Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: From the cheap seats, the view is priceless

CHEAP SEATS, U.S.A. -- The 5-year-old boy pointed toward the stadium seats in the distance. Again.

He figured he'd ask. Again.

"Daddy, pleeeeeease!"

"No, Casey!" I said. "It's too late. You buy tickets before you walk through the gate. We bought ours for this area out here, on the lawn. We can't change that now."

So there. If those John Rosemond columns in the Extra section have taught me anything, it's that you can't let your whining kid get his way.

Even when your whining kid is right.

"But Daaaddy!" he said, as the players warmed up on the field for the 7 p.m. game last week. "The bugs out here are terrible. I want to sit in a real seat. Why can't we sit in a real seat?"

Because I'm one cheap hombre, that's why. Four box seats at the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs baseball game would have cost me $50. Four reserved general admission seats: $36.

That's a fair price for a family to catch a game in the Atlantic League -- a good brand of independent baseball with rosters that include more than a few former major-leaguers.

I would have paid it, too, had I not noticed the cheapskate special. You see, children younger than 6 get in free on the lawn seats. My kids are 5 and 2. Adult tickets on the lawn are just $5 each, meaning we could bring a blanket and all watch the game for 10 bucks.

I'm all about the Hamiltons, baby.

But this move had been a mistake. I knew it. As game time approached, and a crowd of just under 2,000 filed in, we were the only four people on the lawn beyond the right-field wall.

The fiddlers from Alabama might "like beer flat as can be," but they wouldn't have saluted these cheap seats at that moment. The heat and humidity on the lawn were ridiculous. The nachos I'd bought -- a surefire way to placate the boy at a Salem Red Sox game -- were not working this time. The gnats wanted some of those, too, in addition to our faces and legs.

"These bugs!" Casey said, slapping at the nuisance.

"They'll go away when the sun goes down," I said.

Like 80 percent of what I tell my kids, I had no clue whether this was true.

But I knew we'd get to see a ballgame. That was enough for me. On vacation from a job where almost all I do is watch sports, I needed a fix.

Vaguely familiar names such as Antonio Alfonseca, Esteban Yan and Luis Lopez dotted the roster of the visiting Bridgeport Bluefish. All were guys who'd spent significant time in the big leagues. Former AL rookie of the year honoree Angel Berroa was starting at shortstop and batting ninth for Bridgeport. Ex-Salem Avalanche right-hander Raymar Diaz was here after flaming out of the Astros system.

The hosts had Brian Barton, an outfielder who played 82 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008, and a bunch of guys who'd been released from Double-A or Triple-A and were trying to keep their careers aflicker.

But what drew me to the park wasn't the players. It was the team name: Southern Maryland Blue Crabs.

It was perfect.

For years, when people asked me where I grew up, that's what I'd say: Southern Maryland. Telling them the name of my actual hometown (California) only created "Who's on First"-style issues.

"Where ya from?"

"Southern Maryland."

"Oh, yeah? What town?"


"So when did you move to Maryland?"

"No, that's the name of the town."

"What is?"



"Never mind."

Finally, here was a team that understood this, a club co-owned by Brooks Robinson about 80 miles north of Richmond (and 30 miles northwest of California), in a town called La Plata. They didn't name themselves the "La Plata" Blue Crabs, either. They knew better.

So before we even got to the lawn seats, we'd dropped more than $100 at the team store. Jerseys, hats, T-shirts -- I wanted it all.

Casey got a red jersey. He put it on in the second inning.

Almost instantly, the bugs stopped pestering him.

"Hey!" he said. "Maybe they're scared of the blue crab on it. Maybe they think they'll get pinched!"

"Must be," I said.

By the third inning, darkness had fallen. The bugs left us and found other things to chew. We were still the only ones on the lawn, but we didn't mind. The evening had become pleasant. We felt kind of lucky to be where we were.

The strange thing, though? I actually cared about the score. Bridgeport led 9-6 heading into the bottom of the eighth inning, and this bothered me. I wanted the Blue Crabs to win. This was Southern Maryland, dang it! You don't come to Southern Maryland and not leave a winner!

Call it provincial pride, I guess. We've lost some of that over the years. When my grandfather watched games, he had to do so at the ballpark in his city. These days, my son can watch any major league game he wants on TV. A-Rod, Papi, Longo, Joey Bats, whoever. The cities are just the backdrops. San Francisco looks a lot like Texas. Cleveland looks a lot like Pittsburgh.

Maybe that's why more and more, people latch onto stars as much as teams. If a star leaves the team, they just go with him. If you happen to like a club through thick and thin, it's almost quaint.

Some will even mock you, tell you that you're just "rooting for laundry." I can't stand that phrase. No, you're rooting for your city, your state, your school, your regional roots -- some small representation of you. Or at least I like to think so.

So I perked up when the Blue Crabs strung together a few two-out hits in the eighth, cutting the deficit to 9-8.

"Let's go up to the fence," I said, and Casey nodded.

Moments later, there we stood, leaning over the right-field wall -- two 5-year-olds instead of one.

"Let's go, Blue Crabs!" Casey chanted. "Let's go, Blue Crabs!"

I joined him.

With two on and two out -- and needing just a single to tie the score -- 30-year-old Blue Crabs second baseman Casey Benjamin stepped to the plate. Naturally, given his first name, we'd liked this guy the moment we'd heard him announced before the game.

At one time, the Texas Rangers had liked Benjamin, too. They'd signed him out of Tennessee Tech in 2003 and promoted him all the way to Triple-A before his chances ran out in '09.

They released him. Benjamin signed with the Blue Crabs last year to give it one last try. He belted 20 homers that season and became one of the team's most popular players, earning a roster spot again this year.

And when he swung in the eighth, my son let out a shriek.

The boy knew almost instantly. So did I. Benjamin followed through on his left-handed cut and watched the ball soar majestically toward right. The fans in the box seats rose to their feet. The Bridgeport right fielder started tracking toward us, but he knew, too: This was a missile bound for no man's land -- otherwise known as the lawn seats.

Nobody was within 50 yards of us when the ball plunked on the grass.

Quickly, two kids left the wall and began to sprint after it, shouting, laughing and throwing our fists into the bug-free night air.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION: Read Aaron's Daily Sports Briefing blog.

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