MANCHESTER, N.H. -- On a recent June night, when the air throughout southern New Hampshire was clean after three days of steady rain, the kitchen of our home was getting steamy. I needed to get out of the house. So did my 2-year-old daughter, who was steering her baby stroller into my shins with indifference.
Searching my head for a cheap retreat, I suddenly announced to my wife, ''I'm heading to Gill Stadium to catch a Fisher Cats game. I'll take Danielle. We'll only be a couple of hours."
Her eyes lit up. Julie hadn't been alone since the winter of 2001.
The traditional romantic overture of going to a ballgame with your child was never lost on me. I had envisioned the moment since long before Danielle was born. I wanted her to smell what I had smelled as a child rubbernecking my way around Fenway Park at my very first game. I wanted her to stroll as I had strolled down sugar lane -- chocolate chip ice cream on my fingers -- paying little attention to the game, but learning something about the faces in the crowd.
Eager to see and touch everything new, Danielle would mine her way through Gill Stadium on Valley Street in Manchester, a minor league venue built in 1913 and home of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, a Double-A team affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Last summer, in anticipation of the Fisher Cats' inaugural season in Manchester, Gill Stadium, which holds 4,100 fans, had a $4 million face-lift. There's a new playing surface (like grass, but not), redesigned grandstands, reserved seating, locker rooms, press area, new paint everywhere, and a public relations caravan at every home game, in which Bojangles the Chicken or Bob the Builder or Sully the Monster toss T-shirts bound with tape to the children in the stands from a four-wheeler careering around the infield.
In 2005, the city hopes to unveil a new complex to house the Fisher Cats. To be situated on the Merrimack River, the $20 million complex is expected to include a mall and condominiums. Ground was broken last month.
Pulling into the parking lot of the Stadium Ten Pin bowling alley across from the ballpark, I handed the attendant a fiver and then found a space 50 steps from the stadium entrance. At the ticket window, I pulled out four $1 bills and received a seat in ''The Bowl," otherwise called the box seats area, under the 91-year-old roof. Danielle was motioned in free just as the Fisher Cats and the New Britain Rock Cats, the Minnesota Twins' Eastern League team, took the field.
We spent the first two innings walking around under the grandstands, where garbage cans were stuffed with broken wooden bats being sold for $15 each that were snapped at the wrist (no doubt the victims of nasty split-finger fastballs). There were shirts and banners and girls in Fisher Cats hats spinning cotton candy, staring off into space. Barkers for credit card companies offered free merchandise from a card stand, then asked for my Social Security number.
Danielle took her time looking around. She was ''taking it all in," as they say. We stopped to look over a hot plate covered with Italian sausages. The pork tempted me.
''That'll only do us harm," I told Danielle, as she pinched off a stack of white napkins from a nearby table. ''Let's get ourselves an ice cream sandwich."
We signed up for some free stuff. A woman in a visor handed us two entry forms: one for ''free stuff," another offering free gasoline for a year to the winner. For a moment, I envisioned owning an organic vegetable farm in Groton with the money I would save with the free fuel card.
Right then, a brilliant roar shot out from around the brick corner leading to the field. Someone had hit a homer! Plodding awkwardly toward the noise, I reached back to grab Danielle by the hand, coming up empty.
I turned and said, pouting, ''It's already the third inning! We gotta hustle, baby!"
But Danielle was stone-faced as she stared up at a 9-footer dressed in a Fisher Cats uniform holding a glove and ball.
''How you doing down there?" asked the giant, standing on nylon-covered stilts. He was one of many Fisher Cat sideshows.
Among the 2,058 fans, we looked up into the grandstands before heading to our seats. I remember thinking a hard sleet wouldn't burden this crowd. Young boys were racing over each other to catch foul balls. Mothers with garden tans arched their backs 10 rows up.
Fewer than 16 pitches into the third inning, Danielle took to traveling again. She spotted a little green leprechaun playing clown near the group picnic area. It was Irish Night at the park, with an ''Oh, Danny Boy" sing-along nearly every inning.
An announcement came over the loud speaker. We had won some free stuff! A corned beef and cabbage dinner at a place called The Wild Rover Pub awaited us downtown. Beer not included.
Then just as the Rock Cats punched a pair of doubles to the wall in the fifth, Danielle smacked her chin on a guardrail near our seats. The back-to-back shots by the Rock Cats knocked the Fisher Cats out of the game, and it was time for us to head home.
Though our outing had been cut short, I had learned a life lesson: If you need to escape a steaming kitchen and a rolling stroller, Gill Stadium is where to go.
Rob Azevedo is a freelance writer in Manchester, N.H.