Monthly Archive for August, 2010

The Stadium Experience

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

Podcast 18: And the Blue Angels

The Blue Angels, via flickr user afferent

In this podcast episode, we tangle with the awe-inspiring patriotism of the Blue Angels while discussing A-Rod’s 600th home run and what records mean in the age of steroids, we discuss some of the trade deadline action, and get excited about Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and the improbably awesome-sounding Moneyball movie.

 

Links:

Joe Posnanski on milestones

Nolan Ryan and Co. buy the Rangers

Even Stevens starring Shia LaBeouf

The Blue Angels

Right click here to download the episode.

The Strange Grace of Players Trading Places

image via Flickr user abbygdawson (click-through)

You would be hard-pressed to find another franchise that’s had a two-day period the likes of the Astros recent whirlwind. Not only in terms of volume of activity, but when you consider that the Astros traded away the two players who have defined the team for the last decade. Two pillars, gone, in two days.

As I mention occasionally, deep down I’m an Astros fan (despite a recent diversion to the Mariners). I grew up on them, cut my teeth in the Astrodome, etc. Lance Berkman has been one of my favorites since he played at Rice University in Houston. He’s charming and self-deprecating (“I think any great performer or athlete has to have a little bit of a gut to be great.” – from an interview with Dan Patrick). He has a sweet swing. In short, he’s a great franchise player, who is both likable and awesome.

Oswalt isn’t as likable, but his manner of pitching makes up for that. He’s always had a somewhat distinct style, with his hard, straight fastball, excellent command and a loopy curveball. His stern-faced business-like manner was the counterweight to Berkman’s more jovial nature.

Other Astros came and went–great players and nobodies–but there was always the feeling that Berkman and Roy-O would be around. They were the main planetary bodies and the rest of the team orbited around them. They were drafted by the Astros and came up with the Astros, signing large contracts when they didn’t need to. If timelessness and aesthetic consistency is your baseball jam, then these two were Hall of Famers.

They’re gone now. Both of them. In days. Even from my displaced POV, this is a shock. Like if your parents sold off your childhood home and moved to a condo without telling you. Reasonable, yes, and probably necessary. But strange and disconcerting nonetheless.

The sense that there’s nowhere left to go home to. But that’s growing up for you, and growing older, and the most any of us can do is make a home with what we have, right where we’re at.

Today, I’ve got my Berkman t-shirt on. It’s clean, and fits me well. And I look forward to see him wear Yankee pinstripes, odd as that may be to say. Great players should play on big stages, and though he’s past his greatest days, his swing is still pretty and he does well what the Yankees like in their players: getting on base and playing well calmly. Same, too, for Roy Oswalt, though he’ll be in the same league. He’ll show some new fans what he does well, and that’s something.

There is pleasure to be had in seeing something well-known and beloved in a different setting. You can’t stand still, after all. You’ve got to move forward.

Jump to: it’s a couple of days since I wrote the above. I’ve watched Berkman play in two games. In the first, he went oh-fer. Today, he had a ringing single. In a reverse of roles, I was as glad as a parent to see him get his first Yankee hit. Watching Lance make his way in the big wide world, out of the comfort zone of Houston. When others bestowed praise on him, I accepted it personally.

The brain adjusts quickly to change, even if previously the prospect seemed unbearable. My brain’s new challenge is to accept the Lance Berkman of the Yankees, and the Roy Oswalt of the Phillies, and to get on with it, taking pleasure where I may as the Astros (slowly) nurture new heroes. After all, Chris Johnson‘s having a pretty good month….