They were the best seats I ever had. Field Level at Shea Stadium, just to the first base side of home plate, last row below the Loge. I sat in these seats thanks to my cousin's then-girlfriend, who worked for the company who owned them. They were corporate box seats, seats meant to impress clients. I was not a client of any kind, but the 2004 Mets were not a suitable backdrop for schmoozing, so I imagine this company gave its tickets away like motel matches.
You felt special when you sat at the Field Level at Shea, because you felt special nowhere else at Shea. At every other level, stadium employees gave off a vibe that they considered you more intruder than customer. I'd once been to a sold-out Opening Day where all the concessions in my area of the upper deck failed to defrost their hot dogs for the first six innings. (They surely remained frozen well after that, I just tired of checking and resigned myself to eating in Woodside on the way home.)
I'd sat in the field level once before, illegitimately, sneaking down with an older, different cousin on a chilly September night back in 1991. That experience had the air of menace, as everyone gathered at Field Level was an intruder, and the angry drunks who infiltrated the area spent the game screaming horrible things at September call ups and abusing the poor fat cop making feint stabs at restoring order. His droopy mustache and sad sack face inspired hate-filled taunts of WALLLLRUSSSSS!
This was September, too, but a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon, and now I was a genuine Field Level ticket holder. Ushers guided us to our seats. The concession stands were full of helpful employees and plenty of items resembling actual food. The seats around us were filled with the kind of people who earn closeups on broadcasts. Patrician gray-haired executives enjoying a day off from the white shoe rat race, flanked by adorable chocolate-stained urchins gifted to them by trophy wives.
To be that close to the game, to see an actual ballfield with actual ballplayers stretch out before you in rolling sheets of green, was glorious. All the athletes appeared to be real people, and not ants, for the first time. Before then, I'd only seen a baseball diamond twinkle below me from the highest perch of a stadium, like it was glimmering rock beneath a rushing stream.
It didn't matter that I was watching the September 2004 Mets. It didn't matter this was a team that tried to replace Jose Reyes with Kaz Matsui and saw both of them get hurt in the bargain, a team that invited back Todd Zeile as a pointless act of charity, a team that traded away Scott Kazmir for daring to mess with Al Leiter's boombox. It didn't concern me that this team would stagger to the finish line with what currently stands as their tenth-worst conclusion to a season in franchise history.
If I'd been in the upper deck, I would have been screaming at Tom Glavine to get it together, for chrissakes. At Field Level, his messy two-run second inning barely registered. The people around me beamed like movie stars. Maybe the people at Field Level looked so great not because they had the money for Field Level seats, but because they got see baseball like this. It wasn't long before I felt like I belonged there. Like all denizens of the Upper Deck, I was proud of my humble roots yet secretly believed that I deserved to sit someplace higher. Or lower, actually.
Bottom of the fourth, two out, one man on, Mets down 2-0. Mike Piazza strode to the plate as the tying run, still more than capable of tying the game with one swing of the bat. This drama didn't register so much as the experience of seeing Piazza step in the batter's box without being oppressed by the tyranny of a broadcast director, without having all his ritualistic mannerisms chopped into bite-size pieces. Now I could see him dig his feet in, take his warm-up chops, glare toward the mound, in one wide-angle real-time shot. At Field Level, he was a real person.
First pitch of the at bat, Piazza took a late swing. He hit what I'm sure on TV looked like a weak foul behind home plate. From where I stood, though, it climbed a thousand feet in the air, the kind of foul ball Bob Murphy used to say could have been hit in a silo. The ball took the slightest arc, then began its descent directly above my head. This ball was mine.
This ball was mine and it was plummeting toward me like a space capsule on reentry. I had no glove, so I held out my bare hands, cupping them like trying to scoop water from a tap. This would have to be enough to catch the ball.
But it was not. The ball crashed into my left hand, bending the fingers back so far my field of vision went black for a split second. Then it bounced off the concrete floor. Slowed down by my hand, the ball lost a good deal of its momentum but still hopped high enough to leap over the orange rail separating our box seats and sneak into a tiny space between Field Level and Loge, flying into the promenade behind the stands.
And then, it seemed to vanish in thin air. Fans above and below deck saw where the ball headed, but no one saw where it landed, including me. No matter. This ball was mine. I had not spent years in the Upper Deck, had not finally sat in a Field Level seat, had not seen a foul ball give itself up to me—a Mike Piazza foul ball!—only to see it fall into someone else's hands, or disappear altogether.
Only I could find this ball. No one else had my perspective. No one else felt its speed stalled by my aching fingers. I knew the ball couldn't have gone far. I jogged down the tunnel, into the concession area, to begin my search. My cousin poked his head through the spot where it fell to see if he could provide any aerial coverage. I noticed that immediately below him, there was a garbage can.
I hesitated, more out of decorum than trepidation, out of a sense that I should at least appear to gave this action a second thought and preserve some semblance of dignity. But in my mind, there was no doubt. The ball was in there. I could sense it. And I was going to take what was mine.
The Shea garbage cans were a lot like the ones you still see in subway stations, large, round, and shellacked in innumerable generations of goopy black paint. I wasn't tall enough to reach down through the top, so I tipped the can on a 45 degree angle, rested its bulk on my thighs, and began my dumpster dive. I relied on touch rather than sight. I couldn't bring myself to look at what I was digging through. That would have made the horror of what I was doing too real.
I soon discovered that the trash bags used at Shea were profound things. The further I grasped, the deeper the bag's depths. I also discovered that when you dig through a trash can in public, you attract a scene. It started slowly. One fan with a tray of beers stopped and asked me what the hell I was doing.
"Foul ball," I said.
"You sure it's in there?" he asked.
"Jesus..." he muttered. But rather than turn away in disgust, he beckoned to friends off in the distance to getta loada this. The curious multiplied exponentially. One incredulous fan turned into two, who turned into four.
Before long, a full fledged crowd gawked at me, all of them standing at least 10 feet away. I radiated an invisible force field of crazy no one wished to ford. The crowd grew to include several stadium employees, shaking their heads, pointing and mocking in their neon green uniforms.
"I clean them things," one of them yelled at me. "You wanna know what kinda nasty ass stuff people throw in there?"
Several minutes of digging had produced nothing. I paused for a moment, which the crowd took to mean I was giving up. A rising "ooooooh..." chant started, the kind you'd hear in a junior high cafeteria or at a wrestling match. "I told you, I told you!" one of the workers cackled, though he had told me nothing.
I'd stopped not to give up, but to give myself a moment to reason things out, to find a way of digging through trash smarter, not harder. A baseball dropped from a height, I reasoned, would push its way to the bottom of the trash bag. Even with the can tipped, I couldn't reach that bottom. But I could grab the sides of the bag and pull the bottom closer.
As I began doing this, one Shea worker hurled a torrent of taunts that I would never find what I was looking for, dripping his hate on to me thick and rich like molasses. "You don't even know it's in there, do you? You gonna dig through all them nasty hot dogs and french fries and old beer cups and you ain't gonna find SHIT."
It was at this exact moment that I reached the bottom of the bag, that I felt something round, that my fingers traced some ridges that felt a lot like seams. I grabbed the object, yanked my arm out of the bag, and held it over my head like it was the severed head of my enemy, spraying trash in every direction. It was my ball. The crowd erupted into applause and obscenity-laced expressions of disbelief. I was to be commended and feared all at once. I had never experienced such a resounding triumph before in my life.
When I returned to Field Level, the triumph faded. Word had spread about how I'd "caught" this ball, and I could feel the cool contempt of the Field Level wash over me. What I'd done revealed just how much I didn't belong there on Field Level with the captains of industry and their well-schooled children. None of my neighbors dared look at me.
I asked a security guard who stood watch near the Mets' dugout if there was any chance of getting this ball signed by the man who hit it. The guard looked at me like I'd just asked him to give me a million dollars. My behavior was not Field Level. It was almost beyond the pale of the Upper Deck and its frozen hot dogs.
"He don't do that," the guard said, itchy trigger finger near his walkie talkie. He kept his eye on me for the rest of the game
Forever after, whenever I see Mike Piazza, I think of those brief moments when I allowed myself to believe I was a Field Level person, and how quickly I proved I was Upper Deck, or worse. Perhaps one day I will meet Piazza and finally get him to sign that ball. If I do, I will try to keep the ketchup and Bud Light stains angled away from eyeshot.