IN THE BALLPARK : Learning to Love Baseball, Even If You Hate the Game

There was a time when I took pride in being a great hater of baseball and baseball fans.

This was in South Florida, a particularly infuriating place, because it has no team and people still talk about baseball. Office, parties, bars . . . they talked about baseball all the time, and the nearest major league team, if you could call it that, was the Atlanta Braves, hundreds of miles away.

The Hot Stove League--this is what Talking About Baseball is called--was a particular sticking point. "The Yankees must get another left-handed bat," people would say. "What about this kid, Rorhschbach, at third for the Astros?"

Vital, important stuff.

Well, not for me. Invitations to spring training games were shunned. Vacation time and the office rotisserie league draft coincided. TV games? Yeah, right.

I nurtured my hatred, prided myself on being a lonely island of perspective in a sea of baseball-mania. I loved loathing the Grand Old Game . . .

And then I went to Fenway.

Trip East. Stop in Boston. What the hell, historic old Fenway Park is only a mile away. Walk to the ballpark. Drink some beer, eat some good hot dogs. Weeknight game, but more than 30,000 fans. Chicago White Sox beat Boston something like 11-6. Five or six home-run balls hit into the net above the Green Monster, the famous wall in left field. Chicago pitcher Tom Seaver wins his 299th career game, scrapping all the way.

Railing against baseball became more difficult. New England natives in the office gave me knowing looks. "So, how was Fenway?" they'd ask, smugly.

I stayed in the medium range of love-hate until I moved to within blocks of San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium two springs ago and started jaunting down the hill to Padres games.

Five minutes in, five minutes out. Beautiful, modern ballpark with real grass. Kids of my own to watch with. Aisle seats-- always get aisle seats (see below)--out by the visiting bullpen. Tony Gwynn, the hitter's hitter. Benito Santiago, the catcher who throws baserunners out from a kneeling position.

So Jack Murphy cemented grudging respect and led to growing affection for baseball. I still won't watch it much on television. But there is a lot to like about the game viewed up close and personally, even if you're not a fanatic.

Baseball as entertainment, fun and cultural broadening, not life or death. Opening Day approaches. From someone who has been there, academic reasons to go to an Angel game at Anaheim Stadium, even if you don't care where Yankees come from:

Horticulture: Anaheim Stadium has real grass. I do not find this to be as critical as some (you should hear purists talk about domed stadiums or, God forbid, The Designated Hitter ), but it does add something to the experience.

Baseball grass looks nice and smells better than plastic. The dirt under it absorbs tobacco juice; on artificial turf, this most disgusting of substances collects in spots and puddles. Grass generates oxygen. It is--and this is a page straight from "Bartlett's Baseball Fanatic Quotations"-- the way the game was meant to be played.

Music: Forget Roseanne Barr and her national anthem; the sounds at a typical game are mostly benign, even pleasant.

Organ music has been the staple through the years, but Joe Tripoli, entering his fifth season as the Angels' music man, says he will now be operating on a new, state-of-the-art machine that is part organ, part synthesizer, part digital drums and more. The sound system at the stadium has also been upgraded.

Supplementing with some of his own sound-effects equipment, Tripoli entertains with all kinds of fanfares, "charge" themes and also occasionally drops in tunes relating to the player striding to the plate. Example: The Oakland A's $5-million-a-year outfielder Jose Canseco has been serenaded by Pink Floyd's "Money."

Anthropology: People-watching. Weird and interesting persons populate a typical baseball game, on all social scales, from all stations, of all intellects.

There is a scene in the movie "Major League," in which an exulting construction worker hugs a punk rocker. This kind of cross-cultural bonding is not atypical in baseball.

Warm days add a reduced-clothing aspect that appeals to voyeurs, men and women alike.

Physics: The laws of motion, for example. A baseball flies in one direction until it is acted upon by an outside force, either a bat or the catcher's mitt. (Or gravity, the umpire or the wall behind home plate, if the pitcher or catcher is particularly bad.)

Calculate the speed of a home-run ball by taking the velocity of the pitch--usually between 80 and 100 m.p.h.--and the estimated speed of the bat upon contact. Fun for the whole family.

Ponder the curve, created by releasing the ball with a certain spin on it. Scientists once said its movement was an optical illusion. Tell that to a guy who had to face the Angels' Bert Blyleven at his best.

Geometry: Begin by attempting to judge trajectory as a fly ball heads toward the outfield. At first, you will find yourself yelling, "It's outta here!" just before the shortstop settles under it for an easy catch. Keep trying.

Gastronomy: "The cinnamon rolls," people say, and everybody around who has been to the Big A nods. I'm not a big breakfast-food-at-a-baseball-game guy, but conversations about the food at Angel games always begin with these $1.50 wonders, made fresh daily.

They serve sushi at the Big A, but not raw fish. California and vegetable rolls are the highlights. On the other hand, anybody who goes to the ballpark for the sushi . . . well, words fail.

Darrel Knudson, assistant concessions manager for Ogden Entertainment Services, which handles the food at the Big A, can also take a deep breath and tell you about: five different sausage/hot dog types, hamburgers and cheeseburgers, fish and chips, a Mexican cantina, pizza on every level, ice cream (hand-dipped at one stand) and frozen yogurt, a baked potato hut and delis that serve sandwiches and salads. And this is to say nothing of popcorn, peanuts, candy and other packaged snacks.

Many of these things are also distributed through the stands by vendors you'll never forget. Some can make themselves heard by all 35,000 people in the ballpark at once. Others can hurl their wares 100 feet to the correct customer with the accuracy of a top outfielder. The Big A has at least one peanut vendor known for this particular talent.

Point of financial reference: The basic hot dog goes for $2. Do not go to the ballpark expecting to eat cheaply.

Mixology: Three draft beers are available, along with around 15 bottled beers (you do not keep the bottle; the beer is poured into a paper cup for safety's sake). Wine includes Chablis and blush, and there are numerous cocktail locations around the stadium.

Sales of adult beverages are stopped late in the game depending on the rowdiness of the crowd. So if you want to keep the party going, be good.

Physical education: If you're caught with one, a duly appointed usher will grab it and destroy it, but there is still a lot of beach ball playing at games in Southern California. See how long you can elude detection and keep the game going.

Public speaking: As long as you keep away from ethnic references and tasteless personal attacks, there are all manner of interesting things you can yell at ballplayers or umpires. If you're a beginner, try, "Ya bum, ya!" to get your feet wet. If this emboldens you, step up to, "Hey ump, you're missing a great game!"

By the way, it is not unsportsmanlike to boo at a baseball game; it is the socially correct thing to do.

Finally, some tips for a comfortable outing:

Ignore the game: Spouses or friends of baseball fans who have absolutely no interest in athletic endeavors can tag along on a day game, bring a book, spread out, catch some sun, watch some people, frequent the concession stands and seem like good sports.

Be on the ball: If you want a free souvenir, dig that old mitt out of the closet and take it with you, then sit along one of the base lines or in the lower seats in left and right center field. Plenty of foul balls and home runs will be hit into these areas, and if you keep your head up, you might get a shot; they allow you to keep these things.

Don't keep your head too far up, though. Catching a hardball in your mouth is typically no fun.

Respect the weather: The Angels did not have a single rainout last season, so leave your umbrella at home. The only problem is that this precludes the unique baseball experience known as the "doubleheader," two games in one day, back to back. The Angels don't schedule these, and the only other way they are typically created is when rain forces postponement of a game, which is then moved to a date that already includes one.

Then again, if you need to be convinced of the value of going to one game, why would anybody expect you'd want to go to two?

Also, remember that you're in Southern California and that you're going to be outdoors for three or four hours (assuming you don't leave in the seventh inning of a no-hitter, as some in this area have been known to do). For a day game, remember sun block, sun glasses and protective headwear. At night, it's likely to get chilly . . . just because you don't need a jacket at 7 p.m. doesn't mean it won't be a good thing to have at 10.

Spend money: OK, this is a little snobby; if you can't afford it, go ahead, enjoy the masses in the $4 bleacher seats. But if you want to get into it gradually and comfortably, splurge on the boxes ($8-$11), or reserved "view level" seats ($7). Your seat is yours, no matter how many trips you make, and better access to rest rooms and refreshment stands is a likely perk. That brings us to . . .

Get aisle seats: This is absolutely, positively the single most important thing about attending a game and enjoying it. I have no idea how people who sit in the dead middle of a 20-seat row do it, climbing in and out or sitting there for the entire game.

A baseball stadium should have 50,000 seats and 25,000 aisles, and a perfect game is one in which all tickets are numbered "1" or "2". From the aisle, you can go for beer or soda--and the natural result of either, the rest room--with impugnity and prove yourself gracious to boot by allowing others to climb over you on the way to their seats.

Be a kid: Children get in free. As long as they're under the age of 2.

Do some family planning: There is a section in left field where families are invited to sit, at $6 a person. No profanity, no alcohol consumption.

Make note of special nights: In an effort to boost attendance, the Angels and companies sponsor special promotional nights throughout the season. The gifts are sometimes things that go into the closet, never to be seen again, but others are fun and/or useful.

Angel treats include: Magnetic Calendar Night, Breakfast Helmet Bowl Night, Angels Cap Night, Beach Wallet Night, Kids Calculator Night and Kids Insulated Lunch Bag Night.

Leave the bottles at home: "Guests are prohibited from bringing any alcoholic beverages into the stadium," it says right there in the Angel media guide. "Guests are prohibited from carrying cans, bottles, thermoses, ice chests or hard containers of any size into the Stadium regardless of their contents," it adds, seriously.

Tailgate, within the rules: The same guide also notes that tailgate parties, usually one of the best things about going to outdoors sporting events, are restricted to designated areas and that no outside caterers or charcoal barbecues are permitted.

The big problem, though, is prohibition of alcoholic beverages, even in the designated areas. City ordinance. So no Cabernet with your steak.

To me, this kind of renders the whole thing moot.

Bring quarters: Note to gambling task forces: Ignore the following.

Number of players: Two or more. Equipment needed: A cup, quarters.

Everybody antes up a quarter to start. Then one person adds another quarter and holds onto the cup during the first at-bat. If the batter fails to get a hit--a base hit, no walks, no errors, no sacrifices, no fielder's choices--the cup is handed to the next person, who adds a quarter. Another failure, another person, another quarter. The person holding the cup when there is a base hit gets the contents.

Doc Gooden once earned me about eight bucks with a scratch single after 30 or so consecutive outs.

He's still my favorite player.

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