An Afternoon at the Ballpark

 

by Ed Collins/April 13, 1996

The Padres are in first, the weather is perfect, and Judy and I are going to a Sunday afternoon ball game.

It’s Little League Day and the parking lot is a hubbub of activity as we arrive an hour before the first pitch.  Hundreds gather to eat, drink and socialize.

Sports fans.  They’re pursuing their recreational pastime — eating, drinking and watching games played by professionals.

When they go home today, hopefully flush with victory and a belly full of beer, they’ll take a nap in front of the TV;  later they’ll  catch the day’s sports highlights on ESPN.

Another beer, something to eat…

The first thing I see after passing through the turnstile is a full-size poster of the Padres’ Tony Gwynn, winner of last year’s Silver Bat award, given to the player with the league’s highest batting average.  Joining Tony is San Diego’s Ted Williams, the last player to hit .400.

Ted’s eyes are wet and his face sags.  Last year he suffered a stroke; still, Ted Williams fills his role as an American folk hero.

Judy takes her ticket and heads for the concession stand; meanwhile I stop at Rubio’s and take my place in line.  Only in San Diego can you get a fish taco at a baseball game.  I can’t wait.

From the slow-moving line a stream of fans enter the stadium; among them, a tall, stoop-shouldered, middle-aged man walking between two slender teenage girls, both wearing baseball caps, both smiling. This is one way to make pop happy, they seem to be thinking.  An attractive woman in her early 30s wearing a maroon tee shirt and a maroon cap, walking purposefuly, followed behind by three Little-Leaguers, each dressed with identical shirts, caps, and carrying baseball gloves.  A mother duck and her ducklings.

Our seats are thirteen rows from the field, right behind first base.  An overthrow might end up in our lap.

With a beer in one hand and her purse in the other, Judy sits down in the aisle seat.  “Do you have your hot dog in there?” I ask, nodding at her purse.

“I have two hot dogs,” she says, feigning pride.

A little-leaguer stands in the row in front of us, turns and asks if we’ll watch his stuff.  Under the seats were a couple gloves,  a camera and two baseballs.

After agreeing he jogs down to the rail, in search for autographs.

“Kids are so trusting,” Judy says.

While the players limber up in the outfield the stadium speakers blare away.  The park is only partially full and the music splits the ears.  John Fogarty sings:

Put me in coach, I’m ready to play, today.

Look at me; I can be, centerfield

How many times, I think to myself, can I be amused by those lyrics.

“I wish they wouldn’t play this song; it’s so insidious it’ll get in your head and you won’t get it out for days,” Judy says.

The third batter up for the ’95 World Champion Atlanta Braves is Fred McGriff.  A future Hall-of-Famer, for eight years in a row he hit more than 30 home runs.  He takes long

slow strides to the plate, as though his entrance should be noted.  And he’s right.  McGriff is a

specimen to behold:  dark skinned, tall and

straight, lean and muscular. Fred McGriff stands out among all athletes, in all sports — a rare blend of skill, commitment and courage.

On the mound is the Padres’ Fernando Valenzuela, a Mexican with a round face, a round body, short arms and spindly legs.  With each pitch he lifts his right leg, turns his back, extends his arms overhead, then looks skyward.

The contrast is stark between the two competitors:  One is blessed with physique and talent,  the other looks as if he’s one of the groundskeepers.

After fouling off several pitches McGriff partially connects, lofting the ball skyward.  Up and up and up it soars.  Straightened, it had enough distance to clear the fence, but this ball

doesn’t make it out of the infield.  A routine out; still, when Fred McGriff misses, you get the impression that he just missed.  Another eighth of an inch and that ball would have been a souvenir  in the right field bleachers.

Sitting two seats from me is a round-faced little kid with crooked teeth and mustard on his chin; he’s sitting next to his mother, who looks just like him.  In his left hand is a catcher’s glove.  The kid looks like a catcher:  squatty guy built for a position where squatting is the norm.

In the fourth inning Judy calls out to the peanut vendor, who continues walking to the bottom of the aisle.

“Just for the delay I’m going to have the big box — the family pack.  On the way up she catches his attention.

“I was looking for you,” Judy says, in a sing-song voice.

“Well, I found you,” said the vendor, smiling at her.

A few minutes later Judy tells me that her Cracker Jack prize was a sticker that said Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.  “Really?” I said, thinking she was kidding.  She didn’t respond.

“And last night I watched the original version of The Fly,” Judy said.  “I remember in the remake, with Gina Davis and Jeff Goldblum, they said that over and over again.  What does it mean?”

I didn’t answer.

In the top of the fifth inning the Braves’ David Justice deftly lays a perfect bunt down between the pitcher and third base.  Caught flat-footed, third baseman Craig Shipley simply fields the ball and tosses it to Fernando.  The bunt was a surprise to everyone, which is nothing unless executed; this one was.

With two out and Justice still on first, Fernando, a left-hander, picks Justice off the base; after a short chase, Wally Joyner puts Justice out by gently tapping him on the shoulder with the ball.  Justice falls victim to the same deception that got him to first base.

The Braves’ unimposing Mark Lemke hits his second home run of the day, again just over the left field wall.  The fat little catcher and his mom had moved into the unoccupied seats in front of us.  I overhear him say, “Fernando is not a good pitcher because Lemke is a bad hitter.”

Baseball is a game of booming home runs, acrobatic catches, laser-beam throws, and simple mistakes.  With two men on, Valenzuela walks John Smoltz, the pitcher, whose batting average to date is .000.  Will he pay for his mistake? I wonder.

On a two-two count, the next batter hits a comebacker.  The crowd sighs.  Valenzuela fields the ball, casually tossing it to the catcher.  But the ball sails and the catcher has to jump off his feet for it. The crowd gasps with the toss and sighs again with the catch. As if it was orchestrated, the music begins a second after the play was completed. It’s Ritchie Valens’ La Bamba. The legendary Mexican pitcher had done it again.

Between innings dozens of fans get up to go the concession stands.  A guy walks down the aisle wearing a tee shirt that says, You’ll never steal second with your foot on first.  I imagine Justice thinking the same after getting picked off.

For six innings Padres fans did nothing but sit on their hands. The Braves’ John Smoltz had given up no hits, striking out 12, and there was little to cheer about. In the seventh inning Tony Gwynn hit a towering fly ball to the left field wall.  The Braves’ Ryan Klesko either lost the ball in the sun or feared running into the wall, because he stumbled and the ball bounce off the palm of his glove.  Immediately I looked up at the scoreboard and saw the flashing “H,” signifying the hit ruling.  I looked at Smoltz, who dropped his head.  I don’t know if he has ever thrown a no-hitter, but his chances today were now gone.

When the inning ended I noticed Smoltz pat Klesko on the back.

The next hitter hit a foul ball that landed in our section.  “I don’t like it when they start hitting the ball,” Judy said.  “Then I have to pay attention.”

An overweight lady with her overweight daughter in hand make their third trip up the stairs to the concession stand.  They appear to rest after every fourth step.  This time they return with two drooping ice cream cones.

An inning later a little kid behind us begins crying.  His grandfather leans over and asks what’s wrong. “I hate the Padres,” the kid says.

“Then you should be happy,” said the man.  “The Padres are losing.  What’s wrong?” he asks again. When the kid started mumbling the man said, “Well if you’re just going to mumble I don’t care.”

A few minutes later I overhead the kid ask the grandfather how McGriff got out.  “The relay from Tony Gwynn got him out at third,” said the man.

Who’s the third baseman?” the kid asked.

“I don’t know,” said the man.

“Whoever he is, he’s a dick,” said the kid.  I tensed up for what I surely thought would be a tongue lashing by the granddad.  For a second it was quiet, then the man started laughing.  I resisted turning and giving them both the eye.

Later I pretended to look up in the stands, glancing at the kid.  He was about 8 years old, with a sour little face, just as I imagined.

In the middle of the seventh inning Judy and I stand while Carly Simon sings Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Buy Me Some Peanuts and Cracker Jacks, I Don’t Care if I Ever Come Back.   In the middle of the eighth a short, white-haired aging dog wearing a Padres vest runs the bases.  At each base he slows, sniffs; he makes a half-attempt at sliding into home plate.  Finally, something to cheer about.

After the Padres batted in the eighth inning we grabbed our stuff and made an early exit.  As we drove out of the parking lot Judy commented, “If they want to stop public drinking they should collect the parking fees after the game.  They could have cops watch the people try to count out four dollars.

“I think I’ll write a letter to the editor,” she said, jokingly, I think.