It has been an eternity since I was last at a game at Chase Field. Eternity in this context is equal to 179 days 1 hour 16 minutes. Today marked an end to the dark and dreary off-season as the Diamondbacks held one of their annual Spring Training games at home. Each year the Diamondbacks play two games at Chase Field after camp has broken at Tucson but before the opening of the regular season. In years past we have seen the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, and Los Angeles Angels. It’s usually the first look I get at the stadium before games begin to count. The crowds are usually smaller with attendance in the high four figures or low five figures so there is ample room to wander around the stadium and take note of any changes that have occurred since the end of the previous season. It’s also the first time I get to see the sight lines of my seat relocation to help me get acquainted with where I will be sitting for the 81 regular season games. And for those diehard fans such as me, it is a time to see many of the people that I spend my summer with. A lot of these guys become like family since I spend just about as much time with them as I do with my regular family. Like every year, I always try to arrive early to be there just as the gates open two hours before first pitch is scheduled. I can use the extra time to make sure I can find my seat, take pictures of the various changes I find, and get a bite to eat so that I am ready and focused when the game begins. Little did I realize what the implications would be for being early for today’s game.
The first Spring Training game at Chase Field is usually a momentous occasion best experienced for the most ardent fan. That typically means that I have with me either my daughter Tiffany or my son Dakota. Both of them are quickly becoming diehard baseball fans and each log more than 30 games per season. Tonight though in an odd series of events it was my daughter Whitney who would accompany me. Some of you may remember Whitney is the one I refer to as the ”book worm” due to her intellectual personality. I have to admit I was initially in a state of shock when Whitney chose to go to the first game of the season. This is the same girl who complained about the amount of baseball she had to endure last season when she attended 3 games. I’m never one to complain when one of the kids shows an interest in baseball so I gladly accepted her company. We arrived at the field parking at the Arizona Science Center as we normally to. I was again shocked to find that they had raised prices on parking and it was now $8. I shouldn’t really complain. It is 2 Â½ blocks from the stadium and it is covered parking so realistically it is probably a great value. Nonetheless, this is the third parking increase I have had to endure in just over a season. I mumbled about it but in the end paid the parking attendant and parked my car into its familiar parking spot. Given the amount of money I have given to this parking garage over the years and the fact that I always park in the same place, you would think they would honor me with a plaque commemorating the parking spot as a historical landmark or put my name on the concrete curb but as of today neither of those events occurred.
We got to Chase Field and quickly made our way through security. The exterior of the stadium has had a lot of work done to it with all of the purple and teal signage replaced with Sedona Red and Black. Even the marquee of the stadium itself which is not owned by the Diamondbacks has been updated to show the team’s new colors. The gate letters are now all Sedona Red which I have to admit really makes them stand out. The ticket turnstiles all have new Sedona Red covers replacing the purple ones from years past. The turnstile is computerized and reads the bar code on the ticket when the end is partially inserted into the slot. An LCD screen shows whether the ticket is valid or not. The LCD still has the old logos and color scheme which really stands out when compared to all of the new Sedona Red adorning the other areas of the ballpark. Once inside the rotunda it was evident that a lot of work had been done to the stadium trying to update it cosmetically to be aligned with the new Diamondbacks color scheme. Walking through the doors from the rotunda to the concourse the first thing you notice is that many of the vendors have been removed giving the fan an unobstructed view of the field rather than seeing booths of carnies hocking their wares. The view of the green grass of the playing field coupled with a large sign above the concourse welcoming you to Chase Field brings instant excitement and is a huge improvement from years past. The Diamond Town boards above the concourse level used to show the history of baseball but now are more Diamondbacks oriented which is appropriate since the team has 9 years of history behind it to draw from.
Once inside the stadium I immediately wanted to find our seat just to see for myself where I would be spending 83 days of my life. I was extremely excited to see that section 132 is directly down from the welcome sign as you come in the front door. This will make it really easy for Trina and the kids to find their seats when they get up to go get food or head out to Peter Piper’s Playhouse beyond center field. I was warmly greeted by the usher stationed at the top of the section and asked if I needed help finding my seat. I introduced myself since I thought it was only appropriate that we get to know each other because we would be seeing a lot of one another this season. He seemed genuinely thrilled with his job and made me feel at ease. That outlook and commitment was not confined to a single usher but was expressed by most of the Diamondbacks employees I met tonight. Each month during his on-line chat on the Diamondbacks web site President Derrick Hall expresses his desire to have his employees exude a warm and friendly attitude and at least for this first game I would say those working this game did just that. Whitney and I made our way down section 132 finding row 15. Before entering the row I looked down to make sure that I was at the right place. I immediately noticed that the purple and teal Diamondbacks “A” logo which was carved into the end of each row of seats had been painted. I had expected the paint to be Sedona Red and Black but instead found they had all been painted the same green color as the seats. It wasn’t quite the impact I was looking for and I was a little disappointed. Whitney’s theory is that they were painted green so that if the Diamondbacks decided this Sedona Red experiment didn’t work out at least they didn’t have to change the seats. She has a good point I guess. I had initially worried that row 15 may be a little high and that I would not feel connected to the game but I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised to find out how close that row really is to the action. We made our way to seats 13 and 14. One of my criteria when selecting these seats was that I wanted two in the middle of the row. Once I sit down to watch the game I rarely get up except for the National Anthem and the seventh inning stretch. Last year we had aisle seats meaning that everyone who did get up during the game, came late, or left early required us to stand up and move. With our seats in the center of the row it should mean that I will be able to eliminate a lot of that distraction.
One of the aspects of the Diamondbacks game that my kids have always enjoyed is the hot dog condiment races that occur around the third inning. During the condiment races three animated hot dogs appear on the JumboTron and they bounce around the bases racing to see who can cross home plate first. The fans cheer on each hot dog hoping their favorite wins. Three fans, usually children, represent each of the hot dogs and they in turn represent a seating section in the stadium. If that hot dog wins, the fans sitting in the represented section all receive coupons for a free a Diamondbacks Dog at Circle K. This has been a tradition at Chase Field since the inaugural season and one that my kids always look forward to. It became so important that it led to a change in the way I keep score at the games. Since I go to every game and take one of the kids with me, there could be a gap of several games from the last time that particular child was last at the stadium. They always like to try and predict which condiment – Ketchup, Mustard, or Relish will win the race. They would therefore ask me who had won the previous races since the last time they were in attendance. This required me to begin recording the outcome of the hot dog races in my score book so that I could relay that data to the kids so they could attempt to determine what the pattern was and successfully prognosticate the answer. It’s funny, in nine years we have never been selected to be contestants for the hot dog races. That is the one Diamondbacks experience I was lacking in my career as a Diehard Diamondbacks fan. That though was about to change.
Whitney and I stood in section 132 row 15 assessing the status of the field and taking in the number of color changes that could be seen from our seats. During this time the Diamondbacks were taking batting practice so I was busy trying to identify the various players on the field and in the new Sedona Red batting cage. As we stood there assessing the stadium and the team, two members of the Diamondbacks staff approached us. They introduced themselves and asked if Whitney or I would be interested in assisting them by being a contestant in the hot dog races in the top of the third inning. I was immediately overcome by a rush of adrenaline thinking what it would be like standing on top of the Diamondbacks dug out running in place with two other contestants hoping I had the stamina to propel my hot dog across the finish line to victory. Since this contest is usually designed for kids and not middle-aged adults I relinquished my dream of hot dog stardom to allow my daughter to have this experience. I turned to Whitney and asked if she would like to participate. She declined. “What was that? Did you say no?” I asked incredulously. How in the world could someone turn down the rare opportunity to be immortalized on the JumboTron representing a processed food? I immediately asked why she would pass up such an honor. “I don’t like mustard and relish on hot dogs” was her answer. I shook my head in bewilderment. I tried to explain that she didn’t actually have to be a condiment, she just represented one. Still, she did not feel right portraying a condiment that she didn’t believe in. I could not believe my ears. The two Diamondbacks employees looked at me and at each other. This was obviously a situation they were not prepared to handle and as a parent neither was I. In all my years of parenting I have never been faced with the fact that one of my kids was anti-condiment. Quickly I began to expound on the values of condiments giving Whitney a brief history of Ketchup, Mustard, and Relish. I may have taken a few liberties in my diatribe especially the part where I discussed the importance of Mustard in securing victory for the American Revolutionaries and gaining freedom for our country. In the end my powers of persuasion won her over. I am not sure who was more shocked, me that I was able to get Whitney to agree to be a condiment representative or the Diamondbacks employees who had just listened to what on the outside appeared to be a normal fan tell his child that Ketchup had assisted Abraham Lincoln in writing the Gettysburg address. Nonetheless, we were in.
The employees provided me with forms to fill out giving the team permission to use the likeness of my daughter on the JumboTron and releasing the team from liability in case of bodily injury or death resulting from out of control frankfurters. This last part made me wonder for a second. If something did happen (and for the life of me I couldn’t think of what that something may be) and Whitney was killed in a freak hot dog accident how exactly would I break the news to Trina? “I’m sorry honey there was nothing I could do. We never saw that relish spill coming and Whitney just could not avoid it. I begged her to wear her seat belt while hot dog racing but you know how kids these days think they are invincible. We can only hope that she suffered no pain when she was hit by little shredded bits of pickles.” I mean Trina couldn’t actually blame me for this could she? In my opinion she was just as much at fault since not once had I seen Trina take time to educate our kids on what to do during a condiment emergency. I made a note to myself to take each of the kids aside and explain the dangers of reckless hot dog racing and how safety equipment should always be worn when they are racing. I completed the forms and returned them. We were now officially in the race. We were given instructions to meet at Guest Relations in the middle of the second inning and Whitney would be led down to the dugout to begin her race.
At this moment the game seemed so trivial compared to the task at hand. There were so many things that needed to be done. We needed to pick a condiment preference in case we were asked which one of the three Whitney wanted to be. We needed to stretch and get warmed up. The last thing I wanted to see was Whitney pulling up lame between second and third because she pulled a hamstring thereby disappointing the section and eliminating any chances they may have had to hot dog coupons. I needed to work on giving Whitney some pointers on intimidation and the mental aspects of condiment racing. I think I once read somewhere that condiment racing is 70 percent mental. Given Whitney’s intellectual abilities, I figured we had an advantage in that area, all I needed her to do was to focus. So while the rest of the fans watched the pre-game festivities, I took Whitney up to the concourse to work on her condiment racing technique. I started off going to one of the condiment stands near the concession stands and introducing her to each of the condiments. We talked about consistency, flavor, and what to do if she began to hydroplane during the race. (I’ve always wanted to use the word hydroplane and never thought I would get the opportunity. Who knew I could slide that in the context of baseball and hot dog racing and it wouldn’t seem too out of place?) By the beginning of the second inning I began to have butterflies wondering if I had done everything I could to prepare her for her race. Finally I came to the realization that you can teach them everything you know about racing processed food but in the end it is up to the athlete to take those teachings and put them into practical usage in a game situation.
We made our way to Guest Relations where we came face-to-face with the competition. I tried giving them the evil eye in an attempt at mental intimidation. I pulled an eyelid muscle though and it ended up that I scared one of the boys who thought I was winking at him. I decided maybe it would be best to let Whitney handle this her own way. Sometimes as a parent you just have to let your kids fight their own condiment battles and not get involved. The game host came in and laid down the ground rules for the hot dog races and set everyone’s expectations. She asked if there were any questions and of course I had several but after my initial question of whether this race was officially sanctioned by the international condiment racing association and would there be drug screening of the winner they completely ignored any other question I may have had. I knew I should have read that permission form more thoroughly. The kids were led from Guest Relations down to the Diamondbacks dugout. I was invited along to get a better close-up of the race. Wow, who could have imagined that I would actually have a pit pass to a condiment race? I know there was no way that I would have ever imagined it when I got up this morning.
On the dugout the racers were introduced to the fans and told which condiment and which section they would represent. Whitney was chosen to be Mustard which of course put a chill down my spine since I still remembered her comment that she did not care for mustard. I was hoping that she could put that behind her and that during the competition the adrenaline would take over. After introductions the gun sounded and the race was on. Like many in the stands I cheered and offered encouragement. I warned Whitney not to start out too quickly and to pace herself leaving something for a kick at the end of the race. I intently watched as the three kids ran in place on the dugout while the animated hot dogs on the JumboTron hopped around the base paths. The race was close and all three condiments were easily within reach of the victory. In the homestretch there was minor bumping but nothing that I felt would interfere with a clean race. With just inches before the finish line mustard made a bold and risky move of sliding into home plate. I am not usually a proponent of sliding condiments as I feel that if they run through the base they have a better chance of being safe. It as a huge gamble to take given the competition but that risk paid off and Whitney was declared the winner. What always struck me as strange was the fact that the winning animated hot dog will jump around the JumboTron like a fish landing on the deck of a boat and will make a sound that is a dead ringer for the noises that Dino on the Flintstones makes when Fred comes home from work. That though meant little to me at this moment. I had just witnessed my daughter’s first condiment race and she was victorious. The crowd cheered especially those in section 132 who just won coupons for free Diamondback Dogs at Circle K. A tear came to my eye as I proudly watched Whitney make her way to the winners circle. Ok, there is no winners circle, she just took a step to her left where she was awarded a prize pack consisting of a Diamondbacks t-shirt, an “I was Mustard” t-shirt, and a Circle K backpack. I always knew deep down that Whitney was an athlete. She is the only child that has taken on the brutal training regime of condiment racing and her hard work and talent has rewarded her with an undefeated record as a hot dog racer. At this point I expected the sound system at Chase Field to break out a rendition of “We Are the Champions” but that didn’t happen. The kids were taken off the dugout and brought back to the concourse to rounds of applause. I wondered where the post race press conference was to be held but no one seemed to be able to answer that question. I wanted to take that opportunity to announce that Whitney would be retiring from active competition. The gruel of a full condiment racing schedule was just too much for me and I think she should probably finish middle school before making any decisions on whether to turn pro.
So here we are at the cusp of the beginning of another baseball season. I have safely returned to Chase Field and found my new home at Section 132 Row 15 Seat 14. I’ve endured the mental anguish that comes from being a condiment racing parent. I’ve initially assessed the readiness of Chase Field. And I saw a baseball game. It has been a historic day for me. I am mentally and physically drained. But even in my exhaustion I probably won’t sleep tonight. I am too excited for baseball to begin.