The rally caps apparently worked for the Grim Reaper at the dawn of the 2009 pro baseball season. In the first week alone, the Angel of Death came for a young pitcher (Nick Adenhart of the Angels), a legendary broadcaster (Harry Kalas of the Phillies) and a retired pitcher (Mark “The Bird” Fidrych of the Tigers).
Before fans attending games could get the free promotional magnetic schedules back home and onto the old Norge refrigerator, April’s tumult brought a funereal intrusion on the annual escapist rite that is Opening Day. Autopsies and obituaries loomed over box scores.
Fidrych, who got his nickname from a resemblance to Sesame Street’s Big Bird, was known to talk to the baseball and groom mound dirt with his hands. Shoddy reporting on his death had it listed first as a “farm accident.” Then reports surfaced that he was “found under his pick-up
truck” until there was final confirmation that he suffocated under the weight of a 10-wheel dump truck. In the case of Adenhart, the aspiring hurler had just pitched for Anaheim and then went out dancing and was killed in an early morning car accident after being struck by a habitual drunk driver.
As for Kalas, the basso-profundo voice of the Phillies and NFL Films, he was far from any vehicular madness when he collapsed during pre-game preparations in the radio booth of Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. Kalas, one of the greatest game-callers of all time, was alone in the booth when he died.
When heavy hearts start the season, it will take a well-stocked beer fort to endure a summer that will surely include disputed corporate names for new ballparks, more leaks of steroid-user lists and the usual salary-envy fan malaise.
The off-season was no easier. Doc Ellis, who famously pitched a no-hitter while on LSD for the Pirates back in 1970, departed the earthbound world in December.
Knowing the Pirates would do little to honor Ellis (no sleeve patch), it was time to get back to other challenging hot-stove questions. Where does one buy orange suspenders like the ones worn by the old Shea Stadium ushers who were baseball’s version of Giuliani’s hated squeegee men? The ushers are perhaps best remembered for their nasty attitudes and penchant for shaking down fans after wiping a grubby towel across stadium seats. Will the seventh inning “stretch” at Yankee Stadium still include a scratchy “God Bless America” recording, which prompts drunken fans to scream “Hats off!” at unknowing European tourists trying to figure out how the game differs from cricket?
Many of these same enforcers of ersatz patriotism have numerous New York Giants fans among them. So they should be reminded that each beer purchased at the Yankee game puts a little more coin into the pocket of Jerry Jones. Yes, the same Jones who owns bitter Giants rivals the Dallas Cowboys. So drink to America’s Team while watching the pinstripers play home games in their new ballpark I like to call Fort Knox.
Gone are the ill-fitting Aramark smocks and smirks from vendors. The new Yankees caterer is called Legends Hospitality Management, a Dallas Cowboys venture. Here’s a quote from Hall of Fame candidate George M. Steinbrenner, from the press release announcing the Legends deal last October: “This partnership brings together two of the finest sports franchises and creates a business that will take advantage of their tremendous insight and expertise. No one knows their fans better and has a greater interest in providing them a great game-day experience. With both the Yankees and Cowboys moving into new stadiums, this is certainly the right time to rethink our approach. Beyond that base, we are confident that other facilities and teams will be interested in what Legends can offer. I look forward to building a business with Jerry.”
Now all the Yankees need to do is get their own version of the Dallas Cowboys’ “white house” den of iniquity—a second team clubhouse full of cocaine and strippers—and bring back former two-sport partier Deion Sanders. George and Jerry could have quite a business on their hands.
Opening Day spies in The Bronx did relay information regarding an upper-deck beer vendor who survived from the old days, having sold beer across the street since at least 1996. He’s known as the “Young Christopher Walken” beer vendor because behind his 1982-era eyewear, he does look a hell of a lot like the hipster-hero actor.
Also, the same spies report that underdog beers like Schlitz and Schaefer are available from certain concession stands. I would wager that $9 for a 16-ounce Schlitz might make former Schlitz spokesman and Baltimore football legend Art Donovan a bit upset.
One thing the new stadiums have done is robbed New Yorkers of their other favorite pastime: complaining. The culture of complaint does not fare well when there is plenty of elbow room, nice sightlines from the pavilions, well-placed restrooms and sports bars in strategic locations throughout the stadiums. Someone is certainly by now blogging about how they miss the days of the improvised tinfoil-wrapped cup lids used during Yankees World Series games and the way the ladies behind the counter would scream “Necks!” instead of “Next!” at the 32-person-deep line. Yes, running out of soda lids was commonplace at the old Yankee Stadium, even with the corporate muckalucks crowding in for elite World Series games that stretched well into the Bronx night.
Willets Point, it should be noted, is an excellent place to find old car parts before or after taking in a ballgame. Game day atmosphere for Mets fans in Queens remains…a good idea. Someday it might happen. Wrigleyville it ain’t. To me it will always be a parking lot in the middle of nowhere next to an airport.
Unlike Mayor Bloomberg, the Wilpons and Steinbrenners have some solid experience in getting stadiums railroaded, built, opened, lauded and over-sponsored. Thankfully, the grind of baseball takes us away from the realpolitik of stadium construction and franchise relocation, which is still kind of a sore topic in Brooklyn.
Yankee fans can embrace the non-corporate utility dynamo Nick Swisher, a moniker that is half Ernest Hemingway, half Oscar Wilde. It will be interesting if Swisher gets the brush-off if he continues to go against “The Yankee Way” and do kooky things like be outspoken about playing time, or save his strikeout balls when he fills in as an emergency pitcher. Swisher is a Buckeye, born in Columbus, Ohio, the most boring city on earth and once the home of the Yankees AAA squad called the Clippers. Unlike his father Steve, the former pro catcher who attended Ohio University, Nick opted for Ohio State. He was soon drafted by the Oakland A’s where he learned how to take pitches. After a brief stint with his father’s White Sox, he was traded to the Yankees for Wilson Betemit and some minor league pitchers who are not zany or fan favorites. Swisher reminds some fans of the Kevin Maas, Jim Leyritz and Shane Spencer school of hard knocks.
Yankee fans can hold their breath when former ace Chien-Ming Wang proves useful as a pinch-runner during Interleague Play. They can laugh at Andy Pettitte’s Clouseau-esque contract negotiations from last winter and broadcaster John Sterling’s sanctimonious use of the adjective “Jeterian” to describe a swinging baseball bat.
Met fans can bask in the ominous, Spielbergian glow of being picked to win the 2009 World Series by an ancient print publication called Sports Illustrated. Yes, the Mets are going to beat the Angels in the Fall Classic, the magazine says.
It did not say that the Amazins’ hurler Oliver Perez would star in his own off-Broadway production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Johan Santana is supposed to win every game he pitches, and even some that he doesn’t. Perez, however, has the split-personality gene running deep through his oddball deliveries and an aversion to stepping anywhere near the foul lines (it’s a well-known superstition that it is bad luck to step on the chalked foul lines; Perez often takes flying leaps over them, which at this point has become somewhat of a trademark move). Regarding the Mets’ slow start at home, there was a delightful case of “blame the building” hinted at in an MLB.com headline from last week: “Park Quirks Have Mets Working Hard.”
They can work as hard as they want, but they shall not arrive in the Fall Classic this October. That will feature, I predict, a Midwestern clash between the Chicago Cubs and Minnesota Twins, with the Cubs finally prevailing as World Champions.
Spike Vrusho is the author of Benchclearing: Baseball’s Greatest Fights and Riots, published by Lyons Press.
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