Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What $1.30 Used to Buy

Exactly thirty-nine years have passed since my father took my two brothers, a friend, and me to Shea Stadium. It was the afternoon of August 14, 1974, five days after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. But I’d hazard a guess the Watergate scandal and the historic changing of the guard in Washington were not on my radar. Baseball—and only baseball—was.

The Mets were saddled with all kinds of injuries in 1974, including star pitcher Tom Seaver’s ongoing battle with nagging sciatica in his left hip. He was uncharacteristically struggling and, when all was said and done, my revered idol went 11-11 on the year and my favorite team, an unimpressive 71-91. (The Mets had won the National League Pennant the year before.) Still, it was an exciting afternoon as we plopped ourselves down wherever we darn pleased in the far reaches of the upper deck—grandstand seats for $1.30 a pop and closer than anyone else in the ballpark to the airborne planes taking off and landing at nearby LaGuardia Airport. As a boy, I always loved those loud, periodic interruptions, particularly the spitting sounds of the planes’ engines that drowned out the stadium din for a fleeting moment. It was part of the unique and unrivaled ambiance of attending a game at the “Big Shea”—and even added spice to listening to home games on the radio and watching them on TV.

Courtesy of today’s ready access to information, I discovered that the Mets beat the Los Angeles Dodgers three to two on that day, scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to pull it out. Normally, I remember details like this, but I have no recollection of the game itself or that Tom Seaver was the starting pitcher. Tug McGraw got the win in relief. I have this faint memory, though, of my father insisting we leave an inning early to avoid the post-game parking lot’s traffic snarl. Attendance was 33,125. It was one of his hang-ups, which I can appreciate now having inherited his “I really and truly don’t like driving and excessively fret about things like traffic” gene. Nevertheless, this early departure meant that we missed a thrilling, come-from-behind, bottom of the ninth inning victory. (Thrilling for me, I should add, and not my die-hard Yankee fan and Mets’ hating father.) I imagine we were listening to the game on the car radio as we headed back home. I’d wager, too, that I was simultaneously ecstatic at the win and disgusted at having missed it live and in person.

Suffice it to say that 1974 was a vastly different time for the world in general and baseball in particular. We traveled from the Bronx to Shea Stadium in Queens on the game day—a twenty-five or so minute ride—and purchased tickets at a ticket booth for $1.30 each. An in-law of mine recently ventured to the new Yankee Stadium—the House that Ruth Didn’t Build. He spent $75 for tickets that were far from the best seats in the house and spoke of the stadium runways being more like shopping malls than the hot dog and beer-smelling passageways—with the sticky concrete floors from copious concession spillages—that we both recalled so fondly. (I’d add to these evocative olfactory memories the urine and urine-masking deodorants from the stadium’s bathrooms.) A trip to the ballpark used to be foremost about the game of baseball and rooting for the home team, not going on an expensive shopping spree and dining on Penne a la Vodka and exotic-flavored rice pilaf during the game in an upscale eatery.

The game has been remade by an uber-corporate mentality that has completely refashioned the baseball brand to suit the times and the ever-waning attention spans of its customer base. It’s hardly the affordable family game that it once was, and it’s not the American pastime anymore. What is? Major League Baseball is marketed as an event—a happening. The game on the field is secondary to all the glitzy, technological distractions and the unrelenting clamor. And, to add insult to injury, there are the A-Rods who make mega-millions of dollars and cheat on top of that, rendering records suspect at best and often meaningless.

The simple pleasure of attending a baseball game at Shea Stadium and sitting in the upper deck in the summer of 1974—even if my impatient father ruined the denouement for me—is gone with the winds of time. There will never be another outfield featuring the likes of Cleon Jones, Don Hahn, and Rusty Staub. I’m happy, though, to have been a youthful fan in an era when the bottoms of my PRO-Keds sneakers got all sticky as I exited the ballpark, and I when didn’t have to pass by the Hard Rock CafĂ© and Wholly Guacomole on the way out.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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