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July 15, 2004

Houston, We Have a Problem

Trying to See the All-Star Game for Free

by Adam Katz

After graduating from college six weeks ago, I decided to embark on a classic post-college road trip (a.k.a. postponing Real Life). I eventually found myself in Houston, just in time for the All-Star Game. Given that I had less money in my bank account than the face value of the cheapest ticket to the All-Star Game, I knew scalpers weren't going to be my route into Minute Maid Park. My mission became clear--find a way into the All-Star Game without spending a dime.

From the outside, the Juice Box looks more like a warehouse than a ballpark, especially with the roof closed. It's a monstrous piece of construction, and as with all the other retractable roofed parks I've been to (Miller, Bank One and Safeco), it doesn't have the same kind of baseball feel as an outdoor stadium. And while the park is no longer named after a controversial company (unless you have an irrational hatred for orange juice), it's worth noting that the area behind left field that Berkman and Tejada peppered during the Home Run Derby is dubbed Halliburton Plaza.

Two hours before game time, I dip my toes in the scalpers' pool, and find that the going rate for a standing room ticket is around $150--well out of my price range. Some church was handing out free water, so I grab a couple of those, which come in handy in the triple-digit heat. There's a large crowd at the Pepsi Plaza, where little kids can play t-ball on a mock field, right next to a bunch of Budweiser Clydesdales suffering in the heat. The entire area around the park is filled with corporate-sponsored booths, including one poor group of Kerry supporters deep in the heart of Bush country.

At the Union Station entrance to the park, the lines to get in are huge. It's as if they didn't expect the game to be sold out. People are apparently waiting half an hour or longer to get in, and a number of fans miss the opening introductions. I notice an unguarded entrance and contemplate just ducking under a rope and walking in, but I figure that should be my last resort.

I watch the introductions and the first three innings from a bar attached to the park. The place is surprisingly empty, but I guess if you're at the park, you've probably got tickets. As an A's fan, I want to see Mark Mulder pitch and then begin my quest to get in, but I keep finding reasons not to leave my seat at the air-conditioned bar. Some folks wander in during the bottom of the first and ask how the AL scored six runs so fast. The two guys next to me try to explain it. "That Japanese guy from the Marlins, first batter, first pitch, hits a home run off Clemens," one says. I ask myself what game he's been watching and how many beers he's had. "Not really," I whisper to the group. "Ichiro doubled, Pudge tripled and Manny and Soriano each hit homers."

I head to the bathroom, and I notice a door that says, "This door should always remain closed." I try to open it, expecting it to be locked. It's not, so I go through and see a staircase. Wondering if I can somehow sneak into the stadium, I run quickly up the stairs, hoping no one catches me. I realize I'm in the building with Drayton McLane's office in it just behind left field, but there's no way to get into the park.

Heading back outside, I circle the stadium quickly to see if any exits can serve as covert entrances, or if any area is unguarded, but the security is pretty tight. The scalpers still want $50 or more for tickets, even though it's the bottom of the fourth.

I see a group of teenagers trying to climb some arches outside left field, trying to get a better view. One of them does so successfully and says he can see the field clearly from there. That's good enough for me. I take off my sandals, wrap my camera around one hand and pull myself up, using grooves in the arches to get higher. It's a tough task with one hand but the view is great--I see Albert Pujols hit a two-run double that I mistakenly think is a home run, then I see Barry Bonds pop out. At the end of the half-inning I try to climb down, but resort to making a seven-foot jump instead. My hands are killing me--imagine doing a pull-up on a ledge about six inches wide and holding it for 10 minutes. That's what this is like.

But I do catch my first real glimpse of All-Star Game action, which makes it worth it. I see about 10 other people climbing the arches, clamoring for a view. It's quite a sight, seeing the outsiders climbing up the walls, straining to see a game, as the people inside the park look up at them incredulously. The rush I feel after that half-inning makes me even more determined to get inside. Two men on bikes report that they're off to go try and sweet talk their way in, but when I see them two innings later I know they've been unsuccessful. "They wouldn't even let us Houstonians in," one says, with disgust in his voice.

At this point, scalpers have all but disappeared and I'm getting desperate. In the dark corners of my mind, I think of stealing someone's ticket holder from around their neck, or just making a run for it, but I know I can't do that. I think of going to the will-call window and begging them for an unused ticket, or just telling a guard a sob story that I formulate in my head. I'll tell him I lost my ticket, my friends are in the game, I just drove into town, it's the worst day of my life, and then break down crying. He has to let me in then, right?

People are starting to leave the game, and my new plan is to get a ticket stub from one of them and try to talk my way in, despite the dozens of signs around the park that say, "No Re-Entry." At least I'll have some sort of ammunition. I spot three middle-aged women walking out who don't seem to be the type who'd want their stub as a souvenir. I approach them nervously and try to use my natural charm to win them over. It doesn't work. "They won't let you back in, and anyway, I'm not giving you my ticket," one tells me in a light Southern accent.

I head back to the left field arches and resign myself to sore hands and a story of seeing the All-Star Game with a thick glass wall separating me from the action. A guy stands next to me and asks if I can see. I tell him yeah, but it's pretty tough to stay up here.

My new friend, a 30-something with an Astros jersey and hat on, tells me he asked a guard if they'll let people in after the eighth inning, and that the guard kind of winked at him. This is encouraging news. Even more encouraging is a phone call I get from a friend who is working inside the park. He says he has a ticket stub he can bring me, and he'll call when he gets the chance.

"I don't have a hundred and fifty bucks to spend so I didn't get a ticket," my co-conspirator in the Astros jersey says. He stops a security guard and asks him if he can get in now that it's the eighth inning. The guard looks at him and says, "We can't let anyone in. Not for the All-Star Game." Astros Man shakes his head dejectedly as we walk back to Halliburton Plaza together. "I guess I'll have to wait another 18 years," he says glumly.

I get another phone call from my man on the inside, and run to meet him. He clandestinely slips me the stub and tells me not to lose it, because the guy he got it from wants it back as a souvenir. I quickly walk to the other side of the stadium and try to slip in at the end of the inning when a crowd of people are exiting. With my stub in hand, I tell the guard that I was going to leave but thought the better of it. After a long silence, he nods his head towards the inside of the park. I thank him and walk in, quickly enough to get away from there, but not fast enough to raise suspicion.

My heart is racing as I walk in and see the field, a smile spreading across my face. I call my friend, "I'm in!" I say with relief. "I can't believe it worked!" I walk quickly towards home plate, catching glimpses of the action as I go. When the AL brings in K-Rod, it gives me a chance to catch my breath and soak in the surroundings. The park is much nicer inside than outside, and with the roof open, it actually feels like a baseball field. I pass an unguarded section and walk down the aisle. With plenty of open seats all around, I sit down ten rows above the American League dugout, to the left of the screen. These are $275 seats, and I'm in here for free.

I call my dad excitedly and tell him to guess where I am. I still can't believe I'm actually on the inside, After seven innings of work, I'm here. I'm 30 feet away from David Ortiz as he waits to face Eric Gagne. Even though it's an exhibition game, and half the crowd has left, the place still feels electric.

The last euphoric inning breezes by in an instant, and the American League streams out of the dugout right in front of me to exchange high fives. As they walk back, they toss some mementos into the crowd. A kid next to me wearing a Jeter jersey ends up with Don Mattingly's hat. "I got Donnie Baseball's hat! I got Donnie Baseball's hat!" he repeats over and over to his dad, beaming with pride.

I got a chance to see the All-Star Game in person, and a truly memorable night, all for absolutely nothing. I think of the guy with the Astros jersey. I hope he got in too, and that he won't have to wait another 18 years for this experience. In the middle of the ninth, the memory card on my camera craps out, but it doesn't matter. I won't need pictures to remember this.

Adam Katz is an intern for Baseball Prospectus. You can reach him at akatz@baseballprospectus.com.

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