Christmas lights are being stowed away, and the final New Year’s fireworks have been lit. Now, several months of baseball-less winter stand between us and Opening Day. The pleasant joy of attending a baseball game is hard to deny, but it can feel like a distant memory this time of the year. So, I thought I’d dig back to one of my favorite in-person baseball memories from a couple summers ago.
Ballparks are one of the few places in the world that evoke little emotion outside of joy. Of course, there are heartbreaking losses and otherwise evocative events all the time, but the idea is that nearly everyone is happy to be there. They’re there by choice, and it’s hard not to enjoy yourself in that setting. The weather is usually nice, the grass is green and there is a shared interest between all of the thousands of people in attendance. Oftentimes, this camaraderie seems to be at its peak at the most local levels.
In June of 2021, I had the privilege of driving across the country for a couple of weeks with my brother, making baseball stops along the way in Seattle, Cincinnati, and most memorably in Lincoln, Nebraska. Now, Lincoln is not a small town, home to nearly 300,000 people. But, perhaps only to the eyes of an outsider, there did seem to be a strong sense of community, something I felt in a lot of places in the Midwest. Lincoln is also home to a team in the independent American Association of Professional Baseball, the Saltdogs.
Again, this isn’t something unique to Lincoln or the Saltdogs, but I was happy to see how into this team the people of Lincoln were. It was a fairly packed crowd for a June game against the Kansas City Monarchs. There was a stunning amount of Saltdogs merch being worn around the park, and the kids and parents knew and interacted with the charismatic “Homer the Haymarket Hound” (the Saltdogs play in Haymarket Park).
As everyone took their seats, both in front of and behind us were two families that evidently knew each other. They greeted each other by name, their kids played with one another, it was nice. It seemed like a comfortable place to be for them, and that made it even more of one for me, too. One topic the families fixated on, with us in the geographic center of the conversation, was the incoming weather.
It had been a nice day up to that point, and it remained that way for most of the game. But it was also one of those days where impending rain could be felt. The game was nearly able to finish, but in the top of the 9th, the rain indeed came. This had been my first time in the Midwest, but I had been warned that the weather can be very different from what I’m used to in the Northeast, and it was.
The rain came on very quickly, in sideways flowing sheets like I hadn’t seen before. Seemingly in a few seconds, it was pouring. The Saltdogs and Monarchs tried to play for a few minutes, but it became apparent rather quickly that this was a futile effort. The grounds crew took action as fast as they could, but it was a few minutes too late.
The tarp roll-out was not executed perfectly, and it rapidly took on water and could no longer be pulled. In a last ditch effort, Saltdogs players took the field amidst the downpour and tried to help the crew. They even called on a few fans who seemed to be fully prepared to help in a situation like this. None of it worked, as the grounds crew, the home team, and their fans pulled on the tarp to no avail. They eventually evacuated the field, leaving the tarp on the outfield, covering maybe just a few square feet of the infield dirt.
The rain continued to get worse, along with the arrival of some intense thunder and lightning. It also happened to be “Fireworks Friday” at Haymarket Park, and by this point in the game, they surely had everything set up and ready to go. Unfortunately, this also means it would likely be ruined by the rain. So, at least what I assume happened, was they decided they might as well light them off while they still could. In the midst of one of the more violent thunderstorms I’ve been in, Saltdogs employees set off as much of the artillery as possible.
By this point, nearly everyone had made their way to the concourse, and though there was an overhead cover, the rain was still hard to avoid. As both the man-made and natural explosions filled the soundscape of the park, babies cried, people filmed, kids ran throughout the concourse, some in terrible fear, others in elation. It was one of the most chaotic and memorable experiences I can remember having, and I’m glad it took place at Haymarket Park, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
After taking time to appreciate the moment, we decided to make a run for the car. The rain was even more difficult to handle than anticipated, and there was a shocking amount of standing water in the parking lot, up to my ankles in some spots. As we made the cathartic sprint to the car, the fireworks and thunder continued. Many others were also making the dash for their vehicles, people still crying and laughing, car alarms were going off, and the rain just kept coming. It was a perfect cacophony.
We found the car, frantically tried to unlock the door, got in and slammed the door shut. In an instant, it was mostly silence, with the muffled explosions still in the background. It was one of the best baseball games I’ve ever been to, and I don’t even remember the score.