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‘Pokemon Go’ helped me meet 100 new friends at a baseball stadium

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All I wanted was a Psyduck. I got more.

A baseball stadium outside regular operating hours ranks as only the fifth-weirdest place I’ve visited since Pokemon Go was released a week ago. The Durham Bulls opened up their downtown ballpark to allow trainers to walk around and catch Pokemon. We could have done it at home, or in our own backyards, but this wasn’t about actually catching them — it was about the experience. We were players of the same game, inside a stadium and none of us were athletes.

It’s hard to know what to expect when you approach this kind of promotional event. Minor league affiliates routinely use wacky giveaways or special theme nights to boost attendance, but the Bulls didn’t tie this to a game. The feeling of ennui poured over me during the drive to Durham, N.C. What if it was just me and three middle-aged guys walking around the outfield of an empty stadium catching Pidgeys? As much as I hoped the event would be amazing, my expectations were low.

Then I arrived.

Scores of people teemed around the entrance to the stadium and the surrounding streets. Routinely you’d see a group take off, running down a side alley to catch a rare Pokemon that just popped on their map. Every Pokestop in the downtown area had a lure on it, an item used to attract Pokemon. I overheard an overjoyed little girl who was unable to contain herself, "I’ve never seen so many Pokemon at once, mom! OH MY GOD I JUST GOT A DUGTRIO!"

The box office was busier than it had any right to be for 10:30 am on a Tuesday morning. Three lines were perpetually full of people waiting to plonk down their $5 to enter a stadium and never see any sports.

Every game needs a plan.

When the gates opened just before 11 a.m. I had a plan. Sure, I wanted to experience the event and talk to Pokemon Go fans, but I also had my eye on a Psyduck. Objectively the best Pokemon, I was in dire need of more Psyducks to level my own -- and for whatever reason the downtown area was full of them.

Walking into the ballpark was a surreal experience. Every PA system and speaker was tuned into music from the Pokemon soundtrack, advertising boards were showing Pokemon. I took a quick loop around the concourse and watched my Psyduck’s proximity bounce between 2 feet and 1, an in-game metric to tell you just how close you are to a Pokemon.

Rounding the nearest entrance I head to the field thinking perhaps the Psyduck in on the field itself, and despite being well over 90 degrees the field was dotted with Pokemon fans.

The best thing about Pokemon Go isn’t the nostalgia, or hunting for Pokemon or the exploration — it’s the shared social experience. Anyone with a phone out suddenly becomes a potential acquaintance, and the confines of the stadium became a safe space to approach anyone and share notes. It’s not dissimilar to attending any sporting event in a stadium. Fast friends are made in an instant by just sharing their opinions on the team, or in this case commiserating about the app crashing for the 15th time in as many minutes.

"I heard there was a Kabuto in the dugout a little while ago," a fan told me "but I haven’t been able to catch him. Best thing so far is a Nidorino — so that’s pretty sweet."

I asked him if he’d seen the Psyduck, but to no avail.

Pokemon Go brings out the REAL boys (and girls) of summer.

The ratio of adults to children at the ballpark is a fairly conservative 2:1, but the kids there are totally enraptured. Parents, who were tired of walking around in the heat, retreat to the stands to talk shelter, comfortable in knowing there were plenty of team employees and police officers on hand to oversee everything.

I met Kelly, a mother of three from Durham who brought her son Sam to the event after she heard about it on the radio.

"This game is the best thing," Kelly said. "Just a week ago I couldn’t get Sam to leave the house for anything. His entire summer was sitting at the computer playing Minecraft. Now he’s out all day and I practically have to beg him to come home when the sun is going down."

The concept of going outside and exploring felt dead before now. I can remember grabbing a basketball from the hall closet as a kid and playing at the park all day. I’d team up with anyone who’d show, and compete against them equally — but things had been different for kids until now. Also, it’s not just kids who are leaving the house instead of staying indoors. Ben and Tara are graduate students at NC State, and it has done miraculous things for them, too.

"We had planned to sit down and marathon a bunch of Netflix today -- but this is way more fun."

Tara and Ben dated for a few months in their senior year of high school, but lost touch when they traveled to different schools. Even with Facebook and having each other’s numbers they hadn’t talked in five years, but reconnected — at a Pokestop.

"I pulled into the park because I saw someone put a lure on it and Tara was sitting on a bench. We got talking, and kept talking ... for most of the night really. Like, Pokemon Go is the reason we’re dating again."

"Oh god," Tara said, "It sounds so lame when you say it like that."

Fan rumor meets reality.

The great thing about being on a Pokemon Go adventure is experiencing the rumors and urban legends that go along with it. Everyone has a story — often third- or fourth-hand about something that’s happening near to them involving the game. The myths are the same as that one kid who could land a kickflip when nobody else could, or woods behind a park being haunted. A group sit around a table charging their phones and sharing their tales.

"I heard all the cops went team blue and that’s why all the gyms around here belong to them."

"Totally. I battled over the one by the YMCA for an hour last night and it got taken back within like 10 minutes. It had to be the cops. Like, blue is ALWAYS there to take it back when a gym falls."

I gorge on a footlong hot dog covered in barbecue and hit the restroom where I catch a Pidgey — it’s the worst catch of the day by a mile.

Upon emerging there’s a feverish amount of activity. People aren’t just walking in every direction -- they’re running. In any other situation this might be a little alarming, but I know it’s because of a Pokemon. Desperately I flag someone down. My app has crashed. I have no idea what’s going on.

"Tentacruel. There’s a Tentacruel around here." The man is almost out of breath from doing laps around the concourse. "I’m level 14 and I’ve never seen one. I think it must be across the street."

People pour out of the stadium, following the tiny footsteps towards the shopping arcade across the street. It isn’t just sweaty Pokemon fans from the stadium pouring in, everyone is. Men and women in suits during their lunch breaks; a delivery driver parks his bike on the sidewalk and enters the marble-floored building.

"GOT IT!" a woman exclaims. "IT JUST POPPED FOR ME, TOO!" says another. The CP 589 psychic jellyfish is way outside my weight class, but I swing anyway. Fourteen Pokeballs later it’s mine -- the best Pokemon I’ve caught.

Emerging back in the summer heat tens of people are wandering around. "Is the Tentacruel in there?!" a man asks. Word has spread to everyone in the area. Suddenly I’m serving as a sign. Wandering down the street and telling everyone where the Tentacruel is.

Sneaking out of the office to (day) game.

I’m still hunting that Psyduck. It’s been at 3 feet for a solid hour and I just can’t find it. Suddenly I realize the amount of time I’m losing looking for one Pokemon and return to the ballpark. I’m relieved to see I’m not the only one losing time. On the far-side of the stadium sits some office buildings and a law office. Dotting the skyline are 10 employees, all on the roof. Initially I thought they might be pointing and laughing at us on the field, but no — they were catching Pokemon, too.

"Man ... my boss is so pissed at this." Jared is a bike courier. He routinely ferries important documents around cramped streets through traffic, often delivering deeds or legal documents. He tells me he bought a bike-mounted phone holder so he can catch Pokemon while working, and also hatch eggs. "I worked out that if I cycle too fast it thinks I’m driving, so my eggs won’t hatch. I’m moving way slower now. My boss has no clue, but I keep getting shit about why my times are getting worse. Told him I hurt my knee."

It’s unclear how many people at the ballpark skipped work, left work or simply didn’t have anywhere to be — but there are a lot of adults and it’s doubtful they all work nights. Some tell me stories about being late to their jobs after long nights of walking around hunting Pokemon, others tell me they’ve re-worked their schedules to accommodate organized "walking groups" around parks.

Me ... I still can’t find the Psyduck.

The great equalizer.

Despite being connected to the Bulls’ WiFi for much of the day, everyone’s phones begin to die just before 1 p.m. Technology has quit before everyone’s body has. Some people planned ahead and have backup battery packs to stayed charged — but for us ordinary folks I’ve watched my phone drop from 98 percent to 3 percent in a matter of two hours. It’s one of the downsides of Pokemon Go.

Some desperate trainers try to charge their batteries one last time near the concession stand. I decide to take off. One more loop around trying to find that Psyduck that has been eluding me all day. It never turned up.

As I’m walking to my car I hear cries from down the street. "An Ivysaur just popped in the middle of the field!" People take off running. For a second I debate turning back, but realize it’s too late — my phone has died. Ivysaur will need to wait for another day.

The experience of catching Pokemon inside a baseball stadium was fun. The Durham Bulls had a turnout exceeding their wildest expectations with over 100 trainers turn up, but this wasn’t about catching them — not really. It was about people, from all walks of life and backgrounds gathering together and becoming friends for an afternoon. All because they shared the same game.

Several of the groups that were disparate at the start of the day are joined. They’re making lunch plans to charge up and then aim to do a walking tour of downtown to catch more. There’s a rumor a Magmar routinely turns up by the Durham transportation center and everyone wants it.

I’ll wait for my next adventure.

Pokemon stats.

Caught: 39

New: 5

Best catch: CP 589 Tentacruel

Worst catch: CP 10 Pidgey in the men’s room

CP Total: 5,299

CP Average: 135.87

Trainer levels gained: 1.5

Mascots harassed: 1

Rumors heard: 6

Footlong hot dogs covered in BBQ eaten: 1

Psyducks found: 0

The four weirder places I caught Pokemon than the stadium:

  1. Parking lot of retirement home after midnight.
  2. Abandoned bowling alley.
  3. Graveyard.
  4. Wooden area behind a Waffle House.

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Pokemon Go, NBA Free Agency Edition