Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hank Aaron Lovefest

On Thursday, Melvin and I (with Watson in tow, a welcome addition) got back to the Byways routine, sight-seeing by day and a ballgame at night. We have had days without baseball on previous trips, but that was usually because of the distance between games and some times the uncooperative schedules of consecutive teams. The three days off for the conference was unique.

The festivities associated with the home opener of the Mobile Bay Bears was anticipated in advance of the trip to be the highlight. The team plays in Hank Aaron Stadium, named for the Mobile native and long-time career (755) home-run leader. During the off-season, the Bay Bears moved Hammerin' Hank's childhood home to the ballpark and the ribbon-cutting was scheduled for before the game. Pretty Cool. We knew early on that Ozzie Smith, who also comes from Mobile, would be present. As days went by, additional players were announced and our excitement grew, especially when we read 81-year-old Willie Mays, also an Alabama native, was coming. In the end, seven of the 68 living members of the Hall of Fame made the pilgrimage to honor Aaron. In addition to Mays and Smith, Bob Feller, Rickey Henderson, Bruce Sutter and Reggie Jackson (below) were in attendance, the last announced only that day.

The commissioner of baseball and the president of the baseball hall of fame also made the trek, as did members of the Arizona Diamondbacks front office. Mere mortals from baseball included Met great Cleon Jones, Lance Johnson and Frank Bolling. Jones and Bolling are sons of Alabama and Johnson went to college in the state. Jones and Johnson have significance to Mets fans, of which I am one. Jones was a significant part of the 1968 world champion "Amazin' Mets," including making the final catch in the series against the Orioles. He was also removed from a mid-season game that year by manager Gil Hodges, allegedly for failing to hustle although both later denied that account, an incident that fired up a team that was not expected to win it all. Johnson had a monster season in 1996 and still holds the Mets single-season record for hits, with 227, and triples, with 21. Jose Reyes is now the record holder for at bats (696, in 2005) and David Wright surpassed Johnson when he had 334 total bases in 2008.

Melvin, Watson and I got to Mobile too late for the invitation-only dedication outside Aaron's boyhood home. (We assumed that arrived at the Baseball Byways home office after we hit the road.) The ceremony inside the stadium was like most love-fests. Other than Sutter's obtuse comment about going to see the USS Alabama the next day, it was nothing but praise for Aaron as a ball player and a man. Even Rickey's comments seemed to make sense and I swear, he used the first-person singular. One quibble: the hall of famers were brought into the stadium in antique cars. If they had instead all taken one turn around the track in a convertible, as Willie did, more fans would have had a better chance at seeing the seven greats.

After the festivities, the Bay Bears hosted the Birmingham Barons. Matt Long, the visiting starter, didn't stay long after allowing ten hits in three innings. The home team was up 6-1 by the time he left and the final score was 7-2, with 14 hits for Mobile. Wes Roemer, pitching for the Bay Bears, gave up just four hits over seven innings, striking out eight. Mobile also fielded well. There were several dramatic catches, most notably LF Ollie Linton's diving catch in foul territory in the fifth. The win got the Bay Bears back to .500. (Nobody called C Collin Cowgill "Cowgirl" either, as we heard a week earlier in Montgomery.)

MiLB Reports: Recap Box Score

Hank Aaron Stadium is another basic poured-concrete ballpark. There is one unique feature; all of the suites are at field level with even the best seats--Melvin grabbed first row early--up a level. The food offerings were slightly better than typical. We were famished by the time all the festivities were over, having not eaten since late-morning. We got to Middendorf's 15 minutes after it opened at 10:30 and by the time we left, most of the tables in the front rooms were full. Many people ordered what we guessed to be the house special, a ginormous pile of fried catfish. We ate more delicately. If we dined at the place a block closer to the highway, we could have had coon meat.

Between Middendorf's and Mobile, we stopped at the UCM Museum. More a tourist "trap" (we went there with full volition) than a museum, it features dioramas with moving features and faux and creative taxidermy. Mostly it's room after room of cast-offs, although there are couple of operable, vintage pin ball machines and a mechanical fortune teller. Sister Claire Veaux informed me, among other pearls of wisdom, my lucky color is bruised banana brown. In a way, the museum is just a big set up for the shop, full of "funny" stuff. There was a very large recipe book of southern cooking and when I checked the index, I found perhaps ten recipes for coon. Since they were in alphabetical order, the last listing was, "wine pairings with." And to think I settled for catfish, shrimp and pork for the past week.

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