Manchester, New Hampshire is an age from its namesake (the town from which I started this journey), and an unprepossessing place to travel to see a phenom. The city is a picture of provincial America, and quite unlike the metropolises most commonly visited by the British baseball traveller. Although New Hampshire’s largest, it clusters round a single thoroughfare of shops, bars and restaurants – Elm Street. I kid you not.
In classic American fashion, the streets that string from downtown are row, upon row of pastel, clapboard homes. Miles. Miles and eyebrow-archingly high house numbers. I stay at 627, the very extremity of Hanover Street and a clear 3 mile walk to the city’s picturesque bauble of a ballpark. The perfunctorily named Northeast Delta Dental Stadium is overlooked by the deck of a Hilton hotel, from whence the posh nobs take the choicest views.
In turn it overlooks the pretty Merrimack River and the two local seats of learning – the University of New Hampshire, and Southern New Hampshire University. The latter’s own ice arena – the local hotspot if TripAdvisor is to be believed – is soon to host WWE’s Smackdown. Perhaps I came a month too soon.
It’s a miracle I’m even here at all.
Remember Elm Street?
Fresh off a jetlag fuelled 5am alarm call, having solved a transatlantic ticketing crisis (how could my partner see the Rolling Stones, with a ticket I bought as a gift, without my card to collect the ticket – a first semester logic problem) I sat there, in a local tap house and watched the sky fall in.
What poetic justice, this nightmare on Elm Street. A 5000 mile journey, from one Manchester to another, and I bring with me the former’s weather. Except, 48 hours (and 5000 miles) earlier I’d sunburned myself walking in the park…
Three hours out from a potential once-in-a-lifetime brush with baseball’s number one prospect and all was dreek squall. There was nothing else for it, so I drank. In moderation.
The weather turned. Still grey, but tepid and clement.
Local kids teemed the field to play catch – reward for reading five books, as if the act weren’t reward enough. A poor sap dressed as a ghoulish cartoon tooth (‘Wally the Molar’ – the avatar of the eponymous orthodontistry) cavorted on home plate wielding an outsize ‘brush. At least, I think it did – I’d been awake some 14 hours already, with sleep a few hours hence.
A choir of kids trilled the national anthem before the visiting Akron Rubberducks dug in at 6.39, four minutes late. They fell 1-2-3, the star in their firmament – the slugging first baseman Bobby Bradley – hacking through a change up from Fisher Cats starter Justin Dillon.
Then the time came.
‘The kid’ the press box chattered was headed to Triple A this month stepped in, with two on and nobody out.
At 19, Vladimir Guerrero Jr looks like a baseball star. His carriage is different to that of the ‘mere mortals’ with whom he shares a bus, a clubhouse. An easy, charismatic confidence radiates as he grinds a huge right boot into the dirt.
A pace in and out.
‘Your Pa would have swung on that’, comes the truthful call of a local wit.
A wince-inducing foul ball off the shin. Even budding baseball gods don’t get it right all times.
The swing, though, is all you’ve been told – easy but explosive; different to those others on show here today.
The payoff came. A grounder to short. No boom this time, but another RBI in the books.
The boom came after, not from the bat of the kid but from Akron’s catcher, the exotically named Aruban Sicnarf Loopstok – son of Francis, of course.
His blast knotted the game at one in the top of the second, and was an omen of things to come. By the end of that inning the home side held a 3-1 deficit which would drift further beyond them through the game’s end.
This was not an illustrious day in the life of New Hampshire baseball, nor those of the Blue Jays clutch of famous ‘sons of’ – Cavan Biggio went hitless at the plate, and Bo Bichette looked like a 20 year old shortstop, rather than baseball’s number 7 prospect.
This wasn’t true of Vlad, though.
His average remained above .400, despite his own hitless outing. His contribution was a pair of cannons off the barrel, one of which looked and sounded as though it was headed for the second tier of the Hilton’s balcony. Alas, they both landed safely in the gloves of waiting outfielders. There’s more to this game that hitting the ball hard, it seems.
By close, the crowd had thinned, seen off by the lingering mizzle and the lopsided scoreboard. The dregs, a few hundred and no more, were treated to a host of ritalin fuelled on-field entertainments to pique their attention – catching groceries in a bucket, hitting a little-league homer from a tee in outfield and, most distressingly, a pair of kids clad in ‘bread buns’ making a burger from themselves and a stack of ersatz ‘ingredients’.
There was though, no dramatic denouement. No walkoff, no homer.
I’m not John Updike. And Vlad Guerrero Jr is not Ted Williams. Not yet, anyway.
Afterwards I lingered amongst the ball hawks and autograph hunters to catch a glimpse up close.
‘He almost never signs,’ they told me.
‘But maybe tonight’.
An hour passed within which his teammates came and went, all obliging the hangers-on. Bichette ironically capturing his team’s performance when asked whether the selfie he proffered was his longest ever – ‘I won’t lie, it was rough…’
For my part it was more grubby than rough. A moment in the underbelly of hardcore baseball fandom. But I’d travelled 5,000 miles for my close-up of baseball’s number one prospect.
Guerrero arrived, attended by a clutch of fellow Dominicanas, headed by his first base teammate Juan Kelly.
He waved, but he didn’t sign. Not tonight. Not for me, nor for any others.
Stars are not obliged.
For them, there’s always tomorrow. For me, the wave will have to suffice.