The Irresistible Pull of a Good Ball Game

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I much prefer the view from the bleachers to that from the press box, but usually when I'm at the park, I've got a job to do. That said, three or four times a year I make it a point to take in a game from the stands, to keep my ideas of fanship alive, to get back to enjoying the game. For good reason having to do with professional working conditions, there is no cheering allowed in the press box, and nothing flattens baseball for me like a rule against cheering.

My buddy Artie and I play golf once a year in the fall, and take in at least one Mets game a summer. He's a fan of the team and buys a limited package of perhaps ten games. I hate the team — I'm a Bosox fan, and went to all seven games in 1986 (nuff said) — but enjoy Artie's company immensely, so I go. Our mutual friend Mike is a Yankees fan, but can always be talked into getting together. Opportunities for that are tougher to come by these days as we all have kids; Artie's got soccer games to get to, while Mike and I have diapers to change. But after some negotiation we each obtained dispensation to get home late last Friday night, after a boys' night out at Shea.

Artie called that afternoon from New Jersey as thunderstorms rolled over his neck of the woods. I told him I would still head to the park if he would, though it looked certain the game would start late. The short of it is: Artie and I agreed we would see each other in the seats at, maybe, 7:20 for a 7:10 start. I left word for Mike, but he's a guy who likes batting practice, so I knew he would get there on time. As I rode the 7 train out to Queens I wondered: Why am I doing this? The Mets stink and have all year; the Cards haven't been much better, and their inconsistent play over the last two weeks was keeping them from a sniff at the wildcard hunt. Well, there's McGwire. At the time he had nine home runs in his last nine hits (he's 11 for 11 now), so the odds were pretty fair that we would see the big guy crush one.

But I had seen McGwire hit homers in the past, including during the big year, and so that wasn't it. I determined, finally, that I was going for three reasons: to see Artie, to see Mike and because you never know what might happen in baseball.

The stormfront notwithstanding, the game started on time. Only Mike saw the Cards get two hits off Appier in the top of the first. They didn't score, and Mike said it was pretty exciting — the combination of events that saved the Mets.

"One of the knocks McGwire?" I asked as I shook hands with Mike and took my seat.

"He's not playing," Mike said.

"Great," I said. "The only reason for coming out here, he's not playing."

"What am I, chopped liver?"

"Present company excluded, of course."

We started to catch up: news of wives, kids, jobs. Then we got distracted. The Mets climbed right on top of Williams in the first, McEwing leading off with a double, then, three batters later, Piazza hitting a three-run shot that sent the faithful few into conniptions.

"Aw," I said, "poor Artie. The only one who cares about this and he missed it!"

As if on cue, Artie popped out of the tunnel and made his way up the steps. "You're not going to believe this. . ." Mike started.

"No," Artie interrupted. "I saw it. I came off the escalators and saw on the TV at the hot dog stand that he was up, so hustled up and watched it from out in left."

The Mets added another in the first, and it looked like Artie, at least, would have a pleasant night.

What am I saying? We would each have a pleasant night, for the pleasure of one another's company means a great deal to us. We settled back with a 4-0 ballgame and socialized. Artie's eldest was heading off to band camp soon; Artie himself was heading down to join the family at the Jersey shore for a week's vacation right after the game. Mike's seven-month-old was doing better with the acid reflux thing. I told the guys the rather windy story about Caroline getting whacked in the head with a foul ball at a minor league game, something I had been saving, and something that elicited the appropriate "wow" response (and that you can read about here).

Appier wasn't exactly mowing down the Cards — he would give up 10 hits in six innings — but he certainly still looked comfortable at 5-1 after four. The Mets, rotten as they've been, have received good starting pitching for a month now, and even when the lead narrowed to 5-3 after five, Artie wasn't antsy. We were still shooting the breeze, the three of us. Edmonds tracked down a fly in deep center; the second baseman, Vina, made nifty play drifting out after a prospective — but foiled — Texas Leaguer. "Actually," Mike said. This is a pretty good game."

It got better in a hurry. In the sixth, with one on and nobody out, Appier threw Edmonds a fastball up and in. It was a great pitch, and Edmonds had to contort to take a lashing swipe. Never has the word drilled been more applicable to a line drive. The ball's next contact — and it was hard contact — was made with the facade of the right-field mezzanine. "Whoa!" said Mike. Artie said something other, and I presume Appier did too. I don't even want to think about what Bobby Valentine might have said. Anyway, Appier was clearly rocked by the rocket, and though he got through the inning he was now, shockingly, trailing 6-5.

The Mets came back to tie the game after the stretch. When old Franco came out to pitch the eighth for the hometown side, Artie groaned. "Oh, man," he said. "What is he? A hundred? What's he throw? 82?" In fact, Shea has an electronic sign that reports the pitcher's speed after each toss, and kept giving Franco credit for an "83 mph change-up" or an "81 mph slider."

"Slider my eye," I said. "That's his fastball. A change off Franco's fastball would be 65." We laughed about that, but the warhorse got an inning- ending DP.

Three reflections, at this point. We weren't leaving, even though Artie had a long schlep down the Garden State and Mike and I needed to catch trains to Riverdale and Westchester, respectively. Second: We hadn't talked about Maureen, Jan and Luci, or our kids — or stem cell research, or peace in Northern Ireland, or the Sopranos — since the sixth.

And third: It was strange, this ballpark. On a soggy night in August, it had taken about five innings for every fan to find his place, and the stadium now had people top to bottom, left field to right. But the pattern of spectators was pockmarked everywhere by orange seats. It is a modern-day pattern, and it's a shame,

"This is really too bad," I said to the guys. "Years ago, before all these corporations bought the seats pre-season, if a team was lousy in August, the people who bothered to come out on a night like this would get good seats near the field, and everybody would be huddled around the game. Now, look at all these no-shows. But the tickets are sold, so nobody gets those seats. I'll bet there are 20,000 skipping this one."

"And they're missing a helluva game," said Mike. Artie was silent, and would be much the rest of the night.

I had expected nothing of this game, and now it was going to the tenth. We kept waiting for McGwire to come out and bat for someone — anyone — but I guess LaRussa's smarter than us. In the top of the inning the left-fielder Robinson got plunked in the knee and limped down to first base. He was faking. When Pujols singled, Robinson was off like a shot and made it to third. When Paquette flied to center, he zipped home like Jackie, not Kerry, Robinson. The Metsies, up 5-0 long ago, were down to their last.

Artie, Mike and I were, and I mean this, on the edges of our seats when the home team hit into its third double play of the night, ending a game that will be remembered by no one who wasn't there, because in October it will hardly have mattered. A fierce whoosh went out of the stadium when the ball smacked into the first-bagger's mitt. My friend seated immediately to the left uttered an oath. The three and a half hours had drained him completely — and, frankly, had taken a measure out of me and Mike, too.

Baseball can suck you in like no other sport I know. Baseball has the capacity to bore you silly, or to wave a web that, slowly, ensnares you. You don't know precisely when you're trapped, but suddenly you realize: You are well and firmly trapped.

Handshakes in the parking lot. Slaps on the back. "Hey, Artie, thanks. My love to the family. I'll call soon about the golf."