By Paul M. Banks
Watching a professional baseball game from the dugout dramatically alters your perception of the sport. The crack of the bat is louder. The smack of ball against mitt is more profound. And the cursing is harsher and more emotionally charged.
My day at Alexian Field (a nice, but small park adjacent to a suburban airport) begins with me shadowing Schaumburg Flyers manager Steve Maddock. I, along with his seven-year-old son, Tyler, accompany his pre-game rituals. I’m not the only non-team member in the dugout tonight; a player and his friend meet us at the outfield gate. I bring up the two facts a lot of people associate with the Flyers: Former White Sox player Ron Kittle served as the team’s original manager, and former player “Leon” from the popular Budweiser advertisements. Maddock tells me Leon was “a pitcher who couldn’t get anybody out.” Turns out Leon’s contributions to the team were more promotional in nature.
Clichés exist for a reason, and I am taken aback by the players’ chewing and then spitting out sunflower seeds. The moisture from the dugout’s water cooler collects with the spit to make the floor of the dugout a surface that should not be walked upon in open shoes. Then there’s the swearing. I’ve been in a clubhouse with Ozzie Guillen (and although it seems impossible, he uses even more expletives and is more politically incorrect off the record), so this language doesn’t phase me. Mostly, it’s the umpires who are being cursed out.
There’s no crying in baseball, but there is cheerleading. Maybe it’s the start of a larger trend, but the last two ballparks I’ve visited, the first being Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, have had cheer squads. When not performing, the dancers sign autographs. I’m not joking, they really do sign autographs.
Their initial appearance makes them the primary conversation topic, and the players discuss who their favorite squad members are and follow it up with more in-depth locker-room talk. This doesn’t shock me either, because my thoughts about the dance squad are much dirtier than anything any of them are saying. These comments are interrupted by critiques of the umpires. Unlike the woman who slept with Derek Lowe, I strive to keep a professionally healthy distance from my sources, so I won’t get into specifics. Although I will say that one umpire was referred to as a “limp-wrister.”
And strategy: “Why didn’t you send him on a lefty? You got to run him against a left-hander!”
The Flyers’ leadoff hitter, Demetrius “Meatball” Heath has a physique completely opposite of his nickname’s implications. The team calls him “Meat,” which reminds me of the best minor league baseball movie ever made, “Bull Durham.” In that film “Crash” Davis incessantly called “Nuke” Laloosh “Meat.” Baseball is the only sport which truly utilizes the art of nicknames. It’s like the mafia, fraternity pledge classes or Sawyer on “Lost.” The best nicknames replace the person’s actual name and make you wonder why they obtained that moniker. I’m told that Demetrius used to eat a lot of spaghetti and meatballs as a kid.
“Bull Durham” also featured a scene in which Crash teaches Nuke the proper clichés to use in interviews. I’ve heard these clichés every day in my job, so I truly appreciate that scene and find tonight’s cursing quite refreshing by comparison.
Brandon Villafuerte had a brief career in “the show.” While serving as the set-up man to San Diego’s Trevor Hoffman, the all-time Major League career saves leader, Villafuerte accumulated three career saves and eight holds in 2002.
“In ’03, I was the starting closer and they kind of overused me a little bit, wore my arm down,” he says. “I got tendonitis, then things really haven’t been the same until this year.” I spoke with Villafuerte about working with Hoffman, one of the game’s best closers and the originator of ballpark “closer entrance” music: “He talked to me about what’s going on in the game, seeing things in hitters, how to pitch guys in certain situations. He’s a great guy with a lot of experience and should be in the Hall of Fame some day, so anything he says, I’m all ears.”
The loudest cheerleading in this stadium occurs in the dugout.
“We’re always standing up at the top step, pulling for each other,” says left fielder Christian “Snaves” Snavely, the Northern League’s All-Star MVP.
If you’re not a fan of the team or even of baseball in general, you will be by the end of the day. My spirits soared when the Flyers tied the game in the 7th, and my mood crashed when James Morrison surrendered the game-winning homer in the 10th. Maybe the real reason I found myself hoping they’d win is because the Flyers take off for each game with “it” on board. The word replacing “it” depends on your culture, but it’s been called: chutzpah, moxie, guts, heart, soul, cajones or fortitude.
After observing the continuity of this minor-league team, I now understand the meaning behind this “Bull Durham” quote: “Strikeouts are boring, and they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls; they’re more democratic.” Exactly- this is a team game after all, not an individual one.