Let’s Play Ball

Nothing bespeaks the irrationally exuberant optimism of America more than starting your own advertising agency or going to an opening day at Shea Stadium on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, N.Y.

Last Monday, I resisted the urge to start an agency, but couldn’t gather the fortitude to stay away from Game I of Season XLV of the New York Mets.

I coaxed (not a hard sell) three other incurable optimists to join me:

Robert Downey Sr., founder/creator of the fictional advertising agency Truth and Soul in the 1969 film Putney Swope, which he wrote and directed. He also was the voice of Swope, the surprisingly elected CEO, the same year the Mets won their first World Series. Putney Swope, you’ll recall, rebelled against the equal employment opportunity guidelines and staffed his agency with the most competent people he could find regardless of race, creed or national origin.

Tony DeGregorio, founder of the non-fictional advertising agency called Tony DeGregorio. Tony ignored the advice of friends who suggested more contemporary nomenclature such as Blue Pumpkin or Loony Bin. When asked, Tony told me that he had two clients, $10 billion investment group Greystone & Co. and Redcliff, America’s Liqueur from Arcella Premium Brands, and six employees. A good ratio, I thought. When we started Messner Vetere Berger Carey Schmetterer, Margaret Elman, our early receptionist (now a mcgarrybowen creative director) would answer telephone queries about the number of our employees by asking back: “In our New York office?” That at a time when we had more partners than employees, more chutzpah than clients.

And the former Concetta Livoti, born the year after the Black Sox scandal, who lived to see the White Sox get redemption by winning the 2005 World Series and me become her son-in-law. Ms. Livoti, too, is an attentive follower of the advertising business and wondered in a Queens Midtown Tunnel discussion of Martin Scorsese if her old friend the late Mary Albanese, who owned a butcher shop on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy, got residuals for her winning appearance in Scorsese’s American Express commercial. Tony and Bob didn’t know, and I promised to follow up with SAG, one of the last vestiges of good old-fashioned trade unionism in the United States.

Exactly 54,367 other people paid to attend the game, a number that ESPN.com said made Shea 94.7 percent full. The other 5.3 percent? No doubt where they were. They were in cars circling Flushing Meadows, Northern Boulevard, Grand Central Parkway, Kissena Boulevard and the Long Island Expressway looking for a parking space. Odd thing about ball games at Shea: 50,000 people and 100,000 cars. You prepay for a parking space near the stadium, but you are not guaranteed that space. We’re lucky no one at Major League Baseball has thought of prepaid seats that would allow them to sell twice as many tickets as there are seats. That way you’d drive to the game and listen to it on the radio as you drive home after you see the sign saying “Stadium Full,” augmented by orange cones and members of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.

I left Bob, Tony and Connie off near the stadium entrance and found a parking space three miles away on Main Street, two blocks from the John Rocker Memorial 7 train and one stop away from Shea. Other than a guy gnawing on a duck’s neck (cooked) he took from a white container, the ride was uneventful.

Baseball, it is the same. Still 90 feet between the bases, still 60 feet and change from the pitcher’s mound to the plate, still wooden bats. Only the signage and the background music have changed.

Where in the ’50s, a clothing store in Brooklyn, Abe Stark’s, could afford an advertisement (“Hit This Sign. Win a Suit”), today only the likes of AIG or Allied Domecq or General Motors or Anheuser-Busch or HMOs can cough up the money to post bills.

Music? The national anthem’s been played since World War II, I think, but now it’s more often a star appearance than a recording from the public address system; “God Bless America,” since Sept. 11, has provided a nice interlude in the seventh inning, but it would be a better (meaning shorter) interlude if “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” didn’t also get reprised; and with all due respect to Concetta L. and Tony D., how did “Cielo Luna” get to be a baseball sing-along?

Food? Opening-day hot dogs undercooked by people still in short-order spring training tear the optimism from my very soul, darken my hopes for both new seasons and new agencies, and make me wish that I had, when I passed the Shanghai street food mart on Main Street, bought a couple of white containers filled to the brim with duck necks with brown crackling skin and a dab of hoisin sauce.

Tom Messner is a partner at Euro RSCG in New York and a monthly ‘Adweek’ columnist. He can be reached at tom.messner@eurorscg.com.