Monday, May 26, 2014

Nothing Beats a Sunday Doubleheader

I'm old enough to have come of baseball age at a time when Sunday doubleheaders were common. In 1961, the first year I paid close attention to the major leagues as my father and I rooted his hometown Cincinnati Reds to the National League pennant, the Reds played 19 doubleheaders, a dozen of them on Sundays. I attended two of them, both in Philadelphia thanks to my father driving us the nearly through hours from northeast New Jersey.

The first Philadelphia expedition was in mid-June, and we were a bit late, listening to Jim Maloney walk in a couple of early runs before finding a parking spot. We got a break when the Philadelphia policeman sold us a pair of tickets at face value--in the first row by the field, between home plate and the Reds' third-base dugout. Howie Nunn had relieved Maloney by that point and shut out the Phillies the rest of the way as the Reds rallied to win, 7-2. In the nightcap, Jim O'Toole pitched a slick ten-hitter as the Reds swept, 10-0.

On Labor Day, we made the drive again, and I can still vividly remember the first four batters of the first game. Elio Chacon led off with a beautiful push bunt for a single. Eddie Kasko hit a wicked line drive to left-center which barely cleared the wall for a two-run homer. Vada Pinson followed with a ground single up the middle, and Frank Robinson hit a towering shot to left field. From our seats behind first base, it looked like the kind of drive that might clear the roof. Instead, left fielder Johnny Callison made a leaping grab to rob Robby of a home run, and he made the relay in time to double off Pinson. It didn't matter. The Reds had already provided enough support for Ken Johnson, who tossed a four-hitter to win, 5-0.

Have you figured out the pattern yet? In 24 innings, we had yet to see the Phillies score a run. It was worse than that. Johnson's shutout gave the Reds an 18-1 mark against the Phillies that year, with the loss coming the night before. In the nightcap, Ken Hunt held the Phillies scoreless until the fourth inning, when they went ahead, 2-1. "Nuts!" snapped my father. "They scored--we're going!" He was joking, but it was 3-1 by the time we left after the sixth inning. The Phillies went on to win that one, 5-3.

As an original fan of the New York Mets, I saw a number of memorable Sunday doubleheaders during the 1960s. At the top of the list is the twin bill at the Polo Grounds on June 17, 1962, just two months into the franchise's existence. That was the infamous day when Marv Throneberry tripled but missed both first and second bases, an early milestone in the exasperation of manager Casey Stengel. That happened in the bottom of the first inning of the first game. In the top half, a young Cubs outfielder had smashed a sky-high blast that looked like a three-iron shot as it climbed and sailed into the center field bleachers, only the third ball hit to that spot. That outfielder was Lou Brock. The rest of the day did not maintain the same pace of unique occurrences, but so what? I had twice as many chances to see something amazing, and I remember the day more than a half-century later.

The idea of seeing two major league games in the same day is alien to the younger generations of baseball fans, but if you've experienced them, they are a joy. We know what a travesty it is that the folks who run baseball now force some teams to take the day off on Labor Day! So it was a "whoopeee" moment when the Mets got rained out on Friday and I learned that my ticket for the Sunday game against the Diamondbacks would now get me a good seat for a doubleheader. I owe that opportunity to the Wilpons. If they had spent enough money to put together a team that folks couldn't help wanting to see, Citi Field wouldn't have had enough available seats on Sunday to give rain check customers two games on a single admission.

How I came to be going to the game in the first place is the more important story. I attended the game with two good friends, whom I met about 50 feet and a dozen years apart at the Hall of Fame library, but who didn't meet each other until yesterday. I met Dan Heaton in 1991, and close to a decade later, he did the terrific editorial work on my first two books, Victory Faust and Unhittable! That wasn't surprising, since he has now put in about two decades as an editor at the Yale University Press. In recent years, he has become a season ticket holder at Citi Field, attending 15-20 games and moonlighting as a StubHub entrepreneur.

I met John Russell in 2003, when he approached the desk where I was stationed in my first year as a Hall of Fame researcher. I have written about him before, as my nominee for the "best baseball fan" I know [here's the link:]. The essence of the story is this: as a child in England, he saw American soldiers playing baseball. This was in the 1940s, and he never saw another game until the 1990s. In between, he became a fan of the game and listened to the World Series and other treats on U.S. Armed Forces Radio.

But John didn't see another game played until he retired in the 1990s and set about to see all of the major league ballparks. This year marks his 20th trip to the U.S. to watch baseball, and he has seen well over 200 games. Several things are unique about the way John has achieved the remarkable record (even the more remarkable when done by an Englishman) of seeing at least three games at 41 different parks. He has seen at least one series; this isn't some fly-by-night lark to see how many parks he can tally, but rather an excuse to explore the cities which host major league baseball (and a few minor league sites).

That's the other thing about John's approach. He doesn't drive, relying instead on public transport and, more often, his own feet. He's a museum hound and a railroad nut, attends concerts and other public events, and values few things more than a fine meal. Somehow, along the way, he became a Mets fan, so recent trips, which have involved fewer and fewer new ballparks, have seen him attending more Mets games. That was his plan on this trip, which he thinks might be his last (unless the Braves hurry up with a new ballpark or the Athletics move somewhere). All eleven games he attended were Mets games, starting with the four-game series against the Yankees, followed by three games in Washington, a three-day detour to Cooperstown, and four final games at Citi Field.

I had a fine time with John while he was here for his third Cooperstown visit. We explored some of the museum together for the first time, and he came over for dinner one evening, when Linda wowed him with a perfect roast, mushroom sauce, and an onion tart. But we looked forward to the game together on Sunday afternoon. After all his travels to this country, after close to 250 games, after sharing with me his annual written account of his latest adventures, it seemed fitting that I would join him for what might well be his final game. We had never gone to a game, though we've been corresponding about the game for eleven years and counting. It was about time.

After some confusion about tickets, Dan came up with the perfect solution. He has two season tickets in section 414, right behind the plate in the third row of his section. He gave his other ticket to John and was eventually able to secure the one next to it on StubHub. First thing last Thursday morning, I drove John to the Amtrak station in Rensselaer, near Albany, so he could return to New York City in time for that night's Mets victory over the Dodgers.

Three days later, I followed the same route, leaving home at 5:30 AM for my big adventure. I caught the 7:15 train, which is the best argument I know of for the pleasures of train travel. Instead of making the 200-mile drive to the ballpark, paying for tolls and parking, dealing with traffic and fatigue (this would be a day-trip), and making the long drive home into the wilds of central New York, I saved time, money, and effort by taking the train. It left Rensselaer at 7:15 and traveled almost entirely along the Hudson River. Most of the time, you could've spit in the river, a handy alternative with no spittoons aboard the train. I worked on some editing while letting the rolling hills and bluffs pass by, enjoying a couple of sandwiches which would largely free me from stadium food.

Originally our plan had been to go to the (single) ballgame between the Mets and Diamondbacks, then repair to Manhattan to kill a few hours before putting me on the last train (departure: 9:15 PM) back to Albany. John had even picked out a restaurant to take us to for dinner. It would be a perfect cap on the night before his flight back to England. Dan, who normally makes day-trips from New Haven, was also staying overnight in Manhattan before attending today's day game against the Pirates.

Instead of all that time in Manhattan, we got a second ballgame, and we were all delighted by the prospect. I had put Dan and John in touch via e-mail a couple of months ago, and they hit it off right away, as I expected. Just as John is the biggest non-American baseball fan I know, so Dan is the biggest American fan I know of the most popular game of the rest of the world. He even takes a leave of absence from work to watch every match of the World Cup. John is the semi-official historian and spokesman for the Aston Villa Football Club. Both men are also way more obsessed than even I am about travel logistics. Of course they'd hit it off.

After two and a half relaxing hours on the train, I was met by John at Penn Station, from which we walked eight blocks to Times Square to pick up the "7" train to Flushing at its terminus. A half-hour later, we arrived at Citi Field, 25 minutes before the gates opened and 15 minutes before Dan arrived. Within minutes, he and John were deep in conversation, discussing football and schedules. Here's a photo of Dan and John, looking like brothers:

Here's another image of them, along with one of The Apple, a great place for pre-game people-watching even though there was a cacophony of noise from a nearby carnival and a Chevrolet barker:

We spent an hour by The Apple before heading into the ballpark for a stroll before taking our seats. For the next seven hours, we savored a splendid day at the ballpark. It was a gorgeous day, belying a prediction of isolated thunderstorms. The temperature gradually rose to 81, and I came home with a ruddy tint to my bald spot. "It's a beautiful day for baseball!" I declared at the first pitch. "Let's watch two!" 

Our whole area was filled with laughter the whole day. The three of us were "on," as were the father and son in front of us and a leather-lungs a few rows back. The gentleman next to me--who bragged to me about attending the game where Marv Throneberry missed first and second--had a wonderful, robust laugh where he exercised regularly whether there was a punch line in the vicinity or not. Most of it was "you had to be there" humor, but we loved every bit of it. I got a lot of laughs, for instance, by showing everyone where I had marked "Oliver Fucking Perez" on my scorecard when that miserable wretch was brought in by the Diamondbacks. 

The crowd thinned out considerably after the first game, a dreadful game in which the Mets squandered 16 baserunners, scoring just once thanks to five double plays, and lost the game when Daniel Murphy dropped the throw on a force play with two outs in the ninth inning. The game was good only as a source of material for our sarcasm and running jokes. Only the leather-lungs and the guy with the great laugh remained for Game 2 in addition to our merry trio. Here are John and Dan looking slightly thrilled by Daisuke Matsuzaka's performance in salvaging a split (with the laugher top left):

The second game did have more brighter moments: Matsuzaka not only gave the Mets six solid innings in his first start of the year, he singled in their first run; David Wright made the defensive play of the day with a great sliding catch of a popup near the dugout; Daniel Murphy had three hits, and five on the day; and we saw the first (and possibly the last) four-hit game of Anthony Recker's career. Unfortunately, I had to do something I don't like doing--namely, leaving before a game ends. Between games, we calculated the time when I'd have to leave in order to get back to Penn Station without any stress for my 9:15 train, the last train home. At that, I wouldn't get home until 1 AM. The magic answer was 7:30. I remember grumbling at one point, "Dice-K has thrown seven pitches in eight minutes. At that rate I won't make it past the fourth inning." That got us joking about the slowest pitchers we've ever seen; my candidate was Steve Trachsel.

I wound up leaving Citi Field after the top of the eighth inning. I had only a ten-minute wait before heading back on the "7," and alit in Times Square at 8:20. That was perfect. I had one hour to walk eight blocks. I enjoyed the walk just as I had enjoyed people-watching at The Apple and on the subway. There were a lot of people wearing Rangers and Canadiens jerseys in honor of Game 4 of their conference finals, in action down the block at Madison Square Garden.

I grabbed a snack along the way and relaxed in the waiting room at Penn Station, wondering whether the Mets had held onto the 3-2 I had worked so hard to get them. At 9 PM, I went out to the big board to see if they had posted the track for the Empire train. They hadn't. A large group had gathered, and when they announced the train to New Jersey and Washington, most of the crowd raced off to get to the head of the boarding line.

A moment later, as I stood above the stairway, staring at the board, I felt someone putting a bear-hug on me. It was John. He was delighted to have found me. He and Dan had stayed till the end of the game, of course, a 4-2 Mets victory. John set himself the mission of greeting me one more time at Penn Station, partially to satisfy his curiosity about whether I could actually have witnessed the final out and still made my train. As a veteran of train travel, he just had to know. The answer was yes. 

He also wanted to exult one final time in how this doubleheader was "the apotheosis" of his American travels. It was a perfect day for baseball, and he had a much different experience from being on his own in other ballparks. He had Dan and me and a half-dozen innocent bystanders for entertainment. "You never know somebody until you've sat next to him at a ballgame," said John, who had sat  between us. Whatever could he have meant by that? I can't wait to read his British-eye view of that long-neglected but still glorious American tradition, the Sunday doubleheader. 


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Wonderful day and story.