The second stop on our Iowa Minor League Road Trip was in Clinton. This is an old river town that has a very different feel as compared to our Cedar Rapids experience. We quite like the ball park, it is a vintage WPA constructed stadium where you feel a much stronger connection to the history of the game.
With the possible exception of the New York Yankees, all teams go through lousy seasons from time to time. For Clinton this year that is the case. Probably that is why the stands had only a light sprinkling of fans despite it being a glorious, intoxicatingly beautiful Saturday night for baseball.
All the rites of the game were on display. Here we have the two managers meeting with the umpires. I like it that they gather at Home Base. Unlike the dugout areas this is a neutral point. It is almost like rival tribes coming together at some ancient standing stone that both respect as being a spot that neither of them can own.
Here we have the visiting team - it is Cedar Rapids again - standing at attention for the singing of the National Anthem. Look closely. Some of these young players already have adapted a special stance for this ritual. Look closer still, see the grizzled coach putting a protective hand on the shoulder of the bat boy?
I was a bit tired from a poor night's sleep and the game seemed to drag at first. From time to time the home team would have a runner on base and the announcer would try to gin up a bit of enthusiasm. When he asked the fans to start clapping only four or five did, dwindling in a minute to a single person. One fan clapping, the absolute smallest unit of crowd enthusiasm measurable by modern science.
So, this post is about mascots. Where was The Lumber King?
It took until about the third inning but eventually when I went out into the concourse for a beer run I spotted him. He was strolling here and there, offering to give high fives to fans and in general attempting a demenour more cheerful than a 38 - 83 record would justify. For my non baseball friends I would point out that even horrid teams are expected to win about one third of their games. Clinton is having a very bad year.
And I heard some fans giving the mascot crap about it. This I had not anticipated. But it got me to thinking on the matter of what exactly a mascot is supposed to represent.
On one level he is simply an elaborate cheerleader. Or a clown. Somebody who goes out there and entertains. But is there more? The emblem of Rome was the Eagle. The Legions carried it into battle and losing one was a source of great shame. We have for most of our history and pre-history been tribal types, a tendency that has not vanished entirely in the 21st century. Sports mascots are a last vestige of our identification as members of, say, The Bear Clan. Or Red Sox Nation.
When our totems fail to produce Victory we start to regard them as false shamans, as idols who have lost the favor of Inscrutable Higher Powers. We shun them like an Ancient Mariner who wears about his neck not "the collar" (baseball slang for a hitter going 0-for a game), but an albatross. Maybe that was what was going on when The Lumber King met with such a tepid response from his acolytes.
But something remarkable happened. In the late innings Clinton tied the score. And going into the bottom of the ninth they got a runner to second base. With two outs and down to his last strike the Clinton batter reached back into some hidden reserve of mojo and smacked a clean hit through to win the game.
When a team has won very few games indeed on the season it is likely that a win like this will be the dramatic highlight of their year. The Clinton dugout emptied in a flash, the hero of the moment was mobbed, drenched with water and ran around the infield. He stripped off his now sodden jersey and bare chested he waved it around like the flag of Victory that it was.
Faith was restored. Maybe the Lumber King, last seen in the seventh inning heading off to the locker room, got a few more high fives the next day. Neither success nor failure are actually his doing, but like all shamans he gets the credit or blame nonetheless.