Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Loyal Opposition at Tropicana Field

I've grown to love Tropicana Field in spite of itself. While I won't be sad to see it go, there's something kind of mistakenly charming about it whenever I get out there for a game. It's almost adorably wrong, not in any terribly profound way, but in the homey way that one gets used to. Like the ballpark equivalent of a front door that makes an uncanny belching sound if you open it too slowly.

Aside from the game itself, easily my favorite part is the people. I always wind up near someone memorably bizarre, often average-guy out-of-towners, the nameless and questionably solvent drifters of sports fandom, the opposite of the high-powered corporate type who flies in for a day's work and gets a great ticket on someone else's dime. These are the sorts of people generally filtered out by sustained team prosperity (and its increased season-ticket purchases) or by local fascination with a swank new ballpark. They still seem like a hearty core of the Tampa fan experience.

You can see the fan-filtering process at work in Fenway Park in Boston, where repeated championships and the exclusivity of available seats, plus their high cost, has made the Red Sox "event baseball" instead of just baseball. Out-of-towners are rich people often unserious about the game. People in the stands use their cell phones constantly, network, don't seem fired up for what's happening, don't cheer as hard as they used to when a Sox pitcher has two strikes on a batter with men on base.

New stadiums seem to have this inattentiveness problem, this "baseball as the secondary concern at the ballpark" thing: people show up for the food and the nicknacks hidden in the concourses. The point isn't the game but being at it. A friend of mine who went to Pac Bell park for the first time couldn't remember the score of the game but told me in detail all the different types of food he'd had there. He wasn't from the area and didn't like baseball, but it seemed like a thing to do. That would never have happened at Candlestick Park, because Candlestick was frigid torture garnished with gray hot dogs. You went to the 'Stick for baseball. Going for the stadium or the food would have been like going to the dentist for the magazines.

Even if the stadium is accessible, and even if the Tampa Bay Rays have done well the last three years, a combination of factors keeps the ballpark from overflowing with fairweather folks. For one, the weather: on almost any gameday, plenty of people would rather go to the beach. For another, the Rays are so young that they haven't raised a generation of fans yet, while people old enough to go to the stadium on their own grew up cheering other teams. Once you filter out the car dealerships and law firms with blocks of seats to comp their clients, the people in the stands day in and day out seem more genuine and more weird.

My most recent trip to the stadium wasn't that gripping or worthy of its own post, but I wound up near a bunch of out-of-town fans who reminded me of two of the stranger experiences I'd had with non-locals. I thought I'd take the time to write down what I remember of some of these people before I forget about them entirely. These people aren't classically horrible or weird, and they in no way account for all the people I've bumped into. I just remember them, and they seem, well, weird enough.

Because you are undoubtedly a hardcore fan of baseball, you know that the Rays play in the American League East division, which includes the New York Yankees and the Red Sox. Ordinarily people mention this fact to make a point about payrolls — namely that the Yanks and Sox together spend about $840 million more on players than the Rays and pay their personnel in polished gold ingots and bricks of ivory — but it's also an important factor in ballpark attendance.

As said, the Sox play in Fenway, which is nearly a century old and, despite renovations, unable to seat as many people as modern ballparks. Between two recent championships (and the bandwagon fans they brought) and old die-hard fans, a ticket to a game in the middle of the week can cost hundreds of dollars. Meanwhile, the Yankees recently spent a billion dollars on a stadium monument so tone deaf to environmentalism, local concerns, the economy and fan pocketbooks that it defies even imperial comparison. Imagine if Nero fiddled after he personally set fire to Rome to reduce citizens to bone meal to create enough cement ingredients to construct a seven-storey replica of his penis. Then imagine that Nero looked like Jorge Posada.

The upshot of both of these facts is that, when the Yanks or Sox are in town, many fans in the stands at Rays games are New Yorkers or New Englanders who've hopped on a discount flight down to Tampa. Even after the plane tickets and splitting a hotel room, a three-game homestand in Tampa can save die-hards hundreds of dollars. When you factor in the number of Northeasterners who either vacation in or move to Florida outright, the numbers of hostile fans in the stands balloons.

Members of Red Sox Nation in away stadiums seem to be trying their hardest to match away Yankee fans as the worst people in baseball. Money is already one of the ugliest entitlements in the erstwhile "fair" competition of sports, but recent championships are somehow worse. Sox fans increasingly behave as if they not only have a divinely ordained right to see their team in the post-season, they also seem to believe they have one to be witlessly abusive. Not like a cleverly mocking sort of abuse, mind — they happily engage in just stupidly mean shit, on the fandom level of walking up to a kid and smacking an ice cream cone out of his hand.

It doesn't really make sense. In the above example, neither the kid nor his attacker gets to enjoy the ice cream cone; it's just meaningless antagonism. So too is the Red Sox Nation heckling. They rile up the locals, ruining their game experience, then invite scrutiny or violence or even ejection. It's as if their theory is this: "I, like these Rays fans, could enjoy the game. But if I just say this wicked funny shit, I can make sure that they're miserable, and so am I. We can all have a much worse time in fact, one in which I'm likely to have to leave the stadium. Fucking score!"

For instance, in 2008 the Rays and Sox squared off in the American League Championship Series. The Rays had home-field advantage because they surprised everyone by winning the American League East and relegating the Sox to the Wild Card, while keeping the Yanks out of the playoffs. You'd think this last fact would be cause for some Rays/Sox d├ętente, mutual respect, a "no matter what happens, we've already joined in something beautiful, so let's hope this is a great series" openness, but you'd be wrong. I went to the series opener, and while this happened with some people, especially during the pre-game boozing, inside the stadium the attitude changed.

My friend Kim Jong-il and I spent a small fortune to get into the game, and, incredibly, we sat behind a row of fat Latino Massholes. Few things are as startlingly funny as hearing a wicked retahded Masshole accent coming out of several Latino dudes, but it's completely amazing when they're all dressed like cholo versions of Horatio Sanz or the lead singer from Los Lobos (in all his 1980s fatness).

I'm not a loud person, and in fact I'm one of those people who usually tries to aim just under the point of easy audibility because overhearing other people unwillingly is a drag. At the time, Sox pitcher Daisuke "Dice-K" Matsuzaka was doing his familiar routine of giving up no runs despite throwing about 45 pitches to each batter. I leaned over and told my buddy Kim, "This could be good for the Rays, because if he tires out, he might be more hittable, or the Sox might go to the bullpen and be more vulnerable." Bear in mind that, at this moment, the Sox were up by a single run, and the Rays' pitcher, Scott Kazmir, had the exact same problem of throwing too many pitches.

Anyhow, Horatio in front of me must have been straining for something to obnoxiously take objection to, because no sooner had I got the words out than he turned around and started practically shouting in overly sarcastic Masshole: "Yeah, well, your 'ace' already has two more pitches on his pitch count." Well, okay, fair enough. I replied, pretty evenly, "Sure, but Kazmir settles down after the first two innings and is usually pretty good through six. A lot of times Dice-K has the same pitch-count problems every inning."

Now, there's literally no way to interpret what I said as rude or even wishful thinking. Anybody who was serious about baseball in 2008, especially American League baseball, knew this. Sometimes Dice-K could come out and throw a gem for 8 innings, but usually when he started in on his strange habit of trying to heave 12 straight unorthodox curveballs at a single batter, he'd get stuck in a rut for the whole game. Kazmir, on the other hand, just got jittery and psyched himself out to start, then hit a groove.

Somehow, this reasonable reply sent Horatio into a kind of autistic fit. He started hopping in his seat, which made a creaking noise, and pumping a finger at the jumbotron and literally shouting, "SCOAH-BAHD! SCOAH-BAHD! SCOAH-BAHD! SCOAH-BAHD! SCOAH-BAHD! SCOAH-BAHD!" Bear in mind that the scoreboard still indicated seven innings of ball to go and a Sox lead of a single fucking run.

Literally the only thing this guy could think of, in response to a non-partisan description of the two pitchers in the game, was a weaksauce sneer at an insignificant lead. He and his buddies spent the rest of the game in what seemed like a storied, personal and long-standing rivalry over who could drop the unfunniest and loudest f-bomb possible. Practically every Sox fan within earshot was like that, crowing about incredibly meaningless distinctions, like when a wide receiver does a dance after a quick-out route that nets four yards for a second down. Also, for some reason, all of them had iPhones. I still don't know what this means.

Asshole Yankee fans are still a cut above, and my favorite — besides some brutally shitfaced guys trash-talking before a spring training game against the Detroit Tigers — was a guy another friend and I wound up witnessing for two innings in September, 2008. My buddy Glenn had gotten free tickets about 10 rows back from the Rays' dugout, and as such we got to watch a bunch of people try to sneak into the section all game. Finally, in the 7th inning, this amazing specimen of asshole Yankeedom managed to slink into a seat across the aisle from me.

If I remember correctly, Tropicana Field stops selling alcohol in the 7th inning. They also are pretty proactive when it comes to cutting off people who are obviously drunk, and frequently they won't sell you more than a pair of beers at a time. So the fact that this guy was visibly hammered, carrying four 20-ounce beers and showing up with them just after the sale cutoff point indicated some level of impressive loutish planning and cunning.

Staring at the guy was like coming face to face with an "after" picture of some horrible alternate universe version of myself after a decade of drug abuse. He was 25 going on 45, with a battered and soiled Yankee cap and jersey and a physique like he got all his nutrients from Anheuser-Busch or from filtering micro-organisms from the air by inhaling them through lit Dorals, then, after finishing the cigarette, tearing off the filter and eating it.

His accent was thick with drink and New Yorkness, and his voice gargled deeply with phlegm, like listening to an aggressively straight version of Harvey Fierstein trying to growl sentences through mouthfuls of congealing eggs. There's a character actor who always plays someone's sleazy addict brother in police procedurals, and if I could just remember who he was, you could look at his picture and know what this kid was like. You would say, "Oh, it's that guy. Obviously this person was scum." I'm sure one day, months from now, I'll see that actor, look him up on IMDB and make this description work much better than it does now, but in the meantime, you just have to trust me.

Immediately after slinking to his poached seat and arraying his beers around himself, he started carrying on a one-man conversation with Derek Jeter. Not the Yankees, mind you — just Derek Jeter. When Derek Jeter was in the field, this noble man was in the stands, rumbling through years of accrued lung mucus, warning him that this hitter was a dead-pull guy, and this other hitter could go opposite field. Now, presumably, as a Yankee fan, he'd made note of these hitters' tendencies in games that the Yankees and, by extension, Derek Jeter himself had played, but somehow these details had got by Jetes. (To be fair, a lot of things do. Like ground balls.) That's why Filter-Feeding Snot Man was there.

The constant narration was just stunning, both in terms of being sort of irksome, totally unnecessary and strangely heroic. The guy was stupid as hell, but he had such commitment, such intense focus. If Derek Jeter himself had replied to him, I'm not sure he would have broken his tempo even for half a second if he was already in the middle of what he considered a conversation with Jeter, however wholly self-contained. He might have just expected that Jeter already knew what he was talking about. I found myself helplessly staring at the guy, rapt and curious, until he finally turned and eyefucked me as if he'd be happy to take me up on the excuse to start throwing punches.

The richer sorts that normally occupied the good seats started telling him to shut up, which only served to increase his powers. Maintaining perfect eye contact with Jetes at shortstop, he replied to comments from left and right. Finally, as if to explain to doubters why he had the right to keep narrating so loudly and forcefully, he gargled,
I aaaaaaam da playoffs.
I'm da playoffs.
This was it. He was the corporeal manifestation of the Yankees postseason. He wasn't just going to get them there; he was there. He nurtured winning a Division or a Wild Card slot somewhere within his heroin-and-smokes-sculpted body and mindscape. This guy was literally the road to the World Series. On a mattress lying on the middle of a floor in the Bronx, the Yankees are still playing in the 2008 postseason somewhere inside this man. Even if he's dead. Perhaps especially if he's dead.

What happened next was one of those perfect shutdown moments. It ranks up there with Woody Allen, as Alvy Singer, shutting up an obnoxious media theorist in line at the movies by saying, "It just so happens that I have Marshall McLuhan right here," and then having McLuhan tell the blowhard that how "you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing."

A career journeyman minor-leaguer came up to bat for the Rays with the bases loaded and proceeded to whack a grand slam into the left field seats. The game was by now out of the Yankees reach. Meanwhile, the Red Sox were winning their game elsewhere in America. The Yankees weren't mathematically eliminated from the postseason for another 20 days, but it felt like they were done. You could hear all the air escape the lungs of the fans in attendance. Meanwhile, as our section went nuts, and everyone high-fived everyone else, two cops grabbed Filter-Feeding Snot Man and escorted him out. Incredibly, the Rays still made the postseason without his help.