A Baseball Road Trip

Thirty Major League Baseball Stadiums. Sixty Stadium Dogs. One Season.


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Welcomed in Atlanta

“If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant’s life, she will choose to save the infant’s life without even considering if there is a man on base.”   ~Dave Barry

Game Three.    Atlanta.    Braves vs Nationals.

Turner Field shouts out Baseball!  There is an enthusiastic, early arriving, tailgating crowd as we walk from the parking area toward the centerfield gate.  “Turner Field” appears in a neon, but very vintage sign above the red-bricked, arched centerfield stadium entrance.   This is the home of the Atlanta Braves, we remember.  The home of the ominous-sounding, possibly ethnically insensitive Tomahawk Chop.  Home of the team that won their division for an incredible 14 out of 15 seasons from 1991 to 2005!  Some of this I know because there were a few years in the 90’s when a decent Houston Astro team scratched and clawed their way into the playoffs, only to have the Braves thump them out of the way.  But I’m over that now.  So, where was I?  Oh, Atlanta.  And here we are, in one of the most baseball-enthused and heritage rich environments we’ll encounter.  Yeah, we’re excited.  And yeah, this feels like baseball!

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Just outside the centerfield entrance is an attractive brick-surfaced plaza known as Monument Grove, with statues honoring Hall of Famer’s Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, Warren Spahn, and Ty Cobb, along with 4 foot tall numerical monuments throughout the plaza honoring the Braves’ retired numbers.  Early-arrivers are milling about the plaza, taking it all in, posing for photos by their favorite son’s number.  Looking across to the other side of the fence, you can’t help but notice a larger than large close-up photo outside the centerfield wall of Aaron’s 715th.   The actual ball.  You absolutely know by now that you’re in a baseball stadium that honors the history of the game.  And you’re thrilled to be here.

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Once inside, we check out the eats in the inside-the-stadium portion of the centerfield plaza, and make plans for later.  As we make our way around the concourse toward our seats behind home plate (no, still not those home plate seats), a gentlemanly stadium greeter approaches us with a welcoming smile, his finger gesturing back and forth between the two of us.  ‘You two are an interesting looking couple,’ he says.  By now, we are firmly committed to our Rays/Astros look.  ‘We’re a house divided,’ I answer back.  We tell him about our baseball journey, and he beams.  ‘What a fabulous trip!’ he says, and then asks us where we’ve been so far.  ‘Well let me point out a few things about Turner Field,’ he says.  He graciously tells us about the Atlanta Braves Museum, located in the concourse behind home plate, tells us the best places to eat, and shows us the way to the Sky Field in centerfield, with its fabulous views of the playing field in one direction, the Atlanta skyline in the other. And along the promenade atop the centerfield wall, a 90-foot base path with grass and the same dirt the players slide in, where you can do your own running and sliding.  He hopes we enjoy the game.  ‘And welcome to Atlanta Braves baseball!’

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While waiting in line for our fully loaded and peppered sausage dogs just before the game, one of three guys also waiting for sausage dogs (the cooks were probing the sausages with meat thermometers, and I was ok with that) struck up a conversation with Vicki about her Tampa Ray outfit.  Said his buddy, gesturing, was from Tampa.  Vicki joking asked the buddy from Tampa, fully decked out in Atlanta Braves shirt and ball cap, if he didn’t have the nerve to wear his Tampa stuff.   ‘Sure I do!’ he laughed.  Vicki then told them about our trip.  They looked at us, and at each other, wide-eyed.  ‘No!  Really?  How cool is that?’ one said.  ‘I’m jealous!’ the first guy said.  ‘I’d love to talk my wife into that!’ the third one added.  They were beside themselves, excited by the prospect.  The three of them had their sandwiches by now, and the one who had first struck up the conversation approached me and shook my hand, bro-style, and told us to have a great trip.  Another Braves fan standing near me, who had earlier told me the fully loaded and peppered sausage sandwich was the best food in the house, also turned and shook my hand, and wished us well on our trip.

We are smiling as we head to our seats.

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We’re in the Terrace Infield section behind the Nat’s dugout, looking down the 1st base line.  Great seats.  More so than in Miami, we feel like we’re in an outdoor stadium.  A good feeling.  The giant scoreboard in centerfield, though new enough to feature the large hi-def tv screen and the latest in electronic scorekeeping, still maintains a vintage look, complete with the ‘Braves’ cursive logo and tomahawk sitting on top.

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Stephen Strasburg, Washington’s young star, pitched for the Nat’s tonight!  He gave up a lot of leadoff baserunners, but worked in 8 strikeouts in 6 innings to hold the Braves to two runs.   The Braves shortstop, Andrelton Simmons broke the 2–2 tie in the 7th with a sac fly, and the Braves snapped a 4-game losing streak, winning 3–2.

After the game, we headed toward the Team Store behind centerfield for our Braves hat pins.  We had someone take our picture in front of a giant baseball just outside the store.  Then a young  couple in Braves wear walked up and asked us to take their picture.  Actually, just the girl asked.  The guy didn’t seem to want to involve us.  He said something about our being Rays and Astros fans, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to do that.  And he backed up a step.  Vicki said, ‘Wait, there’s a story!’  He backed up another step.  ‘It’s a good story!’ she said.  He stopped stepping backward, and she explained about our baseball trip.   ‘Cool!’, the young woman said.  ‘For f****** real?’ the guy said.  ‘That’s badass!’  We were allowed to take their picture.  As they headed for the store, she told us to be careful out there.  He added, ‘What a cool trip!’  With an extra piece of enthusiasm thrown in there somewhere.

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Thoughts on the Road

“Some people are born on 3rd base, and go through life thinking they’ve hit a triple.”   ~Barry Switzer

‘What would you fix about baseball, if you were in charge?’ Vicki asks.

I think I’ve heard this question before.  I think I’ve asked this question before.

We’re making the drive from Savannah, Georgia to Atlanta, for the Braves–Nationals game tonight.  Savannah, the historic portion of it at least, is beautiful.  A living museum.  Tree canopied squares completely surrounded by Victorian and Federal styled homes from the 1800’s.  Walking around these protected and insulated parks, then strolling the three or four tree lined blocks to the next one, it’s easy to forget what century you’re in.  And while gushing over the beauty and tranquility of this piece of American history, it’s easy to decide to not pay too much attention to the flaws inherent in it.  Like the fact that the wealth that created these homes was produced by the labors of those who never saw the benefit.

‘I used to think it was the designated hitter,’ I say.  ‘But that seems pretty minor now.’

‘So what is it now?’

‘Salary cap.  There has to be one.  How can Baseball not know that?  You can’t have one team spending ten times what another team spends.  You can’t have one player on the free-spending team earning what another team spends on all 25 of their guys.  You can’t.  It’s not good for the game.’

‘How can that be fixed?  Players won’t stand for it.’

‘I know,’ I say.  It’s not good.  So maybe we’ll just get rid of the dh, and call it a day.’

I do have a plan that I think would work.  Sort of.  Everybody wins.  Except the owners, who would have to find another investment.   Ok, maybe not everybody.   I need to think about it some more, probably.

I see Atlanta.


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There Are No Stone Arches in Miami. Pretty Sure.

“The key to winning baseball games is pitching, fundamentals, and three-run homers.”   ~Earl Weaver

Game 2.  Miami.  Marlins vs Cubs

We’re already taking on the sleep schedule of ball players.  By the time we settle in after the game, talk about the game, write about the game, and giggle about how cool this is, it is somewhere on the other side of 2:00 am.  So we had to drag ourselves downstairs so we wouldn’t miss the free breakfast.  It’s a long trip, and we’re thinking free is a good thing.  We were wrong.  Muffins and orange juice.  Except the orange juice was empty.  I mentioned this to the employee behind the desk.  She thanked me, and immediately came over with her label maker, and left an ’empty’ sticker on the machine.  I felt better.

We made the 4-hr drive from Tampa to Miami, some of which took us through the northern regions of The Everglades, down Alligator Alley.  There were high fences along the highway to keep the gators in, and us out.  We had decided we wanted to explore at least one aspect of each baseball city we visited, so we headed to Miami Beach.   The Miami Beach signs brought back memories of Jackie Gleason, and the ‘live from Miami Beach…’ intro to his variety show from the 60’s.  The one where you’re approaching the Miami Beach skyline from across the water.  This probably has nothing to do with baseball, or anything, now that I think of it.  Though there was a sign directing you to the Jackie Gleason Theater, which somehow made me feel a little better about Miami Beach.  No idea why.

Miami Beach very much appeared to be the beach party home for the rich and beautiful.  Ocean Blvd, which runs along the Atlantic Ocean, is lined with expensive hotels and restaurants, in mostly art-deco buildings from the 50’s, or those trying hard to look like they’re art-deco buildings from the 50’s, catering to tourists and locals in tank tops and Bermuda shorts, who are lined up for oversized frozen drinks and overpriced lunches.  At least that was my take on it.  Across the street was the clothing optional beach, so at least there was that.

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Marlins Ballpark is set in what appears to be a mostly residential Little Havana, at the site of the old Orange Bowl.  This is the newest stadium in the Bigs, opening in 2012.  It’s unusual in that it bucks the retro/vintage look that most recently-constructed stadiums have aimed for, opting instead to be a stadium George Jetson might enjoy catching a game in.  This is the look the owner was after, we read.  Something that captured the glitzy look of a contemporary, hip Miami.  Modern, sweeping, curved, with nothing that looked like an arch or a brick.

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We were standing outside the stadium on the centerfield promenade prior to the game, admiring the Miami skyline, when four guys in Cubs shirts and jerseys (two Ryne Sandberg’s, one Ron Santo, one player to be named later) walked up.  One of the Sandberg’s looked at Vicki’s TB hat, and said, ‘I guess I wouldn’t have looked out of place after all if I’d worn my Tampa stuff.’  Laughter and grins.  I said, ‘Would you have worn your Astros stuff?’  ‘No, prob not,’ he laughed. As they walked off, the one with no name on his shirt said, ‘I wouldn’t wear my Astros stuff in Houston.’   ‘It’s not easy,’ I said.

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Though there was little baseball vibe outside the stadium, little to suggest in fact that it was a baseball stadium, there was a baseball field inside, so all was good.  The outfield fence was a very bright, energetic lime green, with a large marlin and seaside cliff statue in centerfield, with promises of shooting water and jumping marlin with every Marlin home run.  Sadly, the Marlins did not jump tonight.  The roof was open tonight, which is always good, and there was a cool breeze blowing.  The stadium features all blue seats (most of which you could still see well into the game…), a mostly white infrastructure, and galvanized a/c ducts for a season that will mostly take place with a closed roof.  A non-retro look, but the stadium was very attractive inside nonetheless.

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Marlins Ballpark gets high marks for food!  We dined at the Taste of Miami food court, where Vicki took another shot at the Pressed Cuban sandwich from the Latin-American Grill, where they make, and then smash the sandwiches on hot presses while you wait.  She was delighted.  I wandered down to the Venezuelan cafe for arepas, which is sort of highly seasoned soft taco.  Except that it was way better than that.  Somewhere around the 8th inning, in keeping with our day-old tradition, we forced down a dog apiece.  Ok, that tradition may need to be revisited.

Attendance tonight was low (around 15,000), and enthusiasm was difficult to find.  Unlike Tampa, there were no hordes of fans lined up at the gate prior to the stadium opening.  We sat next to a sad, discouraged but resigned to it Marlins fan, in a sea of very vocal Cubs fans.  ‘It’s the owner,’ he said.  ‘He lied to us.  Promised he would keep payroll in the top 10%.  He lied to us.’  ‘If the team were better,’ I asked, ‘ if the owner hadn’t alienated the fans, would they come?’  ‘Absolutely,’ he said.

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Throughout the game, the Cubs first baseman, Anthony Rizzo would throw the warm-up ball into the seats as play was about to start.  This got to be a very much anticipated event.

The game was tied in the 9th, until a two out home run by the Cubs’ Luis Valbuena fixed that.  My neighbor only sighed.  In the bottom of the 9th, the Marlins put runners on 1st and 2nd, with no outs.  ‘Are you liking this?’ I asked my neighbor.  ‘We’ll see.’  A two-foot bunt by Juan Pierre, who leads the majors in sac bunts since 2000 (that would be 163 of them–I looked it up), allowed the catcher to get the lead runner at 3rd.  The rally died.  The sea of Cubs fans all around us cheered.  ‘I knew it,’ my neighbor said.

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Tampa Rays vs New York Yankees! We’re excited!

“Nothing flatters me more than to have it assumed that I could write prose–unless it be to have it assumed that I once pitched baseball with distinction.”   ~Robert Frost

Game One! Tampa Rays vs New York Yankees!  We’re excited!  We’re stoked!  The Trip is underway.

On a personal note, this first game is significant to Vicki and I because Tropicana Field was the site of our first date, one year earlier.  I have no doubt that this baseball adventure would not be happening now, without that game one year ago.

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Tropicana Field, for fairly obvious reasons, reminds me of the Astrodome.  That would be because the Trop is also domed, with an artificial turf playing surface, boldly identified along the foul lines as ‘Astroturf’.  It wasn’t a big leap.  And though it has a somewhat sterile appearance inside, and lacks the vintage look that is in vogue these days, and which we both are personally fond of, it’s big and green, and it is baseball.  The first one.  We are beside ourselves.

We visited Ferg’s sports bar prior to the game, accessed by a cool pedestrian tunnel that passed under a local street.  An open, very energizing place, Ferg’s.  An interesting mix of Yankees fans and Rays fans milling about.  Sipped on our Coors Lights and watched baseball fans visiting (inter-team visiting) and laughing and sharing their love of baseball.  It felt right.  There was no place else we wanted to be.

Outside the entrance to the stadium, a man decked out in Ray’s garb asked me if I was from Houston.  I was wearing my Houston Astro t-shirt and hat.  I said I was, and he beamed and said, ‘Beautiful stadium!’  I thanked him, and told him it was interesting that both stadiums were named after orange juice.  He laughed, and said he was ‘a sign guy.’  When he watched the Rays play in Houston, he was carrying a sign proclaiming the game ‘The Battle of the Juices’.

Once inside we set out on a walking tour of the stadium.  We soon came upon a collection of fans headed up a set of stairs, so of course we joined them.  This must lead to someplace good, we were thinking.  Our seats?  Food, maybe?  Then an usher hooked a rope just behind us, and those who were now having to wait gave us unwelcoming looks.  Ok, so maybe we didn’t exactly realize there was a line.  We get to the top of the stairs, and receive our instructions on just how to interact with the cow-nosed rays in the Touch Tank!  So there we are, behind right center field, reaching into the tank and touching the rays as they swim by (and they will swim by when they realize you didn’t pay the $5 for food), and looking out to the field where the New York Yankees are taking batting practice.  This is going to be a great trip.

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We moved around to the right field seats, and finished batting practice.  Yankee reliever Joba Chamberlain was hanging around in right field, reacting amiably to all the shout-outs, scooping up bp balls that made it out to him, and tossing them up to forever grateful fans.

We’re setting out on this journey armed with ‘The Ultimate Baseball Road Trip’, a fact-filled guide to the major league stadiums–parking, best seats, history, and most importantly, best ball park food at each stadium.  So our first priority after bp was to hunt down a Cuban Sandwich.  It was not exactly as advertised.  Bread, hard.  Meat, very little.  But we’re excited and feeling very tolerant at the moment, so it’s all ok.  We shared a foot-long Kayem Dog later during the game, and laid out the plan of having a dog at every venue.  Food plans are good.

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We found our seats behind home plate–no, not those seats, we were a little higher than that–and settled in for our first game.  Our opening day.  The couple beside us were conflicted.  He had a Rays hat and shirt, she applauded at every Andy Pettitte strike.  He looked at me and apologized for her behavior.  She grinned, and applauded some more.  We’ve made the decision at this point to root, root, root for the home team.  Unless that would involve our rooting against our home teams (the Rays for Vicki, the Astros, sadly, for me).

It was fun getting to see Andy Pettitte pitch, from his couple of seasons pitching in Houston, and because, well, because he’s Andy Pettitte.  He pitched well, 10 strikeouts.  Gave up 3 runs, but only 2 earned, with a single rolling through the legs of the right fielder.  A little league moment.

The Rays’ Alex Cobb was a little better.  He received a standing ovation from the home crowd when he left the game after 8 and a third.  He waved his cap to the adoring fans as he walked to the dugout.  Held his cap aloft a long time, and the cheers grew louder.  I love baseball.

The Rays won 3 – 0.  We’re on our way.


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A few years go by.  Ok, maybe more

“I love the baseball that’s in the heads of baseball fans.  I love the dreams of glory of 10-yr olds, the reminiscences of 70-yr olds.”  ~Stan Isaacs

A few years go by.  Ok, maybe more than a few.  Though there were trips to Houston to see the Astros,  there was also college, and professional baseball seemed to lose it’s place for me.  But I recovered from that, and I let baseball back in.  And baseball let me back in.  When my two sons were old enough, or probably just before that, I began to bring them with me.  Along with fishing worms to play with, in between pitches, and chocolate crackers for chewing, pretty much all game long.

The Astros were mostly good for breaking our hearts.  But we went anyway.  How could we not?  It was baseball.  Even on artificial turf, the field was green.  And it was baseball.  And the kids loved Orbit. Then there was the strike.  The betrayal.  The absence of baseball.  The grim reminder that the baseball players we adored were, possibly, more interested in their salaries than they were in playing ball, or in us.  And how were we supposed to get over that?  How were we to get past the unattractive reminder that these were highly paid athletes with less regard for the fans and the history and the accumulated memory that we all share than we cared to, needed to believe?  Like so many others in love with the game, I had trouble getting past that, and I walked away.

Not too far away, though.  Just in the next room.  I could still hear, but I didn’t watch.  The illusion was wounded. More years pass.  Players like Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell arrived in Houston, and they played like they loved the game, like they would have played for free.  At least we could imagine that they would.  And though their images are not without smudges (just ask my nephew Travis–or I’ll tell you about it later), they played hard, and they played only in Houston, and we were all seduced by that.  We loved them for that.  And we were baseball fans again.  They were ball players, and they behaved, mostly,  like they knew we were there, with them, part of them.  And we were baseball fans again.

And so that’s the way this love affair goes.  We love the beauty and symmetry of the green field, the poetry and drama of the game.  We love the moments in between pitches when the pitcher and the hitter are staring and thinking and sizing one another up, and remembering the last time, and the time before that.  We understand the difference between a two and one count and its distant relative, the one and two count,  and how that changes everything, for the pitcher, the batter, how deep the third baseman plays.  We know these things, and we love these things.  We share the suffering when our lead-off guy takes a slider low and away for strike three, and when our clean-up hitter lifts a can of corn to left field.  The helmets they wear aren’t so big that we can’t see the pain on their faces, the sadness in their eyes.  And then there are the moments when we get to join in the celebrations.  Their walk-off hits are ours.  The closer in the top of the 9th is us.  Their wins vindicate us, from something.  They validate us, in some difficult to get at way that we might not want to admit to.  Or if we’ve grown up just enough to not think those kind of thoughts any longer, at least not out loud, we get to admire their work, thank them for it, and talk about it the next day with all who will listen.

So I miss it when I’m away too long.  Maybe I miss what it used to be, or what I want it to be.  Or what I used to be.  But I absolutely do miss it.   I long for the connection when I don’t have it, and want to belong again.   I was missing it the day I realized I wanted to see Wrigley Field.  And Fenway.  And Yankee Stadium.  The new one–I waited too long to see the old one.  I wanted to see them all, I realized.  I wanted to see them all in one season!  I felt like I was supposed to see them.  That would be a great trip. Wouldn’t that be a great trip?  Yes, that would be an amazing trip.  I would have to push aside the moments when the game loses its poetry or fails to live up to its history, and I see the blemishes, but surely I can do that.  I’m pretty sure I can do that.  The fields are green, after all.  And they’re mostly grass now.  And I won’t be alone.  There will be others.  And we’ll all be cheering for the same thing, mostly.  And I want to belong to that, too.  It’s such a beautiful thing when it works.


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It’s A Blessing To Us

“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.” ~Walt Whitman

I was eleven years old, playing on a little league baseball team in Orange, Texas.  My coach, Robert Lanning, decided he and his team should take a field trip to see a major league baseball game.  There was a brand new stadium opening in Houston, with the very exotic (to an eleven year old) name of The Astrodome.

It was silvery white, it was a dome–the first such structure any of us had ever seen–and you could see it from miles away as we approached on the highway.  It was amazing.  I was awestruck.

And then we went inside.   We worked our way through the concourse, sensing, but only partially seeing, that there was an open area beyond that.  We moved closer, then saw, clearly saw, that there was a baseball field out in front of us.  A baseball field.  Inside.  It was huge, and it was green, and it went on and on forever.  And there were grown men throwing baseballs, and catching baseballs.  And the sound of the ball being struck by the bat filled my ears, filled the entire magical place called a baseball stadium, and I wanted it to last forever.