The traffic was bumper to bumper. Parking was a nightmare. And the parking lot was so far away from the stadium, it was barely visible. So the sea of people and the smell of burned soft pretzels led the way. An unforgettable smell. The kind that gets stuck in your nostrils forever.
A seemingly endless uphill climb followed. Ramp after ramp after ramp. The trek to the upper deck of Shea stadium was exhausting. What waited at the top was a jaw-dropping moment. Brilliant stadium colors against a dingy Queens, N.Y., skyline. Stunning. Think Dorothy opening up her door and entering Oz for the first time. "That" kind of stunning. But instead of the yellow brick road and Glenda the Good, it was green outfield grass and Vinny the hot dog vendor. It was 1974 and one kid's love affair with baseball was under way.
Change a few of the details and you have a story that's been told millions of times. This year, millions of new fans and fresh memories will be made. On Opening Day 2013, the popularity of the sport is at an all-time high. So are the number of ways to experience baseball in the 21st century. The metamorphosis is Incredible Hulk like.
| "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." |
|-- Rogers Hornsby |
Start with the ballpark experience. "You know, kids," I said before heading to Yankee Stadium last summer. "We used to go the garage and find the cleanest ball we could find and bring it to the game looking [and praying] for autographs."
An hour and a half later, Derek Jeter was in eyeshot. But instead of looking for his signature, my daughter was looking ... for a server to deliver sushi. Not happening, kid. Neither was the autograph. Turns out she left her ball and pen on the seat in a burning hot car. That's a story for another time.
This was the perfect time to tell her the story of Vinny the hot dog vendor and how he would pass the dog down the row with your change tucked inside the bun. By the time it arrived on your lap, 11 people had touched it. Not surprisingly, she wasn't impressed.
Somewhere along the way, ballpark food was replaced by options found at weddings, communions and bar mitzvahs. But hey, who's complaining?
Remember newspapers? Think hard. Good. Now think back to when the evening newspaper was the quickest way to read the box scores from the previous day's games. It wasn't a dream. It happened here on planet Earth. Countless summer stickball games and lawn-mowing gigs were interrupted 18 hours after the final pitch. We couldn't wait to read how our favorite players fared. This was the only way to track the stats of Johnny Bench, Steve Garvey and Carlton Fisk. The only way to read about guys we knew from our baseball card collection. Roland Office, Mike Lum and Lee Lacy come to mind. The little things meant so much.
There was nothing little about watching your team on national televison. It didn't happen often, but when it did, you kicked your skateboard aside and ran for the nearest living room. A chance to hear what Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola thought of your guys. So cool.
| "It's like Christmas, except it's warmer." |
|-- Pete Rose, on the thrill of Opening Day |
It was also a rare opportunity to see the games greats like Mike Schmidt, Willie Stargell or Mark Fidrych.
Decades later, they say, the game has gone global. You could also say the game has gone national. Every day and at anytime, we're treated to the best baseball has to offer. Every pitch. Every angle. From coast to coast. We're as familiar with a rookie 3,000 miles from home as we are with a veteran in our own backyard.
Constant visibility, along with freakish talent, made Mike Trout and Bryce Harper household names before they played a full Major League season or were old enough to enjoy an adult beverage. Aside from the immense pressure in places on the player, it's all good for the growth and popularity of the game.
But baseball wouldn't be what it is today without the memories stuck in our personal hard drives. Old ballparks, evening papers and the Game of the Week. All ancient history. I wouldn't trade them for anything, except perhaps, for one of the burned soft pretzels at Shea.
Matt Yallof is the co-host of The Rundown on MLB Network from 2-4 p.m. ET. Follow him on twitter @mattyallofmlb.