Sunday, June 15, 2008

Knock It Out of the Park, Peanut!

After the fact, that is after I spent the money and the experience had come and gone, I did some comparisons. A ticket to a Chicago Cubs game in mid-June -- and every home game in June counts as a "prime" game, that is, more expensive compared with "regular" and "value" games -- at a middle distance behind home plate will run you $66. (All summer games are in fact, prime; the value games are mostly in April, and a few in May, when there's some chance you'll freeze your kippers off watching a baseball game.)

Compare: a ticket behind home plate in mid-June at a Schaumburg Flyers game costs $11. I was able to buy tickets to the Flyers game last Friday, with a fine view of home plate, for my entire family plus an old family friend, for $55, less than going alone to Wrigley would have cost. Not counting extras.

Of course, there are $20 tickets at Wrigley on a prime game days. These are called Upper Deck Reserved, which might be ideal for people with enhanced bionic vision. And, amazingly, the bleachers at Wrigley aren't the least expensive tickets -- the bleachers, where you don't even get a reserved seat, and the risk of being thrown up on is very real. They go for $45 on prime dates.

So, to editorialize, and I'm hardly the first to notice: MLB = a pack of gouging bastards. Certain counter-arguments can be made -- the players are better in MLB; a place like Wrigley Field is very special indeed; and MLB is only charging what the market will bear. All those things are true, but not so true that I'm going to pay $66 for an experience when I can pay $11 for one that's just as pleasing, and vastly more convenient. The MLB experience at Wrigley Field is not six times better than the Northern League experience at Flyers Stadium -- which, by the way, took Wrigley Field as its inspiration.

On Friday the 13th the Flyers played the Gary Southshore Railcats. After skies that threatened rain most of the day, the warm evening sported puffy clouds, colored by the waning Sun, ideal for baseball and sitting around outside. We arrived in about the third inning, after not hurrying through our dinner of hamburgers and chips at home. From not far behind home plate, we got a good look at not only the pitching, catching, swinging and hitting, but also the crowds on either side of home, the cheerleaders (officially the Flyers Dance Team) who came out several times, the brief contests between select fans -- hitting a golf ball, tossing tennis balls -- and the Flyers mascot, a man-sized teddy bear with aviator goggles. He didn't actually run around on the field that much, but instead waved a lot. Must be hot in that suit. Happily, the cheerleaders were in little risk of overheating in their uniforms.

Naturally, MLB players are going to be technically more proficient. One of the Flyers pitchers -- let's be charitable here -- was still working on that strike zone concept, for example. But on the whole, the Flyers and the Railcats played some good ball. The crack of the bat sent balls both fair and foul, infielders and outfields caught some and missed others, and men were safe or out. The crowd made noise, people were in more or less constant motion up and down the stairs, a few vendors came by, and food and drink was sold and consumed. The place smelled of beer and nachos. There were plenty of sound effects, but few fancy electronic scoreboard displays. The batter's name, number and a few other details were posted electronically, and lights tracked strikes, balls and outs. But the score itself was posted manually. Nice retro touch, that.

The Railcats took an early lead, the Flyers nearly caught up -- Flyer Peanut Williams, the designated hitter, clearly the crowd's favorite all evening, hit a homer early on -- but a little later the Railcats got more runs and at one point led 6-1. Then the Flyers rallied in a quick, exciting way, having a couple of very good innings, and toward the end of the game it was Railcats-Flyers 9-8.

All this time, the boys in the seats behind us kept up a constant patter. Lads of 12 or 13, they were obviously good friends. It could have been awful, moronic chatter, but it wasn't -- they were bright lads, occasionally funny. Mostly they wanted to talk to each other about rock and punk music. For boys that age, they had an astonishingly broad, if not particularly deep knowledge of bands popular 30 or 40 years ago. And strong opinions: Ozzy Osbourne = Megalegend! The Sex Pistols = Never Mind the Bollocks! If You Don't Know KISS = You Don't Know Rock 'n' Roll! They disparaged hip-hop, country music and emo. "I'm gonna lock myself in my room, eat ice cream, listen to emo, and cut myself," one of them said. Ice cream?

They were also eager to see foul balls come their direction, despite the netting behind home plate, and excitedly made up stories about what happened to various fouls. "It hit the owner, man. He's unconscious! His tooth went that way!" We could have had a lot worse chattering neighbors.

The end of the game could have come straight out of a baseball movie. In the top of the ninth, the Flyers didn't allow any Railcat hits, so the game entered the bottom of the ninth still Railcats-Flyers 9-8. Before long it was two outs, with men on third and second. Peanut Williams came to bat. Yeah! Hit it, Peanut! Ball, strike... then he hit a bouncing ball to one of the infielders, who didn't quite have control of it for a moment, but tossed it to first just as Peanut arrived at the base.

Peanut was out. Game over. The crowded booed loudly. "Kill the umpire!" someone said. Wait, that was me. Of course I didn't really want to harm the fellow. It just seemed like part of hallowed baseball tradition to say it. The stadium was so loud at that moment that no one heard my contribution anyway, and pretty soon the crowd moved passed its brief anger (Schaumburg 2008 isn't San Salvador 1969). We had fireworks to look forward to.

We'd picked June 13 because it was one of the half-dozen fireworks nights at Flyers stadium. A few minutes after the final out, we were treated to about 20 minutes of fireworks, shot off from behind the center field fence. What's a summer without some fireworks?

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