Strolling past Carson Park’s Hank Aaron Plaza, I make my way toward the stadium. Though I’m here on assignment, I couldn’t help but bring my ball glove along.
You know, just in case.
My fantasy goes something like this: due to a bad bout of food poisoning, one of the teams finds themselves in desperate need of a sub-par first baseman who hasn’t played competitively since Little League.
“Does anyone here fit that description?” the announcer calls over the speaker. “Anyone at all?”
At which point — at the gentle urging of fans, friends and the ghost of Babe Ruth (who happens also to be in the stands that day) — I offer a sigh and begrudgingly rise to the occasion. I tip my hat to my crowd, signaling that I will accept this sacred charge, and a celebratory whoop goes up throughout the stadium. Maybe I sign a few balls as I weave my way toward the first baseline. Maybe a kid named Billy with a heart of gold says, “Jeepers, Mister. You’re my hero.”
Who can say what happens next? Maybe my walk-off grand slam helps us clinch the pennant. Or maybe — and perhaps this is the likelier version of events — I go on to break the all-time record for most consecutive errors within a single inning.
At which point even young Billy begins to boo me.
But since today’s match-up between Eau Claire North and Menomonie High School likely won’t lead me to fulfill any such dreams/nightmares, I make do with a more manageable expectation: searching for the best seat in the ballpark.
There’s a science to it, but since I don’t know it, I’ve enlisted the help of 33-year-old Eau Claire Express CFO and owner Andy Neborak, who shakes my hand heartily just outside the stadium.
“Welcome,” he says. “It’s a beautiful day for baseball!”
The overcast April skies argue otherwise. Still, we are undeterred in our quest.
“Follow me,” Andy says. “Let me take you up to the press box.”
We ascend the secret staircase at the top of the stands, eventually making our way inside the train-car-narrow space.
“This is it,” Andy says as we peer down at the high school players fielding ground balls far below. “The best seat in the park.”
When I ask why, he says it’s because the view is unobstructed: no net, no fence, nothing but a clear shot of the action.
I admit it’s pretty good, though it’s no match for what Eau Claire pilot A.S. Ward saw during a ballpark flyover in his open cockpit plane on May 2, 1937.
Allow me to set the scene: a cool, cloudless Saturday morning just 72 hours before the inaugural game in the newly-constructed stadium at Carson Park. For days, Ward had been waiting for the skies to clear, hopeful that he might capture on film the wonder that couldn’t fully be grasped from the ground. When the window of good weather at last revealed itself, Ward ascended into the skies with his camera. Leaning from the side of his cockpit, he steadied himself for the shot. Through the camera’s viewfinder, Ward could just make out the ant-sized maintenance worker mowing the outfield grass. And the group of men putting the finishing touches on the scoreboard. Ward waited for the plane to reach the perfect altitude, and then: click.
Seated at their breakfast tables on Tuesday, May 4, Eau Claire Leader subscribers were treated to the fruits of Ward’s labor. The stadium was, indeed, a sight to behold, especially from the air. From the Dunville stone grandstands, to the state-of-the-art lighting system, as local ballfields went, nothing else even came close. While most citizens didn’t have the luxury of enjoying the view from a cockpit, they didn’t have to. On opening day of that first season in the park, every seat was the best seat in the house.
Though the newspaper reported 2,275 available seats, it reported, too, that the opening game drew a crowd 3, 000 strong — the largest attendance ever for a baseball game in Eau Claire. How 3,000 fans crammed into 2,275 seats remains a mystery, though I imagine it involved some sardine-style cramming into the bleachers, the multitudes of knee-knocking fans only adding to the 81-degree stultifying heat.
That the Bears fell to the Superior Blues that day was hardly as important as the fact that they were playing there at all. Carson Park’s expansive athletic facility, including the stadium, priced in at around $60,000 — a dream project jointly funded by the Works Progress Administration and the city of Eau Claire. I imagine the hope was that the hefty price tag (which translates to over $1 million today) would eventually be offset be ticket and concession revenue. Eventually it would.
Among the thousands present that day was Wisconsin Gov. Philip La Follette, who stood before the crowd and remarked, “There is something in this world besides making money, and right here you have an athletic layout that will serve the boys and girls of your city for generations to come.”
Something in this world besides making money?
Can you imagine a politician making such a statement today? Surely such a “blunder” would come off as provincial, or nostalgic, or uninformed. While the game’s monetary value can’t be ignored (Andy tells me that on a good night Express fans can put away around 500 hotdogs, 550 hamburgers, and 450 brats — all of which translate to dollar signs), the baseball purist in me is less interested in the bottom line than the baselines. But most compelling of all, at least for me, is that “something” of which La Follette spoke.
What exactly is that “something”?
I like to think he was thinking of the throngs of children soon to grow up around that ballfield. And the opportunity for the seasoned baseball fans to pass on the game’s traditions to the young. Like removing one’s hat for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and rising for the Seventh Inning Stretch. Like contributing to the off-key caterwauling of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and yes, bringing one’s glove to the game.
What is baseball if not a smorgasbord of pageantry, and ritual, and tradition? A chance to return to a place that feels as comfortable and accommodating as a mink-oil rubbed glove. And let’s not forget baseball’s most vital role as life’s chronometer: a careful record-keeping of our days and our weeks and the seasons of our lives. The money matters, of course, as CFO Andy knows better than most. But he knows, too, the value of La Follette’s “something.”
Turning my eyes to the game far below, I wonder: How many generations of local ballplayers have dug their cleats into that batter’s box? And how many players have gone on to live out their lives here, transitioning from the dugout to a seat in the stands?
Andy’s the first to admit that in the long run, the final score of any one game isn’t nearly as important as the enjoyment of the fans. (That I have no earthly idea what the score is today seems to serve as proof.) For me, the pleasure is simply in being here. Of joining the longstanding legions of fans who show up, soak it up and leave with a smile.
“You’re not going to find a better spot in Eau Claire to enjoy a nice night,” Andy says as he peers out at the same field A.S. Ward captured all those years ago.
Take your place in your bleachers, the grandstands, the press box. When you’re here, most any seat will do.
Next Saturday: An Eau Claire woman reminisces with Patti See about making munitions during World War II.