Took Me Out To The Ballgame

Although born and bred in this country, I waited until last Monday night to attend my first baseball game. Prior to the Dodgers’ victory over the Nationals (which the hockey fan in me kept thinking of as the Montreal Expos), the last baseball game I had seen was on October 16, 1969, when the my then hometown Mets won the World Series. What I recall to have been jubilatory excitement failed to spill into the following season, however, and the Mets faded completely into the distance when we moved to Los Angeles. I knew the local team was called the Dodgers, I knew they had come from Brooklyn, and I knew that there was someone named Steve Garvey playing for them.

That was the sum total of my childhood involvement with baseball.

Perhaps not quite the sum total, as, like any other American kid, I had wiffleball, softball and kickball forced upon me, all games for which I had no aptitude whatsoever. (The minute the wiffleball tee was taken away, I went into a bottomless death spiral.) From those baseball cognates, I did learn the rules of the game (thus I wasn’t quite as clueless as a Martian when I arrived at Dodger Stadium on Monday), but, because I could neither hit, throw, catch nor run, I developed something of a loathing for anything baseball-related. Batting thirteenth and being assigned to a new position far in the outfield (I called it shortstopfield) during softball games at summer camp just plain old sucked. Softball inspired dread, which, in turn, made me hate the very idea of baseball. The Great American Pastime was something I flipped by as quickly as possible when I encountered it on television.

How, then, did I end up at Dodger Stadium? Largely in answer to one of the great existential questions Canadians pose themselves on an annual basis: what do I do during the hockey off-season? A viable answer, practiced by many Golden Age hockey players themselves, is baseball. I have a supply of friends who are interested in the game, and perhaps baseball was more interesting than watching beige paint dry after all. So – why not?   Moreover, as perhaps the most idiotic cable deal in sportscasting history has blacked the Dodgers out of the majority of Los Angeles area households, following the home team is actually a literary exercise: reading the sports section of the LA Times keeps me as up-to-date with the Dodgers as anyone living in my area can possibly be.

(Given that the Blogfolio testifies to an allegiance to the Anaheim Ducks, someone might ask why I should have thrown in my lot with the Dodgers, when the Angels are the baseball team of choice of Ducks fans. My answer is simple enough: Dodger Stadium is ten minutes away via the scenic Arroyo Seco Parkway, and I was looking forward to walking around in a ball cap which wouldn’t earn me snarky comments from Kings fans.)

Thus what would have been, up until this summer, the extremely unlikely spectacle of me at Dodger Stadium on the longest (and likely hottest) day of the year. I’d availed myself of the Internet to obtain a Dodger cap, so I was able to feel I looked like I belonged. That’s always a good strategy when you’re plunging headlong and feet-first into the Unknown.

I wasn’t entirely prepared for just how overwhelming the Unknown would turn out to be. Accustomed to the relative intimacy of Honda Center, the simple fact of being at an outdoor sports venue which seats some 110,000 buttocks required some adjustment. As did the lack of the deafening noise with which hockey arenas are filled: baseball crowds seem a less vociferous lot than hockey audiences. Moreover, the [root- root-]rooting for the home team at Dodger Stadium doesn’t reverberate from the roof: instead, it is gently wafted into the twilight æther by the sultry summer breezes.

My friends (baseball-literate both) procured us seats fairly high up (if this were the Metropolitan Opera House, we’d have been towards the front of the Balcony) and behind home plate, which afforded a full view of all of the proceedings, from bullpen far stage left to bullpen upstage right. I was thus able to take in all of the spectacle, which I found more absorbing than I was told I might. I realize that the origins of watching a baseball game lie in a late Victorian desire to be outside on a lovely summer day, and, consequently, pleasant distractions are as much a part of the outing as the actual proceedings on the field, but I found myself most prone to concentrating on the game. I could well have the makings of one of those intense dudes who make use of the scorecard that comes with your program.

(Something tells me that there must be a scorecard app in existence, but we have plenty of pencils here at the Word Handler office.)

The tricky part about any live sporting event is figuring out where to look. When you’re home watching on television, the camera makes that decision for you, but, when you’re at a stadium or arena, your eyes can focus on literally anything. Do you watch the pitcher, the batter, the ball or the guy selling ice cream? As Clayton Kershaw (who, I’ve been assured, might well be the best pitcher ever) was on the mound, I tried to make a point of watching him, and frequently forgot to follow the ball once he’d released it. While it is true that not a great deal happens at a baseball game, when something does happen, it happens quickly, and I came away from the game’s busier plays with the feeling that I’d been looking in the wrong place. When, in what I’ve learned is a classic 6-4-3 double play, the ball is moving clockwise and the runners are moving counter-clockwise, I had no idea where I was supposed to look. Perhaps experience watching baseball makes the brain able to watch two objects moving in two directions at the same time, but the neurology seems shaky. What’s more likely is that your brain learns to make a nanosecond decision about which will be more important to watch.

I’m still at “I think that was a double play, right?”.

I discovered that keeping one’s eye on the ball isn’t as simple as it sounds. (To think that people complain of losing the puck while watching a hockey game!) In addition to lacking the skill to predict the trajectory of the ball after it was hit (adjacent friend as ball was hit towards the outfield: “nope”; me: “huh?”), I also found it difficult to see the ball against the ever-changing backdrop of grass, sky and bleachers. That despite the fact that I watched the daylit half of the game through Oakley Positive Red Irridium sunglasses, a tint that the Oakley website recommended for baseball. (There’s actually a baseball-specific tint as well, although I really ought to go to a few more games, and maybe acquire a Dodgers jersey, before I invest another set of Oakley replacement lenses.)

My friends had explained to me that the song was correct, and that, while it needn’t be peanuts and Cracker Jack, part of the being taken out to the ballgame experience is the consumption of a great deal of food of questionable nutritive value. The heat made a cold drink a necessity before the game had even started, and one of my friends brought me a Coke when he went on his Dodger Dog run. I drank that slowly and gratefully during the first five innings, but couldn’t imagine how one could consume a frankfurter and pay attention to the game at the same time. I did allow myself to be distracted by one of the passing vendors, so I had the experience of passing my money down the row in order to be passed a frozen lemonade in return. (Thank Heaven he didn’t throw it, or is that move reserved for peanuts?) As the lemonade (which was not enough lemon- and too much -ade) required spoon and eyes to consume, I found myself afraid that I’d miss something while I was looking down…which led me again to wonder how I was supposed to eat a hot dog and still pay attention to the field.

I was subject to one major food-related distraction, however. One of the young ladies in the row in front of ours returned from one of the food stands bearing a tray of what I believe are called garlic fries. In other words, a pile of innocent french fries, which had never done anyone any harm, that had been covered with a pitcher’s mound of raw garlic. Given that I consider french fries to be perfect as they are (I don’t even eat mine with ketchup), this garlic business struck me as a grotesque gilding of the lily. I’m not speaking on purely gastronomical grounds: the “aroma” of so much warmed raw garlic was overpowering to sit behind. I would wager that everyone in a fifteen-foot radius of the offending spuds was similarly overwhelmed by the smell, which kept up for a very long time, as the noxious things weren’t getting eaten with any alacrity. Between gasps for air, I also wondered how long one needs to brush one’s teeth after eating a tray of garlic fries. My guess was slightly over ten minutes.

And the game? The Dodgers won, which was the most important fact: it’s a great deal more fun walking out of a stadium when the home team has scored a victory. Mr. Kershaw was in form even I could tell was impressive: eight strike-outs, not a single walk, and only one run scored, that during a seventh inning in which the sweltering heat was finally and visibly getting to him. (No one in his right mind could possibly have blamed him: it had been a day of three-digit temperatures.) The home team hit a pair of home runs, and rookie Corey Seager (whom I decided to follow as, like Snoopy, he plays shortstop) doubled and subsequently made it back home as well. In a phrase familiar to Ducks fans, the Dodgers are apparently “offensively challenged” this season; I was glad that they weren’t the night of my first game.

So – who knew? – a baseball game is indeed a most enjoyable way to spend a balmy summer evening, even if parts of it were bewildering (and/or reeked of garlic.) If I go again (and I plan to), I trust I will start knowing where to look and no longer have to ask “I think that was a slider…right?” every time Mr. Kershaw doesn’t throw a fastball. In other words, experience should help me grasp who’s on first and what’s on second, so that I don’t know can finally retire from third base.

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