The man dressed in what could only be described like a gigantic, King-of-Hearts-shaped foam condom was rushing down the pitch, tailed closely by another one dressed in a similar costume depicting the Jack of Spades. A frantic commentary, worth of a Brazilian football radio transmission, boomed above them. All of a sudden, as the running duo approached a bend, a side panel opened and out rushed the Queen of Hearts, conveniently whisked away by a staff member driving an electric buggy. The buggy stopped short of the man waving the chequered flag, who happened to be sporting a head-to-toe dragon costume, the Queen descended and comfortably crossed the line well ahead of the two sods that were still legging it further back. The stadium roared, I clutched the fourth beer in disbelief and looked around. It was the start of the fourth inning at Charlotte’s BB&T Ballpark stadium.
My stupor, I suppose, was justified. Up until that day, I had never attended a sporting event outside of Europe and, regardless of the discipline I had grown to expect these events to have two prerequisites: a raucous crowd, possibly covering in expletives the other team (and their fans, mothers, sisters and cousins up to the third degree) and enough riot police to invade a small country. My first experience as a teenager happened at San Siro stadium in Milan, where a crowd 70,000 strong was politely reminding the away goalie, who had recently left Milan, of the sort of profession that, allegedly, his mother had chosen. I had been in or near stadiums in Italy, Germany, Poland and the UK and I had always witnessed the same scenes. Rows upon rows of riot police, sometimes with horses covered in Perspex and kevlar (UK) or dogs (Poland), with water cannons at the ready (Germany); dark-clad cops wearing masks, helmets, shields and the sort of gear that Judge Dredd had (Italy). I had once been tear gassed, having stupidly chosen to go out for my evening jog as a column of drug-crazed Feyenoord fans decided to reshape the bodywork of all the cars parked in Turin’s corso Galileo Ferrari, on their way to a Juventus game. All this, plus a constant barrage of similarly-toned news, had cemented the equation “stadiums = possible violence” in my mind.
Instead, all that greeted me at the Ballpark was a bored cop, who’d parked his car on the zebra crossings, and a young lady in a yellow polo shirt who scanned my ticket and made sure that I enjoyed the game and cheered for the Knights. Once inside, the atmosphere wasn’t permeated by the sort of electricity that sends your knees vibrating, urging your legs to rush towards the terraces where a legion of Polish hooligans in balaclava are busy lighting flares; rather, it was the sort of relaxed tranquillity that fills a country fair, the kind of environments that makes you want to get down to business at the next beer stall. Which was precisely what we did.
A group of children singing the national hymn acapella offered a small diversion from the drinking-and-eating business, as their slightly piercing vocals sent all bystander in a freeze, hand on the heart and steely gaze fixed towards the Stars ‘n Stripes flying above the parapet, then it was back to the food. The arena could seat 10,000 and possibly cater for five times as that, and the attendees were out to make sure that not a single hot dog was to go uneaten. Drinks were dispatched with admirable celerity in every sort of container, from cans, paper cups, plastic tumblers to glass bottles (a big no-no anywhere near a stadium in Europe) and re-used jam jars, something that, I am sure, hasn’t been sighted yet inside the sacred ground of the Camp Nou.
Even when we eventually reached our seats, ushered in by a steward, the game remained a side distraction from the beers – snugly kept in the built-in cupholders – the food and the chatter. Around us the sun was setting, painting the Uptown skyscrapers in delightful shades of red; below us, men in white and grey kept on running around a red soil track at apparently random intervals, raising the occasional cheer from a crowd that, however, remained largely concentrated on maintaining a stable intake of calories.
As I sat down, downing pints of OMB Ale, it dawned on me that I was far from finding this game boring. Sure, I was lacking the adrenalin that rushed through my veins every time the home team was about to score a goal or a try in a packed European stadium, but I also appreciated the fact that I could sit down and talk to my friends, or wander upstairs, get another beer and talk to a complete stranger without worrying about getting a stab wound if I spoke with a man with a different accent or with a jersey of a different colour than mine.
In fairness, there were a few things that made the old, cynical European in me grimace in disbelief, such as the occasional message on the screen that sent hundreds of adult in doing the funky chicken dance, or the advert for “healthy fried chicken wraps” made by Dante the store owner or the frenzy that followed the sudden appearance of a John Deere cart with a trailer where a T-shirt-shooting mortar, ominously resembling a Katyusha rocket launcher, began pounding the stands with rolled up garments, but all in all it was a great way to spend a delightful evening out.
And who cares if the home team lost; the 15-minutes-long fireworks display had already been paid for.