July nights on the plains of southern Kansas are hotter than July days in many places. Ninety degrees is not uncommon at sundown, and as I settled into my seat behind home plate, I saw a thermometer near the batters box that said it was ninety-two. I put my feet up on the empty seat in front of me and took a quick inventory of my surroundings. Down on the field the Wichita Wranglers were finishing their warm-ups while the opposing managers talked near the dugout. They looked comfortable with each other, like they were old friends. The buildings of downtown Wichita, glowing in the golden light of sunset, shimmered like a mirage beyond the outfield fences. Music and the rumble of generators drifted into the ballpark from a carnival across the parking lot. Behind the third base grandstand I could see the top of a Ferris wheel, a beacon of florescent color taking riders for a turn. Over the loud-speakers came an announcement that the search for the dirtiest car in the parking lot was already underway. I heard nervous laughter behind me. Kids ran shouting along the main aisles while their parents followed with deliberate steps, their hands full with nachos and pretzels and sodas in giant cups.
After a girl from a local high school sang the National Anthem the game got underway, and it moved along with that easy, measured pace that makes baseball so agreeable. In the bottom of the fourth inning, a young prospect named Alex Gordon took his turn at the plate. Earlier he had belted a home run over the Chevrolet billboard in right field, and the crowd buzzed in anticipation of seeing another one. The pitcher may have been worried about seeing another one too, because he kept shaking off the signs. Finally the catcher went out to have a talk. During the lull the third baseman drew lines in the dirt with his shoe. No one seemed to be in much of a hurry, even the umpire, who finally strode out to the pitcher’s mound to break up the conference. The voice on the loudspeaker filled the void by announcing the results of the “Dirtiest Car” contest. The winners carried on like they had won the Powerball. Behind the first base dugout a cluster of teenage girls tried repeatedly to start a wave. What a shame they couldn’t channel that same enthusiasm toward something important, like their education or cleaning their bedrooms.
In the fifth inning I went to the concession stand and bought a hot dog and a beer. When it comes to hot dogs I am usually ambivalent, but not at a baseball game. I don’t know why they taste better at the ballpark than anywhere else, but they do, especially if there is sauerkraut on the condiment bar. The best hot dog I ever had was at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. They call them Dodger Dogs, and they are sold either grilled or steamed, so buying a Dodger Dog is not a passive exercise. Some thought and a decision are required of the buyer, but the effort is well worth it, because the flavor of the Dodger Dog is delectable.
As I recalled the tasty delights of Dodger Stadium, I made a mental list of all the other major league ballparks I had been lucky enough to see in my lifetime. It turned out to be a fair number, and besides the hot dogs I undoubtedly ate, each one held a memory that made it unique. Like seeing Pete Rose play in one of his final games on the same day I discovered Dodger Dogs. Or Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, where my father took my brothers and me to see the Pirates play in 1968. The great Roberto Clemente was in right field. In Anaheim I saw Dave Winfield hit a line-drive homerun over the left field wall. From the moment the ball left his bat it was never more than 15 ft. off the ground. The fan that caught it is probably still bruised. At U. S. Cellular Field in Chicago I stood in the upper concourse and listened to gunshots coming from the housing projects across the Dan Ryan Expressway. At first I thought they were firecrackers, but someone with local knowledge set me straight. In Houston I saw Randy Johnson strike out thirteen batters before he was relieved in the seventh inning. The ballpark was still Enron Field then. Now it is safely renamed after an orange juice company. At Coors Field in Denver a limousine dropped us off right in front of our gate, as if we were somebody special. In Kansas City I took my first child to her first baseball game at Royals Stadium. At Rangers Stadium in Arlington I saw Rudolph Giuliani, still universally admired as America’s Mayor, throw out the first pitch.
My favorite baseball experience was at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Wrigley was built when steel was meant to be seen and admired, not hidden behind frilly facades, and her girders and joists and rivets have remained proudly exposed for almost one hundred years. The bowels beneath the grandstands are narrow and industrial. There are no wide, gleaming concourses, no glass-walled restaurants or clubs with private escalators. Blue-collar vendors sell hot dogs, bratwurst, pizza and calzones and Italian beef sandwiches, and the whole place smells like all of those things, smothered in grilled onions.
There is a joke that says the reason people go to Wrigley Field is for the party, and sometimes a baseball game breaks out. That seemed to be the case on the day I was there. It was the year after Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire’s epic homerun competition was given credit for saving baseball. On a sparkling June afternoon in the middle of the week, the house was full and boisterous, as it usually is. Sosa hit a home run that day, too, and I was one of the few who seemed to notice.
I attended my first major league baseball game in Texas, when I saw the Houston Colt 45’s play. I was ten or eleven years old. The Colt 45’s were an expansion team and a young Joe Morgan was their second baseman. Later, renamed the Houston Astros, they moved into the Astrodome, which proud Texans, ever famous for their modesty, christened as the Eight Wonder of the World.
It was in the Astrodome that I saw Colonel Keds fly from third base to first base with a jet-pack strapped to his back. The stunt was a promotion for the Keds shoe company, and I was probably wearing a pair of their high-top sneakers as I watched him, because I truly believed they would make me run faster and jump higher, like their TV commercials promised. His flight, short as it was, was a marvel of 1960’s technology, and everyone who saw it came away convinced we would all be flying around with rockets on our backs in just a few short years. The noise that roared out of that little engine is still the loudest sound I have ever heard.
Many years later, at old Busch Stadium in St. Louis, I saw Albert Pujols hit a ball into the upper deck in left field. The fact that it was barely foul tempered the joy of the crowd hardly at all. Before the game I watched my friend Rick Lawless jostle with little kids for home run balls hit during batting practice. He had insisted we stop at a sporting goods store on the way to the stadium so he could buy a glove, just for that purpose. He was shut-out completely by children who were quicker and more agile. It remains one of the funniest things I have ever seen, but at the same time it was a little sad, because the whole point of it was to catch a ball for his son. Rick died of cancer last year in April. He was forty-two years old.
In the top of the eight inning, the center fielder for the Arkansas Travelers hit a grand-slam and the game got away from the home team. Wrangler fans headed for the exits, despite the valiant efforts of Wilbur T., the team mascot. I stayed in my seat because, in my view, baseball is about more than the game being played on the field. To me it’s about the total experience, and that includes the ebb and flow of the contest certainly, but just as important are the sights and the sounds and the smells and the tastes, and the sideshows, like the dizzy bat races and T-shirt shooting cannons, mascot wrestling, Kiss Cam, recorded organ music and fireworks. I like all of it, and I’m usually not anxious for it to end. When I’m at the ballpark I leave my stresses and worries outside the gates. My daily problems have no place in a world that is so laid-back they don’t even bother to keep track of the time.
But the good people of Wichita apparently had other ideas, because if a man dressed like a horse wearing baseball uniform couldn’t make them stay, what else could. They had other places to be on a hot July night. The lure of the carnival must have been too strong.