Archive for the 'The Stadium Experience' Category

Why Couldn’t I Buy A Dodger Hat at Dodger Stadium?

I don’t live in LA anymore. Because of that, I’ve lost touch with the city and the Dodgers in some ways. I’m beginning to suspect that this is a good thing. Until going to a game on Friday I was, if not blissfully, then at least quietly ignorant of the malaise that has set in at Chavez Ravine. The McCourt family, the Bryan Stow tragedy, the on-field injuries, the front office follies: these things have done serious damage to Dodger fans in ways that became much clearer to me.

On Friday, I intended to buy a fitted blue and white Dodger cap at Dodger Stadium. There was nothing strange or difficult about the circumstances. I would only be at one game this year. I knew I needed a new hat. I wanted to take advantage of a friend’s employee discount. But at Dodger Stadium, Dodger caps have become an endangered species.

Before the game, my friends and brother and I wandered into a merchandise store located outside one of the field level entrances. We noticed something strange about the hat selection: there were tons of batting practice caps, tons of Lakers purple and gold LA hats, tons of pink and black and other odd varieties on the Dodger cap, but there were hardly any traditional ones. And the few that store did carry were in odd sizes like 6 7/8 or 7 ¾. No big deal, we figured. They’ll have more inside.

Inside was quiet. “Safeco-esque,” I thought. We sat directly beneath a security camera. There were so many security personnel around that I kept on perking up, thinking incidents were occurring in the area near our seats. But nothing was happening. The beefed up security presence and the thinned out attendance combine to give Dodger Stadium the feel of an empty prison camp where hollow-eyed inmates find slivers of hope in balks by opposing pitchers and chant out MVP for Matt Kemp as if he’s all they have left to cling to.

I realized that on nights when Kershaw isn’t pitching, Kemp actually is all Dodger fans have to cling to. He didn’t disappoint, either, hitting his 30th home run to join Raul Mondesi in the Dodgers 30-30 club and accelerate his run at an unlikely triple crown.

Around the fourth or fifth inning, we set out again to buy a cap on the club level, where a small store is located behind home plate. (The employee discount only applies at the club level and top deck stores). In the club level store there was not a single regular Dodger cap. “This is weird,” said my employee friend, who used to work in merchandising. “We should have caps here.”

We rode the elevator to the top deck, where the concourse was empty and the breeze almost made you feel like you weren’t in the stadium anymore. In past years, especially on Friday nights toward the end of the season, there have been lines to merely enter the Dodgers team store. On this night there were maybe three other fans in the entire place. It was empty. On the television we watched Vin Scully wave cookies around and announce that he was returning for another season. Great news. But once again, only a handful of Dodger caps. None in my size.

At this point, my employee friend explained that the team has been having problems with it’s merchandiser, Facilities Management Inc. You might remember that on August 10th, that merchandiser, FMI, requested protection from the Dodgers in federal bankruptcy court. It turns out, we learned after talking to a few retail salespeople around the stadium, that FMI stopped ordering new merchandise for this season three months ago. Due to low attendance (gate attendance is even worse than the Dodgers’ struggling paid attendance), FMI is not going to make back the $4.5 million it pays for the exclusive right to sell merchandise at Dodger stadium this season. So why sink money into apparel that won’t get sold?

A woman in hushed tones at a field level kiosk explained to me after looking around, as if checking for spies or clandestine microphones, that merchandise has been kind of an overlooked disaster, a symptom of “all this McCourt business.” She slumped her shoulders. She said that a kiosk a few aisles down had a couple of 7 1/2s earlier that night, and that they might still be there.

The kiosk did have two 7 1/2s left. But I couldn’t bring myself to buy one. The employee discount would not have applied and at that point I was too dejected to pay a full $38 for a baseball cap. Somebody else might have wanted it more. Then again, even after the Dodgers won and the vacuously ceremonial Friday night fireworks were launched over Los Angeles, probably not.

The Stadium Experience: Defense

I have recently come to believe that defense is the most important thing about watching baseball games in person. It occupies the most of our time, it captures the most of our imagination,  and in person,  it’s the easiest thing for fans to see. Here are five reasons why defense is integral to the stadium experience:

1. Space, or The Anti-Television Experience

The television viewing experience is claustrophobic. You are zoomed in behind the pitcher’s mound for a close-in view of the plate. As balls are batted into play and the game unfolds, your scope is limited to what the camera man and producers decide to reveal. You don’t see the spectrum of players standing patiently between pitches. You don’t get an idea of who is backing up who on any given play. You are fed a certain version of the game – a slice that is forced to stand in for the whole. You are required to infer every subtle defensive shift, for example. Your visual understanding of the game is affected by the blathering of announcers. Your field vision is obscured by graphics.

In other words, on television, you have no concept of space. You are so busy tracking the ball and the batter and listening to the analysis that it’s difficult to grasp the sheer distance an outfielder runs to make a spectacular catch. It’s impossible to comprehend the speed of a grounder as it jumps off the bat and hops off the chest of a waiting third baseman. In person, baseball is defined by space. Most of what we see is space.

2. Speed

In person, greatness happens much faster. One can blink and miss a spectacular, game-altering play. Or one can focus and see something that feels so much more impressive, so much more sudden, than a highlight on television. The entire sequence of pitch to contact to catch, for instance, is mere seconds long. I went to a Mariners-A’s game at Safeco Field yesterday. It was a terrible game, but Coco Crisp made a catch that frightened me. He ran straight back at full speed and caught a Miguel Olivo drive a step from the center field wall, slamming into it hard. The entire play happened in an instant. A gasp, a catch, a momentary hesitation as Crisp lay on the ground. I was hundreds of yards away. The stadium was practically empty. Yet no television camera could do the moment justice.

3. Multiple Dimensions

The challenge of simultaneously tracking ball and runner and fielder creates a holistic experience. It gives a better sense of the different systems of the ballgame. When a first baseman makes a diving stop and fires to second for the first half of the double play we are caught up in the urgency of not just the catch and the throw and the turn, but the slide into second and the runner coming up the line at first. There is an element of this urgency on television, but we can’t see all it. We can’t feel it.

4. Errors

Errors are always more stunning in person. They are discomforting. We often don’t know whether the ball went through a fielder’s legs or just rolled beside him. We can’t tell from a distance whether a grounder took a bad hop. Our vision of fly balls and line drives is askew – think of how many times per game the crowd rises to its feet to cheer a potential home run that does not even reach the warning track. Players are not the only ones who misread batted balls. We do too.

5. Down Time

In person, defensive players are who we interact with. We see them warm up between innings. We (collectively, maybe not you or I), beg ungraciously for a ball. We heckle them the most. We adore them the most. We watch them the most closely. In the field, personalities reveal themselves slowly. Jayson Werth stands around right field looking bored, pacing small circles, playing with his glove. Ichiro stretches and contorts his body and seems to not even realize it. Derek Jeter asserts grace and confidence in just the way he walks — zone rating be damned, sayeth the scout sitting above the dugout, just look at him. No matter where you’re sitting in the stands, almost without exception, the closest player on the field is a defensive player. We’re drawn to what’s already in front of us.

Fail Bigger

Seattle's Floating Stadium

Exciting news: my first article for Slate was published today — a slideshow essay on great unbuilt stadiums including Seattle’s Floating Stadium, Edmonton’s Omniplex, New Fenway Park, and so on.

If You Don’t Build it…

The Stadium Experience: The Good Seats

the stadium experience

My tax bracket usually dictates that I sit in the sections of the stadium where a mask will drop down if there’s a loss in cabin pressure. But seeing as how this is the week of my 30th birthday, the pity is running so thick that the family treated my wife and I to some really great seats at Safeco Field.

16 rows up from the field is not Bill Gates territory, but it is occasion enough for me to talk about what it’s like to sit in primo seats, where the sights and sounds extend beyond the screaming children and passing aircraft.

Entry

Heading into the stadium from the street, the first notable difference in the land of good seats is that I didn’t have to hike the miles of concrete incline and stairs to find my section.

My natural orientation on entering a baseball park is to climb like an F-16 taking off from an aircraft carrier, so I had to recalibrate when we steered a downward trajectory to get to our seats. My palms sweated as we hurled earthward. I reached for the ejection lever.

Cinemascope

But the landing was soft. One row after another fell behind us. The sounds from the field faded up as the players warming up and the base coaches chit-chatting appeared first life-sized and then enormous. They are all enormous. You forget watching from a distance that the unnatural selection of major league baseball has weeded the little guys from the bunch, and all professional athletes are huge, even the mediocre players among them. Ryan Langerhans is a beast. Doug Fister in 9 feet tall.

Sitting that close is a cinematic experience. Every feed is active: the audio, the visual, even the sensory. You can feel the sound of the bat hitting the ball as well as you can hear it. Cliche as it may be, the little things rise in prominence. Langerhans patting a teammates back, Ichiro on deck.

This is what Ryan Langerhans looks like up close.

My Fellow Americans

There are more middle-aged couples down in the rich seats. They are successful, cheerful people. The men have a wind-swept look. They wear class rings and windbreakers. One guy looked like he came straight from the marina to the game. A beer vendor called him Dick Van Dyke, and he looked like he led a sun-filled, smiling life. He clinked beer bottles with the other guy in their party of four, as if to toast the silvery healthfulness of each of their beards and the lives that enable those beards.

But the demographic wasn’t limited to these over-privileged tables for two. There was a big family right behind us, and they were having a helluva a time. Dad had a constant commentary going, the whole game. “Look at Figgins, he’s gotta smile like a horse.” Then he made a horse sound and his kids laughed and laughed. “What are you doin’ out there, Moore!” he bellowed when the young catcher missed an easy Big Papi pop-up right behind home plate. “Gimme the mitt, Moore, let me do it!”

There’s something about being in the expensive seats that lent this jokester a likability that might not have been there in the $10 seats. He seemed, in that low-altitude context, like a rebel, a firestarter, sticking it to the man. He had on a jersey with a customized name on the back that said “Big D.” He was great and so was his family.

The Game

As I alluded to, the sounds are more immediate down front. A big league bat striking the ball creates a singular sound. It’s a feeling. I felt it in row 16. You don’t feel that from up high. Ichiro’s contact rings like an axe-fall.

Home runs sail away, the same way they do for the hitter and the pitcher. They disappear into the distance. It lends an air of the mythic, that something fades away rather than simply traveling like a common mathematical point from one position to another along the grid. Moving and leaving are distinct.

When the game is over, the players walk towards you to leave, and they walk under you. A few players linger and say hi to friends in the stands. Mariners pitching coach John Wetteland rattled off the names of his kids’ friends who were at the game. “Kyle, right?” he said, pointing at them. The kids were not much impressed that a pitching coach took the time to name them.

fading away

via flickr user urbanlegend

Perspective

This is Safeco Field I realize. The Mariners are far, far out of contention. The Red Sox were in town, but Youk, Drew, Pedroia were all out. It’s a subdued vibe all around. The sweet seats at Yankee Stadium, at the Cell, at Chavez Ravine, those are gonna be different. They will be be manic and throbbing and monied and everything. In Seattle, this September, the good seats were a place to lounge and listen, and hope that some hitting broke out.

The Stadium Experience: Getting There

The magic of attending a baseball game may begin when you present your ticket at the gate, but no spell can be cast without adequate preparation. Before the first pitch the would-be attendee faces a gauntlet of decisions, ranging from checking the schedule for the presence of the home team to pondering whether skipping work on a Wednesday afternoon to watch the 5-starter is really acceptable. The alchemy of preparation may have numerous permutations, but there are four ingredients of particular importance, namely: Who, What, When, and How. Without these, which arise for every game-goer, the stadium might as well not exist.

Image from flickr user "terren in Virginia"

Who am I going with?

Whether it’s the wife, a college friend, a co-worker, or an awkward uncle, choosing a partner or group of co-attendees is a precursor even to picking a game. While this is a relatively simple question, the process of making this choices says a lot about the potential attendee. For example, the less authoritative personality is not likely to choose at all, rather waiting for the game to come to him in the form of an invitation. The gregarious carouser, on the other hand, is wont to invite five or six friends, especially if he’s got someone to impress. The especially magnanimous, but secretly lonely, man will offer to buy everyone’s tickets and beers if only they’ll come along, while the lazy and anti-social man will just drag his wife along for fear of getting in contact with – and being rejected by – anyone else. One might justifiably wonder how he has a wife in the first place, but that’s beside the point.

Any one of us might be any one of those people at any time, or we might default to a single game-attending modus. Regardless, whether we follow habit or not, having answered “who” we proceed to “what.”

What game are we going to?

The all-mighty schedule imposes certain limitations on this question. If the home team is in the backwaters of Pittsburgh and Washington for the next week the game-going impulse will not be immediately satiated. If, on the other hand, the darkened dates on the calendar indicate a glorious 14-game homestand, the proverbial cup runneth over.

Having perused possibilities, choosing a particular one – or, hey, maybe two or three – is a relatively simple function of available money (lets call that “M”), and time and date of games (call it “T”). Taking the result of “Who,” (or W) as a coefficient, each potential game (“G”) is scored as follows: G = T / W*M. That is, the likelihood of going to a given game is equal to the convenience of the date, factoring in who is going and how much it’s likely to cost. I might have the formula slightly wrong, but I trust some enterprising sabermetrician will spot the error and correct it.

When do we get there?

The question comes with the all-important corollary, “What do we eat?” Ballpark food has its advantages, but price is not among them. On the other hand, there are some fans who insist upon arriving an hour before the game to sit around and watch players stretch and take batting practice, which makes a pre-game meal and drink a trickier proposition.

The other corollary, here, is “How are we getting our tickets?” Scalping is a viable option, but is best done right before the first pitch, when the fickle baseball-ticket market suddenly shifts in the buyer’s favor. A baseball ticket is a rare thing that can be worth as much as one hundred dollars one moment, less than ten a few minutes later, and nothing at all the next day. Finding the right time to strike is vital.

Buying online, or buying walk-up, on the other hand, requires a somewhat earlier arrival, as the line at the ticket-office is liable to make even the most optimistic fan despair for humanity. Questions that might arise, especially if first pitch is imminent, include: “How can it take so long for the guy in front to buy a single ticket?” and, “Why would they hire a deaf saleswoman?” and, if the home team is playing everyone’s favorite lovable losers, “What are all these freaking Cubs fans doing here? This isn’t Chicago!”*

*The reader should disregard this last question if he or she is, in fact in Chicago.

Are we there yet?

How do we get there?

Finally, the most important question of all. Having settled the simple stuff, the real getting to the park must be negotiated. Public transportation, a nice walk (if you live close enough), the horrors of driving and parking, or some combination of the three are all valid options. While location has a lot to do with the decision, here, it doesn’t change the finality. Once the car is fired up, the train is boarded, or those first steps out of the apartment have been taken, the stadium experience has begun. It’s only a matter of time before, settling into his seat, the stadium-goer can sit back and let the game wash over him, talking with his particular whos. Cue National Anthem, starting lineups, and first pitch. Put aside all troubles and worries, including the very effort of getting there.

As a coda, I want to address the absence of the other two classic journalistic questions: “Where” and “Why.” I have left these out because the former is exceedingly simple and the latter exceedingly complicated. In other words, if “Where is the stadium?” is an important question in your particular game-going experience, you’re clearly in an unusual situation. If “Why am I going to the game?” is an important question in the pre-game process, well, you’ll just have to answer for yourself.

The Stadium Experience: Cooperstown Connection

The bats were wooden, and the baseball players were young and green. The stands were mostly empty but for behind home plate–in the shade of the grandstand–where chatty ladies in hats and large sunglassed filled the spaces between the mens’ one-liners about hot dogs and heart attacks. The sun burned bright even as it set, there in the early evening in Cooperstown, New York.

There were the Cooperstown Hawkeyes, the local side, and another team from another small New York town wearing forest green. They were likely the best players from their colleges, schools with names like Catawba Valley and Shippensburg; Civil War names. But this wasn’t the Cape Cod league. These kids weren’t on the fast-track to signing bonuses. They were playing so they didn’t have to live at home for the summer. They were playing to play, the way most of us did. They don’t make it big out of the New York Collegiate Baseball League.

My friend Paul and I were in town for the Hall of Fame, and only made it to Doubleday Field for the game because it happened to fit into our rigorous weekend itinerary. But there was also the appeal of watching an actual live game in a place where so much of the baseball is stuffed and mounted.

In other words, after a solid eight hours of peering into display cases, reading tidy little placards, and poring over newspaper clippings in the research library, Doubleday Field felt as wide as the Polo Grounds. The dust that a second baseman kicked up at Doubleday was living dust, an activation of all the incantations down the street in the museum.

(A note vis-a-vis the research library: they’re awesome, they’ll help you find out about whatever you want, especially if you give them a day or two of advanced notice. Also, the director of research at the library, Tim Wiles, sung Take Me Out to the Ballgame on account of the book about the song that he co-wrote. If you heard the kind of conversations he got to have during his workday at the library, you would be jealous. He talks about it in this episode of the Cover the Bases podcast.)

Doubleday Field leads a double life. Often, like medium-sized baseball fields nationwide, it plays host to modest events such as this Hawkeyes game, in which young people play ball in front of some parents and friends, and a light dusting of randoms like me and Paul, who could go for a little baseball, whatever the flavor.

But then there are those weekends when its kinship with the Hall of Fame pays off in glory. Some of those days are past, as the Hall of Fame game between two big league teams which is done with as of 2008. But on the Sunday of the very weekend we were in Cooperstown, there was the Cooperstown Classic Old Timer’s Day scheduled that would surely fill the stands and feature some of the greats of the recent past. We saw a few of these guys, in fact, at a forum at the local high school: Ozzie Smith, Rollie Fingers, Bob Feller (who I presume at 90-something years old didn’t pitch, but it wouldn’t shock me if the old curmudgeon did), Goose Gossage, Harmon Killebrew, Phil Niekro. Apparently Jeff Kent and Hard Hittin’ Mark Whiten were there too.

Point is, Doubleday Field still sees its share of grandiosity. That in itself adds a little sparkle to a humble game like the Hawkeyes matchup here. Knowing that pro players have attacked those close-in fences and kicked at the mound lends a little touch of the magical to what would otherwise be your basic summer league game.

We were not, of course, the only fans at the field. There were other goofy groups of men, who clearly had the same thought we did, the urge to watch some real baseball and the organizational wherewithal to find this one on the schedule. These weekend warriors were the ones in Carlton Fisk Red Sox jerseys and bright white sneakers. Nice cameras hung from their necks, and their pallor suggested paperwork over surfing.

And then there were the locals. Round about the third inning, the sun was pointed directly at my forehead, so we bought a few hot dogs from some softball players working concessions en route to the grandstand behind home plate, where there was a roof and some shade. Under the roof, the crack of the bat echoed a little and there was got a nice view of what everybody else was up to.

Down near the backstop, I thought I saw a scout with a radar gun, but it turned out it was a Coke Zero bottle in his hand. A row below us, a college girl stretched and preened her tan summer legs. A young girl with a brown lab puppy stood around as groups of people cooed and petted it.

On the drive home from my high school baseball games, my mom would talk about what my teammate’s families were up to: news about brothers and sisters and moms and dads, who got into what college, who was dating whom, who was going to military school. She was like a Pony Express rider the way she absorbed and broadcast all of that news.

“You know they’re tryinna getta liquor license for the field, huh?” said a bald, middle-aged guy who had a minute ago made an excuse for his second piece of pizza. “Finally have a decent party here. Serve beer.”

“They been trying for years,” said a plump woman settled in down the row from him. “They’ll get it this year. I’m on the alcohol board.”

Conversation meandered among them, with the woman providing the narrative drive and the three men down the row providing comic relief and nonsequitors. “Ochocinco!” the bald guy said at one point, for no apparent reason. “Ochocinco!”

When a foul ball shot back against the backstop screen, the woman said to the bald guy, “If they get ridda that net you’d have a lot more patients!” Then he told a story about a Lifesavers factory. It made sense at the time, if only just. It made sense was that we were at a baseball game and that a story was being told that someone had read in a newspaper.

Down below, the game got slow, the starting pitchers lost their handle. There are no lights at Doubleday Field, promising a foreseeable and merciful conclusion. But we didn’t wait around. We had some local beer in the trunk of the rental car, and a view from the motel porch that was calling our name.

Did I mention that Phil Niekro threw out the first pitch? Well he did, and throughout the game the PA announcer asked Niekro-related questions and if you ran up to his table with the answer you’d win a free piece of pizza. “There’s Phil,” said Paul as we found our seats behind home plate. I couldn’t make him out, though. He blended right into that small crowd.

The Stadium Experience: Exile on the Main Concourse

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.

I sat in the top left corner of the seats pictured here.

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?

The view from my seat.

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.

Poutine is simply french fries covered in brown gravy and cheese curds. I took initiative and added some chopped onions to the mix.

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?

$16 well-spent.

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.

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