My day in Queens -- my first "big" assignment as a paid "sportswriter" -- was a parade of famous faces and lots of being awestruck. As a matter of fact, here's a harrowing admission: I've never been to a playoff game of anything other than hockey, until today. I've been to basketball, football, and baseball games, but never in the playoffs. So not only was there that atmosphere, as well as the energy coming from playoff-starved rabid Met fans (who were really tremendous today), there was also the feeling like "Wow. I'm getting paid to see this game. What did I do to deserve this?" It wasn't boring, that's for sure.
I got to the stadium by around 1 P.M., just early enough to avoid the heaviest tailgater traffic. There were already some cars in the lot when I arrived, but I was able to get a decent spot. I was five miles behind home plate, but I was in the Shea lot instead of having to park off-site and foot it. So I had that going for me, which was nice. By the time I walked the five miles to home plate and the extra to get to the press entrance in left field, I'm sufficiently psyched. And a little sweaty. That excitement gets a swift boot to the face on the press line, where I'm waiting for...well, let's just say a while. But it's on line that I get my first familiar glimpse: It's ESPN's Jayson Stark! I'm actually a fan of him, he's one of the few "experts" ESPN has who I feel confident in. And one of the running themes of the day involves me getting excited about some of the sportswriters I see as the athletes. I'm not sure what this says about me exactly, but it can't be good. Anyway, he's three people behind me in line. Good to know the rock stars don't get preferential treatment.
I get my pass and enter the bowels of Shea. Two quick lefts and suddenly I'm on the field behind home plate. Talk about surreal; after all of the cultural and historical significance attached to sports, it almost seems like the path to the field should be a magical one. It's really just old security guys and cold gray concrete. Anyway, the Mets are taking batting practice. The field is littered with various loiterers. I stand in front of the Mets dugout, which is empty. Willie Randolph and I brush shoulders. My head is on a constant swivel. Whoa! Look at this power trio deep in conversation: Tommy Lasorda, Joe Morgan, and Mike Lupica. Lupica is wearing a turtleneck and has his sportcoat draped over his shoulder, dangling from his index finger. He looks like he came straight from an audition for The Birdcage 2. I don't know who the most normal of the three is. That's the sad part. By the way, Lupica is yelling. That's no surprise.
I walk from first base to third base. Steve Phillips is watching a core of players he drafted become stars for a different regime. Nomar's nose is milling around, with his body bringing up the rear. In the Dodgers dugout by himself is Eric Gagne. Remember him? Along the way I also see Bill Plaschke, who is deceptively tall. I was always under the impression that he was just a big egg-shaped head on tiny little legs, like that Living Colour skit, but he's like 6'4''. Anyway, he's talking to a Dodger who's indistinguishable to my eyes. I walk past Linda Cohn, who is surprisingly less-repulsive in person than on TV. I guess what they say about the camera adding 10 lbs. of ugly is true, after all. There's a guy talking to some people in the front row behind the Mets dugout. He looks homeless. Someone tells me it's Ron Howard. An aside: I wanted to bring a camera, but I didn't have photo credentials and the field was littered with Shea security. The last thing I wanted was to get kicked out.
I'm now on the fourth floor, press and luxury box level. I find my seat in the left field terrace press box -- behind and three people to the left of Jayson Stark -- and go to get food. On the way I pass Dan Shaughnessy. I was promised free hot dogs, but that promise wasn't delivered. Instead, we got tickets for four free box lunches, which consist of a bad sandwich, potato chips, and a soda. I feel like I'm on an airplane. My first and last box lunch hits the trash and I venture among the commoners for foot-longs. By the time I make it back to my seat it's 1-0, Dodgers. By the way, I'm sitting next to a guy from the Japanese media. There's actually a large Japanese presence here, and it's kinda scary. So yadda yadda yadda the rest of the game goes by uneventfully (relatively, it was a pretty great game, but you can go anywhere for that recap). Now the fun is supposed to begin.
I hightail it back downstairs through the crowd and saunter in the Mets' locker room. Wow. Stocked fridges with drinks, leather couches, plasma TVs everywhere. It's downright decadent. I'm giddy. Everyone's still in the showers except for Jose Valentin, who's explaining himself after an inexplicable play which resulted in an error and Jose Reyes' near-death. The next player out is Julio Franco. I'm accidentally standing next to his locker while listening to Valentin. Next thing I know, I look to my left and see Julio Franco's bare, bulbous ass. The oldest ass in baseball. Like, really close to me. Did I mention it was a surreal day? Slowly the players file into the locker room: Billy Wagner's got the iceberg that sank the Titanic taped to his pitching arm. Tom Glavine had to shower for some reason -- apparently he just didn't want to miss naked time with his teammates. Cliff Floyd is very nice, very funny, and about 18 feet tall. Here's Lupica again. I'm standing next to him, the top of his head barely reaches my tricep. It must be a Napoleon complex. Valentin is still explaining himself, by the way, and 5 feet in front of him is a plasma on ESPN, where the Sportscenter crew is bashing his fielding. I have no doubt that Valentin can hear every word of it as he's speaking. That must be tough.
Two doors down Willie Randolph gives his press conference, followed by Carlos Delgado and David Wright. It's like every other flacid press conference you've seen, except John Franco is there in a suit. He's probably trying to get another contract.
"Hey, Omar! Did I mention how good I feel? I've been working out if you need anyone."
"That's, uh...that's OK John. I think we're set."
And that's about it. I grab my stuff and head out, except on the way I see three guys in suits coming towards me. I can't make out who it is until I pass them. One is Derek Lowe. Another is Greg Maddux. And that's it. Fitting that one of the best pitchers of all-time is the last person I see on my way out -- it was just that kind of day. I get to my car and drive home.
Was it Vonnegut or Ice Cube that said, "Today was a good day?"