Monday, April 03, 2006

First pitch of the season

Before we get on with the ceremonial first pitch, a post-script to our "Thoughts on the bus" feature: We've already lost track of the "Woman Who Probably Has Her Hair Done Very Nicely, Only She Wears a Knit Hat On Top of It Somewhat Precariously, So We Never Actually See What It Looks Like", which means one of two things - either she's stopped taking the bus (after, perhaps, being directed to this column); or she's actually still riding the bus, only she's stopped wearing her hat, and we really don't know what she looks like.

Anyway, as you would know if you drove by Miller Park this afternoon (which you probably didn't), baseball season is underway. It's a different experience in the northern tier of the country, this opening day business. All that rhapsodic talk in baseball literature about the start of the season being tantamount to the planet's yearly rebirth is somewhat more pertinent in a place that's not green year-round.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed watching baseball for the last seven years in Arizona. There was something equally satisfying about buying sunscreen in late February and thinking about snow piling up on the pitcher's mound in Cleveland. And going to a game here in Milwaukee - in a domed stadium as we're planning to do this Saturday, will probably seem as unnatural as going to an August ballgame in Phoenix. Or an April hockey game in Phoenix. Or any hockey game in Phoenix. Or a Pes├Ąpallo game in Michigan. (You can look that one up.)

But their shared artificialities aside, there are some key differences between the Arizona and Milwaukee baseball experiences that I'm looking forward to:

Tailgating. Driving by Miller Park this afternoon, you could smell the brats grilling in the parking lot. From the Interstate. Inside a bus. What I like about tailgating is that it gives the baseball game a more momentous feel - like an actual event, rather than a two hour TV show you're attending. When I landed my first radio job, I timed my drive from Maryland to Iowa so that I could go to an Indians-Yankees game at Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium. Eight thousand fans in a park that held 80,000.

The forlorn gravel parking lot was easily the size of Rhode Island, and as I pulled up - with a carful of worldly possessions - a minivan with West Virginia plates pulled in next to me, and a bunch good ol' Mountaineers hopped out and proceeded to assemble a phalanx of hibachis. (A side note: I believe 19 Minutes Past the Hour has just made history by being the only weblog in history to use the term "phalanx of hibachis". And you were here to witness it.) It turned out to be a group of four friends on their yearly trip to see the Indians, and they thought my need to see an Indians game on my move was so cool, they added another couple of Italian sausages to the grill and dealt me in. So I like tailgating. On the other hand, I can't fault Arizona Diamondbacks fans for foregoing the tailgating tradition. For one thing, grilling out loses some of its appeal when the pavement is hotter than your charcoal. For another, management frowns on grilling out in a parking garage, anyway.

The other aspect of Milwaukee baseball that I think will appeal to me is the team's desire to have me attend its games. We attended a lot of Diamondbacks games the first few years we lived in Arizona - which was saying something, considering it was a two hour drive from Flagstaff to the Stadium Formerly Known as Bank One Ballpark. The team was good, the ticket prices reasonable, and the seats were typically 2/3-to-3/4 full. Then the Dbacks started losing. And people stopped showing up. To which the Diamondbacks responded by first, increasing ticket prices. Then, they created a multi-tiered pricing system, which included something called "Marquee Games", meaning they jacked up prices some more for games that anyone wanted to go to (which included, if memory serves, an exciting interleague series against the Tigers). Our last season in Arizona, we made it to one game.

Flash forward to last Friday. It's raining. It's 40 degrees. It's windy. I stop at Miller Park on my drive home from work - it's about 8 minutes from my house. I drag my bedraggled self to the ticket window and remark that the experience is a little different than buying tickets in my former Arizona home. The vendor replies, "Well, for people who have just moved to Milwaukee from Arizona, we have a special deal - half-price on any seats in the house."

It turns out that he was being the slightest bit theatrical - the Brewers have a special deal on at the beginning of the season, offering half-price tickets to everyone in the five counties in the metro area. But they actually seem to understand that they'll do better in the long run if they draw 35,000 fans a game paying half-price than if they draw 11,000 fans a game, and most of them sit in the bleachers. The fans might even come back again, and pay full price.

So we're going to the Brewers game this Saturday. They're playing the Diamondbacks.

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