Cracked king crab legs on ice with assorted sauces? Strip loin with cilantro pesto and spring green beans? Or maybe a customized omelette, with only the freshest of farmers-market ingredients? I was paralyzed by indecision. So I finally opted for a plate of sushi, featuring a crab roll that rivaled any I had ever tasted. My friend went for the strip loin. Then both of us opted for crisp, sugary wafers topped with chocolate mousse for dessert.
Then we walked down the private stairway from the dining room, past the potted palm tree, and took our seats for the baseball game. They were exquisitely comfortable seats, a few rows behind the Yankee dugout. Immediately, a smiling waiter appeared out of nowhere and took my next order: shrimp cocktail.
Well, why not indulge? It all came free with the ticket. I was experiencing my first trip, and likely my last, to the Legends Suites seats of Yankee Stadium, courtesy of the friend of a friend who couldn’t be at the park that day, to use his season tickets, which, I’m guessing, cost him something in the neighborhood of the Gross National Product of the Ivory Coast.
The waiter re-appeared, pleasantly inconspicuously, every inning or so. His service was impeccable. Some time around the fifth inning, I darted back into the free-snack area, where free piles of childhood candies beckoned to the children of my fellow privileged patrons like some Willy Wonka dream come true. I snatched some Twizzlers to take back to my seat.
The game? Right — the game. Well, as I remember, the Yankees hit several home runs and pummeled the Houston Astros unmercifully. A-Rod made a great stab, as usual, at third. But the rest of the details are rather fuzzy. Because somehow it didn’t feel like being at a baseball game, no matter how close I was to the field – close enough to see Derek Jeter, waving a bat in the on-deck circle, checking out the very pretty lady a few seats away from me as she returned from a snack run (I think she’d grabbed some Good N Plenty.) Close enough to see Rodriguez warming up, waving that bat like a club, so that Astro pitcher Wandy Rodriguez was already flinching before A-Rod even approached the plate.
It was like watching baseball from the emperor’s suite at the Coliseum. A decline-and-fall-of-the-Roman-Empire vibe hovered all around me. I kept looking over my shoulder, to check out the regular fans, in embarrassment, wondering whether they were staring darts at my back in envy or disdain, or at the four men in front of me, wearing baseball hats with financial-institution logos on the crowns, who spent most of the day talking about tennis and boats.
I’m not really complaining, mind you. If modern baseball salaries requires teams to create stadiums at taxpayers’ expense where the class system rivals the heyday of the Boston Brahmins, then so be it. If you have to pay top dollar to get an Alex Rodriguez, I’m all for it. But as I wandered out after the game toward the subway – finally mingling with actual baseball fans — I didn’t feel as if I’d seen a baseball game. I mean, I know the game had been out there, and the Yankees were getting a lot of hits, and 45,000 fans in regular baseball seats were enjoying themselves, because I could hear their roars. But in my padded, servanted shell, nibbling my free Twizzlers, attended by my waiter-butler, I felt as if I were secreted in some bubble, or as if I was watching the players through some invisible, shimmering aura. I kept waiting for the feel of a baseball game to seep through. It never did. The way sitting in a opera box seals you off from the opera, Only with free tuna sashimi thrown in.
As I headed up the stairs to the 4 train, I felt full, but I didn’t feel satisfied.
So a few days later I went looking for some baseball, and found it in my own backyard. In Torrington. The team is called the Titans. A five-dollar ticket gets you as close to the field as a Legends Suite ticket. The Titans are college kids. They play in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League, whose players hail from everywhere from Notre Dame and Cal-Fullerton to local community colleges. And they play very good baseball.
The Titans play in an intimate place called Fuessenich Park, capacity 1500, named for the late Frederick Fuessinich, a formerly prominent citizen in a formerly prominent mill town. The Naugatuck River runs beyond left field, in front of an old, condemned factory that harkens to the days when the game left the farms and came into the cities, the days when company teams played intense, entertaining baseball. Fuessinch Field feels like baseball.
Before the game, the Titans mingle with the fans on the field. The night I went to see them play, Ralph Dieguez, a Cuban-American from Post University in Waterbury, was lobbing a tennis ball back and forth with a couple of little kids near the first-base line while the rest of his teammates signed autographs for kids whose awe-stricken expressions at the men in the uniforms immediately made me realize what was missing from my Yankee Stadium experience: the feeling of community. The essence of baseball is the bond between fan and player. I envied the fans in the Yankee Stadium bleachers that day who were bonding with Nick Swisher out in right field. And with each other. But in the Legends Suites, you’re not allowed to mingle. You’re sealed off, literally and figuratively. A guard protects the Legends Suites section from the plebeians.
At Fuessenich Park everyone talks to everyone else. They don’t serve you food at your seats, so you get to stand in line at the concession stand, and talk to the people in front and in back of you while you wait for some of the best French fries you’ll ever eat and little kids holding ice cream chase each other in circles around you as you breathe in the fried-oil scent of a baseball park.
And here’s the coolest thing of all about our neighborhood team: the team and the community are one and the same. The Titans are owned by the community, and all of the gate receipts go to a different nonprofit organization at each of the 21 home games. On the night I saw the Titans play their arch rivals, the North Jersey Eagles – 15 batters have been clocked by pitches in their first six games — Falls Village Child Care took home my five dollars.
This revolutionary franchise model is the brainchild of a New Haven man named Ray Orzechowski and his two partners. Ray’s a professor of multi-media journalism at Quinnipiac College. After the old Torrington Twisters relocated to New Bedford this summer, Orzechowski and his friends, convinced that you could run a baseball team by selling memberships to the team, immediately looked to fill the void at the old ballpark. The Titans are supported by 500 members who paid $100 each for their season membership. The members literally own their team. They even get voting rights in club policies. They voted in Gregg Hunt, the manager. They voted the team name, and the team colors.
Orzechowski calls the Titan model “the democratization of sports.” I call it baseball the way it’s meant to be played: close enough to touch, with a full moon rising through sunset clouds beyond the right-field fence. With no waiters at your seat. Close enough to see the sharp break of a curveball – and hear the shouts of a bench-clearing brawl, which is the way my game ended, after a double play in the bottom of the ninth sealed the Eagles’ 3-1 win.
But as I walked to my car, in front of the stolid 19th century armory that sits next to the park, I wasn’t dismayed by the outcome. The local baseball future is bright indeed. The Titans are in first place in their division, and have just announced that they’ll be hosting the Canadian national team in an exhibition in a few weeks.
I’ll be there. And I’ll bring my own Twizzlers.