First time at ballgame? It's unforgettable
Here is a pop quiz: What did you have for lunch on Tuesday of last week? For that matter, what did you have for lunch yesterday? For many people, those are stumpers. But a baseball fan can say what he or she had for lunch one day nearly 40 years ago, if that day was their first time at a major-league ballgame.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi never will forget going to Wrigley Field as a child, especially because of the pizza endorsed by Cubs third baseman Ron Santo (called Pro's Pizza). It was great, Girardi said, and the whole experience obviously left a good taste.
It's not just the food, either. Guy Conti, a senior on-field adviser with the Mets, has seen thousands of games since he broke in as a Class A player in 1960. But play-by-play from one earlier game stands out: "Forbes Field, Pittsburgh. I saw [Roberto] Clemente hit one out of the ballpark in the eighth inning to win it. They were playing Cincinnati, I was probably a freshman in high school. Clemente was my favorite.
"You know," Conti said, marveling still at the first game he ever saw, "that had to be 1956."
Going to a big-league game for the first time is a rite of passage like the first day of school, only without the jitters. That first look at that big, green field, that first sight of major-leaguers taking batting practice, that first sound of music from the speakers -- it sticks with you. And somehow it shapes all the other games you ever see.
It was a Teddy Ballgame
A single image can set you up for life. "Ted Williams," said Suzyn Waldman, radio broadcaster on Yankees games, recalling her first trip to Fenway Park. "I remember he had just gotten back from the [Marines]. My grandfather worked for the state and we had seats in the first row in back of the Red Sox on-deck circle. I could literally reach out and touch Ted Williams. I was told -- I don't remember saying this, but I was told -- that I said, 'Poppa, who is that man?' He said, 'Ted Williams. Why?' I am told that I said, 'Because if God is a person, that's what he looks like.' "
She said that a few nuns within earshot later attested to that conversation.
Orioles third baseman Mark Reynolds was playing in a youth baseball tournament in Kansas City when his team went to a Royals game against the Mariners. "I was 10 or 11. Basically, we just went to see Griffey play," he said of Ken Griffey Jr. "He fouled a ball off in the third inning or something and went out of the game.
"But it was cool. We were kids, we went all the way up to the upper deck. We were running all over the park, trying to catch foul balls," said Reynolds, who, like Griffey, has been a 40-homer and 100-RBI man in the majors.
Modern baseball does not have the soaring popularity of professional football, especially as a television attraction. But the experience of actually being at a big-league baseball game remains one-of-a-kind, and apparently compelling.
Major-league attendance last year was 73,061,763. That's down a bit from previous seasons, but it still represents a unique niche in American life (and in Toronto). People do like going to the ballpark, over and over. So it is only natural that everyone's first time remains an occasion to hold dear.
Helping hand with memories
Among those who attest to that is lifelong Red Sox fan Ken Revis, who has built a website, backtobaseball.com,that helps people recover details of favorite games -- especially their first. (For this scribbler, it was a twi-night doubleheader at Shea Stadium, Sept. 4, 1964, with the Dodgers' Don Drysdale throwing a shutout in the opener and Tommy Davis losing a ball in the lights to help the Mets win the nightcap.)
"My first game at Fenway Park was July 19, 1954," Revis wrote in an e-mail. "I went to the game with my brother, and my first impression, going up the ramp to the field, was how green the field was. Remember, in those days, TV was black and white, and even if you knew the game wasn't actually played in black and white, it was still a surprise to see the green field and colorful uniforms. The sounds were also new, of course. The peanut vendors, the crack of the bat, the public address announcer calling out the numbers and names of the players. I remember we arrived early and watched batting practice.
"The thing is that the players were actually real people. They joked around with one another, they sweat, and they had real hair underneath their hats. And I was in the same ballpark with them. Of course, not the least of the experience was the first taste of a ballpark hot dog. It was heavenly."
He always remembered that three Red Sox hit homers in one inning, with Williams having one of them. Revis researched it, learned that Jackie Jensen and Jimmy Piersall had the others -- and the idea for a website was born. "I felt that every fan should have the opportunity to relive their favorite games," he said.
When Braves general manager Frank Wren sees youngsters walking through a portal down the rightfield line, he thinks, "This is their day," just as it was his day as an 11-year-old when he and his dad first came through a rightfield entrance at Cincinnati's Crosley Field.
"They were playing the '69 Mets," Wren said on the field at spring training recently. "I remember Pete Rose taking infield [practice] from rightfield, and on every throw, he almost fell down because he was putting so much effort into it. It's almost like he was trying to throw out the winning run at the plate with every throw."
Dave Kaplan carries a bright First Game mental image into work every day. Who knows if he would be director of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center had he not had such a great time during his first time in the ballpark?
"How can you forget a doubleheader in which the second game goes 23 innings? Yes, my very first major-league game was the 1964 Giants-Mets doubleheader. I was 7 years old and I went with my dad. We lived in Woodridge, up in the Catskills," he said.
"Going to brand-new Shea Stadium was like a religious experience. Seeing Willie Mays, who actually played shortstop in the second-game marathon, was another incredible memory. While the second game went almost 7½ hours, I think we left in the 19th or 20th inning. My father had decided that enough was enough.
"However, my mother was at home, freaking out," Kaplan said. "She called the state police around 11 o'clock, saying that her husband and son left for a 1 p.m. baseball game and why weren't they home? When my mother, not the most sports-minded person, was informed it was a really extra long game, she was still in disbelief: 'What, are they crazy? Two games in one day, and now they want to play extra?' "
She didn't know that someone's First Game doesn't usually go on for 7 hours, 23 minutes. It generally lasts, in their mind, forever.
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