This is where the Seattle Mariners "play" their spring games, where every new line-up card brims with the promise of the franchise's first halfway successful season, and where I sold beer for a living exactly five years ago right this minute.
Hawking cold bullets up and down the gently sloping aisles of this fine park was the last job I had before they hired me on at New Times. It was the last honest labor I'll probably ever do.
The life of a spring training beer man is a life of considerable hardship, as well as a life of meager wages. I was a mere pup back then, a new product called Meister Brau was selling for about $2 a six-pack, my needs were few. As I recall, we brew brokers made six bucks for every case we sold, plus tips. On a good day--and by "good day" I mean a day that saw the stadium drenched in hot sunlight and chock-full o' high-living fish in daringly loosened neckties--I think I sold twelve cases.
I usually carried two iced cases with me at all times, in five-gallon plastic buckets. If memory serves, these buckets weighed about 80 pounds each when they were full, and the temptation always was to leave the ice out and save your back. Well, that never worked. People want their beer cold, and the tips were twice as good if I could shove my customers a can dripping with ice slivers.
For one whole month, I existed in perfect bliss. Most days I'd go out to the park a couple of hours before game time to watch batting practice. I didn't know a single interesting thing about the Seattle Mariners, and I still don't, but the park was within walking distance from my house (I had sold my car--it didn't run anyway--for $80) and the Wall Street Journal likely wasn't going to be calling for a while to offer a correspondent's job. The first fans would start straggling in at about noon, but nobody would drink any beer until 12:30 or so. The middle three innings of the games were the best for me, and I'd run from one end of the stadium to the other to refill my tanks. As the game ended, I'd stand on a bench near the main exit and try to shame people into buying a traffic roadie or two. (Obviously, this was the pre-enlightenment era of drinking-and-driving philosophy. I think they stop selling beer after the seventh inning now.)
Naturally, there'd always be a couple or three or four leftovers in the bottom of the bucket once the crowd was gone. When his mood was right, the concession boss would sell me one of the last hot dogs, and at a small discount, too, which I always thought was really a top-drawer thing for the guy to do considering he had to throw the dogs in the dumpster anyway.
A few of the Mariners always seemed to stick around after the game and work on something. Some days the catchers would practice their throws to second, some days an infielder or two would take ground balls. As the rest of the team showered and changed under the stands, the players' wives and kids would sit quietly behind home plate and talk. With my profit-killing beers and discount dog, I'd find a bench in the shade and enjoy the cool of the evening.
In Ball Four, the best book ever written about baseball and arguably the best book ever written about anything, Jim Bouton had something to say about that feeling (the book was based on Bouton's 1969 season, which he started in camp with the Seattle Pilots, who--this is no coincidence, I had it planned--trained at Diablo Stadium):
"Riding back to Tempe I had a beautifully serene feeling about the whole day, which shows how you go up and down an emotional escalator in this business. It was my first really serene day of the spring and I felt, well, I didn't care where the bus was going or if it ever got there, and I was content to watch the countryside roll by. It was desert, of course, with cacti and odd rock formations that threw back the flames of the setting sun. The sun was a golden globe, half hidden, and as we drove along, it appeared to be some giant golden elephant running along the horizon and I felt so good I remembered something Johnny Sain used to talk about.
"He used to say a pitcher had a kind of special feeling after he did really well in a ball game. John called it the cool of the evening, when you could sit and relax and not worry about being in there for three or four more days; the job was done, a good job, and now it was up to somebody else to go out there the next day and do the slogging. The cool of the evening."
I love those paragraphs. Not many pro athletes think that way. There aren't many parallels between the lives of big-league ballplayers and marginally employable concession workers. But that feeling at that place at that time was the one time I came closest to connecting with Bouton, one of my heroes. On the other hand, maybe it was the beer.
The point is, I guess, that Diablo is a great place to hang around after a game and leisurely watch the traffic-jam build-up on the freeway behind right field. Sometimes the cars look like little elephants running along the horizon.
MDRV The Stadium: Diablo's aisles are wide and the rows are spaced to provide for a decent amount of leg room. Only a comparatively few of the 5,000-plus seats have backs on them. This sometimes tends to make Diablo feel like the Devil's tanning booth, because the light and heat reflect off the metal bench seats and right into your head. Sun-worshipers enjoy it. So do foul-ball hounds, who can mobilize at high speed from row to row in chase of a ball they're going to throw into a closet once some lug scrawls his name on it after the game.
Sightlines seem fine. A very minimal amount of shade is available up high behind home plate, but old folks seem to spring into those seats early, so bring your sun block, whitey. It is possible to sit out on the butte behind left field and watch the game for free.
I have very little to say that is good about the food; the memories of those "discount" gouge dogs just won't fade. If you must eat, there's usually a grill above the third-base line that burgers and dogs just fly off of. As for beer service, I suggest that you buy from a hawker and that you are generous with your tips.
MDRV Parking: The M's usually charge $2 for parking, and the main (paved) lot is located between the right-field fence and the freeway. There is a chance that a home run to right could crash into your car and wreck it, but since this is where the Mariners play, that chance is very small. In the old days, people could park west of the stadium, and Seattle bats would rain windshield-seeking foul balls down onto cars. I don't think they let the public park there now.
MDRV Navigation: I suggest you approach this ballpark from the south. Everybody and his uncle will be trying to get there by heading south from the freeway on 48th Street. If I were you, I'd stay on the freeway all the way to Mill (where, if you read the next section, you might be inspired to have a bite of lunch), circle back on Southern, and head north to Alameda. Exiting the stadium can be slow going, especially on weekdays during rush hour. My only advice to you is to not head south on Diablo Way--it appears to be a sneaky back way out of the parking lot--if you intend on going to Herman's for one of those big beers. You can't turn left (east) onto Southern from where Diablo Way takes you, and you might get totally lost and die in the desert if you go the other way, so just don't try it. Unless you've seen what I'm talking about, this doesn't make any sense. If you've seen it--if you've experienced it--you likely think of me as a modern-day Copernicus. Or something.
MDRV Pre-game: If there's one thing Tempe is good for, it is good for lunch. There are more places to eat lunch in Tempe than in any other comparably sized city on Earth. In fact, the city council should probably put out a request for proposals on a new tourism and marketing campaign based on such a theme. "Tempe--We've got sandwiches!" might be one concept, or maybe "Tempe--The Soup Today Is Cream of Broccoli!" I'll let them use these two for $10,000 and a deluxe parking pass to Phoenix Cardinals games. Following are my suggestions for pre-game feasts in the Diablo vicinity: Tony's New Yorker is serving lunch now. Go there and have a meatball sub, a dinner salad with Thousand Island, and a Sprite. Or, if you're really hungry, get one of those calzone torpedo deals they have and a slice of pepperoni pizza.
Despite its rotten name, Gee-Gee's makes a good sub and a superior pizza pie.
Post-Game: Well, you could go right back to the Drummer after the game and do tequila shooters for a coupla hours. I've done that before.
Another nearby option would include a hike up the hill to the fancy Westcourt in the Buttes for something tall and cool. This would be a good place to rendezvous with any glamorous fashion models you might pick up on at the game between peanut chomps and slurps of beer.
Also, I'm recommending that you make your way toward the corner of Mill and Southern to take advantage of the happy-hour good cheer at Herman's sports bar. This is a regular stop for many sports-media types from around the Valley, but don't let that discourage you. Most of those guys just sit at the bar and grumble, unless, of course, you're willing to buy them beers, in which case they become at least as charming as your typical tow-truck driver.
The real meat of this section, however, comes in the following paragraph. Read it, write it out in longhand a couple of times to help you remember it, stick it to your refrigerator with a Sea World magnet, whatever. Just don't forget it.
This spring, the absolute best place to go after a ballgame (no matter where the game is played) is going to be Greyhound Park, because almost all of the players and coaches will go there at one time or another. Some of them will go there every night. And a few of them will blow all of their per diem meal money at the track, a circumstance that is not hardly as dire as it once was, mostly because almost all of the players are millionaires. Certainly, the track is a bueno entertainment option during any season, but spring is an especially fine time to visit. The outdoor seating areas are just cool enough for napping between races, and the upper clubhouse is the best place in town to watch a sunset, mostly because they'll bring drinks to your table while you ogle Camelback Mountain's changing hues in the distance. Plus, there's these animals that run around you that can gamble on. Like I say, it's neat-o.
And I'm not kidding about the baseball people. They all go to the track, even the ones who cop a family-man plea when you lean over the fence before a game and ask them where all the good orgies are tonight. Steve Stone himself says it's going to be a hot spot this season, and he's on cable TV.
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