Minor joys

Editorial Notebook

August 28, 2004|By Will Englund

HAGERSTOWN on a late August evening: all silence and gloom. Especially gloom. You need to keep a sharp lookout to follow high flies to left. Maybe gloom is too downbeat. Feeble light. Low wattage. The fluorescent low wattage - that, and the silence.

The Hagerstown Suns are peering out of the dank cellar of the Class A Sally League. It's Monday night, with two weeks to go in a wearying season, and they're taking on the fourth-place Kannapolis Intimidators before a crowd announced at 1,220. Maybe the light is playing tricks.

Maybe, since it is all-you-can-eat night at Municipal Stadium, the team is playing a sort of all-you-can-count game with the attendance. Moths flicker in the lights, and at one point some geese fly by, low - but not honking.

A fan with leathery skin and leathery lungs sits on the metal bleachers behind home, riding the umpire, riding the Intimidators, riding his fellow fans all night long. Many of these players, plucked from college, have never been booed before. In the still black night, everybody hears Mr. Leather Lungs. Everybody hears the ball thudding against the soft part of a batter's hand, and winces. And winces again when it happens a second time two innings later. Kids come and go but there isn't much to talk about. Crickets saw away in the darkness. The impossibly young players on the field - pros now, just - are too proud for chatter.

Once, a foul ball flies over the stands and heads out of sight toward the parking lot. A beat or two later, there comes so much prolonged crashing and shattering that it seems someone must have brought in a peanut vendor's cart from an old Marx Brothers movie just for the occasion.

A runner is caught daydreaming at first base, and is picked off. Outfielders make flailing catches with more drama than is needed. In the fourth, the Suns' Jon Armitage raps a sharp grounder to the Kannapolis first baseman, who snares the ball and - after what must have been a tough year of playing all out - looks up hopefully to see if the pitcher is covering the bag, though he could have made the play himself.

The home plate ump is one of those all-business hurry-up bantamweights, and if anyone is feeling worn out at the end of a long summer of ball, it isn't him. Every call is loud and clear, though the Intimidators take exception to his judgment.

The Russell family, from North Olmsted, Ohio, has come to see Adam Russell pitch his first start for Kannapolis after being called up from Great Falls, Mont., in the Pioneer League, a few days earlier. They had been planning a trip to the Rockies, but here they are in Hagerstown instead. Adam gets a lot of strikes, but some calls go against him and too many two-strike pitches go whistling off into the night. He's 21 years old and 6 feet 8, and is throwing at 92 miles an hour - less than his best. On one play his father yells at him to back up third; startled, he does.

He gets yanked in the sixth, down 5-1. A little after 9 p.m., his sister and parents get in the car to drive back to Ohio, because they all have to be at work in the morning.

The seventh-inning stretch is led by the Suns' mascot, Woolie Bear, a scuffed orange and black caterpillar figure with a head that looks like a grouper's. The Suns hold on to win, easily. It's a shaggy dog game, nearly meaningless, thoroughly captivating - a timeless pleasure.

A fine miniature moment comes in the eighth. Suns catcher Kyle Bone darts a quick glance down toward the runner on first that is almost reptilian in its intensity and in its economy of motion - a sudden predatory glance that you know catchers have been making since prehistoric times, a glance that cuts through the dimness and the silence of the game like a nasty spark, and then it's gone.

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