Baseball is the most superstitious sport. It's got something to do with the cosmic rotation of the ball, the 60 feet of deception from mound to home plate, and the damning difficulty of hitting that makes even the best batters miserable failures two-thirds of the time.
Or maybe it's because most of us are lucky to match the IQ of a Jeff Conine bobble-head doll. Whatever the reason, baseball is impossible to figure. Look at the Marlins, who were enough to make anyone a raving mystic. The team that didn't stand a chance further cursed Wrigley Field and had Yankees ghosts to contend with in the World Series. Being a fan not only of the Fish but also of paranormal events, I had to see this.
I had no tickets, just a loose plan. I wrote last week that you could almost surely get good series seats relatively cheaply from scalpers, so I decided to test my own words. It really started on a whim. Because my wife was working during Tuesday's home opener, leaving our two children in my care, I thought I'd have to wait until Wednesday's game. But at the last second, a fever hit me, so I hired a baby sitter and drove out to Pro Player.
It was the beginning of a baseball odyssey, a guerrilla fan experience that had the bad, the good, the ugly, and the beautiful, in that order. It was magical too -- I personally ended Derek Jeter's hot-hitting streak, and my son helped Alex Gonzalez hit his heroic home run. But in the end, it all descended darkly into crime and a bloody assault outside the stadium.
Or so it seemed. You can never be sure.
It was baseball.
Because I left so late, I didn't have a chance to go to the bank before the game. So I cashed a $100 check at Publix, giving me a total of $203. By the time I got to the park, there were only about 45 minutes before the first pitch, but the ticket market seemed fairly promising. Amid the throngs of fans and peddlers of water, T-shirts, and dubious shish kebab were scalpers and buyers. And it was a good market: Upper levels were going for face value or less. I worked a long sidewalk near gate F until I found my ticket: section 102, row 25, seat 4. Right next to the infield box.
The ticket had a $125 face value, but the guy, who had just one extra, claimed he'd paid $160 for it. He took $150.
The view of the game -- just down the third base line -- was great. Not far away from my seat was the Boynton Beach Little League World Series team, whose star player, 12-year-old Michael Broad, had thrown out the first pitch. Even though the little guys lost the title game to Japan, their presence seemed a positive omen.
It was a solid home crowd. There weren't half as many Yankees fans as there had been Cub die-hards during the previous series. The Cubs fans had managed to short the electricity of the Marlins' crowd, which helped them take two of three here. But the Yankees lovers were relatively quiet, perhaps overconfident.
Yet, even after the Fish took a 1-0 lead in the first, the signs started turning against the home team. To begin with, three joyous, half-drunk guys from New Jersey sat down behind me in the second inning. They were OK -- it was their story that didn't bode well. They said they were on vacation and had decided that morning in a bar to change their flight and make the game. But they couldn't find tickets outside Pro Player.
"We sat down for a break, totally depressed," said one of the guys, a crew-cut, tank-top-wearing 27-year-old restaurant manager named Tom Maher. "Then this Asian woman wearing black comes out of the darkness and pulls out an envelope and hands us these three tickets. Free!
"Dude, we started jumping and running around like animals."
Great story, but who was this apparition, this mysterious Asian woman in black? She'd let in a trio of die-hard Yankees fans -- clearly a bad sign.
Then a drizzle came and exposed thousands of Marlins fans as the sorry amateurs they were. When the first few drops started falling, throngs headed for the concourse -- which was not at all the way to impress the baseball gods.
An inning or two later, the rain really fell, and during a delay, I spoke with Boynton Beach star Broad at the concession area. For some reason, I asked him his favorite team.
I said only, "Bad omen."
It may have been the first time in World Series history that the local celebrity who threw out the ceremonial first pitch actually favored the other team.
After the delay, thousands of seats remained empty. In a way, those who had left were lucky, since they were spared David Cassidy's rendition of "America the Beautiful." You may think you can imagine how bad it was, but you weren't there, man, you weren't there.
The exodus was good for me, though. With two innings to go, I grabbed a seat in the front row of section 101, right over the Yankees dugout. I could have spit on Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell. I did spit on the Yankees' cornerman, Aaron Boone (or maybe I just heckled him; I can't remember).
In the eighth inning, as the Yankees threatened in a 1-1 game, closer Mariano Rivera began warming up in the pen, maybe 20 yards to my left. Even his slow tosses seemed to have a preternaturally powerful pop in the glove. I had to shout something at the future Hall of Famer to bring him back to Earth: "Remember Arizona!"
But Rivera was too good to rattle. It was time to give Derek Jeter the business.
"Jeter, you suck!" I yelled.
Don't ask where those inspired words came from. I'm only the medium.
Then I hit him with the epic "America hates you, Jeter!"
I swear he glared at me. Was that a tear in his eye? The rather precious shortstop had been tearing up the series, but the next game, he went one-for-six and was never the same after that.
Me and Carl Pavano got him good.
A guy sitting in the Founder's Club -- which are the best seats in the house, basically on the field -- liked my heckling so much that he invited me down to sit with him and his wife. I'd found a patron. After security turned me away because I lacked a ticket, the guy handed me his through the railing. Soon I was at eye level with the players, the ultimate score.
But it was a short-lived glory. Two old security wenches -- quite possibly former lunchroom ladies at my elementary school -- practically seized me with their liver-spotted hands. "Give me that ticket," one of the grinchesses growled. "You have to go back."
Back at my seat, a bunch of guys gave me a round of high-fives and backslaps as if I'd laid down a sacrifice bunt. We cheered until the last out in the 6-1 loss.
They played badly. The stars were aligned badly. I behaved rather badly.
And it was an absolute blast.If game three was about the spectacle, game four was all about baseball. It was Roger Clemens' final start of his incredible career, and the Marlins needed to win to avoid going down 3-1 in the series. Everything felt good. The vibes were definitely flowing with the grain. And this time, I took my 8-year-old son.
"I have a feeling," he said in the car as we were about to park, "that the Marlins are going to win tonight."
I was late again, arriving just 35 minutes before game time. And there was pressure. I didn't want to disappoint my kid. I had to find seats.
The market was terrible.
Lower levels seemingly couldn't be found, and uppers were going for $150, most of them in the useless outfield corners. Ten minutes went by. My son started to worry. I told him I needed silence to make this work. Then I recognized a pro scalper from previous games and asked him if he had two. He said he had a pair of upper levels. "Let me see if I can get my partner to get them for you for $250 for both," he told me.
Not a good price.
His partner came over. They were section 442, right over first base. I wanted them.
"$200 for both," I offered.
"No way, man -- somebody offered me $250 already."
I pulled out my cash. This time I had $400.
"$210," I pleaded. "Do it for the kid."
Shameless. He grimaced like he'd been shanked in the side and gave me the tickets. My boy and I danced all the way to gate.
We were way up there in row 23, but the view was good. I could call balls and strikes fine, sometimes even better than the plate umpire.
But this thing was all about the Rocket, who seared 20-year-old rookie Miguel Cabrera's face with a 94-mph brush-back pitch in the first. I saw Cabrera stare at Clemens, which inspired me to pass on some heartfelt wisdom to my son. "Clemens is a bastard," I told him.
"This is oldness against youngness," said the kid, who sometimes displays a talent for cutting to the guts of the situation.
Cabrera then deposited a Clemens fastball over the right-field wall.
Despite all the badmouthing I gave Clemens during the game, I cheered him like crazy with the other 65,000 fans after his last pitch. The standing ovation, the tip of the cap -- it was one of the greatest moments I've ever had in a ballpark.
The game was equally classic. By the bottom of the 12th, a lot of families with kids had left, but my boy was good to go. It was almost 12:30 a.m., roughly four hours past his bedtime. School would be a bitch. We walked down to the third row for a better view of the last couple of innings.
In the bottom of the 12th, it was announced that Alex Gonzalez was coming up to bat. "Oh no!" cried my son, who knew the shortstop called "Sea Bass" was hitting somewhere under .100 in the postseason.
"You shouldn't complain -- it won't help," I told him before rethinking my position. "Hell, maybe it will help -- keep complaining."
It helped. Gonzalez soon hit a rifle shot over the left-field wall to end what will be remembered as the greatest game of this World Series. Everyone went crazy. I hugged a stranger and lifted my cheering boy over my head. We left the stadium whooping and hollering like a few Jersey guys who just got handed free World Series tickets.
"We're going to do it in Yankee Stadium!" I kept yelling as we ran down the long spiraling concourse.The sheer greatness of the two previous nights didn't come without a price. I had a whopping baseball hangover (all that stadium beer had nothing to do with it, I assure you). I was totally strung out, throat raw from cheering, hands numb from clapping, nerves frayed, senses dulled.
But I dragged myself out to Pro Player anyway. I had to finish what I started.
And the market was sheer hell, much worse than for game four. I scrambled a little and got a couple of decent hits on club seats -- $200 each, or $55 over face value. But I wanted better.
Then, about ten minutes before the first pitch, I saw a guy with a bandage around his knee haggling with some people a couple of hundred yards from the stadium, near the east parking lot.
"What do you got?" I asked.
"Section 142, 12 rows up," he said. "I hurt my leg and can't go to the game."
Great, great seats at first base. How much?
I haggled him down to $190 and took the ticket -- a real coup. These seats were going for $500 or more. I sauntered up to the gate, feeling that old excitement coming back. When I walked through the turnstile, the woman scanning the ticket said, "Uh-oh, this says 'Stop.'"
She showed me her handheld scanner. In red lights was that dreadful horrible word. "You have to go back," she told me. "There's something wrong with your ticket. Go to gate G."
I felt a burning in my chest like lava that dripped down into my stomach. I had a primordial impulse to make a break for the stands. But that might have led to a takedown by police, an even worse prospect.
No, nothing could be worse than this. I looked at the ticket. It said "Wednesday." This, of course, was "Thursday." I'd stupidly broken the first rule of black-market ticket-buying: Check the date.
It's moments like these that test a man. I could have easily collapsed to the ground and blubbered like a baby. I pictured the guy with the bandaged knee sprinting to his car. Anger took hold. I started running, hoping to catch him.
No use. Nobody is stupid enough to stick around after that. Hell, $190 is a good day's work for any scumbag who's not already elected to political office. That limping SOB was gone forever.
And then... there he was... not that far from where he'd sold me the ticket. I stormed up to him. "This ticket is no good! Give my fucking money back."
It might be good to mention here that I was about ten years younger than this middle-aged hack. I was also four inches taller, probably 30 pounds heavier, and, though I'm no specimen, in much better shape. I had a distinct physical edge, and I was seriously considering using it.
"What?" he said, as if in shock. "The guy at the black Hummer limo gave me these. He was hanging out drinking beer, and he pulled the ticket out of a fresh envelope. I can't believe this. C'mon, man, let's go get the money. I gave him face value of the ticket after I sold it to you. All I made was $45."
Black Hummer limo? Somebody had fronted this jackass a ticket? It wasn't believable, but I tell you, I gave him some benefit of the doubt just because he was there. I mean, who would risk life and limb by hanging around? It was too weird.
"The guy's not going to be there," I said as I walked beside him. "You ripped me off, and you're going to give me my money back."
"I got ripped off too!" he said. "I can't give you that kind of money,"
Two options sprung to mind: the aforementioned physical remedy -- which might land me a battery charge -- or going straight to the cops.
"I'll go down for this one, motherfucker," I told him. "We're going to the police. I'm having your ass arrested."
I edged close to him and punched my hand; he flinched like he thought I was going to hit him. Suddenly, it felt like a science experiment.
"I'm licensed. I'm a professional broker from St. Louis," he complained. "I make 50 grand a year -- my business has $120,000 overhead."
"Then give me my money. Selling anything here is illegal... you're going to jail."
It was a bluff. I knew I wasn't going to the cops. Even though I didn't commit a crime, I was participating in criminal activity. It would be a crapshoot. They might help me get my money back -- or they might boot me off the property $190 lighter.
The black Hummer wasn't there. Of course. He kept walking. It was like I was chasing him in slow motion.
"C'mon, I'll get you another ticket," he said.
"I don't want another ticket -- I want the money back."
"You want to go to the game, right? That's why you're here, right?"
"I don't give a shit at this point."
"I got ripped off just like you did!"
"You didn't look at the date? What kind of professional scalper are you? This is a damn joke. And what about your leg? I bet you never even cut it."
Suddenly our loud argument grew silent. He stopped walking and looked at me dead seriously, as if hurt by the accusation.
"I cut it on the rail over there -- they said I need stitches."
"Whatever. Give me the goddamned money."
Back to walking.
"I'm going to buy you a ticket. I'm a professional. I sold 320 tickets to this game. I'm staying in a condo in Miami with a buddy for the week. Look at this stupid tourist's T-shirt I bought."
Sure enough, he was wearing a tacky Miami Beach T-shirt. It didn't occur to me until later that it might have been a part of his con.
Then he started to hustle me a ticket, which was useless.
"I'll buy you a ticket for $100," he tells me.
"Give me the hundred instead. I'm not going to follow you around all night. Give me the hundred and then we'll at least split the damage."
I never should have said that, but I wanted to get somewhere. After a few minutes of complaining, he handed me a Benjamin, which I examined closely for authenticity.
"We're still not even. You made $45. Give me another $20."
For eight minutes, he kept trying to confuse the numbers, and I kept setting him straight. Finally, he handed over a 20.
Suddenly, everything seemed as clear as the polish on Jeter's fingernails. He'd never been ripped off and thought he could still take me for the $70. It was time for real action. I grabbed him by his stinking T-shirt and jacked him up so close I could smell the beer and cigarettes on his breath. Then I gave him a close-in double slap, first open-handed, then with the back knuckles. Hard.
"Give me the rest of it," I hissed at him.
Trembling like a newborn rat, he reached into his wallet and gave me the final $70. I grabbed him again and gave him another hard slap on the right side of his pockmarked face. The cheekbone stung my hand.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I swear I'll never rip anyone off again."
"I know you won't," I told him before walking away, my wallet intact.
It was great, but it was just a baseball dream. Instead of throttling the lowlife, I went back to my car, drove home, and watched the Marlins beat the Yankees on TV.
I rationalized the $70 loss as a penalty for stupidly buying the wrong ticket. But I may never fully get over that one. That idiot con man was as deceptive as Josh Beckett's best curveball. And I never even took a swing.
The week was still a great success. I'd spent $360 for three seats, two of them good, one great. My son and I had a time neither of us will ever forget, and when it was over, the Marlins were poised to become champs. My son and I watched game six together on television. We hung on every one of Beckett's pitches. Then, in the seventh inning, the strangest thing happened: The game blacked out on my TV. I still don't know why; every other channel worked fine.
The only other TV was in my baby daughter's room, where she was asleep. So we crept in there, cleared toys from a piece of floor, and watched quietly as the last out finally came, and the Marlins celebrated in front of the New York crowd. We just looked at each other with Juan Pierre smiles and hugged each other. I swear that tears filled my eyes.
They did it in Yankee Stadium.
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