Forget Chardonnay. The only drink that can do justice to baseball is a lukewarm, sudsy, mass-produced domestic beer.
One evening several years ago, I did a very foolish thing, one that I have been regretting ever since. I drank wine at a baseball game. But honestly, it could have happened to anyone. It could have happened to you. Which is why I'll tell you about it. To keep you from making the same mistake.
I'd been invited to a corporate skybox at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia on a midsummer night. And what with the chain-hotel-conference-room ambience, the lawyers grabbing for the liter bottles of generic Chardonnay in the cooler and the steam-tabled mini egg rolls, it seemed natural enough to pour myself a glass.
But when I took a few sips and settled back to enjoy the singular sensation that usually occurs when spectator sport and alcohol come together in the frontal lobe of the male brain, something felt terribly wrong. The sights and sounds of the game were not being enhanced by the grape. In fact, the two didn't get along at all.
Wine critics like to talk about how some foods fight the flavors of a wine. Well, about five minutes into that first glass, I realized that the wine and the game were having a battle as violent as any T-bone might have with a bottle of Chablis. It was as if my brain had put together the taste of the wine with the sound of the bat hitting the ball and a warning light had gone on: Does Not Compute.
It wasn't because the wine wasn't good or because it came in a plastic cup. I'm no wine snob--I have passed many an evening sipping turpentine-flavored Chardonnay from disposable cups at art gallery openings. No, it was because there is only one game at the heart of America and that is baseball, and only one beverage to be found sloshing at the depths of our national soul and that is beer. Only beer can accompany a ball game--preferably a basic American beer.
Only a ballpark can make domestic beer taste good; the fuller, richer, more nuanced imports deserve more polite circumstances, more muted sensations. The game of baseball wants big and bland in a beer. And from considerable experience, I'd have to say only Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium can make a Bud into something beautiful. It was, after all, only in Baltimore's late, lamented Memorial Stadium that a National Bohemian tasted good. And it's only in Binghamton, New York, home of the Eastern League Mets, that a Gennessee Cream Ale can take on a taste of its own.
Beer needs baseball, and baseball needs beer--it has always been thus. When the rural game came to town at the turn of the last century and planted itself down in asymmetrical fields shouldering up against warehouses and sweatshops, it became Everyman's daily escape. This leisurely diversion from the industrial workaday world, a game played outside on a pastoral slice of farmland or field, was an occasion where men could gather and talk. And it was only natural that the beverage that enhanced the game should itself originate from a field--of hops. (On a less poetic level, a weekend baseball game was also the only socially acceptable place where a guy could watch a great sports event and addle his brains at midday.)
Of course, things have changed (although maybe not that last part). The class-blind, brick-and-concrete stadiums of the old days have been replaced by pricey faux-old theme-park ballparks replete with swimming pools and private clubs. The choice of beverages has also changed to include everything from the microbrew lagers of the Pacific Northwest to every imported beer imaginable. But the important things have endured: the game itself, the food (a sampling of snack fare that no one in his right mind would partake of in the real world) and of course the only liquid substance that does it all justice: a basic American brew. Or, better yet, two.
What, after all, besides a lukewarm Bud could possibly complement a stadium-made hot dog or a criminally oversalted peanut? Or stale nachos covered with a viscous cheese sauce and slices of jalapeño that haven't seen the mother plant in a decade?
And on another level entirely, there's just something about a beer buzz that makes the game of baseball that much better. If wine imparts a quiet glow and good Scotch inspires a contemplative mood, only beer can supply the kind of intoxication that requires lots of loud company. You know what I mean. You're halfway through your cup of Coors (a beer you've never had anywhere except in a ballpark), it's the second inning and Jeter's at the plate. Suddenly, clop--the sound of wood hitting horsehide, like a single musical note being struck. You're on your feet. As Jeter rounds first, looks to the outfield and sees that the ball has cleared the fence, the sound of your own cheering is swallowed by the collective roar of the crowd. You--and 40,000 of your closest friends--are all lost, for one brief second, in a happy delirium that none of you will ever find anywhere else, despite a lifetime of trying.
It's only after Jeter has touched home plate and disappeared into the dugout that you sit down and reflexively take another sip of beer. Only then is the whole thing certified and stamped as a legitimate highlight in your spectator sporting life.
But the moment doesn't last long. Because, of course, you're looking around and over your shoulder, trying to order another beer. After all, where else will you ever get the chance to really enjoy an otherwise mundane, uninspired domestic brew?
Except, perhaps, at a hockey game. Which reminds me. Did I ever tell you about the time I had a vodka and tonic at a minor-league hockey game in Portland, Maine? A disaster. But that's another story.
Peter Richmond, author of two books on baseball, is the sports columnist for GQ.