Big-Time Baseball

photo: mets vs pirates, 1 april

A diamond on green, from a bird's-eye view in Shea Stadium.

As Seen from a High Place

Queens:- Monday, 1. April 2002:- Today it has started off grey and gloomy, more or less like the weather forecasts on the Web have predicted. This is how it was yesterday, how it was predicted too, but the Easter parade on Fifth Avenue did take place. Channel 11's TV-news sprinkled last night's edition with video clips of it - without showing the dark clouds overhead.

Getting to Shea Stadium from Queens is fairly easy because the stadium is in Queens, about four elevated subway stops away - if it is an express train. There is a choice, between underground and elevated subways - like at the métro's La Motte-Picquet-Grenelle station in Paris. But the underground subway doesn't go to the stadium.

The brick-red train, which looks like a string of '30s-era boxcars with windows, is nearly empty when it arrives without much waiting. More people, wearing mostly Mets' regalia, get on at the following stops, but it isn't full like a sardine can before it gets to the stadium stop.

The possible reason for this is that the ticket were delivered with a dire warning about serious security checks to be expected, with a suggestion of arriving three hours early for the ballgame.

It will be instructive to mention here that the tickets were obtained on a first-come-first-servedphoto: mets fans, hot dog basis back on a freezing day in January - by standing in line outside the stadium for six hours, beginning at seven on a Sunday morning. Some people got in line Saturday afternoon.

True Mets' fans, with official jackets, official hot dogs, and game-play radio reception.

Even with the huge effort this took, the only seats available were in a high-altitude area of the stadium. Some fans, who were in the line for nine hours were really sore to be offered tickets in the parking lot or on the ramp leading from the elevated subway station.

This same ramp seems to have many more people on it than could have been in the train so I guess some rode on the roof. The standard costume of Mets fans of both genders is well-faded and baggy jeans, less-than-clean sneakers, black Mets' jackets and black Mets' baseball caps.

This is definitely the one place it seems appropriate to wear baseball caps, which have become the national headgear of America - even for people who don't wear hats.

Quite naturally, no one seems brave enough to wear a Yankee baseball cap here today - but there are probably some closet Yankee fans because their team is playing their season opener in Baltimore today, rather than in the Bronx.

Shea Stadium looks like somebody's idea of a birthday cake from the outside and close-up it looks like a lot of people are trying to get into it. All kinds of hawkers are peddling their wares, including game tickets, I presume.

The lineup at entry 'C' seems long, but moves forward at a fair clip. A burly guy in a uniformphoto: team lineup, mets & pirates flashes a peepless detector wand around, and I'm in. Leaving Paris, my belt buckle set off alarms at the airport security check.

At the beginning, two baseball teams ready to slug it out - out of the park, if possible.

Inside everything is concrete and there is a wide ramp that goes up and up and up. At all elevations the wind is howling around, and some traverses are better than others. On level 144 there is an industrial passageway lined with hot dog stands and souvenir booths, and iron lifts over crossing cables, and other objects to stumble over.

A short, narrow tunnel between a beer vendor and a hot dog stand leads to the seating area. For my first time in a baseball stadium, I feel like I'm on the side of a cliff, overhanging a spotless baseball diamond set into an emerald field of grass.

All I have to do - don't look down! - is climb some nearly vertical, narrow concrete steps, up - about the last third of the way to the top. The seat isn't at the top, but it is only four rows below it. The ticket doesn't say so, but I think my seat number five must be about level 214 above the field. There are no seat belts.

There isn't much room for feet either. Jet planes are flying low overhead, descending to land at La Guardia. The stadium seems to be two-thirds empty and it is 30 minutes until game time. Fans climb the steps like mountain goats, carrying cardboard trays full of gallon drinks and rafts full of hot dogs. I guess it is about lunchtime.

When the marching band in the outfield finishes its music about 13:00 the players trot out of their hiding places, with the Pirates team lining up on the third-base line. Nobody cheers.

The Mets come out second and they line up along the first-base line, and the crowd in the half-full stadium cheers a lot. There seem to be enough players for a couple of games.

The mayor, Mike Bloomberg, is introduced. Except for nice pants and shiny shoes, he is dressedphoto: original crackerjack like any other Mets' fan, and he gets a cheer too when he tosses the first ball nearly at home-base.

The Pirates get to bat first. For this game they are wearing sort of grey suits, while the Mets are wearing white ones - nothing like what all the fans are wearing. I'm told it is some sort of custom - to have playing outfits unlike anything else.

'Crackerjack' may have disappeared from most museums, but it is still found in ballparks.

From where I'm sitting, there isn't much difference between the two colors. There are four umpires, and they look kind of dressy - a bit like forest rangers wearing baseball caps.

The Pirates' batters get their ration of three strikes and 'yer out' without scoring. I think the Mets get the same result, but with cheers.

This goes on for a while. Batters do hit 'foul' balls, and fielders and outfielders do run around a little bit catching pop-ups, tossing them where they must, and the balls get caught with seeming ease and runners are tagged out. It isn't like nothing is going on.

Meanwhile, more fans are steadily arriving while other fans are trooping up and down the steps endlessly to get more food supplies, and it is not always possible to see the game, although the outfield is usually visible.

In fact, the baseball diamond is so far away, so 'down there,' that I have to watch the scoreboard to see whether it was a 'strike' or a 'ball' or what. Many batters seem to get sent off after two strikes, but I think this is only because the scorekeepers hastily wipe the scoreboard clean to be ready for the next side to be up to bat.

During these short intermissions the scoreboard comes alive with messages announcing the presencephoto: ball fans in cheap seats in the stadium of the Jones family from Albany or some other places where there are pockets of Mets fandom, or the heavy-duty sound system blares out baseball lore and other wisdoms. There are no dead-air moments.

Fans, fans, fans - all the Mets fans you could ever hope to see.

Sometime in the first third of the game the Mets are at bat and they get the bases nearly loaded with no one out and it begins to look as if the Pirates - who are from Pittsburgh - are about to have a sorry time.

There are also extra big cheers for the Mets' new players, who are supposed to pull the team out of some slump or other. The first time the two new batting aces show they can strike out too, nobody boos.

This is not the same when the Pirates pull off a clever play. Nobody cheers for good baseball unless the Mets do it.

By about the fourth inning, the stadium seems to be full. A little later, during a change of innings, we are asked how many we are, and the right answer is 53,734 Mets' fans.

Meanwhile, near the top of the stands, the wind continues to howl around, sometimes picking up bitsphoto: game's over of debris and sprinkling it like snowflakes. Sometimes it seems to be raining beer too.

After the game, tired fans head home for dinner and the TV-news about the game.

I miss seeing the home run whacked out of the park by the Mets' Jay Payton in the fourth inning because I'm looking the wrong way. I miss seeing most other hits because of the food carriers. Like I miss Roberto Alomar's 'blooper' in the eighth that brings in two base runners.

Around the sixth inning, some of the fans begin to leave. I assume these are ones who came early, and have had enough of the wind.

In all, the Mets score six and the Pirates only score two runs. When all of the Pirates' batters are out in the first half of the ninth inning, the game is over without the Mets bothering to do the second half of it. I feel like I'm being shortchanged half an inning of baseball. 'Mighty-Big' Mo Vaughn might have hit a homer to get even for getting struck out five times.

Between the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh inning, everybody stood up to 'stretch.' Apparently there is a baseball rule that fans must do this, no matter how steep the stadium.

Another one seems to be that they like to see slugfests. The Mets won handily, but with 'bloop' hits. Big time baseball played in New York likes bigtime hits and hard play. That nobody dropped any balls they were supposed to catch, means nothing.

On the long walk down the endless concrete ramp some fans chanted Mets' slogans and laughed andphoto: shea stadium mets dugout shop joked around. Their team won on the 2002 season's first day, in its hometown baseball park - that is pretty good. No use moaning about the Pirates being at the bottom of the league, not on the season's first day.

Improperly-dressed fans can get togged-up right in the stadium.

Meanwhile, down south in Baltimore, the Mets' arch-rival Yankees managed not to beat the Orioles by 3-10, for their season's opener. This news was welcome to Mets' fans, without doubt, and folks in Baltimore are probably cheerier too.

The elevated subway is considerably more crowded going back. Everybody in the wagon seems to be wearing a Mets' cap. Some probably bought them from the Mets' fashion boutiques located in the stadium on their way out.

Was it worth it to go transatlantic to see the game? The short answer is yes. So much so that the only New York souvenir I brought back was a black number 12 t-shirt, with 'Mets' on the front and 'Alomar' on the back. It was worth it too, especially since I didn't buy it at the stadium.

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