If it weren't for baseball, many kids wouldn't know what a millionaire looked like.
-- Phyllis Diller
M onths ago, when a friend of mine who lives in L.A. told me she wanted to plan her San Diego visit to coincide with a ballgame at Petco Park, I was a little taken aback. Not horrified or anything, more like the kind of surprise I experience when discovering a new blouse in my closet -- its tags still attached -- that I'd forgotten I'd purchased. Oh, right , I think. It's totally not my color, and it kind of clashes with everything else I own, but, hey, it's here, it's new, might as well. The ballpark had only entered my consciousness in the form of the new buildings that had shot up around it and the impossibility of parking that led me to keep a copy of the game schedule in my purse. Distracted by what went on out side the park, I never gave a second thought to what went on in side it. It had never occurred to me to go there.
Baseball, like reality television or E. coli , was one of those things that, though pervasive, had never made it past my immune system. The one time I attended a baseball game, as a preteen, I'd gone with my best friend, Nancy, and her family. Nancy's family did a lot of things mine didn't; normal American things that I experienced only with them, like camping, sloppy joes, and spectator sports. The television in Nancy's house seemed to only get ESPN. Despite my regular exposure to its flickering light, I never did understand what Nancy's family found so captivating. Take football, for instance -- a bunch of men run toward each other while one guy throws a pointy ball. Most of the men fall down, many on top of each other. Then they get up and take a break while some jock-y talking heads discuss how the men fell down. Then the men line up and do it all over again. At least in boxing there's the morbid fascination of watching two men beat each other until one of them can't get up. It's nothing I care to witness, but I get that the average guy has an animalistic craving for blood.
But, baseball ? I didn't know enough about the sport to conclude why it sucked; it's just one of those things I knew. Like the way I know a woman who wears pants with letters printed across the ass won't be a stimulating conversationalist. Shirking my intuition, however, I found myself saying, "Sounds great, Amy! Give me a date and I'll score the tickets."
In the weeks before the game, I noted a sort of eagerness building within me. Not for baseball, or the new stadium, but for the anthropological glimpse of that foreign and fascinating culture of people who enjoy going to the park. Was it the taste of the hotdogs? The camaraderie one finds in cheering for the home team? It couldn't be the excitement -- I could not accept that it was "exciting" to watch someone try to hit a ball with a wooden stick. That's one step removed from golf, which, I think it's safe to say, is not "action packed."
Amy and her husband, Billy, arrived in the afternoon, a few hours before the Padres would play the Cardinals. Somehow, in all the years we'd been friends, I had never known of Amy's affinity for baseball. I was shocked when she told us that the only reason she won't move to San Francisco, a city she loves, is that she doesn't like the Giants. As Amy spoke of the sport over David's pre-game wine-and-cheese spread, I was mesmerized not by the names, dates, and statistics she spouted, but by her Rain Man--like ability to remember such things.
My friend Josue hooked us up with a rock-star parking space in a gated lot a few blocks from the ballpark. As Amy, Billy, David, and I walked to the stadium, the sun slipped behind the tall buildings, chilling the dusky breeze and inspiring us to increase our pace. "What's the Padres mascot?" said Billy.
"A monk , man, you know, like Friar Tuck," I said. "We've got the priests against the pretty red birds tonight. Where's the intimidation in that? A monk is almost as scary as Delaware's 'Fighting Blue Hen.'" I was proud of myself for remembering the hens, a tidbit of information I'd filed away years ago after an hour-long fit of laughter. But I was relieved that no one asked after the sport associated with the belligerent chicken, because that fact had not imprinted itself upon my memory.
"Don't forget the Minnesota Golden Gophers," said David. "They're almost as tough as the Baby Bears. Ahem, I mean, the Cubs."
For missing the "Star Spangled Banner," the only part of the "show" I had really wanted to see, I blame the acumen-deficient attendant I had to deal with at the will-call booth. Our tickets were on the "Toyota Terrace," a premium seating section in which food and drinks are served to your seats and for which ticket holders have exclusive access to restaurants. I was disappointed to discover that the food and drinks served to my seat were the usual "get-your-peanuts-here" variety, and the restaurants were more like bars with airport-quality appetizers than the high-end, sit-down variety I was expecting from the description on the park's website.
I used the hood on my sweatshirt to protect my neck from the frigid wind coming in from the bay beyond the stands across the field and half-listened to the announcer. I thought I heard him say "Poo Holes," a term that incited the crowd to hiss and boo. I was confused until I noticed the headshot on the Jumbotron of a Cardinals man, beside which was the name, "Pujols," and my confusion morphed to irritation. Booing the opponent? Whatever happened to "sportsmanship?" What was wrong with these people?
"This is like the Nascar crowd," David said in my ear. "First they played 'Sweet Home Alabama' and now it's 'Devil Went Down to Georgia.'"
"I happen to like this music," I said, bobbing my head for emphasis.
"Well, you might try watching some Nascar races," David suggested. "You may enjoy it. There seems to be some genetic correlation between fans of Nascar and people who dig Southern Rock." I shrugged at David and then my attention was called to the field, where something that could almost be described as "exciting" had happened -- one of the Padres players broke his bat, half of which flew almost as far as the pitcher's mound. It was the same guy who had repeatedly hit the ball straight up in the air. The same guy who clutched his wobbly bits with Michael Jackson--like enthusiasm and frequency -- Marcus Giles.
It was a home run hit by the other Giles -- brother Brian -- that inspired my first real baseball thrill. It wasn't the hit or watching the ball sail 400 feet in the air. It wasn't the slow trot around the bases, the formality of stepping on each white pad before returning to the dugout. In fact, it was nothing about the game itself. What stirred my blood and set my heart aflutter were the sparkly blue and purple fireworks that darted up into the night and the trancelike chant layered over blaring techno music reverberating through my chair. I poked Amy, and when she turned, I shot her a huge grin and said, "That was awesome ."