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In America, “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” is probably one of summertime's most-sung songs. Why? Because America’s favorite summer sport is baseball. In fact, baseball is such an American institution that one company coined the tagline, Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet.
Okay, maybe not every American drives a Chevy, but most boys and girls learn to play the sport in school and adults pay good money to watch professionals play it very well. If you are visiting the U.S. (or even if you live there) you really should make an effort to get into the culture and see a game.
My father is a die-hard Pittsburgh fan, so when his beloved Pirates were in town, we took him to a game as a Father's Day gift.
It quickly became apparent to us that some people have no clue as to what to do at a baseball stadium and some don't understand the game. What a pity. To help you avoid that and maximize your experience, here are my “official preparation instructions” for a day at the park. My tips should help you enjoy an American baseball game like a pro.
Finding a stadium
Check this list of all the Major League Baseball stadiums in the United States. Hopefully, you are within driving distance of a game.
On just about any day between April and September, you'll find a game being played somewhere in America. Tickets range from $8 (in what we Americans affectionately call the Nose Bleed Section) to over $300 per seat. Those expensive seats will put you right down next to the field where you can shake hands with the pros, gather a few autographs, and maybe even catch an errant ball. Trust me: If you can afford it, it's worth it.
Preparing for the game
Don't worry about what to wear. As long as you won't get arrested for indecent exposure, you can wear anything comfortable. That said, if you're especially keen to fit in, every stadium has an MLB store that sells hats, clothing and other logo'd items for the local team.
Now, pay careful attention. After finding your level and section and BEFORE actually taking your seat, there are a few things that we need to discuss. I will list them in order, starting with the most important item.
Baseball games require traditional snacks
Tip: Look for someone decked out in the home team colors, carrying noise makers, or sporting a wild hat and facial paint. This person will know what the local favorite ballpark food is. Don’t question, just head on over and grab whatever it is. Maybe get two because it probably is going to taste delicious.
Along with that, you must get the ball park specialty … a footlong hot dog. I'll be the first one to admit that they're not health food, but at least a lot of ball parks now serve kosher hot dogs. In any event, don’t be shy here. Load up on all the fixings you want: ketchup, mustard, sauerkraut, jalapenos, onions, tomato, the works. Maybe even add a “side of cheese” to make it even more delectable.
- Another required baseball game snack to buy is a package of Cracker Jack, yet another American ball park icon. You'll find footlong hot dogs and Cracker Jack at just about every American baseball stadium.This is a highly-addictive concoction of molasses-flavored popcorn and peanuts. As a bonus, it even comes with a prize in every box.
- And of course, you will also want to grab a liquid to wash it all down. Beer, water and soft drinks are always available.
- Picky eater? Special diet? Stadiums have regular restaurants, and sometimes even gluten free stands. Don't worry about missing any action, because food is packaged “To Go.”
Other things to watch for at a baseball game
- It is very important to locate the toilet nearest to your seat. This will come in especially handy after paying the drink vendors, as you will not want to miss any of the action down on the field. You might even want to do a “practice run” to ensure that you can get to that special location, do your duty, and return within the 4-minute gap between innings.
- Pay special attention to the signs located around the stadium, as many of them give very important advice. (If you ignore this tip, then you might be researching all aspects of a facial reconstruction surgery after getting hit by a free-flying bat or a foul ball.)
Moving to your seat
Armed with these necessities, head to your assigned seat. The first thing you will notice is the warmth and kindness of your fellow fans, who will thoughtfully get up to let you pass. (That is, if you did not wear anything in the colors of the opposing team.)
Sit down, settle in and get your food organized. Seats in most parks have a drink holder, so don't worry about kicking it over. It's traditional to store any excess food under your seat.
To save waiting on a long line later, you might wish to make a quick trip to use the lavatory before the game starts.
Take a look around the stadium, as it is a sight for sore eyes.
The first thing you might notice is the array of monstrous screens in the stadium. They keep you in touch with the action, give you the latest statistics of the players and even offer audience participation instructions at certain points during the game. All of these add to the fun and make you feel sorry for those poor folks who can only watch the game on television.
It won't take you long to see the food vendors. They are easy to spot because their outfits contrast against the sea of team colors. Get acquainted with their getup; you will need them later in the game.
Every park has a pre-game ceremony that begins with presenting of the flag, after which a guest performer leads everyone in singing the National Anthem. It is customary to stand up, remove your hat and sing along. Don't worry about how you sound. Sing as badly as you want; you will blend in with the crowd.
The next formality is at home plate (that five-sided rubber thing on the field). Here, both teams' managers will meet to exchange player line-ups and rules about the particular ball park.
Next comes the First Pitch, where someone of distinction attempts to throw a ball 66 feet 6 inches – from the pitcher's mound to home plate. It is a miracle when anyone comes close.
Don’t worry about that. The real players always put on a spectacular show.
Rules … rules … rules
The basic rules of the game are easy. One player (the pitcher) throws a fist-sized ball at speeds in excess of 95 MPH to a teammate (the catcher). Meanwhile, a player on the opposing team (the batter) attempts to hit said tiny ball with a wooden stick (the bat) so it lands somewhere out of easy reach.
The pitcher's goal is to send the ball over the plate, lower than the batter's shoulders and higher than his knees. That area is known as the “strike zone.”
- If the batter swings and misses it, it's called a “strike.”
- If he misses it three times, he's “out.”
Sometimes the pitcher throws the ball outside of the strike zone.
- If a batter swings and misses a ball outside of the strike zone, it still counts as a strike.
- If he doesn't swing, it's called a “ball.”
- When the pitcher throws four “balls,” the batter advances (walks) to first base. That's called a “walk.”
Bottom line: Three strikes and you're out. Four balls and you walk.
What happens after a batter hits the ball?
When the batter makes a hit, he runs to “first base,” the white square on his right. His goal is to reach it before an opponent tags him with the ball or the ball arrives at the base he's running to. If he gets tagged or the ball beats him to the plate, he's “out.”
If he's lucky, he'll be able to run around the entire dirt circle, get past second and third base without getting tagged out, and return “home” to where he started. This is called a “home run.” Scores are tallied by the total number of home runs each team gets during a game.
Not too complicated.
To keep the game interesting, theft is also a part of the game. Sometimes, a runner manages to run to the next base when the pitcher isn't looking, and Americans enjoy a good “stolen base” or two during a baseball game. Although we don’t usually condone theft, in baseball it is admired and exciting.
How long does a baseball game last?
Good question. A typical game will last 9 innings, and each inning is made up of both sides getting time at bat. They switch sides when the batting team gets three outs.
There is no time limit to a baseball game. It will end after 9 innings, unless the score is tied. In that case they will keep playing until a team wins an inning. So your normal $16 ticket might buy you 2-3 hours of entertainment or 2 days' worth.
Tip: Inclement weather can shorten a game or postpone it altogether. Unless you’ll be in a stadium with a roof, like Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg – be sure to check the weather forecast before you buy your ticket, or bring a raincoat and umbrella.
What to do during the baseball game
Around the third inning, you'll probably be out of food and drink and ready for more. You won't want to miss any of the action, so scout out one of the vendors walking through the stands. Buy a bag of roasted peanuts – because, after all, the song from the 7th inning says, “buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack…” And of course you'll probably want another beer to wash it down….
If you're sitting in the middle of the row, hand signals will get what you want. Wave like a maniac to get noticed by the vendor. Shrug to ask, how much does it cost? He will hold up maybe 4 fingers, meaning $4. Give a ‘thumbs up’ to accept and the vendor will pass your purchase down the row, from one fan to another, until it reaches you.
If you have been a good fan, none of them will take a sip as it passes by. Simply pass your money back down the row to complete the transaction. And hope nobody pilfers a dollar or two because you were a naughty fan.
By the seventh inning, your rear end may be tired. Fortunately, halfway through that inning, they'll have the famous “Seventh Inning Stretch.” This is when some celebrity guest (or it could be a guy in the stands) leads everyone in a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
The routine is to stand with all the other fans, lock arms and sway back and forth as he butchers a great ball park song.
More importantly, this is the unspoken last call for beer. Grab your final one and sing along.
The home run
The single most favorite event in baseball is when a batter hits the 95 mph pitch so hard that it clears the fence beyond the outfield. Home Run! When this happens the batter gets to jog, instead of run, around the bases, and so do any of the other players that are already on base. Teammates celebrate this monumental effort with high fives as he crosses home plate at the end.
When we went, we were able to see last year’s most valuable player, Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates, hit a home run and circle the bases. Although the Pirates lost the game, I wasn't disappointed. They won two games out of a three-game series against the Rays, and I still saw Cutch hit that home run. Sharing a baseball game was the best way for me to spend time with my dad, a tradition American fathers and sons have shared since the 1800s.
Final word of advice
On a final note… If you are driving, it will take quite a while to get out of the parking lot due to traffic. Plan for it: It is best to just hang around the ball park and watch the post game activities. Oh … and use the rest room before you leave.