Posted on Tue, Aug. 03, 2004
On a trip to the ballpark, good times roll
By RON MORRIS
PLACE THE BLAME anywhere you want.
Start with commissioner Bud Selig, who despite his best efforts cannot convince baseball fans that the game is in horrible shape. Team owners deserve to be a target since they continue to insist that every franchise is on the brink of bankruptcy, but they won’t open their books to prove it.
Then there are the players, who work for the strongest union in professional sports yet continue to tarnish the game with childish behavior and illegal uses of performance enhancing drugs.
Despite all that, a July tour of major-league ballparks in Philadelphia, Boston and New York left me with one overall impression: The game has never been so good.
Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park represents all the good of a new ballpark, save for the corporate sponsored name and no grandstand overhangs in case of rain. Otherwise, every seat is a good one, and on the night our group attended the Phillies and New York Mets were involved in a pennant race.
The 42,601 who packed the place were treated to a mammoth moon shot by Philadelphia’s Jim Thome, who looks every bit like Babe Ruth when he swings a bat and even more so when the portly first baseman circles the bases with short, choppy steps. Thome will continue to emulate Ruth as long as he plays in Citizens Bank Park, where the power alleys are generously listed at 369 feet from home plate — a simple fly ball away for someone with Thome’s power.
The crowd also was treated to a series of outstanding defensive plays by both teams, not the least of which was a perfect play off the left-center field wall by Mets centerfielder Mike Cameron. He then relayed the ball to shortstop Kaz Matsui, who in turn gunned down Placido Polanco at home plate with a perfect strike to catcher Jason Phillips. There is no more exciting play in baseball, and even the Phillies fans cheered the play.
Phillies fans are an interesting lot. A Phillies hero one moment can become the biggest bum in the city on the next play. Our group was seated among several Mets fans — myself included — who were quite vocal as New York took a 4-3 lead in the sixth inning. When Philadelphia tied the game in the seventh inning, a Citizens Bank Park usher (yes, an usher!) rushed down the aisle and began taunting the Mets fans.
By the bottom of the ninth inning, when Bobby Abreu deposited the second pitch offered by John Francoover the friendly left-center field wall, any newcomer to the park had suffered through an absolute information overload on the surrounding scoreboards. Technology now allows the Phillies to post, after every pitch, the type, speed and total number thrown. A pitcher’s earned run averages are updated with every out. For out-of-town scores, the fan is informed of the score, inning, pitchers, outs and runners on base. Wow!
That was not the case in Fenway Park, which was built in 1912 and has lived off its charm ever since. Don’t get me wrong, the confines are gorgeous and there is nothing quite like the 37-foot high Green Monster in left field. But for a $70 boxseat, a fan ought to be able to see home plate and not face straight-away center field. The fact has always been there are many more bad seats than good in Fenway.
It didn’t help matters that the game was rather non-descript other than the shutout pitching of Boston’s Bronson Arroyo and Curtis Leskanic, who limited Texas to three doubles and never allowed a runner to third base. There also was the four-hit, two-homer showing of Boston center fielder Johnny Damon, who looks every bit like one of the disciples with his full beard and shoulder-length hair.
Mostly, though, the Fenway experience is social in nature. You get the impression that only Boston’s elite attend the sold-out games, and those are new-wave fans. The first indication of that was when fans attempted to start the wave — a football cheer — during the sixth inning.
Then there was the strange-but-true, mass singing of Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the eighth inning. Without prompting, the entire crowd of 34,000 stood, then sang in unison every word — including the “dun, dun, dun” interludes — to the song that first was recorded by Elvis Presley.
“Hands touching hands, reaching out
“Touching me, touching you
“Oh, sweet Caroline (dun, dun, dun)
“Good times never seem so good … ”
Even the two youngsters behind us, whose parents might not have been born when Diamond released the song, sang every word. Mark Rogoff in the Red Sox media relations office said the song first was played a few years ago, and now is considered a Fenway Park tradition.
The newest tradition, and perhaps the most enjoyable part of the Fenway visit, was the blocking off of Yawkey Avenue to ticket-holding fans before and after the game. Live bands, men on stilts, free-flowing beer and the plumpest, juiciest $5 hot dog you’ll ever eat can be found on the street.
By the same token, the warmest, most-expensive beer around can be had for $7 in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium. That was OK, since we had the privilege of watching an entire lineup of possible Hall of Famers on the field.
Yankees fans are passionate about their baseball, and knowledgeable about their team. Before they knew that Jason Giambi has a benign tumor, Yankee Stadium fans were unmerciful in their derogatory chants and boos aimed at the New York first baseman.
They were equally appreciative of everyone else, including Derek Jeter. By the seventh inning of a 2-2 game, the Yankees had put the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in checkmate position by the time Jeter stepped to the plate with two outs. Jeter delivered a bases-clearing double and sealed New York’s 6-3 victory.
A crowd of 54,680 pushed and shoved its way home, presumably happy about the Yankees’ 54th victory against 31 losses.
Earlier in the day, the crowd was treated to the Yankees Old Timers’ Game, the type of affair that always seems to be more like a funeral than a celebration.
An out-of-shape, overweight Reggie Jackson is not the way I want to remember one of the game’s all-time great players.
Leave it to Joe Pepitone, he of the long sideburns and shaggy hair during his playing days with the Yankees, to have the right idea about an Old Timers’ Game. He attached a shaggy-haired wig to the rim of his Yankees’ cap so no fan knew that he was actually bald.
As our group finally headed home from the three-day baseball odyssey to the Northeast, I could not get the Fenway Park experience with Neil Diamond’s song out of my mind. Perhaps it was because one line in the song best described the state of baseball as we experienced on this trip: Good times never seemed so good.