I have been on the road for exactly three months now. In that time I’ve seen a lot of baseball, which so far has included:
- Salt Lake City Bees, AAA for the Angels
- Arizona Diamondbacks
- Albuquerque Isotopes, AAA for the Rockies
- Round Rock Express, AAA for the Rangers
- New Orleans Zephyrs, AAA for the Marlins
- Birmingham Barons, AA for the White Sox
- Nashville Sounds, AAA for the A’s
- Memphis Redbirds, AAA for the Cardinals
- Cincinnati Reds
- Detroit Tigers
- Toledo Mud Hens, AAA for the Tigers
- West Michigan Whitecaps, A for the Tigers
- Chicago White Sox
This 4th of July I ended up in Lake Tomahawk, WI, where I watched the local Snowhawks play the Chicago All Stars in a game of Snowshoe Baseball. If you’re a normal person who isn’t immediately knowledgeable of this activity, and here I must admit that up until a few days ago I was one such person, snowshoe baseball is simply baseball played on snowshoes.
“Baseball” is a bit of a misleading term—”Softball” would more aptly describe the game, as it’s played with rag balls the size of a grapefruit, no gloves, and underhand pitching. The bats are aluminum, the players range from their early 20’s well into their 50’s, the snowshoes are wood and leather, the base paths are shortened, the uniforms are of questionable consistency, and the field is a local community park ringed by aluminum bleachers, where centerfield is a pair of outbuildings and a giant propane tank and the right field line is marked by a hundred foot pine tree. Oh, and the playing field is covered in several inches of sawdust.
The concessions stand sold the following: Hamburger, Cheeseburger, Brat, Water, Milk, Coffee, Pie. It was the 4th of July and I was at a baseball game: pie was a no-brainer, though contrary to predictable stereotype I went with cherry. I refuse to believe this makes me less of an American.
We settled in for the game, which, with few exceptions is exactly the same as a normal game, the differences being that there’s a five-run limit per inning (excepting the 9th, when rallies are strongly encouraged) and the pitch count is dropped to 3-balls and 2-strikes; the 2-strikes are very literal as even a foul ball for your second strike earns you an out. I presume these rules are there to speed up the game, and as such it worked—we zipped through nine full innings in under two hours, and that included a pause to singe “Take me out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch. The quality of play was exactly what you’d expect—there were a couple homers, a few nice slides, a couple good snags, and plenty of flubbed balls. True to tradition, for the first pitch of the 7th inning the home team switched out the rag ball and instead tossed a small cantaloupe, which the Chicago batter smashed to smithereens in an act that wowed the crowd and surely would have made Gallagher proud.
The opening ball was thrown out by a middle aged war veteran who needed assistance to the mound, where he appeared to be struggling to determine his surroundings, and was later seen being escorted from the crowd midway through the game. The announcer was an 81 year old man with a graveled voice and a thick, north-Midwest accent who pronounced the opponents as being from Shee-Cog-Oh; he provided both the play-by-play (“Eernisse grounds down to third…”) as well as the color commentary (“A lot of wind on that miss, ladies and gentlemen”).
As you might expect, snowshoe baseball is a family-friendly activity—the stands packed with parents attempting to herd little ones, the Chicago team was skippered by a man named Mays, and two of his sons played on the team. Despite this, Lake Tomahawk is one of the few cities in this country that has open container laws, and plenty of folks were milling about the park with bottles in hand and six packs resting on their hips.
Afterward, in celebration of the 4th, the field was cleared of spectators for a fireworks display, though curiously enough it was not cleared of sawdust prior to ignition. The show was solid, far better than I was expecting, and I was fortunate enough to sit next to a wide-eyed 4yo girl who provided a running commentary on each explosion that consisted of, That one was my favorite, followed immediately by, That one was my favorite, and so on.
Likely I’ll catch more baseball as the summer progresses, and though I expect the quality of the play to be higher, I don’t think it’ll be more memorable than this.