By MARY RICHE
DES MOINES, Iowa, June 14, 2023 — Folks keep asking me these questions: “Do you really like baseball?” “When did you become such a baseball fan?” And my favorite, “Are you a baseball fan just because you’re married to Chuck Offenburger?”
Let me just say that, in the last year, I have eaten more hotdogs in ball parks than I did in my previous 74 years added together. And I am looking forward to going to a College World Series game or two in Omaha in the next 10 days even though the teams we root for didn’t make it there.
Now to your questions. I’ll answer the last one first. I’m a new baseball fan because I married Chuck. I’m also a woman who loves sports. And I also love adventure.
Clearly, marrying Chuck Offenburger qualifies as one of my life’s biggest adventures to date. The last four months of travel to baseball games is yet one more example of how many of our personal interests overlap in our partnership as a married couple.
Hot dogs at another ball park — this time at an Iowa Cubs game at Principal Park in Des Moines.
I’ve always loved sports. Mostly basketball and football until now. And I also love movies, music, arboretums & botanical gardens, art museums, and sculpture gardens, especially if there’s a labyrinth in it.
Chuck loves baseball. He really loves baseball, and I treasure his vast knowledge of the sport. He also loves baseball parks, especially old baseball parks; local, state, national, and world history; and sharing stories about his friends and the people he’s met as the Iowa Boy columnist, co-host of 16 RAGBRAIs and the “Iowa 150 Bike Ride: A Sesquicentennial Expedition” across America in 1995.
As we plan our trips, we intentionally create itineraries to include enough of each of those interests that Chuck began referring to our trips as “baseball and culture,” which seemed to capture what we each considered important priorities on how we spend limited time in various locations. That’s how Bentonville, Arkansas, got on our itinerary to see the Crystal Bridges Museum – a priority for me and one place Chuck had never heard of until we spent a couple days there on one of our return trips from baseball games in Arlington, Texas.
Where we started the 2023 baseball season — in mid-February at Globe Life Field, the home of the Texas Rangers in Arlington, where the Vanderbilt Commodores were playing in a round-robin tournament with good teams from the Big Twelve Conference.
Ironically, another key area that overlaps for each of us is journalism! Writing was an outlet for our young curious, adventuresome minds.
He began as a sportswriter for the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel when he was 13 years old. I worked on my high school newspaper, served as editor of my class yearbook for Oelwein Community High School, and reported the 4H news at the Fayette and Buchanan County Fairs for local radio station KOEL. We both focused on journalism in college, Chuck serving as the editor and a baseball writer of the Vanderbilt “Hustler” student newspaper at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, while I was a reporter for the Daily Iowan at the University of Iowa.
This combination of curious minds, mutual love of journalism, adventure and sports, served as the perfect backdrop for us to spend the past four months on the road seeing lots of baseball games for the Vanderbilt Commodores and the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Our interest in sports also started when both of us were young children.
His began in the backyard of his home in Shenandoah when he was a boy. In high school, he was the catcher on the Shenandoah Mustangs winning baseball team. During his freshman year at Vanderbilt University, he was a walk-on catcher for the Commodores’ baseball team.
When you travel for baseball, you have time and opportunities to visit other attractions, like the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, where Mary Riche particularly enjoyed this sculpture.
My small Riche family spent many Sunday afternoons playing softball after church, following our weekly Sunday noon meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and homemade gravy. We played on the front lawn of our farm. My mother Verda was the pitcher, my younger sister Bette and I took turns hitting. My dad Frank played outfield and would fake-drop the ball so Bette and I could run the bases.
When I was in junior high school in the tiny neighbor town of Stanley, I loved playing basketball. I was short, fast, and efficient when shooting layups; I scored 31 points in one of my final games. However, sports for girls were unavailable to me in high school, so my focus turned to music. I spent 9th through 12th grades at Oelwein High School after a consolidation of school systems, and I attended all the Oelwein Huskies football games as part of the marching band and all the basketball games as part of the pep jazz band, playing the alto saxophone.
The baseball trip to Texas also led us to an overnight stay in Bentonville, Arkansas, where we were thrilled by the fabulous Crystal Bridges Art Museum. Here we’re inside an installation of lights and mirrors by Yayoi Kusama.
The travels over the past four months have turned me into a screaming baseball fan for my alma mater’s Iowa Hawkeyes and for Chuck’s Vanderbilt Commodores, aka our VandyBoys.
Chuck says his personal support for Hawkeye teams increased dramatically in 2010 when the medical specialists at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics saved his life with a stem cell transplant. My screaming got louder for the VandyBoys when I became friends with Davis Diaz, the talented third baseman from California, and his father Adrian Diaz.
At the 20-plus games we’ve attended, my favorite moment has always been the seventh inning stretch at baseball games, when Chuck and I link our arms around the other’s waist, sway together and belt out the song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” substituting “Commodores” or “Hawkeyes” in the lyrics, depending on which team is playing.
In early March, the VandyBoys were playing a round-robin series of games against Big Ten Conference teams inside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. That gave us an opportunity to spend time at the Walker Art Center and its grand sculpture garden. And we also took in one of the games of the Iowa Hawkeyes women’s basketeball team as they were winning the Big Ten tournament also being held in Minneapolis.
As a music lover, I’m captivated by the orchestration I witness during a baseball game.
The head coach is the conductor. He sends signals, whether in the dugout or heading toward the third base box, in his own style that includes an array of hand signals. On cue, the pitcher, batter, infielder, base runner, and all the players understand their roles and responsibilities.
The catcher is the “first chair” or “symphony concertmaster.” He warms up the pitcher with a determination that is palpable. The infielders warm up each other in a pattern that resembles four measures of music that are repeated until the third basemen runs to the mound, patting the behind of the star player – the pitcher! Then it’s time to play ball and all eyes are on this one man as he performs throwing that ball over and over with varying styles. It’s a combination of syncopated rhythm with two-part harmony when a throw falls within the strike zone.
Every batter plays a solo when it’s his turn at the plate. Routines of the batters on our two teams have become as familiar as my husband’s breathing when he first falls asleep at night. Then, the outfielders create an exciting crescendo when they race to catch the ball. Sometimes their leaps or sliding catches are as thrilling as hearing a perfectly pitched instrument. And the beauty of a throw after one of those amazing catches is breathtaking. I see that ball racing through the air and can feel the increased tempo of my heartbeat. When the umpire calls an out, I jump to my feet and scream, like yelling “Bravo!” after a particularly moving number at a concert.
Loud recorded music is a key component of each game, and I’ve wondered who chooses the music that introduces the players. I learned from one of Chuck’s best college friends that Vanderbilt players get to choose the songs they want played when they step up to the plate. (Many remind me how out of touch I am to the songs of current popular rappers.)
Here we are in mid-April at Hawkins Field, home of the Vanderbilt Commodores, on the campus in Nashville.
Mary and her favorite Commodore, infielder Davis Diaz.
When I’m not watching the players, I keep my eyes on the electronic scoreboard for key information. I’ve learned that not all scoreboards are created equal.
My favorite scoreboard has been at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, where the Southeastern Conference Tournament is played every year in the suburb of Hoover, outside Birmingham, Alabama. It features a large color photo of the player at bat, his stats, and much more. I especially liked the constant display of each team’s full line-up. I got used to seeing the speed of each pitch and the number of pitches thrown, allowing us fans to have an even greater appreciation for the skill of these young men. We attended the SEC tourney in May, and it turned out to be a double-bonus trip. It was the first time Chuck had been to this tournament and Vanderbilt won the championship!
Birmingham also provided us a tour of that city’s fascinating Civil Rights history; an hour fantasizing at Rickwood Field, the oldest ball park in America, and a visit to an inspiring labyrinth at the Independent Presbyterian Church attended by our Vandy friend, Caryl Privett, who knows everyone in Alabama.
That’s another great thing about baseball trips — visiting ol’ friends and making new ones.
I’m still a bit puzzled that the distances in a ball park’s outfield fences can vary slightly. However, when one of those Hawkeye or Commodore hits flew over any fence for a home run, I got an adrenaline rush that was pure delight! And in my musical head, I heard the cymbals crashing with a melodic sound of triumph.
The fans are sometimes more interesting than what’s happening on the field. Vanderbilt has two now-famous “Whistlers” whose embouchure is as good as that of any reed instrument player. The Vandy Whistlers have received many complaints, yet I grew fond of them. This spring, one of the morning birds outside our bedroom window in Des Moines made a similar whistling sound, and Chuck beamed when I told him I heard the Whistler!
Here’s where I expect to improve: I need to get better at spotting the ball in the sky after a hit. I’m learning that foul balls can be dangerous. I want to discover, in real time, the difference between a curve ball and a slider. I also want to learn more about the scouting process, and I will watch with great interest as the transfer portal continues to change a team’s composition.
In Terre Haute, Mary had a chance to meet Rick Heller, who is building a very strong baseball program at her alma mater, the University of Iowa.
After the NCAA Regional Tournament games 10 days ago, when both the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Vanderbilt Commodores had their seasons end in disappointment, I found myself calling baseball a “damnable sport,” using a term coined after losses by Chuck’s closest friend Douglas T. Bates III, of Centerville, Tennessee.
Then after a chance meeting with Coach Rick Heller of the Iowa Hawkeyes on the morning after our team lost two games while playing 22 innings in the 88-degree heat in Terre Haute, Indiana, I thought to myself, well, there’s always next year.
And I can hardly wait. Go Hawks! Go VandyBoys!
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