Monday, August 17, 2009

On Liberty and the Ballpark

I am the sort of secular humanist who rolls his eyes at those public figures and politicians who feel they must constantly invoke God and proclaim, “God Bless America.” At best, it’s pandering. At worst, it hints at a disregard for separation of Church and State, a principle enshrined in our Constitution and the basis for our most cherished freedom, freedom of conscience. What’s more, it’s annoying.

But I must admit, I have always liked the song God Bless America. Musically, it is superior to both The Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. The former is derived from a popular British drinking song and the latter is almost dirge-like, a plodding number (except, of course, when Ray Charles sings it). It manages to soar in its final verse but it doesn’t succeed nearly as well as the crescendo and finale of God Bless America. Lyrically too, Irving Berlin’s composition enjoys poetic simplicity and a feel that is contemporary, even timeless. It can’t match The Star Spangled Banner for historical authenticity or patriotic expression. (Francis Scott Key did not work on Tin Pan Alley, he really did write his poem aboard a prison ship with live ordinance exploding around him). But it is superior to America the Beautiful, a song weighed down by piety and stodgy phrases. (“and crown they good with brotherhood”).

The singing of “God Bless America” has long been connected with sporting events. There is the great tradition of Kate Smith singing before the home games of the Philadelphia Flyers. In 1980, when the U.S. hockey team upset the Russians in the Miracle on Ice at the Lake Placid Olympics, the fans in the arena burst into a spontaneous singing of “God Bless America.” It was remarkable. When patriotism wells up in our hearts, when America wants reach for something extra, this is the song that we go to.

And then 9/11. On the day of the tragedy, members of Congress sang God Bless America on the Capitol steps. When professional baseball resumed play, the song was added to the between-innings repertoire. Take Me Out the Ball Game seemed insufficient by itself, and at the same time, frivolous. How could we sing about peanuts and Cracker Jacks when the smoke was still rising from the rubble at Ground Zero? No, we needed something solemn but also uplifting. Something to make us feel good, strong and together. God Bless America seemed the perfect expression of what needed to be expressed. Who can forget the first time they heard the “singing policeman,” tenor, Daniel Rodriguez called upon to sing at Yankee Stadium? Even the most cynical atheist could not hear his soaring rendition and fail to get goose bumps.

Over time, the spontaneous becomes routine and the routine becomes ritual. I was at Citi-Field last month for my first baseball game in some time. The announcement came in the Seventh Inning. “Please stand at attention and remove your hats for the singing of God Bless America.” I found myself wondering, why are we doing this? Of course we’re still at war. The enemies who would destroy America are as threatening as ever. And sure, a baseball audience provides an opportunity for the expressions of national unity. But we’ve already saluted our nation and our flag during the singing of the National Anthem. We already gave cheers of thanks and appreciation for our troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But none of that is enough, it seems. We must also beseech God. It was the first time I ever heard the song that way and I found myself resenting, not so much the song, but the ritual that had been created for it.

Some will say I am overreacting. It’s just a song, not a prayer, right? It’s not as if Major League Baseball, much less the government, is establishing religion in the ballpark. Don’t we do this same thing, more or less, for the National Anthem? Well, not exactly. First of all, the song was indeed written as a prayer. Irving’s Berlin’s introductory lyrics make that clear (“as we raise our voices, in a solemn prayer.”) And when we remove our hats and stand at attention for the National Anthem, it is our nation’s flag, and its ideals, we are saluting. When we are asked to show the same reverence for God Bless America, who is it we are saluting? Clearly, it is not just a song. And if you happen to be one of the tens of millions of Americans who do not believe in God, (or even if you do, but don’t care to invoke his blessing to be bestowed on a single nation during the seventh inning stretch), the social pressure may be very real.

In John Stuart Mill’s famous essay On Liberty we are warned about the dangers of this form of social coercion:

Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
No, I am not accusing Major League Baseball or the New York Mets of instituting tyranny at the ballpark. Nobody is forced to stand at attention, or salute or sing, but there is an expectation of conformity, an expectation that grates against individual conscience. Now we all face pressure to conform in various aspects of our lives, but this here is not the routine sort of pressure we face when society chooses the fashions and tastes it prefers. Here, we are pressured to publically acknowledge God and beseech Him to bless the nation. It is the exact kind of social coercion that J.S. Mill described. One can easily imagine the social cost you’d pay if you dissented, if you failed to conform or actually sought to “disestablish” the singing of God Bless America. At a minimum, your patriotism would be questioned, your motives impugned.

In most ballparks, the singing of God Bless America is now an occasional feature rather than an everyday one, But that isn’t because ballparks were persuaded to honor freedom of conscience. It’s because they’ve decided to roll out their sacred number on Sundays and special occasions. To be fair, you do have the choice. You are not obligated invoke the Deity in the seventh inning. You can stay home or you can ignore the announcement, remain seated, leave your hat on, fold your arms and hope nobody notices or, if they do, that they respect your principles and in no way regard your choice as one that reflects poorly on your patriotism, your character or your standing in the community. But why bother? It’s so much easier to simply conform. It’s only a song. Just sing along or, alternatively, mouth the words and convince yourself that they have no meaning. What’s the harm? Peanuts and cracker jacks are just around the corner.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Impressions of Citi Field


Just before the All-Star break, I finally made it out to Citi-Field. Twice. Nicole and I saw a Wednesday night game against the first-place Dodgers and then on Sunday afternoon, I joined my Dad, my brother and his six-year-old son for a game against the Reds. Amazingly, the Mets won both games. But what made the outings especially pleasurable was the experience of Citi-Field, which earned a big thumbs-up from this Mets fan.

Like other jaded Mets fans I was initially turned off by all of the new-stadium hype. Some of my ambivalence was simple nostalgia. Sure, Shea Stadium was nobody’s idea of a cathedral but it was the only baseball home I had ever known. To me, it was a place of magic and memories, the place where I saw my first baseball game, where the miracles of 1969 and 1986 were surrounded by years of frustration and futility though, on occasion, hope. Who needs a grand new ball park? The Mets were never a team of grandeur or glory. The dynastic tradition of pride and power belongs to that other club, the one in the Bronx. The Mets were born out of broken hearts – lovable losers, transplants & refugees landing almost accidentally in Queens. Shea Stadium, that blue & orange speckled coliseum of concrete, set on the faded fair grounds between the airport and parkway cloverleaf, was good enough for me. But it was not good enough for the moneyed interests that always seem to ruin sports. And let’s talk about timing. In 2008-09, America’s culture of excess hatched a credit crisis sending the U.S. economy into the dumpster. Did we really need more debt, more excess, just to build a stadium where the price of a ticket would require a second mortgage?

Another explanation for my bad attitude was the way the Mets closed things out at Shea. Two consecutive September collapses of historical proportion would leave even the most fervent Met fans sick to their core. When you’re young, you turn heartbreak into a badge of loyalty. Great defeat has a way of cementing your affection and you end up feeling even closer to your team. When you’re older, such disappointment turns to apathy. We all have our defense mechanisms. But this last September collapse was so total that it was difficult to imagine a recovery. The magic was gone and seemed to be replaced by some dreadful curse. I was forced to consider, maybe the wrecking ball really is the only way to move forward.

And so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when I arrived at Citi Field but there were positive signs at the outset - the shorter-than-expected walk from the parking lot and the beautiful weather. A refreshing breeze rolled in off the marina. I was struck by the ease of entering the stadium and the friendliness of the ushers and other stadium personnel. “Welcome to Citi Field!” Even the workers serving hot dogs and beer at the refreshment stand smiled. “Are we still in Queens?” I wondered. I reminded myself that we’re still in a honeymoon period. Give it time.

As Nicole and I walked through the stadium, toward our seats along the right-field line, I felt like a kid – the enchantment of seeing that rich green field for the first time. The Dodgers were taking batting practice and I was reminded that the very first game I ever attended was also Mets-Dodgers. The Dodgers won that game – they were a first place team then, and the eventual National League Champions (1974). And once again, they are in first place, this time with the best record in baseball. The connection between the Mets and Dodgers is everywhere at Citi Field, most obviously in the Jackie Robinson rotunda, the spacious corner entrance that honors both Ebbets Field, the model for Citi Field and Robinson himself. It has been suggested that the Mets, by clinging so blatantly to the Brooklyn Dodger legacy are peddling in nostalgia. But the bond is real. My own father became a Met fan reluctantly, but inevitably, in the years after the Brooklyn Dodgers abandoned him. Back then, before ESPN or even national telecasts, it was nearly impossible to closely follow the fortunes of a baseball team that played 3,000 miles away. You couldn’t even get the box score in the morning paper. My father got married in 1963 and moved from Brooklyn to Queens just as the expansion Mets were leaving their temporary home in northern Manhattan’s Polo Grounds for the brand new Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows. Countless first generation Met fans were born this way and we are their children. Celebrating our Dodger heritage helps to ground us as fans, and remind us who we are. It may not have made sense to do this in 1964, when the Mets were in their infancy, when Flushing-Corona buzzed with 150 Pavilions at the World’s Fair, when crowds poured in on newly constructed highways and bridges, when everything seemed new. Then, in the beginning, the fledgling club needed to establish its own identity. But baseball clubs have an organic element. Like individuals, and nations, they mature over time, gaining confidence and character. Brooklyn was once a place to escape from. Now, in adulthood, the Mets could comfortably give Brooklyn the embrace it deserves.

I watched the Dodgers take batting practice. Manny Ramirez was back with the team after serving a suspension for steroid use. He sauntered around the cage without a care in the world, his baggy pants flapping and he effortlessly jacked several shots over the center field wall. Nicole and I briefly ducked into the '47 shop where Mets nostaligia is sold (from caps to jeans to embroidered pillows). We settled into our seats in section 306 and looked out at the field with delight. There are fewer seats than in Shea, they’re well-angled and there’s more leg room. It was nice to see a drink holder affixed to the back of the seat in front of me. (“How long before some asshole snaps it off,” the New Yorker in me wondered) The outfield is jagged and irregular and the bullpens are behind the centerfield wall, instead of the right and left-field corners. You can see the game from anywhere which is nice if you’re on line at the refreshment counter. The brick-lined corridors running through the stadium feel open and airy, unlike the concrete tunnels of Shea. As we were walking through, I thought, “This really is beautiful.” It had never before occurred to me to associate that adjective with a baseball stadium, or at least with MY baseball stadium. I looked over at Nicole who was smiling beneath her Dodger cap. As a frequent visitor to Dodger stadium in Chavez Ravine she could, of course, imagine beautiful baseball parks.

Like all of the new ballparks, Citi Field is also part shopping experience and part theme park. There’s an international food court, a batting cage, a dunk tank, a whiffle-ball field for kids, video games and a booth where you can be photographed with the creepy Mr. Met. Not to mention, all of the usual shenanigans (racing trains etc.) on the Jumbotron video display. The purist in me scoffed at such extravagance but Andrew, my six-year-old nephew loved it. Maybe I'm a curmudgeon but I couldn’t help but wonder how a new generation of baseball fans could possibly be cultivated in the face of all of these circus-like distractions. How can they possibly learn the game? How can they grow to love it? But this is 2009. Without the extra engagement and constant stimulation, how do you even get kids out of the house? Just get them there. Some will become baseball fans, some won’t but if you get them to the game, there’s at least a chance. For kids, and also many adults, the experience is about much more than the game on the field. Maybe it always was. And who’s to say what memories these kids will have of their first baseball game at Citi-Field? The experience just might be magical. For the price of these tickets, it had better be.

But even as I prided myself in appreciating the game's purity, I too fell prey to the seduction of the carnival. It was between innings and I had just started walking up the stairs toward the refreshment counter when I noticed the people around me looking up at the sky. They all moved toward me and stretched their arms toward the air above my head. Clearly, some object was falling. Instinct took over. I reached up and the next thing I knew, a rolled-up T-shirt landed in my hands. In one motion I cradled it and turned my body, lest some would-be defensive back attempt to strip me of my possession. This was the Pepsi T-shirt launch – the interlude when Mr. Met and some young female assistants, wielding some air pump-gun apparatus, fire promotional T-shirts into the crowd. And they did it again a few innings later. This time I was paying attention. I followed the trajectory of one T-Shirt as it hurtled its way toward our seats. I was ready but so were most of the people setting in our section. I jumped to my feet and reached up, knowing that l would have to earn this one. As soon as I felt the soft cotton hit my hands, I squeezed and pulled, wrenching the shirt free from the hands of the man standing next to me. A modest prize for sure, but what a thrilling feeling it was. Triumph! The man standing next to me, who lost out, happened to be my father.

Still more good fortune. The Mets, who had not hit a home run in eight games, homered twice that afternoon. Andrew missed the first one. He was watching the Jumbotron or Mr. Met or perhaps his sneaker. But the noise and excitement of the crowd grabbed him. He stood on his seat, practically convulsing with joy as my brother pointed at the giant Home Run Apple flashing as it emerged from the giant magic hat behind the centerfield wall. This is how every Met homerun has been celebrated since the Apple was introduced to Shea Stadium in 1980. The Mets were a terrible team then and, as if to compensate, they rolled out a new slogan one offseason. “The Magic is Back!” and to demonstrate the “magic,” they installed the fiberglass Home Run Apple and Magic Hat. Suddenly I was kid again. I remembered how much I longed to see that apple light up in celebration of a home-run, as rare then as they are this season. (Did the purists then sneer at such carnival contrivances?) The Mets were anemic offensively but every once in a while, Dave Kingman would blast a shot into the back of the bullpen and, on occasion, across the parking lot. And there goes the Apple! This was before the wave and before giant video screens. Teams were experimenting with new and frivolous ways of celebrating home runs. The Milwaukee Brewers had Bernie Brewer, a mustachioed mascot who slid down a chute into a giant mug of beer. We got the Apple.

Two batters later, Fernando Tatis, hit a home run to leftfield. Such offensive fireworks! The crowd roared with delight. But wait. Even before Tatis touched home, there were murmurs and then boos. Beyond centerfield, the Magic Hat was quiet. There was no sign of the Home Run Apple. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough that the Mets enjoyed a 9 to 3 lead on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Where was the Apple? Was it rusted from lack of use? Was one appearance per game all that the Apple (or its operator) was capable of? The crowd grew indignant and a chant began. “A-PPLE…A–PPLE!” I started doing it too. I looked over at Andrew who wasn’t sure what was going on but he was alert and clearly understood that some real drama was unfolding. The next Met batter was retired and the chant grew, “A-PPLE…A–PPLE!” Then, the inning was over. The Reds in the field jogged to the dugout and the chant faded. And just then, the Apple! The flashing Red Apple rose above the center field wall as though it was taking a curtain call. The crowd exploded. Finally.