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An usher and a gentleman


Nick Christakis leans against a concrete wall at Frontier Field and surveys the action. It's a slow night tonight --- the Rochester Red Wings will lose to the Ottawa Lynx in extra innings, and the threat of thunderstorms apparently has kept many people away from the park --- but Christakis is still smiling from ear to ear. He's doing what he loves to do.

Christakis has been an usher at Frontier Field since 1999, when he retired after 33 years as a customer service rep at Kodak. Now he passes his summers by finding baseball fans their seats and maybe chatting them up about any number of topics --- including, of course, baseball.

Not that Christakis could always talk baseball. In the '60s he immigrated to the US from his native Greece (Sparta, to be precise), where everyone plays only one sport. "Before I came to the United States," he says, "I only knew about soccer."

But by the time he started working at Frontier Field, he had picked up the game of baseball. Now, he says, "My first No. 1 sport is soccer, but I love baseball, because they have nice fans. They're all friendly and nice. It's a family sport."

Christakis works Section 120 pretty much every time the Wings take the field. He delights in helping people find their seats, and when he sees a season ticket-holder, his face lights up beneath wire-rim glasses and thick salt-and-pepper moustache. He greets them with a wide smile and offers a warm handshake before wiping off their seats and getting them settled in. If the ticket-holder has any soul at all, they offer him a couple bucks as a tip. Christakis lowers his head humbly, puts his hand on their shoulder and says, "Thank you, my friend."

"I love the people," he says on this night. As he talks, a bat cracks and a pop fly soars into the outfield. Christakis follows the ball's arc up into the sky and then down into the leftfielder's glove. "It's one of the best sections," he says of 120. "I love them, and they love me."

The fans of Section 120 will attest to that. "He's jovial, fun-loving, caring, funny," says season ticket-holder Ken Weiner, "and he's a helluva nice guy."

Bill and Bernie Hollenbeck have had Wings season tickets every year the team has been at Frontier Field. As a result, they and Christakis go way back. "He is positively the nicest person I've ever met," Bernie says. "He's just a really special guy. It's so nice to see his smiling face when we come in every week."

Both Weiner and the Hollenbecks point to Christakis's constant concern for the safety of young fans --- whenever a kid runs to the front of the section and leans over the wall hoping to catch a foul ball, Christakis warns them away. "I don't think he's very popular with the kids," Bernie Hollenbeck says, "but it makes us feel good because he's doing his job."

Christakis's assimilation into American society through baseball perhaps reflects the sport's universality and its power in our culture. As every wave of immigrant flowed into this country --- Irish, Italians, Poles, Latinos, Asians --- every one of them absorbed baseball into their native culture and, in many ways, made it their own. Every ethnicity in America follows and plays baseball, and baseball has spread across the globe.

And Christakis is living proof of that. While he also serves as an usher for various sports at Blue Cross Arena and now PAETECPark, his heart now belongs to the Wings and Frontier Field.

After every baseball season, Christakis flies to Greece to spend a couple months in his homeland. But, he says as he gazes across the diamond and waves his hand over the crowd, "I spend my summers here."

As for the Red Wings themselves, they've spent the summer coping with numerous call-ups to Minnesota that have turned the Rochester roster into one big revolving door. It also didn't help that the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons were a team on fire for much of the summer

As a result, the Red Barons overtook the Wings in the International League's North Division late last month, and the Wings have spent the month of August struggling to keep pace. As of Monday morning, Rochester trailed SWB by a game, but on the brighter side, the Wings still led the race for the IL's lone wild-card playoff berth.

With less than two weeks left in the regular season, the Wings will need to scrap to stay in contention. After a 5-0 win over Syracuse last week, Wings manager Stan Cliburn said the team needs to show the hustle and execution that has brought it this far. "If not," he said, "we're going to fall short against good teams."