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April 8, 2003

Breaking Balls

A Day at the Races

by Derek Zumsteg

It's a good week. I've got the MLB Extra Innings package, and after a long day of tinkering and swearing, my TiVo can now record up to 220 hours of baseball. I've seen so much fine baseball I feel like I'm in a pleasure coma--being able to sit down and watch NL teams I hardly ever got to see, while knowing that every Mariners game will be archived for my off-season amusement.

Speaking of teams I don't get to see very often, the Rangers have a new mascot, "Rangers Captain" who I saw for the first time this week. The Captain is a six-and-a-half foot fuzzy horse who, from what I can determine from seeing him on television, walks around the Ballpark at Arlington hugging hot women. This is made all that much funnier because the guy in the suit is reportedly 18-year-old Walter Dootson, a junior at Trinity High School in Euless, Texas ("at the intersection of 10 and 183"). I imagine that in addition to the usual mascot duties of say, the Mariner Moose--weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, corporate functions, "and any other special event where a lovable, domesticated moose would fit in"--the Captain is also going to be booked to do bachelorette parties.

And while watching games from the Ballpark, I have become convinced that baseball needs to implement new and harsh rules against people who sit on their cell phones and wave when they're on camera. I love cell phones, they're one of the most useful tools ever invented, and I think everyone should get one. But like every tool, people should use them responsibly. You shouldn't talk while you're driving, even with a hands-free set-up--it's distracting; you should turn your phone to 'vibrate' if you're watching a movie (mmm...10 minutes of pre-movie commercials); and you shouldn't use the miracle of wireless communication to deliberately annoy other fans.

I don't understand what motivates these jackasses. They're not at the game to enjoy the game--they stare off at the camera pits, and miss the value of sitting. It makes me wish there were some kind of licensing program for cell phones.

Guy: "I'd like this cool new Nokia 3650 3G phone. What's the battery life on one of these?"
Salesman: "You can get a talk time of up to four hours. What were you planning on using it for?"
Guy: "Oh, you know, yapping while driving my Hummer 2 to the mall and back; sitting in my front-row seats at the game, waving at the camera..."
Salesman: "I'm sorry, as much as we need your business, instead of selling you this phone I'm going to have to punch you in the nose. Hard."

These people should be ejected. I know, that's a harsh thing to say about someone who paid for a seat and isn't hurting anyone. From baseball's self-interest though, these people are interfering with the enjoyment of those watching, who want to get hooked on the game. Baseball is the only sport where fans can get away with this all game long--no other televised sport is framed where the fans are on camera long enough that their friends can tell them they're on TV, and still have enough time to make fools of themselves.

And their spots should be given to random fans in the cheap seats. Or someone should at least re-seat these dolts. If you're going to abuse having the best seats in the house, the least that should happen is you lose those super-seats.

The Fan Cost Index came out this year, and the average salary of a baseball player "rocketed" to $2.5 million. Many news outlets put the two together. For instance, the Washington Times wrote: "Since [1994], as this year's payroll data collected by the Associated Press reveals, average salaries have more than doubled. Not surprisingly, it isn't getting any cheaper to attend a Major League Baseball game."

Let me ask, first, what has gotten cheaper in the last nine years? Did movie tickets get cheaper? Nah, ABC News ran an article on how sports admission prices rose 6.1% annually from 1997-2002, while movies, theaters, and concerts rose 4.5%. That seems worse than it is--we should also consider that baseball in particular has seen a wave of new stadiums built which (sometimes) have made the experience of watching a game much better, while (almost always) dramatically increasing ticket prices in their home cities due to increased demand. Movies (for example) now show ads on slides continuously before the film--five-to-10 minutes of commercials before they even get into the previews, all of which has made that experience significantly less enjoyable. I wonder if, perhaps in the drive to turn every inch of the park into a revenue source, baseball might not eventually face the same alienation of their audience that the movie industry has seen.

All that being said, the Fan Cost Index is a sham. It's an artificial night designed to make the final number more shocking. It's calculated as two adults, two children at average ticket prices, along with two small beers, four soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking, two programs and two adult baseball hats. And it comes out to be about $150 for a night of baseball.

This provokes moaning and wailing: "Oh, what family can pay these extraordinary costs! Woe! Woe is the American family!" But let me ask you: Let's say you go to two games--would you buy those hats again? No. Figure those are cheap adjustable caps (real fans, of course, wear fitted caps...except for women with ponytails who wear the adjustables with the ponytail out the back, which is totally, totally cool). So that's $40, $45 if you're in an oppressive sales-tax state, and we're down to $110 for four people. And two programs? What family of four needs two programs?

Winnow that down further: Don't park at the stadium or next to the stadium. Eat and have your beer before the game and bring some snacks in with you. Even buying pretty good seats for $20 a head, and counting the sodas, snacks, and pre-game meal, you're down to a little over $100.

For an equal night at the movies in a metro theater, you're going to look at $30 for the tickets, $40 for the concessions, $5 for parking, and you escape the merchandising if you're lucky--$75 bucks, for a much shorter and almost certainly less entertaining night. I have never gone to a game, even with friends, even with lots of friendly drinking, that approached the Fan Cost Index. It just doesn't happen for the average fan.

It doesn't matter, though. I'll go to every game I can, major and minor league alike, for the next couple of months. The Expos and Royals are in first place, this year's edition of every year's Unexpected Hot Starting Teams. Jonah's excitement is causing intermittent overloads in the L.A. power grid, and Rany can't stop grinning.

Baseball's frequently compared to a marathon: It's a long and grinding season. When I used to run, at the start of races, some runners and I would sprint to get ahead of the bulk of the field. As I hit the course, I'd look at the guys with me at the head of the pack--like every baseball season, there were the strong favorites, who intended to lead from start to finish, and then there would be the guys, like me, who took off early because it was the smart thing to do. The guys who would win would likely be any of us (though not me)--but whether it would be the favorite, or the unexpected starter, or the guy who would work from the back over the course of five, 10 miles, no one knew for certain. But, you know, that's why we ran the races.

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