A Day at the Park with Richard Van Zandt

by Gregory Pratt, BaseballEvolution.com
July 13

For those unaware, I am traveling the west coast with one of my closest friends (a mathematician named Daniel) and it has been an experience well-worth having. We have been everywhere from San Diego to Vancouver, and as I write this, we are headed back to Los Angeles where we will relax for a couple of days before flying back home to Chicago. The trip from Seattle to the City of Angels is too large to reasonably take in one day, however, so we will be making a stop in San Francisco to spend the night, which is worth mentioning because it is ironically the scene of this article's adventure over a week ago.

My travel partner and I left Los Angeles early in the morning on July 3rd for San Francisco. He dropped me off at AT&T Ballpark about an hour before the Cubs/Giants game was set to begin, and I waited around for Richard Van Zandt to arrive.  That the Giants would be in town against the Cubs was a pure coincidence, but one I was eager to take advantage of and I was especially pleased to see that Tim Lincecum would be starting against the Cubs. (Lincecum has been a favorite of mine since he was drafted).

I had contacted Rich with an invitation to meet me for a game because I enjoy meeting people and feel that I would be doing myself a disservice if I came into one of my colleagues' cities and did not make an attempt to catch a game with them. He was definitely interested in the idea of taking a game in with me and so it was that I called him around 3:30 and asked where he was. "Across the street," he said to me, tugging at his jersey for good measure. I said, "I see you" and hung up the phone. When he walked over to me I shook his hand and we took pictures with one another in front of the monuments: Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal.

After this, we walked to the entrance and stood in line to enter the ballpark. This was when I realized that the day would be enjoyable and interesting, as Rich said hello to various homeless persons around the park, most of whom he has known forever. His basic kindness toward those less fortunate than him and I stood out to me, and I knew that I was hanging around with a good man. His statements to me throughout the game reinforced this first impression. He speaks glowingly of his wife, who sounds to me like a Saint (among other kind acts, she bought him and his then-recently deceased cat a brick outside the ballpark), and of his twins, who are quite clearly the most important thing in the world to him. And he speaks glowingly of baseball, too, saying that "there is nowhere I'd rather be than at a ballpark."  Those words and their effect on me can only be understood by someone who has met a kindred spirit before.

Nevertheless, I was struck by how smoothly we transitioned from near-total strangers to flowing conversationalists, as it is always awkward to meet someone for the first time and especially so when you only know them through their writings.  For some reason -- whether it be my smoothness, his, or the force of the game between us -- we immediately became friends. And he's a good host, too. We walked around the ballpark and sat in a variety of seats, with the bleachers being my favorite, as he explained the history of the stadium and shared general Giants stories with me. I was grateful that he waited patiently while I bought my mom a Build-a-Bear or, in San Francisco's case, a "Build-a-Seal," and he showed off his good-nature when he accepted an invitation to join me for a slide down the Giant Coke bottle. Lincecum was good, not great, but he got the win after a late assault by the Giants offense took the Cubs out of the game permanently. Rich hadn't seen a win since 2006, and I was happy that he was able to witness one.

In the later innings, Rich and I made our way to our seats in the right field upper deck, and we talked about the game of baseball in general and its history in particular. Somehow, we got onto the subject of Negro League baseball players, and it quickly turned to a discussion on Satchel Paige. We both think it's wrong to exclude him from a top baseball players of all-time list, and I was critical of Asher's reasoning that "If I showed you Phil Niekro's statistics from the time he was forty on you'd guess, 'Wow, this guy must've been great when he was young!' so I don't know how to judge Paige. He might have been the greatest or he might've not been." But Paige had a short major league career and we just "don't know." I take exception to this, as I do not know many sources who have ever referred to Niekro as being one of the very best in the prime of his life, but I suspect that it is relatively and comparatively few (besides, most baseball scholars do not take such a skeptical position toward Paige). Rich joked that I didn't want Asher to hear me say that we should, sometimes, take the word of players and managers, and I replied that that's not it.  Everyone fawns over Satchel Paige in unequivocal terms, and there is nothing to suggest that he might not have been an all-time great pitcher deserving of proper respect. To completely exclude him is, to me, a hyper-conservative (not in the political sense) judgment at its worst and simple, sad negligence toward the game's history at its best. Rich generally agreed with my points, but I ought to make it clear that these are my characterizations and not necessarily his.

San Francisco is a wonderful place, and so is Oakland. The ballpark in San Fran is a beautiful home for any franchise, and the view is gorgeous everywhere but especially from the upper deck. The bay is simply gorgeous, and it is a sight that everyone should take in at some point in their lives. It was a delightful day of baseball with a good guy who knows the game and loves it. It was my pleasure to attend a game with him and buy him garlic fries. There's little more to say about the experience that he hasn't already said. I would like to make it clear that the ballpark has one significant flaw: you can still smell the Devil.  Aside from that and the fact that it is so "elitist" in its pricing, it is a perfect place.

Get Rich's take on these events.

Gregory Pratt is a political science and history double-major at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His political commentary can be found at the Office of the Independent Blogger, and he can be reached at gregory@baseballevolution.com.