Behind the Scenes of an Iron Pigs Game

By J.F. Pirro

Bull Durham may be the best movie about minor league baseball. Chief among its classic lines: “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. And sometimes, it rains.”

Well, tonight, it rains before the 7:05 p.m. start between the Lehigh Valley IronPigs and the visiting Rochester Red Wings at Coca-Cola Park — and rain will eventually suspend the game with no score and two outs in the bottom of the second inning.

But you couldn’t predict the disappointing downpour an hour before the Main  Gates opened at 5:45 p.m. That’s when the IronPigs’ Matt Zidik, the director of creative services for the Triple-A affiliate of the 2009 National League Champion Philadelphia Phillies, and his control room team get the night’s starting lineups. In the season’s third game,  Phillies’ J.C. Romero will be the starting pitcher in a rehabilitation appearance sponsored by Good Shepherd Rehabilitation. He’ll only throw the first inning.

The lineups trigger the organization of statistical scorebooks, videoboard graphics, a shuffling of headshots and music and movie clips. Every IronPigs player has chosen the music they’re introduced to.

The control room above home plate is full of computer screens, keyboards, monitors, remote controls, headsets and electronics. Zidik hovers over a sound mixing board like a DJ (though not a DH, baseball lingo for a designated hitter). He’s responsible for cameramen, a video switcher, music operator, graphics operator, a PA announcer and more.

Following an IronPigs’ home run, he has the honor of rattling the giant Coca-Cola bottle above the videoboard. The bottle shoots fireworks. “With one press of this button, it goes,” Zidik says. “The control room is like an air traffic control room. The (Lehigh Valley International) airport is right over there. If they ever go down, we’re the backup.”

For home games, there isn’t only a lineup in the dugout or on the diamond. There’s another lineup — the production staff’s script. Each game day, Lindsey Knupp, the IronPigs director of promotions and entertainment, writes it. Her voice is on the other end of Zidik’s walkie-talkie.

A half hour before the first pitch — after a four-minute warning — at 6:34 p.m., the script kicks in. PA Announcer Tim Chorones bellows out a welcome, then runs through public address announcements and thank-you’s.

There are 10 guys in the booth, which is to the left of the press box, where, frankly, I’m far more comfortable. Some, like Jonathan Wieand, wear a headset and talk to the on-field cameramen: “Six, find me something,” he says. “Find me something else. Six takes six. One, ready. Steady. Go to six. Good one. Stay with that one, six — the kid dancing (to the music) with the dad. One, stay with FeFe (the IronPigs’ female companion mascot to FeRROUS).”

“Go to Century 21 (Pinnacle),” directs Zidik, who crosses out completed parts of the script. “If I have to skip one for some reason, I can go back and I know what I missed.”

By 6:43 p.m., Zidik asks, “Mascots, are you ready?”

“Mascots, five-four-three-two-one,” his full-time intern Tyler DeRouen counts down. Then, there’s Chorones’ introduction of “the loveable Pigs.”

The show is a couple minutes behind, but Zidik, who is in his eighth season in minor league baseball, his third with the IronPigs after five seasons with the Altoona Curve (a Pirates Class AA team), promises he’ll catch up. “The biggest thing is the live events,” he says. “We can adjust the rest.”

For the ceremonial first pitches, Chorones introduces each person by name and affiliation. With group ticket packages, a representative throws out a first pitch. Tonight, the line includes everyone from a bachelor celebrating his bachelor party to a Boy Scout from Cub Pack 138 in Jim Thorpe — and Carol Chorones, Tim’s real-life mom. He introduces her as such, but when she starts clapping and waving to him, later he slyly suggests he should have retracted the personalization.

Last night’s highlights play on the videoboard at about 6:53 p.m. “It’s funny,” Zidik says. “All the players stop warming up and watch.”

At 6:56 p.m., Chorones announces the staring lineups, which include a randomly chosen Ehrlich Pest of the Game on the opposing team. On the IronPigs, there’s always an Arby’s RBI Guy. If he drives in a run during the game, everyone gets a coupon for a free beef-n-cheddar. Tonight, it’s John Mayberry. When he’s introduced for his first at-bat, Chorones gets the crowd chanting, “Roast beef! Roast beef!”

For now, here come the umpires. Then, the IronPigs take the field with the Northeast Little League Astros and the Lehigh Valley Venom youth teams. There’s a moment of silence, then Joseph Harris’ stunning rendition of the National Anthem. Toyota Play Ball Kid Rowan Winch announces, “Play Ball!”

It’s 7:07 p.m. — two minutes late — but the game begins. It’s 56 degrees, but feels cooler. There’s no sign of heavier rain — yet. “That pre-game is definitely the most crazy,” Zidik says. “Now, we can settle into a groove (unless it rains). Now, the game will dictate what we do.”

Romero gives up a leadoff double, then strikes out the No. 2 hitter and retires the side. After the strikeout, Zidik calls for “animation,” a cartoon strikeout on the videoboard.

“Most situations are sponsored,” Zidik explains. “Even foul balls are sponsored. A strikeout is so common that we alternate animation with a movie clip. With a home run, we include the sponsor all the time.”

At 7:23 p.m., from below us, Knupp radios that the middle-of-the-second-inning tug-of-war between a young fan and FeRROUS has been changed to a base race. When FeFe distracts FeRROUS with an umbrella (the drops have begun falling), the contestant, Cody Sandt, hits the third-base bag and heads for home — the real home plate, though he’s supposed to veer off to a base in foul ground. Off-script, Knupp, a Northampton High School graduate and once a two-time All American and captain of Shippensburg University’s field hockey team, races him there. She wins, but inadvertently takes Sandt down.

“What do you want me to do?” she radios up to Zidik. “The catcher would have taken him out.” A few minutes later, she continues her innocent defense. “His mother just thanked me for saving his life!”

But no one can save the field from getting soaked, or the game from getting suspended. Still on tap was “Toyota Tike on the Mic” in the middle of the fourth inning, the Red Robin T-Shirt Launch at the end of the fourth, the Boars Head “Pork Race,” the WaWa “Hoagie Toss” at the end of the eighth inning and Friday Night Fireworks — sponsored by Total Home Improvements — at the end of the game.

As the rain delay begins at 7:39 p.m., the control room cues up the Phillies game against the Florida Marlins on the videoboard. “And then we wait,” DeRouen says.

After the delay, the game gets suspended until 6:05 p.m. June 29 when the Red Wings next visit Allentown. “There’s no sponsor for rain delays or suspended games — but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t do it if someone was interested,” Zidik says.

The early exit gives me a chance to visit some old friends next door in the press box (though they’re on a much tighter deadline), and to take advantage of a discounted $1 pretzel stick on the way out.

J.F. Pirro has been published in more than 75 magazines and dozens of daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. He’s particularly interested in profiles, social trends, religion, historic preservation, 18th century America, agrarian culture, canine curiosities and sports & recreation topics.

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