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FIRST PERSON

It's 1, 2, 3 strikes you're deaf at the ol' ballgame

October 26, 2002|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

When my son and I passed through the gate to the upper deck at Edison Field and started down the steps toward our seats, a strange sensation came over me that had nothing to do with the novelty of being at a post-season game involving the Angels. It had to do with my ears. They weren't working normally. My son said something, but I couldn't make out what -- I only saw his lips move. All other sound was drowned out by a continuous, monstrous roar like the beginning of one of those early battle scenes in "Gladiator."

It was as if we had landed on another planet, where people who looked like humans communicated only with 2-foot-long red plastic tubes they slapped together furiously to create the sound of metal drums. There were more than 40,000 pairs of them flapping from foul pole to foul pole. Of all the gimmicks and marketing ideas that have changed the face of major league baseball in the last 25 years -- the wild card, inter-league play, retro uniform days, even the Angels' big-screen rally monkey -- nothing has so altered the experience of a game as much as these thunder sticks. They would be more suited to professional wrestling or a tractor pull than baseball. I think they are for people who don't really like baseball and need something to do during the game other than watch it.

For anyone who does like baseball, they are simply a pain in the ear. They look so harmless on television, if a little silly, fluttering in a sea of red, attached to all those Angels fans who don't seem to mind looking like thousands of trained seals.

But you have to be there in person to get the full, migraine-inducing wavelength of whiteout noise they produce. I've never been to a sporting event that was louder. No one expects a baseball stadium to resemble an orchestra hall. And who doesn't want to cheer their home teams' home runs and great plays? But there's cheering, and there's unearthly din.

I love baseball. Like many who came here from someplace else, it has taken me years to transfer previous team allegiances to the Dodgers and Angels. But the transfer was finally accomplished by having a son born here who grew up with these teams as his. And I was thrilled to be climbing the ramp at Edison Field with my 8-year-old Little Leaguer beside me, feeling lucky to have secured two tickets at the last minute to the third Angels-Twins American League championship series playoff game.

That lucky feeling lasted just until we left the concession platform and hit the red wall of sound. In an instant my baseball life flashed before my eyes. Our half a dozen trips to Dodger Stadium this past season and the countless games I have attended in almost two dozen major league stadiums across the country suddenly seemed a romantic dream of something long ago and far away.

As we found our seats in the second row of section 406, dodging the flapping red tubes, a voice inside reminded me that all good things come to an end. I thought, baseball has lasted more than 100 years and survived eight work stoppages, but it will not survive noise sticks.

In a way, the arrival of the thunder sticks is not such a surprise in a culture where loud is good and louder is better. Automobiles, their windows down and exploding with listen to me! music, rumble proudly past parks and residences. Restaurants are designed to be so loud that conversation is all but impossible. Movie soundtracks blast you out of the theater. Why should we expect baseball to be any different? Except that it is an intricate game that requires close attention to appreciate. Try selling that in Anaheim.

I carried my late-blooming admiration for the Angels and all that Mike Scioscia has accomplished up that Edison Field ramp, but as I tried in vain to talk to my son, I felt the unpleasant stirrings of disaffection for the home team. How could this be?

That old song lyric from Stephen Stills came back to me with new meaning: "There's somethin' happening here, and what it is ain't exactly clear." With the thunder sticks waving in front of us, it was hard to see what was happening on the field. We couldn't talk baseball, strategy, statistics -- all things we love to do when we watch a game. And this was a championship game! But in the stands it was just atavistic bedlam. Baseball for boors. And I have so tried to like people from Orange County over the years, I really have.

I knew I couldn't reveal such heresy to Devin, my son, but I realized that for the first time in the playoffs I was secretly rooting for Minnesota. It was a pragmatic decision. I figured if the Twins could score some runs, it would silence the thunder sticks and allow the semblance of what was once known as the national pastime to return to Edison Field. And the Angels could come back and win the series later.

But this was not to be. It was a close, low-scoring game, a nail-biter that kept the thunder sticks roaring at red-lining decibel levels for more than three hours. I got a headache, and my ears started to ring. But for Devin's sake I tried to conceal my discomfort while praying that it didn't go extra innings.

I couldn't help but wonder how many of these rooters in red were simply overnight zealots, following the example of Michael Eisner, the top Disney bean counter who suddenly became a camera-ready fan in September after trying to unload the team for most of the season. Everybody loves a winner. God bless America.

The Angels would go on to win this night, 2-1, on a dramatic Troy Glaus home run. I'm sure it was a great game to see at home on TV. That's where I've been watching the World Series.

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