Friday, April 23, 2010

Baseball in NYC

Last week I attended the Yankees home opener. The fans packed Yankee Stadium to watch the defending World Series champions receive their rings. After that ceremony, they dispatched the Angels. On Thursday night, I went to Queens to watch the Mets defeat the Cubs. The announced attendance was 28,535, though it seems they reached that number by counting some people twice. Despite this difference in atmosphere, the Mets game was as enjoyable as the Yankees one, even if the commute was twice as long.

It's not necessarily about the majesty of outdoor baseball. I was probably one of the few people who didn't mind watching baseball in the Metrodome. Or at least I was one of the few people who didn't despise it. And it's really not about tradition anymore, now that the ruins of the old Yankee Stadium sit across the street from the newest palace while Shea Stadium bears a striking resemblance to a well-paved parking lot.

It's everything: Riding the subway to the game in cars filled with old guys in throwback jerseys and young kids with with tiny Yankees helmets. It's gladly handing over 10 bucks for bad beer and eight dollars for "chicken tenders" that are neither fowl nor tender. It's watching the subway go by while sitting in the upper deck at Yankee Stadium and watching the planes fly overhead at Citi Field. It's about reveling in the East Coast bias that wants people to believe any game that is played in New York City has to be the most important sporting event of the day and should be the top story on ESPN. Twins? Indians? Cardinals? Padres? Dodgers? Who? Going to games in New York isn't better than games in other parks. But it's a unique experience, even if the play on the field is the same as in every other city.

On Thursday I went with my friend John Rosengren, a Minnesota author (and fellow Johnnie) who is in town for a conference. As we stood in line 10 minutes before first pitch, a guy who looked to be about 40 approached us and said, "Looking for a deal? Follow me." He looked like he had a terrible secret, maybe the location of a dead body he wanted to show us. But we had to listen to the deal. A few years ago, when I went to a Yankees game with John, a similar offer led to a pair of free tickets down the first base line. Our guy in Queens offered his "company's" suite for 50 bucks each. All the food and drinking would be on the house. We turned it down; neither of us is an alcoholic and on a nice spring night, we wanted to sit out in the stands instead of mingling with the high-rollers.

The seats we bought, from a reputable ticket agent with a goofy hat and a green uniform, were in left field. A group of Cubs fans sat four rows in front of us. They exchanged insults with the Mets fans in the section. Their girlfriends looked on in disgust, except when their boyfriends landed a really good zinger. Then they looked like they wanted to return to the hotel room right then and there to reward their hero for the clever retort.

Alcohol fueled the debates, which was helpful, because logic certainly didn't. I'm always leery of sitting next to fans from the road team. At my first Yankee Stadium game in 2004, a member of Red Sox Nation who possessed below-average intelligence and worse looks sat behind us, screaming at every one he saw in pinstripes. In his own beer-addled mind, he owned the comedic chops of a young Eddie Murphy. Eventually, sometime in the seventh inning, another patron fired a beer at the man's large head. It connected with the back of his skull. But I suffered collateral damage as the splash went all over my shirt. I couldn't really blame the thrower. Red Sox Fan with his ridiculous haircut scuffled with some fans. Security tossed all of them. I wanted to hit the guy with something, too. Not because he was a Red Sox fan, but because he was so unoriginal. Modern English has been around since the 16th century. Lots of words to choose from. The Yankees and Red Sox have played for more than a hundred years. Yet the best insult he could come up with was "Yankees suck."

Thankfully on Thursday there were no projectile liquids. Johan Santana picked up the win for the Mets. I'd never seen Santana pitch in person; by the time he became a dominant pitcher with the Twins, I was already in New York, and this was my first time seeing him as a Met. One thing that seemingly has never changed for Santana is that he struggled to find run support. He didn't get any in his last start - which came during the 20-inning marathon last Saturday - and it took some time Thursday for the feeble Mets to strike. But they did, Santana pitched out of trouble like he always does and the Mets fans among the "28,000" in attendance went home happy.

A note for Minnesota Twins fans. The newest Met is youngster Ike Davis. He's a hot prospect with a cool name who might be overhyped simply because he now plays in New York but might also be a really good ballplayer. Yesterday I learned his dad is Ron Davis, the former Yankee pitcher who became infamous as a closer for the Twins during the 1980s. This was before the World Series team in 1987. It was in the mid-80s, when the Twins and their core of future champions - Puckett, Hrbek, Viola, Gaetti - had respectable records but were not true contenders. And every time it appeared the Twins might be on the verge of making a big step, the bespectacled and befuddled Ron Davis appeared in the final innings to blow a lead. Twins fans hated poor RD. Minnesotans hated him more than Drew Pearson. My friend's brother from next door did a superb Ron Davis impression when we were 10 years old, which involved him miming a pitch and then violently turning his head to watch another ball fly out of the park. Very entertaining stuff for youngsters. By all accounts Davis was an outstanding man but it was his role as an ineffective closer that Twins fans remember. And that's unfortunate.

According to this article, Davis thrived as a setup man with the Yankees before coming to the Twins. He might have been the only player in baseball history who handled pressure well in New York but wilted in Minnesota. The story notes that during the 1981 players strike, Davis took a job as a waiter at a Kansas City hotel. Wait...he took a job as a waiter at a hotel in Kansas City. Yes, times have changed. While working, Davis helped with rescue efforts after a collapse at the hotel killed more than 100 people. Again, great guy. Feel bad for loathing him as a child. In my defense, many adults shared those feelings. In reality, Davis wasn't as bad as Twins fans remember, it's just that the games he did blow were particularly scarring. In particular, a home run by Jamie Quirk continues to haunt the state.

The Twins come to New York to play the Mets in June. I don't know if it'd be irony or justice if Ike Davis ends up winning one of those games for the Mets with a big home run in the bottom of the ninth.

For 15 years, the anti-RD has ruled in the Bronx. I've now been to six Yankee games in New York. The Yankees are 6-0. And in every one of those games, Mariano Rivera has earned the save. Rivera's entrance into a game is one of the coolest moments in sports, as the unemotional closer jogs in from the outfield while Metallica blares and the crowd rises. He fires his one pitch and always gets his man, at least when I'm in attendance. Last week it seemed like Rivera wouldn't be needed, as the Yankees led 7-1 in the ninth. A grand slam later, Joe Girardi wandered out to call in Rivera. As Rivera arrived on the mound, the crowd continued to cheer. Louise - not a baseball fan - asked, "Why are they so excited? Is it because they think the game is over with him in the game?"

Yes, a perfect way to describe the reaction.

A highlight of my trip to the new Yankee Stadium occurred during a long wait in a concessions line. Two women behind me complained the entire 10-minute wait, whining about poorly trained staff. They kept watching one of the workers fill beer cups and grew enraged with her technique. Every cup she filled was half-filled with foam.

"Look at that! How can she not know how to pour a beer? How do they not train them?"

Each beer brought a new complaint. Finally I ordered my food and stood off to the side to wait for it. One of the women behind me gave her order. She then reached across the counter to grab a beer cup out of the worker's hand.

"If you tilt it like this, you won't get as much foam. Come on, like this!"

Everyone just watched the crazy woman give a beer lesson to an underpaid, frightened worker, who looked like she wanted to take flight instead of fight.

"I am not paying 10 dollars for foam," the customer screamed.

I walked away with my soda and tenders as the beer-pouring lesson continued. I'm assuming the foamy, overpriced beer ended up drenching someone's head - the employee's or a fan's. That's a part of baseball in New York. But just a small part.

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