A Baseball Road Trip

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


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Pittsburgh to New York City

“New York is an ugly city, a dirty city.  Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous.  But once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough.  ~ John Steinbeck

Sunday, June 30.

Driving east across southern Pennsylvania, I see a highway marker telling me we’re 122 miles from New York City.  It seems foreboding, and exciting to see all three words spelled out like that.

I think we’ve been looking over our shoulder at this part of the road trip from day one, back in late April, when we found ourselves in Tampa, Florida, watching baseball.  Watching Game One.

“Are we going to be driving across New York?” I ask.

“Pennsylvania, then New Jersey.”

“Gotcha.”

“Have you ever been in New Jersey?”

“Never.”

“There are parts of New Jersey that are beautiful,” Vicki tells me.  “We won’t be driving through those parts.”

The northeast has been as intense as we thought it might be.  I find myself thinking of the softball game we stopped and watched awhile on the National Mall in Washington.  And of the high school game I watched back home in Texas with Billy just before we started this journey.  I miss pastures.  I think I miss small ball.  We haven’t played catch in awhile.

Despite our earlier promises to each other that we never would, we’re driving in to New York City.  Much of the appeal of this baseball road trip has always been that we get to touch the four corners of this country, and criss cross the middle of it.  And see it, and feel it, as much as we can, every moment that we can.  So rather than stay out, and take the train in, we’re taking the Mustang in, and staying in.  Somewhere near Time Square.  We’ve booked the room.

“It’s Sunday, though.  Right?” I tell Vicki.

“That won’t matter.”  Vicki grew up in nearby Middletown, just outside New York City.  Its name requiring three words seems to have my attention now.

“I mean, I know it’ll still be busy.  But it is Sunday evening.”

“You won’t be able to tell the difference.”

“It’ll still be bad?”

“It’ll be worse than that.”

“Oh.”

We drive across Pennsylvania awhile longer.  We’re less than 100 miles out now.

“Wanna drive awhile?” I ask.


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A Bridge in Pittsburgh

“Clemente could field the ball in New York, and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.”   ~Vin Scully, broadcaster

Game 26.   Pittsburgh.   Pirates  vs.  Brewers.

This post is a little late getting out, I know.  I have to confess that I should have built a few days off into our schedule.  I see that now.   I’ll adjust on the Minor League Baseball Road Trip.

We could use a day off right about now.  To watch a movie.  Or read a book.  The east coast leg has been as hectic as we thought it might be.  The drives are shorter, but the cities have been a handful, and we haven’t played catch in two weeks.

We laughed today about the first time, somewhere in California I think, that we didn’t have time for a real breakfast–opting instead for fruit pies and a shared chocolate milk.  We didn’t have either of those this morning.  And ok, maybe that wasn’t laughing I was hearing.   It think it was wailing.

Really Big Cities don’t always have WalMarts and convenience stores when you need them.  Which is inconvenient.  So next thing we know, the milk and o.j. are both gone, there’s no ice in the ice chest, and we’ve gone through the fruit pies.  And the fruit cups.  And those garlic chips I thought we’d never finish.  And we’re facing a schedule that doesn’t always leave time for chasing those things down.  We have to choose between food, and riding the funicular in downtown Pittsburgh.

And so we end up sleeping a little too late, having a little too far to drive, and wanting to visit the next quilt museum, and there you go.  No fruit pie.  And more wailing.

Our schedule got a little intense in the Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore portion, and we got a little behind on chores.  So we got up this morning, in D.C., desperately needing to do laundry, and write, and pack.  Have I mentioned how we’ve come to dread packing and hauling clothes and food bags and printers and laptops and books we don’t have time to read and that other bag whose contents are still a mystery to me to the car?  We dread packing, and hauling.  We really do.

So Vicki did laundry this morning at the Extended Stay laundry room and caught up on world events on her iphone, while I slept, wrote a little, and packed.  And we were on the road by, well, we didn’t miss checkout today.  We would have celebrated, but our blood sugar is a little low.

The good news is, we’re about to see another baseball game.  And we are still stoked.  Some days we whine a little.  But when the tickets are printed, the car is parked, and first pitch is just a few hours away, and people we don’t know are filing by the hundreds down the street and into their ballpark, and we get to join them, we get excited.  Baseball is about to happen.

It’s about a five hour drive to Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is considerably more hilly, and more attractive than either of us knew.  And with the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers forming the Ohio River almost within reach of the shadows of Pittsburgh’s skyline, this is the most appealing downtown we’ve seen on our baseball trip.  In Pittsburgh.  Who knew.

The steep hill rising up from the rivers near downtown, known locally as Mt. Washington, required a means, back in the day, of hauling goods, and later residents, up the steep slopes.  There were a number of funiculars, the inclined railroads with the downward and upward cars counterbalancing each other, built along the river in the late 1800’s.  Only two remain–the Duquesne, and the Monongahela, both restored to their original conditions.  The Duquesne, built in 1877, travels 800 feet, at an incline of 30 degrees.  The ticket window, and boarding area, both appear as they did over a hundred years ago.  We’re riding a museum.  It’s steep, and the cars sit at a funny angle as they make their way up and down the track.  What’s not to like.  The observation deck at the top provides an amazing look at Pittsburgh and her rivers and her series of identical yellow bridges, known as The Three Sisters.

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We take pictures, ride back down, take some more pictures, then drive the short one and a half miles into downtown Pittsburgh, near the stadium.  The 6th Street Bridge–one  of the Three Sisters–across the Allegheny, was renamed The Roberto Clemente Bridge in 1998, as part of a compromise associated with the corporate naming of PNC Park.  The citizens of Pittsburgh wanted the new ballpark named after their beloved humanitarian, and ballplayer, Clemente, who died in a plane crash in 1972, helping to deliver supplies to earthquake stricken Nicaragua.  I guess they’re lucky they got a bridge.  It is a very cool bridge, though.

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Roberto Clemente Bridge is pedestrian only on Pirate (and Steelers) game days.  So the walk across the bridge, with its views of downtown in one direction, and an impressive look into the heart of PNC Park, across the outfield walls in the other, shared with thousands of fans streaming across from downtown offices and restaurants, and parking garages, is stunning, and connecting.  An impressive statue of Roberto Clemente, brought over from the Pirates’ previous home, Three Rivers Stadium, when PNC opened in 2001, sits at the foot of the bridge, at the ballpark’s main entrance.  PNC’s combination of brick and slate blue, almost black, girder work is wonderful.  The arches created by the near black girder work along the outside of the stadium room seems vintage, while also looking like it belongs in Pittsburgh.

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The trademark stadium food in PNC, we’re told, is pierogies, a pasta ravioli stuffed with potatoes, cheese, onions, garlic.  Stuff like that.  They’re swimming in butter.  I have a bite of Vicki’s, then track down the  nearest grilled sausage kiosk, while Vicki proclaims them her favorite stadium food yet.  They were just a vehicle for the butter, pretty sure.

We stop at The Sweet Spot for a root beer float.  For Vicki, not for me.  A man my age, dressed in Pittsburg gold and black, walks up while I’m waiting.

“I saw your pins,” he says.  “Have you been to all those parks?”

“We have,” I tell him.  And I tell him we started in April.

“You’ve been to all of them this season?”

I nod, and smile.

His wife walks up.

“They’ve been to all those parks this season!” he tells her.

“Oh, my!”  She says.  She’s smiling, as she turns to him.  “That’s what we can do when you retire!”  She is not joking.

“Yes,” I tell him.  “That’s what you can do when you retire!”

We stand by The Sweet Spot and talk awhile.  They are big baseball fans.  They tell us that it’s been 20 years since Pittsburgh made it to the playoffs.  This would be season number 21.  Roberto Clemente’s number.

“That would be so right.  To do it this year.  We do have the best record in baseball right now.”

We talk for awhile.  They ask about our trip.  How long it has taken us.  How we get our tickets.  Our favorite ballpark.

“We think it’s yours,” I tell them.  “The rivers, the city skyline, the bridges.  It looks like America.  It looks like what a baseball stadium in America should look like.”

“Well you guys are doing something pretty special,” he says.

“I used to imagine I was the only to think of doing this, of seeing all of them,” I tell him.  “But I wasn’t.  Others have done it.  And written guide books.”

“That’s ok,” he says.  “You guys have raised the bar.”

I thank him for that.  They wish us well, and we shake hands.

“Go Pirates!” Vicki tells them as they turn to go.

“Go Buc’s!” he calls back.

Vicki and I look at each other, and smile.

“How’s the float?” I ask her.

“I think it’s melted.”

We go to our seats, and the view across the the outfield fence is stunning.  The stadium is filling–it’s to be Pittsburgh’s 5th consecutive sell-0ut.  The Bucs are poised to be the first team to 50 wins this season, and to reach 50 wins by July for the first time in the team’s 127 year history.  Pirate fans are excited.

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Pittsburgh starter Francisco Liriano walks the lead-off hitter for the Brewers, but gets out of the inning with a double play.  The Pirates do little in their half of the first, and neither does Milwaukee in the 2nd.  Pedro Alvarez’s league leading 20th home run in the bottom of the 2nd gives Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead.  Liriano continues to pitch well, and the Brewers go down in order in the top of the 3rd.

In the bottom of the 3rd, Liriano ends up at 1st, after a not-so-great sac bunt, then runs painfully slowly to 3rd after a Starling Marte double to the wall.

“I thought he would score,” Vicki says.

“God he’s slow.”

“He’s pitching well, though.”

“God he’s slow.”

The next Pittsburgh batter, Russell Martin, hits a grounder to 2nd.  Liriano jogs home from third, slowly.  The Brewers’ 2nd baseman looks surprised, hesitates, then throws softly home, where the catcher has to wait on Liriano, so he can tag him out.

“What was that?” Vicki asks.

“An argument for the DH.”

“Hey.  You guys seeing all the parks?” a guy behind us calls out.  He’s been pretty chatty for these first several innings, offering swing tips, and suggestions to the umpires, but in a playful way.  He’s funny.

“We are!”

“Sweet.  How long?”

I tell him.

“It took you this long to get here?  What’s that?”

“You have a beautiful park,” I tell him.  “I think it’s our new favorite.  But that was the worst base running I’ve seen.”

“I know, right?  He could have at least blown up the catcher.  Something.”

In the top of the 4th, Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez leads off with a triple to the wall in left center.  The lone Brewer’s fan in our section applauds.

“Carlos is our only good hitter,” she offers up to the Pittsburgh fans around her.

“Carlos sucks,” the funny fan calls out matter-of-factly.  He and she both laugh.

“Lucky hit,” he calls out, so she can hear, and she laughs some more.  Somehow it works.  Some people can do that.

Two batters later, Carlos Gomez is thrown out at home, trying to score on a ground ball to 2nd.  It’s a funny game like that sometimes.

A Garret Jones home run to dead center in the bottom of the 4th gives Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead.

There’s a very loud-voiced man just behind, and to the left of us.  He never stops talking.  He has a strong New Jersey accent, and he’s not at all funny.  He just talks.  Loudly.  Mostly to the woman who gets to listen to him everyday, I guess.  I find myself wondering about them, imagining him as a ten year old.  He leans forward and asks about our trip, then says a lot of stuff I don’t remember.  I’ve tried, but I swear nothing comes back to me.  He’s wearing an expensive Pirates jersey, but leaves in the 5th.  These are the things I don’t understand.

In the top of the 6th, that lucky Carlos Gomez hits one up the middle that deflects off the pitcher, and rolls over towards third.  He beats it out for a single.  Two singles later, he scores, and it’s 2-1 Pittsburgh.

Around this time, Pirate Parrot, Pittsburgh’s mascot, begins shooting hot dogs up into the stands with his t-shirt launcher.

“Would you eat one of those?”

“Absolutely!”

“Wow.  Really?”

“I think they’re wrapped.”

One of the air-borne dogs splinters in the air.  Fans scream with delight, and scramble for the pieces.

“Would you eat that one?”

“Of course.  It’s from the Parrot.”

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And then there is the mid-inning Pierogie Races, which makes me want a seat down the 3rd base line.

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It’s been a beautiful night for baseball.  For starters, there is the view beyond the fences we have trouble taking our eyes off of.  No stadium we’ve visited has captured the spirit of Americana quite the way this one has, or has felt as much the home of America’s pastime.  There has been an infectious, excited energy in the home crowd.  There have been singing, dancing, song-leading ushers, a playful Parrot, and the promise of post-game fireworks.

The Pirates are still up 2-1 in the top of the 9th, and they bring on their closer, Jason Grilli.  We’ve seen him before on this trip, we remember.  In Cincinnati, where he struck out the side in the bottom of the 9th, preserving the Pittsburgh win, and in Chicago, where he also got three strikeouts in the 9th, while giving up two harmless enough singles.  He gets the Brewers tonight, three up and three down, for his 27th save.

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We’ve seen the Pirates three times on our road trip, and they’ve won all three.  Maybe it is their year, twenty-one their number.  They should have us see all their games.  And we’d do it, too, if they’d keep us in fruit pies.

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Vintage Ball at Camden Yards

“You can’t just sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock.  You’ve got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance.  That’s why baseball is the best game of them all.”  ~Earl Weaver, Baltimore Orioles Manager

Game 25.   Baltimore.   Orioles  vs.  Yankees.

We’ve made the decision to make a day trip to Baltimore, from D.C..  Uprooting, and hotel searching, have become something to be avoided.  We’ve gotten spoiled with D.C.’s metro, but when we look into the possibility of taking a train to Baltimore, and read that it is “manageable, but complicated”, we shudder a little, and head for the car.  It’s only an hour away.  In Washington D.C. to Baltimore traffic.  What could go wrong.

It was January of last year that I read that the ‘Poe Toaster’, who for years had, at midnight on the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth, delivered three roses and a half empty bottle of cognac to the writer’s grave site in downtown Baltimore, had suddenly stopped appearing.  The mysterious visitor, wearing black clothes, a white scarf, and a wide-brimmed hat, had paid his annual visits since the 1940’s, but had not appeared for three years.  The worst was feared, the article went on to say.  And it was in this article that I first learned that Baltimore’s NFL football team, the Ravens, are named after one of Poe’s most famous works.  This fascinated me.  Made me grin more than a little, actually.  I remember telling everyone I knew that a professional sports franchise had been named after a macabre literary work!  And I distinctly remember that no one seemed nearly as fascinated by that as I was.  So I stopped after a couple of weeks.  I only knew two weeks worth of people anyway.

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It’s not January 19, but still we pay our visit to the grave site, on the grounds of the former Westminster Church.  Near the street is a large burial monument, where Poe, his aunt, and his wife and first cousin (they are the same person) are buried, though there is an older marker at the rear of the property where he was originally buried, and where the mysterious visitor would for so many years pay his respects.  We also visit the home where Poe lived, and wrote, for several years.  There was once a museum here, but for lack of funding, its doors are opened nevermore.  Actually, it is scheduled to reopen in October, 2013.  I just wanted to use that line.

We park near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the historic seaport area reclaimed and revitalized in the late 1970’s, and walk along the scenic docks there.  The opening of the Orioles’ new baseball home, Camden Yards, in 1992, played a large role in the continued development of downtown, and the Inner Harbor, which is now home to many shops, restaurants, and attractions.  There’s a Bubba Gump restaurant at Inner Harbor, but you really shouldn’t go there.  You know you shouldn’t go there.

We didn’t.  We hiked around the harbor to the Rusty Scupper, a local favorite, and had Cream Crab Soup, Grilled Rockfish, and Broiled Crabcake, which was all incredible, while we looked across the harbor, toward Baltimore’s downtown skyline.  It’s beautiful.  And it’s easy to fall in love with Baltimore.  A scupper, by the way, is a water drain hole in the side of a ship’s hull.  So you won’t have to look it up.

Our waiter at the Rusty Scupper is a big Orioles, and Camden Yards fan.  He tells us that it was the first of the ‘vintage’ stadiums, the first designed to resemble, and pay homage to, the older, more intimate ballparks of the early 1900’s.  It did start a retro design movement in baseball stadium architecture.  I mention that Houston’s Minute Maid Park has incorporated a lot of Camden Yards features.

“Yeah, that’s cool!” he says.  “I’ve heard that.  I want to go there.”

He’s very excited about our baseball journey.

“I’ve got two dreams,” he says.  “Two things on my bucket list.  To be a restaurant manager, and see all the stadiums.”  He didn’t tell us what order they were in.

When he comes back by our table a few minutes later, he tells us about the Camden Yards tradition during the singing of the National Anthem.

“When they get to the part, you know where you say ‘Oh’…”   He sings it to himself for a minute, looking up at the ceiling, finding the words with his hands in the air.  “Wow.  I’ve lost that spot.”  And he starts over, and sings and says the words aloud once more.

“Ok.  I’ve got it.  I’ve got it.  When they come to ‘Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave…’, the fans all shout out the ‘Oh’ part.  Because of the Orioles.  The O’s.  You know.”

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We leave the restaurant and walk back along the docks, then take a 45-minute boat tour of the harbor, including a pass by Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, the site of the star-spangled banner’s first waving at the dawn’s early light, that September morning in 1814.  The point at the mouth of the harbor where Francis Scott Key, being held on board a British ship, wrote the four verse poem than became our National Anthem, is permanently marked with a red, white and blue buoy.

Just a few blocks from the Orioles’ Camden Yards, at 216 Emory Street, is a row house whose significance to baseball probably can’t be overstated–the birthplace of George Herman Ruth.  Inside the home and museum, we see photographs of a very young Babe Ruth while a student in the St. Mary’s School for Boys, where his parents placed him when he was deemed ‘incorrigible’, the very worn glove he caught baseballs with while a student there, and the bedroom where he was born, on Feb 6, 1895.  The walls are filled with photographs and other memorabilia from Babe Ruth’s baseball career, including the famous Pulitzer Prize winning photo of his farewell speech at Yankee Stadium on June 13, 1948.  We learn that he was signed by Jack Dunn, owner and manager of the minor league Baltimore Orioles at age 19, and was referred to by the other players as Dunn’s Baby.  And later, just the Babe.

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The small house and museum is full of visiting baseball fans, many wearing the jerseys of the visiting New Y0rk Yankees.  A young teenage boy with a Derek Jeter jersey walks to me.

“Have you, have you been to the stadium in Houston?”  He looks at my hat.

“I have,” I tell him.  “I live not too far from there.”

“Is it nice?”

“It is.  It’s a beautiful ballpark.”

He nods, and then grins at his father.

“Our stadium is a lot better than our baseball team.”

He and his father laugh at this, of course.

“It’s a shame what they did to your team,” his father says.  “Getting rid of every body.”

I tell him the story of our new owner’s  ‘if fans want a better team, they can write me a check for ten million dollars’ quote.  They shake their heads, of course.

The boy’s father is proud that Houston’s former star, Craig Biggio, grew up near his home town.  He has many good things to say about Biggio, and Jeff Bagwell, and their at least getting the Astros to the World Series in 2005.  And he gives the Yankees credit for letting us borrow Andy Petitte and Roger Clemens for a couple of years.  And I would have thought, I see why no one likes Yankee fans, except he was praising my team, so of course I couldn’t.

Outside the museum, we talk to an Orioles fan who appears to work at the museum.  He asks about our hats, and all the pins, and tells us he and his father had talked about making that trip, but his father, who was a long-time Phillies fan, had recently passed away.  Then he tells us that he and his fiancee, who is from Philadelphia, are both big baseball fans, and that he proposed to her at the Baseball Hall of Fame, in nearby Cooperstown, New York.  They had engagement photos taken at Camden Yards–he in his Cal Ripken jersey, her wearing his father’s Mike Schmidt.

It was raining when we made the walk from the harbor area to the Babe Ruth museum, but has stopped now.  We walk the three blocks to the stadium, and see why Camden Yards became the blueprint for new vintage baseball parks.  The old red-bricked Camden Warehouse, with its rail yard significance for historic Baltimore, has been refurbished into shops and restaurants, while still looking like an old historic warehouse should, and dominates visually the area beyond the right field fence.  The ballpark itself continues this look, with its high, red-bricked facade and green girders helping Camden Yards look like a park from the 20’s.  Baseball fans love the game’s history, and its place in our young country’s coming together.  Maybe we want the game to be like we think it once was.  And our country to be the place we nostalgically want it to be.  Or maybe we just like red brick.

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The division rival over-spending, always-achieving Yankees are in town, and the place is hopping.  Pedestrian only Eutaw Street, running between the old warehouse and the stadium, is a street party full of vendors, fans with both teams’ jerseys, and excitement.  And there’s a Boog Powell BBQ stand.  They say he shows up most days, but I don’t see him.  The Orioles and Yankees are virtually tied going into today’s game, and are just a few games behind first place Boston.  Orioles fans seem to feel there is always something to prove when they play the Yankees.  Yeah, I’m not sure I like ’em either.

There is no batting practice today because of the rain earlier, so we walk around the stadium, taking pictures and admiring.  And then we eat.  Very, very little of our dining in the last two months has involved a utensil of any kind.  I’m completely ok with this, but I think it’s starting to be a concern for Vicki.

“What are forks for?”

“They’re the ones you stab with.”

“Yeah, but when?”

“When you can’t get a good grip on that last piece of hot dog.  Because of the chili.”

“I miss dining.”

I get a Crab Cake Sandwich.  Vicki gets Crab-Dip Waffle Fries, and eats them with her fingers, except the last piece.  Like there’s any other way to eat Crab-Dip Waffle Fries.  There was an Italian sausage later, of course.

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We head to our seats, and the view of downtown Baltimore is awesome.  The vintage clock, and the twin orioles on the centerfield scoreboard, are a nice touch.  I had read that the old BromoSeltzer clock tower that we had seen from outside the stadium was once prominent in the stadium skyline view, but that the new Hilton covered it up.  So I hike down to the far right field seats, to take a picture of the tower.  Wayne the Usher tells me he’s from the neighborhood where the old stadium was, and that he didn’t really want the team to move, but he love’s Camden Yards now.  He tells me I should come back for more pictures after dark, because the tower, which years ago featured a BromoSeltzer bottle at the top before a storm tore it all to pieces, looks great lit up at night.

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Before the game starts, a young man with a very British accent, sitting behind us, gets my attention.

“Have you actually been to all of those?” he asks, pointing at the stadium pins.

“We have,” I tell him.

“That’s very cool.”

He moved to America two years ago, and he loves baseball.

I tell him what I know about baseball evolving in part from cricket.  And another game called rounders.  He’s heard this, too.  I ask him about cricket.

“It’s very slow,” he says.  “Much slower than your baseball.  A cricket match can last five days.”

It’s time for the National Anthem.  We’ve forgotten the heads-up we got earlier, so when 40,000 baseball fans–minus the 10,000 from New York–shout out a very enthusiastic “OH” at just the right moment in the song, we are both startled.  Then we giggle, which is probably wrong, since there’s no giggling in baseball’s Anthem.

Brett Gardner hits the 2nd pitch of the game to deep center for a double for the Yankees, and scores two batters later on a Robinson Cano single.

“I hate the Yankees,” the young man to my right says.

“It’s early,” his Dad tells him.

The Yankees score two more in the 3rd, and after 5 innings, its 3-0 New York.  The Orioles are still looking for their first hit off C. C. Sebathia, and it’s not early any more.

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“I’ve never seen a no-hitter before,” the young man’s father says to me.  He’s from Chicago, and isn’t as passionate about the Orioles as his son is.

Then things abruptly change, which is how change happens, I guess, and the Orioles get their first hit off Sebathia in the 6th.  Then their 2nd.  Then their 3rd, a league-leading 37th double by Manny Machado, and the Orioles tie the game at three each.

In the bottom of the 7th, after ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, the stadium PA jumps into John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, an Orioles tradition since the 1970’s.  Not sure why.  I’ll find out, though.  The crowd loves it, and sings and dances along, the country boys that they all are.

When Baltimore’s Nate McLouth hits a home run in the 7th to give the Orioles the lead, it’s suddenly a play-off game.

“My son and I went to one of the Yankees-Orioles play off games last year,” the father tells me, over the celebrating.  “The game we won.  It was just like this.  Orioles fans really don’t like the Yankees.  They talk crap all the time.”

Baltimore fans don’t have to listen to any Yankee crap tonight.  Orioles’ relief pitcher Tommy Hunter is very strong in the 8th and 9th, and the O’s hold on for a 4-3 win.  Orioles fans are jubilant.  And relieved.

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As we’re slowly making our way out of the ballpark, with the other 40,000 that seem to be trying to get to our parking lot, a young man who doesn’t exactly look like a baseball fan, but is, asks me about the hat pins.

“What a great idea!” he says.  “What a super trip!”

He wants to know when we left, and how long it’s going to take us.  And how we liked the stadium.  He walks backwards sometimes while we talk.

We start to go our separate ways on very busy, very loud and happy Eutaw Street.  There’s a bounce in his step as he walks in front of us, then turns around and faces us, still walking.

“Well,” he says, as he and I shake hands, and he and his girlfriend head toward the opposite end of Eutaw, “I sure hope you’re chronicling all this.”


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There Are No Souvenir Cups in the Club Seats

“The Washington Senators–first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”  ~ old baseball adage.  No longer true, of course, as the Nats are in the National League now.

Game 24.    Washington D.C.     Nationals  vs.  Diamondbacks.

“Chester Arthur?” I ask.  I think I’m whispering.  “We had a President named Chester Arthur?”

A lady standing near us turns around, smiles, then resumes looking at the row of photos and sketches.  We’re in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, in front of the display of the Presidential First Ladies, from Martha to Michelle.

“Yes, we did,” Vicki says.

“You knew this?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t I know it?”

She doesn’t answer, which is just as well.  Now I’m wondering if the woman next to us smiled in sympathy, or out of a sense of relief.  Chester Arthur.  I’m suddenly feeling a need to learn the Presidents, all of them.  And memorize the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence.

And I’m thinking of stopping ten people at random when we get back out on the Mall, and asking if they’ve heard of Chester Arthur.  But then I remember the time I told my son Christopher that most people in Orange, Texas would not know who Etta James was, and that didn’t go very well.

Chester Arthur, most of you probably know, was our 21st President, taking over the office in September of 1881, after the assassination of James A. Garfield, six months into his term.  Arthur was a widower, so his sister Mary Arthur-McElroy served as White House Hostess.  I knew the part about James Garfield.

As we explore one wing of the museum, we are reminded of our country’s early years under the Articles of Confederation, the later realization by our founding fathers that at least some centralized federal government was needed, and the resulting Constitutional Convention of 1787, which helped create the three branches of government.  George Washington was a national hero, and held in such high regard at the time, that it is suggested that his trusted presence as the likely first President had much to do with the powers the Constitutional Convention, still suspicious of an overly strong central government, from their dealings with the British monarchy, was willing to bestow upon the Presidency.

It occurs to me that most Americans are under the impression that George Washington became President in 1776.  But that they probably know all about Chester Arthur.  I really should let this go.

While at the Museum of American History, we also see George Washington’s sword, chair and uniform, Ike’s golf clubs, Bill’s saxophone, Abraham Lincoln’s target rifle, and the original Star Spangled Banner–the American flag that flew over Fort McHenry in September of 1814, and which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would become the United States National Anthem.   And we saw Julia Childs’ kitchen.

The museum is about to close as we are looking at the tattered 30 foot by 40 foot flag that flew over Fort McHenry 199 years ago, and which has recently been moved behind glass.  The museum guards are none-too-patiently urging everyone to the exit.  They’ve just transferred in from Philadelphia, it seems.  A woman arrives at the flag display with six 8-yr old children.  They exclaim about the size of the flag for a few moments.  The words to the National Anthem are displayed, and the children spontaneously begin to sing.  Just the children.  We all stop.  I wonder what the guards will do, but they also stop.  When the children finish, there is applause.  Even from one of the guards.

“The Museum is closing in five minutes!” he resumes after a moment.  “Please make your way to the exit.”

Earlier in the day, we had visited Mt. Vernon, the plantation home and estate of George Washington, on the banks of the Potomac River near Alexandria, Virginia.  Between the presentations there, and the ones at the American History Museum, one does come away with the impression that Washington was an extraordinary, and humble leader.  And as happens occasionally when we find ourselves walking in the steps of  one of our heroes, standing on the back porch at Mt. Vernon, looking at the same tree shaded banks of the Potomac that George Washington once stood and admired, we allow ourselves to feel just a little heroic.

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Before heading back to the Metro station, we walk to the west end of the mall, to the Lincoln Memorial.  We’ve each seen it before, but the Lincoln Memorial seems to be something one should revisit from time to time.  We are not alone, of course.  There are hundreds of visitors admiring the tribute, posing for pictures, and hanging around on the steps.

And there’s a rock band at the bottom of the steps, playing songs by The Who.

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It’s dark now, and the monuments and federal buildings are lit, looking even more regal than they did during the day.  We walk the 1.9 miles from the Lincoln Memorial, past the Washington Monument that is currently surrounded by scaffolding due to 2011 earthquake damage, down to the United States Capitol.   We take pictures, and think about where we are.  As we make our way down the Mall, back toward the Metro station, we look back over our shoulders from time to time at the Capitol, astonished each time at how striking it is.

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We’re in Washington D.C., we remind ourselves.  Tracking America’s Pastime.

On our way to the Metro station, there is an advertisement for ‘fine dining’.  That’s all I remember about it.  Just the ‘fine dining’.

“What’s dining?” Vicki asks.  It’s been a long day.

“Remember the hot dogs we got from the food cart when we got off the subway this morning?”

“Only a little.”  Vicki appears to be thinking hard.  “Was that dining?”

“That was dining.”

We ride the metro back into D.C., the next morning.  Today is game day, but we want to visit the National Gallery of Art first.  The East Building houses contemporary and modern works, so we choose the West Building.   The National Gallery of Art building itself is pretty amazing.  There are sculpture gardens within, and a high columned, fountained Rotunda, featuring a statue of Mercury.  And while not laying claim to a keen background in art history, we d0 get excited by the works we recognize.  One of Van Gogh’s self portraits hangs at The National Gallery of Art, as well as Renoir’s ‘The Girl With the Watering Can, and Fragonard’s ‘A Young Girl Reading’.  There are other works by French Impressionists Monet, Cezanne and Degas.  There is an ealier painting by Renoir, that seems very different from his other works, of a reclining, intense, young woman.  The title of the work is ‘Odalisque’.  We looked it up, and that’s pretty much what I was thinking she was.

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We take the Metro green line to the Navy Yard/Ballpark station, and walk the three blocks to Nationals Ballpark.  We’re a little early, so we walk around the outside of the stadium, in a light, off and on again rain, before going in.  It’s a fairly new baseball stadium, opening in the spring of 2008.  The outside is a sort of monument gray in color, with no bricks, no arches, nothing vintage, and in fact not much to suggest it’s a baseball stadium.  Maybe stadium architects have grown tired of designing retro ballparks.  The home plate entrance does feature a timeline of baseball in Washington D.C., as you walk through the home plate plaza, toward the gate.  Baseball in Washington goes back to 1886, we learn, with a team known even then as The Nationals.  There are a couple of incarnations of Senators teams along the way, one becoming the Minnesota Twins, the other the Texas Rangers, along with a couple of periods with no baseball, then finaly the re-birth of The Nationals (from the Expos in Montreal) in 2005.

We head back to the centerfield gate, which opens early, and which is already very much crowded with fans.   The street from the metro station to the ballpark is at the same level as the outfield concourse, so that as you approach the stadium, you are looking over the top of the centerfield fence, out to the field, and the seats behind home plate.  It’s a very dramatic approach, full of anticipation.  I’ve always loved the first moment when you look into a baseball stadium, and Nationals Ballpark teases you a little as you walk up, until you’re finally inside the gate and get your first glimpse over the outfield wall, down onto the field.  And there they are.  Baseball players.  Playing catch.  And it’s always amazing.

We watch Nationals batting practice awhile, then go in search of dining.  We get a Half-Smoke All the Way from Ben’s Chili Bowl, and a Veggie Chopped Salad.  The salad is not for me.  It never is.  We sit behind home plate, watch the Diamondbacks bp, then explore some more.  We have managed to get club level seats for this game, which means lower seats, closer to the field, but with not as dramatic a look at the city skyline.  So we go up to our normal seating level, and take in the view.  You can see the United States Capitol over the outfield wall, though only from a couple of vantage points.

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We head down to the Club Level, feel smug as we flash our tickets at the sentries guarding the tinted glass and the air conditioning, and head into an atmosphere with which we are very unfamiliar.  The floor is carpeted.  The food servers are dressed in black and white.  And there are no Souvenir Cups.  The food here is still overpriced, but they manage to make it look better, and you get to shop, and dine if you want, in comfort.  There are sofas and padded club chairs where you can watch the game on a big screen, and never set foot beyond the glass where your seats, and the baseball players are.

We walk through the glass doors and out into our section.  These are amazing seats.   We look around.  It feels a little like we stole something, but wow, these are good seats.

Jordan Zimmerman, the Nats starting pitcher, is shaky in the first inning.  The Diamondbacks put together a walk, a double, and a single, and take a quick 2-0 lead.  The Nationals respond with a run in the bottom of the 1st.

There is a young couple sitting just to the right of us, and he and I talk a little in between innings about Bryce Harper’s rehab status.  I tell him I’m not local, but we look it up, and find out he’s scheduled to return from his knee injury Monday.  Good, he says.  That’s good.

I ask him a little later, in the bottom of the 4th, if the scoreboard does anything special when Washington hits a home run.

“Not too much,” he says.  “Not really.”

A couple of pitches later, Tyler Moore hits a line drive over the fence in left center, tying the game at 2.  The home crowd is jubilant!  There are high fives shared among strangers.

We laugh about my barely getting the question asked in time.

“You should ask me more stuff about us scoring runs.”

Somewhere in the middle of all this, I venture into the club seat air conditioning, looking for something to drink.  There are a number of people lounging about, watching the televisions.  Or not watching the televisions.   I come back with a coke.  And deluxe nachos.  They looked good in the display.

And somewhere about this time, there is the Race of the Presidents.  The large, bobbleheaded Presidents.  George, Abe, Teddy, Tom and William.  Howard Taft.  Better than racing sausages.  I laughed more, anyway.

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The Nationals score a go-ahead run in the 5th, and the mood of the home crowd seems to improve considerably.

“Where are you guys headed next?” our neighbor ask us, and we tell him Pittsburgh.

“Cool,” she says.

In the top of the 8th, the Diamondbacks’ Aaron Hill, facing Tyler Clippard, sends a foul ball straight back, in our direction.  We all stand up, as the ball gets bigger and bigger, clearly coming to us.  It slaps into the bare hands of our neighbor, who is greeted with applause and approval from all the fans in our area.  He is grinning broadly.  His girlfriend gives him a quick kiss.

“And he gets the girl, too!” we hear one of the approving fans behind us sigh, amidst much giggling and laughing, and more approval.

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Arizona gets a base runner to  2nd with two out in the 9th, but the Nationals’ closer, Rafael Soriano, earns his 21st save by getting A. J. Pollack to pop out to 2nd, and Washington wins 3-2.

Our young friends wish us well on the rest of our trip, and we start to leave.  Someone sitting behind us taps Vicki on the shoulder.

“Have you folks been to all those stadiums?” he asks, pointing to our hats.

“We have,” Vicki says, smiling.

“That is just amazing.”

We join the crowd heading down the array of ramps, down to the ground level.  The ramps are packed, and we aren’t going anywhere fast.  As we reach the bottom, a young woman gets Vicki’s attention, and asks about our hats.  It’s not as crowded now, and we are all walking toward the centerfield gate.  We tell them about our trip.

“Are you kidding me?” she says.  “That is unreal!  I can’t believe you guys are doing that!”

“That is amazing!” her friend agrees.  “That’s alright!”  And he shakes my hand.

Their names are Bill and Cat, and they love baseball.  And they are excited that we do, too.  We talk about baseball, and what it means to so many people, as we exit the stadium.  Bill talks about the stories he would hear from his grandfather and father and uncles from Brooklyn, about how devastating it was when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.

“So many people just walked away from baseball,” Bill says.  “It broke their hearts.  They didn’t have a baseball team anymore.”

“Teams should stay.  Players should stay,” I tell him.  None of us know exactly how to make that happen, but we all agree that it should.  I start to mention my vision of community ownership of sports teams, but don’t.  It’s complicated, and I don’t have all the bugs worked out yet.

“You guys should come to The Bullpen with us,” Cat tells us.   “The Metro will be too crowded now anyway.”

The Bullpen is a large, open beer garden, tailgate-gaming area just across from the stadium, and is the post-game place to be.  So we join them.

Bill and Cat both love D. C., they tell us.  It’s not an inexpensive place to live, but there is so much to do.  So many museums, and live music, and great people.  Mostly great people.  We talk about road trips, snow days in Washington, the reasons we love baseball, Paula Deen’s problems and forgiveness, the bands Bill plays in, and Austin, Texas.  We talk about Brooklyn a little more, about the Yankees, and about salary caps and bucket lists.  There is another trip for more lemonade, I think it was lemonade, and we talk some more.  We talk about the Dallas Cowboys, and the Washington Redskins, and Bill and I fist bump over this.  We talk about Philadelphia, and reconstructed historic buildings.  And Baltimore.  Though I don’t remember exactly what was said about Baltimore.  Cat tells us more than once how great we are for taking this trip, and it feels good each time she says it.

The crowd has thinned, and one of The Bullpen staffers walks by and tells us, ten minutes.

We talk for all of those ten minutes, about people being good, mostly good.  About how loving something, really anything, that other people love too brings these people together, and that has to be a good thing.  It has to be.  Doesn’t it have to be a good thing?  And we all agree that it does have to be.  We exchange phone numbers, and talk about live music maybe, tomorrow night.  There are hugs, and hand shakes, and we say our goodbyes.

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Later, though not too much later, I’m asking myself if it was the baseball that connected us with Bill and Cat at The Bullpen, or something more profound than that.  Something more subtle.  Something none of us talk about.  Maybe it’s not just baseball we’re chasing.  Or maybe it was the lemonade.


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Two Years in Philadelphia

“I once spent a year in Philadelphia.  I think it was a Sunday.”  ~W. C. Fields

Game 23.   Philadelphia.   Phillies  vs  Mets.

I’ve finally stumbled into a big city I don’t much care for.  I think I knew it would happen.  And even if Philadelphians  wouldn’t actually boo Santa Claus, as the joke goes, they damn sure would honk at him if his sleigh didn’t pull away from the light quickly enough.  These guys have lived in the city, and been in each other’s way, too long, I’m thinking.  I would suggest that half of them move to Wyoming, but I like Wyoming.

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In fairness, though, this was at least partially my fault, for not researching the ins and outs of visiting historic Philadelphia.  For not knowing you need to be in line by 8:30 to get your ticket to see Independence Hall, for not knowing that the observation deck of City Hall closes at 4:00.  For not knowing it was going to rain today.  Things like that.  We did see Liberty Bell, and the grave site of  Benjamin Franklin.  And the house at which Thomas Jefferson rented two upstairs rooms in June of 1776, while he wrote The Declaration of Independence.  Or rather, a reconstruction of that house, as the original was torn down in 1883.  The house currently offered as Declaration House was actually built in 1975.  I tried not to let that bother me, but I think it might have.

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We did eat dinner at the City Tavern, a known meeting and dining and gathering point for Jefferson, John Adams, and other members of the original, and subsequent Continental Congresses.  It does have an historic feel, and the meals are served on what appear to be dishes of the day, and by servers dressed in what we think of as the dress of that day.  Only problem is, this building was also demolished in the mid 1800’s, and reconstructed in 1975.  Must have been something going on in 1976.  Jefferson did take most of his meals here, we are told, during the three weeks in which he drafted the Declaration of Independence.  And Paul Revere did also dine at the City Tavern on several occasions, though not at the conclusion of the midnight ride we know him for, as the placards outside the tavern would have you believe.  I looked it up.

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We strolled around the historic town center after dinner, in a light rain.  Armed National Park Service personnel guarded the exterior of Independence Hall, while they laughed uproariously, and shared funny stories with one another.  A street runs in front, actively in use by cars, even in the evening.  The chain marking the boundary of Independence Hall was across the street.  I started to cross the street, to step up to the chain, for a better picture of the George Washington statue in front.  If I couldn’t go it, at least I could get a picture.

“Whoa!  Whoa!  Whoa!  Whoa!” one officer shouted, waving his arms.  “You can’t cross the street!”

“Cars are driving down the middle of the street,” I told him.

“You can’t cross that street!”

“I just want to step up to the chains, to take a picture.”

“You have to stay on that side of the street!!”

“Then you should have put the chains on THIS side of the street!!!” I shouted back.  I had just about had enough of Philadelphia.

They both  jumped the chain, charged across the street, and had my hands cuffed, and my face planted in authentic Philadelphia cobblestone before I knew what was happening.

Okay, maybe the very last part isn’t exactly right.  It’s a reconstruction of a conversation that I wish had happened.

The Philadelphia Phillies are another of baseball’s more historic teams, playing their first game on May 1, 1883, at Recreation Park, with a seating capacity of 6,500.  They would eventually share Connie Mack Stadium with the Philadelphia Athletics, a ball park named after the A’s iconic owner and manager.  Connie Mack moved his Athletics to Kansas City in 1955 (and eventually Oakland) leaving the Phillies playing in a ball park named after the owner of their former rival.  They would then play in one of the original “cookie cutter” bowl ballparks, Veterans Stadium, from 1971 until the opening of their current home, Citizens Bank Park, in 2004.

Citizens Bank Park is located several miles south of downtown Philadelphia.  It’s a very slow drive, with lots of car-horn blaring, as we work our way through neighborhood after neighborhood of long ago attractive, bay-fronted row houses, where it now seems likely that there isn’t enough money at the end of the week for baseball tickets or souvenir hat pins.

We park in a lot a couple of blocks from the stadium, several hours before first pitch.  The tailgaters have gathered already.  Coolers are out, charcoal is glowing.  We cross the street and start walking.  A ticket scalper, carrying the universally used “Need Tickets” sign, to throw off the illegal-ticket-reselling police, stops as we walk up.

“Am I believin’ what I’m seein’?” he says to us.  And he shakes his head, several times.  “No, I ain’t believin’ what I’m seein’.”

We’re starting to laugh by now.

“Is that a Ray?” he says, his hands on his hips.  “And an Astro?  Here in Philadelphia?”

We’ve all three stopped in the sidewalk.

“We came to watch baseball,” I shrug.

He waves his Need Tickets sign at us and bends over laughing.

“I understand that.  I understand that,” he says.  “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.  No sir, ain’t nothing wrong with that.”

“We’ve come a long way to watch baseball,” I tell him.

He’s standing up straight now.

“Yes sir.  We all do that, don’t we.  We all do that.”  He points at us now.  “You folks have a good time, ok?  And enjoy the game, you hear?”

We all wave, and Vicki and I continue down the sidewalk, towards the baseball stadium.

There is a great deal of red brick, and stone, in the outside of Citizens Bank Park.  There are no arches, so that it doesn’t introduce itself as a baseball stadium exactly.  But the brushed red girders set it off from most ball parks.  It looks good.

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We circle around from the homeplate entrance, which hasn’t yet opened, to the one at left-center, which has.  As we walk, we see statues honoring Hall of Fame pitcher, and four-time Cy Young winner Steve Carlton, and ten time Gold Glove winning third baseman Mike Schmidt, who led the National League in home runs eight seasons.

The ticket-taker at the left-center gate, Vicki thinks, may have been from New Jersey.

“Tampa?!” he shouts out.  “Houston?!” he cries.  “Whadya couple of spies?!”

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We walk into the centerfield plaza known as Ashburn Alley, a festive, history-filled food and entertainment (ok, mostly food) area named after former Phillies centerfielder and hall of fame announcer Richie Ashburn.  I head straight to Tony Luke’s Philly Cheesesteak, Vicki to Bull’s BBQ.  We settle at the stand-up bar counters overlooking the field, and in the shade, and admire the players on the field playing catch, while we eat.  They make it look easy, and effortless.  And they look like they’re having fun.  Like they would do it for nothing.  These are the things I tell myself.

“Did you see the couple over there wearing Diamondback shirts?” Vicki asks.

“Really?”  I turn and look.  “I should go say hi.”

“You should.”

So I walk over to them.

“What are YOU two doing here?” I ask, grinning.

“Why are YOU here?” he says, pointing at my shirt, and grinning back.

They actually live in Canada, winter in Phoenix, and are on a 5-games in 6 days organized baseball trip.  I see the tags hanging from their necks.  We talk about each others trip, then shake hands, wishing each other well.

A woman and her father, both decked out in Philly gear, take their place at the walk-up counters where we’re still working on our cheesesteaks and chicken.  She has a large cup full of fries, from Chickie and Pete’s.

“Are those the crab fries?” I ask her.  I read about them in our guide book.

“They are,” she says.  “Try one.”

I hesitate.

“Try one,” she says again, and slides the giant cup towards me.  I take one.  “Now you have to dip it in the cheese sauce.”

It is very, very good.  Turns out the cheese is where all the crab flavor is.

“Good, huh?” she says.

“Absolutely!”

Her father asks about our pins.  We tell them about our trip.

“That’s awesome!” he says.  “That’s just awesome.”

We talk for awhile.  They are big fans, but not bad fans.

“Phillies fans aren’t as bad as we’re made out to be,” he says.  “We only boo when we need to.”  And he laughs.

We talk about all their former G.M., Ed Wade, who became Houston’s G.M.

“All he did was trade for Philladelphia players,” I say.

“I know!” she says.  “You guys were Philly South!”

Houston sent them Hunter Pence, Roy Oswalt, and Brad Lidge, I say.  They know all this.

“We liked them all,” he says.  “Especially Pence.  Then they trade him away.  They always trade ’em away.”

They tell me there are plans to sign former Houston closer Brad Lidge, who closed out Philadelphia’s 2008 World Series  victory, for one day, and have a big ceremony, so he can retire a Philly.

“I like that.  That’s nice.  We should be doing that in Houston!” I say.  “Except we didn’t win a World Series.”

They wish us well, and we walk around the first level concourse.  A photographer stops to take our picture.

“That’s a lot of pins, guys!”

He’s fascinated with our baseball journey, and wants to know all the details.  He asks about our schedule, the driving, how we get tickets.  Everything.

Farther around the ballpark, I accidentally bump into one of the Philly Ball Girls, dressed in her short baseball shorts, and carrying her bright red ‘Philly Ball Girl’ purse.  She’s with three other Ball Girls.

“I bumped into a Ball Girl!” I tell Vicki.

“I saw.”

“That’s pretty cool!”

“I guess so.”

“Almost as good as a mascot!”

“I suppose.”

I figure out that she’s not very excited about the Ball Girl.

We walk some more.  A guy wearing a Texas Rangers (the baseball team) cap and jersey walks by.

“Texas!” he cries out, and we fist bump.  I’m assuming he meant the state.

“Is that a guy thing?” Vicki asks.

“Guess so.”

We continue exploring, and arrive at Chickie and Pete’s, home of the Crab Fries.  It’s a long line, but it moves fast.  There are rows of Crab Fries, in crab fry buckets, lined up and waiting.  There are hundreds of fries spilt and piled up on a lower counter, and on the ground.  Crab Fry fans get a little excited, turns out.

Vicki has another Coke waiting for me–it’s hot today–and we head to our seats–high, but behind home plate.  Sort of behind home plate.

The Mets open the first with a couple of singles, eventually scoring on a sacrifice fly, and take an early 1-0 lead.  The Phillies go quietly in the bottom of the first.  A father behind us has been talking to his daughter, explaining about hits an runs and errors, the scoreboard, and other technical stuff.

“That’s called three up, and three down,” he tells her.  “That’s very bad.”

It remains 1-0 going to the top of the 5th.  It has started to rain a little.  Some fans in our section and head to the concourse.  We stay put, of course.

The Mets’ Juan Lagares hits a lazy fly ball to Phillies’ centerfielder Ben Revere.  A can of corn.  Except that he drops the ball.  The umpire rules no catch, and Lagares jogs into 3rd base.  Phillies manager Charlie Manuel runs out of the dugout, outraged.  Ben Revere is just as outraged.  It does appear that he only dropped the ball while transferring it to his throwing hand, and should have been ruled an out.  The umpires convene.  The woman sitting next to me makes a phone call.

–“Did he catch it?”

–“Yeah,” she nods, “that’s how it looked here.”

–“Yeah, that’s what we thought.”  And she hangs up.

“My father’s an umpire,” she tells me.   “He caught it.  It’s a catch.”  I agree, I tell her.  Absolutely.

The convention ends, and the home plate umpire puts his palms down.  No catch.  The runner stays on 3rd.  Boos rain down.  Charlie Manuel is fuming, dancing around the home plate umpire, who is no longer listening.  Charlie starts to leave, stops and throws out a few more enthusiastic words, and storms back into the dugout.  More booing.  The fans are not liking this.  And yet they sort of are.

The three doubles the Mets hit after that don’t help much, and the inning ends with the Mets leading 4-0.

The off and on rain has cooled things off, but it eventually is coming down pretty hard, and out comes the infield tarp.  Rain delay,  in the top of the 7th.  This time we do seek cover.

Those who don’t leave are all gathered up on the concourse.  There is milling about, and visiting.  The expectation is that there will be more baseball.  I head to the water fountain to fill one of my Official Souvenir cups.  A father and his son are doing the same thing.

“Those pins from the different stadiums?” he asks.

“Yep.  The ones we’ve been to so far.  Twenty-three.  I think.  I lose count.”

“You’ve BEEN to all those?”

“We have.  We started in Florida, and we’ll end in Boston.”

He turns to his son.  “They’re going to all the stadiums.”

“Really?” his son says.  “Dad, that’s so cool!”

“It is cool,” his Dad says.

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The tarp is pulled back, fresh dirt is applied to the pitcher’s mound and the home plate area, and the game resumes.  The Mets hit another double, to the same right center gap that has been the landing spot for most of the earlier ones.  It’s a familiar sight by now, and the remaining Phillies fans moan.

“Give me a break!” the umpire’s daughter says loudly to no one in particular. “Why don’t they just PUT someone there?”

“Like who?” I say.

“I don’t know,” she says.  “Someone with a glove.”

A home run in the top of the ninth gives the Mets an 8-0 lead.  There aren’t many left to see it.  The Phillies get a two-out  single in the bottom of the 9th, and there is mock cheering.  I think it’s mock.  I’m pretty sure the fans don’t actually believe, at this point.  I don’t see any inside-out rally caps.

Ryan Howard strikes out, and the Phillies lose, 8-0.

Back at the parking lot, some of the tailgaters are still there.  I don’t think they saw the game.  The parking lot is a mess.

On the way home, we’re driving through the neighborhoods that have us feeling uncomfortable.  Row houses look uninhabitable, but aren’t.  Store fronts are plywood message boards.   I stop at a grocery store for road trip staples–orange juice, fruit cups and Pop Tarts.  No one in the store is wearing a Phillies t-shirt.  It is a bag-your-own kind of place, but I don’t know where the bags are.  I’m looking around for them, trying to decide if I can get by without, when a woman stops on her way out, tells me it looks like I got my hands full, and hands me one.


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Cleveland Rocks

“I got some records from World War Two.  I play ’em just like my Grand Dad do.  He was a rocker, and I am too.  Oh, Cleveland rocks, yeah Cleveland Rocks.”  ~Ian Hunter

Game 22.   Cleveland.   Indians  vs.  Twins.

We’ve been gone from our homes about two months now.  I check in from time to time, of course, to find out how tall the grass is, and see if there are any Category Three storms in the Gulf.   Today I call my good friend Steve, in Orange, to discuss a small plumbing problem my son has told me about.  Something about upstairs water becoming downstairs water.  We get that matter resolved, well, actually, just chronicled, then move on to more pleasant stuff.

“We’re going to Cleveland!”

“On purpose?”

He’s a funny guy, that Steve.

It’s a three hour drive from Detroit to Cleveland.  We’re hoping to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame  in Cleveland before tonight’s game.  So it’s Pop Tarts again, while we drive.  I’m getting a little nostalgic for waffles.  And orange juice.  Some people think this is odd, others just cute, but in my home state, many motels offer waffles, the ones you make yourself, in the shape of the state of Texas.  And while they pretty much taste the same as ordinary waffles, they do look better.   And none of that has much to do with baseball, I just realized.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sits on the southern shore of Lake Erie, just a little over a mile from Cleveland’s Progressive Field.  We are wondering how Cleveland came to be the home of a rock music museum, and the answer is waiting for us, on a plaque outside the entrance.  Cleveland radio dee-jay Alan Freed, we read, is credited with coining the term ‘rock and roll’ to describe the music he was playing on the air in the early 50’s, and with organizing the first ever rock and roll concert in 1952, in Cleveland.

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The museum is a 7-story, glass pyramid building, with great views of Lake Erie, and downtown Cleveland.  It is very comprehensive in its chronicling of the birth and history of rock and roll, with countless artifacts and musical instruments of the legends.  There are opportunities to listen to the music that influenced future rockers.  Old video clips of live performances from back in the day are fascinating.  Films of a very young Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Johnny Cash, and Ricky Nelson, and the blues artists who influenced them are hard to stop watching.  It occurred to me as I watched his hip shaking that Elvis probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves for helping to create a new genre.  He melded country, blues and gospel, then took it somewhere none of us had been before.  That gets forgotten, I think, because, having delivered that gift he had for us, there was nothing left for him to do but become his own impersonator.

We could have spent the entire day here.  It is an amazing collection of rock and roll history.  There are countless instruments used by the rock and rollers on display.  And clothing and photos.  Elvis’s Cadillac is there.  And Johnny Cash’s tour bus.  John Lennon’s Sgt Pepper’s uniform is on display, as is the wavering Mellotron Paul played when The Beatles recorded ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.  The sheet music for The Beatles’ ‘Birthday’–with no musical notation because Paul McCartney didn’t know how to write any of that–is there.  A special exhibit to the Rolling Stones includes quotes from the band about their rebellious, bad boy image, (‘The Beatles got the white hats, so what’s left?  The black hats.’ –Keith Richard) and video clips of Mick Jagger on stage, playing guitar.  Ok, maybe there weren’t any strings on it.  Mick himself tells us his biggest influence was Little Richard.  And we learn the band got their name from the 1950 Muddy Waters song, ‘Rollin’ Stone’.  There’s a b/w photo of a pensive Mick Jagger sitting with John Lennon, which intrigues me for some reason.  I seem to like knowing that the two bands got along pretty well.

We’re at the top floor, exploring the Stones exhibit.  Vicki speculates about the differences between Beatles fans and Rolling Stones fans.  It seems like a great question.  A party ice-breaker.

“I don’t know.  You were Stones, I’m thinking.”

“Sure,” she says.  “And I guess you like the Beatles.”  She knows about my framed poster hanging in the stairwell, so it wasn’t much of a guess.

And so we talk about rebelliousness and musical energy and perfection and innovation.  And by then it’s time to walk to the ball park.

Formerly Jacob’s Field, and still referred to by some locals as The Jake, Cleveland’s baseball home is now Progressive Field.  (Nearby is the home of the NBA’s Cavaliers, the Quicken Loans Arena.  Corporate venue naming should be illegal.  Clearly.)  Progressive is very much a downtown ball park, sitting snugly amongst the clubs, cafes, sports bars, and skyscrapers.

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One of the streets outside the left field wall is known as “Rally Alley” and is set up as a pre-game street festival, with food vendors, musicians, games and entertainment.  It is here we come across a group of baseball players, dressed in wool uniforms from another era–The Cleveland Blues Base Ball Club.  I am fascinated.  They are a vintage base ball team, members of a national league of vintage clubs, they tell me.  They travel the region, playing turn of the century, bare handed, no gloves (as it was played then) base ball (two words, as it was spelled then).

“Do you play under the old rules of base ball, where the fielders threw the ball at baserunners to get them out?”

“Ah, you mean ‘soaking’ or ‘plugging’,” and he shakes his head.  “The Knickerbockers changed that rule, in 1845.  It wasn’t very gentlemanly.  And the fights that broke out generally ended the games.”

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We come across the bronze statue honoring Hall of Fame member Bob Feller, who pitched for Cleveland from 1936 (starting at age 17) until 1956, recording three no-hitters along the way.

We enter the stadium, and instantly see the red banners inside.  It’s Dollar Hot Dog Day!  Who knew!  So we grab four, to get started, and head to the condiment station, to add relish and official Stadium Mustard.  We unwrap our pre-wrapped dogs.

“This one’s sort of wadded up.”

“Yeah, this wiener isn’t exactly IN the bun.  The bun is actually sort of closed.  Permanently.  I think that’s a bun.”

We squirt relish and the official brown Stadium Mustard on them anyway, and head down to watch the Twins’ batting practice.  Our dollar dogs are great, we decide.

When the Twins finish, we explore The Jake.  Centerfield’s Heritage Park honors, with plaques and monuments, Indian greats Sandy Alomar Jr and Charles Nagy, as well as Bob Feller and Shoeless Joe Jackson, who played for Cleveland five years before heading to the White Sox.  There are others honoring Hall of Fame greats Cy Young and Satchel Paige.  We head up to the upper deck for skyline pictures (we’re not sitting up here tonight!), then I decide I need a dog upgrade.  I get an Italian sausage from the Sausages and Dogs kiosk, and we head to our seats.

I worked hard picking these seats.  I was on Stubhub’s site for thirty minutes two nights ago.  They are lower level seats, just above the ones down at the field level.  Much closer to the field than upper deck seats.   The usher walks us to our section.  We numbly take our seats, and know immediately that they are…..horrible.  They are the worst seats of our trip.  They are in a small section, tucked under a very low overhang.  We are on the last row, up against the wall.  It is hot in our cave.  And our view of the field feels as if we’re watching through a narrow window.  From across the street.  This is not good, I realize.

“This is not good.”

“Not so much,” Vicki agrees.

We are sweating, in our cave.  We think there are brief fireworks after the National Anthem.

“I think those were fireworks.”

“I thought I saw something go by.”

“I’m thinking about pouting.”

“I understand.  I won’t judge.”

This is not good.  I feel the energy of the night draining from me.  Our fellow cave-dwellers are fanning themselves.  Their eyes have glazed over.  We are all in trouble.  The first row of our little ten-row piece of heaven is empty.

“Let’s sit there,” I suggest.  “It’s closer to the mouth of the overhang.  It’ll be better.  It won’t be so hot.”

Vicki frowns.

“I’m not comfortable with that.   Those aren’t our seats.”

“It’ll be an adventure.”  I’m pouting less now.  The prospect of an adventure has excited me.

“I don’t know,” Vicki says.

“It’ll be ok.”

We move.  And it is much better.  We can see the sky.  It’s cooler.  It is better.

“Isn’t this better?”

“It is.  You’re right.  This is better.”

An usher walks up, with a family.

“Are these your seats?”

“It’s hot back there.”

“I know,” she says.  She seems apologetic.  “Maybe you can just move back a little.”

We move back two rows.

“This isn’t as good,” Vicki says.

We start to sweat.  I start to pout again.  I’m thinking of the couple in Milwaukee who I haven’t even told you about.  She was not happy with her seat.  And she shouldn’t have been.  She could see very little of the field.  A big piece of concrete was in the way.  They had words.  Yes, those words.  And that word.  He got up and left, then she left.  He came back and looked for her later, but she wasn’t there.  And I wondered then how the rest of their day went.  I stand up, here in Cleveland, and see several empty rows across the walkway, down below.  The expensive seats.

“Let’s sit there.”  And I point.

“I don’t know.”

“We’ll go in the bottom of the first, when people are coming are going.  Those are great seats.”

“I don’t know.”

Three outs.  It’s the middle of the first.  We get up and move, again, down into the Field Box Seats.

“Wow,” Vicki says, looking around.  “These are great seats.”

And they are.  There are several empty rows here.  And no ushers.  The field is close, the breeze is cool.  This is absolutely better.

Two couples walk up, and sit down behind us.

“Let’s sit behind these people,” one of them says.  “The ones who keep changing seats.”

Vicki’s eyes are instantly wide.  I turn around, and see the faces of our former fellow cave dwellers.

“We’ve been watching you,” she says.  “‘Let’s follow them’, I said.”  He smiles broadly and shakes my hand.

We laugh, agree that it’s too hot back there, and dare someone to come take away our seats.  Then another couple with two children enters our new section, and sits down in the row in front of us.  The Mom turns around, smiling.  They are from The Cave.   Our family is back together.

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The bottom of the first goes quietly.  The Indians string together a double and a single in the bottom of the 2nd, and take a 1-0 lead.

The man behind us, who had shaken my hand the inning before, leans forward and asks me about our pins.

“We’re seeing all the stadiums.”

“All of them?  This season?”

I nod.

He looks at his wife.

“That’s wonderful,” she says.

“You’re just,” and he waves his hand in a loop, “you’re just going to all of them.”

“Yes.”

He nods. And then he smiles.  “Well that’s something you won’t ever forget, isn’t it.”  It was not a question.

The score is 2-1, Cleveland, until the bottom of the 7th, when the Indians send 8 men to the plate.  Two walks, and three hits combine to produce three more, making the score 5-1.

In the middle of the 8th,  ‘Hang on Sloopy’ plays throughout the stadium.  The Cleveland crowd shouts out “O-H-I-O during the pauses, and form the letters with their arms.  Just like ‘YMCA’.  And then they do it again.  It’s infectious.  And we join in.  We’re a happy crowd.

I ask the man behind me about the story behind that song.

He’s not sure, but he knows they play the song at every Ohio State football game, at the start of every 4th quarter.

Vicki looks it up.  “Hang on Sloopy”, was written as a tribute to Steubenville, Ohio jazz pianist Dorothy Sloop, who performed during the 1940’s and ’50’s under the name ‘Sloopy’.  The song was recorded by the McCoys in 1965, and became very popular on Ohio State campus juke boxes, eventually making it onto the OSU marching band’s playlist.  It has since been proclaimed the Official Rock Song of Ohio, by the Ohio State Legislature.

I lean back to tell him.  He leans forward.  We have that kind of relationship now.

“Ok.  We looked it up.”

And I give him the short version.  He grins at the news.

“That’s a great story.”

The top of the ninth is uneventful for Vicki’s adopted Twins, who spring train in Fort Myers, Florida.  The home team Indians win 5-1.  Announcements are made concerning the upcoming Friday Night Fireworks.  It is our 2nd fireworks show of the trip.  Soon the lights dim over the field, which has the crowd murmuring.  Baseball stadiums look very cool just before fireworks shows.  I don’t exactly know why, but there’s an exotic, surreal peacefulness to the place when the lights are low.  The show is spectacular, with fireworks shot from centerfield joining in with the larger ones from outside, surprising and entertaining the crowd each time they do.

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The stadium lights come back up, and we stand to leave.  Our friends behind us wish us all the best on the remainder of our trip, and shake our hands.

‘Cleveland Rocks’ plays on the stadium speakers as we leave The Jake, and set out to find our parking garage near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I need to look up that song now, but the garage closes at midnight.

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The Mouth of the Tiger

“I had to fight all my life to survive.  They were all against me, but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch.”  ~ Ty Cobb

Game 21.   Detroit.   Tigers  vs.  Red Sox.

Ok, I admit that we’re a little nervous about Detroit.  When we Google things to do in Detroit, we read:  ‘It’s hard to think of the Motor City–a popular symbol of urban decay–as a vacation destination.’  Number two on their list is the old Michigan Central Station, the Greek temple styled 1913 train station whose windows are all blown out, walls covered with graffiti, and perimeter protected by fences of barbed wire.  This is the web site’s description.  We opt for the Ford Factory tour.

Henry Ford began construction of his vertical integration, assembly line production masterpiece on the Rouge River, just a few miles southwest of downtown Detroit, in 1917.  By the 1930’s, over 100,000 employees worked at the Rouge.  Smaller than that today, it is still one of the primary sites of Ford’s F-150 truck production.  These are the things I remember from the film.

We settle on the bus that will take us on the twenty minute ride from the Ford Museum in Dearborn to the manufacturing site.

“Have you been to all those?”

There’s a couple in the seat behind us.  He’s nodding at my hat pin filled Houston ballcap.  He’s wearing a Boston Red Sox cap, and we tell him about our trip.

“We’re doing the same thing,” he tells us.  They’re following the Red Sox on road trips, when they can, so that they will eventually make all the American League stadiums.  They’re from New Jersey, where, he tells us, it’s not easy being a Sox fan.  Vicki knows about these northeast things, and nods.

“But I remind those guys at work, I tell ’em all the time, ‘we’ve won two while you guys haven’t won any.'”

“Does that shut ’em up?”

“Course not.  They’re Yankees,” he laughs.

He stands up and shows us the back of his Boston t-shirt, which reads, “I’m a fan of two teams–Boston, and whoever is playing New York.”

“It’s all about the money,” he says.  “The Yankees just spend and spend.  I hate ’em.  Really, I do.  I hate ’em.”  And he laughs some more.

“We know,” Vicki says, and nods at me.  “He’s from Houston.”

“Well you know, then!” he says.  “You guys are spending nothing!  Rodriguez makes more than your whole team!  You gotta spend some money!”

“Our new owner says, ‘If the fans want a better team, they can write me a check for ten million dollars.'”

He and his wife just shake their head.  “That’s just wrong,” she says.  We sigh, and nod.

We’re all still agreeing that it’s just wrong when we arrive at the Rouge plant.  There are a couple of introductory films, but the real treat is taking a catwalk tour above the final assembly area, where we watch truck body shells roll down an almost endless array of conveyor lines, while workers at countless stations install doors, foam blocks, then door panels, then latches, then liners and trim, then stereo speakers–finally, the speakers–and grills.  Robotic arms install windshields in about 20 seconds.  And now that there’s a windshield, the next station’s workers installs the wipers, one employee per side.  All day long, they install windshield wipers.

The workers don’t move much.  They grab their part from the bin, slap in place, bolt it down, tighten it up, step back and take a sip of Mountain Dew, and wait for the next half a truck to show up.  Colors and styles are mixed, and when truck beds are happily united with their mates of the correct color, you realize how computer-orchestrated this all is.  And I wonder what the workers we’re watching down below think about all day, and what they have to say when they go home, and someone asks them how their day went.

Still, it was a fascinating tour.  The ’65 Mustang we find on display at the end of the tour cost $2,500, back in the day.  And we’re all shaking our heads again.

Thirty minutes away is downtown Detroit.  This is one of the cities that has us blinking.

“We’re in Detroit.”

“Yep.  The one in Michigan.”

“How did we get here?”

Neither of us has any idea how we got here.  There have been too many stops along the way now for us to retrace our steps.  Not without a map, and a few minutes.  And we continue to find ourselves in cities and states neither of us had ever visited, and that neither of us ever imagined ourselves in.  It’s intimidating sometimes, but exciting almost all the time.

We should bring small champagne bottles, we decide, for those victorious moments when we safely land in downtown parking lots.  It never feels like a sure thing.  We’ve somehow landed in another one, in Detroit this time, and we breathe again.

There’s another couple emerging from their car beside us.

“Do we have everything?” she asks.

He thinks for a moment.

“Tickets?” I throw in, uninvited.  We’re all a baseball family, I’m thinking.  So it’s ok, I’m thinking.  They both look at me.

“Yes!” he laughs.

“Yes, please,” she also laughs, “let’s not forget those.”

They walk along with us.

“Your hats look sort of full,” he says.  “You got any more room?”

He figures out where I’m from, and for the second time today, there’s a discussion concerning the payroll of the Houston Astros baseball team.  And similar conclusions, and predictions, are reached, none of them particularly good.  And we all agree it’s just wrong.

We arrive at the main entrance to Comerica Park, and it is stunning.  We are greeted by, well, I guess the first thing we’re greeted by is the energetic, frenzied percussive sounds coming from the four guys sitting on the curb just outside the entrance, playing drums on upside down 5-gallon paint buckets.  They are very good.  They shout out, in unison some times, and on their own whenever they feel like it other times, twirling and tossing their drumsticks as they play.  An approving crowd has gathered up.

But the second thing we’re greeted by is the Tiger–a larger than life, snarling, claws exposed concrete tiger guarding the main gate.  He’s impressive.  And there are others.  Comerica Park is well guarded by more tigers up on the roof, also snarling, and looking ready to jump down and pounce on all intruders.  Along the outside walls of the stadium, huge tiger heads hold baseballs firmly in their mouths with immense teeth, and the message is clear.  Comerica takes on the feeling of an ancient combat arena , and we know whose turf this is.  It is the most impressive ballpark entrance we’ve seen.

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Once inside, we want food, and batting practice.  The trademark food in Comerica, we’ve read, is Little Casesar’s Pizza.

“I refuse.”

“The owner of the team owns the pizza franchise, too.”

“Don’t care.  I can get Little Caesar’s in Orange.”

So we go straight for the fresh grilled Italian sausage dogs from a kiosk near Big Cat Food Court, smothered in onions and peppers, and walk down to the seats behind home plate, and watch the Red Sox bp.  The view from here is incredible.

“Who gets to sit here?” we wonder out loud.

“Don’t know.”

“This is amazing.  Who gets to sit here?”

“People who know other people.”

“We know other people.”

“We don’t know the right other people.”

Three 20-something guys in Tigers’ t-shirts and cargo shorts park themselves on the 1st row, just in front of us.  They can reach out and touch the foul screen.  They are grinning at each other, and fist bumping.

“They can’t afford those seats.”

“They know people.”

You can count the blades of grass from here, and the elaborate ‘D’ painted in the grass behind home plate looks very baseball.  The large scoreboard looms out in left field, with the traditional, cursive ‘Tigers’ dominating the corporate stadium name, unlike in Cincinnati.  We like it when they get that right.

The Red Sox finish batting practice about the same time we finish our sausage dogs, so we set out to explore the rest of the park.  As we walk up the steps to the concourse, an usher passes us walking the other way, and looks at what I’m wearing.

“You don’t see that shirt here every day.”

Nothing clever comes to me, so I just grin back.

In the centerfield plaza is an impressive row of bronze statues honoring six Tiger greats of the past, including Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline.  Cobb played 21 seasons for Detroit, the latter half of them in old Tiger Stadium, which opened in 1912, the same week as Fenway and Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, and which was replaced by Comerica in 2000.  With the construction of Comerica underway, the home plate from Tiger Stadium was, with much ceremony, transported by motorcade to its new home.  Making it easy to imagine, if I don’t research it too much, that the home plate below us is the same one Ty Cobb slid into with at least some of his record 54 steals of home.  As with the Red Sox and the Reds, there is a tremendous history to the Tigers, who were founded in 1894, and were one of the charter franchises of the American League.

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We circle the stadium’s lower concourse, then head to our seats in the upper section, behind home., where the Detroit skyline is even more striking.  The guys sitting behind us are excited.

“I am ready for this.”

“I am so ready for this.”

“I got ready by watching ‘The Fifty Greatest Baseball Ejections’ earlier.

“Cool.”

I lean over to Vicki.  “We’ve got to get a copy of ‘The Fifty Greatest Ejections’.

“I don’t see how we can’t.”

Two guys sit down to our right.

“Are you guys Tiger people?” I ask them.

“Yes.”

“Absolutely.”

The guy next to me is from Detroit originally, but moved to San Diego a few years ago.

“Have you become a Padres fan?”

“Sort of.  I guess.  No, not really.  You never leave your home team.”

I tell him about meeting the displaced Tigers fans when Detroit played in Houston earlier in our trip, and how excited they were to get to see their Tigers.

“There you go,” he says.

The game starts.  Quietly.  Both teams go three up and three down in the first.  Our neighbors get up after the first, and come back with nachos.  They’ve swapped places.

“So you guys are seeing them all.”

“Yep.”

“That’s pretty cool.”

He wants to know when we started, and when we think we’ll finish.  He’s quiet for a moment.

“That is so cool.’

A Red Sox batter is hit by a pitch and is awarded first on a ball that appeared to hit the ground first.  Detroit manager Jim Leyland comes out of the dugout to argue the point.  He gets pretty animated.  The umpires convene, which is always surprising it itself, but the call stands.  Leyland gets more agitated.  And the call still stands.

“So what’s been your favorite park?” he asks.

“AT&T, in San Francisco,” I answer.

“Yeah, it’s nice there.  And your worst?”

“Dodger Stadium.”

“I’ve heard that.”

It’s the bottom of the 2nd, and Detroit’s first baseman Prince Fielder is leading off.

“Fielder could be one of my Tigers,” he says, grinning.

“He’s not there now.”

“Not yet.”

“Who are your Tigers?”

“Cabrera.  Austin Jackson.  I like Peralta.”

The count goes to three and one.

“Fielder threw me a ball once.  The warm-up ball.  I was sitting behind the dugout.”

“And that didn’t do it?”

He grins.

“He would have been my guy after that,” I say.  “No question.”

“I know.  I know.  I’m just waiting.”

Fielder flies out to center.

“That didn’t help any, did it.”

“Nope.”

A David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz home run for Boston makes it 1-0 in the 4th.

Prince Fielder is 0 for 2 when he leads off in the bottom of the 6th, with the score now tied at two.  He singles to right.

“There you go,” I say, as if the matter is now settled.

He shakes his head, grinning.

“A single doesn’t do it, huh?”

“Nope.”

“You have high standards.”

He laughs.  The next batter grounds into a double play.

He tells me the Tigers’ biggest problem is their relief pitching.  Especially their closer, Jose Valverde.

“He used to be Houston’s closer!” I tell him.

“Want him back?”

“Guess not.”

A David Ortiz RBI single earlier in the 8th now has the Red Sox up 3-2, as the game goes into the bottom of the 9th.  Rally caps are turned inside out.  Inspirational film clips play on the big screen, asking us to believe.

“What do you think?” I ask him.

He grins, reluctantly.  “We’ll see.  Maybe.”

Boston Red Sox closer Andrew Bailey gives up a lead-off walk to Victor Martinez.  Jhonny Peralta, down in the count one and two, then hits a line drive to left that the left fielder chases, then stops chasing, as he watches the ball land in the left field seats.  A two run walk off home run has the fountains beyond centerfield erupting, and fireworks going off, and ‘Tigers Win’ flashing on every scoreboard in the house.  We’re all on our feet.  There is mass euphoria, and our friends to our right are offering me high fives.

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This is undiluted joy.  The home team has won.  And THIS is also baseball.

Too bad it wasn’t Fielder, I think.  A walk-off might have brought him in.

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Baseball’s Oldest Team

“I had no idea the Hall of Fame was waiting for me.  I don’t think any youngster ever dreams of that, or thinks that’s possible, because that is a place for fantasies.”  ~ Johnny Bench

Game 20.   Cincinnati.   Reds  vs.  Pirates

Louisville, Kentucky, home of THE baseball bat, is only an hour and a half from Cincinnati, we learned last night.  It surprises me a little that I didn’t think of this earlier, but now that we know, touring the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum is number one on today’s pre-game list.  It’s raining this morning in Cincinnati anyway.  So we head southwest to Louisville, and watch the sky.

“What happens if it rains today?” Vicki asks.

“Our schedule will be in trouble.  Detroit will be in trouble.”

“Detroit’s already in trouble,” she says.

She’s read ahead in our book, about Detroit being the poster child for urban decay.  “Still, it needs to not rain.  You worked hard on that schedule.”

Main Street, Louisville, is very charming–lined with buildings from the 1800’s, or looking like they are, and trees, shops, cafes and restaurants.  And a Subway with sidewalk seating.  Two blocks down the street, we see the 120 foot replica of Babe Ruth’s bat leaning casually against, and towering above, the Hillerich and Bradsby building.  It makes us giggle.

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Company founder J. F. Hillerich was not interested in baseball bats in the 1880’s.  He was interested in stair railings, porch columns, and butter churns.  Son Bud was interested in baseball, and the story is that he slipped away one afternoon in 1884 to watch the local professional team, the Louisville Eclipse.  When star player Pete Browning broke a bat that day, young Bud offered to make him a new one.  So with Pete by his side giving advice on the particulars, a bat was made, which Pete Browning used the next day to get three hits.  It would take ten more years, with the company complying with some of the ball players’ ever-increasing requests for bats, refusing a great many of them, before Bud convinced Dad there might be money in baseball bats, and the name “Louisville Slugger” was registered with the U. S. Patent Office, in honor of Pete Browning’s nickname.  Today, the company makes around 3000 baseball bats per day, just under two million a year.

Things we learned in the Louisville factory tour:  Most bats are made of Ash, though some are Maple.  Maple shatters when it breaks, ash splits.  Now when you see one break on tv, you can tell your friends what kind of wood it is.  They’ll be in awe.  The factory has coring devices that create forty inch long, 3-inch diameter ‘billets’, that are then turned on lathes into bats.  And while they once hand turned the bats, and a Louisville worker named Juice demonstrated that technique on the tour, they’re all made now on automatic lathes.   At about 20 seconds per bat.  It is amazing to watch.  The average major league baseball player goes through 120 bats each season.  The Louisville factory goes through approximately 40,000 trees in one season.  And Craig Biggio, Houston’s 3,000 hit future hall of famer, pretty sure, used a maple bat.  Our tour guide tells us that, and I can’t help but smile at the mention of my team’s hero.  It’s funny how that works.

There is a great deal of baseball memorabilia in the museum, including one of the bats Babe Ruth used in his 1927, 60-home runs without steroids season.  This bat has the twenty-one notches the Babe used to keep track that season, just above the Louisville Slugger logo.  Until it broke.  Yep, you can see that she splintered, not shattered.  See how cool knowledge can be?  It’s an impressive piece of baseball history to see in person.

Back outside, we admire the 120 foot bat again, and the giant baseball crashing into the window across the street, giggle some more, and admire the brass home plates and bat replicas set in the sidewalk, honoring the great hitters in baseball–Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, et al–who all swung Louisville Sluggers.

It rains on us most of the way back to Cincinnati.  We’re a little worried.  It’s stopped by the time we’re parking in the garage just blocks from Great American Ballpark, but the skies are dark.  We walk up Cincinnati’s Main Street, away from the ballpark and the Ohio River, across I-71 and into downtown.  In a few blocks, we’re at Fountain Square, in the heart of town.  It is the site of numerous free concerts throughout the summer, and ice-skating in the winter.  At the center of the square is the Tyler Davidson fountain ‘The Genius of Water’, a 43 foot tall bronze sculpture dedicated to the city of Cincinnati in 1871.  (You can probably impress your friends with this, too, if they haven’t already left.)  It features a 9-foot tall statue of a woman with outstretched hands, out of which flows streams of water.  It is considered the city’s symbol, and an homage to the river city’s continuous debt to the Ohio River.  We find it particularly interesting that the fountain is turned off during winter months, and turned back on on the opening day for professional baseball’s oldest team, the Cincinnati Reds.  This is all true.  I looked it up.

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Across the street from Fountain Square, on Macy’s outdoor jumbotron, they’re showing Pete Rose baseball highlights.  I’m betting I know how Cincinnati feels about her home town sports hero.

A few blocks from Fountain Square is the locally famous pre-game restaurant, Skyline Chili, which serves their secret recipe over pasta, as well as in bowls.  We do both, of course.  Our waitress, Raeanne, offers to take our picture with our chili, and our official Skyline plastic bibs.

“So are you guys on vacation?”

“We’re seeing all the major league baseball stadiums,” we tell her.

“All of them?  Wow.”

She brings us more tea.

“So you’re just driving to all the cities, seeing baseball games?”

“That’s it.”

“That is so cool.”

She’s been to three Reds’ games this year, she tells us.  Was going to go tonight, but she has to work.  But that’s ok.

“I think tonight might be sold out.  Our machine is empty.”

There are Cincinnati Reds ticket-selling machines scattered throughout downtown, we learn.  And we notice there in Skyline an electronic clock, counting down the days, hours, minutes until the next first pitch.  Cincinnati loves her Reds.

We tell her it’s a little sad to only have eleven games left.

“Oh, I know!” she says.  “You don’t want it to end.  I get that!”

Raeanne brings us a goodie bag, for it being our first time in Skyline, and wishes us well on the rest of our trip.  She’s put a couple of bibs inside, she tells us.

We still have an hour or so before the stadium gates open, so we walk the six blocks back to The Great American Ballpark for hatpins from the Team Store, and to check out the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum adjacent to the stadium. They were established as the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869, just four years after the conclusion of the Civil War, and are professional baseball’s oldest team.  As a kid, I remember the baseball season always beginning in Cincinnati for that reason, though that tradition seems to have faded in recent years.

It’s a good baseball museum, with photos of the team in the late 1800’s, as well as wool uniforms, short fingered gloves, and very worn baseballs from that period.  There are models of old Crosley Field, the Reds’ home until 1970.  Crosley opened in April, 1912, the same week as Fenway, and two years before Wrigley Field.  Cincinnati won its first World Championship in 1919, though that World Series victory was tainted by the allegations that the White Sox threw the series.  The first night baseball game ever played took place at Crosley Field, in 1935.  There are tributes to Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, manager Sparky Anderson, and others.  There are plaques honoring all those inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame.  There’s just the one name missing.

Major League Baseball’s lifetime suspension of Pete Rose for gambling has apparently left Cincinnati unable to honor him in their own Hall of Fame, but they’ve managed to work around that.  He is featured heavily inside the museum, and out.  There is an extensive exhibit honoring the player nicknamed Charlie Hustle by Mickey Mantle, after watching Pete Rose run full out to first after a walk in a spring exhibition game his first year.   There’s a three-story tall collection of 4,256 baseballs, one for every career hit.  Outside, beside the stadium, there’s a Pete Rose Way, and a Rose Garden–a bed of red roses, surrounding a single white rose, marking the exact spot where record-breaking hit number 4,192 landed, in the Reds’ former home, Riverfront Park, surpassing Ty Cobb’s career hit total.

And there’s the pitching cage, where you can pitch to a target sixty feet, six inches away, and an automated umpire calls balls and strikes.  My first throw careens against the side of the cage.

“Ball!” the umpire calls out.

“I tried to throw that one too hard,” I tell Vicki.

“Try another one.”

This one hits several feet in front of home.

“Ball!”

“Wow.  Home plate looks a long ways off.”

“Try another one.”

This one’s closer.

“Ball!”

I’m starting to not like this umpire so much.  I grab another ball out of the bucket, and throw something that seems to take forever to get there.  I think it was my fastball.

“Strike!” the umpire yells.

“That one displayed the speed!” Vicki says, excited.  “It was 54 mph,” she announces, before I can stop her.

“Are you kidding me?”

I’d like to tell you it got better.  I threw till I was breathing hard, and there was another strike in there somewhere, but I never reached 60.  And I’m pretty sure I need surgery now.

We head outside, and cross the home plate plaza area to the stadium.  It’s still sprinkling, a little.  Our schedule is in trouble, I’m thinking.

“We wouldn’t have this problem in Houston.”

“I know,” Vicki says.

“We have a roof.”

“I know.”

She’s taking pictures of The Great American Ballpark now, so I’m not going to remind her that Houston’s roof is retractable.

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We’re more than a little disenchanted to learn that the stadium’s name, The Great American Ballpark is NOT a poetic homage to baseball’s place in American history, or its status as America’s Pastime, but another sports venue corporate naming casualty, an extremely unpoetic homage to the Great American Insurance Company, whose 2-mile high glass fronted building sits just across the interstate from the stadium.  I feel severely mislead.

And in the interest of honest reporting, the outside of the GAB is not particularly attractive.  The only brick, and we love brick, is on the museum/team store, and what looks like an almost attached office building.  The stadium itself is white painted steel, and glass.   Not good-looking, retro steel.  Just steel.  Cheap-looking steel.  No arches, and little in the way of a decorative facade that suggests a noble arena might be inside.  Just the white underbelly of the seats.

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Inside, though, it’s a beautiful ballpark.  The seats are red, like those in Busch Stadium, with all the trim green.  Above the centerfield wall is a steamboat, a tribute to Cincinnati’s historical status as a riverboat port.  There are smokestacks along the right-center outfield wall.  And beyond the stadium, the Ohio River, with its green, home-speckled hills rising up beyond the far bank.  There is a connection with our history, with all things Americana, that comes from looking out beyond the stadium walls of a baseball field, at one of our essential rivers.  Huck Finn would have liked baseball.  It’s the wrong river, and he would have snuck in, but none of that matters.

There’s a tarp covering the infield.  There are few people in the stadium, and it’s sprinkling.  We have the sense that we may as well just hang around at this very cool place for awhile, and eat stuff.  We get a smoked turkey leg and a Prime Rib Sandwich from Mr. Red’s Smokehouse, stand at one of the pub tables under cover, and take it all in.  It’s all very relaxing, like we’re practicing watching a baseball game.

The sprinkles stop, and we walk across the open-air outfield concourse to the seats.  The tarp is still on the infield, though the grounds crew has done some tarp-rolling maneuvering.  Behind the stadium, just across the Ohio, it is raining.

“What are you two up to?” a silver-haired usher asks us.   He’s the same usher who asked Vicki what she was taking a picture of a couple of minutes earlier.

“Just watching it rain.”

“It’s a good day for that.”

It starts to rain a little again.   A couple walks up out of their outfield seats, and heads over to Red’s.

“Where are you folks going?” he asks, and shrugs.  They grin, and find shelter at our old table.

“Think we’ll play?” I ask him.

“Yeah, probably.”  He looks at the dark sky.  “Maybe.  Where are you folks from?”

“Texas and Florida.”

“Yeah, I think I knew that.”

“Yeah, I thought it was a funny question,” I say.  And he chuckles.

I tell him we’re going to go exploring, and he takes off his Reds ball cap, finds a Concession Map, and hands it to me.  He tells me where all the good eats are, including a Skyline Chili booth.

“Come back and see me,” he says, and we shake hands.

There are quite a few people in the covered concourse, as we all wait out the weather.  New stadiums are designed where you can walk the concourse, and have an unbroken view of the baseball field all the while, and The Great American Ballpark is one of the best at this design.  We walk along, in no hurry, and look out at the baseball field.

“This is cool.”

“Absolutely.”

The sprinkling stops,  and the grounds crew begins to fold, then roll up the infield tarp.  We head to our seats, on the 3rd level.

As we walk up the ramp, a father and his son catch up to us.  They are wearing red.

“You must not have gotten enough love as a child,” the father tells me, “to go out in public with that Astros garb.”

“Hey, we’re getting better.  Sort of.”  He’s grinning.

“They even moved you to the other league, to try to help you out.”

“Yeah, that didn’t help.  We miss you guys.”

We walk together the rest of the way up.  We talk about salary caps, the players’ union, and other stuff I sometimes try to pretend doesn’t exist.  His twelve-year old son is wearing a Reds Head Kids Club shirt, and he tells us about that.  They get tickets to four games, and some pretty neat on the field interactions with Reds players.

“Course I have to take off work.”

“You get to take off work.”

“I get to take off work.”

He’s very proud of his son, and how much he knows about the game.

“He could manage this team as well as Dusty Baker.  I’m pretty sure of that.”  His son grins.

“The game needs young fans,” Vicki says.

“Yes, it does,” the father says.

“I get to meet some of the players, out on the field!” his son says.

“I like your shirt,” I tell him.  It has a sort of wild haired, sunglasses wearing version of their Mr. Redlegs mascot.

“Thanks.”

We reach the top.

“Well, enjoy the game,” the father says.  “And thanks for the talk.”

The tarp is off, the view is great, and the rain has stopped completely.  The sun is shining on the buildings across the river.  There will be baseball tonight.

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Which isn’t good news for the home team, as things go bad for the Reds very quickly.  The Pirates’ Starling Marte hits the 2nd pitch of the game to right center for a triple.  A single, two walks, and another single later, it’s 3-0 Pittsburgh.  Cincinnati’s starter Mat Latos settles down after that, and Reds’ pitchers combine for 17 strikeouts, but the damage was done.  The Pirates would get only one more hit after the first inning, but the Reds only managed  4 hits all game off of Pittsburgh starting pitcher Charlie Morton.  The smokestacks in right center billow fire with every strikeout thrown by a Reds’ pitcher.  They’re supposed to shoot fireworks when the Reds hit a home run, but we don’t get to see that part.

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There are three fans decked out in Pirates garb one row in front of us, and a young man in Cincinnati red in front of them, on the first row of our upper deck section, behind home.  Late in the game, there’s foul ball hit straight back, in our direction.  I stand up, as do the others in front of me.  The young man in red leans out over the rail, and makes a great catch.  There is applause.  The Pirate fan just behind him pats him on the shoulder.

“Great catch!” he says.  “I was waiting on it, too!  I was ready.”  Everyone is laughing, and admiring.

The young Cincinnati fan is all smiles.  He passes the ball back to the Pirates fan, who admires it graciously, then passes it back.

“It was a great catch,” he says again.

A Reds fan sitting a few rows farther back, and to our right, jokes that if he had been a real Pirates fan, he would have cold-cocked the young Reds fan, and snatched the ball.  Everyone laughs, and all seem to take it in the right spirit.   There is more joking, as the Pirates fan defends both his loyalty to Pittsburgh, and his overall sound human nature.

“I guess we learned something tonight about Pittsburgh fans,” the joking Cincinnati fan says.  It sounds pompous, it reads as if his remarks are full of arrogance, but they are not.  And somehow everyone in our section knows they are not.  Swords are lowered.  A truce is almost silently announced.

It’s the bottom of the 9th, and the scoreboard tells us it’s Rally Time.

“Why is that guy’s hat inside out?” Vicki asks.

“Hats turned inside out are rally caps.”

“Really,” she says, and she starts counting rally caps around us.  “You’ve done that?”

“Sure.”

“Did it ever work?”

“Don’t think so.  But it might one day.”

It doesn’t work today, and the Reds go down quietly in the bottom of the 9th.  The Reds who hit four home runs yesterday, hit four singles today.  The Pirates win, 4-0.

We all stand to leave, and the Pirates fan in front of us delivers a parting  shoulder punch, and ‘nice catch’ to the young man with the foul ball.  He is holding the ball in one hand.  The rest of him is still smiling.

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Turning Two in Tennessee

“The match stayed close during the first three innings, but the Red Stocking bats came alive and carried the lads in red to a 25-7 victory over the Batesville Lumbermen.”  ~ Newspaper account, 1869

We’re in Columbia, South Carolina, aiming for Cincinnati later tonight.

It’s another late start, and the Waffle House next door has our attention.  Then I look at my watch.

“Try not to get bear claw crumbs on the seat,” Vicki reminds me.

A disheveled gentleman walks past me while I’m getting gas for the car, and heads inside.  I move the car, and wait for Vicki.  Back in the car, she starts to tell me about a strange conversation she just had inside, when there’s a tap on the car window.

“That’s the guy,” she says.

I roll down the window.

“Hey there,” he says.  He’s sixty something, with grey hair going in a number of different directions.  He hasn’t shaved in awhile.

I’m wondering what he’s going to ask me for.

“Do they still have the Capistrano there in Orange?”

I look at him, trying to understand what he just said.

“I lived in Bridge City for seven years, but I spent a lot of time at the Cap.”  The Capistrano is a small place in Orange, Texas, just a few minutes from nearby Bridge City.  It’s part cafe, part bar.  Mostly bar.  It is still there, and it’s 900 miles and several states from Columbia, SC.

“You lived in Bridge City?”

“Yep.  That’s what I was telling her inside just now.  I saw your Texas plates.”

He’s from South Carolina, but somehow found himself a number of years ago in the small town where I went to high school, in southeast Texas.  He didn’t explain how that came to be.  He tells us some more about his days at the Cap.

“Well you folks have a safe trip,” he says, and offers his hand.  Then he straightens up, looks at the two of us a second more, and walks away slowly, back in the same direction from which he first approached.   And we won’t ever see or talk to Mike from Columbia again.  We watch until the shrubs at the end of the parking lot block our view of him, then we feel bad.

We drive mostly north, to Asheville, then a little westward, just north of the Smokey Mountains.  It’s all green, rolling and very lush.   The layers of unknown ridges we see around most every bend are smokey and inviting.  We stop at a North Carolina WalMart for supplies.

“I should write about road trip grocery shopping,” I say.

“You’re going to tell people we live off Pop Tarts and fruit pies?”

“I think I may have already leaked that out.”

“Great.”

“And microwave Dinty Moore’s.  And noodle cups.”

“Wonderful.  They’ll know I’ve gone to the dark side, now.”

“Hey, we got milk!”

“If you’re going to write about grocery shopping, I should swing by the fruits and vegetables.”

“If you go there, I’ll write about it.”

We get a 2nd bag of chips, and some kind of banana cookie thing, and Whoppers.

Not too many miles away, at a rest area among the thick forests north of Smokey Mountain National Park, we stop for lunch.  It’s very nice out, not hot like it no doubt is in southeast Texas and southwest Florida.  The salt and garlic chips are a big disappointment, though.

“These don’t taste like AT&T’s garlic fries.”

“Not so much.”

“Don’t let me pick the chips any more.”

“You’ll get better at it.”

We turn a few double plays in the soft grass near the trees, then drive some more.

We’ve updated our Baseball Roadtrip Playlist.  Vicki transferred the songs to my phone, which is plugged into the car stereo.  I’m feeling pretty techie, even though I was reading ‘Eight Men Out’ while she was copying and dragging and saving.  There are 57 songs now.  But we’ve just now thought of a Van Morrison we’d like to add.

We helped paint some raised garden boxes just before Jaime and Neil’s party, and Vicki is scrubbing and filing while I’m driving.

“What are you working on?”

“I’ve got paint on my cuticles.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

Cincinnati is THE oldest professional baseball team, debuting as the Red Stockings in 1869.  The Reds and the Pirates play tomorrow night, and we’re excited.  Our tickets are printed, and in my pocket.  Or maybe they’re in the back seat.


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Not a Great Many Events

 “I’ll tell you what, if Barry Bonds hit a home run off Bob Gibson and stood and admired it, he’d knock that earring out of his ear the next time up.”  ~ National League Umpire Doug Harvey

We’ve taken a side trip.  Vicki’s daughter Jaime and her best friend Neil recently married, on their Alaskan vacation.  Now it’s time for the celebration with family and friends back home.  So we’re making the 1470 mile detour from Minneapolis to Jacksonville.  It’s more road trip, so it’s good.  More opportunities for sharing insights, personal observations, and road trip music.  And road trip eats.

“Try not to spill lemon pie crumbs all over the car seat.”

“I’m a lady.  I don’t spill crumbs.”

We’ve missed the motel breakfast.  Again.

“Have you Googled things to do in Paducah?”

“The National Quilt Museum.”

“That’s in Paducah?  How many days do we have there?”

I’m not sure events happened between Minneapolis and Jacksonville.   Which seems odd, that one could drive that kind of distance without events.  So there was conversation, writing, and music instead.  Well, ok, there was the hailstorm.  Some of the hail sounded pretty loud on the roof of the car.  We thought about stopping under the overpass, but didn’t.  I told you not a great many things happened.

So we listen to satellite radio, and audition new play list music.

‘What’s New Pussycat’ plays.

“I hate that song.”

“Just that song, or anything by Tom Jones.”

It keeps playing.

“God, I hate that song.”

“Can you think of anything by him that you don’t hate?”

“I’m coming up with nothing.”

“We’re going to get along just fine.”

We have discovered we can amuse ourselves by searching for songs on Youtube on our phones, and playing them through the car stereo.  Which has us wondering how well ‘The End of the World’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ will get along.

We also wonder if anyone has noticed The Playlist.  Or clicked on any of the songs.  There’s no way for us to know these things, so we’re pretending you love the playlist, and can’t wait for the next addition.  Or subtraction, maybe.  And we’re ok with pretending.  But if you have something about the music you’d like to tell us, that’d be alright too.  So, maybe we’re not all that ok with pretending after all.

We drive some more.  The Snow Bunny apple pie is gone.

“Our snack bag is depleted,”  Vicki reports the tragic news, after rummaging around in the back seat.  “We’ll have to start eating less.”

“I hate eating less.”

“I know,” she says, and turns up the music.  ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is on.

On the 2nd day, we stop just south of Macon, Georgia for lunch.  The terrain in the rest area is a little hilly, so Vicki gets to throw to me from the top of the hill.

“I like this,” she says.  “I can throw faster.”

“Pitchers like it, too.”

I tell her about how major league baseball lowered the height of the pitching mound by 5 inches in 1969, so that more runs would be scored.  Some even blame it on Bob Gibson’s 13 shutouts the year before.  I share too much, but Vicki appears interested.  She’s good about that.

Vicki can throw the ball farther from atop the hill at the rest area, so I get to make longer throws back to her, uphill.  People watch us playing catch, but don’t ask us why we’re doing it.  Which surprises me.  On none of our rest area sessions do we ever really want to stop throwing the ball to one another, but do so only when we think about how much farther we have to go that day.

We pack up our gloves and our Official Little League ball, and continue to drive the green rolling terrain of Georgia.  These are the moments when we remind ourselves what an amazing trip this is.  When we talk about the possibly romanticized place reserved for baseball in American history.  When we talk about baseball’s possibly losing its Pastime status to football, and what that might say about our frenzied American life, and our need for constant stimulation.   And what movies we’ve missed while on the road.

We’ve been chasing after baseball for almost eight weeks.  We’ve accumulated 19 souvenir cups, 21 hat pins, 6 free hats, and several bobbleheads.  It’s the middle of June, and it’s warm outside now.

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