We drove up to the Angels Stadium parking lot, and we weren’t asked to pay for parking. Our tickets were scanned at the turnstile, and we were directed down instead of up. When we found the entrance for Section 113, the usher politely asked us to walk down the steps to the fifth row, and then turn left. My son and I took seats 6 and 7, and my wife and oldest daughter sat directly behind us. We were high rollers, at least for a day. As I stood blinking in the sun, only twenty feet or so from the infield grass, a line from a Talking Heads song popped into my head. “Well, how did I get here?”
I teach 7th grade English. Last Thursday was the last day of school, and it was a sad day. Not only was it my last day with the amazing group of seventh graders that I had taught since September, it was also the last day I’d see the graduating eighth graders I’d taught the year before. Included in that graduating Class of 2013 was a group of ten girls who ate lunch in my room every day this year.
We had our final lunch last Tuesday, and they surprised me with a few gifts — a framed photograph that they had all signed, a book I’ve been wanting to read for years, and a fistful of my favorite candy bars. That was already more than generous, but then they gave me one more present — four box seats to see the Yankees on Father’s Day. All of my students know of my love for the Yankees, so these girls certainly knew it would be the perfect gift: something I’ve always wanted but would never have bought for myself.
I thought of those girls as we sat on the third base side, five rows up, about midway between the mound and home plate. The best seats I’ve ever had for a game. An anthropologist could probably do a fairly in depth study comparing and contrasting the different social groups in the different corners of a major league ballpark, and it took only a few minutes to gauge the folks in Section 113. There were other tourists like us, people who took photos of everything because they’d never been there before and doubted they would ever come back. They looked around with wonder, first marveling at how close they were to their heroes, then sneaking glances to the upper reaches of the stadium where they knew they belonged.
And of course, there were the locals — the season ticket holders who sat in these seats 81 games a year and had lost sight of how special this section really was. They arrived casually, an inning or two late, and walked to their seats without direction. One family of six sauntered in with drinks in hand, sat down in the front row, and simply started chatting amiably amongst themselves as if they were picnicking in the park. Imagine Dorothy stepping into Oz and simply saying hello.
I’ve been going to watch the Yankees in Anaheim for more than thirty years now, and the biggest difference between now and then is that Angels fans actually care about their team now. They wear the red, they swing rally monkeys over their heads, and they cheer for their favorite players. They just aren’t as loud as Yankee fans.
When Brett Gardner rifled a double down the left field line to start off the game, I stood and shouted out to him as he stood at second. “There you go, Gardy!” When that rally fizzled, and two innings later another one looked to be headed in the same direction, I worried that this game — that these amazing seats — might not have a happy ending.
But then Travis Hafner did the improbable. With two outs and two strikes, he launched a home run to center field, and suddenly the Yankees were up 3-0. Before the inning was over they had scored five runs, and it felt like fifty. Two older men in their sixties, one wearing a Yankee cap and the other an Angels cap, returned to their seats in front of us after missing the third inning. The Yankee fan turned to me and asked with a smile and a wink towards his friend, “Hey, did we miss anything?” We laughed.
The next five innings were delightfully uneventful. CC Sabathia looked like an ace on the mound for the Yanks, and his dominance combined with the Southern California sun to slowly send Angels fans home. By the seventh inning at least a dozen of the actual ticket holders in our section had gone home and had been replaced by interlopers, always a father and one or two boys. A Yankee fan and his four-year-old son, both in pinstripes, slid into our row for a while, then bounced from one seat to another as they saw fit. When the entitled family in the front row got up to leave in the eighth, they weren’t out of the aisle before their seats were filled. Some things never change.
When Sabathia struck out Peter Bourjos to end the eighth inning, there was a mass exodus of Angels fans — because no one rallies from a 6-0 deficit in the ninth — but Yankee fans stayed put, clearly hoping to see Mariano Rivera record the final three outs. When Sabathia came back out to start the ninth, I was momentarily disappointed, but then I realized I was being greedy to hope for that on what had already been a near-perfect day.
It didn’t make much sense to my wife. “Isn’t it a bit odd that he’s their best pitcher, but they aren’t letting him pitch?” Indeed.
And then it happened. Mike Trout led off with a double to left, and Albert Pujols walked. There was no cause for concern, of course, but it was enough to force Girardi out to the mound. The lower level from the visitors’ dugout to the right field foul pole has traditionally been filled with Yankee fans, but at this point in the game they outnumbered fans of the home team by about ten to one. The second Girardi raised his right arm to signal the bullpen, every Yankee fan in the park stood to give CC an ovation, including that huge contingent across the field from me. It gave me goosebumps.
Also, it gave me hope.
As Robertson was having trouble throwing strikes and looked ready to load the bases after allowing the Angels’ first run, I leaned over and told my son, “I’m not sure if I’m rooting for a walk, or an out.”
As Robertson threw ball four, my eyes immediately found Girardi in the dugout. He didn’t hesitate, and the buzz began as soon as he hit the top step. Everyone knew what was coming.
The bullpens in Anaheim are staggered, with the visitors’ pen elevated and behind the Angels’, so it took longer than usual for Rivera to appear after Girardi signaled for him. When the gate opened up and Mariano broke into his familiar trot, the entire stadium — even those wearing red — rose to give him a standing ovation. I got my son’s attention and then turned to my daughter. “Watch everything he does,” I said. “If you watch baseball for another fifty years, he will still be the best pitcher you’ll ever see.”
Erick Aybar grounded out weakly to first base for the second out, but a run scored from third, cutting the lead to 6-2. My son noticed this. “Daddy, it’s six to two now!” Don’t worry, I told him. It’s Mo.
Four batters later, after three of the cheapest hits you’ll ever see and a walk that loaded the bases, everything had changed. The stadium was in a frenzy as Albert Pújols, the greatest hitter of his generation, came up to face Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all-time. With the score suddenly 6-5, any base hit would almost certainly win the game for the Angels. There was a woman in her sixties standing four seats to my left. We were both wearing identical Rivera t-shirts, and we looked at each other for the first time all day. You know the look.
I watched as Pújols walked slowly towards the plate, and the words “rock bottom” started swimming around my head. It would be bad enough to lose this game, a game that would be their sixth loss in a row, but to lose a six-run lead in the ninth inning with Rivera on the mound? A loss like that could potentially destroy the entire season.
But then I looked away from Pújols and focused on Mariano. In that moment I knew everything would be okay. Who else, I thought — in the history of the game — would I rather see on the mound for the Yankees right now than this man? He had yielded four consecutive base runners, something I’m guessing he’s done less than ten times in his nineteen-year career, but nothing about him had changed. He looked in to Chris Stewart to get the sign, bowed slightly as he came to a set, then placed the ball exactly where he wanted for strike one. His next pitch was fouled off for strike two, and the volume turned up a notch as Yankee fans begged for the strikeout.
Rivera’s third pitch to Pújols was meant to tantalize. It was well above the letters, but by the time Pújols realized it was up out of the strike zone, it was too late. He wasn’t able to stop his mighty swing, and the game was over.
The texts started coming in almost immediately. First, a report from New York saying I could be seen celebrating in the background of the YES replay of the final pitch, then two more from people who had seen me on the local Angels broadcast. My brother-in-law sent along a clip of the video, and there we were, all four of us. As Pújols swung and missed, I could be seen pumping my fist in the air in celebration.
We lingered in the stands a bit and eventually took a few photos down by the rail as evidence that we had actually been there. As we finally made our way up to the concourse and walked out of the stadium, I thought about the dozens of Yankee games I had seen in the past. I had seen Don Mattingly hit a pinch-hit home run to beat the Angels in that same stadium, I had travelled to New York for Don Mattingly Day, and I had been lucky enough to take my entire family to see a game in New York in the old Stadium’s final season.
None of those games, though, compared to this one. The game itself was phenomenal, and it was an added bonus to see Mariano, but there was so much more to it than that. I was with my family on Father’s Day, sitting in unbelievable seats courtesy of ten students whom I’ll never forget. I’m sure I’ll be watching baseball for the next fifty years, but I know I’ll never see another game like this one.