Ten years later I attended my first Opening Day. In those mediocre years it was, to put it gently, not difficult to obtain choice seats for the opener, not even with Jackie Gleason throwing out the first ball, as he did that day. In any case, I got hooked. Hooked on the subtleties of the game's myriad strategies and the superhuman leaps and throws and the Hitchcockian suspense that crops up two or three times in every game, sure, but also the fragrant unshelled peanuts and the frozen chocolate malteds and the guys yelling Get yer red hots just like in the movies. And when the Giants finally choked in late August and ended up in third place, there were no regrets: It's in the blood of the Giants fan to abide the inevitable, an emotional salve against the pain of expectations, Gulden's mustard, and all.
The seasons since have proved predictably erratic and heartbreaking, but the outcomes never diminish the games themselves, not with highlights to call upon like the Giants' 1989 playoff series against the Cubs, me at the Deuce with the big-screen TV and the salt-and-vinegar potato chips and the pints of draft Sierra Nevada; or the Barry Bonds grand slam I missed because I was at the refreshment stand trying out the new Candlestick Polish sausage; or the sack of roasted pistachios Sam Daijogo always brought along when we'd play hooky from work to catch a day game.
Now there's a new South Beach ballpark gleaming on the banks of the bay. I haven't been inside myself -- procrastination and penuriousness are powerful impediments -- but it looks really great through the outfield portholes, and this friend of mine who actually made it past the turnstiles said that it's even better, you know, inside. There are beautiful views and cozy dimensions and lots of soul-warming brickwork, and if anybody hits a ball into the bay, a trained canine will jump into the drink and retrieve it. There's even a high-toned restaurant on the premises named after the great Mays' retired number, 24.
When I heard about the place I developed expectations, expectations not unlike the ones that arose unbidden when Jeffrey Leonard yanked a line drive out of the stands to end a bases-loaded inning by the Braves late in the 1982 season. The whole Pac Bell Park operation seemed so beautifully planned and imaginatively rendered, with its urban locale and ferryboat docking facilities and retro ambience, I figured that this could be an opportunity to showcase the splendors of baseball cookery and at the same time rescue California cuisine from some of its grinding inevitability: a witty Flying Saucer sort of place where cumin-sprinkled peanuts would serve as hors d'oeuvres, perfectly grilled Aidell sausages would be accompanied by individual silver canisters of grapefruit sauerkraut, griddled onions, and cilantro-infused mustard, and the vanilla-bean gelato would be ribboned with house-made Cracker Jacks.
As it turns out, Twenty Four is just another example of New American cuisine, 2000 model, complete with roasted monkfish, lemon-sage reduction, Fuji apple sorbet, and few discernible traces of America's pastime. The surroundings have a dark-paneled retro-deco Lefty O'Doul's sort of atmosphere, and in addition to the terrific statue of the Say-Hey Kid out front there are fetching photos of World War II-era woman ballplayers in the men's room (and, so I'm told, male ballplayers in the women's). KNBR radio will even host a few pre- and post-game shows direct from the Twenty Four bar. But the menu not only ignores baseball's culinary heritage, its chosen cuisine only occasionally rises above the rudimentary.
The crab cakes ($12.50) were the best crab cakes I've ever tasted: light, moist, wonderfully spiced, heavy on the crab, and light on the grease and breading that usually burden this usually leaden dish. But "leaden" is the word for the baked mussels ($9), a wannabe Rockefeller in which two dozen of my favorite mollusks were weighed down with a sweet, bulky topping and baked until dry. The corn chowder ($6), meanwhile, was heavy and thick and overly sweet, while the Bibb lettuce salad's ($7.50) toasted hazelnuts, shredded Gruyere, and red Comice pears couldn't quite make up for an apparent absence of dressing.
The sautéed sea bass ($21) was tender enough, but its accompanying celery-root purée, a necessary accent, was watery and unexciting. The spit-roasted pork chop ($18) was dry and bland (despite its whole-grain mustard jus) and came with a sugary, dilute applesauce. The cracked wheat accompanying the braised short ribs ($17.50) was deliciously infused with spices, drippings, and wine, but the ribs themselves were heavy and gray. The grilled wild salmon ($19.50), though, was flaky and moist and suitably matched with a brawny amalgam of roasted onions, diced artichokes, spinach, and fingerling potatoes.
Among the desserts, the muscat granita ($7) was an unusual, tongue-tingling pleasure, and the apple pie ($7) featured blessedly undercooked apples in a rich, buttery crust. But the peach cake ($7) was gummy and dense, and the chocolate soufflé cupcake ($7), despite its voluptuous appearance and sterling pistachio ice cream accompaniment, was sweet rather than chocolatey, puddlish rather than molten.
The 150 items on the mostly Californian wine list are eclectic and wide-ranging, if a bit pricey, and there are 18 half-bottles and a couple dozen wines by the glass as well. But there are further annoyances. One member of our party was (and is) a vegetarian, so I called ahead to make sure there were appropriate items on the menu. I was assured that there were; we arrived to find that there were in fact none. There's sprightly jazz audible just outside the restaurant and back in the restrooms, but nothing in the dining room, which tends toward the lugubrious. The lighting levels go down and come up again with some regularity. And the waiting time between courses can be unusually lengthy.
Try as you might not to have them, expectations can be damnably inevitable.