On a recent Sunday, by prior arrangement, I met a friend of a
friend outside SBC Park in San Francisco, where I gave him my
extra Giants ticket. This stranger, strangely, carried a laptop
computer and announced his intention to spend the entirety of the
sold-out game, in a ballpark that boasts of wireless Internet
access from every seat, downloading music. "It would take me all
night to do this at home," said the man, who exemplifies, among
baseball fans in San Francisco, a subtle shift in focus: from
"Say hey!" to Wi-Fi, from Barry to BlackBerry.
But San Francisco is hardly unique. Attendance at major league
baseball games climbs every year, in large part for this reason:
The least pleasant aspect of watching a baseball game--namely,
watching a baseball game--has become, in most parks, largely
Until the new generation of ballparks was spawned 10 years ago,
spectators at baseball games were reduced to watching grass grow.
(And fans in domed stadiums were deprived of even that modest
diversion.) But today the Guest Services Center at Petco Park in
San Diego offers Internet access to any Padres fan who feels the
need, during games, to check stock quotes, order airline tickets
or delete pornographic spam. (And doesn't the Padres' longtime
mascot, the Swinging Friar, sound like the title of a blue
Petco also has Picnic Hill, a place for ticket holders to enjoy
both a picnic and, should they desire it, a "limited view" of the
Padres game. (Tampa's Tropicana Field has a similar location,
where fans can, for an additional fee, have no view of the Devil
Rays at all.)
Part of baseball's charm, of course, is that games are mere
backdrops to conversation, beach-ball batting and 20-minute trips
to the restroom. But many people visiting a ballpark now seem to
have little idea of what takes place there, which is why the
Chicago White Sox employ what is, in essence, a goat-check girl:
someone who cares during games for any animal you might have
brought, under the misapprehension that U.S. Cellular Field is a
petting zoo. (A Milwaukee woman once inquired about kenneling her
cow during a White Sox game.) Last fall in Houston three Chicago
Cubs fans were turned away while trying to bring a leashed goat
into Minute Maid Park.
And so, at that sold-out Giants game--in which baseball's best
player, Barry Bonds, faced the World Series champion Florida
Marlins--children waited in line at the enormous slide above the
leftfield bleachers, and the man across the aisle from me
sunbathed topless, his T-shirt turbaned around his face, at once
exposing his torso to the harmful effects of the sun and
protecting his eyes from the harmful effects of the game: a
four-hour, 11-minute scratchathon.
To be sure, there have always been manifold ways to pass the time
at a baseball game. (If you've ever mass-punched All-Star ballots
with a house key and found yourself, hours later, mottled with
chad dandruff and wondering where the day went, then you already
knew this.) In 1998, at the height of the Beanie Baby bull
market, people left their idling cars in stadium parking lots
only long enough to retrieve the prized giveaway, fleeing the
park before the game even began.
But never before have so many paid so much to watch so little.
You can now go to a raffle and see a baseball game break out: The
Blue Jays run a lottery at the stadium for weekend games, in
which a $2 ticket buys you a chance at 50% of the day's total
pool. (The other half goes to charity.) Baseball's most famous
pool is 385 feet square and shares space with a hot tub in Bank
One Ballpark in Phoenix. Detroit's Comerica Park has a Ferris
wheel (behind third base), a carousel (behind first) and a tavern
with a 70-foot bar, so that Tigers fans can spend afternoons a)
twirling or b) hurling.
And so, with its raffle tickets and merry-go-rounds and
bikini-topped bleacherites glazed in cocoa butter, baseball is
one part carnival, one part Carnaval. Carney Lansford is a
Make no mistake: There are still hard-core fans for whom the game
and its players are paramount. A breathless stranger recently
phoned me to say that a euphonious trade that very afternoon had
placed--on the same team, for the first time--Frank Menechino and
Frank Catalanotto. After a long, awkward silence, he added
somewhat deflatedly, "I just thought you would want to know."
But such fans may soon die out. Check the coming distractions.
The proposed new Marlins ballpark includes an aquarium, perhaps
in the vain hope that people will no longer think, when hearing
the phrase fish tank, of a late-season Marlins headline.
Last month, seated far down the leftfield line at Angel Stadium
in Anaheim, I passed a pleasant evening watching cheerleaders
slingshoot T-shirts into the crowd. Invariably--incredibly--
adults boxed out children for such prizes, triumphantly holding
aloft the rolled-up T-shirt, like Liberty's torch. These nitwits
always call to mind a Damon Wayans line: "I like the concept of
people, but people ruin it."
Which is why it was something of a relief last Friday night to
enter the brutalist Metrodome in Minneapolis to watch the Twins
and Tigers play on plastic, beneath a Teflon roof, in a sterile,
Sta-Puf stadium incapable of fireworks, Ferris wheels or fish
tanks. There was only baseball. It was, oddly, a purist's
what takes place there.