Kris Shannon goes into extra time, watching eight baseball games in eight days in four different American cities.
One of the best things about baseball is its relentlessness. Thirty teams spread across the United States each play 162 games a season, lacing up their spikes almost every day in a schedule brutal for athletes but wonderful for tourists. Chances are, if you're in a major American metropolis between April and October, you can get to a game for as little as $20. I did just that for a baseball-packed week in the height of the US summer, attending eight games in eight days in four different cities.
Game one — New York Yankees vs Cleveland Indians, Yankee Stadium, New York City
'What time is it?!'
'What time is it?!'
I'm still underground, on a half-full D train heading towards the Bronx, but the game-day entertainment is already beginning.
The show that follows is a display of athleticism rivalling anything on offer at the baseball, as a group of teenagers host an impromptu gym meet in the middle of a moving subway car, back-flipping and pole-dancing into their fellow travellers' hearts — and wallets.
I happily oblige the hat-in-hand routine, the dance troupe exits for another hustle and, before long, the train pulls up at 161st Street station. The home of Yankee Stadium.
The gleaming new arena opened in 2009, after the previous incarnation across the street was knocked down, and what's lacking in tradition is remedied in luxury. The first sight this fan sees upon entering the stadium is a Hard Rock Cafe. The next a fine-dining steakhouse. And that theme of opulence repeated all over the park.
The best seats — directly behind home plate — can cost more than two grand, which means they're often empty during the dog days of August.
When the stands rapidly empty with the home team heading toward defeat, it's easy to see why the uber-rich, ultra-successful Yankees are regarded by rivals as the Evil Empire.
Game two — New York Yankees vs Cleveland Indians, Yankee Stadium, New York
The stainless steel bleachers are the ideal place to catch a game at Yankee Stadium. They're the natural habitat of the Bleacher Creatures — the Yankees' loudest and meanest fans.
One instance of cruelty is entirely reasonable — a supporter in the colours of cross-town rivals New York Mets absolutely deserves the "Asshole!" chant to which he was treated.
Another is slightly less understandable, but also much more comical. For seemingly no purpose other than a little fun during another Yankees loss, one fan decides to mercilessly heckle the closest Cleveland Indian, centre fielder Abraham Almonte:
'Hey Almonte! You're as bad as baloney sandwiches!', and, my personal favourite, after the home team scores a run, 'Hey Almonte! That's what cheering sounds like — don't get used to it!'
After about the fifth or sixth taunt — 'Look at me!' — the player does just that, turning around and responding with a wave and a smile. I'm sure he's crying on the inside.
Game three — New York Yankees vs Cleveland Indians, Yankee Stadium, New York
The Yankees finally earn a victory to round out the three-game Indians set.
Just as well, given it's Jorge Posada Day, honouring the legendary catcher who retired in 2012.
But one disappointment is the lack of freebies.
Just a poster for Posada? Yesterday it was Free Water Bottle Day, which followed Free Cowboy Hat Day. I have come to expect better gifts for gracing the team with my presence.
Another expectation developing after three days of baseball: always being entertained between innings. The staid daily performance of God Bless America is followed, rather inexplicably, by a daily airing of Cotton-Eyed Joe. Marriage proposals are mixed with celebrations for centurion's birthdays. And then there's YMCA. At the end of every sixth inning, the disco hit begins to blare and a surprising number of fans find their feet to dance along — and they're not alone.
The stadium groundstaff, who typically between innings sweep the infield dirt with complete professionalism, down tools for the chorus and join the action, finishing with a flourish as they march off the field with a twirl.
Game four — Baltimore Orioles vs Minnesota Twins, Camden Yards, Baltimore
Baltimore, a three-hour Amtrak ride from Manhattan, seems the type of town where it's ill-advised to don opposition colours, with the first bar I visit advertising a $50 Yankees hot dog.
The joke? It's an ultra-expensive option offering nothing better than the Orioles Dog, just like how they view the teams.
That disparity is reflected by the respective ballparks' entrances. While Yankee Stadium felt like an ultra-modern arena devoid of personality, the walkway into Camden Yards is far more fan-friendly. There's a well-populated beer garden situated just inside the gates and Eutaw St — snaking behind the right field seats — offers equal parts atmosphere and amenities.
Having eschewed a lengthy spell at the beer garden in deference to journalistic duty, I settle into my seat as the Os take the field, before reluctantly rising to tune out yet another rendition of the national anthem. But my reverie is suddenly snapped when, having reached the penultimate line, the home fans shout the opening word in "O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave". A nice, local touch.
Game five — Philadelphia Phillies vs New York Mets, Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia
My first lesson after completing the short train trip to Philadelphia: avoid walking to the game as, unlike the conveniently-located Camden Yards in Baltimore, Citizens Bank Park is situated well away from the centre city. My next lesson, having arrived at the stadium ready to rest some weary legs: this city knows how to host sports.
The state-of-the-art homes of all four of Philadelphia's professional sports teams are situated within an impressively small radius, with the area surrounded by a never-ending car park. No matter whether it's hockey season or time for football, fans head for the same place.
Unfortunately for the home support, such competence is unmatched by the inept baseball team, with the Phillies dealt a heavy loss by the Mets.
Game six — Philadelphia Phillies vs New York Mets, Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia
With Philadelphia and New York two hours apart, these are the first games I attend with a true bi-partisan crowd.
A sizeable visiting contingent regularly launches into chants of "Let's go Mets!", while the locals delight in drowning out those cries with a heavy dose of booing. After all, there's little Philadelphians like more than a good jeer.
A duelling crowd certainly adds a little atmosphere to an otherwise cold and corporate stadium, aptly named after a bank and featuring towering but sparsely-populated stands.
The only signs of life — and this will be true at many struggling teams' stadiums in the latter months of the season — occur between innings.
The entertainment options extend to slightly different variations of showing patrons on the big screen: kiss cam, bongo cam, karaoke cam, bad dancing cam, scull-a-beer cam, punch-a-friend-in-the-face cam. ( I may have made up those last two.)
But the action on the field is again no cause for acclaim. With the Phillies trailing by a run heading into the final inning, the big screen plays a montage of inspiration movie moments, including, appropriately for the city, the climactic speech in Independence Day. It doesn't work.
Game seven — Washington Nationals vs San Diego Padres, Nationals Park, Washington DC
The metro from downtown pulls up near the park, while the short walk to the gates features no shortage of tickets scalpers, counterfeit merchandisers and vendors offering ice-cold water. (At every park, it's always "ice-cold water". One imagines the sales pitch changes in April, when temperatures can fall to single figures.)
But if all of those touches are borrowed from ballparks across the country, once inside there's no mistaking we're in the nation's capital. From a "Steak of the Union" concession stand to a White House history challenge, indicators of the Nationals' location are ubiquitous. My favourite, and easily the premier in-game entertainment offered in the northeast, is the Presidents Race.
Featuring six mascots dressed as Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft and Coolidge, the race is run every home game, with fans rapt as the dead presidents sprint to a finish line near first base.
Coolidge claims the spoils on this occasion, after his pet raccoon (a legit thing that happened at the White House in the 20s) trips the opposition.
Game eight — Washington Nationals vs San Diego Padres, Nationals Park, DC
That result is reversed the following night but this intrepid writer is too busy perusing the plethora of food options to pay much attention to the game.
If a diner can eat out in New York every night and never visit the same place twice, a punter can probably say the same about a season at Nationals Park. Barbecue, burritos, grilled cheese, pizza, chilli, cheesesteaks. . . there's even a vegetarian stand to dispel the notion America has an obesity problem.
And there are more than enough drink choices to wash it all down, with a ridiculous number of bars. One right outside the gates, which can only be for the purpose of on-site pre-drinking, is essentially an empty lot surrounded by shipping containers. There are more conventional sites inside the stadium, offering hard liquor instead of weak beer.
And around the concourse, there are even a couple from which a fan can view the game, open and accessible to everyone.
Punters are treated as adults — the R21 drinking age certainly helps — and, in turn, they largely act as such. In fact, after switching from the lukewarm lager of New Zealand stadia to the Long Island Iced Teas of Nationals Park, I may be the drunkest there.
The most enjoyable aspect of attending baseball every day was exactly that: the idea that, no matter what fate befell your favourite team, the sun would rise the following day and they'd again take the field.
For the players, it meant a short memory was required, needing to immediately forget any disappointments and set aside any successes.
And for the fans, it created a sense of eternal optimism, encapsulated in an exchange outside Yankee Stadium after the home team suffered a dispiriting defeat against Cleveland.
Grumbled one young supporter: "I hate the Indians." To which a passer-by, having overheard the complaint, replied: "Don't worry, kid, we'll get 'em tomorrow."
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