The Not-Yet-Summer Game

In defense of cold weather baseball.
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It's nice to smoke cigarettes in Citi Field. On the upper deck, at the top of the left field ramp, sits one of the finest smoking sections in baseball. While Yankee fans, prevented from lighting up anywhere in the stadium, smoke furtively in bathroom stalls, the Citi Field faithful enjoy a 180-degree view of Manhattan, LaGuardia arrivals and departures, and the flat beige waterscape of Flushing Bay. It's no exaggeration to say there are days when it's nicer to watch the sun set over the Empire State Building than to watch the Mets bumble around the field.

On Sunday afternoon, though, the mood on the smoking deck was sour. It was too windy to light a cigarette; it was too cold to enjoy one. Giving up on her butt halfway through, one forlorn Mets fan shouted, like King Lear raging against the storm on the heath, "What the fuck is happening?"

How cold was the stadium on Sunday? The weatherman says 54 degrees with winds gusting as high as 44 miles-per-hour. To get a sense of how that felt, try this: encase your genitals in ice, dangle them in front of a battery of leafblowers, and see if you feel like watching Lucas Duda stumble after fly balls.

Despite the gale, the upper deck was crowded, because the Mets had spent the week giving away tickets on Twitter. No strings attached—follow @Mets on Twitter, get a ticket to watch the actual Mets play the Marlins. The unpaid crowd got its money's worth. Dressed for a sunny spring day, they found instead that they had joined the Shackleton expedition. Children shivered through plastic hats full of ice cream. Whirlwinds of garbage swirled ghostly across the infield. Pigeons fought to stay aloft. It was baseball in April, and that is what it’s like.

***

Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, a twenty-year-old Cuban defector who was making his first appearance above Class A ball, didn’t seem bothered. This was his Major League debut, and with his mother watching from the stands, Fernandez made the Mets look awful. After five glittering innings, the Marlins pulled him in order to give their bullpen a chance to blow the game, which they did, first slowly and then all at once.

I was, I might as well admit, too cold to notice. Instead, I drank quite a bit of Citi Field coffee, pausing between sips to inspect my hands, cracked and rusty as a three month-old red potato. In the sixth, I went for a hotdog, a simple pleasure that turned out to be a monumental undertaking. Nathan's Famous containers had been whistling past my head all afternoon, and I held tight to keep mine, and my hot dog itself, from joining them.

At the condiment pumps—has baseball any two less evocative words? It’s the opposite of “Cuban defector”—ketchup and mustard streamed out horizontally, flying past my hotdog and onto the floor. As I tried to catch some on my dog, a friend tried to document the phenomenon. Four or five times she screwed up the picture and made me repeat the trick. By the time I gave up on her, the floor was covered in ketchup and my frank looked like a strange, oblong Jackson Pollock painting: Grey Poupon on highly suspect maroon meat tube.

During the stretch, another friend and I hiked to the summit of the now-deserted upper deck, to see if we could get away with smoking a cigarette in the seats. Avoiding the ushers was no problem—they were as numb as everyone else—but lighting up was nearly impossible. As my friend crouched between rows 16 and 17, failing to find shelter from wind that seemed to be coming from every direction, I thought of Jack London's "To Build A Fire," a crushing story of a Yukon traveler who stakes his life on lighting a campfire with his final match. He fails. We failed, too, until we didn’t.

Of course, London’s traveler died, and we just got to enjoy a spectacular Queens vista. Behind us, the skyline; before us, a grim Citi Field view you usually have to wait until September to see: gray skies, flying garbage, and about 37,000 empty seats. The wind at the top of the stadium was so strong that it nearly knocked me back down the stairs. Over and over, as we endured our cigarettes, we asked each other, "What the fuck are we doing here?"

We certainly hadn't come to watch baseball. You can watch baseball at home, complete with highly digressive Keith Hernandez commentary and pitch tracking and Allstate trivia questions. On SNY, there’s even a little graphic sponsored by Cholula hot sauce that comes up whenever a pitcher throws a ball in the upper 90s.

All nice enough, but we come to the ballpark to cut through those distractions, to press our nose right up against a game we love. Most Major League teams don't understand this, or at least are unsure enough of it to assault us with branded stadium promotions, blaring batting music, and endless clamoring for everybody to clap their hands. On a bad day, the din is deafening. On a good day, the canned sound fades away, and the fan gets something that's rare outside of a theater—a chance to lose himself in beautiful meaninglessness.

We also go to the to sit in the sun. To eat hotdogs with mustard without having to catch the mustard in mid-air. To scream and yell and get drunk and spit obscenities at athletes who are too rich to care and too far from the cheap seats to hear us. None of this was possible on Sunday afternoon, and at the end of the eighth, the Mets still losing, I let my friends talk me into leaving. Of course, the Mets rallied—showing joy that did not match the rest of the afternoon—but as I stumbled on to the 7 train, I felt like I hadn't seen any baseball at all.

This has happened twice before: once because R.A. Dickey threw a complete-game shutout so quickly that it seemed to end before I took my seat, the other because of a pregaming miscalculation that saw me black out on the subway ride to the ballpark. I have a picture from the blackout game, showing me with half a sandwich hanging out of my mouth, a big dumb grin on my face. Clearly, you don't need sobriety to have a good time, but you do need something—a picture, a bruise, a hangover—to help you remember.

Those fans who stuck around for the bottom of the ninth, I understand. They got what they were praying for. When I'm not shivering uncontrollably, I count myself among those who choose to bear witness to this lost team. But if I wasn't going to go the distance on Sunday, why did it take me so long to leave? Some experiences require the ballpark. You can watch baseball on TV, sure. But to smoke a cigarette with the skyline at your back, and a nearly-empty stadium at your feet, the players tiny and alive so far down, playing baseball that counts? For that, you have to go to Citi Field.

And when it’s that cold, when your friends want to go and the Mets aren’t hitting and it’s still April, with so many sweeter, warmer afternoons ahead, you have to go home. Or at least I did. There was a die-hard sitting behind us in section 534 who thought otherwise. His daughters were huddled on his lap, sobbing for Daddy to take them home. "We'll go, sweetheart," he promised as we left. "As soon as the Mets score a few runs."

Images courtesy of Nate Jones.


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