Minor League Baseball, especially at its lower levels, is a world of near constant upheaval. Players get promoted, demoted and released throughout the season, coaching staffs are subject to change on an annual basis, Major League affiliations are subject to bi-annual renewal and front-office employees are always plotting their next move up the professional ladder.
One of the few constants amid the seemingly endless turmoil are the die-hard fans, whose steady presence at the ballpark is one of the few things that can be relied upon on a year-to-year -- and often decade-to-decade -- basis. Grace Phillips is one of those fans.
Phillips, now on the cusp of her 100th birthday, has been a fixture at the Beloit Snappers' home of Pohlman Field since the franchise's 1982 inception. When I visited the stadium on Sunday afternoon, she was already in her customary grandstand seat (behind home plate and shaded a bit up the first-base line), wearing a wide-brimmed hat to protect her from the sun and ready for that day's Midwest League action.
"When I started coming here, they were called the Brewers, and then [in 1995] they named them the Snappers," said Phillips, straining to be heard over the din of pregame announcements. "In 2006, they became the Twins [affiliate], and now it's Athletics."
Not that these specifics mattered much to Phillips, who simply enjoys rooting for her hometown team.
"I've seen so many players!" she said, laughing. "They're all so nice."
Phillips shows her support for the ball-playing boys of Beloit via her signature item, a wood-handled bronze bell that she rings in the immediate aftermath of positive hometown developments.
"I ring it for home runs, or when a player comes to bat [in an important situation] or makes a good play," she explained.
Phillips' 32 seasons of bell-ringing has inspired the Snappers to give away Grace Phillips Cowbells to the first 500 fans who attend this coming Sunday's ballgame, with the team noting on its web site that the bells are intended to "pay homage to [our] most loyal fan as she nears the century mark." Though Phillips is quick to note that her bell is more of a "school bell" than a cow bell, she is nonetheless looking forward to seeing this unique commemorative item.
"I didn't even know about it until my granddaughter told me," she said. "I wonder if they're going to put my picture on it?"
The impending Grace Phillips Cowbell giveaway is indicative of the small-town, tight-knit feel that permeates Pohlman Field. The Snappers are a community-owned non-profit, governed by a 17-member board of directors, and many of the gameday employees are volunteers. One such volunteer is Jon Pingel, who, along with his wife Erin, helps to coordinate the team's concession operations. In addition to scheduling the shifts of other volunteers, the Pingels work at the concession stands at about a dozen games a season and receive a season pass in exchange for their efforts.
Pingel volunteered to be my "designated eater" for Sunday's ballgame, sampling some of the Snappers' concession delicacies that my gluten-free diet prohibits. After a stop at the Firehouse Grill concession shack located down the first-base line, he returned with both a Snappy Burger as well as a True Wisconsin. The former is a cheeseburger topped with a brat that has been split down the middle, while the latter is a burger topped with American cheese, nacho cheese and fried cheese curds. Wisconsin indeed.
"Is there such a thing as too much cheese?" Pingel asked rhetorically before trying the True Wisconsin, but he ultimately chose the Snappy Burger as superior because "nothing screams summer more. ... It's the ultimate ballpark food." Between bites, Pingel extolled the close-knit atmosphere at Pohlman Field, calling it a "big-time family thing" for himself, Erin and their two young children. During the season, the family even expands to include a Snappers player, and this year the Pingels are hosting second baseman Chris Bostick.
The Pingels had plenty to cheer for in the bottom of the eighth inning, as Bostick's two-run single snapped a 1-1 tie and proved to be the game's decisive blow. As Bostick stood on first base and the crowd noise began to die down, the most audible sound in Pohlman Field was one familiar to anyone who has ever attended a Snappers game.
Grace Phillips was ringing her bell.