Sunday, April 13, 2008

An All American Night Out (Cornball warning)

Okay, I am not quite as bad as George Will (see example here), but I like baseball.

I blame it on growing up in Cincinnati during the glory years of the Big Red Machine. In those days baseball in Cincinnati was more religion than sport. Since professional baseball was born in Cincinnati, we held the conviction that Crosley Field was sort of the Jerusalem of baseball. The fact that people in places like Boston, New York and Chicago held different opinions did not matter because: (a) the Yankees and Red Sox were American League teams and, therefore, beneath contempt; and, (b) the Cubs were, well, the Cubs. It was hard to take them seriously but you had to love them and their wonderful ballpark with no lights and people watching for free from the rooftops across the street, so we tolerated their misguided notions and granted Wrigley Field status as a really cool ballpark. I think that was reasonable, particularly in view of the fact that the idiots running the club in Cincinnati had torn down Crosley Field and built that hideous monstrosity called Riverfront Stadium.

I loved going to baseball games with my dad. We only went a couple of times a year, so it was a huge treat for me. One of the things I loved about my now-husband was that when we were dating he would suddenly decide to go to a ballgame for no apparent reason. It had never occurred to me that you could go to a game without making advance plans! We went to many games each year for a number of years. We even shared in season tickets with a group from work one year. Riverfront Stadium was ugly and uncomfortable, but it was in a really cool setting and had great views from the cheap seats. Most of all it was home to some truly awesome baseball moments. Gives me goosebumps to think of the baseball greatness that passed through that stadium.

In addition to going to the ballpark, as a kid I listened to the games on the radio. Radio just does not get any better than broadcast baseball! From the late 1960's through the late 1970's, between April and October, I hardly went anywhere without a transistor radio in my pocket. I wasn't a statistics freak like a lot of the boys I knew. As a girl, I was more likely to know the color of a player's eyes than his batting average, but I usually kept that to myself. In any case, I knew enough about the game and the players to deeply enjoy the sport. Baseball was as much a part of my life as church and school.

After the Marge Schott years, the Strike (when the greed and corruption that had probably always been there broke the surface) and the first rumblings of doping, I gave up on Major League Baseball more or less completely. Today, I might possibly break down and watch a World Series if the Reds by some miracle ever managed to field a decent team and make it to the Series. I quit going to Reds games years before we moved away from Cincinnati. Major League Baseball stopped being fun a long time ago, besides, I always hated Riverfront Stadium anyway. [Now the Reds play at the "Great American" Ballpark, which sounds cool unless you know that "Great American" is an insurance company, not an adjective.]

When we moved to Daytona Beach, I discovered minor league baseball and fell in love with baseball all over again. Granted this time what I love does not have much to do with the team and the players. These are minor league players who come and go; there is no point in getting to know them. I really don't even follow the team's record. For me, minor league baseball is all about the experience of "going to a ball game." The game itself is merely the pretext.

First, there is the venue. Major league baseball has Fenway Park (gag), Yankee Stadium (double gag), Shea Stadium (yawn), a bunch of others ... and the only other baseball park that is still standing for which I have a sentimental attachment (even though I have never been there), Wrigley Field. For a baseball park to be really "right", it has to have been the site of a lot of history. When you walk out of the tunnel and into the sunlight, looking out over an immaculate playing field that is just like every other baseball diamond, if you can't remember every time you walked that way with your dad then you at least have to know that "important stuff happened here." At a minimum, feeling as though you are standing on something like holy ground is a prerequisite for any authentic baseball experience (which is why all the new baseball "stadiums" suck).

The Daytona Beach Cubs (a farm team of the Chicago Cubs) play at Jackie Robinson Stadium. It is the coolest ballpark since Crosley Field. Actually it is probably cooler, but a person's childhood ballpark should always take precedence over all others. It passes the "history was made here" test for sure. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Daytona Beach. By itself, that qualifies as a reason to visit. Decades of kids have come here with their parents. Some of them have grown up and brought their own kids. It's that kind of place. I love it when they have Little League night and all the kids come in their own uniforms.

Once you are inside, it gets even better. The setting is gorgeous, on an island in the intercoastal waterway. Between batters or while new pitchers are warming up, you can watch boats go by on the river. If you go way high up in the bleachers you can see the ocean. The ballpark was heavily damaged by the hurricanes of 2004, and the restoration work has been wonderful. The field is real grass. The grandstand looks like something out of the movie Bull Durham. The bleachers are aluminium (which can be dangerous in the summertime if an unsuspecting fan sits down in shorts). The landscaping is simple but beautiful. The roof of the grandstand is metal and high foul balls often hit the roof with a crack then roll off into the street beyond. They play a recording of glass breaking when that happens. I always hope it's just a recording and not the windshield of some poor schmuck driving by.

The scoreboard is the coolest thing in the world. It is an old fashioned green scoreboard where a guy actually sits on a folding chair on a platform and manually posts the balls, strikes, outs, runs and innings by hanging square numbers on hooks. Honest! I love it. No jumbo tron. No electronic gadgets. Just plain old fashioned white numbers, 1 - 9, on green cards. Talk about retro.

There is a food court with picnic tables outside where you can sit and watch the water. I like that a lot. Frankly, I could sit out there by the river all evening and just listen to the game over the PA system. Both the beer and food are reasonably priced. They don't have Big Red Smokies, but they do have the very best salted peanuts I have ever tasted. Since there are no Big Red Smokies, I have room to eat more peanuts. That makes me thirsty which is fortunate because one wonderful difference from old-time ballparks, where they generally only serve local lager, is that this place has a very nice selection of draft beer, including some wonderful premium beers and ales, to choose from. YUM!

For those who prefer a more truly authentic ballpark dining experience, vendors circulate through the stands hawking beer, peanuts, soda, ice cream and souvenirs throughout the game. Most of them put on a show. The peanut vendor sings. The beer guy in our section the other night was a total comedian.

People-watching is my favorite thing about the baseball experience in any venue. People watching at the Cubbies games is especially fun because the fans are so diverse. You see locals decked out in "Cubbies" regalia. There are also tourists from all over, many of whom wear hats or shirts from their own home towns. I have seen people in Red Sox hats sitting near Yankees fans. (Really!) It is especially amusing to sit near foreign tourists who are totally mystified by the whole baseball thing.

They do silly things: Hot-dog eating contests, kids running the bases, the Chicken Dance, the YMCA dance. The team mascot, Cubbie, is a sort of local celebrity. Cubbie wanders around during the game, signing autographs, shaking hands, hugging kids and leading the YMCA dance. The other night a big group in the bleachers spontaneously stood up and sang happy birthday to somebody and almost everybody else joined in. Saturday night games end with fireworks. Mondays are "all you can eat hot dogs and hamburgers" nights; we like that. Thursdays are cheap beer nights; we like that too.

My husband and I go to several Cubbies games a season. Granted, we do not go with the passionate fervor we formerly reserved for the Reds, but it's a fun evening out for a couple of old farts. At one point on a recent visit, DH bought me a Blue Moon beer (my new "very most favorite beer in the world") and a bag of peanuts. I was in heaven: sipping beer, watching people, making up stories in my head about where they were from and why they are in Daytona Beach, watching a bunch of kids learning the Chicken Dance, eavesdropping on the conversations going on around us, enjoying the breeze from the river ...

My husband leaned over and asked, "Who's winning?" I indignantly responded, "The Cubbies." (It was a wild guess, but it turned out I was right). He looked at me suspiciously and asked, "What inning is it?" I tried to sneak a peak at the scoreboard but he caught me. He suggested I watch the game and quit gawking around. Bah! If I wanted to pay attention to the game, I'd listen to it on the radio where I could focus. When I visit the ballpark, I'm there for the experience. The game is the backdrop.

I think every town in America should have a minor league ball park where families can afford to go out for the evening, in the fresh air, under the stars and simply have fun.... whether the fun comes from focusing on the game, watching the fans, enjoying the "entertainment", eating the food or simply being together with the people you love.

That is why I love baseball. Like America, it has its dark side, but I believe its good qualities far outweigh the bad.

I am going to stop now before I go all philosophical. If you want to read that kind of crap, see George Will.

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