Take me out to the ball game

Back in March this year a posh looking envelope landed on the mat at TBIR towers.  Not one of our normal bills or another letter from Sullivan and Gold telling me that they have now sold 1m season tickets but there is still space for me.  This was an invite no less to the social event of the year – the wedding of our New York correspondent Luge and his lovely American girlfriend Katie.  Bank Holiday weekend in New York then ?  Don’t mind if I do.

Of course I immediately checked fixtures for all known sports to see what I can sneak in.  Well, as we will find out you cannot sneak in a game in the US – a simple 60 minute NFL game for instance is a 3 to 4 hour affair.  I had hoped for a New York Red Bulls game or a Yankees baseball game but was out of luck, sort of.  Red Bulls were at home but with a 7.30pm kick off on Saturday night I do not think CMF would have been happy if I would have left the wedding reception to go to the game.

So I had to settle for a trip out to CitiField to get a New York Mets game on Sunday afternoon.  New York is going through a bit of a sporting boom again with new stadiums popping up all over the place.  Last year both the Yankees and the Mets moved into new “ball parks”, Red Bulls christened their new stadium with a game against Spurs last month, and next weekend the new 90,000 seater Giants stadium will open its doors as the new American football season starts.

Friday night was a chance for everyone to catch up.  Over thirty people had flown in from the UK for the event and so after a few drinks we headed off down to Chinatown, and the legendary Joe Shanghai’s for soup dumplings – literally dumpling filled with soup that unless you are prepared will shoot scolding hot soup all over you on first bite.  So good is this restaurant that we had to queue for nearly 30 minutes to get it.  It is similar to the infamous Wong Kei restaurant in London with fast turnaround of diners, shared tables and no finesse.  But the food was bloody great, and a few Tsingtao beers went down very nicely.  Next up was the Back Door bar, somewhere close to the East river.  Pass under a sign for the East River Toy Company, down a dark alley, up some steps and then give a secret knock and you are in.  Bottled beer is served in brown paper bags, draft beer in coffee mugs and spirits in tea cups for that authentic prohibition feel.

So after a fantastic day of shopping and sightseeing on Saturday, we headed off to the wedding in Madison Square Park, which almost didn’t take place.  The plan was to hold a very short ceremony in the park but as soon as a bunch of well dressed guests turned up in the middle of a roasting hot day we sort of drew attention to ourselves.  And when that happens anywhere in the US you can be sure that within seconds a man with a gun will turn up.  You simply cannot walk into a park and decide to get married.  Whilst it was licensed to hold the ceremony, you needed a permit, and the permit was with the bride, who hadn’t yet arrived.  So we stood waiting, with a couple of park cops watching our every move just in case we tried to sneak the ceremony in.

However, a quick call from the bride to the powers that be and the wedding went ahead in the shadow of the Flatiron (did you know it is actually called the Fuller building?) before we ended up partying in a loft apartment somewhere near the Hudson River.  So Sunday saw us wake up in a delicate state and head down to Pier 11 where a free, yes that is FREE, river taxi would take us up the East River and around to the top of Queens where the new CitiField is located.

The new stadium replaced Shea stadium back in 2009, being built next door before the old one that had so much history was torn down.  The Shea was best remembered for a single concert – on 15th August 1965 the Beatles played to a then record 55,600 screaming fans.  Now here are two bits of trivia for you.  Firstly, the Beatles only played 12 songs on that night and were on stage less than 45 minutes.  Unable to hear each other the concert became pointless, but went down in history.  A year later they returned to play another sell out concert which was the be their fourth last ever concert (for the record their last one was on 29th August 1966 in San Francisco).

The boat trip was a fantastic way of seeing the Manhattan skyline from a different view, and taking the hair of the dog as medicine, the trip was a pleasure.  We docked on Queens Marina, a five minute walk away from the stadium.  I am not going to bore you with the ball by ball details of the game, but here are my five observations on US sport based on my afternoon at the game.

1. The actual game itself is a distraction to the whole day – Having seen all types of US sport and partaken in the pre-match entertainment you can understand why they make a whole of it. Fans get to games, such as this baseball game 4 HOURS before kick off to fire up the grills in the car park and crack open some Bud Lites (just as horrible in terms of taste but only half the calories!). They take their seats about an hour before, although there are reasons for this. For instance, this game was designated the “Build a Bear Workshop Family day” which mean that the first 20,000 fans through the turnstiles all got a limited edition Build a Bear free. Next week it is fleece blanket day. eBay must have been kept in business solely through these give-aways in the past few years.

During the actual game itself, the ridiculous amounts of breaks in play allow the clubs to try and keep the fans amused. The fans cannot sit still for more than 5 minutes at a time. The amount of distracts to an English soccer fan is hard to believe. Baseball is a fluid game – each team can bat for fifteen or more minutes per innings, or it can be as little as two minutes. Times that by eighteen and you have a full match that can last for up to four hours. The simple reason for this is the amount of breaks in play. The clubs want you to spend as much money in the stadium as possible and that means stopping the game every few minutes so you can buy your pizza, pasta, chicken, hot dogs, corn dogs or simply just lumps of fried dough. Want a beer? Sure you do, but woe betide anyone who turns up without ID. I am 40 years old, currently looking older, yet I have to show my ID to get a beer. I can buy as much cholesterol loaded fried dough as I want though but not weak gassy alcohol. Every break in the game was some kind of competition. “Today’s ridiculous hat winner is Freddie Sanchez (queue picture of Freddie looking like a dork) who wins a gift card to Hats-r-us, the Mets official novelty hat supplier”, “Today’s best use of the word Awesome goes to Awesome Andy Andersen who wins some naff baseball cards”. I think you get the picture.

2. It’s all about the Stats – All US sports are dominated by stats. Look at any American Football game and it is all about the win/loss ration – The Giants are 3 and 2 meaning they have won more than they have lost. Why not say they just have 6 points? Any new batsman coming up to the square to face the next ball had his whole record plastered over the screen. Apparently David Wright was .276 – what does that mean? I can work out what HR’s were but based on the stats I could see for one of the Mets best players he hit the ball every fourth ball, and then every ninth ball he actually ran to first base without being run out. And he is probably paid $10million per annum for doing that. So what does this mean?

1st innings – Groundout (3 and 2)
3rd innings – Caught leftfield
5th innings – Run to midfield
7th innings – Flyball to left field

And how do the fixtures work? The league is split into two halves (as too is the MLS and the NFL) – the National League and the American League. It is then further divided into three apparent regional divisions. However, teams don’t just play teams from their own division, they play all over the shop. So the Mets being in a division with teams from Atlanta, Florida, Washington and Philadelphia, but will then play the teams from the Central and West leagues, yet their points are added to the East group. So its like Chelsea playing in the Champions league Group stages with Barcelona, Ajax and AC Milan but earning their points by playing Real Madrid, PSV and Inter.

3. Ticket prices – When the new Yankee stadium opened its doors last year it did so with less of a capacity than the old one, but more importantly with the highest average ticket price in any American sport, giving the likes of Chelsea, West Ham (Have I mentioned that its £37 for a child for the game against Chelsea in two weeks?), Barcelona and Real Madrid a run for their money. Sure, minimum price tickets start from $23 but these are in the “bleachers” – the area of the stadium we would refer to as “in the Gods”. Prices cascade down from here to over $400 for a spot behind the plate. Whilst the new Mets and Yankee stadiums are impressive, neither provides much protection from the weather nor are in the easiest areas to get to. On our scorching hot Sunday afternoon, less than 10% of the stadium offered any shade. If it was a very wet April night then again less than 10% would stay dry. My advice – buy the cheapest ticket and then half way through the game simply wander down to any other section and sit there. I am sure in some states that is a crime punishable by 5 years of hard labour, but so far so good in terms of getting away with it.

4. If it moves, sponsor it – In a car crash in New York? Well head to the Hospital of Specialist Surgery, the “Official hospital of the Mets”. And on your way, dont forget to phone the Official Civil Litigation partner of the Mets, perhaps using the Official Cellphone Provider of the Mets. Everything that can be sponsored, is. Simple as that. The clubs offer sponsorship packages for absolutely everything. Before each game the oh so sincere players appear on the screen with various endorsements to the “best fans in the world”. Again, another unsubstantiated claim that is designed to pamper the fans egos. Just to show my resentment at this I drank a Hoegarden which certainly wasn’t the official beer (Budweiser in case you wanted to know) and ate a non-sponsored hot dog instead of a Nathan’s, which as you guessed is the Official Hot Dog of the Mets.

5. Who really cares who wins – Baseball is played almost every day of the week for five months of the year. Most teams play games in a “series” – three games on consecutive days against the same team in the same venue. I once spent a very wet weekend in Seattle where thanks to a strike I ended up going to see the Seattle Mariners play three nights in a row. At the time they were the worst team in the league and whilst the first night was a novelty, by the third night the crowd of less than 5,000 seemed bored out of their heads by the only show in town. Fans are not passionate – they cheer at the right moments, but if their team get stuffed they simply tuck into another corn dog or clam chowder and shrug it off. Perhaps that is the right attitude to have. It was strange wandering around the stadium and seeing so many fans sporting Yankees merchandise. Imagine a Spurs fan with his overpriced Puma shirt on wandering around the Emirates whilst Arsenal bored West Ham.

The Mets scored four “runs” off one hit – called a home run with the bases loaded if you wanted to know – meaning that the other one hundred or so produced virtually nothing. There was a big cheer, a few whoops but in general the crowd saw the game as a distraction. A few years ago I was lucky enough to get a ticket to see the Yankees play Boston Red Sox. Apparently this was the game that would have the most atmosphere as the clubs and fans hated each other. After Boston took a 8-0 lead with just over half the game played, what did the Yankees fans do? Nothing? No cheering of encouragement, no booing of disgust, nothing but apathy. This game came off the back of an even bigger defeat the night before as well. Everyone simply talked up the game the next night (which the Yankees also got stuffed in). But is this the future model of sport where the game is the most important aspect and not the result?

For the record the New York Mets beat the Houston Astros 5-1. Their star player, Carlos Beltran, who is paid $17million per season to basically hit a ball once or twice with little effect. Fielding is hardly a skill in the game with each player holding a huge mit that makes dropping a cap almost impossible. Sure, the pitcher is the one player who has to have an element of skill – he has the power to win or lose a game and in the current climate of the potential match fixing scandal surrounding the Pakistan cricket team you can see the vulnerability of this position in determining outcomes of games. Few other players actually made a telling contribution.

Before I get a torrent of abuse from our US readers about the above I did actually enjoy the afternoon. We had one of the few seats in the shade, the Build a Bear Teddy’s made ideal gifts for the little Fullers, we ate our way through the various menus and enjoyed a beer or two. The journey to the stadium by boat was fantastic, and the air conditioned subway train on the way back was perfect on such a hot day. But could I do this two or three days in a row? Not at all. Firstly the cost is prohibitive – a ticket in the cheapest seats plus transport plus some basic refreshments will cost the best part of $40. They play 81 home games minimum – so that is over $3200! Secondly I would find it hard to prepare myself for such a commercial onslaught on more than one occasion per week. And finally there are better things to do in New York than just watch sport – yes you heard me right. I am saying that sport is not everything. At this point I am ending this piece, jumping on a flight from JFK and hoping to restore my football mojo with a trip to a FA Cup Preliminary Round replay where I will pay £5 to get in and not have to worry about my prostate or whether I show take Uriniflow, the official Prostate treatment of xyz franchise.

More pictures from the game can be seen here.

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