Last week PnP began an exploration of the way we watch baseball in person, namely The Stadium Experience. From the ensuing discussion, a plan was hatched: I’d go to a Major League game alone — something I’d never done before — and write about it.
The three miles between my apartment and Safeco Field encompass some of Seattle’s most notable landmarks: the Space Needle and Pike Place Market, the Seattle Art Museum and Pioneer Square. As I strolled to Wednesday afternoon’s Mariners-Athletics contest, I noticed no landmarks. Instead, I jittered from the two cups of coffee I drank for breakfast. I whistled Replacements songs. I smiled stupidly and repeatedly as the sun made itself at home on the back of my neck.
I was on my way to do something totally familiar: settle in amongst tens of thousands of other fans and watch a major league ballgame. The difference was that this time, unlike the hundreds of games I had attended prior, I was all alone. It would be just me and the baseball.
Midweek day games offer a rare nostalgia. They hearken back to the era before lights made baseball an evening activity. Unlike evening and weekend games, they feel like special events. In line for tickets, you can imagine yourself in another time and place – 1950s New York, for instance. You can see yourself leaving work early and donning your fedora and climbing aboard an uptown train. You can see yourself at Yankee Stadium watching Whitey Ford take the hill against Early Winn and the hated Cleveland Indians.
I was not treated to quite so dynamic a pitching matchup: Luke French for Seattle and Dallas Braden for Oakland. But I was excited anyway. I was excited to be watching baseball in the first place. I was excited to see Dallas Braden – hurler of an unexpected perfect game, enemy of Alex Rodriguez, and favorite of Pitchers & Poets—take the mound. And mostly, I was excited about the essay that would come out of this new experience.
Watching a ballgame alone and writing about it is a hardly bold, dangerous journalistic undertaking. I knew this. But as I made my way toward the stadium, walking past the tourists and the lunchtime business crowds, the resulting essay began to reveal itself: it would be literary, it would be humorous; it would be gripping and deeply personal in a stream-of-conscious sort of way, but it would also say something keen about our society.
I arrived at Safeco Field to find it bustling with scalpers and senior citizens, bicycle taxis and packs of day campers lit up in matching fluorescent tee shirts. Old New York this was not, but alive it certainly was – especially considering the Mariners’ status as baseball’s preeminent disappointment. In line to buy a ticket – a single ticket, I reminded myself – my jittery excitement began to reveal itself as a discomforting restlessness.
The five minutes to the ticket window passed by slower than my hour-long walk to the stadium. Don’t check your phone, I told myself. Keep it in your pocket. Today is about you and baseball. I glanced around. I fidgeted. Finally, I reached the front of the line. “I’ll take one of your cheapest tickets,” I told the attendant, noting in the corner of my eye that a lone A’s fan was purchasing a single seat in the next window. He wore a Mark McGwire jersey, a peace sign tattooed on his calf, and the kind of beard that delays airport security lines.
This lone Oakland fan was an ominous sign. By the time I reached my seat near the top row of Safeco’s left field bleachers, all of my magnificent hopes for the essay had disappeared. It was as if the entire stadium was populated by men watching the game unaccompanied. Or maybe when you watch a game by yourself, you begin to notice the other solo flyers. The problems remained: how could I have thought something so banal would make for a compelling story? How could I have been so self-centered as to think that my experience watching a baseball game alone would be more edifying than anybody else’s experience doing the same?
One row ahead of me sat a balding man who had printed a stack of score sheets on legal paper and brought them to the ballpark on a clipboard. His handwriting was impeccably neat. Each time the Mariners grounded into a double play, he exhaled and marked the action with tremendous care. But for all his perfectionism, this scorekeeper was also agitated. He sighed dramatically at the teenagers whose comings and goings forced him to stand up and step into the aisle every five minutes.
Another nearby solo flyer presented a distinct contrast in style. He was a thin man in his mid-sixties. He nursed a Mac n’ Jacks and dumped an entire bag of peanuts into the cargo pocket of his shorts, chomping on them with no regard for the children seated next to him or the great distance between himself and home plate. The only sign that this man was even conscious of his surroundings came in the fourth inning when he removed his shirt in surrender to the heat.
Coco Crisp led off the game for Oakland. And before I could settle into the rhythm of my preferred baseball-watching trance state, he rocketed a Luke French meatball to deep center field. A double, possibly a triple, I thought. No. Franklin Gutierrez caught up with the drive two steps onto the warning track, and bounced off the wall at full speed a moment after making the catch.
“Holy shit,” I said out loud, “what a catch.”
But there was nobody there to answer.
After the Gutierrez catch, most early action took place around the infield: groundballs and strikeouts. Pitchers French and Braden worked fast, and sitting in the far reaches of the bleachers, I found it difficult to focus on the game. I found myself watching the people around me –watching the way different groups watch baseball. A little boy nearby told his babysitter that the fields he played baseball on were way bigger than this one. He took a bite out of a hot dog that was almost invisible beneath an ocean of ketchup.
As the kid and his brother watched the Mariners Hat-Trick, a video version of Three-card Monte in which a baseball is hidden under one of three caps that are then scrambled wildly across the scoreboard screen, I began to realize the extent to which ballgames are manufactured social experiences. Even the most sacred of stadium rituals are group-oriented – they are meant to illicit a comment, a shared smile, even an embrace. I began to feel that not only were the rituals not for me, but that during them, I was conspicuous in my aloneness.
I felt like the only guy not having fun at a party. I felt like the one Jewish guy at the Catholic Wedding who doesn’t reveal himself until everybody else in the pew drops to their knees, leaving him standing alone, hands in pockets. This became especially visceral during the seventh inning stretch. I stood alone, arms crossed, resigned to a hollow half-singing of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
Even stadium food gave me pause. Hot dogs are for everybody and anybody. But what of nachos and peanuts and garlic fries? These are snacks to be shared; eating them alone feels gross and sad and defeatist. That said, after the fourth inning, I left my seat in search of poutine – trying the Quebec delicacy, new at Safeco Field this year, had been a season-long goal. I had embarked on this endeavor in the name of knowledge and baseball. I had sacrificed much in the name of hard-hitting journalism. One act of self-indulgence would be totally permissible.
In the concession line, I ran into a couple friends. They were at the game independently and invited me to join them. “Only for a little while,” I said, “I’m on a mission.” The decision to sit with my friends was a failure in the “watch a baseball game by yourself’ department, but it turned out to be a major success in the “actually see what’s going on in said baseball game” department, as their seats were on the field level just above third base. I stayed with them for the fifth and sixth innings – or the amount of time it takes to eat a portion Safeco Field poutine.
Upon taking my leave, I decided not to return to the outfield bleachers. Instead I made my way to the shady first-base side of the ballpark and quietly sidled into an empty row. Vantage point, I realized, is crucial to the solo-baseball experience. From a good seat you can immerse yourself in the details of the game. You can see what kind of gum the first baseman is chewing. You can see the sweat outline left by a chest protector on the visiting catcher’s back. The action becomes more intimate and more immediate.
There were hardly any fans around me. The section had been occupied by a group visiting from a retirement home, and most of the seniors had left early – driven away by the heat. This was perfect for me. I was finally able to settle down. But even comfortable, I found myself unable to fully embrace my own aloneness. It was a constant struggle to dam the torrents of unrelated and baseball and non-baseball thoughts that rushed through my head.
When Mark Ellis hit his third double of the game, I had nobody with whom to share the excitement. I sunk to the level of sending a text message to the friends whom I had just left. It turned out they were not as impressed with the feat as I was. Of course they weren’t. Three doubles from a mediocre veteran on a third-place team in a meaningless August day game are hardly the stuff of local news broadcasts.
But for me, those doubles felt monumental. Everything did. Without the benefit of company, and unable to take pleasure in the stadium’s many distractions, the game itself took on a much greater meaning. I began to think about the players – not just their presence on the field, but their places in history, their roles in my life. Mark Ellis, I thought, is an icon, a relic, the soul survivor of the exciting early 2000s Athletics. I can’t believe I’m watching the Mark Ellis. Is there a lesser player than Mark Ellis with a stronger inherent team identity?
I became at once oblivious to context and hyperaware of it. Everything about the game in front of me in all its unimportant glory became dire and obsession-worthy. It did not matter that neither team would be playing in the postseason, it only mattered that they were playing right now. And yet with each successive .230 hitter, with each successive groundball double play, I could not help but think about the big picture. Where exactly do these two particularly flaccid lineups ranked in the American League and even in baseball history?
In many ways, watching a ballgame alone is like driving a long distance alone. You are focused on what’s in front of you. But watching baseball – like driving – can be a passive activity. When you are pondering the action on the field or drive a lonesome highway, you are dealing with a million potential stimuli, be they beach balls floating down from the next deck or cars merging into the lane beside yours. And then there’s the greatest distraction: the wanderings of your own mind.
In the car, you play games to keep yourself sharp. You count the mile markers. You seek out landmarks. You change lanes just for the hell of it. The same thing happened to me at Safeco Field. I became obsessed with the minor details of Dallas Braden’s pitching performance. Through six innings, he faced only the minimum 18 batters. I lusted for a 27-up, 27-down performance.
When that streak ended, I began to contemplate Braden’s pitch count. Entering the 9th, he had only thrown 92 pitches. Will he throw exactly 100? I wondered. How many complete-game 100-pitch outings have there even been? And really, who cares? I did. I cared.
Braden retired Ichiro and Chone Figgins in a combined five pitches. I leaned onto the edge of my seat. I was probably the only person in the stadium, Oakland fans included, who felt so invested in the outcome of the at-bat. For some reason, this specific and unlikely outcome became the only thing on earth I wanted. Strike one. Ball one. Here it is: the 100th pitch.
Did he do it? No. It took Braden a 103rd and then a 104th pitch to induce a pop up from Lopez. But an asymmetrical complete game victory is still a complete game victory. And a ballgame watched alone amongst tens of thousands of people is still a ballgame watched. As I made my way toward the aisle and down the main concourse and finally back into the hot sun, I knew I would eventually repeat this experiment without the added baggage of a notepad and a self-imposed writing assignment. Now though, there was only the long walk home.