The view from Field Box 38K at Shea Stadium has changed since those innocent days of yore, i.e., 1964, when a group of early-middle-aged firefighters could own four of the best seats in the big-league, big-market ball park. There is a delightful little story about how those firefighters happened to know, even before the stadium opened, that Field Box 38K not only was close enough to hear a stream of tobacco juice hit the steps of the visitors’ dugout, but, more important, was no more than 40 paces from the nearest beer concession and the nearest men’s room. My interest in keeping an inherited share of the box, however, overrides my obligation to tell a good story. Sorry.
In my admittedly hazy recollection, there was a time when the people surrounding Field Box 38K seemed interested in baseball. They kept score. They knew the names of backup catchers and promising farmhands. They chatted about strategy. They screamed at poor performers. They brought transistor radios to the game to hear Bob Murphy.
But on a recent afternoon when the New York Mets won their 70th game, earning a tie for first place and for the most wins in the major leagues, the area around Field Box 38K was little more than an annex of the great global marketplace. A stock ticker near the right-field foul pole flashed real-time quotes between innings for all the savvy personal investors in the crowd who know what the real national pastime is at the turn of the century. Halfway into the game, a commercial about shrewd retirement investing appeared on the giant television in left field. Attention was paid.
And why not? Consider the crowd that now inhabits the neighborhood of 38K. A dressed-down mini-mogul in an adjacent box spent some quality time with his cell phone, delivering a treatise on a small point of contract law to an office-bound colleague. Directly in front of me, a couple armed with a credit card ordered food and drinks from a waiter. As customers in $45-per-ticket Metropolitan Club seats, they did not have to walk 40 paces to buy beer and food. Beer, at a cost of $6 a bottle, and their special-order meals were brought to them. To my right, two kids in the upper single digits dutifully polished off the chicken Caesar salads their parents ordered for them. The salads also cost $6 apiece. I examined their eyes for the sense of joy that baseball is alleged to inspire in young people. Finding none, I resisted the temptation to order the lads a hot dog, which might have reminded them that they were supposed to be having fun.
With the Yankees a cinch for the playoffs and the Mets a decent bet to get there, too, the sporting press is beginning to promote the idea of the anachronism known as the subway series. There has been no such meeting of New York teams in a World Series since the days when people really did take subways to baseball games, i.e., 1956. What’s missing from all this speculative cheerleading is a field-box perspective: If you can charge $6 for a bottle of beer and $6 for the chicken Caesar salad that sleek-hipped yuppies order for their children, and you run stock quotes on message boards and advertisements from investment houses so that your customers are up to speed on all matters financial, you’d damn well better get to the World Series.
The Mets’ payroll is $65 million. The Yankees are spending $85 million. If they meet in October, it will be because they have customers who follow the stock ticker between innings and who order chicken Caesar salad for their kids. Such people can afford to pay the prices that pennant-seeking teams must charge in order to buy the best available talent. (Spending doesn’t always work, of course, as fans in Los Angeles and Baltimore know.) It would be hard to describe the people in the field boxes as fans. They merely wish to be entertained while taking a respite from their own moneymaking. If the Mets were not winning, the guy with the cell phone and the Sam Adams drinkers and the salad eaters probably would take their entertainment dollars elsewhere. The retired firefighters would still be there, but only through the financial intervention of their numerous children, who divide up the seats into ever-increasing shares to keep down costs.
Oh, sure, it would be fun to see the Mets and Yankees in the World Series. But if it happens, we ought to be spared the inevitable reminders of the Yankees and Dodgers from the 1950’s and the passions those great contests stirred. The World Series customers of 1999 will take their cars to the games after paying triple figures for their seats. They will follow their investments from their seats, cut their deals and eat salad. And they’ll all drive home from the Subway Series.