ALL-STAR GAME THE-- BIG A : STADIUM REVIEW : Big A Is Not Shea, a Mixed Blessing
The first time I ever went to a major-league baseball game, some wise guy ticket taker at Yankee Stadium sized me up, looked me over and declared that I must be a midget.
I was not amused, as 5-year-old boys are prone not to be when their manhood is challenged in public.
Maybe that’s one reason why I became a Mets fan. But Shea Stadium held its indignities too. The worst of them was the seating ritual, in which an usher dressed in Mets orange and blue would walk you to your seat, slap it down from its folded position, swipe at it with a filthy orange muff, then hang around waiting to be tipped for his ministrations. (It must be said, though, that the Shea ushers’ greed could also work in your favor: For a few bucks’ grease money, you could get an usher to relocate you from, say, a remote vantage point in the upper deck to a nicely situated loge box behind home plate.)
I thought back on those old New York ballpark ways Monday night as I nestled into my seat at Anaheim Stadium for a California Angels-Texas Rangers game. Instead of running a gantlet of baksheesh and verbal abuse, I encountered: a parking gate attendant who gave me a crisp “Welcome to Anaheim Stadium!” along with my change; a young ticket seller who threw in a bright “Have fun!” at no extra charge, and, best of all, a white-haired usher who said, “Hi there, how you doing?” then pointed the way to my seat without any hint that he thought he deserved an extra two bits for providing clear directions and a hearty greeting.
As the game went on, I walked the stadium, sizing it up from different angles, trying to get some fix on its character. The Big A has some obvious flaws. The scoreboard is dominated by a garish, far too expansive array of ad billboards (including one for this newspaper).
And the place is simply too big. When it opened in 1966, it had 43,259 seats--a nice, cozy capacity for baseball--in a horseshoe configuration. In 1980, to accommodate the National Football League’s Rams, the horseshoe was converted into a full circle, and the stadium’s coziness was compromised as seating expanded to 64,593, second in baseball only to Cleveland’s cavernous Municipal Stadium.
There is something discouraging about sitting in a baseball crowd of nearly 30,000 people--Monday night’s attendance--and seeing a stadium that is more than half empty. Southern Californians are getting to know quite well that bigness saps charm. The Too-Big A is a prime example.
Physical layout aside, Anaheim Stadium excels with such virtues as the aforementioned staff friendliness, the stadium’s overall cleanliness (it seems remarkably new for a 23-year-old building) and its abundance of food and snack choices.
(For the record, I passed on the Mexican food stand, the baked potatoes, the sausages, the pizza, the fish and chips, the international beer concession, the mixed-drink bars and the ice cream parlor. I visited the Seafood Bar and found the shrimp cocktail no better than the sauce-drenched frozen stuff they sell in jars at the supermarket.
(I had a kosher-style hot dog and found it tasty, if pricey--$2.50 for an ordinary-size dog. Condiments are of crucial importance to the hot dog eater, and Anaheim Stadium rates a Big A on that score, with easy access to tubs of mustard, ketchup, relish, onions and chili peppers. I, for one, would rather tip an usher who calls me a midget than be forced to squeeze mustard out of plastic packets).
A ballpark, however, is much more than the measure of its physical attributes and its consumer conveniences. The soul of a stadium, like the soul of a human being, is intangible. It lives in memories and traditions--sparked by moments of history made on the field and lodged for a lifetime in the instant-replay camera of the mind.
To find a ballpark’s soul, one must consider the team that plays in it and the intensity of that team’s hold on its fans.
In 28 predominantly bad-to-mediocre seasons (five in Los Angeles preceded the move to Anaheim), the Angels, a team that has never reached the World Series, have failed to provide many of the vivid snapshots or glorious traditions that can make even the surliest ushers and the mealiest frankfurters seem like minor blemishes.
But true baseball fans are a loyal and hopeful lot, willing to replay a few vivid moments until new ones come along. Those devoted and patient loyalists were not hard to find at Anaheim Stadium.
John Bower, a season ticket holder since 1983, clings to Oct. 12, 1986, the day the Angels came within one strike of winning the American League pennant, only to wind up losing to the Boston Red Sox. That playoff defeat may have been bitter, but it was Anaheim Stadium’s signal moment in baseball history.
“I have not come to the stadium since that day without thinking of that game at least once,” said Bower, 28, an accountant who grew up in Orange County and lives in Laguna Hills.
One row behind Bower in the upper-deck tier high above first base, another season ticket holder, Dave Saldana, bellowed at the Angels as they fell behind the Rangers, 1-0. “Come on, boneheads, wake up!” he screamed.
Most of the fans around him let the on-field setback slide by without comment. But Saldana, a 26-year-old pre-med student at UC Irvine, said that taking great umbrage at the Angels is a family tradition--his grandfather, who brought him to Anaheim Stadium as a small boy, was not reluctant to cuss out the home team when it stumbled.
“I really love this team a lot,” Saldana said. “I get on ‘em because I think they can do better.”
Most Angels fans are not so demanding, the upper-deck denizens agreed. “It would be nice one day to see the intensity of the East Coast fans here,” said Bower, who has been to games in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
“We joke around that there’s still this atmosphere here of people meeting in an open-air bar. They’re not here to watch the game, they’re here to drink and socialize.”
Instead of trying to make themselves felt as an independent force, most Angels fans seemed content to be guided by authority, as if they were campers waiting for cues from their counselors. The scoreboard is the counselor, leading cheers by displaying exhortations along the lines of “Let’s Make Some Noise,” while the stadium organist plinks out rhythmic cadences to focus the noisemaking (the organist got to be more creative when Texas had to change pitchers, serenading the hapless hurlers with choruses of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” “Happy Trails to You” and “Another One Bites the Dust”).
There was some spontaneous mass rooting. A chant--sans scoreboard assistance--of “Wally, Wally” began when Wally Joyner, one of the Angels’ best players, came to bat with men on base. And a low rumbling of discontent arose when relief pitcher Bryan Harvey worked himself into last-inning trouble before settling down to save a 5-2 Angels victory.
One girl out in the alcohol-free Family Section behind the left field fence had brought a homemade sign that said “Chili,” in honor of Angels outfielder Chili Davis. That’s commonplace at many ballparks, but at Anaheim Stadium the placard wavers appeared to be outnumbered by the folks who brought inflatable beach balls to bat around in the stands, and the upper-level fans who took time out for another Anaheim Stadium diversion: peering over the wall to watch the nightly fireworks display at Disneyland.
The surest formula for heating up fan intensity and bringing history and honorable tradition to Anaheim Stadium would, of course, be a rise to excellence on the Angels’ part. That’s no easy order, but there is something the Angels could do to raise the intensity level around here in one simple stroke:
They could make a pitch for local pride by dropping the vague, shilly-shallying “California Angels” name. Hasn’t Orange County finally come of age as a community worthy of being bannered throughout the baseball-loving world--even on days when the All-Star game isn’t being played here?
“Anaheim Angels” would be a nicely alliterative name, but “Orange County Angels"--a snappy “OC Angels” for short--would be even better. They might be Our Champs or Our Chumps, but at least they would be openly, unabashedly Ours.