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Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Livin' the dream at the MLB Fan Cave

By Amanda Rykoff

Ricardo Marquez couldn't watch.

He sat in his chair, rocking back and forth, muttering to himself. He hid his eyes behind his Angels cap as Jered Weaver took the mound in the top of the ninth inning, three precious outs from a no-hitter for his beloved Angels against the Minnesota Twins.

After the first out, Marquez lifted his cap to watch, muttered to himself and started rocking again. Two outs away. Then came the second out, a strikeout of Denard Span after a six-pitch at-bat. Alexi Casilla stepped to the plate. Marquez continued to rock back and forth, clutching the shoulders of his friend sitting next to him, Cardinals fan Kyle Thompson.

Casilla drove the first pitch deep to right field and time seemed to stand still for just a moment. Angels right fielder Torii Hunter corralled the fly ball at the warning track. Game over. A no-hitter was in the books. As Weaver was engulfed by his teammates on TV, everyone in the room went crazy, jumping up and down, hugging and high-fiving Marquez.

Marquez could only say one thing: "Did this seriously happen?"

It was just another typical night at the MLB Fan Cave, where nine die-hard baseball fans representing eight different MLB teams have gathered to watch every baseball game during the 2012 season from the first pitch in Japan to the final out of the World Series. That's a total of 2,430 games and, assuming an average of three hours per game, approximately 7,290 hours of viewing.

Along the way, the nine men and women selected from more than 22,000 applicants -- Ashley Chavez (Giants), Benjamin Christensen (A's), Lindsay Guentzel (Twins), Shaun Kippins (Braves), Gordon Mack (Phillies), Ricardo Marquez (Angels), Ricky Mast (Braves), Eddie Mata (Yankees) and Kyle Thompson (Cardinals) -- will blog, tweet and record their experiences and engage in baseball-themed challenges.

They'll meet and interview players (Fan Cave visitors so far this season have included Justin Verlander, Joe Mauer, Pablo Sandoval, Logan Morrison, Miguel Cabrera, Adam Jones, R.A. Dickey and J.J. Putz), and if they're lucky, explore New York City in their precious free time.

In a major change for 2012 (starting with an increase in Cave Dwellers from two to nine), each finalist will be voted off, one by one, until one super fan sits alone on the couch.

But last Wednesday, the Cave Dwellers weren't worried about challenges or being voted off. Starting at 12:37 p.m. and continuing until the final out of the last West Coast game at 1:42 a.m., baseball took over for 13 hours and five glorious uninterrupted minutes.

When I set up my visit, I wanted a day with a player visit, a full slate of 15 games, day baseball and at least one West Coast game for the maximum number of viewing hours. May 2 met all the criteria and more. (I enjoyed seeing Adam Jones and Robert Andino of the Orioles "Put a Bird On It" and raise $1,800 for charity playing "MLB 2K12 Home Run Derby.") But, more important, it just so happened to be the first time in major league history that three walk-off home runs and a no-hitter happened on the same day.

"We're like a baseball family," said Chavez, a 25-year-old die-hard San Francisco Giants fan. "We're all baseball fans. We're all crazy, screaming maniacs at all times. We are just people who love baseball."

Chavez and the other Dwellers are in the right place. This year's version of the Fan Cave provides an ideal environment for baseball fans, featuring 45 Sony HDTVs in more than a dozen locations. The centerpiece of the viewing experience, the "Cave Monster," features 15 screens showing all the current games. The Dwellers determine which games go on which screens and control it with a panel that's built into the side of the Monster. The Monster also keeps a countdown of the total number of games watched (352 to start on May 2) and games remaining until the postseason (2,078).

During the afternoon, keeping track of the games wasn't difficult, with just three contests going on at once from 12:30 to 3 p.m.

12:37 p.m.: Action is underway with the first pitch between the Blue Jays and Texas Rangers in Toronto.

1:15 p.m.: Surprise! Citi Field executive chef Robert Flowers and sous chef Niko Marinos stop by to cater lunch for the Fan Cave.

Flowers and Marinos introduced us to three new dishes available at the Mets' home park: Pastrachos (pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese sauce and Russian dressing on a plate of tortilla chips), The New Yawkah sandwich (corned beef topped with sweet potato fries, bacon, pickles, slaw and Thousand Island dressing served on a pretzel bun) and The 7-1-Ate (hot or sweet sausage, two potato hash-brown patties, fried egg, slaw and pepper hash served on a ciabatta roll). Yes, I tried them all. Yes, they were delicious. Yes, I've been on a diet for the week since I left the Fan Cave.

The Cave is also chock full of distractions -- shuffleboard, Skee-ball, a custom billiards table (with billiard balls representing all 30 MLB teams), a "Dirt Bar" where fans can get authentic dirt from MLB ballparks and a 10-foot-tall orange tube slide. There's also plenty to drink courtesy of sponsors Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch (enjoying a beer or two in moderation is part of the baseball fan experience).

Of all the features, I loved the tube slide the most. According to A's fan and mascot aficionado Ben Christensen (he has mascots from 30-plus teams tattooed on his body), the Cave Dwellers made the orange slide the "Home Run Slide" as soon as they arrived. Taking a cue from Brewers mascot, Bernie Brewer, a Cave Dweller slides down for every home run hit. If a player from a Cave Dweller's team hits a home run, that person takes to the slide (Kyle Thompson took a few home run slides during his Cardinals' 12-2 rout of the Pirates, while Marquez took a couple for his Angels).

The Cave Dwellers gave me the honor of taking the first home run slide of the day when Brandon Snyder of the Texas Rangers launched a bomb off Ricky Romero in the top of the second inning. I could not wait to do it again. I ended up taking six home run slides that day, mainly for players on my fantasy teams (Carlos Gonzalez had two).

By the final slide, I had perfected my technique and only sustained two bruises on my wrists. Yes, the Fan Cave is hazardous! Fun fact: Everybody in the Cave takes a turn on the slide when there's a grand slam, and Brian McCann delivered a game-tying one against Roy Halladay in the Phillies-Braves game.

6:36 p.m.: Jason Giambi hits a three-run, pinch-hit, walk-off home run off Scott Elbert to give the Rockies an 8-5 win against the Dodgers. The Fan Cave erupts.

7:05-7:10 p.m.: Orioles at Yankees, Diamondbacks at Nationals, Phillies at Braves, Cubs at Reds, A's at Red Sox, Mariners at Rays all get underway.

Beyond the slides and distractions, watching that many games at the same time really is hard work.

As we arrived at the 7 p.m. hour, seven games were in progress. At 8 p.m., two more games started, putting the Cave Monster -- and my ability to focus -- to the test. The bottom line: you don't (and really can't) watch every pitch of every game at the same time.

"Commercial breaks are a huge asset to us when we're watching this many games at once," said the 25-year-old Guentzel, an aspiring sports journalist from Minneapolis. "If you're focusing on one game and someone starts screaming, your eyes dart around to find the TV where the action is happening if there's a home run or there's a no-hitter in the works. ... Pitching changes work, too."

The natural breaks in baseball action (conferences at the mound, Steve Trachsel-like delivery times of certain pitches) also provide a big help. As the day and evening progressed, I recognized the natural ebb and flow in each game and switched from one screen to another easily. As Guentzel said, listening and watching the other Cave Dwellers proved helpful.

With two Braves fans (Mast and Kippins) and one Phillies fan (Mack) in the Cave, I could easily tell when it was time to pay attention to the Atlanta-Philly game based on how any of the three reacted.

8:55 p.m.: McCann hits a game-tying grand slam off Halladay to tie score at 8. Everyone takes a turn down the Home Run Slide.

10:08 p.m.: Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond hits a two-run, walk-off home run off Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz to give Washington a 5-4 win. That's two walk-off home runs so far.

We settle back in for the bananas game in Atlanta. It ended up being the wildest of the day, and season, so far -- Chipper Jones' walk-off home run sent the Cave Dwellers into a frenzy. Well, except for Mack, who took the loss extremely hard. It wasn't just team pride and critical wins in the NL East on the line, the Cave Dwellers had a side bet. The fan (or fans) of the team that lost the three-game series had to eat a meal mixed with dirt from the winning team's ballpark (Kippins and Mast had to literally "eat dirt" from Citizens Bank Park after the Phillies took the rubber match Thursday).

One thing became apparent to me as the day and evening progressed: These nine fans have their own team allegiances, but they all root for each other's teams if there's nothing else on the line.

"It's fun for us when our teams aren't playing to get excited about someone else, if Ashley's team [the Giants] hits a walk-off or we're waiting for [Albert] Pujols to hit his first home run," Guentzel said. "We tease Ricardo about it, but we're also excited to see him react to it."

12:34 a.m.: Casilla sends a deep fly ball to right field. Hunter catches it and Weaver's no-hitter is in the books.

There's only one game left: Marlins at Chavez's Giants. Would San Francisco cap off this crazy day with another walk-off win?

1:42 a.m. ET: Arias flies out. Game over. Marlins 3, Giants 2 (11 innings). The 13 hours of baseball have come to an end.

Here are the final totals for the day:

• Forty-five hours and 14 minutes of total game time.
• 4,413 total pitches.
• 272 hits.
• 147 runs scored.
• 117 pitchers used.
• 31 home runs.
• 12 errors.
• Three walk-off home runs.
• One no-hitter.
• Zero home runs for Pujols.

"I literally think it's the craziest day/night combo of baseball that I've ever personally witnessed," Thompson said. "Some people might ask, 'What about Game 162 or Game 6 of the World Series?' Game 162 was great and there were four games that molded history, but today, from beginning to end, had just about everything.

"There's nothing bigger than sharing something this historic with people who understand why it's historic."

Just another day at the MLB Fan Cave.