The fan was about fifty years old and if it weren’t for the beach ball we never would have noticed him at all. He had a regular middle-aged build, thinning hair, and two boys – maybe twelve and fourteen years old – in tow. They sat across the aisle in our same row. For a few innings there was nothing exceptional about them.
Dodger Stadium will always be my home ballpark. I saw my first game there. I had childhood birthday parties there. I got Hideo Nomo’s autograph at the height of hysteria, I shook the hand of Tommy Lasorda, I walked past Vin Scully, I caught a ball thrown into the crowd by the cannon arm of my favorite player, Raul Mondesi. I even made a foolish vow to not eat another Dodger Dog until they won the World Series. I learned Dodger Stadium – the secrets of its many cavernous stairwells and the physics of its mile-long urinal troughs and the temperaments of its geriatric ushers – the way kids with different childhood interests learned the geography of Middle Earth.
But I was a child then. I appreciated the old scoreboard and the short-lived outfield wall murals and the even shorter-lived presence of King Taco concession stands. But I failed to appreciate the way the stadium’s tiers cascade over you like swooping cliffs when you’re seated at field level behind home plate. (Unless our tickets were for one of the outfield pavilions, which are disconnected from the rest of the stadium, we always snuck down to field level.) I failed to appreciate the unique natural scenery of a stadium literally carved into a small mountain. I failed to appreciate – or cringe at – the genuine meanness that Dodger fans are capable of when confronted with supporters of another team.
I also failed to appreciate the diversity of the Dodger Stadium crowd. It turns out that Chavez Ravine is a fine place for both baseball-watching and people-watching. The crowd is more varied, more eccentric, more bizarre, than any baseball crowd I’ve seen elsewhere – New York stadiums included. The diversity extends beyond race and class and age to fashion and attitude and the very aesthetics of how people pass their evenings. The diversity extends to the fan in the next aisle
He went unnoticed until a beach ball floated down from the Lodge section above. It bounced around once, twice, and finally landed in his lap. He stood up. He looked around. And slowly, without any expression of satisfaction or remorse or villainous superiority, he deflated it. A few people booed, reflexively. The game went on.
“Look at his shorts,” my mom whispered. And I saw them, they were short and white and cotton and their blue pinstripes matched the blue pinstripes on his Dodgers tee-shirt. The whole outfit appeared to have been purchased in the late 1970s. So did the identical shirt his younger son wore.
“What kind of guy wears clothes like that to a baseball game?” I asked. My parents and brothers shrugged He was probably a season ticket holder, we figured. Maybe the shorts and shirt were good luck charms. But wasn’t he cold? The Dodger Stadium breezes are deceptively chilling, even in the summertime.
We remembered that in the 1990s, my dad would bring home free Dodger tickets from work associates. The most common seats were on the second level, the Loge, and they were great. In front of us always sat the same 30-something, bespectacled man. He was noticeable because he always listened to the radio on giant headphones and because he always kept score and because he kept the seat beside him open – and on it he piled editions of Baseball Weekly and printouts of scouting reports and all kinds of other miscellanea. He ate copious amounts of junk food. And he was always alone. The empty seat was just for storage. There is no rule that says baseball has to be enjoyed with company, that it must be a social event. But it seemed so sad. He seemed so lonely.
The fan in the shorts was not lonely. He was, by all visible measures, having a great time with his family. And yet here he was, destroying a beach ball, staring seriously at the game, as if he could have prevented Hiroki Kuroda from allowing Will Venable to crush a 3-run homer by sheer meditative focus. So what was his deal? Did he lose a bet? Or was he just a character, the kind of aberration you see at any public place?
My evening at Dodger Stadium with (most of) the family got me thinking. It got me thinking about men like the fan in shorts and the fan with the empty seat and whether there is a right or wrong way to enjoy baseball. It got me thinking about what, exactly, makes for a positive or negative evening at the ballpark. It got me thinking about how we watch the game in person – in short, the Stadium Experience. For the foreseeable future, I’ll try and explore these things on the blog. Maybe we’ll even ask some friends to drop by and do the same.
King Taco image via flickr user Daniel Incandela