Monday, September 30, 2013

The July 20 Pirates/Reds Game Has to Be Great (or, The Top 10 Things About a Midwest Mid-Summer Ballgame That Helped Me Forget Merrillville, Indiana) by Mike Faloon

#1 – TV Show Theme Songs Were Better When They Were Longer
We’re driving into Cincinnati, southbound on Route 75. Steve and I grateful for two things: we have tickets for that afternoon’s Pittsburgh/Cincinnati game, and we’re hours removed from the Superfund toxic waste site that is the Deluxe Inn in Merrillville, Indiana. 

Something in the Cincinnati skyline catches my eye and reminds me of the WKRP theme song. The mellow one that opened the show and told us the story of Andy Travers, the station’s program director, the new guy in town. I miss TV show theme songs that were long enough to include lyrics and exposition.  I like a little backstory at the top of the show. Town to town, up and down the dial…Baby, just think of me once in awhile.  Such a tender, plaintive plea. Who doesn’t want to be remembered? Certainly Andy did.  Beneath the silly, feathered hair, tight jeans, and cowboy boots was one sensitive dude. (How is that he and Bailey never got together?) 

I’ve never been able to decode the lyrics to WKRP’s closing theme song, the upbeat rock tune that represents Dr. Johnny Fever’s frantic lifestyle. Something about a one-toothed bartender and cutting loose tonight.  I could be wrong.

#2 – Unofficial Team Merchandise Is More Amusing
I always look forward to the t-shirt stands outside a ballpark.  The ones that present themselves as fan-friendly renegades. Our shirts will likely fall apart after two washings but our slogans are cheekier! Cincinnati comes through with this gem of a Pete Rose shirt: “I’m with Pete! Gimme $200 on the Reds!”

 #3 – The “Deluxe” Nature of the Deluxe Inn in Merrillville, Indiana Is To Be Doubted
This trip to Cincinnati comes at the tail end of our book tour. Last night we read at Quimbys in Chicago. We opted to drive east after the reading and find a motel along the way. Merrillville, Indiana boasted several motels. We approached at least six. No vacancies.  Then we found the Deluxe Inn. They had one room left.  Thirty-six bucks for the night. The room smelled like a hamster cage. The floor was wet. There was no light in the bathroom. The pillows were pancake-flat. Neither of us had any fight left and we needed sleep, so we settled.  And by settled, I mean lowered our standards to sub-Mickey Rourke on a bender levels. There was no relaxing involved. Steve noticed that neither of the door locks worked, so he calmly propped a chair up against the door knob. I noticed that there was no lamp on the bedside table. I had a fit.  Being able to read until you fall asleep is a staple of the motel experience. 

#4 – Excessive Pre-game Tension Doesn’t Always Lead to a Good Time
A few weeks later my wife and I went to a Tigers/Mets game in New York.  Taking the hill that day were Matt Harvey and Max Scherzer. What a match up.  Matt Harvey, the future of Flushing, the second best pitcher in baseball versus Max Scherzer, a guy who vaulted from being one of the Tigers “other pitchers”  (trailing Justin Verlander) to 18-1 (and owner of baseball’s goofiest and most endearing grin).  Plus, a revived Ike Davis, Prince Fielder, and the best hitter of the day, Miguel Cabrera, in pursuit of his second straight Triple Crown.

We hatched our plan about one in the afternoon.  The game started at four. Within an hour we’d scored tickets, lined up a babysitter, and hit the road. Without traffic the trip would normally take an hour. But it was a Saturday and the U.S. Open had started. We figured that tripling our estimated travel time would suffice. We were wrong. Wrong in ways that were embarrassing. Wrong in ways that led me slamming the steering wheel and cursing everyone from the Mets to Robert Moses to whatever manner of physical laws and/or financial limitations prevented me from owning and operating a jet pack. 

We arrived in the second inning and stewed well into the fourth or fifth.  A few days later came the news that Harvey was done for the season and probably wouldn’t pitch again until 2015.

#5 – Muttonchops Age Well
Despite its cash grab moniker, Great American Ballpark is terrific. Even from the outside, images of Reds history saturate my field of view. I pass statues of Johnny Bench and Ted Kluszewski. Even better is “Reds Legends,” statues of former Reds Frank Robinson (batting), Ernie Lombardi (catching), and Joe Nuxhall (pitching) playing an imaginary game. 

Steve is meeting a former co-worker for the game. I explore the park while he waits at the gate. I step into the Reds Hall of Fame, but they kick me out because there’s an additional charge to get in which I decline to pay. Seems Scroogey to me, but that bit of lameness is eclipsed once I enter the park and the Reds history lesson resumes. Photos and quotes adorn every wall (in stark contrast to Citi Field, which could easily be mistaken for a Brooklyn Dodgers museum). Best of all is the 50-foot mosaic of the 1869 Cincinnati Reds. 1869? That’s just five years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Mark Twain was two years away from his first book. I look at the mosaic for a long time, slackjawed. It’s like staring up at a starry sky or gazing to the horizon at the beach, that calming sense of being lost in something much bigger than myself. It helps that I have a stupid big pretzel in one hand and a cold pint in the other.

#6 – Suddenly It Feels Like Yankee Spring Training Circa ’72
It’s late July and both the Reds and the Pirates are in contention. That alone could wash away the stink of the Deluxe Inn, but pretty much everything about this day is rolling our way. The only factor that will threaten to dampen the experience, figuratively, is the couple seated to our left. They’re broadcasting the kind of personal information Anthony Weiner would consider keeping to himself.  Before long everyone in our section knows that a) they’re married but, b) not to each other, and c) he was in the wedding party at her nuptials and she returned the favor at his. 

#7 – There’s No Crying in Baseball, But, the Supply of Nachos Is Endless
Along with the rich baseball history on display, the stadium offers a steady stream of conspicuous consumption—food, drink, merchandise; we’re ravenous.  The most popular item this afternoon seems to be the batting helmet sized servings of nachos. Not the cute little batting helmets in which they serve soft serve ice cream.  I’m talking about full-scale, wide-as-your-palm, big-enough-to-wear-in-a-game helmets overflowing with mountains of nachos and deep pools of cheap cheddar. Stereotypes of Midwestern living flare up, but they’re held in check. The Reds may serve Everest size portions of their snacks, but they also make a token tip of their nacho helmets to healthy living, with a prominently placed fruit stand, field level, right behind home. 

Also on the quasi-progressive tip, the Reds have a lady mascot, Rosie Red. Granted, she’s wearing a skirt that harkens back to the days of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (think A League of Their Own), but still, how many lady mascots are there?

#8 – Zisk Proudly Endorses the Use of “All Right” Rather Than “Alright”
Reds management loves a good first pitch.  That’s why they have three of them this afternoon. The public address announcer tags the third one with a reminder to “call group sales for your chance to throw the first pitch.”
Then the public address system breaks out the tunes. They choose Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” It’s an odd song to play at the onset of a sporting event, with thousands of people gathered, most of them imbibing booze, everyone—regardless of age—ready and willing to place emotions before intellect.  (Odder still is hearing Elton John as the joyous voice of such fisticuffs.) If Sir Elton’s call to drunken arms didn’t deliver the message that the call of “play ball” is imminent, then leave it to Rosie Red. She’s on the field air guitaring to a Jack White tune (“Sixteen Saltines”). She struts. She kicks. We’re ready for baseball.

#9 –  Merrillville Is Fading Rapidly
Reds’ starter Matt Latos pitches out of a jam in the top of the first, but the real show is Reds’ second baseman Brandon Phillips. The other infielders are motionless as they anticipate each pitch. Phillips barely stops moving. He’s jittery, fidgety. He takes off his glove between pitches, leans back, adjusts his belt, kicks the dirt with his cleats, chats up the umpire, thumps the pocket of his glove a couple of times. 
With a mere three outs in the books, gusts of wind sweep in. Clouds of dirt kick up. The temperature drops with the humidity in tow. Reds’ leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo steps into the batter’s box with a look of “What the…?” The home plate umpire halts the game, players jog in, and out come the tarps.

#10 – Rain Delays Mean More for Your Money
During the rain delay we walk to the drink stand behind section 111. They boast the ballpark’s widest array of beers, most of which are Midwestern microbrews. We stand around. We talk. We joke. We drink. We lose track of time. Apparently, I also lose track of my grip on my plastic cup. I drop it, without provocation, top-down to the ground. Just as I’m feeling every inch the confused doofus I feel a tap on my shoulder. 

It’s the woman standing behind me in line. “Go up and tell them you dropped your drink. They’ll give you another one.” 

I have no idea who she is, but I want to believe her crazy claim. “If you’re willing to say that, then I’ll buy your drink,” I respond.

She says that she usually works at the games and that her gambit will work.

“Simone,” she says to the manager on duty, “someone knocked his beer. Can you give him another?”

With an apologetic tone Simone asks for my empty cup. She gives me a refill. No further questions asked.

Steve reminds me that we’ve been at the park for two hours and it’s only the bottom of the first.  So long, Merrillville.

Mike Faloon is the co-editor of Fan Interference, a best of Zisk collection available through Blue Cubicle Press.

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