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Hold the Ketchup
By Bob Carson

This will sound like fiction. It is fact.

It was June of 1984. Crammed into Cleveland Municipal Stadium to watch a Saturday doubleheader were 76,032 fans. I was one of them. The Cleveland Indians were hosting the New York Yankees on a beautiful summer afternoon. My sister Margie was visiting and joined my wife, Sue, and I for the game. A perfect day loomed, or so I thought.

Three people, only two tickets. I solved this problem by purchasing another seat. Unfortunately, the only one available was deep in the right field stands, but I chivalrously waved good-bye to the girls after arranging to meet in the concourse at the end of the first game. Eventually I found the section and row, and squeezed past twenty people to my seat (row K, seat 21, to be exact). It was an odd sensation sitting crammed in the middle of strangers, like the first day at a new school. I exchanged nervous hellos with the fans on my left and my right, then turned my attention to the green grass of center field and the brown infield dirt. Slowly I began to scan the enormous crowd.

The first inning passed uneventfully. Three up, three down for both sides. I was enjoying myself despite feeling a little claustrophobic as a lonely person wedged in the center of a full section. I considered splurging for a foot-long hot dog and began to unzip my jacket at the start of the second inning. Then my head exploded.

It was more startling than painful. The best analogy I can throw out to explain the sensation is this: Imagine you are peacefully dozing on the front porch during a languid summer afternoon when someone sneaks up behind you and whacks you as hard as they can on the top of your head with the Sunday newspaper. Like that, except it was gooey and smelly. I hoped the goo and smell were not brains. I realized I could not see out of my right eye.

For perhaps five seconds I sat frozen, taking inventory of my injuries and trying to make sense out of what had happened. I was disoriented. I looked up slowly; this seemed like the best course of action. Several hundred feet above my head four hands and two young male heads were leaning over the upper grandstand wall. They were checking the results of their mission. I assume they were pleased. The large beer cup—more tub than cup—that they had filled with stadium mustard from a concession stand and turned into a bomb had struck me squarely on the top of my unsuspecting head.

My first reaction was relief. It was just a juvenile prank. I was physically uninjured. I was not blind in my right eye. The right lens of my glasses was merely coated with tan stadium mustard. So were my head and shoulders.

Let me take a moment to review statistics; they always fascinate me. To begin with, the odds of my being hit by the mustard bomb were 1 in 76,030 (I subtracted the culprits because they would not bomb themselves). The odds of the cup full of mustard striking me squarely in the center of my head must be factored into any equation. Perhaps the most amazing part was the cup rotation. The odds of the open end of the giant beer cup colliding with my head while oriented at exactly the precise angle, like a crown being placed on a royal head, were astronomical. The perfection of the operation was evident by the fact that equal portions of mustard trickled down each ear, like liquid earrings.

For a few moments the fans in my section were shocked into silence. When they grasped the situation, they regained their voices, first gasps, then murmurs of sympathy, then a sprinkling of titters, finally full-throated roars of laughter radiating from around my chair like ripples from a stone in a pool. A large pool.

What to do now? Instinctively I raked my fingers across the top of my head. I scraped off a fistful of mustard. I stared at the pungent, baseball sized, brownish glob (this was official stadium mustard, not the yellow commercial brand) but I could not think of what to do with the substance. Wiping it on the chair or floor seemed like a breach of etiquette, and I was in no position to discretely deposit the mustard somewhere, given that several thousand fans were watching me intently. So I just held it, my right hand cupped near my pocket.

My left hand was still available. I decided it was a good idea to remove my glasses. It was not. As soon as I took them off and inspected the lens that was coated with mustard, it dawned on me that since my right hand was occupied, cleaning the lens was impossible. Somehow in returning my glasses to my head, I managed to acquire a large smudge of mustard on my previously clean left lens, therefore rendering myself nearly blind.

Clearly it was time to flee. I glanced left, then right. Well, actually, it was more of a spastic twitch, as my limited vision made it difficult to see much of anything while I searched in vain for a peephole. I removed my useless glasses again and held them in my left hand. Even without my glasses, I noticed with amazement that the mustard bombing had left my neighbors basically unscathed. The elderly man on my left had only a few small splatters on the leg of his white Bermuda shorts. He was wiping at them with the palm of his hand when our eyes met. He looked down at his thigh with the tiny spackles and said, "Don't worry about me. Not your fault."

I turned to the young lady on my right. I don't believe any mustard got on her, but it was hard to tell because she was curled up in a fetal ball of laughter. Her kicking feet were blocking the aisle, so I decided to exit the other direction. I nodded that I was coming through with a flick of my slimy head. I was concerned about smearing mustard as I struggled by the twenty fans in row K. It was not a problem. They saw me heading in their direction and raced from the aisle like lemmings to the sea. Then they formed a sort of honor guard as I filed past them with as much dignity as I could muster for a man covered in mustard.

As I started up the steps to the main concourse (somewhat tentatively because my vision was poor and the fumes of the mustard were possibly affecting my reason), my ears picked up isolated clapping from a fan. Before I staggered to the tunnel at the top of the steps, the applause turned to a full ovation. I stopped, pivoted, took a dramatic bow, and the applause grew. I pivoted again and quickly exited.

I walked into a cavernous, damp restroom. My appearance startled several occupants. At the sink I began ripping long ribbons of paper towels from a silver dispenser. As I attempted to repair the damage to my person, I noticed a teenage boy with a red Yankee sweatshirt watching me with his jaw agape. I was miffed. I turned and scowled at him. The lad scurried out the restroom door. I returned to the main problem, my hair. The style in that era was a longish Beatle cut. I was in style and had a lot of long hair. I also had a lot of mustard in my hair, and my head would not fit under the spigot. I did not relish the idea of spending the day with mustard in my hair. Suddenly the restroom door burst open. The lad in the red sweatshirt had returned. He was not alone; six of his cronies accompanied him.

The red sweatshirt spoke. "Sorry, mister, but when I told the guys a man was in here with his head coated in mustard, they didn't believe me." I addressed a youth who appeared to be the leader of the gang. "Do you believe it now?" I said, whispering through clenched teeth. He slowly shook his head no. I snatched my jacket off the sink and made yet another dramatic exit.

But to where? The stadium was sold out. I was not rendezvousing with my wife and sister until the end of the game and had no idea where they were sitting. And for a sensitive sort like me, a return to row K, seat 21, was out of the question.

I slunk off in search of a hiding place. I settled next to a large metal girder in the right field concourse. I watched the rest of the game leaning against the girder with a clear view of only third base and the third base coaching box. My hair hardened to the texture of Jell-O. I lost all desire for a hot dog.

The game went fourteen innings.



BOB CARSON is the publisher of Minor Trips, an annual travel guide and newsletter (www.minortrips.com) for minor league baseball fans now in its fourteenth edition. He is also a regular contributor to Hoof Beats magazine, a national horse racing publication. He lives with his wife and teenage daughter near Cleveland, Ohio.

© 2003 Bob Carson


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