By ERIC BENAC
News Sports Writer
Anybody who thought they knew what to expect from the phrase "donkey baseball" was undoubtedly in for a shock on Thursday, when a gathering of local celebrities took the field at the fairgrounds for the first annual donkey baseball event.
News Photo by Eric Benac
Dr. Tim St. John (green) is shocked after being tagged out on his way to home during a donkey baseball game on Thursday at the Alpena County Fairgrounds.
Players from a wide walk of Alpena tried to play something akin to baseball, but while on the backs of some rather unsteady donkeys, much to the delight of several hundred spectators.
In fact, as soon as referee Pat Barthen of event organizer Buckeye Donkey Ball told his riders to mount up, all but two of the donkeys immediately bucked their riders, with one rider, Caleb Borchard of the Alpena City Fire Department, getting kicked in the chest.
Luckily, he was okay, but it highlighted the rather tricky balancing task inherent in the event.
"They're all different kinds (of donkeys), just like there are all different kinds of people. We try to match up the right donkey with the right person," Barthen said.
The colorful crew of Alpena celebrities assembled for the game included Mayor Matt Waligora, Rep. Peter Pettalia, Alpena tennis coach Charlie Giordano, Dr. Tim St. John of Northern Foot and Ankle and Dr. Ron Werth of Alpena High School.
Giordano, St. John and Werth were just three of the players dressed in humorous costumes. Werth's sheik costume was one of the most intricate, though Owen Schafter of the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary played the entire game in a wet suit, complete with face mask and snorkel.
The event was announced by Mary Thurston of WATZ, who's steady stream of "jackass" puns always seemed to come at the best possible moments.
The group of about 32 celebrities split up into two teams: Jewelry Gems and Fun Time Ice Cream. Fun Time Ice Cream batted first, and struck early in the top of the first inning with an inside-the-park homerun coming from 50/50 winner Jon Jackson. Jackson's home run owed as much to the difficulty of fielding on the backs of angry donkeys as it did to Jackson's solid hit and steady riding.
Jackson wasn't originally a part of the event, but a losing 50/50 bet at the fair brought him to the back of the relatively placid first base donkey who was mostly content to chew grass.
"They asked me to play, but I said no way. But, then I told them if I won the 50/50, I would play. And out of the thousands of people who entered, I won," Jackson said with a grin.
The first several innings saw players struggle against agitated mounts. Runners could be called out for falling off their ride, while infielders had to follow a strict set of rules for fielding.
Fielders were confined to their hula hoop base unless they were fielding, at which point they'd dismount, drag the donkey to the ball, haul it back to the base, mount it and then throw. If their target dropped the ball, the process started all over. Pitchers and catchers were similarly confined to their "base," and if they left, were forced to crawl back.
Barthen strictly enforced the rules, but encouraged a sense of levity in the players throughout the game.
"I'm pretty sure the donkeys are winning," he said, with a laugh.
Offense crawled to a halt for a few innings until WBKB sports anchor Shannon McGratton of the Jewelry Gems knocked in Dan Hibner in the bottom of the third to tie the game. McGratton was tagged out when her donkey refused to stop at first and rounded to second, oblivious to a nearby fielder holding the ball.
By the time the fourth inning rolled around, everybody was getting more acclimated to the sport. Fun Time Ice Cream scored in the top of the fourth, while Waligora hit an in-the-park homerun for the Jewelry Gems that tied the game at two to two. Catcher Pettalia jokingly tried to hold back Waligora's donkey from scoring.
Fun Time Ice Cream scored the winning run in the top of the fifth off the third home run of the game, which was hit by Wendy Martin of Dr. David Beatty's office. The Jewelry Gems were unable to mount any more significant offense and the game ended with an impressive one-handed line-drive snag by St. John.
Jackie Konecke, a member of the fairground board and one of the organizers of the event, was more than pleased with the results.
"It was a lot of fun and we had a pretty good turn out. It's a good way to get people to come out in the afternoon, and after trying it out, maybe we'll do it again as a night event. It's got a lot of room to grow," she said.
Jackson put it more concisely.
"It kicked ass. Pun intended," he said.