Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Royals Rock On!

Baseball fans stream into Kauffman Stadum for World Series Game #2
The Royals Rock On!
by Greg Larson

           The Kansas City Royals baseball fans have endured a twenty-nine year drought of mediocre baseball. With the team’s postseason winning streak of eight games, and the World Series underway, the drought has officially ended. The Royals fans now wear their blue gear with pride.

          For years, if anyone ventured out to a Royals game it was usually to go on a family outing or field trip with the office gang, just to be sociable. Kauffman Stadium, the “K,” was upgraded in 2009 to lure more people into the park. Yes, the restrooms and shops are bigger, the food venues serve gourmet items along with wine, beer and cocktails, and the park has more flash and dazzle with multiple electronic screens and billboards (they even have mini-golf, a carousel and a ball diamond in a children’s park beyond the outfield). But until recently, the improvements to the park didn’t include the quality of Royal’s baseball. “There’s a ballgame on the field!” someone would say. Imagine that! What a novel idea. “Ah, let’s go hang out on the concourse and eat some chili-cheese nachos with jalapenos.”

          Sporadically, the team improved, especially in the last year. They began to play something that resembled baseball – and they started winning.

          This last August I bought some tickets on, and my brother, Dan, and I ventured out to the “K.” It was like the old days at the ballpark, watching players who were good at their sport, and full of energy. The experience stirred memories and emotions I’d had from the ’70s and ’80s. Although the Royals lost to the Twins in ten innings on that night in August, it was good to see real baseball, complete with offense and defense.

          Fast forward to the wildcard game with Oakland – the game with multiple personalities, both literally and figuratively. The Royals came back from a 7-3 deficit in the eighth inning to win in the twelfth inning with a score of 8-9. The Royal’s players showed spunk and moxie. My fan juices began to flow again. I had worn my old 1985 World Series t-shirt to watch the game on TV. That was the good luck charm.

          After that game, I received an email from to sign up for a lottery that would give a selected few the chance to buy two tickets to a World Series game at the “K,” if the Royals made it that far in the post-season. I’m not one to gamble or buy lottery tickets, but I signed up online for a chance to go to the World Series, and then I forgot about it.

          On October 13th, I received an email titled WORLD SERIES TICKET OPPORTUNITY. Sounded like a scam to me, but then I realized it was sent by “Congratulations! You have been selected for the opportunity to purchase two tickets . . .” Holy Moly! This was the real deal. On October 14th, I was sent a password and a link to a website that put me in a virtual waiting room with all the other lottery winners attempting to purchase tickets. After twenty-five minutes of waiting, I was linked to the ticket-purchase website. Instructions said the tickets had to be purchased in five minutes or I would lose the opportunity.

          The ticket prices were sanctioned by Major League Baseball. I remember the prices varying from approximately $100 for standing-room-only to over $800 for the best seats possible. Then a rash of horror struck me. The ticket selection was color-coded, and I’m color-blind! The clock was ticking. I tried to stay calm. One category was listed as “Hy-Vee box seats,” for $245.00 per ticket. I knew the Hy-Vee grocery stores sponsored the upper-deck, and from past experience, I knew the upper-deck box seats were close to the railing above the infield and along the first and third base lines. Bingo . . . I clicked for the purchase of two tickets to Game #2 and a parking pass. I received a confirmation number for seats in the upper-deck section 413, near home plate. WOO-HOO! (After I bought the tickets to Game #2, I noticed on the internet that tickets in section 413 were selling for $1000 to $1200 apiece).

          It seemed bizarre. I printed the tickets in the privacy of my own home, and kept rubbing my fingers over them. Every so often I would pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I offered the second ticket to my brother, Dan, who is much more knowledgeable about baseball than me.

          The thought of going to the game with Dan brought back memories of my dad taking the two of us to Lawrence Stadium in Wichita, Kansas, in the 1950s to watch the Wichita Braves, Milwaukee’s farm team. I remember smelling the cigar smoke from the crowds, and looking at the stadium lights shining on big players who ran the chalk lines or chased the ball on the neatly trimmed grass. For me, it was the big leagues.

          Another early childhood memory was our tabletop baseball game, a pinball machine. We’d pull back the plunger and watch the ball arch and drop to the pockets for base hits, home runs, or strikeouts. Our teams were selected from Dan’s baseball cards, and we moved the players around the glass top as we scored or made hits. That was the beginning of our interest in baseball, and now we were going to witness, in person, a live World Series game.
Dan and Greg at Game #2 at the "K"
           On October 22, 2014, Dan and I left in the afternoon for the “K.”  We packed the car trunk with tailgate items including food and beverages, and I put the World Series tickets in a big envelope and locked it in the glove box. The 1985 World Series hats I’d pulled from a keepsake box added a nice touch to our blue jeans and Royals sweatshirts.

          The baseball gods delivered perfect weather, with a cool breeze and warm sunshine washing over us in the parking lot. We sipped our beers and kept saying, “It doesn’t get any better than this!”
Pre-game view from our World Series seats
          The party atmosphere pervaded the sports complex from the parking lot to the stadium. Since the Royals lost the first game of the World Series (7-1) on the previous night, the fans were hungry for a win. It was a raucous crowd. The chanting was loud and constant, much like a football game. The crowd screamed on every pitch to the first batter for the San Francisco Giants. The count went full at 3-2, and on the next pitch, he hit a home run. You might have thought the crowd enthusiasm would deflate, but it didn’t. We just kept on screaming as if to will the Royals a win.
Royals fans scream for a San Francisco Giant to strike out
          The Royals scratched out a run in the bottom of the first inning, and we knew it would be a dog fight the rest of the night. With the score tied 2-2 in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Royals put two men on base with a hit and a walk. The crowd was restless and the noise level continued to rise as the designated hitter, Billy Butler, came to the plate. On the third pitch, Billy hit the ball to left field and the crowd exploded as the leading run scored. The Royals kept up the scoring, with the piece de resistance being a two-run homer by Royal’s Omar Infante. By then, the San Francisco pitching had come unglued, the score was 7-2 in favor of the Royals, and the fans were ready to party the night away. Our arms were tired from twirling the souvenir towels we’d been given at the gate, but I didn’t care. This was the big leagues, and our Royals had whumped the San Francisco Giants! Royals manager, Ned Yost, relied on the trademark succession of relief pitchers (Herrara, Davis, and Holland) to wrap up the win.
The Royals team celebrates their win in Game #2
          Game #2 is now etched in my baseball memory. Who knows how long the Royals run will last? Whether or not we win the World Series, I’ll always remember the 2014 Royals, with a roster full of unsung heroes who stepped up to the plate to make a key hit, or an impossible catch . . . a team who played their hearts out for the love of the game.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Asterio Pascolini (1932 - 2014)

An artist with a passion for beauty
memoir and tribute
by Greg Larson

Asterio Pascolini
         Ding! – an email arrived from Asterio Pascolini. I read it and then took a second look. In 2005, it was the first communication I ever received from Asterio. Included in the email was a copy of a photograph I had taken of Gubbio, Italy, during a bike tour. I’d shared some photos with cycling friends at Hallmark, and I discovered that the pictures had been passed on to Asterio, a retired Hallmark artist and photographer, who was born and raised in Italy. A red circle marked a building in the photo, and Asterio included the caption: "I was born in this building!"

Asterio was born in Gubbio, Italy
          Uncanny. What were the odds? We traded emails, and I discovered that Asterio was interested in seeing all of my pictures of the bicycle trip which my wife, Gretta, and I had taken across Italy. We agreed on a date for Asterio and his wife, Barbara, to come and meet us to look at the photos.

          The much anticipated day of our meeting finally came, and we warmly greeted the guests into our home.
           Asterio’s soft voice and Barbara’s gentle manner made us feel at ease.
          With a big smile and a twinkle in his eye, he handed me a manila envelope. “Here is something I want you to have.”  As I began to open it, he continued, “I brought you a print of a watercolor painting of mine. It is of Sorano, Italy . . . you may not be familiar with it because it is a small town off the beaten path.”
          I looked at the print and then I looked directly at Asterio. Chills ran up my spine. Our eyes met as I answered him, “Asterio, not only have we been to Sorano, but we stayed in the Fortezza Hotel which is in your painting!” I pointed to the building on the hillside overlooking the town. “We had a window view of the entire town, and I know your exact vantage point on the hillside when you painted the picture!”

Asterio's watercolor painting of Sorano, Italy
          It seemed like it was “meant to be” for us to connect. From that point forward I had a friend and mentor, someone who thought much like I did about the creative process and the composition of art and photography. Over time, I learned that Asterio had the ability to connect with many people, and he had been a valued mentor to many artists at Hallmark during his career.
Greg & Gretta's view of Sorano, Italy from Fortezza Hotel
          He and Barbara genuinely enjoyed listening to us talk about our bike trip across Italy as we looked at the photos. We learned that although Asterio was born in Gubbio, his family eventually settled in the Tuscany region near Florence.
          He showed one of his creations: a DVD slide show with background music, entitled “The Colors of Tuscany.” It was a countryside view of Tuscany from his camera lens during return visits to his relatives in Italy; photos of everything from vineyards to flower pots and doorways – an intimate view of his old turf. I was spellbound. He asked for a copy of the pictures from our bicycle trip, and said he wanted to create a slideshow with them. 
          “You want my pictures?” I asked. I was stunned. My pictures?
          “I like your photos. They give me something to work with,” he said.
          I wished the incredible evening didn’t have to end. Asterio and Barbara were so cordial and genuine, and we enjoyed sharing stories about Italy.
          As they left to return home, I looked at Gretta and said, “They are really nice people.”
          A few weeks later, I found a package in our mailbox - a DVD from Asterio. It was late in the day, so I waited until morning to pop it in the DVD player and turn on the TV. I was in a hurry to eat breakfast before going to work, so I began to eat as the pictures and music came on the screen. The bike trip photos appeared while soft accordion music played in the background. I dropped my fork on the plate, walked to the living room and plopped down on the sofa. Asterio’s slideshow creation mesmerized me. I was speechless. In the ten minute video, he transported me back to Italy. I was ready to jump into the screen and get on the bicycle.
          Through discussions with Asterio, I learned he was recruited by J.C. Hall in 1958 to come from Italy to work at Hallmark in Kansas City. Hall liked Asterio’s sketching ability, and he wanted to inject some international talent into the creative staff at Hallmark. Asterio told me that once he came to Kansas City, he desired to learn as much as he could about different art media and techniques. He taught himself the basics of watercolor and of photography as well as other media. At Hallmark he was always eager to try something new, including digital photo editing.
          Over the nine short years I knew him, we traded many emails. Asterio was one of my biggest blog fans, sending me an email after each posting. He would copy his favorite line from the blog and send it back with encouraging comments and a “Bravo!” or “Magnifico!” He also sent me many links to photography websites when he found what he thought were really good art photos.
          I don’t know if Asterio ever put into words his definition of beauty, but I do know that he knew it when he saw it. He looked at photograph after photograph on his computer screen, and when he saw something he really liked, he stopped, stroked his beard and emitted a soft, reverent, “Ohhh!” When I heard that “ohhh,” I knew what he saw was special.
          I loved his anecdotes of how he put his paints and supplies in a car, then drove around the Tuscan countryside to find a hill or vineyard to sketch or paint. After showing me a painting of a vineyard, he explained that he sat outside, next to the car, and proceeded to paint the vineyard scene.
Asterio creating a watercolor in Tuscany
          “As I began to paint,” he said, “I could hear two women talking loudly across the rows in the vineyard while they were picking grapes. . . and guess what? All the time I was painting, I learned the latest gossip and the history of their families. Ha!”
Asterio's photo of vineyard in Tuscany

Asterio's watercolor of vineyard in Tuscany
          Asterio and I met a couple of times a year for various reasons. At Christmastime, Gretta and I drove to Barbara and Asterio’s house to say ‘hi’ and give them a card or a small gift. On other trips, I took him CDs with our latest vacation photos. Even when his health was failing, he invited me to sit at the large table in the Pascolini kitchen where he gave me a watercolor lesson when I asked for advice on how to shade an architectural rendering. Another time, he offered to be my audience for a historical lecture and slide show that I’d developed. His encouragement and advice were always welcome, and I always went away from our meetings with something new that I’d learned.
          I loved his Italian humor that came through when we met. Whenever he got frustrated with his computer or when things were out of his control, he put his head in his hands and laughed. He shook his head and said, “Sometimes, all you can do is laugh to keep from going crazy.”
          The last communication from him was an email response he sent regarding my December 2013 blog relating childhood memories of electric trains. He included some photos of train layouts he’d made for his kids. I looked in amazement at the molded mountains next to the bunk beds, where train tracks snaked through tunnels and scale-model Italian villages hugged the mountainsides. His mind seemed to have a limitless capacity for creative ideas.
          Now, I miss his emails. I miss the visits to see his smile and hear his laughter.  To ease the sadness, Gretta and I watch the “Colors of Tuscany” DVD, again and again. I see the sparkles of sunshine on the dewdrops of the Tuscan flowers, and the memories of Asterio, his artwork and his stories come flooding back. The tears begin to fill my eyes, and I realize they are tears of joy for having known such a wonderful man.
Asterio Pascolini (1932 - 2014)
Author’s Note:

          I want to thank Barbara Pascolini (also an accomplished artist) for her gracious permission to allow the use of Asterio’s photos and artwork for this article. After she read the tribute, she invited Gretta and me for a recent visit. It was a happy time in which we shared memories and stories. We cherish Barbara’s friendship and the memories of Asterio, and wish all the best for her and the Pascolini family.