Originally written 7/21/14
Photo copyright Dirk Hansen, https://www.flickr.com/people/dirkhansen
Used by permission through Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
On July 5, my husband took me to a baseball game at Coors Field. I don’t usually follow baseball, but he’d gotten the tickets for free, and they were good ones: 25 rows up behind home plate. Coors Field has been listed as one of the Top 10 Ballparks in America by Fox Sports and ESPN, among others. FoxSports.com says:
“Coors Field, home of the Rockies, has its own microbrewery, so not much more needs to be said. More, however, will be said … Coors boasts a vibrant downtown setting, retro-chic architecture and creature comforts and fountains. As well, from some seats you can catch a breathtaking view of the Rockies (the mountain range, not the team — although you can see the team, too). Great pizza, great beer and a great surrounding neighborhood.” (http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/lists/Major-League-Baseball-10-best-ballparks#photo-title=Coors+Field%252C+home+to+the+Colorado+Rockies&photo=11206811)
The Rockies aren’t doing so well this season—they were 37-51 on July 5 and had all but written themselves out of the playoffs—but, as a local radio DJ said, the ballpark experience is so good that it doesn’t really matter how the team is doing. So, on one of my rare Saturdays off work, we spent the afternoon gong to the ball game.
Coors Field is in LoDo, the lower downtown area of Denver. When I was in high school, lower downtown was a scary place, run down and dingy, but the 1995 building of Coors Field and a revitalizing campaign by the city has transformed the area into a busy, hip area full of bars, restaurants, and loft-style apartments.
We arrived early in LoDo, cruising around to find decent parking. Some close parking lots were going for $20 a space or even more (including some spots wedged in tiny back alleys being advertised by guys holding handmade cardboard signs), but for us a few-block walk was worth not paying through the nose. We found a lot not too far away for $10 and hiked our way to the ballpark. In the four blocks we walked, we experienced a representative cross-section of LoDo life, passing Trillium (described on Google Maps as a “sleek, modern, Nordic-inspired eatery”), Ignite! (“happening gastropub with a rooftop deck”), and the Denver Rescue Mission, where homeless men and women were sleeping outside on the sidewalk.
The area around the ballpark was swarming with people: men, women, and children dressed in jerseys and purple Rockies t-shirts; unofficial food and souvenir vendors offering peanuts, water, and those spraypainted foam stick animals that I’ve never seen anywhere but festivals and sporting events; and scalpers waving tickets over their heads. I felt kind of bad for the scalpers, since the game wasn’t sold out and the Rockies were below .500. Probably a slow day for illegal ticket sales.
We shuffled along in the great stream of humanity until we got to the gate closest to our seats. The friendly older man taking tickets stopped me and searched my purse, looking not so much for anything dangerous as for revenue-threatening unauthorized booze. Cleared, we went up a big flight of concrete stairs to the next level, where we followed signs to our seating area. A friendly older woman looked at our tickets and directed us to our seats, which were (as advertised) twenty-five rows up behind home plate. We looked at them, looked at our watches, discovered that we were, as usual, obscenely early (because my husband has a phobia about being late to things), and decided to walk around instead of sitting down just yet.
The inner hallways of Coors Field are practical rather than showy, being made to accommodate huge masses of spectators. They’re like giant concrete tunnels. As you amble along with the crowd, you are deafened by the babble of thousands and thousands of voices bouncing off the hard gray walls and ceilings, and you are constantly in danger of being trampled to death as people find their seats, head to the restrooms, or grab refreshments.
Speaking of refreshments, there are a staggering number of places to get food and drinks along the corridors. Every few feet, there is a new fast food/snack counter to either side of you as you circle the ballpark’s hallways: nachos, burgers, French fries, ice cream, snow cones, cotton candy, popcorn, burritos, pizza, chicken wings, cheese steak sandwiches, and Dippin’ Dots (as my husband kept asking, by the way, when do Dippin’ Dots stop being ‘the ice cream of the future’ and start being the weird ice cream-ish-type thing of now, given that they were invented in 1987?). If you fancy a pretzel, stop by “Tornadough.” If you fancy an eggroll, stop by “A Wok in the Park.”
For traditionalists, there are Cracker Jacks, peanuts, and hot dogs; for modernists, there is one gluten-free food stand and another kind of lonely cart selling salad (they have two entrees: salad with protein and salad without protein). Every kind of soda, lemonade, and ice tea is available, and you can even get coffee (although that probably sells better at a chilly spring night game than at a day game in the beginning of a hot July).
And of course, there is beer. Lots and LOTS of beer. There are bars, and “Beers of the World” stands, and cocktail bars, and beer kiosks, and margarita bars, and a brewing company, and members-only bars, and a microbrewery—and if those aren’t enough, every single food stand (including the salad place) sells at least the basic beer staples of Bud, Coors, and Coors Light. Whatever your tipple, the entrepreneurs of Coors Field are happy to provide it, for a price. So what if the price is on the high side? You’re a captive audience (any contraband booze having been removed from your person at the gate), so you pay what they’re asking.
My husband and I don’t drink, so we didn’t get to enjoy the beer-at-the-ballpark experience. Instead, after circling the whole level and looking at the offerings, we grabbed a soda (for him), a bottle of water (for me), and two swirl ice cream cones before heading back to our seats.
The Rockies were playing the Dodgers that day. As we sat down, the announcer was just beginning to introduce the starting lineup for both teams, and I watched their names appear on the jumbotron. To my dismay, the only two Rockies players I know (Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzales) were not listed, and I found out later that they were both out with injuries. I didn’t know a single player on the home team. My husband knew three. When the announcer introduced the Dodgers, however, I knew two of them: Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp. My husband knew half the roster.
I felt kind of guilty.
Watching the live baseball game was very different than watching one on TV. On TV, the announcers, the cameramen, and the editors work together to keep you focused on the action. As long as you’re actually watching the television and not (as my husband sometimes does) playing on your iPhone while the game is on in the background, you know when the play starts, and you get to follow everything that happens in closeup. In the ballpark, I found myself sometimes missing a batter’s first pitch because, during the break between batters, I’d looked away from the field and hadn’t looked back in time. Sometimes someone would stand up in front of me and I would miss something. If a batter made a hit, I couldn’t always tell right away where the ball went—although I’m sure if I watched baseball more I would get better at that.
Also, even though our seats were relatively close, we were still too far away to really make out the players’ faces. We had a good view of the whole field, but the players were figures rather than personalities, all body language and no facial expression. In a strange way, it made watching the game on TV feel like a more intimate experience.
The pace in the ballpark felt slower, too. Baseball is a game that takes its time anyway, and there in Coors Field it seemed almost like we were all at a giant picnic, lazing on the seats, drinking lemonade, and watching some kids throw a ball around. It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and since our section was only three-quarters full, some people had their feet up on the seats in front of them. Shirts were taken off. People made leisurely trips up the stairs to get beer and peanuts. No one seemed to be in a hurry.
In the first inning, both teams scored two runs, and the PA system and the jumbotron led us in cheers and chants. Each player had his own introductory song, and the jumbotron told us the name of each player and his date of birth as he came up to bat. Most of the players were born in the mid-to-late 1980’s, and even the oldest was five years younger than me, putting into perspective the short lifespan of a professional athlete.
Neither team scored in the second inning, and during the slow breaks between batters I found myself looking around at the people in our section. Lots of great people-watching at a ballgame. There were two thirtysomething guys in our row who mostly talked about work and friends rather than about the game; one of them, the more talkative of the two, got up so many times during the game (and made us get up to let him out, since we were at the end of the row) that at one point he offered to give us a tip. A man about ten rows closer to the field was there with his young son, and when he took his shirt off and turned around I saw that he had his son’s baby footprints tattooed on his chest over his heart. A dad and his teenage daughter a few rows down were filling out paper scorecards together, bonding over baseball. I saw a lot of families, parents passing on their love of the game to their kids. That was one of my favorite things about the day.
The man sitting on the end of the row to our right was eating sunflower seeds, shelling them with his teeth and then spitting the shells out like he was trying to win a spitting contest. By the end of the game, the concrete around his chair was black with spent sunflower hulls, like the ejected bullet casings around a World War II machine gunner. The casual way he and others littered the ballpark with sunflower seeds, peanut shells, and cups of beer horrified me; I had a vision of the colossal task it must be to clean the stands at the end of each game. Next time I have a hard day at work, I’ll thank my lucky stars that at least it isn’t my job to clean stands.
Meanwhile, food and drink vendors toiled up and down the stairs, coolers and boxes full of wares balanced on their heads or strapped to their chests, shouting “Popcorn, popcorn!” and “Get your cold beer! Cold beer here!” I loved watching them—they seemed, like the Cracker Jacks and peanuts, to be a tie between July 5, 2014 and baseball’s past. People in my grandparents’ day, and my great-grandparents’ day, could have sat in stands similar enough to these and listened to the cry of “ice cold lemonade!” as they watched a baseball game unfold on the field. When my water ran out, I got a lemonade from a passing vendor, not only because I was hot and thirsty, but because it seemed to me to be the perfect ballpark experience. The vendor even thanked me.
I had been worried, going into the game, that the Rockies were going to get crushed, which I know is part of sports but isn’t especially fun to watch. They’d lost to the Dodgers 0-9 the day before, and there wasn’t anything in their record to suggest that they’d do better in their next outing. My husband had told me that if the Dodgers went up by seven runs, we’d leave. But after the 2-2 start, the Rockies scored three runs in the third inning, one run in the fifth, and two in the sixth and were magically up 8-2.
My husband started saying that if the Rockies went up by seven runs, we’d leave. He’d been watching the temperature icon on the jumbotron climb from 81 to 92 while we were sitting there, and the sun was beating down on us unmercifully. Most of the other spectators in our section had abandoned their seats by then and were crowded under the shaded overhang of the next level. I’d slathered myself in sunscreen in the car on our way downtown, but even so my upper legs, bared by my shorts, felt like they were sizzling. I kept bending forward to shade them.
But I didn’t want to leave until after the seventh-inning stretch no matter what the score was, and I told my husband so. If this was my adventure, I wanted to experience it to the fullest, even if I was starting to roast. So we grabbed another bottle of water from a passing vendor and settled down for the seventh inning.
Up through the sixth inning, the pitcher for the Rockies had been Jorge De La Rosa. De La Rosa and the defense had done a good job, keeping the Dodgers scoreless through five innings. But at the beginning of the seventh inning, the Rockies brought out a different pitcher, Nick Masset. Things started going wrong for Nick Masset right away. The first batter he faced hit a double, and the next three batters all reached first base. Then there was a pause while a whole bunch of Rockies joined Masset on the mound.
The Dodgers’ starting pitcher, Dan Haren, hadn’t been having a good day, and a couple times the catcher and one of the coaches went out to talk to him. The first time, the PA system played “Help!” by the Beatles, and the second time it played “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” by the Clash. It was funny.
When it was our pitcher being visited by the coaches, it wasn’t funny.
Eventually, a trainer came out to the mound, and Masset was helped off the field with a knee injury. Another pitcher, Boone Logan, came out. I found out later that Logan was pitching for the first time in a month, since he was recovering from an elbow injury. This was not the comeback he was hoping for. He threw fourteen pitches before he finally threw his first strike, and meanwhile, he’d unintentionally walked a player (throwing four ugly balls in four pitches) and thrown a crazy wild pitch that had missed home plate altogether and bounced off the fence.
It seemed like every Rocky on the team walked out to the mound this time. The situation was bad: the Dodgers had scored five runs in the inning, bringing the score to 8-7. A single by Matt Kemp had loaded the bases, and so far they had ZERO OUTS. What was to stop them from scoring another five runs? Another ten?
My heart was pounding and, despite the heat, there was a cold sweat on my forehead. We were going down in flames. All of a sudden, my leisurely picnic of an afternoon had turned into a life-or-humiliating-death struggle, and for the first time I CARED. I WANTED the Rockies to win. They HAD to win. They COULDN’T lose, not after doing so well through the sixth.
And that’s when the magic of live sports happened: the crowd got into the game.
Sure, when you watch the game in your living room, you can see the action better. You can follow the ball. You can see the expressions on players’ faces. You’ve got air conditioning and a comfortable couch and your own bathroom, and the beer that you bought at the liquor store cost less than half than what you’d pay at the ballpark.
But nothing in the world can match the sheer energy of 30,000 fans all rooting together for a team. It’s like surfing a tidal wave. “LET’S GO, ROCKIES!” we all shouted, and then clapped our hands together: clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. “LET’S GO, ROCKIES!” clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. The floor of the stadium vibrated with our chant, and the air itself seemed to vibrate with our desire to win.
The coaches escorted Logan off the mound and brought on another pitcher, Adam Ottavino. We all stared desperately at Ottavino as though we could psychically control his pitches. Throw a strike, Otto, we commanded. Throw the jerk out.
The game on the field seemed sharper to me now, more focused. The bright green of the grass, crisscrossed with the precise geometric lines of the mower; the groomed reddish dirt around the infield; the bright white of the bases. The umpire behind home plate in his black polo shirt and gray slacks, his huge shoulder pads turning him into a triangular caricature of a human being. The Rockies coach waiting at first base, dressed with indignity in the same white-and-purple uniform as the players.
The crack of the bat on the ball was sharp and bittersweet, a rousing sound that we didn’t want to hear. But the hit, it seemed, was part of the team’s plan, as the ball was caught and thrown again with lightning speed for a double play. Two outs, and we cheered. One more out to go, Otto. One more out to go.
The PA system blared a recording of a trumpet: da-da-da-DA-da-DA! “Charge!” we shrieked. And Ottavino answered, striking out batter A.J. Ellis. The crowd went nuts.
It was time for the seventh-inning stretch, and the mood was good. We all got to our feet to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The jumbotron showed the words, like a giant karaoke machine, but we were helped, too, but an enthusiastic elderly fan in our section who jumped down the stairs and turned to face us, singing at the top of his lungs and waving his hands through the air like an orchestra conductor:
“Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
buy me some peanuts and Cracker jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.”
Then it was the Rockies’ turn at bat, and we all settled back into our seats with glee. We had the momentum back. We’d show ‘em for sure.
But that’s not what happened. The Dodgers appeared to have found their stride, and every time the Rockies came up with a good play, the Dodgers had an answer. One batter made a beautiful, clean hit right between first and second base, and the Dodger shortstop jumped off the ground, arms outstretched, and caught the ball midair like something out of Cirque du Soleil. It was amazing to watch. Too bad it was an out for the other team.
At one point, the pitcher threw what looked like a wide ball, but the umpire called a strike. The crowd booed, the first time they had really done so all game. There hadn’t been much reason to boo when we were ahead 8-2. Now, with the game, and our pride, on the line, there was plenty of reason. The umpire ignored the crowd and went back to crouching behind the catcher. I imagined what it would be like to have a job where you had to shrug off 30,000 people booing you multiple times a day.
Once again, I felt lucky to have my own job.
The Rockies struck out without scoring a run, and there we were at the top of the eighth inning. My stomach was tight. Please win, Rockies, please win, I chanted to myself while clapping along with the piped-in organ over the PA. It was funny to care so much when a few hours before I hadn’t even known anybody’s name, but that’s the power of sports, especially live sports.
Ottavino was once again the MVP of the inning, striking out Yasiel Puig with a 97-mile-per-hour fastball and getting to three outs without allowing a run. If the Rockies could only score, we could maybe pull out a win!
But we didn’t score, and once again the Dodgers were up to bat. A different pitcher came out, LaTroy Hawkins. I was disappointed and concerned. Where was Adam Ottavino? Why had they pulled him? But then my husband explained that Hawkins was a closer, and I settled back in my seat, still grumbling a little. I didn’t want to trust the end of this tight game to just anyone. What if we LOST? I wanted to WIN.
We, the crowd and I, clapped and chanted and shouted, sometimes when the jumbotron told us to, and sometimes spontaneously (and out of sync) on our own. It was a modern version of a primitive ritual, filling the ballpark with the power of our belief. If we wanted it badly enough, our team would deliver.
And Hawkins and the rest of the team DID deliver, striking out three batters in quick succession. I jumped to my feet and screamed when the umpire called the last strike, throwing my arms into the air and jumping up and down. WE WON! WE WON! I couldn’t believe it. We had pulled it out by the skin of our teeth, 8-7. The Rockies had won my adventure game for me.
I don’t know if I’ll make baseball games a habit; they’re expensive, crowded, loud, messy, and (in this case) very hot. But right at that moment, at the end of the game, I was a true convert.
Bonus Gastronomic Adventure: Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs
It was 6:00 p.m. by the time we left the ballpark, and we decided to stop for dinner at Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs, a restaurant where we’d had lunch once before. It was between Coors Field and our car, so that was handy, and as an added bonus, we got to experience more of the vibrant life of LoDo as we walked past a bunch of people lighting off fireworks in front of the Denver Mission.
Biker Jim’s serves hot dogs and brats, the perfect post-baseball food. Their sausages are mostly made locally, and all of them are made without hormones or antibiotics. You can eat traditional 100% beef hot dogs, if that’s your pleasure, but you can also try sausages and brats made of duck, rattlesnake, pheasant, buffalo, veal, boar, elk, and more. There are also two kinds of vegan hot dogs and two kind of burgers.
I picked an Alaskan reindeer sausage. I had mine plain, but you can put all sorts of toppings on them, from onions caramelized in Coca-Cola to cactus, wasabi, or apples. You can have fries on the side, or baked beans, or fried mac-and-cheese, or fried pickles, or tahini cauliflower, and to wash it all down there are natural sodas, craft beers, and all kinds of cocktails. Your meal is served in an old-fashioned red plastic basket that’s handed to you by a woman with tattooed sleeves, and you eat at sticky wooden tables while watching sports on the TV in the corner.
It’s fabulous. A delicious end to a satisfying adventure.