On a recent Sunday, by prior arrangement, I met a friend of a friend outside SBC Park in San Francisco, where I gave him my extra Giants ticket. This stranger, strangely, carried a laptop computer and announced his intention to spend the entirety of the sold-out game, in a ballpark that boasts of wireless Internet access from every seat, downloading music. "It would take me all night to do this at home," said the man, who exemplifies, among baseball fans in San Francisco, a subtle shift in focus: from "Say hey!" to Wi-Fi, from Barry to BlackBerry.
But San Francisco is hardly unique. Attendance at major league baseball games climbs every year, in large part for this reason: The least pleasant aspect of watching a baseball game—namely, watching a baseball game—has become, in most parks, largely unnecessary.
Until the new generation of ballparks was spawned 10 years ago, spectators at baseball games were reduced to watching grass grow. (And fans in domed stadiums were deprived of even that modest diversion.) But today the Guest Services Center at Petco Park in San Diego offers Internet access to any Padres fan who feels the need, during games, to check stock quotes, order airline tickets or delete pornographic spam. (And doesn't the Padres' longtime mascot, the Swinging Friar, sound like the title of a blue movie?)
Petco also has Picnic Hill, a place for ticket holders to enjoy both a picnic and, should they desire it, a "limited view" of the Padres game. ( Tampa's Tropicana Field has a similar location, where fans can, for an additional fee, have no view of the Devil Rays at all.)
Part of baseball's charm, of course, is that games are mere backdrops to conversation, beach-ball batting and 20-minute trips to the restroom. But many people visiting a ballpark now seem to have little idea of what takes place there, which is why the Chicago White Sox employ what is, in essence, a goat-check girl: someone who cares during games for any animal you might have brought, under the misapprehension that U.S. Cellular Field is a petting zoo. (A Milwaukee woman once inquired about kenneling her cow during a White Sox game.) Last fall in Houston three Chicago Cubs fans were turned away while trying to bring a leashed goat into Minute Maid Park.
And so, at that sold-out Giants game—in which baseball's best player, Barry Bonds, faced the World Series champion Florida Marlins—children waited in line at the enormous slide above the leftfield bleachers, and the man across the aisle from me sunbathed topless, his T-shirt turbaned around his face, at once exposing his torso to the harmful effects of the sun and protecting his eyes from the harmful effects of the game: a four-hour, 11-minute scratchathon.
To be sure, there have always been manifold ways to pass the time at a baseball game. (If you've ever mass-punched All-Star ballots with a house key and found yourself, hours later, mottled with chad dandruff and wondering where the day went, then you already knew this.) In 1998, at the height of the Beanie Baby bull market, people left their idling cars in stadium parking lots only long enough to retrieve the prized giveaway, fleeing the park before the game even began.
But never before have so many paid so much to watch so little. You can now go to a raffle and see a baseball game break out: The Blue Jays run a lottery at the stadium for weekend games, in which a $2 ticket buys you a chance at 50% of the day's total pool. (The other half goes to charily.) Baseball's most famous pool is 385 feet square and shares space with a hot tub in Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. Detroit's Comerica Park has a Ferris wheel (behind third base), a carousel (behind first) and a tavern with a 70-foot bar, so that Tigers fans can spend afternoons a) twirling or b) hurling.
And so, with its raffle tickets and merry-go-rounds and bikini-topped bleacherites glazed in cocoa butter, baseball is one part carnival, one part Carnaval. Carney Lansford is a distant memory.
Make no mistake: There are still hard-core fans for whom the game and its players are paramount. A breathless stranger recently phoned me to say that a euphonious trade that very afternoon had placed—on the same team, for the first time—Frank Menechino and Frank Catalanotto. After a long, awkward silence, he added somewhat deflatedly, "I just thought you would want to know."