It’s the bottom of the seventh inning, none on, no one out, and the Oakland Athletics’ Mark Ellis hits a broken-bat bloop into shallow left-center off Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Jorge Julio. The second baseman takes an angle. The shortstop, Augie Ojeda, number 11,gets a good jump on the ball. He tracks it over his shoulder, running in a straight path under the ball’s trajectory in the lights. He is short for a ballplayer, barely 5 8, but he has good, rapid turnover in his stride as he tracks the bloop; he’s got a chance. He gives a hurried signal to ward off the second baseman (who won’t make it anyway). It will be a tough catch for Ojeda: being human, susceptible to the drawbacks of bilateral symmetry, he’ll have trouble catching a ball that traces his direct path, the ball drawing a bead in line with the fielder’s head, the fielder having to cock his head back at a precipitous angle to catch the ball. Baseball players have to make catches like this; so do football players. You watch it: the fielder or receiver runs with his head turned nearly 180 degrees, Adam’s apple protruding, hands cradled in front of his chest as if in supplication, as if willing the ball into his mitt or hands, then begins to bend in response to the ball’s flight.
There is no wind, the night a still ninety degrees, the Arizona state flag—at half-mast due to the death of Bowie Kuhn, Major League Baseball’s commissioner from 1969 to 1984—limp against its pole. If Augie Ojeda doesn’t run down the ball, it won’t be called an error: Ellis’s bloop would fall in for a single and there would be a man on first to lead off the inning. Even so, Ojeda’s sprint draws the crowd’s attention, a held breath or two. With shallow bloops, there is always a moment when the ball seems to hang in the air, timeless, suspended.
It’s March, and the ghost of Willie Mays—who made a famous over-the-shoulder basket-catch in the 1954 World Series—has been invoked during spring training. In the Polo Grounds’ abyssal centerfield (the clubhouse in centerfield—the distance required of a ball to be counted as a home run—was once measured at 505 feet away from home plate), Mays robbed the Cleveland Indians’ Vic Wertz of a 460-foot potential triple (the Polo Grounds allowed for triples; Mays once hit twenty of them in a single season). After “the Catch”—and less well remembered—Mays wheeled and flipped the ball three hundred yards to third base, falling away off his back foot, to prevent the runners on first and second from moving. Mays’s play—an over-the-shoulder catch not unlike the one that could take place right here and now at Arizona Municipal Stadium (better known as “Muni”)—recalls “The Big Green Bathtub” of the Polo Grounds, the stadium with a full house of history: home to both the Babe and the Mets and the football Giants (1925–1955) and the Jets (formerly the Titans, 1960–1963), but whose longest and most memorable tenant was the New York (baseball) Giants (1911–1957).
Ojeda’s attempt at an over-the-shoulder catch is a convergence of history and memory and something else, something much more literal and earthbound. Of Mays, who recorded the first home run at Muni for the San Francisco Giants, after the team moved in 1957. Of the player, Augie Ojeda, who recalls the time of another Augie (March, the Adventures of whom were published in 1951). Of March, that time of year when guys like Ojeda are just trying to make the cut. And then of the ten light poles circumscribing Muni that have presided over not one but two fields, the Polo Grounds from 1940 to 1963, then Phoenix Muni, where they have stood and baked and lit hundreds of night games since. Here they are, transmigrated cross-country to the desert, taking their retirement early, mimicking the migration pattern of thousands of other old-timers on their way west to the desert, where the spare climate might help them eke out a few more years.
The Polo Grounds’ light poles were basically evicted from Manhattan, the stadium’s demolition scheduled to bring the grandstands (where the light poles were perched) to the ground. On April 11, 1964, the first crews of the Wrecking Corporation of America showed up at the stadium at West 156th–157th Streets and 8th Avenue wielding jackhammers and wearing shiny steel helmets and T-shirts with “Giants” written across the chest and numbers emblazoned on the sleeves (the corporation’s manager and vice president, Harry Avirom, a Dodgers fan, wore the number “1”). It would take the sixty-man crew four months to bring the stadium to the ground.
That first day was all smiles and photo ops. Truth be told, the Polo Grounds’ demise had dragged on for six years, causing litigation in courts between the city and the Coogan family (the Polo Grounds was nestled in the lee of Coogan’s Bluff, which became one of many Polo Grounds sobriquets).The Mets’ Polo Grounds finale, September 18, 1963, was the stadium’s third, the first being for the Giants when they left in ’57, the second for the Mets in ’62, before they knew that Shea Stadium’s construction had delays and their debut in Queens would be pushed back to ’64. That was the attitude as the Polo Grounds came down: let’s get this show on the road.
The centerfield bleachers and clubhouses—right about where Mays made “the Catch”—were the first to go, to allow trucks and cranes to enter the ballpark. Crew members who were Dodgers fans joked about how long they’d wanted to bring the Polo Grounds down (Ebbets Field had been demolished in 1960;the same wrecking ball was used on both stadiums).When Dodgers fan Stephen McNair approached the leftfield fence beneath Section 33, over which Bobby Thomson launched the line-drive home run better known as “the shot heard ’round the world” at 4:11 p.m. on October 3rd, 1951, he marked it off and vowed, “I’m going to take that place down myself.”
You see, Thomson’s three-run homer had knocked the Dodgers out of the World Series and brought the Giants in. (Russ Hodges’s call is the most famous in sports history: “Brooklyn leads it, 4-2. Hartung down the line at third, not taking any chances. Lockman without too big of a lead at second, but he’ll be running like the wind if Thomson hits one. Branca throws. There’s a long drive. It’s gonna be, I believe . . .” Hodges then repeats “The Giants win the pennant!” five times.) The game was the third of a best-of-three playoff, each team taking its home field in the first two. On August 11th of that year (1951), the Giants had been trailing the Dodgers by a seemingly insurmountable thirteen and a half games. Leo Durocher, formerly the Dodgers’ manager, led the Giants to a stretch run of thirty-seven wins against only seven losses in the team’s final forty-four games, tying the Dodgers for first place and the right to go to the World Series. That the Giants would lose the World Series to the Yankees was no matter; they’d already achieved the impossible. (What kind of avarice demands more grace when grace has already been achieved? For example, even if the Red Sox had not beaten the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2004 World Series to break the Curse of the Bambino, their comeback from a 3-0 series deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS would have been a legend in itself.) So when that ball took flight at 4:11 p.m. that afternoon, no Giants fan living wanted to see it come down; it meant a heck of a lot to them that it didn’t.
With McNair at the ready with his sledgehammer, about to demolish the leftfield fence for the New York City Housing Commission (and Dodgers fans everywhere), the foreman, Abe Gach, called over to McNair.
“No, you don’t,” he shouted. “Be gentle over there. History was made there.”
It wasn’t reported whether Gach was a Giants fan or not.
It’s the only home night game of the Oakland A’s spring training, the lamps of the Polo Grounds’ light poles brightening the night. (The A’s schedule only one night game during spring training, for the sake of visiting fans who want to soak up sun.) I’m watching the game from a vacant press box with James Vujs (pronounced “voice”), the stadium manager of Phoenix Muni. He’s an employee of the city, not the A’s. These are his “three outs,” which usually occur towards the end of the game when his two-way radio goes quiet and he gets the chance to take in an inning.
For the game’s other fifty-one outs, the other eight or eight and a half innings of play, Vujs walks constantly, treads ground from one end of the stadium to the other. His work uniform consists of khakis and a polo shirt. He has a permanent sheen of sweat on his brow, his hair short and combed over. Every March, he goes through two pairs of dress shoes—one a pair of black loafers, the other a pair of brown lace-ups—handling the small hiccups and distractions and slipups and snafus that are a product of nearly nine thousand people occupying the same enclosed space at once.
Hiram Bocachica is batting for the A’s now. The lights have illuminated a hovering cloud of smoke slowly drifting over the field from the barbecue behind the leftfield stands, the cloud appearing eerily purple, casting a spooky feeling over the stadium. The home team A’s have rallied for two runs in the seventh to close the gap in the score to 8-3, Diamondbacks. Julio delivers a pitch that looks outside from the box. The umpire calls strike three, and the stadium fills with halfhearted booing.
“Spring training strike,” Vujs says.
The rally and the inning are over, the game sped along by the bad call. Vujs has taken in his “three outs,” and it is time to leave the box and go back to work.
Vujs is in his seventh year at the stadium and, with his team of five men, he makes certain the operation of the stadium during game time runs like inning-work. (His time doesn’t run by the clock, it runs by the inning. He doesn’t clock out from work; you could say he innings out.) Here, at Muni, his job is minimizing risk—prophylaxis, pre-damage damage control.
Because this is the only night game of spring training, Vujs has had to deal with more snafus than usual. Twenty minutes before the f irst pitch, mistimed sprinklers went off in front of the Rock House, nearly dousing people by the Speed Pitch attraction on the concourse. Then, while Vujs was checking out a vomit spill near the gate, his boss, Rob Harmon, who manages both Muni and Maryvale, the stadium across Phoenix and the spring training home of the Brewers, phoned him on his cell.
“James. Do you keep a pregame checklist of things that need to get done?”
“Sure,”Vujs said uncertainly. “In my head, sure.”
“Well, why don’t you run down that ‘checklist’ and see whether or not ‘Bridge Lights’ is checked off. ’Cause I’m looking right at ’em and they aren’t on.”
After the call, Vujs immediately disappeared underneath the spiral ramp up to the bridge, where the locked circuit breaker box is.
Vujs’s goal is to have a flawless March. For one month a year, the stadium must run smoothly, perfectly. In this regard, Vujs is not unlike the ballplayers in the field: he is docked for errors, but there is no statistic recognizing his tireless efforts to ensure that bad things don’t happen.
The ten light poles of Phoenix Muni support 162 lamps (as opposed to the 400 they carried at the 54,000-seat Polo Grounds), 18 of which are 400-watt security fixtures trained on the stands for pedestrian traffic, Vujs’s territory. The security lamps, arranged in threes, aimed down as opposed to across and outfitted with Nema Type-6 Reflectors, look like bluebells drooping from the light poles’ stems. The fixtures are mounted on ballasts that aim the lamps and control and modulate the amount of electricity flowing to each lamp.
The other 154 fixtures engage 15-megawatt (1,500,000 watts, about equivalent to the power of thirty thousand conventional lightbulbs at once) lamps, serried into banks of double-tiered seven-lamp rows on six of the eight standards. These lamps appear more confident in their arrangement, aimed across the field. The other two poles, to either side of home plate and aimed across the infield, carry three stacks of lamps, the top bank holding a row of seven, with two neatly stacked rows of six lamps below. There are eight lamp towers total mounted on the ten poles: the left? and rightfield concourse poles are joined in pairs, and the individual poles are connected together by a steel “Z” a third of the way up.
Augie Ojeda attempts his catch in shallow left-center. According to Muni’s aiming diagram, this is an area beyond the exact spot where 15-megawatt lamp number 12 is aimed, a limbo when it comes to the stadium’s light field. For a professional ballpark, 150- to 200-foot candles is considered standard coverage, with the infield generally 20to 30-foot candles brighter than the outfield. The way the lights are aimed at the field is similar to the way the fielders themselves are positioned. Bloops into the shallow fields correspond to unpatrolled zones, limbos, gaps, shadows between the lights. The territories on the field that lie farthest from immediate policing are then its frontiers. The stadium’s aiming diagram shows this clearly enough, an empty, uncovered space in shallow left and right, slight, barely noticeable dimples in the stadium’s light surface like dark patches on the moon. The map resembles a blueprint, and the T-shaped crossing of the aimed lamps’ beams in the outfield is what fielders have by way of illumination, enough to ensure that there is no Bermuda Triangle (unless the ball gets “lost in the lights,” or the glare) on the field.
While Ojeda chases down the bloop, navigates the lull in the stadium’s light field, I question how history slips into these dark patches, these interstices of light. Do events similarly “bloop” off the radar beyond the infield, or are they recognized immediately as “history in the making”? Or are these questions moot now? Has history left Muni altogether, left spring training behind, these light poles no longer custodians of a stage prone to history but retired, like a police officer acting as a security guard? Does it matter what happens in the dregs of lamp number 12’s light? At first blush—no one on, no one out, and with “spring training” called strikes—whether Ojeda stabs the ball short of the ground with his glove seems irrelevant: there is no playoff now, not even a regular season box score at stake.
Taking a closer look, however, something is offered up: context. By baseball standards, Ojeda is no spring chicken: he turned thirty-two in December and has been around the big leagues. Now, his fielding must “back up” his pitcher, Jorge Julio. But, two and a half years earlier, on the night of September 7th, 2004, Julio, then the Baltimore Orioles’ closer, in an act of frustration after yielding a go-ahead (and eventual game-winning) home run to Minnesota Twin Michael Cuddyer, issued a “brush back” pitch to the next hitter, who happened to be none other than a seldom-played “journeyman,” a Twin utility infielder named Augie Ojeda. Julio was ejected from the game, and three days later suspended four games by Major League Baseball. Catching Julio that night was Oriole Javy Lopez, who said afterwards of the nasty pitch, which by all appearances was an attempt to bean Ojeda: “One thing I do know: if he hit him with a pitch, it would have killed him.”
It would be Julio’s last month as the Orioles’ closer; the following year he was replaced by B. J. Ryan and demoted to middle relief. Up to that point, 2004 had been a productive season for Julio: for the year, he converted 22 of 26 save chances on a mediocre Orioles team. Now, Julio and Ojeda, after several stops each along the way, have ended up on the same squad trying together—in a coordinated (and in this case, considering Ojeda’s tracking of the ball, potentially collaborative) effort—to make “the bigs” once again in March of 2007.
On the bloop, Ojeda’s job is to put every ounce of energy in his body into helping Julio have one fewer base runner to face, one fewer out to earn, to preserve the perfect outing of the teammate who, two years prior, had tried to take off his head with a baseball at the distance of sixty feet, six inches. And the reality is: the thought— the memory—probably never enters Ojeda’s head.
So much for history.
During the day the lights are off, of course, their lamps milky, cloudy. I sit in the rightfield bleachers away from several shouting kids tearing across the seats beneath Muni’s signature concrete, accordion-roof grandstand. The poles are painted garish silver, though the upper part of some of the poles is smudged with red, rust washed down by rain from the bilevel maintenance catwalks—referred to as “baskets”—appended behind the banks of light fixtures. Blackbirds’ choruses can be heard from the palo verde and mesquite trees around the stadium. Papago Park’s giant red rock buttes that look as if they belong on Mars crop up, surreal, beyond the light standards in the outfield. The metal bleachers tick around me like a hundred car engines just cut. Overhead, airplanes descend in their final approach to Sky Harbor. A single sparrow hops between the bleachers, scavenging.
The bases of the steel poles are riveted with huge screws around which giant hexagonal nuts have been wound to hold them in place, clamping them to the ground. The poles are hollow and one hundred feet high. On the base is an emblem: “Union Metal MFG. Co. Canton, OHIO.U.S.A.”A steel-sheathed conduit runs down the pole, encasing the electrical wiring. In the left? and rightfield bleachers are the two banks of lights each supported by two poles instead of one and rising from the concourse seats. Each of the ten poles is saddled with ballast boxes around the front; rungs extend outward from the poles to allow for maintenance work. The double poles are fused by the Z-shaped metal connection, and each of these double concourse poles is mounted with speakers. The double poles also support the netting that runs all the way behind home plate. The two leftfield poles are ringed halfway up by a circular cluster of cell phone antennae like choke collars, not uncommon on high points in small towns or cities. The leftfield and left-center poles’ clusters are owned by different companies. When another company wanted to lease pole space for the right-center pole, Vujs finally drew the line and said no, as if he were done leasing out tree house space. The companies on the two leftfield poles do their work at 3 a.m., so as not to disturb any of the stadium’s daytime activities.
Vujs has hired Fluoresco Lighting & Signs as the company in charge of making sure his lights are operating at full capacity come March, that not one of the 162 lamps will fail to strike. From the press box at the night game, when Vujs thinks he sees a dull lamp in the standard on the left-center pole, he frowns. But later it turns out the lamp was just aimed directly down along the warning track.
Fluoresco began in Tucson in 1961 and now maintains many stadiums, both professional and municipal, across the American West. No one at the company has climbed “the poles from New York” in a number of years, though if there’s a person on earth for whom the Polo Grounds’ light poles are real (perhaps too much so), it’s probably Ted Frisbee. Frisbee has climbed every one of the poles at Muni, relamped the ballpark at one time, and “put on all the heads at third base and home plate.” Perhaps that’s why he’s a little reluctant to speak about them. For him, at bottom, it’s a matter of trust.
Like most pole climbers, Frisbee is lanky, with the requisite wingspan to reach the rungs. He is in his mid-fifties with black hair slicked back, showing gray at the edges. He still has the 1970s look, and smells of cigarette smoke. His work uniform consists of a short-sleeved, pin-striped mechanic’s shirt with a cursive red “Ted” stitched over his breast pocket. He is unexpectedly soft-spoken.
What Frisbee—affectionately described by Fluoresco’s service manager, Tim Ocker, as the “old dog of this world”—remembers as the distinguishing characteristic of the old Polo Grounds light poles are their “double stage” catwalks. One catwalk is layered on top of the other to allow for the servicing of both tiers of lights, and there is a trapdoor between the two. He remembers he once retrofitted the poles with new fixtures. He remembers that the fixtures in the corners of the catwalk are harder to get to, especially when he was given a shorter cord. (Instead of the safety harnesses more common now, Frisbee worked simply with a belt around his waist tethered by this cord to the catwalk.) He remembers that the poles at home plate and at third still ran the original 1,500-watt quartz lamps (the rest had changed over already to metal halide), which provide a whiter light and unlike halides don’t need time to warm up, firing instantly, though they are more expensive and not as durable. He remembers traversing the double poles, “going across” when he probably shouldn’t have, from one to the other. He was able to complete this dangerous and tricky maneuver because, though he doesn’t remember the exact span between the double poles, he has those trademark long arms and legs of a climber. (“I could do it,” he says.) He remembers how, like bridges and skyscrapers, the poles would sway in the wind at the top (“with the clouds and the planes flying over you”). Being atop one of the two double poles, with the arm going across the center, seemed especially precarious when the other pole would sway, not in unison with the pole he was working on.
“You’re on one and seeing kind of like this stuff . . .” he says, mimicking the swaying with a gesture, his palms facing each other and doing an out-of-rhythm rumba.
The reason he had to climb the old Polo Grounds poles was because Amtech, the company he then worked for as a full-time climber, had limited equipment: its tallest crane was fifty-five feet high. Meaning, he’d have to climb the rest of the way—forty-five feet—up to the catwalks.
He doesn’t remember how many years ago it was—or the exact date—nor does he remember which pole it was, but his days as a climber ended some fifteen to twenty years ago. He stopped climbing not because he couldn’t, but because he wouldn’t. (He mostly shies away from ballparks now.)
He was working alone that day. It may have been in preparation for a Pink Floyd concert, which he claims is the last time he worked on the lights at Muni. (Pink Floyd only played Muni twice, April 25th and 26th of 1988; Frisbee’s work was probably at least a week or so in advance of those dates.) At first, he laughs when recalling that day, before telling me why he stopped climbing. He is coy about disclosing his story, laughing as if to say, “Why the hell did I—much less anyone else—ever do that?”
“It’s something you don’t do all the time,” he tells me. “You have to kind of get used to it again. You have to build up a little nerve.”
His job that day was to turn off the breakers. There were no safety harnesses then, he reminds me, just that belt hooked to a rope he’d run from the railing of the enclosed catwalk.
“I fell through the trapdoor,” he says, running a hand through his slicked hair and letting it land on his shoulder blades, as if pinching them together. “I was up on the top stage. I didn’t close the trapdoor and fell through to the next level. I had that so-called safety belt thing on, and that left me dangling. There’s a ladder that climbs up to the next one. When I went through, I just tore up my whole side. There was nobody else out there.”
He’d fallen from the top stage to the bottom—a distance of about six feet.
“But I was tied off on the top, so when I dropped down, I wasn’t touching at the bottom. I had to, you know, grab hold of the ladder section of it, and . . . I had to climb all the way down. There was nobody there.”
Without stricter safety standards, Frisbee says he “just wouldn’t continue. . . . It was just . . . something I just said, ‘No, I don’t need to do this crap anymore. I don’t mind doing this line of work but . . .’”
I ask him if he liked climbing. He leans back in his chair, his hands folded in his lap. “Not necessarily. Like I said, if you do it all the time, it’s one thing. You’ve got to trust your piece of equipment. I had no idea when I grab that rung if it ain’t going to come off in my hand, you know. . . .You don’t know who put it together, or what happens throughout the years. So. Back then, they didn’t have a safety cable. It was just a pole and the rungs.”
Now, Fluoresco’s workers maintain the stadium concourse’s poles using a “knuckle boom,” a crane Vujs describes as moving forwards and backwards and bending and turning like an inchworm. The “boom” is a 135-foot articulating crane that allows maintenance workers to avoid obstacles—in this case, the stands, the crane positioned along the concourse. A bucket truck (containing a hoist) runs along the dirt of the warning track to maintain the outfield poles. One of the challenges the old poles present is that the ballast boxes are on the front of the poles, which makes them difficult to get to because of the pegs extending from the sides, making for a long reach. Compounding this difficulty is that the ballasts are heavy, and about the size of a pound cake. The concourse’s double poles are also a challenge because the grass of the field cannot be disturbed.
Vujs tells me the light poles have preserved some magic, brought some luck with them. To his eye, not one foul ball has ever hit them.
Despite the protracted demolition, six days before the first sledgehammers struck Thomson’s famous fence, a small advertisement appeared in The New York Times from the Wrecking Corporation of America: among items available from other demolition sites (“SELLING OUT: Entire Power Plant Equipment formerly NIAGARA-MOHAWK-HERKIMER, NEW YORK STATION or RAYMOND STREET JAIL, Brooklyn, New York SELLING: Usable granite, various sizes; Fencing, gratings and other usable items”) was listed “DEMOLISHING—POLO GROUNDS, Ball Park, New York City SELLING: Approximately 54,000 seats; 100— f lag poles; 1—Scoreboard; 8—Tower Lights.”
Avirom, the manager, had pledged to pick the Polo Grounds “clean as a bone.” He said the four hundred lamps that were left in the eight steel light towers would be sold, as would the steel piping, as would the “sacred” sod (a two-square-foot section of which, from centerfield, the Giants had taken with them to San Francisco in 1957). The phone number to call was MU 2-7595.
Avirom said some seats and the Giants’ bench would go to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He concluded that the “cats and dogs who live here will be able to take care of themselves.” The light poles, on the other hand, were transported— most likely a long load by train, with the baskets, catwalks, and the lighting fixtures torn off—cross-country to Arizona.
James Vujs is constantly minimizing hazards and risk; concourse minutiae are his areas of expertise. He controls placement and forces movement all over the stadium floor. Since he works hand-in-hand with the A’s spring training staff, some of whom are directly involved with the corporate sponsors, occasionally he can make the staff members look good by playing the role of the bad guy. This good cop/bad cop routine—removing corporate bigwigs from places on his property where they aren’t allowed—seems to be one aspect of the job Vujs enjoys. A spring training sponsor’s tent support pole is precariously close to the queue at the concession stands, and Vujs delegates one of his men to have the tent moved. Another sponsor’s table is clogging pedestrian traffic at the gate; Vujs instructs them to relocate.
Tonight, the biggest sponsor is an ABC Dancing with the Stars promotion. Models in purple bikinis and sheer, gauzy, tutulike outfits are traipsing around the concourse accompanied by ridiculous-looking mascots dressed in giant gold star costumes. They create a regal entourage of gold and purple and seem to think they can go wherever they want. First, Vujs and I see them down on the field. During the game, the girls are posing with men from the crowd on top of the dugouts. I find myself hoping the entourage does something wrong to provoke Vujs’s “bad cop” routine, to see Vujs mano a mano with the “stars,” but apparently in his view their grandstanding is okay.
Power cords are another potential problem for Vujs. Many of the sponsors’ tables require power, and Vujs is in charge of making sure the cords are laid so as to avoid any potential injuries to the stadium’s guests. His trick is to run the cords along the bases of walls and in the seams of the concrete, covered with silver duct tape. These are security measures, more ways of minimizing risk and increasing safety, of preventing accidents from happening.
He tells me all of this as we stand under the concourse’s double light pole along the rightfield foul line. He is showing me how he has run the power cords along the shortest distance possible while at the same time minimizing risk down the handicap walkway ramp from the seats. Above us the power running through the lights makes a droning sound, a lower-pitched, sustained version of the sound a fly makes when it buzzes in your ear.
When shadows cross the infield, an hour or so before sunset, the lights are turned on via two switches—one for the light poles on each side of the field—back behind the scoreboard in centerfield. Muni’s lamps are metal halide (HID) and require about ten minutes to fully kindle, the way streetlights begin dim and then take time to warm up.
Once, Vujs had shut down the lights for a fireworks display beyond the outfield during the seventh-inning stretch. When the show was over, the lights didn’t rekindle immediately. For ten minutes the stadium remained in darkness, the slow halide lamps glowing like dim moons. For this reason, many stadiums now have both HID and quartz fixtures, the former taking time to kindle, the latter striking immediately.
The lamps at Muni are outfitted with glare shields, visors, and dampeners for every one of the 162 lamps. The lamps look a little like they have on ball caps, the Nema-type reflector a bill extended out over the light. The more precision with which the lights are aimed, the less glare: Muni’s lamps have advanced directional accoutrements. The lighting system was devised by Musco Lighting in Oskaloosa, Iowa. The old-fashioned way to aim lights was at night, with before and after readings taken on the field to ensure proper coverage.
But now, says Gary Gryder, Fluoresco’s vice president of corporate sales and marketing, the process of re-aiming the lights, which happens almost every year, has become a little more high-tech:
“Generally there is a red dot that’s on the fixture itself right in the middle where there’s an aiming spot, and you can only see it when it’s aimed properly. So you stand on the field with a pair of binoculars and the guy [on the pole] just kind of moves it around until you can see it. And then you tell him it’s good, and you tighten it down.”
This seems right—that a person standing on the field would need binoculars to make sure that the lamps were aimed right, that the spaces illuminated by looking back, by history, would have to be precisely aimed, dependent on some strange red spot, some glimmer, in the full glare of 1,500,000-watt metal halide lamps. It’s no small wonder that the guy on the field doesn’t go blind, and then I wonder about historians—all that looking back. The person doesn’t even need to be a historian; someone merely nostalgic would do. Gravity tamps down the ball’s flights, the Polo Grounds is demolished, but the nostalgically inclined person—and there are many—keeps propping those balls back up into the air, remembering Mays’s “Catch” and Thomson’s “Shot,” buoying the balls and refusing to let them touch the ground. And I think to myself, for a fleeting second, this is what these light poles are about, if only for a moment: once upon a time they brought light to one of baseball’s great stages. Occasionally, they stood in for the sun.
Augie Ojeda is quick enough to get under the bloop fly. He keeps the mitt close to his chest; he knows he won’t have to reach. The cognitive ability allowing a fielder to track a ball, an instinctual gauge for distance and trajectory that might even be faster than a computer and can trace the arc of a ball in its first inches off the bat, this combination of knowledge and acumen gathered from tracking hundreds of fly balls, blended with this instant analysis of the ball’s trajectory and how to avoid the glare of the stadium lights—this is what Augie Ojeda has going for him.
Maybe that’s what allows him, scurrying out to shallow left, to make “the catch.” Open mitt against chest, the ball drops in barely over his shoulder, a basket catch before he flops to the ground from the effort of his run.
Don Delillo’s epic, Underworld (1996), recalls the Polo Grounds’ other famous moment, “the Shot,” using Thomson’s home run ball as its central structural motif. This is a place where the Polo Grounds remains standing, one could argue. The novel’s first forty-nine pages are devoted to Cotter Martin’s retrieval of the ball that fateful afternoon. Delillo writes,“[Martin] hears the crescendoing last chords of the national anthem and sees the great open horseshoe of the grandstand and that unfolding vision of the grass that always seems to mean he has stepped outside his life. . . . It is the excitement of a revealed thing.”
I think about the things I idealize, my flights of fancy, how my imagination occasionally makes somethings out of nothings. How I often willfully dream, instead of letting dreams come to me; how I prefer them that way.
One gameless night, the lights are on, though no one is home. They can be seen blazing from the 202 Loop Freeway, at first clearly visible and then spotted through the horizon-scrapers of a new Tempe office park. From a greater distance, they can be seen merely as a small dome of light rising from the desert, pushing up from the ground to the sky. There is the stadium, deserted, light banks bright, as hard to look at as eight distinct (and halide) suns; the field is green, Bermuda grass viridescent like a lime green highlighter. There is no sound but a leaf blower, one of Vujs’s men (by several degrees of separation; the man is actually hired out by contract) tidying up the parking lot from the day game.
I’m reminded of pictures I’ve seen on the Internet of the Polo Grounds’ light standards in their original positions, perched on the green wraparound grandstand of the park. Roger Angell wrote of entering the Polo Grounds: “You came slowly down the John T. Brush [the Giants’ original owner in the 1910s] stairs to the cool of the evening, looking down at the flags and the tiers of brilliant floodlights on the stands and, beyond them, at the softer shimmer of lights on the Harlem River.” I think of the pictures posted on the Internet of the lights, the poles decorated with some four hundred smaller lamps, tiered on four horizontal shelves, looking, from a distance, like birds ranked on power lines against the sky or, up close, a dizzying wind chime collection.
There are entire online communities devoted to discussion of the old Polo Grounds. The physical site in Manhattan has long since been converted into four thirty-floor apartment buildings that accommodate 1,614 families. A Willie Mays playground, a pool of asphalt featuring four basketball backboards, occupies the place where centerfield once was.
When the last major league baseball game was played at the Polo Grounds on September 18, 1963, only 1,752 fans gathered to watch the Mets, the lowest draw the Mets had had in their two years of existence. The Jets played football at the Polo Grounds until December 14, 1963, their last game there a 19-10 loss to the Bills. (The old stadium’s football history, though less storied, offers several memorable moments: the appearance of the Bears’ Red Grange in 1924 that put professional football on the map and the famous Giants-Bears sneaker game in 1935 when the Giants changed their cleats at halftime because of the muddy turf and dominated the second half.)
The Mets moved the following season from the Polo Grounds to Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows. Their first night game was greeted the next day in the Times with the headline “Shea’s Lights Make Brilliant Debut.” Comments from fans ranged from “Everything just seems to be clearer” to “It makes the game more interesting” to “Best light I’ve ever seen” to “It’s definitely the brightest park in the majors.” The players complained, saying they couldn’t look directly into the lights but had to turn their heads. Mets shortstop Al Moran said, “There’s a little bit of a bluish glare . . . and I imagine we’ll have an advantage when we get used to it.” The “new” light came from a “circular necklace” of 884 mercury-vapor lamps blended with 820 incandescent quartz lamps to avoid a “blue-out.” Moran concluded, “There are no shadows at all. . . .It’s so clear, you can see an ant crawling across the grass.” (Shea Stadium will be replaced as the Mets’ home by Citi Field for Opening Day, 2009.)
But members of the online community, particularly members of baseball-fever.com and its forums immersed in the nitty-gritty specifics (a form of nostalgic rigor, perhaps), remain more interested in Polo Grounds’ baseball. One discussion debates whether, after the $250,000 1962 renovation before the Mets (temporarily) moved in, the grandstand was repainted green or painted blue. The posts go back and forth on the subject, old men debating the vividness of their memories in relative anonymity. The last post, written on January 17, 2007, at 9:25 p.m. by someone with the screen name Elvis, underneath which his sig says,“That’s the way it is”—the post that put the issue to bed, so to speak—reads:“I believe that the Polo Grounds was indeed repainted in the early ’60s, but that the ‘ballpark green’ wasn’t replaced by blue, but rather this color, which is a more bluish-green, but still more green than blue.”
In 1982, the Giants relocated their spring training to Scottsdale, and the lights remained behind when the A’s took over the stadium. The lamps are seldom used, less than five hundred hours a year; the stadium, once spring training is over, remains mostly idle through the year’s other eleven months, a lengthy, inningless off-season. When Muni was built in 1964, the sports editor of the Arizona Republic called it a “million dollar grass farm.”
By June, when I look down on the stadium from a plane, desert dust has overrun Muni’s seats down each foul line, nature’s attempt to lay claim to the stadium’s land. Only the seats under the accordion-roofed grandstand remain distinctly blue, sheltered from the wind. The practice facility directly adjacent to Muni—another identical diamond with identical outfield grass and dimensions—gives the cluster the appearance of houses or hotels piling up on the same property in Monopoly: the new Arizona Avenue.
The D-backs placed Jorge Julio on waivers the last week of spring training. He was picked up by the Marlins, where he registered an ERA over 10 before being traded to the Colorado Rockies, where, at the halfway point of the season, he has enjoyed some success. (ESPN.com blogger Nate Ravitz unsympathetically describes Julio’s resurgence as “like a scab that keeps growing back.”)
By the 2007 All-Star break, Augie Ojeda has been back in the bigs for a month. For his entire career since he was drafted by the Orioles in the thirteenth round of the 1996 amateur draft (only four of the thirty players selected in that draft stanza ever played in a big league game), he has shuttled between the minors and the majors. Entering the season, he had appeared in 178 career big league games—just over one complete season’s worth in eleven years of professional baseball. But this season things are looking up. He goes into the break with a .382 batting average that has raised his career average to .232. Of his 13 hits in 34 major league at bats this season, one was his sixth career home run.
Ojeda has even gained a reputation. The scribes who refer to themselves online as the “Diamondhacks” have this to say about Ojeda: “If Honus Wagner had a ‘Mini-me,’ this guy is it.” And Ojeda has made his spectacular over-the-shoulder catches routine. On MLB.com, his list of highlights from the regular season includes an “over the shoulder” video download.
The catch comes from a June 23rd home interleague game against—you guessed it—the Baltimore Orioles (the team that drafted him, nearly killed him, and against which he practically patents his spectacular play).There is one out, a man on third. Clad in the D-backs’ new black shirt, Ojeda—retaining number 11—tracks a bloop over his shoulder. The bloop slices sharply, and Ojeda bends with the ball. He makes the catch, his legs sliding out from under him. He jumps up and—like the immortal Mays highlight—fires the ball back to hold any runners.