Sunday, August 21, 2016

A circuitous route to outstanding baseball fun

In the space of eighty hours this week I traveled 2,291 miles by Amtrak train, 180 miles by bus, around 12 miles on the Red Line on the Chicago L, 11 miles with Uber, 2.3 miles via private automobile, and walked about four miles. Those 2,500.3 miles of travel were well worth it for taking me to a couple of fantastic baseball memories. The Chicago Cubs are more famous than the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters (even though they're tied for the number of World Series victories achieved over the last 108 years.) But this week the Rafters put on a great show, and may well beat the Cubs to the big gonfalon in the sky.

Root, root, root for the Cubbies

Wrigley Field in Chicago is a baseball cathedral, one of only two ballparks in use in the majors that were built before 1960. Fenway Park in Boston, opened in 1912, is the other and is two years older than Wrigley. Plopped down in a primarily residential-and-sports-bar neighborhood on Chicago's North Side, Wrigley should be on the bucket list for anyone who enjoys baseball, even those such as Weisenheimer, an avowed Cardinals fan. I made my first trip to the field August 17, taking a slight detour on the way to a family reunion in Wisconsin.

The Friendly Confines are as advertised, at least once you get past the metal detectors and the cheeky gate guy who chides you for wearing a red cap (Spokane Indians) while he rifles through your camera bag. You can get a scorecard for $1.50, the beer is good and cold, there's not a bad seat in the house, and the Cubs have an enthusiastic and knowledgable fan base. I enjoyed this particular game with Jason Harber, a friend and Twins fan by birth who moved recently to the Windy City from Seattle and has become an avowed Cubs disciple. It helps that he lives just a hop and a skip from the ballpark and has a father-in-law with season tickets. Jason says he's aware of another club in town but somehow hasn't made it down to the South Side.

The Cubs eliminated all suspense pretty early in the game, logging five in the first inning, three on a homer by Jorge Soler, on the way to a 6-1 win over Milwaukee. Fans hung around the ballpark for a good while after the final out, with activities like the singing of the Go, Cubs, Go! song. I didn't know the lyrics, but was starting to catch on by the third chorus. The only Cubs song I know is A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request. Interestingly enough, both were penned by the late Steve Goodman. Do they still play the blues in Chicago when baseball season rolls around?

The Cubs have a pretty good club this year.

At the other end of the baseball spectrum

As noted above, the primary purpose of this road trip is to attend a family reunion in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. When the dates were set for our reunion activities, I looked up the schedules and was dismayed to note that the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, the town's club in the Northwoods League, was to complete its season the previous weekend. But upon awaking in Chicago the morning after the Cubs game, I received a text message from my aunt, Ann Kroll, a big fan of the Rafters. The Rafters had successfully navigated the summer collegiate league's playoffs and advanced to the championship series against the Eau Claire Express. Game one of the best-of-three affair was slated for that very evening at historic Witter Field in Rapids.

Me and Mr. Cub outside Wrigley Field. Let's play two. 
"I'm in!" I texted, also noting that Ernie Banks had been following me around all day.

I have some personal history with Witter Field. The Wisconsin Rapids White Sox of the Class-D Wisconsin State League played there for most of the years from 1941 until the league disbanded after 1953. Ma Weisenheimer did some work preparing the scorecards for the games, for which she was paid handsomely: an invitation to the team's season-end banquet and a ball autographed by the players. One of the players was my uncle, Carl Bathke, who toiled for the club in 1946 and 1947. The field was home to the Class-A affiliates for the Senators in 1963 and for the Twins from 1964 until 1983. I vaguely remember attending a Midwest League All-Star Game there during one family vacation, and one resource lists such games there in 1967, 1972, and 1973.

Witter Field during game one of the Northwoods League championship series.
I would travel by train from Chicago to Milwaukee, then by bus from Milwaukee to Wisconsin Rapids, scheduled to arrive in town at 7:40 p.m., 35 minutes after first pitch. I texted Ann at about 6:30 that the bus was on schedule. She replied that she had a ticket in hand for me and would shuttle me from the bus stop to my hotel and then the ballpark. (Ann is making a strong bid for favorite-aunt status.)

Some check-in challenges with the party ahead of me at the one-person front desk of the hotel delayed things a bit. I arrived at the game at 8:30-ish with the contest in the top of the fourth and the Rafters leading visiting Eau Claire 3-1. The Express clawed back into the game mostly by following the time-honored tradition of making the pitcher try to catch the ball. Several Rafter relievers had a little trouble with their fielding, and Eau Claire eventually went up 4-3 in the top of the ninth, sending a sizable and noisy visiting contingent of fans into hysterics with their cowbells and air horns.

The Rafters' Andrew Turner dunked a single leading off the bottom of the ninth. Richie Palacios and Jake Lumley both followed with well-struck fly balls, both of which were tracked down by Eau Claire outfielders. That brought catcher Rob Calabrese to the plate. Calabrese crushed a towering fly ball on the first pitch that cleared the fence in left for a two-run shot that gave Wisconsin Rapids a 5-4 victory and even made the ESPN highlights.

You can hardly top an exciting finish and a win for the home team, but the party atmosphere at Witter Field made for a totally entertaining ballgame. I think there may still be some folks in the stands singing YMCA and other classics from the '70s. The public-address announcer kept asking if this was the most exciting Thursday evening of our lives. I'm pretty sure it wasn't for me, but it was a great deal of fun, and combined with the history of the place in the family lore it's one I'll remember for a good, long while.

I was sort of pulling for Eau Claire Friday night, because a victory by the Express would force a deciding game three back at Witter Field on Saturday (and potentially add another ballgame to my road trip.) Alas, it was not to be. Wisconsin Rapids scored six in the top of the sixth and romped to an 11-4 victory to wrap up their first Northwoods League title.

Top that, Brewers. See you in Milwaukee Monday night.