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Punch Drunk

Jack's squirrel send-off.

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“Baseball is a habit. The slowly rising crescendo of each game, the rhythm of the long season — these are the essentials and they are remarkably unchanged over nearly a century and a half. Of how many American institutions can that be said?” — George Will

The T-shirt cannons have been silenced. There is no sign of the hot-dog-throwing guy in the flamingo suit.

Entering the top of the seventh, our much-beloved Richmond Flying Squirrels are knotted at 3 with the juggernaut that is the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in game four of the Eastern League championship series.

It’s Saturday night, a day before the series is to end. A rising tension is felt in a stadium only half-packed because of the possibility of rain. Nutzy looks on in stoic silence, his or her weird-underwear-muscle-bodysuit taut with apprehension, and as it tends to be all the time, the squirrel’s face is locked in a demonic snarl.

Can our home team, a roster full of kids whom none of us has ever heard of, young men just chasing the dream, pull out a victory and force a series-deciding game five? Or will the Squirrels’ long, grinding, ultimately successful season come to a close in heartbreak? I ponder these things during my fifth smoke break of the game. I must remember to get another beer upon my return.

On this evening, fall has announced its presence and a chill fills the air. The boys of summer have become men during a 142-game season. Autumn brings with it a break from the long bus trips, the chain restaurants and the crappy Comfort Inns. It brings with it hope — that maybe, just maybe, a trip to spring training will await, a shot at the show. For most though, it likely will bring a job involving them working a cell-phone kiosk at the mall or washing cars at their uncle’s Ford dealership.

“A 48-ounce Budweiser my good man?”

The sounds of The Diamond, the big concrete monstrosity on the Boulevard, fill the night air. Drunken prattle and curses are directed at the umpire. Fans living and dying on every pitch of a double-A baseball game. It seems absurd when you think about it.

There can be no doubt that the Flying Squirrels have reinvented baseball in the capital city. They’ve brought back the purity, the showmanship, the fun. Decry the gimmicks, the goofiness if you will, but don’t question the heart that this organization has. It cares about Richmond.

With an average reported attendance of more than 6,000 fans per game this season, the Squirrels finish second in the entire league for attendance. That’s some meat in the seats right there. I recall attending weeknight Richmond Braves games a mere six years ago and being one of maybe 200 people in the park. You could’ve had a conversation with the right-fielder from the upper deck. Going home with at least one foul ball was the norm.

We enter the top of the ninth, still deadlocked. With a heavy heart and a strong desire to head to the local pub and have some heavier-on-the-adult-side beverages, my friends and I sit in our favorite section, 102. Nick Noonan is gone. We wait for someone to emerge from this faceless pack of young men. We wait for a hero.

“Excuse me, old man dressed like Henry VIII, would it behoove you to sell me another beer? I understand that it’s not local custom to continue drinking into the ninth inning, and I also understand that I am visibly intoxicated, but I have the king’s thirst for another frosty mug.”

It is at this moment that a costly error by Francisco Peguero, one of the brighter prospects in the Giants’ farm-league system, gives the Fisher Cats a one-run lead. It is a lead they would not relinquish.

The mighty Flying Squirrels have struck out, but through the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs of a long and sweltering baseball summer, the city of Richmond has emerged the winner.

Now let’s bulldoze that eyesore we call The Diamond into a big pile of rubble, erect a monument to David Justice or Chipper Jones, and move on with a state-of-the-art baseball stadium. Whadda ya say, Nutzy?

Richmond bartender Jack Lauterback contributes to Mixology magazine in Germany, tweets @jackgoesforth and blogs at jackgoesforth.blogspot.com. Email: bartender@styleweekly.com.

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