He's outdone himself this time, Mr. Nine and a Half Months. He's executed the stunning masterstroke that all but guarantees a first-ballot induction into the can-do-ivity hall of fame. Forget about his oft-reported knack for spinning bay fill into gold. Never mind his widely documented role in transforming Cupertino from a dried apricot stand into the epicenter of a revolution that put Gandhi on billboards and Snoop Dog and Britney in every pocket. This is mad genius stuff, Fitzcarraldo in khakis and a hard hat stuff (and let's be honest, persuading a few hundred Incas to trudge across the Andes with a steamboat on their shoulders is a day at the beach compared to getting 110% out of union workers). This is tearing Stanford Stadium down and putting it back up in roughly the same time it takes to make a baby.
Saturday before last was one of those postcard-perfect autumn afternoons for which Stanford University is famous. Hoover Tower impaled a listless blue sky. The warm, still air was perfumed by eucalyptus leaves and redwood bark. On television, they were calling it "Separation Saturday," and at countless tailgaters across campus, fans were gearing up for a win over Washington State that just might separate the Cardinal from the rest of ESPN's bottom 10.
I entered the stadium and climbed to our neighborhood. Calling the crowd sparse would have been charitable. The sun was high overhead, and with all the bare aluminum, the upper tier felt like an Easy Bake Oven with a gazillion-watt light bulb. Down on the field, the game kicked off. Shortly thereafter, Trent Edwards lost his feet in the glare from 30,000 empties and went down for a safety. Two-nil, Wazzu.
The mercury continued to climb throughout the first quarter. The hot air was playing tricks on the eyes. Coach Harris misread the scoreboard and punted on third down. Stanford got the ball back. Edwards was starting at shadows and throwing into mirages. One of the mirages turned out to be a defensive end. Nine-nil, Wazzu.
My increasingly savage tan began to concern me. Bumming some sun block off a friend, I noticed that the SPF number exceeded Stanford's total yardage for the game. The Cougars drove down the field and scored again. Sixteen-nil, Wazzu.
As the second quarter wound down and more fans abandoned ship, the upper tier began focusing the rays of the sun like a doomsday weapon in a James Bond movie. My brains were cooking. I was trapped in the perfect thermodynamic storm: an Indian summer afternoon in a huge aluminum parabola during a period of runaway global warming accompanied by intense ozone depletion and a rapidly deteriorating fan base.
I needed somebody to blame. Grabbing the binoculars, I scanned the luxury suites and spotted Mr. Nine and a Half Months pacing back and forth in a suite that straddled the 50. He was alone except for a minion in a v-neck sweater and a mesh Caterpillar hat. Twiddling the fine focus knob, I began reading lips.
"Red zone opportunity, Nine-Point-Five."
"Red zone is right. Those suckers are caramelizing like onions on the grill at Zot's."
"Um, I mean the Cougs. They're back inside the 20."
"Prediction. Six more points and this place is emptier than the teardown ever was."
"Maybe even three."
"Give it a couple of years and we can flip this joint to a team with real drawing power. A team like—"
"Touchdown Wazzu!" the minion cried, raising his hand for a high-five.
Mr. Nine and a Half Months ignored him. "Even the freshmen are leaving, bless their short attention spans."
The minion let his hand drop. "Just like you said, Nine-Point-Five. People around here have too much on their plates to worry about college football."
"Probably heading back to the dorm to dick around on Facebook or whatever it's called."
"Yeah, one last hurrah before Facebook sells out and loses its soul."
"Soul? I'll show you soul." Mr. Nine and a Half Months swept his hand through the air. "Three hundred sixty degrees of uninterrupted aluminum. The CRV in the upper tier alone would fetch—"
The minion gestured in our direction. "I think maybe you mean almost uninterrupted."
"Sonuvabitch. Do those idiots drink antifreeze for breakfast?"
"Just like wild animals."
"Call up NASA and tell them I want the heat turned up, goddammit."
"NASA's closed Saturdays."
"Then get Wally on the phone. Tell him next time we have the ball, he's punting on second."
The minion smiled. "That we can do, Nine-Point-Five. That we can do."
"Let's see them sit through that."
Punting on second? A queasy feeling came over me. I trained the binoculars on the broadcasting booth. Murph was holding court up there, reminiscing about a round of best ball in Corvallis with a 16-handicapper from the Deke house and the Great Pumpkin himself. It was the verbal equivalent of staring at the horizon, and by the time the Great Pumpkin had holed out from a greenside bunker, my stomach felt well enough to start watching the game again. Still, it was hard to concentrate with all the questions bouncing around in my head. Was this planned obsolescence? Had I been tricked into investing in a $90 million white elephant? Were the days of watching National Merit Scholars run three-yard patterns on third-and-long numbered?
After the game, sitting in the shade of an oak tree and balancing my electrolytes, I tried to make sense of it all. It was still about the on-field product, wasn't it? If you improved the on-field product everything else would fall into place. But that was supposed to be impossible with Walt's coaching and Buddy's recruits and those nasties in the admissions department.
I took another slug and let my mind wander outside the box. I imagined the not-too-distant future, envisioned myself in a Stanford Stadium filled with screaming zealots clad in commemorative t-shirts. The Rolling Stones were gigging live via satellite on the replay board; a Cirque du Soleil tent occupied the north end zone; Nasdaq prices flickered on the scoreboard. Nobody cared about the heat. And then Mick turned to the band and made a slashing motion across his throat. The music stopped and the roar crescendoed as the home team walked to the podium. Something big was happening. The launch of a new algorithm that promised better, faster search results than any algorithm that had come before it. Or maybe an IPO anniversary picnic. The exact details didn't really matter. What mattered was that new Stanford Stadium was finally rocking like Autzen.
Back in the present, I took one last swig and flattened the can. Aluminum, I thought with a smile. There was a new game in town and nobody understood that better than Mr. Nine and a Half Months.
Top Three Upper Deck Meltdowns (9/23)
1) Section 233; 10:31 remaining in first quarter
Pancake make-up vaporizes like dry ice from the face of trophy date of a guy with "serious equity in StubHub!"
2) Section 236; 3:46 remaining in first quarter.
Identical triplets wearing beta-version SPF 3.2 x 10³ sun block spontaneously combust, leaving only three little cardinal globules from their foam fingers.
3) Section 231; 7:10 left in second quarter
A pair of double-knit Bike coach's pants liquefy in situ, welding a shady side exile to his seat until the Jaws of Life can be summoned.
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