Saturday, August 22, 2009

An Evening of Elegance at a Stately Park

It doesn't get much more elegant than the 74-year-old Calfee Park in Pulaski at dusk^

Older fans like to park their lawn chairs on these bleachers^

They measure the speed of the pitcher's heat from these seats^

Eating outside as the sun goes down with a ballgame in the background^

This is the place where burgers are designed--not made^

From right to left Christina, me desguised as an empty seat, Richard, Luanne, Grace, Jean and Tommy^

Ruth, Lucy and Ralph Berrier. Lucy wants some of Dad's burger^

Calfee Park in Pulaski is--officially--an historic landmark. But it's more than that. The Pulaski Mariners' stadium, which has served minor league baseball since 1935, is a piece of the way it was ... that still is. Why else would groups of people travel 50 miles through driving rain storms to see the very lowest level of professional baseball--the rookie Appalachian League--when they could stay home and see it played at a much higher level in a modern stadium with a spectacular view?

Maybe it's the burgers. Could be that grilled sausage dog or the big soft drink or the circle-cut Mariner fries--all for about $7. The burgers are as good as any I've eaten anywhere. They're fried to a crisp and loaded with vegetables I'd swear somebody within a block of the park is growing in a garden. The tomatoes and onions are sliced by real people with real knives--I'd guess gray-brown carbon steel--and the lettuce is broken by hand. The pickles cover the whole bun.

But I think it's the park. On one side, the shed-covered bleachers don't have permanent seats. They're deep concrete steps where you can put your lawn chair. Older people sit there. The old Salem Municipal Field had bleachers like these. On the opposite side--the home side--is a patio-like feature that businesses or individuals can rent for gatherings.

Part of the attraction could be the right field oddity of having two fences, one low on the hill, one near the top of it. A ball that goes between the fences is a double. If you see the ball disappear and take a high bounce off the roadway behind it, that's a home run. Often people sit on the porch of the houses overlooking right field and take in a free game as the sun goes down.

We sat in the nickle seats Friday night, all seven of us who drove down from Roanoke. One of us--Richard Rife, an architect, is a real baseball fan. My friend Tommy Denton and his wife Jean are or have been around journalism for years, Tommy as an editorial writer (and former college football player), Jean was a sports writer (and college basketball player) long ago and is now an artist of some note. Journalist Luanne Traud and her daughter Grace--like the rest of us--appreciate baseball festivals more than we appreciate baseball games. (See update below.) My wife, Christina, likes sports, but pays little attention to baseball.

Sitting behind our posse on this night were another journalist (funny how we bunch up), Ralph Berrier Jr., who can tell you everything about this stadium and a lot about its teams, his delightful wife Ruth and a charming little blonde named Lucy, who spent the night flirting with everybody.

Pulaski lost a doubleheader to the Elizabethton (Tenn.) Twins (Louanne wanted to know if it was really pronounced Eliza-BETH-ton), but I'm not certain anybody in our group cared. When I mentioned that Pulaski's catcher was a No. 1 draft choice this year, Tommy seemed interested until he learned it was No. 1 for Seattle, not for everybody. And the talk--as goes the talk among journalists--was not so much of baseball, but of hardball: politics.

My guess is that if you turn back the clock 74 years, the conversation would have been much the same with the people sitting in this spot on that night (Roosevelt being hammered or praised for the Depression he inherited), munching those burgers and dogs (about 5 to 10 cents apiece), pouring down soft drinks that'll eventually kill us (a nickle then), and all and laughing a lot.

(Update: An annoyed Luanne takes exception with my lumped-in characterization of her as a fan more of the baseball festival than the game itself: "I was raised on a front stoop with a transistor radio listening to Pirate games." The presence of the Salem baseball franchise in the Roanoke Valley, she says, was an important lure when she decided to move here. Sorry Luanne; I owe you a Pulaski Mariners cap.)


  1. sounds so fun! loved seeing the pics. hope all is well in the 'noke. miss it there!

  2. Christine: And we miss your skinny butt, too. You can always come back. Dan