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Day Four: The Joy of Basebrawls

August 12, 2010

The bench-clearing brawl is one of the most enthralling experiences that you could possibly hope to witness live.  It’s intriguing due to its out-of-place nature in the structured, low-key environment of baseball: it takes a unique spark to turn the bullpen gardeners, hot-foot initiating benchwarmers and paycheck-counting All-Stars into active participants of a cloud-obscured, Looney Tunes fracas.

The situation in Cincinnati on Tuesday between the Reds and Cardinals was special in the sense that it had been stewing for quite some time.  Reds infielder Brandon Phillips is the kind of brash trash-talker who gets your attention, never makes it about insulting fans, and demonstrates that, most importantly, he cares about beating a division rival and has eyes on a championship.

If you’re lucky enough to witness a brawl in person, you’ll never forget it.  If it’s at your first game?  Even better.

I wasn’t much of a sports fan as a young child.  The sports scene in 1987 New York  was undergoing a bit of a renaissance at the time, with recent championships by the Mets and the Giants.  That summer was particularly humid, and my father had some renovation work to complete before my second sister would be born that September.  During a break, he grabbed a glass of lemonade and turned the television to Channel 9.  It was the first time I’d seen the grass at Shea.  The scene was a spectacle I hadn’t been exposed to.  It seemed like a great way to spend the afternoon.  “Dad, can I watch too?”  He laid down a blanket, made some sandwiches, and we watched the rest of the game as part of an impromptu living room picnic.

He would proceed to tell me about the history of baseball in New York, about the Yankees, the Giants, and most importantly, the Dodgers.  My dad grew up in Brooklyn during the heyday of Dodgerdom.  He was five when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, 13 when the Bums finally beat the Yankees in the World Series, and 16 when they moved to Los Angeles.  These were the storybook days of baseball where player salaries were in line with the rest of the blue collar population, students would sneak transistors into the classroom to follow crucial day games and you could gain admission to the stadiums with pocket change.

One of the most fascinating parts of old-time baseball lore was stickball.  Because of salaries, players often lived in the same boroughs as many of their fans.  If you were a Yankee, you lived in the Bronx.  Giants lived in Manhattan.  You didn’t move into those “other” territories.  Every neighborhood had their own pro ballplayer they’d welcome as their own.  My dad’s neighborhood was home to the great first baseman Duke Snider.  Duke would often arrive back at his townhouse following a home game around the same time that the neighborhood boys would be fully invested in a street game of stickball.  Snider would rarely turn down the chance to take a couple of hacks at the improvised sewer cap/home plate before retiring for the night.  My father’s recall of these memories resonated as significant.

The next day, the paperboy dropped off our copy of the Staten Island Advance, the local newspaper for the borough.  I flipped to the agit page of the sports section, looked at the standings and schedules and set the course for my adolescent fanhood.  Knowing nothing about previous team histories and current performance, I chose the teams I would follow and locked them in.  Basketball and hockey were easy since the Knicks and Rangers were the only teams that officially played their games within New York City limits.  From there, I chose the Giants and Mets to round out the Big Four Sports.  My mind was made up, there was no turning back.

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Fast forward five years later.  After finishing elementary school, my father rewarded my with a chance to attend that night’s Mets/Cubs game.  This was during one of the worst stretches of seasons in franchise history.  Discord in the locker room, allegations of drug use, Vince Coleman threw firecrackers, Bret Saberhagen’s bleach incident, it was just a mess and it was difficult to justify being a Mets fan to other 10-year-olds.  But I didn’t hesitate to jump at the chance to attend my first Major League game.

Getting to Shea from the south shore of Staten Island is not quick train ride.  According to Google Maps, it’s about a 40 mile drive.  Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s New York.  So it’s closer to two hours with traffic.  Sitting in possibly the most remote part of New York City meant that we were tourists in our own town.  We’d visit the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center, and we’d gawk like your standard Midwesterner.

I gawked the same way when I heard the voice of Bob Murphy and “Meet the Mets” over the loudspeakers outside Shea.

For most people, their most vivid memory of their first ballgame is walking to their seats through a tunnel and seeing the massive expanse of grass reveal itself.  For me, it was hearing the broadcaster’s voice I had heard hundreds of times before as I listened to games on WFAN while falling asleep on school and summer nights.  Our seats were in the mezzanine off the third-base side in the infield: far enough to take in the entire field but not entirely outside of foul-ball territory.

The game itself was forgettable, an 8-2 win by Sid Fernandez.  Looking back now, I’m amazed that the game featured no fewer than four current or potential Hall-of-Famers (Eddie Murray, Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Mark Grace) and two future New York managers (Joe Girardi, Willie Randolph).  The thing I remember most vividly is the chaos that nearly ensued when, after being hit by a Shawn Boskie pitch, Bobby Bonilla stomped to the mound while STILL HOLDING HIS BAT.  Knowing Bonilla’s disgruntled short fuse, both benches cleared, including the eponymous “bullpen trot”.  The exhiliration of an out-of-the-norm donnybrook awakened the tempermental crowd.  With Bonilla’s low threshold for patience, absolutely NOBODY in the stadium knew what was going to happen.

Bonilla was eventually restrained, not a single punch was thrown (although Bonilla did bump the home plate umpire into the dirt), and the game continued on following Bonilla’s ejection.

I don’t want to make it seem like baseball’s only interesting if it hangs under the spectre of mayhem.  The bench-clearing brawl shakes up all your conventions about what to expect at a live game.  That’s what gets you hooked: being there in person.

DR

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