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 Post subject: The End of Kivalina
PostPosted: Thu Oct 03, 2019 9:15 pm 
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The Decline and Fall of the Yuman Empire, Part 4: The End of Kivalina


by Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller

August 7, 2012: Kivalina, AK

Oh, somewhere in this favored land

The sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere,

And somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing,

And teenagers still pet;
But there is no joy in Kivalina,

Bob Swanfeld’s missing yet.


I escaped.  We all escaped by the skin of our teeth, in a nick of time, by the luck of the draw.  We were within an inch of our lives, the wheel of fortune was turning, it was a bang-bang finish.  It was a day of firsts, it was a day of lasts, it was just another ballgame.  Yet it changed the lives of so many – of Tomás Espinosa, who pitched like he’ll never pitch again; of Bob Swanfeld, who may never be found; of David Goode, who wasn’t even there; of Colleen Swan, who was and is and forever will be; and of course of me, who, like Ishmael, popped out of the swelling sea to tell the tale.

Even the darkest clouds, they say, come with a silver lining, and if there’s silver to be found in this tale of woe, it lies in the golden arm of young Espinosa, who spun a wicked tale of his own that fateful day.

Make no mistake about it: it’s all a game of chance.  Luck rules our lives just as luck rules the game of baseball.  Espinosa was lucky.  His feat is in the record books.  Kivalina was unlucky and its fate may soon be forgotten, but both Espinosa and the 400 residents of Kivalina owe their fortunes, for good or ill, to luck.  And to rain.

It began to rain the morning of the game.  A storm had blown in from the Arctic Ocean days before but had never amounted to much.  Wind, temps in the 40s, rising seas, but nothing Kivalina doesn’t face every month of its precarious existence.  Residents sandbagged the seawall and went about their business.  Kivalina’s ball club, the Bowheads, opened a short 3-game home stand with a narrow win over Anchorage, 4-3, on Saturday, the 4th of August. As temperatures rose into the low 50s, the humid air flowing down from the Arctic condensed into rain.  The cloud cover dropped to less than a hundred feet above the sea, and dawn on Sunday the 5th was distinguishable only by its slightly lighter shade of gray.

As Tomás Espinosa awoke on Sunday, he had two immediate thoughts: I’m scheduled to pitch today, and maybe they’ll call the game.  Then he remembered where he was.  Banished to the remote northwest coast of Alaska.  A day’s flight from anything vaguely resembling civilization, in his mind.  On a remote coastline of Alaska, within spitting distance of the Arctic Ocean.  If they started calling games in Kivalina because of rain, they’d never finish the season.  And, holy Iñupiat, how he wanted to be done with this season!

So Espinosa grabbed some clothes and headed down to the cafeteria.  At least, he thought, we don’t have to leave the ballpark.  Because the town of Kivalina was too small to house the 40-some Bowhead players and personnel, the stadium had been designed with dormitory space and a dining commons.  During their home stands, the entire Kivalina ball club stayed at the stadium.  Only the Kivalinans themselves had to ride the ferry across the narrow inlet from the town to the ballpark.  Espinosa didn’t envy them that ride in the rain and wind today.  He wondered if any would bother today.

But when Espinosa headed out to the bullpen to warm up before the game, he was surprised to see so many fans already in the stadium, a full hour before the 2 p.m. game.  He noticed no one was sitting in the stands.  They were all huddled beneath the roof that covered the concessions and ticket sellers.  They were staying dry.  Smart people, Espinosa thought, hiding beneath his umbrella as he tramped across the wet field on his way to the bullpen.

Though Baseball News Network regularly announces attendance figures above one thousand for ballgames in Kivalina, everyone associated with the club knows the numbers are inflated.  They have to be.  Almost 400 people live in Kivalina.  Another 400 or so live in Noatak, more than 60 miles to the east.  No roads connect Kivalina to Noatak.  In fact, there are no roads out of Kivalina.  All travel is by sea and air.  So while a few fans fly in from the Red Dog Mine (50 miles to the east) or from Kotzebue, a veritable megalopolis of 3,000 some 80 miles south of Kivalina, there are never more than a few hundred fans in the ballpark.

On this rainy day in August, BNN reported 1,970 fans attended the game.  Tomás Espinosa never saw them.  He and his teammates assumed the Bowheads’ management counted everyone three times to arrive at attendance figures.  Either that, or some generous benefactor was buying up blocks of tickets for each game and the club simply reported the number of tickets sold as the game’s attendance.  In either case, as Espinosa waded through the puddles gathering in the outfield on his way to the mound to start the game, he was greeted by polite applause from about 400 fans – half of them residents of Kivalina, the other half friends and family of the visitors, the Anchorage Mighty Moose, cellar-dwellers in the Oiler division of the Alaskan League, part of the Surf and Snow Amalgamation.

And one narrator-detective from Yuma, Arizona, where it never rains.  She already had her airline ticket in her pocket.  A multi-connection flight to New Orleans and a new assignment.  The Yuma brass had given up on finding the elusive Swanfeld.

We hardy 400 fans eschewed the empty seats of the stadium for the warmer, dryer area around the concession stands.  We, the lucky few.  We who watched a gem of a game.  We who witnessed history.  We who stood at the tipping point of time.

In the stadium on the mainland, a 20-year-old right-hander carves a niche for himself in baseball history.  But out beyond the stadium walls, across the narrow channel in the tiny village, another history comes to a close.  Inside the stadium, the rain soaks the field and makes it nearly impossible to grip the ball, but the game continues.  Outside, the wind howls and the seas rise along Kivalina’s western shore, sweeping the sand beneath the sea wall out to sea and edging ever closer to sweeping Kivalina along with it.  Inside the stadium, a young man discovers a new pitch. Beyond the stadium, an old man discovers water in his kitchen – seawater.  Inside, all eyes focus on the right-hander making history.  Outside, all eyes watch the sea claim another six feet of Kivalina’s narrow perch above the sea.  The shrinking Arctic ice means rising seas for the narrow spit of land that is home to Kivalinans.

Time and tide tip together.  The ball spills across the plate, over and over, unhittable.  The sea spills across the land, again and again, unstoppable.  Kivalina’s greatest moment in sport is celebrated even as its residents flee for their lives.

Espinosa retired the Mighty Moose in order in the first and second, but it wasn’t easy.  He was struggling to control the ball, wetter and heavier than he was accustomed to.  The home plate umpire sent the grounds crew to find several more boxes of new balls in order to have a dry one in play at all times, but it was no use.  It took only a few minutes for each ball to soak up the water in the air, a sort of relentless mist that permeated everything but never came down hard enough to make it necessary to suspend the game.  Besides, after the fifth inning, everyone knew history was being made.  Who wanted to interrupt that?

In the third, Espinosa threw 20-some pitches, his control nearly shot.  He retired the first two batters, one on a wild pitch the poor player swung at wildly, another on a popup to the shortstop.  He couldn’t control the new ball, though, and walked the third batter of the inning on four straight pitches – one that his catcher, Mike Wallace, had to chase to the backstop.  But he got the third out and headed back to the dugout to dry off.

Waiting for him with a dry towel and a word of advice was Kivalina’s pitching coach, Porter McGee.  He handed Espinosa the towel and said, “You know, my dad played with Gaylord Perry.  Remember him?”  Espinosa nodded, even though he wasn’t sure he did.  “You know what Gaylord called a day like today?” McGee asked.  Espinosa had no idea, but he was certain it involved some colorful language.  “A day off for Vaseline.”  When Espinosa didn’t respond, McGee laughed.  “Get it?  Perry greased the ball.  Except when it rained.”

Before Espinosa could ask his pitching coach what he meant, McGee started talking to another player, leaving Tomás to figure it out for himself.  As the Bowheads headed back out to the field at the start of the 4th inning with a 2-0 lead, Espinosa told his catcher about the pitching coach’s story.  “You think he was telling me something?” the pitcher asked.
“Ya think?”

“But what did he mean?” Espinosa shouted as his catcher turned his back and jogged toward home plate.  Espinosa looked at the ball, felt it getting wet in his hand, and then gave a look toward the dugout.  The pitching coach was leaning on the front step, clapping his hands and nodding toward Espinosa.  “Why not?” Espinosa thought.  “Who’s gonna know?”

From the fourth inning on, Espinosa baffled the hitters.  The ball dove, slid and splashed across the plate, but they couldn’t hit it.  And Espinosa didn’t have to bother with hitting his spots, either; he just chucked the ball up there and let the hitters worry about where it might swoop at the last moment.  Pitch after pitch splattered into the catcher’s mitt, the ball getting wetter and heavier as each inning progressed.  No one asked to change balls, and the home plate umpire seemed at times to forget that he had drier balls in his pockets.  When finally he did fling a new ball out to Espinosa, Tomás tossed it around the diamond, watching his teammates bounce it to each other, soaking the ball in the wet grass before returning it to the mound.

Espinosa and his new pitch flew through the final innings of the game.  The game was over in less than 2 ½ hours, and Espinosa threw only 98 pitches, 61 of them for strikes.  After the third inning, he didn’t go to three balls against a single batter.  He dominated like he’d never dominated before.

The last batter swung blindly at a two-strike pitch and popped it straight up.  When the ball hit the bat, it sounded like a water balloon dropped from three stories up.  It sort of plopped, splashing water in the faces of the catcher and home plate umpire.  It rose above the stadium like some sodden sea gull, then dived earthward and plopped into the third baseman’s glove, splashing his face with water, too.  It was the wettest no-no in baseball history.  But a no-no nonetheless.

Like the other fans, I forgot the rain and ran down onto the field to celebrate with Espinosa and his teammates.  As we did, the announcer cleared her throat over the PA system and said, in a voice far too formal and reserved for the celebration underway on the field, “Ladies and gentlemen, the final totals for today’s game.  Anchorage: no runs, no hits and…”
No one heard if she ever finished reporting the score.  A new wave of excitement burst upon the shore.  It lasted until the insistent voice of the announcer broke through to our celebration-soaked brains: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry to have to report this, especially in these circumstances, but…”

She had our attention.  The stadium was hushed.  “The sea wall has broken.  Kivalina is being evacuated.”

Panic and Pandemonium, the twin sisters of disaster, cavorted in the stadium.  No one knew what to do.  Some ran as if they might escape the flood; others sank to their knees and prayed.  Most of us just waited, too stunned to move, like cattle in the chute of the slaughterhouse.  After a few minutes, that damned PA announcer’s voice was heard again.  “Please remain inside the stadium.  You are safe here.  The residents of Kivalina are being evacuated to this ballpark.  Your friends and families will soon be here.  Please be patient.”

Of course.  For years the Kivalina Relocation Planning Committee had been trying to raise money for the inevitable evacuation, but no one was willing to pay the bill – not the feds, not the state, not even the oil companies responsible for the global warming that resulted in rising seas along the Alaska coastline.  Now they had no choice but to relocate to the ballpark, the only structure within hundreds of miles large enough to house every man, woman, and child in Kivalina – plus a few visitors and two ball clubs.  Tomorrow, the teams would take the field again and entertain their guests for free.  Then both clubs would fly off to play in other venues while the Kivalinans were left to start their lives anew.  Inside a baseball stadium.  Baseball in the lower 48 may no longer be the national pastime, but in Alaska, it was not only the only pastime; it was also an entire village’s saving grace.

I caught the first flight out, connected in Anchorage for Seattle, and then on to New Orleans to start my new life.  Along the way, I learned Yuma management had traded several ballplayers and one detective for a handful of players, draft picks, and a playa hat.  My job was to transport the playa hat from New Orleans to Yuma.  What I didn’t know as I boarded my plane was that the hat, like Swanfeld, was missing.

Was I off on another wild goose chase?  Would Kivalina survive?  And what would the baseball stadium cum evacuation center look like when the Bowheads returned to Kivalina?

As my plane climbed through the low clouds into the crystal blue skies, I realized how lucky I was to get away.  Then it struck me that I was simply exchanging one sea-soaked city for another.  Out of the frying pan, as they say…  Ah well, luck is the determiner of fate, not where we’re heading or where we’ve come from, not the weather or the locale, and certainly not what pitch we can control on a given day.  No, our fates are in the hands of Lady Luck, and on the same day she rolled craps for Kivalina, she rolled all sixes for a right-handed pitcher and a left-handed storyteller.

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 Post subject: Re: The End of Kivalina
PostPosted: Fri Oct 04, 2019 2:25 am 
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