Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

I went to my first ball game last night, at the house that Ruth built, in the Bronx. I had moved to the States five years ago, from Singapore, but got involved with a jock only in the last year. He played football in high school but baseball was always there, in the background, in the bleachers of Carbondale, Illinois, where he grew up and took off for New York.

Just outside the B and D train station, also named Yankee Stadium, shops down one side of the road sold baseball uniforms, tees, caps and pennants. Earlier in the day, The Quarterback had tried to buy Tampa Bay Rays caps, but they were selling at a rip-off price of $35. We did not bother to check out the busy stadium shops. A few open-front bars, looking like beach bars, were crowded with pre-game celebrants. The new stadium was supposed to be nearby, but I could not see round the long dirty walls of the old one.

A man, burly, balding, in his fifties, had attached himself to us on the train. He is from New Jersey, and, since he was in the city on business, decided at the last minute to catch the game. His breath smelled of beer and smoke, but he was sober, and chatty. He hoped to buy his ticket from the box office. Failing that, he would buy from anyone outside the stadium, selling just one ticket. The Quarterback gave him the seating plan he had printed out from the Yankees website. The man said he would try to get a seat near us, in the Field Box section. We lost him in the crowd.

We passed through the ticket turnstiles, and entered the closed passageway round the stadium. A young woman thrust into our hands a discount card for a steakhouse. More shops, and the concessions selling popcorn, hot dogs, and sodas. I bought a program which cost $8. The glossy magazine had many photographs of the Yankee players, write-ups about proud parents, players’ statistics—2B, 3B, TB, BB, SB, RBI OBP—correct a month ago, scoring pages, and ads.

Walking into the stadium, I was straightaway struck by its ardent shape. The only other open-air stadium I had been in was the National Stadium, back in Singapore, where, once a year, on the 9th of August, the country puts up an elaborate ceremony of strictly choreographed mass displays. That stadium was oval, shaped like an egg in a nest, or the nest. This was like the bow of a ship, and the sky was also the sea.

We found our seats, blue plastic, with backs. The diamond was to our left, looking smaller than on TV. A row in front of us sat a young couple, the tall dark-haired boyfriend blocking our line of sight, the blond girlfriend disappearing from her seat a number of times during the game. Two lawyers and two bankers sat behind us. After talking office politics, they swapped stories about the Yankees. They agreed that it was very unclassy of Alex Rodriguez's wife to publicize the divorce and A-Rod's philandering.

Two rows behind us were a mother and her two small boys. Sitting next to them were two men, in their mid-forties. Later, when they connected with the lawyers and bankers sitting in front of them, one of them let on his friend fought in Iraq. To the expected question, the friend told a story about how he bluffed a squad of Iraqi soldiers to put down their weapons, when he had no ammo in his rifle. One of the lawyers congratulated him on having balls, and joked that was why the soldier was in Iraq, and not him. The soldier said the situation there was getting better. The Iraqis, he said, were beginning to get it, the benefit of having the Americans there.

I was thirsty, and wished I had bought a drink at the concessions. About ten minutes before the game began, the guys came around selling beer (“Budz from the cuz!”), sodas, hot dogs, and Cracker Jacks. A Bud cost $8.50. A bottle of water $4.75. We shared three Bud Lights, only the second of which was chilled. The trick was, The Quarterback realized and explained to me, to buy from the seller who had almost sold all his beer. The beer left in the ice-filled box then was the coldest.

While the players were warming up in the field, boys, as well as grown men, pressed against the guarding wall. They begged the players to throw them a ball when Jeter or Posada happened to look in their direction. Before the game started, the protective nets and fences were removed, and the green we had been looking at suddenly concentrated into emerald. The sand around it was padded flat, and then hosed down. At 7.05, after some announcements, players and fans stood for "The Star-Spangled Banner." There were 53,089 people there last night, near full capacity.

The Quarterback and I were supporting the Rays partly because his parents, who retired to Tampa, are supporters. I am a sucker for the underdog, who looks likely to win, and so the Rays' surprise success story this year has some purchase on my imagination. It was the same thing with the New York Giants last season, going up against the fancied Patriots in the Super Bowl.

It was different, though, cheering for the underdog at home, and in a stadium packed with wild home fans. My cheering for the Rays was very discreet. I contented myself with a "yes" hissed under my breath when Kazmir struck out a Yankee, or with a single pump of the arm when the Rays made a sharp defensive play, knocking out a double. I was gladder than ever that we did not buy Rays caps. There was not much to cheer for, anyway, since the Rays batted badly, or else Andy Pettitte pitched brilliantly.

After the 7th inning, the stadium was prompted to stand, for a minute of silence, to remember the servicemen fighting abroad. The silence was broken by the singing of "God Bless America," followed by "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The stadium was looking majestic by then, at about nine-thirty, the ship's bow blazing against the dark blue sky. The Rays were still trailing by 2. Then the Yankees hit a home run, and the Rays were down by 3. The Quarterback suggested, and I agreed, that we leave before the final inning, and the inevitable crush.

Outside the stadium, the shops and bars were almost lost behind their bright lights. A petite woman handed us a flyer for Sin City. I remembered seeing the gentlemen's cabaret, a warehouse-like building, every time I had taken the train back to Bronxville, where I had studied creative writing. I had not realized it was so close by. Many women, young, svelte, in tight jeans, stood outside the bars, not paying us—couples, families, sober—any attention. I thought of the guy from New Jersey, and wondered where he was. We walked past the women, with a growing stream of people, to the station, carrying my souvenir program, and congratulating ourselves for beating the crowd.

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