Nearly 50 couples will renew their wedding vows before Friday night’s Rochester Red Wings game at Frontier Field. Mike and Marla Hamilton are bummed they won’t be able to participate in the ceremony because they’ll be out of town helping Marla’s elderly mom move into a new home. But they’ll be at Frontier in spirit. And they’ll surely reminisce, as they often do, about that memorable and historic night at the ballpark 14 summers ago when they literally stepped up to the plate and became the first couple married there.
“Whenever we go to a Wings game or even when we just drive by the park on (Route) 490, we always say, ‘There’s our place; there’s our church,’ ’’ Marla says. “In retrospect, I can’t picture any other setting for our wedding. It was perfect.”
Truth be told, Marla’s first choice was Wrigley Field. And that was understandable because Chicago is her hometown and she’s followed the Cubs since she was a 12-year-old cheering for Bill Buckner.
But when one of their fellow Wegmans’ employees learned that these two “seam-headed love birds” were looking for an outdoor venue for their nuptials, she contacted Wings general manager Dan Mason about staging a wedding before a game at Frontier. Mason, a master promoter, jumped on the idea like a batter jumping on a hanging curve ball, and on July 17, 2004, a ballpark became a green cathedral.
Like Annie Savoy, the sultry character played marvelously by Susan Sarandon in the film “Bull Durham,” Mike and Marla believe in the “Church of Baseball.” During their special evening, legendary organist Fred Costello led the crowd in the “Charge!” cheer as the couple departed their limo near home plate. Mike strolled to the batter’s box, while his bride walked to the pitcher’s mound. As Costello played the “Wedding March,” Marla was escorted down an aisle bordered on both sides by uniformed Wings players holding up baseball bats to form a triangular tunnel. Talk about a memorable walk in the park.
On a night when vows would be exchanged before lineup cards, an umpire swept off home plate with his mini-broom and bellowed “Play ball!” Judge Cathy Mullaly then presided over the ceremonies. She did not pronounce them “husband and second baseman,” though that would have been appropriate because Marla had starred at that position in several rec softball leagues.
After kissing the groom, the new Mrs. Hamilton proceeded to the mound for the ceremonial first pitch. Wearing softball spikes beneath her wedding gown, she toed the rubber and fired a fastball that would have been a strike had the Wings catcher not positioned himself just in front of home plate. Following a few on-field photos, the couple returned to the limo and took a spin completely around the warning track before heading off to their reception at a hotel in Greece.
It was there that the baseball theme really kicked into high gear, with Marla donning a Cubs jersey and Mike a Boston Red Sox jersey. “I had them made up so that it had our name, ‘Hamilton,’ sewn onto the backs,’’ he says. “She wore 22 in honor of her favorite player—Buckner—and I had eight in honor of Yaz (Carl Yastrzemski).” Inscribed baseballs doubled as wedding favors and bags of peanuts and boxes of Cracker Jack were available at each table. Following the toasts, the bride and groom led everyone in a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
“Just a spectacular night,’’ Mike says. “Couldn’t have gone any better.”
Becoming part of Red Wings lore was icing on the wedding cake. Not only were they the first couple to be married at the downtown ballpark, but their nuptials were the first at a Wings game since the summer of 1982, when Rochester catcher Tim Derryberry wed Cheryl Toxey before a contest at old Silver Stadium. Sadly, that marriage did not last. Happily, Mike and Marla’s marriage remains strong nearly 14 summers later, the two bonded by a love for each other and baseball.
“If everybody had what we have,’’ Mike says, “there would be no wars.’’
Long before pledging allegiance to one another, they pledged allegiance to long-suffering baseball teams. As deeply devoted fans of the Cubs and Red Sox, they learned long ago what it meant to be there in sickness and in health, for better and for worse. As Mike said a few days before their wedding: “We’ve bled for our teams and had our hearts broken. We know what it’s like to have your love severely tested.”
They’ve since experienced euphoric ends to championship famines. During their wedding year, the Red Sox exorcised the “Curse of the Bambino” by winning their first World Series in 86 years. Marla’s misery lasted longer, but her faith finally was rewarded two years ago when the Cubs snapped the “Curse of the Billy Goat,” and won their first Fall Classic in 108 years.
“I was thrilled when the Sox won, because I knew how much that meant to Mike,’’ she says. “But then the Sox won two more titles and I joked to him, ‘How about letting me see what it feels like?’ When the Cubs finally won it all, I sobbed like a baby. I still get chills just thinking about it.’’
“I believe that’s just another indication that we were meant for each other, “adds Mike.
And meant to be married at a ballpark.
“I wished we could have been there (Friday) because, when you think about it, that kind of night was made for us,’’ he says. “But every night we go there is special.”
Indeed, every Wings game they attend is like a renewal of their vows; every trip an opportunity to celebrate their diamond anniversary.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.