors would then join the Oregon Chicken mascot on top of the Beavers dugout for a chicken dance contest. The better of the two chicken dancers would take home the grill.
While we spent the next inning or so brooding about this news, one of the other three people in my group recognized me. It was Glenn Robles, a former student of mine and now a well-established trial attorney in town. It was fun catching up. We both said we weren't sure that we really wanted to be in the chicken dance, but I think we were both lying.
From time to time, I would wave up at the wife and kids. I knew what the Mrs. would be thinking. As soon as she saw those musical chairs, she'd know I didn't have a chance. Not quite pushy enough. She, on the other hand, would have been a lock for the dugout roof. If you've ever seen my bride at an outdoor show with general admission seating on a lawn somewhere, you know that she can dash through the admission gate and hustle down to bogart a seat with the best of them. The pressure on me was mounting.
Soon enough, the time came to head out onto the field for the musical chairs. Our group was on the first base side, about halfway up the baseline in foul territory. I didn't get a chance to see the other group, but I'm assuming that they were in the same spot on the third base side. Time to concentrate. Three chairs, four contestants. The music would stop three times, and one of us would be eliminated each time. Here we go.
Stop 1: Glenn was gone. He was out of position, eliminated while standing flat-footed. That left me, a young woman, and a young guy. Music, please.
Stop 2: Woman gone. It's down to me against the young guy, Brian, for a berth in the chicken danceoff. Keep it moving, start it up again.
We circled. The music blared over the stadium p.a. system for what seemed like forever. When it stopped, I was alongside the chair, and I got my backside into about a third of it. But Brian was in a better position, and the other two thirds of the seat was his. As was the crack at the grill. The six of us losers were sent back to our regular seats, there to dream of what might have been.
When chicken dance time arrived about an inning later, Brian and his opponent from the third base side danced like recently fallen Amish people. Totally Clackamas County. My worst suspicions were confirmed. If I had just won the musical chairs, I could have thrown a couple of funky down-neck Newark booger-nosed head bobs in there and I would have driven the crowd wild. I coulda been the winner.
Anyway, the final result was determined by audience applause. Brian won. "At least I lost to the winner," I sniffed.
We stayed until the very end of the game. It was kids' appreciation day, and no one was in a hurry to go home. After the final out and a brief pause to let the players walk off, the kids got to run the bases. I escorted our four-year-old down onto the field, where she scampered along on the artificial turf in the general route of the basepath. We picked up some free Beavers baseball cards and headed home, tired and happy and with some new stories to tell.
On the way out, we ran into Brian and his family, who were rolling their new grill to their car. We congratulated him. He was excited, and we were excited for him. I still just couldn't stop grinning.
It was one of the biggest highlights of a busy but blessed summer. The whole day set us back maybe 80 bucks. We could have done it cheaper, with lesser seats and little less snacking, but it was worth every penny that we dropped.
Oh, yeah, the Beavers lost 5 to 1. The very first guy up for Tucson in the first inning got a hit, the second guy up hit a home run, and that was pretty much it. The Beavers had three runners on base with one out in the ninth, but a game-ending double play set the stage for the kids to run the bases.
The Beavers' season closed on Monday, but I'm already urging everyone to make plans to go at least once next year. Heaven knows, if you're a Portland resident, go get your money's worth. The hotel tax that the tourists pay goes to service the bonds that were issued for the rehab of the stadium -- and that means fewer tax dollars available for schools, cops, and other essential services. You might as well have a hot dog and a Widmer's and sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
For an extra good time, take little kids. Eat cotton candy. And if you're in the musical chairs, don't be too polite.