9.28.2007

MY TRIP TO MINUTE MAID PARK - CONCLUSION

One of the most popular clichés in movies and TV is the slow motion effect when something significant is about to happen.

You know what I’m talking about. Smeary slo-mo, as the hero (or heroine) yells “Noooo!” in what sounds like a record on the wrong speed.

I hate that. But, as with most clichés, there is some truth to it.

Time often does seem to slow down when something monumental is happening. And something monumental was happening to me, on a Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas.

A Major League baseball was flying through the air and it was headed right for me.

At that moment (and it was not much more than a moment) my baseball life flashed before my eyes. I thought of my first game at Shea Stadium with my father in 1976. I thought of my successful career as a Little League pitcher. I thought about the game ball that my coach Mr. Maurello had given to me after I pitched a complete game shut-out in 1979. And I thought about the last time I had my hands on a ball at a Major League Game, a quarter century ago.

That story had a tragic, bloody ending – one that might make even Shakespeare weep. But this one was going to be different.

All of those thoughts, memories, hopes and regrets assaulted my consciousness as I jumped out of my chair in the sixth row of the Crawford Boxes and moved toward the short staircase beside me.

It’s been a long time since I last caught a baseball. Unlike a lot of aging fans, I have not felt compelled to embarrass myself on the softball field, downing beers with other former Little League stars who still believe that, if they had just worked a little bit harder, they could have made it to the Bigs.

My career as a player ended after the 1982 season. I was an all-star pitcher that year and I went out at the top of my game. I like to quit when I’m ahead.

But now, like the grizzled old hero who gets called out of retirement for one more adventure (another tired cliché), I was being called upon to remember forgotten skills. Catching a ball sounds simple, but it’s not – particularly without the proper equipment.

I played my entire career with the same baseball glove. And I treated it like my baby. It went everywhere with me. I even slept with it under my pillow, to soften it and break it in.

Every time I went to a game at Shea Stadium when I was a kid, that glove was on my hand. It didn’t matter if I was sitting in the upper deck, where no living human being had ever caught a foul ball. As all sports fans know, there’s a first time for everything. And I wanted to be ready.

Just in case.

But, in 2007, my beloved baseball mitt was long gone. After I mothballed it in 1982, the old glove made a return appearance five years later when I started dating Mary, a single mom with a five-year-old son named Ian. I brought Ian to his first game at Shea Stadium and taught him to be a Mets fan. I also taught him how to play baseball, on Saturdays at the ball field at Grant Park in a town called Hewlett on Long Island.

On one particular Saturday, Ian and I left the park after a day of batting and fielding practice. But my glove didn’t leave with us. We went back to look for it, but it was gone.

I’ve often wondered who found that glove. What did he (or she) do with it? Did they play with it? Did they feel the history in it? Did they see the autograph from late-‘70s Mets pitcher Craig Swan and wonder “Who’s Craig Swan?”

I’ll never know the answer to any of those questions but, with a ball coming right toward me, I sure wished I had that glove. But I didn’t. This play was going to have to be of the barehanded variety.

“You can do this!” I reassured myself, as the ball spun toward me. “You were an all-star!”

I raised my hands to make the catch, but at that moment the ball seemed to speed up. It was no longer going in slow motion; in fact it seemed like just the opposite.

“This is not the way it happens in the movies,” I thought to myself.

I raised my hands to cup them into a mitt, but the ball veered slightly and struck my left hand, right on the knuckle.

It bounced off my hand and, as I scrambled to retrieve it, it plunked down the concrete steps – right into the hands of a college-age guy who was sitting a few rows in front of me.

I stood there, on the step, looking down at this guy who now had my ball – the ball I had been waiting 25 years to catch. This was my moment, my second chance – and I had blown it. Again.

And then I heard laughter, just like the last time.

There were two good ole’ boys sitting a few rows behind me. I had been listening to their cornpone conversation throughout the game. It’s not like I had a choice. The more beer they drank, the louder they got.

“Whoa ho ho,” one of them grunted in my general direction. “Nice play!”

“You gotta go with the basket catch, buddy,” the other one said to me. “Everybody knows that.”

There were so many things I could have said, so many things I wanted to say. But all I could muster was a half-hearted “Yeah. Next time.”

I sat back down in my seat. I could feel those two guys staring into the back of my head. I could feel them laughing at me, just as the bully had, the kid who robbed me of my birthright ball 25 years ago.

“What was I talking about?” I thought to myself. “This is next time, and there might not be another one.”

At that moment a montage of visions flashed through my mind: the sign outside the stadium that used to say Enron Field, the bench with the Halliburton logo, the plaque sponsored by defense construction contractor Kellogg Brown and Root and the first ceremonial pitch ever thrown at the stadium – by Enron CEO Ken Lay.

“What did we learn from Ken Lay and all his cronies?” I thought to myself. “We learned that if you’ve got money, you get what you want.”

I had money. And what I wanted was that baseball. So I sat there and plotted my strategy.

The guy who caught the ball was young, maybe around 20. Young guys always need money - for beer, or weed or Halo 3. If I made that guy an offer for the ball, he’d have to take it. He’d be crazy not to. It’s not like that ball had any meaning for him, but it had plenty of meaning for me.

The next question was, how much was I willing to spend. That day I had worked one hour of overtime at my pharmaceutical sales meeting at the Houston Convention Center. I had made an extra $67.50 that I wasn’t counting on. So that was my budget. I would go as high as $67.50 and not a penny more.

So I went to the cash machine, withdrew $60 and plotted my next step.

I knew that I couldn’t do the deal with the rednecks behind me watching. They probably wouldn’t have cared, but I would have. So I had to wait until they left. Hopefully they would leave early, since the Astros were now losing by a score of 9-2 in the top of the 7th inning.

In the middle of the seventh everyone stood up to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, just like they do in New York, and a ballparks around the country. But the song that followed it was unlike any I had ever heard at a ballpark. The crowd broke into a boisterous rendition of Deep in the Heart of Texas, accompanied by lyrics on the scoreboard.

And nobody sang louder than Bo and Luke Duke sitting right behind me. The blond-haired one even yee-haw'ed after each stanza. I am not kidding about that.

It became obvious to me that these guys weren’t going anywhere. Then in the bottom of the ninth, after most of the crowd had left, one fan decided to run on the field, and he was forcefully apprehended by stadium law enforcement.

I know how much they love the death penalty in deep in the heart of Texas. I just hope that guy doesn’t get it.

The Astros went quietly in the bottom of the 9th and the game was over. I looked behind me, and my tormentors had headed back to the gun-racked pickup truck that brung them. Now it was time for some business.

“Hey, you caught a ball a couple innings ago, right?” I asked the young guy, who replied with an affirmative shake of the head. “How’d you like to sell it?”

“Oh, it’s not my ball anymore,” he replied. “I gave it to my friend.”

“Well do you think he’s like to sell it?” I asked, now feeling a bit desperate. This was a variable I had not planned for.

"Well, you’ll have to ask him,” he answered, pointing at his friend who was still organizing his backpack.

“Dude, you wanna sell that ball your friend gave you,” I said, as I walked toward him.

I saw the look on his face. Without any words it communicated a pretty firm “no.” So I made a quick decision. It was time to play the sentiment card.

“It’s for a kid,” I added, slightly choking on my words.

“Oh man,” the friend said. “How old is the kid?”

“Well he’s 12,” I answered. “He caught a ball at a Mets game awhile back, but someone pounded on his hand and took it away from him. It was terrible. His hand was bleeding and everything. I’d really like to get him another ball.”

The young man then proceeded to tell me how he too had been waiting his whole life to catch a ball at a baseball game.

“Yeah, but you didn’t really catch that one,” I reminded him. “Your buddy did, only after I missed it.”

“Dude, he could be totally lying about the kid,” Friend #1 interjected.

“I could be,” I replied to them both. “But what if I’m not?”

“Okay man,” the ball-holder said, as he pulled the magical orb out of his backpack. “Just give me a buck for it.”

“What is with people in this stadium selling things for a dollar?” I thought – but didn’t say. I then pulled two twenties out of my wallet and handed them to him.

“I’m gonna give you $40 bucks,” I replied. “That will pay for a seat to another game, where hopefully you can catch a ball of your own.”

He thanked me, and he and his friend headed for the exit. It was the perfect happy ending. Everybody got something. He got $40. I got my ball – and I came in under budget for the first time in my professional career.

I sat back down in my seat, with the ball in my hand. It felt smaller than I thought it would feel.


A moment later I looked down, and noticed that my shorts were spotted with something. It was blood.

Then I looked at my hand. It was bleeding, right where the flying base ball had hit my knuckle.

Like Yogi Berra once said, it was "deja vu all over again."

I laughed at the perverse poetry of this moment, certain that I would never forget it.

You can say what you want about my flexible approach to the truth, but in my mind, I wasn’t lying.

That ball was for a kid – a kid named Billy McKinley. And that kid is happy to finally have a real, live Major League Baseball after all these years.

9.27.2007

MY TRIP TO MINUTE MAID PARK - PART 3

There I was sitting in Row 6 of the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park in Houston, watching the visiting Milwaukee Brewers play the last-place Houston Astros.

The game wasn’t particularly enthralling, so I began to observe my surroundings. Have you ever watched a baseball game being played in an enclosed arena? It’s an odd thing.

My only other experience with the unholy concept of climate-controlled baseball was in 1984, when my parents, sister and I visited the Astros’ previous home – the hulking concrete behemoth known as the Houston Astrodome.


Unlike the aging (and soon-to-be-demolished) Astrodome, Minute Maid's roof is retractable. At least that’s what they say. I’m not sure I believe it, though. It looks pretty fixed to me.

If it's retractable, why was it closed? If you’re not going to open the roof for a game on a mild evening in late September, when are you going to open it?

It’s very weird to watch a baseball game played in air conditioning. I’m sure the players don’t mind, because they stay nice and cool. But I do. I like to sweat at baseball games. I like to get hot and sticky and wet. It makes me feel like I’m part of the action, even though I’m sitting on my fat ass stuffing gigantic hot dogs down my throat.

That didn’t really sound right, but you get the idea.

At least Minute Maid doesn’t have an artificial playing surface. The Astrodome was the first baseball stadium to feature “Astroturf” (that’s where they got the name) back in 1966 and it started a terrible trend in baseball that only recently came to an end. Nowadays, all Major League Baseball teams play on grass.

A few of them also play on Human Growth Hormone, but that’s another story.

As I sat there eating my gigantic hot dog and sipping my Diet Dr. Pepper (best diet cola in the world, and the Texans seem to know it) I noticed a sign posted on the front wall of my section.

“Beware of bats and balls leaving the playing field,” warned the sign, in both English and Spanish.

Beware? Are you kidding me? That’s why I was there. I mean, that’s not the only reason I was there, but that’s certainly why I had paid $32 to sit where I was sitting. In fact, my section was so close to Astros left fielder Carlos Lee that some of my fellow fans struck up conversations with the slugging all-star.

“Yo Carlos! Soy un Caballito! Diga me!” one fan yelled, over and over again in an unsuccessful effort to get Lee's attention.

The Spanish-speaking fans wanted the same thing that I did. They wanted Lee (whose nickname is El Caballo) to throw them a baseball. But the Panamanian slugger never replied to any of these requests - en Espanol or en Ingles.

But all of that changed in the top of the fifth inning.


In the fourth, the Brewers had broken the game open with catcher Johnny Estrada’s grand slam off of Astros starter Felipe Paulino, ruining the young pitcher’s Major League debut. And in the fifth, Brewers third baseman Ryan Braun followed with a solo shot off reliever Trever Miller, putting the Brewers ahead by a seemingly insurmountable score of 7-2.

Next, Brewers manager Ned Yost sent Kevin Mench to pinch hit for right fielder Gabe Gross, and Mench launched a fly ball deep toward left field -- right toward the Crawford Boxes!

I jumped to my feet. Maybe this would be my big chance to finally catch a ball -- and a home run, too! I moved toward the aisle and readied myself for my big chance but, alas, the ball fell a few feet short of the wall and ricocheted around in the left field corner.

I sat down again, only to notice commotion near the wall overlooking left fielder Lee. A group of young fans had quickly congregated, imploring Lee to chuck the foul ball into the stands.
“Carlos!” one of them yelled. “!Lánceme un béisbol!”

Moments later I looked up and saw a baseball flying right toward me. Lee had tossed the ball over his shoulder, right into the stands.

And this ball had my name written all over it.


Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of our story!

9.24.2007

MY TRIP TO MINUTE MAID PARK - PART 2

The New York Mets could learn a thing or two from the Houston Astros.

I’m not talking about the last-place Astros' shoddy play on the field, or
the creepy Republican Party sponsorships that helped finance their stadium. I don't think either of those things would be particularly welcome in the Big Apple.

But the Mets could sure learn a thing or two from Houston about how to staff a ballpark.


From the young Hispanic woman who sold me my ticket, to the older gentleman who scanned it at the turnstile, to the cheerful vendor who sold me a gigantic hot dog – every single staff person I encountered at Minute Maid Park was smiling, bright-eyed and infectiously pleasant.

I guess there’s not much to be tense about when it’s late September and your team is in last place, playing out the string. But there was no sense of sadness or self-pity amongst the workers at Minute Maid. Everybody just seemed happy to be there, happy to be working and happy to be serving me.


The surly staff of malcontents at Shea Stadium in New York could not be any more different. Nor could the ballpark experience.


It really hit me when I went to the concession stand at Minute Maid Park to buy a scorecard. I’ve been keeping score at baseball games for as long as I can remember, but at Shea I have to buy the $5 Mets Magazine in order to get the two-page scorecard that I really want.

In 30 years I don’t think I’ve ever read one article in the Mets Magazine. A friend of mine brings his own binder of blank Little League scorecards to games, but that’s just not for me. I like to keep the official scorecard as a memento of my trip to the ballpark. And my trip to Minute Maid Park was no different.


“Can I get a scorecard,” I said to the middle-aged woman in a an Astros-red sweater working the souvenir kiosk.


“Sure,” she said with a smile. “That’ll be $1.”


“Um. Are you sure about that?” I replied. “I think the last time I spent $1 on a scorecard was 1976.”


“Yup,” she said cheerfully. “It’s a buck.” And then she handed me a scorecard. Just a scorecard. No feature stories about wacky relief pitchers, no ads, no bullshit. Just a scorecard, with a nice cover and up-to-date rosters for both the home team and the visiting Milwaukee Brewers.


“Boy, you guys do things differently down here,” I said.


“Really?” the woman replied. “How so?”


“Well everybody here is just so….friendly,” I said. “It makes me a little nervous.”


“Well, don't be nervous,” she laughed. “We're Texans. We’re friendly people.”


From what I had experienced in the four days I had spent in Houston, she seemed to be right. Most of the locals had a bright smile or a friendly hello. My first instinct was to chalk that up to “small town values,” but Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States.


So much for small town.


“Well you guys oughta come up and work at the Mets’ new stadium,” I said. “We could really use you.” Then I grabbed my extra-large hot dog and my extra-cheap scorecard and made my way to my seat
.

I always sit in the same part of the stadium when I go to baseball games – upper deck, right behind home plate. Wherever I am, I know that seat will give me the best all-around view of the on-field action.
But this time I decided to try something a little different.

I reviewed the many seating options at Minute Made Park and I settled on the Crawford Boxes in left field.


It felt a little weird choosing to spend time in an area known as “Crawford” in the state of Texas, but I was reassured that the seats had nothing to do with our beloved President or his so-called ranch.

Trust me, I asked. This Crawford, it turns out, refers to 501 Crawford Street - the address of Minute Maid Park.


There are a number of cool things about the Crawford Boxes. First, the seats are in fair territory, which means that you have the chance of catching an actual home run ball once it has gone over the fence. And second, the seats are within spitting distance from the left fielder, so you have an opportunity to catch a ball if he decides to toss one in the seats.

I managed to get a seat in the sixth row, right on the aisle - perfect for pouncing if a ball should come my way!

Perhaps you're thinking, "Will. You're nearly 40 years old. Aren’t you a little bit old to be chasing after foul balls at ballgames?"

No. I’m not.

I will be 80-years old and still chasing after balls at baseball games -- most likely with the assistance of a walker. There is something magical about a Major League game-used ball. There is a power and an energy to it that is difficult to explain, but impossible to ignore.

In 31 years of attending baseball games I have only had my hands on one of those magical orbs.
The year was 1982. I was at Shea Stadium with my best friend William Yelsits and his family, enjoying another terrible performance by the famously awful Mets of that era. And then magic happened.

Almost.


I was sitting in the second level at Shea, in the second row, when a Mets player fouled off a pitch. It headed right toward me. I held up my weathered baseball glove and lunged toward the ball as it landed a few seats away. I missed it, but I managed to get my bare hand on the ball as it bounced under an unoccupied seat.

At the same time an older kid began pounding his fat fist on my tiny little hand. I held on as long as I could, but eventually the ball became dislodged. The bully grabbed my magic baseball, laughed and ran off.

I looked down at where the ball had once been. All that was left was my bruised and slightly bloodied hand.


“Sign that kid up!” someone yelled, as derisive laughter erupted from my heartless fellow fans.


That was two and half decades ago. As baseball players like to say, I was due. I was not going to leave Minute Maid Park until I had a ball in my hand.

I may have waited 25 years -- and traveled thousands of miles -- but my big chance to catch a real ball at a real Major League baseball game was about to arrive.


Sort of.



To be continued…

9.23.2007

MY TRIP TO MINUTE MAID PARK - PART 1

On Tuesday night, after a hard day of work at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, I walked across the street to watch the Astros play the Milwaukee Brewers at Minute Maid Park.

I love baseball, but I hate the fact that baseball stadiums are now branded with the names of corporate sponsors. It’s a depressing state of affairs for what was once considered America’s national past time.

I don’t care if owners sell naming rights to arenas that host football, basketball, hockey, tennis or soccer games. Baseball is different. Baseball is sacred.

Baseball teams play more games at home than any other professional sport. Fans spend their entire lives going to the same baseball stadium to root for their favorite team, often passing team loyalty on to children and grand kids. A lifetime of memories should not be auctioned off to the highest corporate bidder. It demeans the sanctity of the experience.

I understand why selling naming rights to baseball stadiums has become common practice. In these days of $200 million contracts for players, management needs to do everything within its power to generate income. And I would rather see large companies foot the bill than the individual fan.

But selling the name of your home field seems sacrilegious to me – one step away from a sponsor’s logo on a team jersey.
This is the way it is nowadays. I accept that. Even the new stadium for my beloved Mets has been sold off to Citi (formerly CitiGroup, formerly CitiBank and now just Citi with an "i").

Big business and good old fashioned baseball make strange bedfellows. And, every now and then, the pimping of our heroes and our heritage has a tendency to backfire in a entertainingly comic fashion. And those of us who decry the trend get to a gloat with glee.

Case in point: Minute Maid Park.

What exactly does orange juice have to do with baseball? Absolutely nothing. But money has plenty to do with baseball. And the owners of Minute Maid - a little Mom & Pop shop called The Coca-Cola Company - have plenty of money.

They also have good timing.

Minute Maid Park was not the name of the Astros new home when it opened in 2000. In 1999, while the stadium was still under construction, the Astros sold the naming rights to a Houston-based energy corporation called Enron – yes, that Enron - for a sum of $100 million over 30 years.

So, in April of 2000, CEO Ken Lay – yes, that Ken Lay - took the field and threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Enron Field. Little more than a year later, the name "Enron" became somewhat unpopular with the good people of Houston, many of whom had watched their life savings (and retirement pensions) disintegrate under a murky haze of big business shenanigans.

Faced with this somewhat unforeseen challenge, the Astros ownership bought back the naming right to their own stadium from Enron for $2.1 million. As the 2002 season opened the park was rechristened Astros Field. Then, two months later, the team re-sold the naming rights to Minute Maid for $100 million for 28 years.

If you’re scoring at home, that’s three different names for the stadium in two years. Not a great housewarming for the Astros new digs.

Five years later, Enron (and Mr. Lay himself) has gone on to the great field of dreams in the sky, but odd examples of corporate sponsorship remain at the stadium that once proudly(?) bore its name.

Before an Astros game, fans can relax in the beautiful Halliburton Plaza.

There, Houstonians are reminded (on logo-branded benches) that the fine folks at Dick Cheney’s former employer are Houston’s “home team.”

Inside the park is a plaque commemorating the very first game played at The Field Formerly Known as Enron. The company that sponsors the plaque? Brown and Root, now known as Kellogg Brown and Root, or KBR – a Halliburton subsidiary and the recipient of billions of dollars of no-bid contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan!

Here at home, KBR has the distinction of being the largest non-union construction company in the United States! It’s just like that old song says: Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and no-bid, non-union contracts!

Halliburton took KBR public earlier this year, and lots of people made lots of money. Strangely enough, the plaque doesn’t mention anything about that that.

There is also a slightly more appropriate piece of corporate sponsorship at Minute Maid Park, at least considering Houston’s historic ties to the petroleum industry. Just beyond the center field fence is the Conoco Home Run Pump, a gas pump that rings each time an Astros player hits a home run.
One would hope that the pump doesn’t charge a player $3.79 9/10 each time it rings – even though the players can probably afford it.

Of course, Conoco is now known as ConocoPhillips, having merged with Phillips 66 in 2002, during the early days of an administration of a president who gives new meaning to the term "play ball."

They never re-named the pump, though. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it cost too much money.

If you can hold your nose and ignore the reek of big business patronage, Minute Made Park is actually a beautiful stadium. Near the end of it’s eighth season, the Park is clean, elegantly designed and well-staffed.

The field level features a 360-degree open concourse, with spacious bathrooms, a numerous shops, bars and restaurants.

The Astros even have staff members stationed throughout the concourse holding signs that read “How can I help you?” Quite a change from my experience in three decades of Mets games, where every employee at Shea Stadium acts like they’re mad at you for something.

Even the concession stands are creatively named.

I'm not sure who this Sheriff Blaylock is, but he makes some mean nachos!

Of course, just like at any ballpark, eating is as much a part of the experience as watching the ballgame. So, since I was in the middle of a state that likes things BIG, I decided to grab an extra extra extra large hot dog.

You know what they say - when in Texas, do as the Texans.

Yee ha!

to be continued...

9.22.2007

MY INTERVIEW WITH MARGARET CHO

Margaret Cho is one of my all-time favorite female comedians, and I got a chance to interview her for this week's edition of Chelsea Now here in New York.

Read it
here.


9.20.2007

RED STATE BLUES

My pharmaceutical sales meeting in the George Bush Ballroom at the Houston Convention Center ended on Wednesday morning and I headed for the airport - the George Bush Airport.

Are you noticing a pattern here?

I paid the cab driver, walked into the airport terminal and headed for the bathroom. As I settled into the stall and dropped trou, I made sure to keep my feet together, so no adjoining stall mates would think I was interested in hooking up with them.

After all, I'm a single, 38 year-old man with a shaved head who lives in the West Village of New York City. If Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane happened to be conducting a gay sting in the bathroom at George Bush Airport, I would be convicted before he finished writing down my address.

The great state of Texas seems to execute more than its share of people, and I would rather not be one of them. I want to remembered after I die, but not for soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom (at George Bush Airport no less).

All of this nonsense swirled through my psyche as I sat there conducting my business in the George Bush Bathroom. Moments later I heard the following announcement over the public address system in the restroom:

Welcome to George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Please be advised that any inappropriate jokes or remarks made to airport personnel may result in your arrest.

Wow. If they can arrest you for inappropriate jokes in Texas, I might get the death penalty after all. You see, my mouth often gets me into trouble - not usually in men's bathrooms, but you get my point.

So there I am, sitting in a bathroom stall in Houston, worried that I might get arrested for gay cruising, or for the address on my driver's license, or for something that I might say to one of the of the humorless morons working airport security.

At that moment I had an epiphany: It was time for me to get out of George Bush Land.

I pulled up my pants, silently made my way through the security screening and raced to my gate. I planned to pick up a copy of The New York Times, read it cover to cover on the plane look forward to returning to the city where inappropriate jokes are practically required.

I saw a Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits, a Papa John's Pizza, a Bar-B-Que stand, ice cream, pretzels, popcorn....But no place to buy a newspaper. Then I remembered the name of the airport I was in, and it all made sense.

So I asked an airport worker where I could find a newsstand.


"Right there," he said, pointing to a store with a neon sign.

"No, no," I said. "That's the Fox News store. I'm looking for a place where I can get real news."

I didn't get arrested for that remark, but something tells me if I had stayed there much longer I might have.

9.19.2007

PAIN IN THE ASTROS

Last night I paid my first-ever visit to Minute Maid Park - the home of the Houston Astros!

As you might guess, there's a story to tell...

9.18.2007

I WASN'T KIDDING

I spent the whole day on Monday working in the George Bush Ballroom at the Houston Convention Center. And the fun will continue on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The "Bush" for whom the ballroom is named is actually George Herbert Walker Bush, also known as Bush #41 or The Bush Who Had the Good Sense to Get Out of Iraq While the Gittin' Wuz Good.

But even so, the whole thing makes me feel dirty.

9.17.2007

HOWDY PARDNER!

I'm in Houston, Texas working on the production of a training meeting for pharmaceutical sales reps.

I've already seen one guy in a cowboy hat. Yee haw!

Tomorrow I'll be working on an event at the Houston Convention Center in the George Bush Ballroom. I'm not even kidding about that.

9.16.2007

YOU CAN CALL ME PHIL

One of the great things about living in New York City is that you can order just about anything at just about any time of the day or night.

But, as with all great things, there is a downside. In many cases, the people who take your order over the phone, or deliver it to your apartment, don't speak English very well.


Last night Maggie and I ordered from the Chinese restaurant located next door to her apartment building in Battery Park City. Sure, it would have taken a grand total of five minutes to get in the elevator, go downstairs, walk next door and pick up our food. But I don't mind paying extra for convenience, so I picked up the phone instead.

Fifteen minutes later the doorman (she's actually a woman, but it feels weird to say "door lady") called to say that the delivery guy was on his way up.

I waited. And waited. And waited. No sign of the delivery guy. So I put on a pair of shorts and walked out into the hallway to find him.

Leaving your apartment to search for the delivery guy sort of defeats the purpose of getting something delivered. My understanding of the concept of delivery has always been that I get to stay home, and that someone else gets to do the walking.

When I bring my clothes to the dry cleaners, I don't go behind the counter and help with the cleaning. I leave that to the professionals. Same goes for delivering something. If I'm paying you, that makes you a professional. And, as a professional, I expect you to do the job that I am paying you to do.

But I realized last night that there is a bit of a disconnect when a Chinese delivery guy attempts to make a delivery to a building where the apartment numbers also contain letters.

Maggie's apartment number is PH1L. That means that she lives in apartment L, on the first penthouse floor (there is also a PH2, or penthouse 2). This may make perfect sense to you, but for a guy who's native language consists of a bunch of squiggly lines, it's a lost cause.

I guess if I didn't speak Cantonese and got hired as a delivery guy in Beijing, I might be in the same predicament. But odds are I won't be pursuing that career course any time soon and, if I do, I might consider a few lessons in Cantonese prior to my first day on the job.

We eventually found the missing Chinese food delivery guy. He was all the way over on the other side of the floor, holding the address up against each apartment door, comparing the numbers and letters on the paper to those on the door.

At that rate he would have made it to Maggie's apartment at around 2 AM.

So I paid for the food and headed back to the apartment.

"Thanks Phil, " the delivery guy said, as I walked away.

Apparently PH1L is pronounced Phil in Cantonese.

9.11.2007

SEPTEMBER 11

So much has been written about September 11, both at the time and on each subsequent anniversary. I have nothing new or particularly insightful to add to that discourse.

Six years ago, I experienced the events of that day first hand, watching the second tower fall from my corner on Hudson Street and smelling the acrid aroma of stale smoke for days after. In the years since, I have unofficially taken up residence in Maggie's apartment, across the street from what the tourists still call "Ground Zero."

Each year since, the memorials have provided us with a reminder of that day, a reminder that seems increasingly forced and politicized. But for most New Yorkers, September 11 is a day not unlike other days.

I woke up, crossed the streets closed to traffic for the ceremony and rode the subway through the Cortlandt Street Station, shuttered since the buildings above it collapsed. Then I went to work, where no one mentioned the occasion. Not even one time.

After work I took the 7 train to Shea Stadium for a Mets game. There, remembrances were everywhere -- both ceremonial and otherwise. Orange-shirted security filled the Shea Stadium parking lots and concourses. Fans were patted down vigorously as they approached the turnstiles. And once inside, American flags were ubiquitous.

The game began with an on-field ceremony, with members of the Mets and the Atlanta Braves lined up along the first and third base lines. Mets players wore caps emblazoned with the logos of the organizations that have come to be known as "the first responders" - the NYPD, the FDNY, the Port Authority Police Department.

Fans removed their hats during the singing of the National Anthem, and then we sat down in wet seats, drenched by a day of soaking rain.

I attended the game with my friend Steve, a guy I hired as a cameraman 15 years ago on my first ever job as a video producer.

I enjoy keeping score at the game, a hobby that grows more uncommon amongst fans year after year.

But when I go to games with Steve, both of us keep score, auditing each other's scorecards with differing opinions and techniques.

The Mets were defeated by the Braves 13-5, but the solemnity of the oscasion put the sound defeat into perspective. By the ninth inning, the large crowd had thinned to a few damp diehards.

I rode the subway back to Lower Manhattan, exiting two blocks from the spot where the World Trade Center had once stood.

There is nothing left of those buildings anymore, save for the annual Tower of Light that rises up to the heavens every September 11th.


9.09.2007

SATURDAY IN THE PARK WITH MR. MET

On Saturday Maggie and I went to see the Mets play the Houston Astros at Shea Stadium.

I've been a regular visitor to Shea since August of 1976, but this season has been my oddest one yet. And trust me, I've seen a lot of odd things in my three decades as a fan of New York's other baseball team.

What's so strange about the 2007 Mets season is not what's happening on the field, or even in the stands. It's what's happening in the Shea Stadium parking lot, just behind the outfield fence.

Citi Field, the Mets new ballpark as of the 2009 season, is slowly taking shape in the aging shadow of Shea -- a fact that the Mets TV announcers remind us of at every possible turn. And, although I am looking forward to the team's new home, I have very mixed feelings about the loss of the old one -- and the memories that it holds.

In a sense, the excitement about the construction of the new park has made me feel a bit disloyal toward the old one.


Going to Mets games at Shea this year is sort of like hanging out with your mom and dad and dad's hot new girlfriend. Somebody is eventually going to have to go. And, in this case, it's Mom. Even if Mom is okay with it (anything is possible nowadays) it's still awkward.

Luckily for faithful fans, the Mets squad of recent years has been consistently competitive. They made it to the playoffs last year and are a virtual lock to do it again this season, so the team's farewell to their longtime home should be a triumphant one.

Speaking of triumphs, the Mets won Saturday's game by a score of 3-1, with winning pitcher Tom Glavine flirting with a no-hitter until the 6th inning.

The game was Glavine's 303rd victory, coming on the heels of his historic 300th win a few weeks ago. I was also there at Shea for win number 298 back in July.

But for me, the high point of the game came after it was all over.

I got home and turned on the game I had just watched in person, and proceeded to watch it again on my DVR. This might strike some people (like Maggie, for example) as a bit obsessive. But I enjoy listening to the Mets announcers comment on the game I just watched live, and it gives me an opportunity to correct some mistakes I may have made on my souvenir scorecard.

Well, it turns out that watching the broadcast was a good idea, because the Mets announcers proceeded to have the following exchange about the famous Home Run Apple -- a story that I reported on for The Villager!

Here's a transcript:

Saturday 9.08.2007 1:53 PM
SportsNet New York broadcast of the Mets game against the Houston Astros, with commentators Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and guest Ralph Kiner.

Mets third baseman David Wright is batting against Astros pitcher Woody Williams in the bottom of the third inning. The camera cuts to a fan in the left field stands holding a sign that reads “Save the Apple” with artwork of the Apple coming out of the magic hat.

KEITH: Ah…Save the apple.

GARY: That’s become quite the controversy hasn’t it?

KEITH: Yeah

David Wright fouls off a pitch from Williams.

GARY: Will the Apple make the trip to Citi Field.

The camera cuts to a close-up of the Apple and pulls back to reveal the magic hat.

GARY (continuing): And of course the Apple was not an original piece of equipment here at Shea Stadium. It was added on much later after the ballpark opened. It’s one of a number of – how shall we say – fan attractions that have added here at Shea over the years, some of which have survived, some of which didn’t.

RALPH KINER: I would think this one will survive in the new ballpark.

GARY: I mean, the mule didn’t last for very long.

RALPH: The mule had no chance. (laughter)

KEITH: Only in Oakland with Charlie Finley.

RALPH: But he had a chance. He at least did something worthwhile. Mettle was the name of the mule the Mets had.

GARY: Mettle. Well didn’t they also have…they had a dog mascot.

KEITH: Oh yeah.

GARY: Homer the Dog.

RALPH: Homer was the mascot. He ran the bases. He left from home plate, went down to first base and then cut across, missed second and went on to third.

David Wright drives a pitch from Astros pitcher Woody Williams over the 371 sign in right-center field. As Wright rounds second base, the director cuts to a shot of the Apple rising from the magic hat.


Is it possible that Gary Cohen read my story in The Villager? Okay, I'm sure it's more likely that he read the Apple story in The New York Times (which has a slightly larger readership).

But it is possible that he checked out savetheapple.com and clicked through a link to read my story, or to peruse my interview with Joe Donahue, the man who co-created the Apple as Mets Director of Promotions in 1980.


Either way, I felt connected to the behind the scenes goings-on of my favorite team in a way that I never have before (and probably never will again).

The Mets announcers mentioned a few of the failed mascots that the lowly team tried to foist upon the faithful during the down years of the late 1970s and early '80s. But they didn't mention the beloved mascot that has been there through thick and thin, ever since his birth during the teams second season, way back in 1963.

Yankee fans may laugh at our beloved Mr. Met, but for those of us who grew up at Shea Stadium, he will always be a bring back fond memories of childhood.

9.06.2007

PRACTICING TO BE A CELEBRITY

My nine-month-old niece Kate made the trek to Disney World with the rest of the family last Saturday.

Since the odds are pretty good that she won't remember her first visit to the Magic Kingdom, I made sure that I took plenty of pictures! Here's a shot of me with Kate and my sister Missy.

Kate is the happiest, smiliest baby you will ever meet. This is a definite plus when you're dealing with stifling late August heat in Central, Florida.

Kate seems to enjoy having her picture taken, but something tells me that, as she gets older, she may develop a bit of a 'tude.

But come to think of it, it's never too early to start practicing your technique to deal with the paparazzi.



Photo session over!