Welcome to a special Monday holiday edition of Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Anaheim Stadium
LATER KNOWN AS: Angel Stadium
HOME TEAM: California Angels
VISITED: June 19, 1996
CHRONOLOGY: 15th of 34
RANKING: 23rd of 34
The Mets are playing tonight in San Diego. They’ll have no problem getting where they’re going literally if not competitively. It’s easy enough to get around Southern California if you’ve got a team bus or are comfortable behind the wheel of a rental car.
The last time I was in that neck of the woods — about 90 minutes north of San Diego — was all about my comfort levels: a comfort level in getting there and a comfort level while sitting there.
Attaining a comfort level en route to Anaheim Stadium was no mean feat for your correspondent. This was 1996, Year Two of my ongoing struggle with driving, a skill I attained in high school and maintained without incident for the next fourteen years. Then, one night at the age of 31, I lost my feel for the road the way Steve Blass lost the plate. Beginning in 1995, every attempt I’ve made at driving on a highway in particular has been fraught with anxiety.
Which is why I’ve been a loyal customer of the Long Island Rail Road when it comes to going to Shea Stadium and its successor facility since 1995.
To put it simply, you can accelerate without thinking about it. I can’t. You are secure in the knowledge that if you tap the brake, you will slow down. I am not. I am a mess behind the wheel. I haven’t attempted to drive any significant distance on a highway since 2001; just imagining it makes me dizzy. These days I’m barely Rain Man, who at least was confident driving slow on the driveway. But I was still giving it my best shot in 1996.
I had to. There was baseball at stake. Baseball adjacent to a very busy freeway. Freeways require driving. It’s Southern California. Of course there’s going to be driving.
This was the trip graciously provided by my sister and her husband, wherein they handed us their West Coast condo/office for a week and said have fun. We chose the third week of June as our time, keyed to the Angels on Wednesday, the Padres on Thursday and the Dodgers on Saturday. Their place was closer to the Dodgers than the other two, but this was my only realistic shot at knocking off all three teams at once. I don’t get out to Anaheim, San Diego and Los Angeles much otherwise.
The driving came along slowly. We flew in on a Sunday, rented a sturdy American compact car and mapped out a secondary-road route from the airport to their apartment. Monday was devoted to getting my car legs within the general vicinity, including Marina Del Rey, Santa Monica and Venice Beach; it included a parking ticket, but it otherwise proved to me that I could drive a little around L.A. Tuesday was the first true challenge of the trip: Universal Studios (such tourists). I could only negotiate so much of the way on Santa Monica Boulevard. A freeway would have to be involved at some point. Maybe it was special effects, but I made it. I didn’t like it. I felt the world was passing me by at 70 miles per hour — I have a hard time believing that’s considered slow for pitching — but I made it. I made it in broad daylight. Universal Studios was hardly worth the hassle, but it was good practice.
We left the theme park at twilight. Driving at night was a whole other anxiety-riddled can of worms. I still fear driving at night, even locally. I also hate driving in the rain, but seems it never rains in Southern California. Leaving Universal, I mapped out a freeway-free route. It took us over through some streets that sounded familiar from the L.A. Riots of four years earlier, but I felt safer there than I would have on the 101.
Now it’s Wednesday morning, the morning of our Angel matinee at Anaheim Stadium, an hour south of our base of operations. There’s no network of streets I’ve heard of where I can chug along at my own middling speed. There’s no Orange County Rail Road of which I’m aware. There’s no threading the needle on bus routes. It’s the land of the automobile. I’ve got to be like every other American on vacation and get with the program. So off to I-5, the Santa Ana Freeway I guided us.
You know what they have more of than anything in Southern California? Lanes. There must have been six, eight on each side of the Santa Ana. Every single one of them had cars. Going fast. Very fast. And then there was me in my rental, trying to keep up in my own plodding, brake-tapping way. Stephanie was supportive, both orally and sensually. That is to say, I often grabbed at her. When nobody’s in the passenger seat, I grab the shoulder restraint. When there’s a passenger, I grab the passenger. I grabbed at her left shirt sleeve a lot. Her lap, too. Sometimes her shoulder. When it gets too fast and I breathe too quickly and my palms are wet and the antiperspirant I rolled on starts dripping down my side, I need something to hold onto.
This was me on the Santa Ana Freeway: greasy, grabby, palpitating…all for the Angels and White Sox.
Then something happened. Or didn’t happen. Nothing happened, I guess. Or something kicked in. Maybe halfway down the Santa Ana, the panicking ceased. I drove. I drove like I did before 1995, drove like it was no big deal. Since my plunge into epic despair, I’d had moments where I shook off the anxiety attacks, and maybe this was one of those. However it worked, I was glad it did. The exit for Anaheim Stadium was at hand.
The comfort of driving came hard. The comfort of the Big A came easy. And there was one overriding reason for it: I could have sworn I had been there before.
Why? Because it was Shea! Anaheim Stadium was a thinly veiled, West Coast version of Shea Stadium. It couldn’t have been more like Shea had it had an apple and an airport over the outfield fence.
This was Anaheim Stadium before gentrification. You see it on TV today and you see a Disneyfied ballpark-style attraction now known as Angel Stadium. But back then, it was Shea West. It was enormous and it could be used for a multitude of purposes. Sound like any stadium you once knew? That alone may not be specific enough to evoke Flushing in Anaheim, but it definitely had the feel. Anaheim had grass, like Shea. Anaheim was from the ’60s, like Shea. Anaheim had that sense of being somewhere not altogether where you imagined it might be. Shea was New York, but it was, in terms of access to anything that wasn’t inside the stadium itself, in the middle of nowhere. Anaheim wasn’t L.A. — and L.A. definitely isn’t “of Anaheim” — but you shrugged if you were from back east and figured you were close enough.
Anaheim Stadium was the closest thing to Shea Stadium I ever experienced without a 7 train. I’m not surprised that I liked it as much as I did, and perhaps it’s telling that when stripped of all personal and Met association, I didn’t find much else distinctive about pre-renovation Anaheim Stadium. Maybe that’s how people who had no attachment to Shea saw Shea. Maybe that’s why few who aren’t Mets fans (and plenty who are) never mention Shea among their favorite stadia. Maybe it was just Queens’ version of Anaheim to them.
To me, for a couple of hours, Anaheim was home away from home, and I liked it fine. I liked our field level (or Field Level) seats plenty. Stephanie wasn’t too happy that our proximity to the plate also meant proximity to the sun, but she endured it as long as her Scandinavian features could stand it. The whole presentation did seem a bit more show-bizzy than what I was used to, though I don’t mean Danny Kaye at Dodger Stadium show-bizzy. The Angels, just ahead of their sale to Disney, did seem to value entertainment more than the Mets. They had a cheerleading squad atop the first base dugout — nothing over-the-top, but nothing you’d see in Flushing. They were the first team I could recall trumpeting each home team at-bat with a specific slice of recorded music. It seemed innovative at the time.
Anaheim was also the first place I heard (or maybe it was just the first place I noticed) fans beseeching the umpire as “Blue,” as in “Aw, c’mon, Blue! That was a strike!” Whoever whined it at the home plate ump deserved extra credit for accuracy once he realized the American League crew was, in fact, not wearing blue.
“Aw, c’mon, Blue! That was a strike! I mean Red.”
Speaking of red, that’s what Stephanie was wary of growing in the sun, so I agreed to seek some shade. We took a walk through the Big A’s Shealike concourse for relief and ran into Southpaw. Southpaw was the Angels’ mascot of the moment. Seemed fairly generic, but somewhere in a photo album, there is a picture of me with Southpaw, a big, furry…I dunno…bear, let’s say. Southpaw was no Mr. Met, but he kept his bear suit well laundered, a fact we might have taken for granted had we not later that week visited the San Diego Zoo. The San Diego Zoo had a guy in a lion costume. I gotta tell ya: that lion costume could have used a good dry cleaning.
Anaheim Stadium ushers, unlike their Shea brethren, didn’t get all up in your business if you wanted to change seats, particularly to nominally less enticing seats. At Stephanie’s request, we abandoned our sunsplashed locale and settled in the right field boxes, which were enveloped by shadows late in what was becoming an Angel blowout. She took another picture of me there, without Southpaw. I’m in a Mets cap, something resembling Shea is behind me and I’m all smiles. When we showed our vacation pictures to my brother-in-law, he said, “There’s Greg in baseball nirvana.”
I think it’s heaven, not nirvana, that has Angels, but as with Anaheim and Shea, the spiritual difference was negligible. I was indeed at peace situated at the Big A that afternoon. In ways that transcend cliché, I was overwhelmingly happy to be there.
Be there? Hell, I was just happy to get there.