What It Takes

What It Takes

Big Night

By Shawn Coyne | Published: May 25, 2012

Once a year, I uncinch the family money belt, take a deep breath, and plan a trip to Yankee Stadium.

Our big night out is our annual splurge. My son marks off the days.  Our weekend hours of playing catch, me hitting him grounders and pitching him batting practice revolve around the state of Derek Jeter’s batting average or whether or not C.C. Sabathia might pitch the night we’re scheduled for the Bronx.

This year, I promised to teach him how to keep score.

We’re going to track every pitch and mark the game just like the official scorekeepers do.  He’s learned that a sharply hit grounder to shortstop with a man on first is probably going to end up on paper as a 6-4-3 double play, that a player who looks at a third strike gets the ignominy of a backwards “K,” and the fun of knowing he’ll be able to conjure the game in his mind just by looking at a piece of paper.

I tell him about when I was a kid and of how I got to the ballpark three hours before the first pitch so that I could watch my hero, Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente, take batting practice and basket catch deep fly balls in Right Field. I tell him how Clemente was able to effortlessly catch a ball on the warning track, turn and throw a frozen rope all the way, chest high, to home plate. How Clemente was an even greater man than player.

How he shamed a huge chunk of racism out of a big city just by being who he was. When sportscasters nicknamed him “Bobby” to make his name easier to remember for white fans, he refused to answer their questions. His name was Roberto. He was a man, not a boy. How he chartered a plane, loaded it with relief supplies for victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua and gave his life trying to help complete strangers.

He asks if we can go see batting practice too.  I say sure and then find out that the stadium opens two hours before game times, not three like in my day. As the Yankees take batting practice first, there is no way we’ll be able to see A-Rod or Mark Teixeira work out their kinks, but we’ll be able to see the Tampa Bay Rays hit.

Better than nothing, but I can see the disappointment in my guy’s eyes. He perks up again, though, when I tell him that CC is pitching against Tampa Bay’s ace David Price.

The day arrives and I pick up my son from school at 4 o’clock.  We head down the street and split a pizza before getting the subway.  I’ve paid a King’s ransom for the tickets and I’m as excited as he is.  We’ll be about twenty rows back from the first base dugout and will have a perfect wide angle of the entire field.  The subway ride seems to take forever, but we make it out and onto the Yankee grounds at 5:05, exactly two hours before the first pitch.

I’ve got my messenger bag packed with sweaters for both of us, my wallet, keys…all that kind of stuff.  You’re not allowed to bring your own food and water into the stadium, unless it is wrapped in the manner prescribed at the official Yankee website, and I didn’t have the time to sort through all of that. I guess the team isn’t really making any money on the high priced tickets, so they have to move a lot of popcorn and stuff to make up for it. Plus the new Yankee Stadium cost over one and a half billion dollars to build, even though the team was given innumerable tax breaks etc. from the city and state of New York to help with the cost. George Steinbrenner had threatened to take the team to New Jersey if the Yankees were not incentivized to stay in the Bronx. They were.

The first experience we have at the ballpark is the “pat down” and search of my bag. I’ll never get used to the indignities of our brave new “homeland security” world, but I grimace through it and chalk it up to the cost of living in a free country.

Now we give our tickets to the ticket taker. Except he doesn’t take them.  He tells me to hold the bar code under a computer and wait for the beep.  My son’s ticket beeps, but he doesn’t understand the protocol and walks past the “turnstile.”  The ticket taker yells for him to come back and asks him if he’s had his “Wheaties” that morning.  My son is confused and a little bit scared as he has no idea what this man is asking him.  He doesn’t eat cereal.

I explain to my son that he needs to push the handle of the turnstile down and walk through that way.  He does so. I do the same thing and we’re inside the “Great Hall.”  It’s some kind of cheap plastic cup promotion night that Premio Foods—makers of the official Yankee sausage—is sponsoring for the first 25,000 fans.

A large woman jams the cup in my son’s face and he’s not sure what he’s supposed to do.

“It’s a free cup! Take it!”

I tell the lady, “Thank you, but we’d rather not have it.” She gives me a dirty look.

Now I begin to register the aural assault.  Innumerable speakers blaring inane advertising and “special Yankee experience” opportunities as 30 db serve as the white noise behind the live hawkers selling hats, bobble heads, Carvel Ice cream in plastic Yankee helmets, and reminders that entry into the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar located above Monument Park in Center Field and the Yankee Audi Club in Left Field are only open to season ticket licensees. I can’t help but regret that I’m not a season ticket licensee.

I finally locate the small podium dedicated to the sale of game day programs.  They are $10.00 and all of the articles have been written and printed months before so that they can use the same program for every home game.  Two thirds of the magazine is advertising but it does have the scorecard inside. They even give me a little pencil.

We make it deeper into the stadium.  The next thing we see, before even making out the field, is the massive 100 foot by 60 foot television screen in center field. More marketing and commercials about how to “experience” Yankee stadium, locations of the best spots for buying memorabilia, how to apply for Yankee credit cards, with “live” correspondents inside the stadium giving remote reports about how fans are loving their food or “experience” and asking them how many games they come to each year.

I try and ignore it, but my little guy can barely walk.  He’s so overwhelmed with stimulation that he can’t help keeping his eyes glued to that TV.  It’s hard for me not to stare at it too.  And I’m getting these strange urges to buy buy buy.  Like I’m a nasty, cheap miser. If I don’t buy something material, my kid will never remember the “experience.”  I resist.

We make it to our seats.  It’s still a good hour and a half away from the opening pitch.  We sit down. While the seats have a great view, they also have two speakers from a higher balcony deck pointed directly at the back of our skulls. It’s difficult to talk over the sales pitches. We’re watching Tampa Bay’s assistant coaches hitting fungo ground balls to the infielders, fly balls to the outfielders, etc.

Everything I promised my son is actually happening on the field and these pros are as remarkable doing what they do as I’ve told him.

“See how he attacks the ground ball, gloves it, sets himself, and then throws? How his front foot points directly at first base after his follow through?”

But former Yankee David Wells is on the TV talking about something else entirely (Yankee Fantasy camp for the Ladies) and my son can’t peel his eyes away from the screen.

Now our waiter comes up to us and blocks our view of the field. He introduces himself and pitches all of the remarkable food and drink we can buy from him.  I buy popcorn, a bottle of water and a beer just to get him to go away.  He can’t betray his disappointment with my lame order.

Right before the popcorn comes, a nicely dressed young man comes walking down our aisle.  He holds his hand out toward me and out of common courtesy, I stupidly shake it.

“Hi, I’m Nick Matthews from the Yankees. How are you enjoying the game?”

“Great, just trying to have a nice night out with my son.”

“Ah yes, I remember how my dad used to take me to games….Can I ask you a question?”

I don’t answer him.  Pretend I didn’t hear.  It’s not out of the question considering the speaker volume.

“How many games do you go to each year?” he asks.

“Just the one,” I say.

He’s perplexed. “Can I ask you why just one?”

“It’s extremely expensive” I say.

He looks shocked. “Hmm.” Then he holds out a card and asks me to fill it out.  He obviously is trolling the crowd to get marketing information. The card is asking a load of personal information, email address, date of birth, how many kids I have, how much money I make, who my favorite Yankee is…

I decline to fill out the card and thankfully he vanishes.  Now our waiter is back to see if we’re enjoying our popcorn.

After he leaves, a photographer comes up and takes our picture without asking.  He hands me a card. It’s pitching me to “Get your keepsake photo Today!” at a kiosk at the New Era Team Store, but to allow 30 minutes for processing.

This goes on and on the entire evening.

We persevere though and dutifully follow every pitch and mark up our scorecard with aplomb. When we have to go to the bathroom, I come back and the guy behind us gives me the full scope of what I missed.

“Ball, ball, strike, strike…F8”

When Curtis Granderson hits a home run, we cheer wildly. He catches the last out of the game in deep center field too. Jeter doesn’t get one hit, but he doesn’t dog it running out his ground balls either.  CC goes 8 innings and gets the win.

On the subway home, my son sits with the scorecard, thinking back on every pitch, hit, stolen base, error, fly out and strike out of the evening.

It occurs to me that keeping detailed score is what writers and artists do.

They take in the stories around them and dutifully burn the memories into a scorecard of sorts in their minds. They disregard the BS and experience what is real, even in the most artificial circumstances.  They record the fact that most human players contend with failure after failure (the essence of baseball and of a rich and full life) and still commit to keep putting everything they have into each action.

Like life, some guys cheat in baseball and get away with it. But my gut is that most of them don’t.

They laugh off the hype machinery that forces them to “Welcome you to Yankee Stadium” ad nauseum on the big screen as the cost of playing. And as the service they provide to justify their massive paychecks. They aren’t really being paid to play.  They’d still be humping it in the minor leagues, living off of per diem money, if they didn’t have the stuff for the Bigs.

They’re being paid to entice people to buy their official Major League Jersey, their autographed baseball, all the while buying mementoes of all of the other wonders of the 27 Time World Series Champs.

I feel better about the night, and tell myself to let all of the nonsense go. The core appeal of the game is still there and there are admirable guys still playing it.

The next day, my son has little league.  I pick him up and we walk to his field in Central Park.  He tells me about how he let all of his friends know about the game last night and that they sat spellbound as he was able to do a running play by play.

The game starts and my little guy comes up to hit. My phone rings. I mute it and watch my son take his swings.

When the half of that inning ends, I check my phone and listen to the message.

“Hi Shawn, it’s Nick Matthews from the New York Yankees…”

Posted in What It Takes

9 Responses to “Big Night”

  1. Michael Bronco
    May 25, 2012 at 5:37 am

    Great stuff, Shawn. This speaks to me on many levels. I’m wondering if it isn’t just the writer who sifts through all the BS but the reader as well – just from a different angle. When Steven tells a story it seems to resonate with folks on a deep level. It’s as if they already know what Steven is writing about, rather than some great revelation that smacks them in the face. He speaks their truth – as do you. They just don’t take notes as they go (your point). The writers job is to get to the good stuff then put it down so that others can experience the things that are near and dear to them. Just a thought.

  2. Tim Plaehn
    May 25, 2012 at 5:51 am

    One thing I miss from living in the States is baseball. If I ever move back, I will look for a city with a minor league team and enjoy the sport without so much hype.

    • Michael Bronco
      May 25, 2012 at 7:15 am

      Come to Charleston, SC. Ranked America’s top city and has an outstanding minor league (Yankees) team, the RiverDogs. I arranged for my wife to throw out the first pitch for her 40th birthday and my daughter sat with Bill Murray (one of the owners) as he signed a foul ball that I caught. You can’t make it up. Come see us!

  3. May 25, 2012 at 10:51 am

    I’m taking my son to his first Yankee game this year, and I suppose it’s a moment I’ve been thinking about since my Dad took me to see the Yankees beat the Oakland A’s 8-0 back in August of 1978. Living in Maine, my greatest fear was that my son would grow up to be a Red Sox fan (his mother is) but after donning a ‘B’ cap for the past few years one winter day he came up to me and said, “Hey Dad, I don’t like the Red Sox anymore. I want to root for the same team you do.”

    Incidentally, your writing is extraordinary – I’m hard pressed to state a favorite book, but being the grandson of an Italian soldier who fought under Rommel as an anti-aircraft gunner at both Tobruk and El Alamein (and who became a POW in Manchester, England), ‘Killing Rommel’ brought me understanding for what he went through so many years ago. Also my maternal grandfather (Robert Hillman) was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne who jumped at D-Day, so your work ‘The Warrior Ethos’ resonated with me well after the final page.

  4. May 25, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Shawn:
    Your recounting of the experience at Yankee Stadium was harrowing! I suggest you bring your son to Durham and watch a relaxing Triple-A game. In fact, bring Steve along – he’s a Dookie – and I’ll treat us all to a round or two.

    Last week I watched Dice-K, down from the Red Sox (he was rehabbing with Pawtucket), pitch to Hideki Matsui, who now plays for the Durham Bulls (end of his career?). It was a rollicking fun evening, no hype, no in-your-face stuff, $9.00 a ticket for behind-homeplate seats. Perfect place to bring a child…

    BTW, Bronco’s right: Charleston has a great stadium too, and Single-A is fun as well. And, affordable, something to keep in mind when you’re a writer…

    Remember our fallen,
    =rds

  5. May 25, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    Read it too close to Shabbat for a full response, but what a powerful essay. And for those of us with Little League memories, baseball in our childhood, and that of our children – let’s just say it resonates.

  6. basilis
    May 26, 2012 at 2:05 am

    The N.Y. Yankees guy seems that he is taking his job very seriously!
    {But again he “strikes” at an inappropriate moment (well, bad luck! You might say)}.
    It’s good to know that someone is listening to whatever you say about a certain subject. Actually I do the same about my work and how the readers see it.

    (Of course, I try not to bother them!)

  7. May 28, 2012 at 6:46 am

    Excellent post- thank you. I remember my father teaching me to keep score at Jay’s games at the old Exhibition Stadium. One of my most treasured memories. I will still call a “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” when I see it. It is so sad to hear that the purity of this experience gets tainted by aggressive marketing.

  8. May 30, 2012 at 4:19 am

    Wow. You just took me back thirty years, to my first mlb visit-the milwaukee brewers. It didn’t feel as patently commercial, but it was a real culture shock for a small market aa team kid. Yeah, theres definitely something more compelling about minor league ball. Thanks for the trip!