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At sports events, beating traffic is on minds of gridlock-weary fans


In sports, where men routinely beat the odds, the buzzer, the spread, the rap, their man to the basket and the goalie like a rented mule, the only thing you're not allowed to beat is traffic.

Beating the traffic -- leaving a game before it's over -- is the last taboo in sports. Beating the traffic is like beating the Globetrotters. Do it once, just once, and you'll be vilified.

But some of us refuse to let traffic win. To us, staying 'til the end is for saps and sissies. In November, I watched the two best teams in the NFL, the Patriots and Giants, in their Super Bowl preview in Foxboro. But I abandoned my seat in the end zone with several minutes left in the fourth quarter, lest I spend an eternity escaping the Gillette Stadium parking lot in the way that helium escapes from a knotted up birthday balloon. That is: Almost imperceptibly, over a series of several days.

As we rose to leave with the game in the balance, fellow spectators said unspeakable things to our party, but we held fast to our convictions (and our valuables) and fled the stadium as if we'd repossessed something. Which we had, of course: Three hours of our lives.

And while Gillette Stadium is harder to get out of than jeggings, it has only the second worst traffic in the NFL. A survey of GPS data last season conducted by TomTom ranked Washington Redskin fans as the most traffic-bedeviled in professional football. Roads near FedEx Field slow down by 57 percent on game day, which is saying something, as the Beltway is not known for its swift efficiency.

So why do we stigmatize spectators who leave early? Dodger fans have been disparaged for beating the traffic ever since the team moved to L.A., though their very name -- derived from Trolley Dodgers -- is an allusion to avoiding traffic.

And anyway, people have been leaving early to beat the traffic since before there was traffic. On Opening Day of 1901, the inaugural season of the American League, the largest crowd ever to attend a baseball game in Detroit -- 10,023 --came to Bennett Park to see the Tigers host the Milwaukee Brewers. With the home team trailing 13-4 in the eighth inning, wrote the correspondent for the Detroit Free Press, "many of the vast throng had left the grounds." Naturally, the home team rallied to win 14-13, which is what usually happens when you leave early.

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Which is all the more reason to praise those brave souls for whom the 7th-inning stretch is an exit cue, for whom halftime is full time, for whom the two-minute warning remains just a rumor.

They -- we -- know that a big game is no excuse for staying until the end. On the contrary: The greater the spectacle, the worse the traffic. In the 1921 World Series between the Giants and the Yankees, contested entirely at the Polo Grounds, Babe Ruth was homerless through the first three games. By Game 4, the prospect of a Ruthian home run -- or worse still, a grand slam -- had grown so great that many literally couldn't wait to see it. "Hundreds of fans who have attended all the games of the Series, hoping to be present when Ruth hit a home run, were out of the park when the Bambino connected for four bases in the ninth yesterday," went one eyewitness account of Game 4, published in the St. Petersburg Evening Independent. "They had left early to avoid the crush."

Two years later, when the same two teams played in the World Series, in the same ballpark, again in Game 4, the Polo Grounds witnessed the largest crowd in its history, of 46,302. In such a multitude, human nature took over: The exits were opened in the top of the eighth "to accommodate the crowd leaving early."

As a spectator, I have tried to honor these fans who went before me by leaving games early whenever possible -- which is to say, whenever professional commitment didn't require me to stay late. And even then, traffic was beaten, simply by waiting it out. (It's a form of vehicular rope-a-dope that can also be achieved by postgame tailgating.)

No one has gone undefeated against traffic. It's not always possible to beat it. My only memory of my one visit to the Indianapolis 500: Spending hours in traffic after watching traffic for hours.

But we should at least fight the good fight. One foolproof way to beat the traffic is to never go in the first place. I watched Muhammad Ali light the flame in the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics from a hotel room in Atlanta, a few miles away, having declined a ticket on automotive grounds.

I came late to leaving early -- it wasn't until my 30s that I became comfortable doing so -- but the instinct to avoid traffic was instilled at a young age, by a father who left for work before dawn and returned after the evening rush hour. Family vacations involved being shaken awake in the middle of the night, then bundled into a car, as in an abduction, in an eternal effort to beat the traffic.

And so my patron saint is Phil Rizzuto -- Saint Scooter of Hillside -- who liked to leave Yankee games early, even though he was broadcasting them on WPIX, so that he could beat the traffic across the George Washington Bridge and get home to Hillside, N.J.

I think of him fondly every time I see red taillights receding into the night, away from the stadium lights. Don't menace those courageous motorists. They're upholding an honorable tradition, born out of gridlock.