Leisure: Best Places for Spectator Sports

The best places to watch sports in New York are bigger than sports. Stimulation that comes not from the field or court but from out of bounds – from the fans – is all part of the experience. If you really wanted to watch the game, you’d have stayed home. “I never got the point of watching sports in crowds,” says Lucianne Goldberg, a Yankees superfan who avoids the stadium at all costs. “Usually, I’m in a darkened bedroom with popcorn. I don’t think you ever see a game as well at the venue as you do on television. You can get a very, very close shot on tight buns on television.”

But we watch sports in public because we understand that being a fan is itself a team sport – and, when the team isn’t up to snuff, because of the availability of beverages. Sometimes, all you need is the latter: Old pro George Plimpton watches his beloved Detroit Lions play every autumn Sunday at the Mug Shot Saloon(1446 First Avenue, between 75th and 76th Streets; 772-6597), a cozy bar with seven TVs and a satellite feed. “I have a hamburger with a tomato in it at halftime, and Bloody Marys, increasingly, as the Lions invariably lose,” he says. “There’s one other Lions fan out there. He’s from Amherst. My Amherst friend has chicken wings. We don’t know a lot about each other, but we both know about the Lions.”

The best sports bars serve up sports that you can’t get anywhere else. Smith’s Bar And Restaurant (701 Eighth Avenue, at 44th Street; 246-3268), a cheerful Irish dive near the Port Authority, broadcasts the horse races from Aqueduct and Philadelphia Park on its two TVs; the regulars choose horses by pulling playing cards at random from a deck, betting $5 or $10 a race. “You don’t have to buy a program, you don’t have to study the horses, you don’t need a racing form – it’s simple,” raves one patron. Soccer fans choose their bars by the satellite service: Clancy’s (978 Second Avenue, between 51st and 52nd Streets; 755-8383) shows all games on the Setanta service, and on one recent Sunday it packed the place for a British match at 7 a.m. – without even being able to legally serve liquor. “If it had been here, I’d have served them,” promises Joe Marchini, bartender at The British Open (320 East 59th Street; 355-8467), which airs all Fox soccer games. Located at the ramp of the Queensboro Bridge, the British Open is also the best bar for watching the New York Marathon; a stereo customarily blares the Chariots of Fire theme at the runners as they cross over into Manhattan.

Those who insist on associating sports with the great outdoors have a world of parks to explore. Joseph Lisa Square (108th Street, at 51st Avenue, Corona) is nicknamed Bocce Park; elderly gentlemen trounce young comers until dusk on Saturdays. A small field in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (just southeast of Grand Army Plaza) is home to intensely competitive, highly acrobatic soccer pickup games that seemingly take place 24 hours a day. Marine Park (also in Brooklyn) and Van Cortlandt Park (the Bronx) host cricket tournaments that are so popular, the city is planning to build North America’s first regulation cricket field.

At Yankee Stadium, when the team is losing, the place becomes a steel-blue echo chamber that, as the volume builds in its enclosed oval, can make it seem like someone is about to be fed to the lions: The Yankees win because they’re scared not to. A trip to Shea Stadium is just as much of a recipe for distraction; planes roar overhead every 120 seconds, and when Manhattan’s skyscrapers glow in the distance, just beyond two major highways clogged with traffic, the 55,775-seat arena seems like just a speck on New York’s map. Somewhere down there, some people are playing baseball.

But the upside of huge, fan-filled arenas is that they can trigger life-altering experiences, as Yankee Stadium did for radical attorney Ron Kuby. It was Game Two of the 1996 World Series. Kuby, the ponytailed protégé of the late William Kunstler and defender of many a Hell’s Angel and Yippie, sat in the cheap seats – Section V, upper tier. And on that night, he did the unthinkable: For the first time since 1971 – since the middle of the Vietnam War – he stood for the national anthem.

“There was something about being there,” Kuby says now, still in awe. “The stadium was packed with people, a huge multiracial crowd was drinking soda and beer and eating hot dogs, and there was the excitement of the World Series. For a brief moment, I thought, This country’s not so bad after all.

Leisure: Best Places for Spectator Sports