Adrian Gonzalez, his new home Dodger whites practically glowing against the brilliant green turf, jogged back to the dugout after clubbing a pitch from Miami's Josh Johnson deep into the right field stands. It was his very first at bat in LA, and only the second pitch he saw. Coming after a crazed 24-hour news cycle that reported his major role in the blockbuster nine-player deal between the Red Sox and Dodgers, it was a magnificent local sports moment.
And I nearly missed his swing because nine fans were clogging the aisle in front of me, looking for their seats.
This is not about traffic and parking problems at Dodger Stadium. More than enough has been written on that, most recently a wrongheaded, hysterical column by Bill Plaschke in the Los Angeles Times the morning after a sold-out Fernando Valenzuela Bobblehead Night kept some fans in their cars for 90 minutes before they got to their seats. In the same vein that he once suggested improving the World Series by staging it at a neutral site, Plaschke suggested fixing an occasional mass gridlock problem by removing thousands of seats from the stadium and filling the space with "amenities." Rather than make Dodger Stadium more "exclusive," I would opt for more fan-friendly solutions like a direct Metro rail line or cheaper parking fees for carpools of three or more.
But there I go, blabbing about parking and traffic again. I'm really here to try and explain the bugaboo I've always had with the Dodger Stadium experience: why huge numbers of fans routinely show up in the 3rd and 4th innings and leave after the 6th and 7th.
Avoiding traffic? I don't buy it. Nearly every one of the 17 ballparks I've been to have their share of entering and exiting gridlock. Length of the drive? Sorry. People trek to St. Louis Cardinals games from as far away as Arkansas, and I never see those stands emptying out before the stretch inning. As I see it -- and I've been seeing the evidence around me for over 25 years -- many Dodger fans come late and leave early because willfully or not, they are disengaged from the game. Unless it's a final weekend or postseason contest with something at stake, these fans do not treat the game as a dramatic event but as a social one, like going to a big family picnic or a real cool party where you arrive fashionably late or leave early before the beer runs out. The game is merely the thing going on the background you look up to cheer and boo once in a while. I would never think of showing up late to a play or leaving a movie early, but if I was just in the mood to catch a few scenes, maybe I would.
I attended two Dodger Stadium games last week, a midweek affair against the archrival Giants and the Saturday Adrian Gonzalez unveiling with the Marlins, and this theory was never made more clear. On Monday the 20th, despite sweeping the Giants recently in San Francisco and coming home after a fine road trip one game in front of them with ace Clayton Kershaw scheduled to pitch the opener, only 36,878 tickets were sold -- about two-thirds capacity. Bobblehead Night was Tuesday, with fans spilling out of the upper decks. On Wednesday, attendance was back down to 40,173, or 70% capacity. In other words, neither the Giants nor a great pennant race could achieve what a bobbling Fernando figurine did.
How about Saturday night, after the megadeal trade news broke that morning, when the subsequent plane flight and stadium arrival of A-Gone was updated hourly like the arrival of the Pope? Well, exactly 110 more people showed up than on Wednesday night, and many long after his amazing home run cleared the fence. If an all-star Dodgers player made his debut appearance in a Red Sox uniform, you wouldn't find an available ticket from Vermont to Cape Cod.
Both evenings, the reserved section around me was filled with people getting up constantly for food and beer, visiting with each other, talking about work, taking cell phone photos, smacking beach balls and balloons that went by, doing the wave, basically doing anything but watching and following the game in front of them.
This isn't to say these folks weren't having a great old time; they were certainly texting their friends enough to tell them so. At the same time, in every direction for at least 80 miles, scores of long-time, diehard Dodger fans were listening to the radio or comfortably at home watching the Vin Scully telecast. (Ironically, Hall of Famer Scully is the most focused, informative broadcaster in the business.) But immersed in that constant commotion, I was convinced you can't find a more distracted big league ballpark crowd than the ones at Dodger Stadium.
By contrast, check out baseball's polar opposite just 340 miles to the north. Giants games at AT&T Park are an invigorating experience, and it isn't just because of the place's amenities, scenic beauty, and great public transportation that gets them there. Giants fans are engaged with the game from first pitch to last, never leave early and produce a fun, loud, positive energy that frequently seems to electrify the home team. Right now, there is no place like it in the game.
I don't mean to be overly critical of my local fan base, just observational. This is still a free country, and people can attend ballgames for whatever darn reason they want. I have no plans to ever stop going to Dodger Stadium. I have my secret street route that always gets me there on time, and I'll never tire of the magnificent view of palms, eucalyptus trees, and purple San Gabriel Mountains beyond.
Just don't bat a beach ball in my direction, because there's a good chance I'll pop it.