Thursday, July 18, 2013

When the stars come out to play in your backyard

Since Citi Field opened in 2009 it had been readily assumed that it would, eventually, be hosting an All-Star Game so the new building could be put on display. After all, the Mets' own mediocre prevented Citi Field from getting any truly significant attention on national television that a new building might gain from, say, postseason appearances. Instead it sat there with the occasional ESPN Sunday night game and little other exposure. So an All-Star Game, a fixed exhibition awarded arbitrarily, seemed the most likely option.

Given that the stadium is now in its fifth season, however, it seems clear that a few obstacles stood in the way. For one, the All-Star Game was played in New York not too long ago if you remember, and MLB, understandably, is generally loathe to host major events in the same place twice in close proximity. Then there was perhaps the bigger issue that several other new stadiums had opened earlier with nary an All-Star Game to show for it. After all, the host of the 2011 MLB All-Star Game, Chase Field in Arizona, had been open 13 years before it finally got the chance to host the midsummer classic.

And so it was that Citi Field's first chance to host the All-Star Game -- and the Mets' first chance to host the All-Star Game in 49 years -- waited four years until earlier this week. The Home Run Derby was held Monday, July 15 and the game itself was played Tuesday, July 16. The dates themselves are relatively inconsequential for most of you, but those of you who know me will note that July 14, the day before the Home Run Derby is my birthday.

Put it all together and you get this: My favorite team would be hosting the All-Star Game for the first time in five decades two days after my birthday. There was no way in hell I was going to miss any of it.

With a little help from my parents and a good friend at Major League Baseball, I was right where I belonged Monday and Tuesday night, and in two whirlwind days it ended up being quite the wild and crazy few days -- though I will tell you now, the first was crazier than the second.

First, to understand what it was like to sit through both of these events you must be aware of one, particular, irrefutable fact: It was really fucking hot. New York is currently in the midst of an absolutely brutal heat wave, which has me even more anticipatory about my impending vacation (more on that later), which meant temperatures for both the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game were hovering in the mid-to-low 90s. This meant that all of us by the end of the night were disgustingly sweaty and gross, a fact not lost on the customer service at Citi Field.

As I arrived at 5 pm so I could maximize my chances of catching a baseball during All-Star batting practice I was lumped into lines with thousands of other sweaty, gross people -- though I'm betting the rest of them didn't down day-old BBQ on the subway train. Gates opened at 5:15, off I went to the field, and there I was watching the best of the best (according to internet voters) take their hacks, launch some incredible bombs and, curiously, practice bunting on more than one occasion. Among the fun things I learned while watching the American League warm up, as you can see to the left: Dustin Pedroia is really, really tiny.

After having a few baseballs come nearby and one toss into the crowd by Kansas City's Alex Gordon hit my glove (but not in the wedding), I left the field baseball-less after the NL's batting practice and headed to my seats in the 300 level in left field. I came to this decision because only those ticketed for the 100-level outfield were allowed to shag balls there and because I counted roughly the same number of balls thrown into the 300 level as the field level with far fewer people to compete with. However once the NL was done hitting the AL came out and the players stretching in the outfield apparently forgot there were fans in the upper decks hoping to get a baseball or two. Such is life.

Eventually my friend Shankar showed up and we sat in our seats resigned to the fact that we were unlikely to get a baseball until Michael Cuddyer and Yoenis Cespedes both hit 400-plus-foot homers that landed within a few seats of us in the first round of the derby. It was at this point we were convinced we were right in position to catch a baseball before the night was over, which, of course, never actually happened.

The Home Run Derby itself is an interesting event to see, and while it has a reputation among many as being fairly boring, I didn't find it to be so, and I certainly found it far more pleasant to watch in person than on TV for the simple reason that I was spared hearing Chris Berman's "back-back-back" call 174 times. Also, it did get me this totally sweet picture of Cespedes launching the winning jack in front of a packed house. Zoom in and you'll actually see it, but hey, I was a bit far from home plate at the time. All in all, despite the weather and the lack of souvenir baseballs, it was a pretty fun evening, and one I'll always be happy to look back on as something I wanted to experience. I will note, however, that perhaps MLB could have stirred up drama between Bryce Harper and Cespedes' turns in the final round with better means than frisbee-catching dogs.

Once the derby ended, however, things got weird. Apparently a fire occurred on the 7 Train line at 103rd Street just before the Derby ended, which resulted in a temporary shutdown of the line between Main Street Flushing and 74th street and Broadway. This might have been the worst possible time for that to happen considering the 7 train is the only one that services Citi Field, this was, to this point, the largest event in the history of the stadium and there were probably about 30,000 of us expecting to take the subway home.

Oh, and did I mention yet that we were all hot and sweaty?

What followed was, potentially, a very irritable cocktail of sticky, frustrated passengers, all of whom were essentially herded to the nearby LIRR as our only means of rail-based egress. This was problematic considering the LIRR isn't meant to handle nearly this much traffic at game-time. While it did result in possibly my most favorited and retweeted period of social media activity it was not, shall we say, pleasant. We could not wait to be on an air-conditioned train car and by the time we finally were word reached everyone on the packed train that the 7 was now back up and running.

On the plus side, however, all of my retweeting resulted in Newsday contacting me to be interviewed for an article about the incident, which in turn led to the first ever Google News Alert I've gotten after I was quoted in this article as well.

Clearly the All-Star Game itself would have quite a bit to live up to, but since that is generally assumed to be the more exciting of the two events I wasn't all that concerned. I had seats a little further out in left center for Tuesday night, which essentially felt like being in center field, and for the most part Mike and I realized the game was, well, just a baseball game -- and if we're being honest, a relatively boring one at that -- but there was still something special about witnessing the sturm und drang of the pre-game ceremony and the sheer collection of baseball talent on the field in front of you.

Also, it must be said that as a Mets fan, there was certainly something special about watching the future ace of your staff start an All-Star Game (and throw two shutout innings) in front of his home crowd. And if you weren't wowed by Matt Harvey's pitching, you at least had to be impressed with his shoes. Given that two of the three hits conjured up by a stunningly anemic NL offense were by players likely to enter the Hall of Fame as Mets (Carlos Beltran and David Wright) and that NL manager Bruce Bochy left Wright in the game for three full turns at bat, and you really can't be all that disappointed with what you saw if you root for the Amazins. It would have been nice to see the National League win the game of course, but do I really care if the Cardinals or Braves get home field in the World Series? No, not particularly. I came to see my guys do well. And for the most part, they did.

It was certainly interesting, however, to watch how differently Bochy and AL manager Jim Leyland ran the game. For Bochy, this was a show. It was about getting different NL players the opportunity to say they had appeared in an All-Star Game and it was about giving the home fans the chance to see their stars get attention. For Leyland, this was clearly about winning. Leyland left each of his starting fielders in through the first five innings with the exception of Robinson Cano, who was hit by a pitch in the first inning. Strangely, though, Leyland did remove AL starting pitcher Max Scherzer after only one inning of work, possibly because Leyland didn't want to put pointless strain on the arm of one of his own players.

Leyland did have one bid for showmanship, though, and it was far better than the showmanship put on by Citi Field's graphics people, who apparently thought Neil Diamond came to New York from either heaven or Cloud City on Bespin. When Mariano Rivera was brought on for the eighth inning of what is expected to be his final All-Star Game, Leyland held back his fielders and let the man have the field to himself in the city he has called home throughout his career -- if not the same stadium. Rivera, however, is one of those rare players who transcends rivalries by virtue of his own greatness. To not appreciate him is to not appreciate the game itself.

It did not quite strike me at the time, but to realize after the fact that I was witness to such a moment is something I will always remember, even if I am no fonder of the pinstripes than I was before Tuesday night. It might have been a bit nicer for me if it was a Met soaking up that praise on the mound, but those days for players like Wright and Harvey will come eventually. They will have their moments. I'm just glad that after four years of waiting for the All-Star Game to come to Citi Field, I witnessed someone have theirs -- and in a strange way, it made me feel like the moment was mine.

As a final sidenote to this post, those of you who sit by computers and hang on my blog's words -- which you really shouldn't do since I've been writing somewhat infrequently these days -- you will have to wait a while until my next entry. That is because this Sunday I will be leaving the U.S. for 19 days and heading to Kenya and Tanzania, where I will be seeing the wonder of the Great Rift Valley, going on safari and then conquering (hopefully) the roof of Africa. Hopefully Harvey doesn't throw a no-hitter while I'm gone. It is incredibly unlikely that I will actually update this blog from there, though given my penchant for long-winded updates, I suppose it is possible, but you will get to hear about it plenty when I return.

And if that isn't enough to sate you, well, this All-Star Blog is long enough. I'll probably be back by the time you finish reading it.

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