Saturday, August 11, 2007

Baseball and levees

Lower Ninth Ward
Intersection of Roman and Reynes
New Orleans, La.
July 30, 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

Ray Chang’s professional baseball journey started in stop-light towns like Beloit, Wisconsin where mayors double as maintenance men. But with every promotion, Chang, a 23-year-old with a gregarious school-boy’s demeanor in a Major Leaguer’s body, plays in bigger, more glamorous cities.

He isn’t quite two full seasons into his professional career, but the undrafted, a-scout-found-me-at-an open-tryout-shortstop, finds himself playing for the Portland Beavers, one call away from becoming a San Diego Padre.

Recently, he played in New Orleans, a City, it seems, in the eternal international consciousness. His travels have never taken a turn quite like this, he says.

Storm surges sometimes topped 20 feet in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. City-owned street signs rarely exist. At the intersection of Roman and Reynes, a centerfield to home plate’s throw away from Hurricane Katrina’s Florida Avenue Canal breach, a house sits doorless, a house sits roofless and a foundation sits houseless.

Several foundations on this block idle in the Louisiana heat. So Chang brought his glove. At least for a day, this former kitchen floor served a purpose. As he plays catch, the only returned resident on the block stops his yard work and stares.

Leaving the Lower Ninth for the higher ground of New Orleans, where the romance of the French Quarter and the majesty of Garden District mansions are, Chang turns back.

“That was mindblowing,” he says.

He went 3-4 the night before, but he’ll never remember New Orleans for the baseball. He’ll remember this stop for the nights in the French Quarter socializing in buildings nearly 300 years old, and for the disparity of existence between the haves and the have nots of the Big Easy.

The Lower Ninth Ward is nothing like he ever imagined, he says.

“I’m glad I came.”

We talked about the lack of residents in the neighborhoods closest to the Florida Avenue Canal breach, and the flow of outsiders driving around in taxis stopping in intersections and snapping photos.

After all, Ray and I are them minus the taxi.

The resident who watched Chang play must have been confused. Baseball? On an empty foundation?

This time at least, the gawker wasn't a visitor.



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