"BANG," the 2014 American Association All-Star Game opened with a bang, firework jets sprouting along the outfield fence as if to say, in an unusually booming way, "play ball."
The game filled Shaw Park right up on Tuesday night, and was broadcast live online. It was the first all-star party since the Goldeyes joined the league three years ago, and American Association brass were impressed. "The game doesn't really matter, North or South, who wins," said league commissioner Miles Wolff, during a break from the action. "But 7,000 people are here for it. Someone told me a dozen major league scouts are here. We've never had that many. This is a showcase for us."
It was something of a spectacle, too. It opened as baseball great Fergie Jenkins, his arm too hobbled by arthritis to throw out the ceremonial pitch, gamely took the mound for a warm and standing ovation. After the anthems, the Game of Thrones opening theme hummed ominously from the speakers. The fans filled the stands with a riot of colour, red and white Goldeyes jerseys beaming out proud. Ticket sales surged to 6,889; not the highest total of the season, but several observers agreed that by the eyeball test, it was likely the most butts in the seats Shaw Park has seen this year.
There were mini-games, the usual contests, and there were some perks. Between innings, travelling stunt mascots Birdzerk and the Zooperstars cavorted around the field, whirling through dance and pratfall routines. The crowd mingled with staff from around the league, the mood in Shaw Park was sunny and light, and in the seventh-inning stretch another splatter of fireworks lit up the darkening sky.
Oh, right, there was also a game on Tuesday night, as Team North and their team of 20 -- including six Goldeyes, if you include injured infielder Ryan Pineda -- faced Team South and their squad from deeper into the American heartland, as well as the eastern Can-Am League. The tilt was just for fun, of course, though during the afternoon's all-star luncheon, Goldeyes reliever Chris Kissock mused that it wouldn't take long for the competitive spirit to kick in.
It was leisurely, the way all-star games usually are, everyone wanting to get the crowd on their side, but not wanting to push it too hard, when the final numbers won't count. Every pitcher on the rosters took some time on the mound. The first score came in the top of the fourth for Team South, when Laredo Lemurs shortstop Devin Goodwin -- who'd knocked out a double in his first at-bat -- slammed a lead-off solo home run off of former Goldeyes hurler and current Trois-Rivières Aigle Matt Rusch's second pitch. He would go on to be named the player of the game.
The South squad would add another home run in the top of the sixth, when David Espinosa (usually with the Wichita Wingnuts) slammed out a solo blast of his own. Team North, by contrast, couldn't find their first hit until the bottom of the sixth, when Goldeyes outfielder Donnie Webb, batting ninth, slammed out a double in his second at bat. But his teammates couldn't drive him home.
The South batters feasted on North pitchers in the top of the ninth. They combined for five hits and five runs, including a two-RBI middle shot from Lincoln Saltdogs first baseman Ian Gac. When all was said and done, Team South had won 7-0, their nine pitchers combining to allow only two hits and shut out the North's best.
Then it was over, the fireworks blew again -- not just jets this time, a big show, huge -- and the all-star celebrations were over... but perhaps, someday, to return. Now, after this rare two-day break, the league will go back to normal. The Goldeyes were slated to leave this morning on an eight-game road trip, starting with a game tonight in Sioux Falls, S.D. They won't see Shaw Park again until Aug. 7, when the Wichita Wingnuts come to town.