Ode to a Baseball Game

Baseball games played in early June have their own atmosphere. There’s no talk of the postseason: wild-card races, division races, hyperbolic hypotheticals. People might mention the previous time the two teams played, or last night’s game, but any discussion of the greater significance of the game is left to the side. There is only this game. The postseason has created some great stories, ones we come back to again and again. Those stories get pulled out before every World Series; they’re placed in history books. However, with 162 games per team in a season, there are occasionally those games which are beautiful precisely because of their insignificance.

Recently, I had the privilege of attending one of those games. On June 1st, the San Francisco Giants played the Pittsburgh Pirates at AT&T Park. The air in the city was a few degrees colder than that of Palo Alto, but it was still a nice evening. I joined the throng of people, becoming indistinguishable but for my Pirates baseball cap. Even though it was early in the season, the World Champion San Francisco Giants almost had a full stadium of fans.

As I rode the elevator into the heights of the stadium, the smell of ballpark food grew stronger: hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, pretzels. One of the few unpleasant things about baseball games is the overpriced food. I looked at the various stands, trying to decided at which one I would waste my money. A friend recommended a Caribbean stand, saying, “Try a Cha Cha Bowl.” Stereotypically San Franciscan, the stand sold a bowl of rice, beans, chicken, and coleslaw, a healthy choice but still outrageously overpriced at $11. I wasn’t ready to clog my arteries just yet, so I bought a Cha Cha bowl, slathered it with chipotle and barbeque sauce, and headed to my seat on the upper deck.

There’s something slightly grotesque about building a 41,915 seat stadium so that people can watch a baseball game. From my vantage point, the baseball diamond looks like a picnic blanket. The players, faces obscured by both the angle of view and their caps, seem more like pieces on a chessboard than actual people. As I sat there, regretting my decision not to buy a $5 bottle of water and surrounded by nameless thousands, I was amazed that so many of us were there to watch something so trivial as a baseball game.

But as I leaned back into my seat, I started to understand. AT&T Park is set right on the edge of San Francisco Bay. Some seats along the first baseline even have a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. If it’s not the best baseball stadium in the country, the view alone surely puts it close to the top. As the game progressed, I periodically drew my eyes away from the drama on the field to watch huge industrial ships trundle along. They looked no bigger than a toy boat in a bathtub. As night fell, they disappeared behind the Jumbotron, melting into darkness.

Of course, I didn’t spend the entire time staring off into the distance. Having suffered through six years of terrible baseball while living in Pittsburgh, I was looking forward to seeing this new and improved team, which ended a very respectable season with a loss in the playoffs to the eventual World Series champions, the Giants. The game didn’t start off well. A quick top of the first for the Pirates led to a two run response by the Giants. Still, I was enjoying the experience of being back at a baseball game. From the upper deck, baseball is an auditory game. The smack of a fastball in a catcher’s mitt, or a resounding crack if that fastball wasn’t quite good enough. There’s a swell of noise after a fly ball, then a moment of silence as the outfielder positions himself, then a cheer as he snaps his glove shut on the ball and the inning.

While the teams exchanged gloves for bats, I listened to the conversations around me. That might be considered eavesdropping, but I think you lose a certain expectation of privacy when you sit down within spitting distance of a stranger. I had tagged along with my mother and two of her friends, and they were caught up in discussions of old friends and children of said friends. It provided a window into my parents’ past, one which I was grateful to have the chance to look through.

Behind me I heard a young father with his son. At least, that’s what they sounded like. I never turned around to look. The father was careful in instructing his son on when to cheer and how the game was progressing. At one point, he stoked his son’s dreams, painting a picture of playing under the lights, of fame, of respect. It feels like a long time since I was that age, but I’m sure it seems to so long ago to my father. To my side, there was a couple with their son, who was maybe 1 or 2. They showed up around the bottom of the 2nd. Unfortunately, he wasn’t too happy to be there. After trying to placate him with food and pointing to the field, they eventually gave it up as a lost cause, and left at the end of the 5th inning. Interestingly, they didn’t seem frustrated as much as knowingly resigned. I would have liked to let them know that they didn’t miss out on too much of the game. They saw the important parts.

In front of me, a different kind of bonding was taking place. A few middle aged men were there, seemingly longtime friends. As the group of fans most invested in the game, they cheered every Giants hit and let loose some casual profanity when the game wasn’t looking good. Looking beneath their beer bellies and greying beards, I could see their younger selves, teenagers who had no concern for jobs or wives or the trappings of adulthood. Elsewhere, that may have come off as immaturity, but it somehow made sense within the context of the ballpark.

The Pirates collected four runs over the course of the 3rd and 5th innings, two of those scored by their starting pitcher. In both cases, he was driven in by doubles that were turned into “sacrifice fly”s by Giants outfield’s excellent fielding. Such unconventional scoring seemed apt for a team whose budget had forced them to play creatively for so many years.

After the 5th inning, the pitchers dominated, and I decided the lull in the action was a good opportunity to engage in the time-honored tradition of eating unhealthy ballpark food. One of my mother’s friends generously bought me a Ghirardelli sundae, another stereotypically San Franciscan food item. 1/4 whipped cream, 1/4 chocolate fudge, and 1/2 ice cream, the sundae is really a parfait of saturated fat. I enjoyed it immensely, even if I was unable to consume the entire thing. It was the proper amount of decadence, enough to guiltily enjoy but not enough to hate myself.

I might have spent the rest of the game in a sugar coma, but there was a bit of drama in the bottom of the 8th inning. The Giants had the makings of a rally: a runner scored, two outs, and their star catcher at the plate. On a deep fly ball into foul territory, a fan reached out to catch the ball, unaware of the rapidly approaching Pirates outfielder. After some commotion, neither one caught the ball. The Pirates manager decided to ask the umpires to review the play, and after a video review, they called the batter out via fan interference. Rally over.

If done in the wrong place at the wrong time, this kind of play can stick with you. Just ask Steve Bartman. In a strange twist on that story, the interfering fan was a Pirates fan, and his blunder ended up helping his team end the inning. Most of the Giants fans were unhappy about it, but since this game had very little importance, his mistake will quickly be forgotten. I suppose we’re only a few steps away from fame, or infamy.

The game ended soon after that incident, Pirates, 4; Giants, 3. Most Giants fans were disappointed, but there was none of the despair that would typically mark a playoff loss. I’d like to think that most people were at least satisfied by their time at the game. We got to see and hear a wonderful game in beautiful ballpark together. As all 41,000 of us streamed down the ramps and out of the stadium into the unusually mild night, the quiet families with sleeping children, the college students made lively with alcohol, the sweet tiredness of a long day, the rhythmic rumble of the Caltrain: it was a simple joy.

This was inspired in part by David Foster Wallace’s article “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open.”


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