March 11th, 2011; Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Dunedin, FL; NY Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays: I’d never been to Spring Training before; I wanted to see the Detroit Tigers, but I was in Florida for just a few days, and this was the game I could attend. Dunedin is a pretty little town on the Intracoastal, and it feels far too small to host as major an attraction as a ballpark, but there it is, right next door to the public library. The Yankee team was a split squad: Nick Swisher, former Tiger Curtis Granderson, and a bunch of boys who wouldn’t see the Bronx this year. The crowd was everything you want the crowd at a spring training game to be: leathery, silvery, overfamiliar. “Nice try!” the old ladies, half in their cups, called to the young men returning to the dugout after failing to get a hit…and they really meant it. Toronto Blue Jays 10, New York Yankees 3
May 12th, 2011; AT&T Park, San Francisco, CA; Arizona Diamondbacks at San Francisco Giants: I flew to San Jose for Game 7 of the Red Wings-Sharks series, arriving late morning on the day of the game, and thought, Why not spend the afternoon at the Giants’ game? I’d been to San Francisco before, but not AT&T Park. The view from the upper deck has to be the most beautiful sight in all of baseball. Out in the Bay, Treasure Island disappeared and re-appeared throughout the afternoon, just like the Giants’ offense. (I wonder how many times that’s been written.) SF Giants 3, Arizona Diamondbacks 2
June 19th, 2011; Jingu Stadium, Tokyo, Japan; Chiba Lotte Marines at Tokyo Yakult Swallows: If you visit Japan during baseball season, you can watch live broadcasts of Seattle Mariners (Ichiro Suzuki) or Los Angeles Angels (Hideki Matsui) night games on TV. Because of the time zone, you’ll be watching during breakfast. They are shown commercial-free; during the American TV timeouts, the cameras roam odd corners of the stadiums, or find Ichiro or Matsui stretching or just sitting in the dugout. There’s no commentary, just the ambient sound of the ballpark, slightly muted. It’s eerie and magnetic, but relaxing. In contrast, attending a Nippon League game is exhausting. It is a three-ring circus, with the game itself rarely in the center ring.
The stands are divided into Home and Visitors sections, like a college football stadium. The home team has a cheerleading squad, twenty strong, which takes the field between sides; fans sometimes accompany them onto the field between innings, raggedly performing the cheers alongside the squad, or playing catch with their own children. In the stands, meanwhile, beer girls, dressed much like cheerleaders or, given the uniform caps, stewardesses from the golden age of air travel, climb up and down the steps, dispensing beer into plastic cups from SCUBA-like tanks worn on their backs. (There is a different uniform in a different bright color for each kind of beer each beer maker sells.) When the home team is at bat, each player has their self-picked entrance song, played over the public address system, just as in American baseball (auto-tuned dance-pop), but they also have their own unique crowd chant, accompanied by its own unique rhythm – banged out on souvenir hollow-plastic bats (sold in pairs) by the crowd – and a few distinct notes played by trumpeters seated here and there among the crowd (fans? employees? I couldn’t tell you) and, in some cases, the syncopated raising and lowering of parasols in team colors. The crowd chant continues for the entire at-bat.
Wladimir Balentien, from Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles, a former top MLB prospect who played two seasons with the Seattle Mariners, was a huge crowd favorite, with the most pleasing and best-choreographed crowd chant: “Home run, home run, Balentien!” But he twice hit into inning-ending double plays with the bases loaded. Chiba Lotte Marines 7, Tokyo Yakult Swallows 1
July 2nd, 2011; Comerica Park, Detroit, MI; SF Giants at Detroit Tigers: Driven from the best seats I’ve ever had at a ball game (ten rows behind the visitor dugout) by a lashing rain. Left for home during the rain delay, something I’ve never done before, but the sky was genuinely terrifying. Never before had I seen a sky like that in life. In Ghostbusters, maybe. SF Giants 15, Detroit Tigers 3
July 3rd, 2011; Comerica Park, Detroit, MI; SF Giants at Detroit Tigers: As beautiful a day as you will ever see in Detroit. With two on and one out in one of the middle innings, the hilarious old man seated behind me asked: “Who’s up?” Old Man’s Relative: “Brennan Boesch.” Old Man: “Well, he’s due.” (Boesch had 3 RBIs already.) Tigers 6, Giants 3
August 9th, 2011; National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY: On June 2nd, 2010, Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga seemed to touch first base with his right shoe to get the 27th straight Cleveland batter out for a perfect game. Umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe, although he later apologized for having “kicked the call.” Galaragga retired the 28th batter and accepted his near gem with extraordinary sportsmanship.—text of card on display with Galarraga’s shoes.
September 10th, 2011; Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI (via national broadcast); Notre Dame Irish at Michigan Wolverines: Yeah, football. Historic first night game at Michigan Stadium. First instance this year of a Tigers game being brushed aside, or treated as an hors d’oeuvre – in the middle of the pennant race! – because of a football game. It won’t be the last. September is a hard month for baseball fans.
September 13th, 2011; The Art of Fielding: This debut novel by Chad Harbach, set in the world of college baseball, received a lot of press and sounded hard to resist, even though I’ve been disappointed by the big new literary doorstops for some years now, especially when there was a sports element that seemed to promise to keep the thing wedded to story: there’s apparently a lot of tennis in Infinite Jest, but not in the first 200 pages (not that I remember, anyway); the hunt for Bobby Thompson’s home run ball didn’t make Delillo’s Underground less of a slog. I needn’t have worried about The Art of Fielding, though. Don’t you worry either. Just pick up a copy. “It is designed to break your heart,” the late Bart Giamatti, former MLB commissioner, said of baseball; the quote would make good copy for this book.
September 16th, 2011; Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (via FoxSports Detroit broadcast); Detroit Tigers at Oakland Athletics: the Tigers clinch the American League Central Division Title for the first time in 24 years. Tigers 3, A’s 1
September 23rd, 2011; Moneyball: Inexplicably bombing at the box office in Japan while I was there was a film titled Moshidora, starring the country’s sweetheart, Acchan, making her move from pre-fab teen pop idol (as an “elected leader” of the group AKB48; its ubiquity is nearly impossible to exaggerate) to solo artist (billboards for her first single were stuck to the side of every other building in Tokyo) and lead actress. Her first film role found her cast as the manager of a high school baseball team, who turns the team’s fortunes around when she discovers the writings of Peter Drucker. I am not making this up. If I spoke Japanese, or if the film had been subtitled in English, or even if I just could have snuck off on my own and none of my friends been any the wiser…I would have seen the movie; but I don’t feel I have to have seen it, or Moneyball, to say the following with authority: Brad Pitt is no Acchan.
September 24, 2011: What time is the next show of Moneyball?
October, 2011: I have tickets for the first game of the American League playoffs in Detroit…and I’ve registered to buy tickets to a World Series game. Here’s luck!