Okay, guess what? You’ll never guess in a million years and so I’ll tell you. Sit on his ass at a desk me recently went to — wait for it — call it the “B” word — a baseball game. Yes! And not just any game. Major League Baseball, baby! San Diego Padres. Petco Park. Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.
A little background
I was never any kind of standout at team sports. Couple a lack of athletic ability with an unrelenting fear of making a mistake and letting teammates down and you have the recipe for a tennis player. Having said that, during high school I did play on the baseball team. Why, I’ll never know. Perhaps because we didn’t have a tennis team, perhaps because I had friends who played baseball, perhaps because I’d suffered my way through little league and didn’t know any better – regardless, there I was. Stuck at first base, I played with a third baseman who would hurl the ball across the diamond at a billion miles an hour, always on two or three bounces, and then became apoplectic when I didn’t block his errant throws with my body. Apparently that’s what first basemen are supposed to do. They’re certainly not supposed to get in the way of the runner on a bunt and get knocked unconscious, only to wake up in the dugout, not knowing what town they’re in. Maybe that’s why they moved to me to right field and then, when the rare lefty came up to bat, moved me to left. Of course, there was the time our catcher got injured during a game and because I occasionally caught batting practice, they brought me in and stuck me behind the plate. The first guy up was, yes, the rare lefty, and because I wasn’t used to a batter being on the right side of the plate, I beaned him with my first throwback to the pitcher. Two pitches later he paid me back by fouling a ball into the ground that bounced up and hit me in the groin. Sad to say, I wasn’t knocked unconscious. Shall we talk about what an incredible batter I was? Sixty feet, six inches seemed like a foot and a half to me and the only way I wasn’t going to strike out was if the pitcher inadvertently hit me. I was an amazing baserunner as well. I remember being on first one time and the next guy up drilled one down the right field line. I rounded second and was on my way to third when he caught up with me. It was obvious I wasn’t going to make it home and so, with no other option, he ran back to second base where he was tagged out on a throw from the outfield. I’m sure he was overcome with joy when my baseball career ended the middle of my senior year. The coaches benched all the seniors and began playing underclassmen. Or was it just me they benched… hmmm.
Oh, but we’re talking about going to games, not playing them, aren’t we.
I have a friend, you see, who loves baseball. He watches it on TV. Living in LA, he still roots for his home team, The Detroit Tigers. He follows the stats, he knows who the All-Stars are, he can’t wait for the pennant races and the world series. And as fate would have it, another certain, local friend has season tickets and every now and then out of sheer spite he dumps two of them on me, leaving me no choice but to call my baseball loving friend in LA and invite him to come on down and go to the game. I do this because he is an old, dear, New York City friend, from my quote-unquote struggling young adulthood, a friend I went to a game or two with back in the 80’s. You’d jump on the subway, take it up to Yankee Stadium or out to Shea Stadium, you’d buy a seat in the nosebleed section where vendors paced the isles selling beer and hotdogs. It wasn’t a family affair, at least not night games. You’d watch the fights that erupted in the grandstands as much as the game itself. Someone would have a radio going and if it was Yankee stadium, they’d be tuned to Phil Rizzuto announcing the game. “Now there’s another lucky fan!” he’d crow when a batter fouled a head seeking, laser beam of a line drive into the first five rows. Maybe you made it to the end of the game, maybe you didn’t. Regardless, you jumped back on the subway and returned to the Upper West side for beer at The Dublin House on 79th Street and hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya on 72d and Broadway. The person who was working, did the buying. Ah, youth.
It’s a little different now or at least it seems so having not been to a game for at least three years. In San Diego, you now start by passing homeless encampments as you get off the Interstate and approach the ballpark; dilapidated, makeshift tents, tarps on the sidewalk, people sitting, and lying on the tarps mindlessly staring into space. Somehow it makes you question whether the fifty-dollar parking voucher that came with the free tickets couldn’t be used for something else. The voucher allows you to park in Tailgate Park which means that three blocks from the stadium, you can throw a social event around the open tailgate of a vehicle. Yes, driving and drinking is illegal, but parking and drinking is not. It’s a day game and there are families and coolers and tables and chairs and picnic baskets, there are people of all ages in different uniform tops and team hats. I don’t remember if Yankee Stadium even had a parking lot. I do remember you risked dismemberment from the grandstand boys if you wore another teams’ colors.
On to the stadium. Did I use the word “ticket”? A ticket these days is a QR code on your phone that is computer scanned at the gate to let you in. Just another way to limit your fan base to people under forty. You enter the amusement park. Oops, did I say that? Okay, words like chaos and cacophony come to mind. Petco Park seats forty thousand people. The US Census Bureau defines a midsize city as five to ten thousand people. I would suggest four to five mid-size cities in an area of around 7500 square feet qualifies as an amusement park, but no one’s complaining. It is wall to wall people of all ages, milling, walking, laughing, talking. Because this is summer in San Diego and we’re in the middle of a heat wave, it is shorts and T-shirts and sneakers unless it’s very short-shorts, sheer tank tops and cowboy boots. It is stores and cafes and embarcaderos lined with food stalls, beer stalls, drink stalls and souvenir stalls. Somewhere music is blasting at a deafening Mach 90 and it sure ain’t take me out to the ball game. After purchasing our first fifteen-dollar beer – the fifteen dollar hot dog will come later – and showing our QR code to any number of ushers, the friend and I finally find our seats. In this case, eighth row, left of Homeplate, which is whoa, not bad. Not as good as the seven rows in front of us, where waiters offer a menu and food and drinks are included in the price of a ticket but as the good friend indignantly says, “Steve? That ain’t baseball!” Besides, those tickets go for around five hundred a piece.
Regardless, one still feels they are sitting in an amusement park. That blasting music? It’s coming from LOUD speakers and the only thing that’s louder is the announcer’s voice which is blaring unintelligibly over it. There are players warming up on the field but it’s hard to focus on them as the entire field is overhung with enormous screens and visuals are exploding on them – cartoon characters, superhero players making double plays, celebrities and stats and graphics and fans, fans and more fans sitting in the stands, hooting, and howling and toasting and waving and dancing, especially when they realize the camera is on them. Talk about your National Pastime! How much does it cost to bring an entire family to a baseball game? One must assume that between tickets, parking, food, and beverages, we’re talking the equivalent of a monthly mortgage. And there aren’t even Ferris wheels!
The players on the field get the hell out of the way when half a dozen Navy Seals come flying in on oblong parachutes trailing banners and hit the ground running. A military band now circles the bases playing the Stars and Stripes. Does this happen at every game these days, I wonder? No, the announcer now tells us that it’s military appreciation day and he calls our attention to the squadrons of uniformed Marines sitting shoulder to shoulder high in the right field upper decks. A camera pans them – stolid, stoic young men, not a smile or a beer in sight and maybe the lack of beer is why they’re not smiling. Time for the National Anthem and we all stand as an African American man in a Naval officer’s uniform steps to home plate. The mike is already there. One expects a military rendition. One is not prepared for a voice that could be singing opera at The Met. Oer’ the land of the freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! And the hommmmmee of the bravvvvvvvvvveeeeeeee! Cheers! Applause! Stamping of feet! Let the game begin!!! Who is ready for another fifteen-dollar beer? Apparently everybody. They go down fast in the summer heat!
It goes without saying I do not know one player – not a one – on either team’s roster. The good friend now tells me that the Padres have recently signed a new right fielder for 450 million dollars – this to complement their two hundred- and fifty-million-dollar shortstop, their two hundred million dollar third baseman and their hundred and fifty million dollar relief pitcher. How, uhm… can they afford that? Television, the friend says. Television? Television, he says. And fifteen-dollar beers and eighteen-dollar hot dogs. Gee, and to think the homeless encampment is just three blocks away. Do they get the leftovers?
The game begins. Throw the ball, attempt to hit the ball. Should the ball hit the ground or the plate, pull the ball out of play and bring a new scuff free ball into play. One easily forgets that baseball is a game played at two speeds. Fast motion and stop motion; mostly the latter. It seems like it’s at least half a minute between pitches. Strike, ball, foul, foul. Step away from the plate, adjust your jock, adjust your gloves, step up again. Foul, strike, ball, foul. Even the Padres mascot – some idiot in a friar’s robe wearing a large, bald cartoon head looks bored. Hit, catch, miss, strike out, ground out. Run to first base, run to second base. The screens change. The blaring music changes. Pitchers come and pitchers go and when they do it’s like a bathroom break. They jog in from the outfield, consult with the manager and the gathered infield and then throw warm-up pitches for ten minutes. Modern statistics tell us that on average in an 8 ½-inning game, fans will see 32 balls put in play, or one every 6 ½ minutes. They will see more pitchers (12) than they will hits (10). They will see 27 batters strike out, which is around 42% of all plate appearances.
More to the point, two and a half hours later it’s only the sixth inning, I have no idea what the score is, and I can’t be bothered to look. Thankfully, the good friend is having a wonderful time. He’s been talking baseball with other fans sitting near us. He’s been following the Tigers’ game on his cell phone. We’ve taken selfies – two old, bleary geezers with wrinkles and grey stubble. No wonder the attractive, young waitresses working the first seven rows in front of us have been paying no attention. Excusing myself, I get up and go for a walk. I’m not the only one. The embarcaderos are full of standing, strolling people all seemingly on game break. There are party sized crowds milling near the restaurants and concession stands and there are long lines to the lavatories. Is anyone watching the game? To quote another friend – “It’s like a very over-priced, loud, restaurant with awful service and terrible food and they let nine uniformed waiters stumble around on a field in the middle.” And to think season ticket holders do this on a regular basis. Not just baseball games. Football games, basketball games, soccer games, hockey games. Opportunities all, to hoot, holler, and cheer, buy fifteen-dollar beers and wait in long lines for the lavatory.
I get back to my seat just in time for the seventh inning stretch. Yes, they still play “take me out to the ball game” and they encourage you to stand and sing along. The screens are filled with people doing just that; singing, dancing. Parents are waving their babies like puppets. On the field, groups of young women dressed like cheerleaders are now catapulting T-shirts into the stands. Oh – and the score? It’s 12 to 4. The Padres, with their billion-dollar line-up, are having an “off-night”. What constitutes an “up” one?
Forty-five minutes later it’s the bottom of the ninth and my baseball friend – is it possible he’s bored?- suggests we might consider “beating the crowd” to the gates. Why, what a good idea. I mean, the Padres – or someone – will be playing again tomorrow, won’t they? We can read about it in the newspaper after doing Wordle. We’re off! Up and out. Down the escalator. Race to the parking lot. In the car. Home, home! Run home to where there’s shade to sit in and the beers only cost a buck!
Now if I can only find a way to convince my local friend to donate his season tickets next year to a homeless shelter.
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