Archive for category Roadtrip

NPB Game #2 – Seibu Dome

Made it to the 2nd game on my schedule: Saitama Lions vs ORIX Buffaloes at the Seibu Dome.  It was a very serendipitous evening: started out with tailgating at high-speed on the train over (you can bring your own beer and drink it on the express train), it was ‘turn-back-the-clock’ night so the Lions were wearing retro Tokio Senators uniforms, and the home team won 5-1 in a blowout.

Then the fans got to go out on the field and watch a movie.  Finally, I got on the last train home and ran into 3 of the star players who are former MLB players (Dennis Sarfate, Esteban German & Ryan Spillborghs.  Was great to chat them up and tell them about my trip, they really liked it.

On the Express Train to the Lions game

On the Express Train to the Lions game

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NPB Game #1 – Jingu Stadium

I went to my first NPB ballpark here in Tokyo last night.  The Yakult Swallows (Tokyo) destroyed the Hanshin Tigers (Osaka) at Jingu Stadium.
First impression: Japanese people really know how to do baseball! These are the most enthusiastic fans I’ve ever seen.  Both sides have special cheering sections complete with brass bands, it’s more like a soccer match.  I got to try takoyaki (deep fried balls of octopus tentacles) at the ballpark.  As anticipated, everyone is so polite and friendly in Japan but most especially they are great at the ballgame.   I’ll be posting pictures as soon as I can.
Joseph at Jingu Stadium

Joseph at Jingu Stadium

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2013 Road Trip Season: Japan

Map of NPB Stadiums

Map of NPB Stadiums in Japan

Well folks, it’s time to announce that I will be following up my Major League Road Trip last year with a trip this summer to Japan. There are 12 teams in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, and I plan to go see a ball game at each of their home stadiums across Japan. By my calculations, this will take about three weeks. I’ll be traveling primarily by rail and staying in hostels.

My trip will start in Tokyo where there are five teams, then I will head south through Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima all the way to Fukuoka. Next, I’ll turn around head back north with a stop in Tokyo, then on up to Sendai and Sapporo. There is a possibility that I may also take a side trip to South Korea to see a few games there as well.

Since I’ve never been to Japan and don’t speak the language, any constructive advice that you might have would be greatly appreciated. Otherwise, enjoy my posts and check-ins from the road.

Things that go “bump” in the night: South Dakota, Wyoming & Utah

I spent a long, hot, itchy and buggy night in the van near Waukesha, Wisconsin after the Milwaukee Brewers game.  The weather had finally decided that summertime was upon us and the cool evening temperatures of spring had given way to the stifling mid-western air of summer.  I spent the majority of the day catching up on writing for my blog and searching for cheese which I could bring home.  Sorely disappointed, all the wonderful, fresh cheese I found in Wisconsin needed to be refrigerated (one of the downsides to travelling by van is the lack of a refrigerator).  There was no practical way to keep anything on ice for the eight days that stood between me and my arrival in Seattle, or even the next four days to my next destination in Salt Lake City, Utah.

There is no major league baseball team in Salt Lake City, but I have close friends there who were willing to put me up for a few days while I waited for the Colorado Rockies to return from a road trip.  My plan was to spend the next two days driving from Wisconsin to Utah, spend a day or two in Salt Lake City and then head back east to Denver for the second to last stop on my Major League Road Trip.

When I finally left Waukesha it was mid-to-late afternoon.  The sun’s rays were filtering in with an orange-hued glow as I travelled west, first back up the I-94 and then onto I-90.  Salt Lake City was approximately 1,500 miles from my position and by my estimation that would be two and a half days of driving.  I didn’t stop until I hit the Minnesota state line which was marked by the flow of the Upper Mississippi River.  The great river looked so peaceful and nondescript here in the north before being fed by countless tributaries along the way south through St. Louis and New Orleans. 

Dusk filtered through the atmosphere as I stopped for a break and a few photos.  The quality of light that evening was some of the most unusual I’d experienced.  I captured the strange phenomenon with a borrowed Canon G9 camera, which I barely knew how to use.  Then I drove on, racing the setting sun until darkness enveloped the van as she rattled along the highway.

When I finally stopped at a small rest stop along the I-90, the wind had picked up quite fiercely.  I spent what remained of the night listening to it whip through the leafy branches of the tall, spindly aspen trees.  The cool air flooded through the window vents on the van and kept me cool enough to doze off and get some decent sleep.

South Dakota

Prarie in South Dakota

When I awoke in the morning, the wind had cleared.  I set out eastbound on the I-90 again and quickly crossed the state border between Minnesota and South Dakota where I briefly stopped in Sioux Falls.  As the van rattled along the freeway, I was awed by the beauty of this Great Plains state.  The rolling hills of grass seemed infinite and the blue sky, dotted with clouds as white as a freshly laundered chef’s apron appeared to stretch on forever.

 Semi-trucks rumbled along in the right lane as the van and I chased the ever-distant horizon on cruise-control.  My driving gaze was interrupted every mile or so along the highway by signs and billboards for local road-side attractions, starting somewhere around 400-500 miles from it, most of the hand-painted signs reminded me that Wall Drug lay ahead.  The notoriety of Wall Drug has been immortalized in my memory by countless bumper-stickers emblazoned with the moniker: “Where in the HECK is Wall Drug?” The more the miles ticked away, the closer to Wall Drug I got. 

 

I drove all day, and the sun began to tilt toward the west. The light gained the orange hue of late afternoon. I passed one of the brown, National Park Service road signs which said that Badlands National Park Loop was just ahead.  Checking the GPS, I found that the loop took only 26 miles, came out farther to the west and intersected with I-90 again.  On a whim, I made the fateful decision to take the detour.

 

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

Upon entering Badlands National Park, I was immediately struck by the wide canyon before me. In every direction there were distorted geological formations.  The crags of misshapen earth bore the marks of ancient age: horizontal lines of ancient sediment stripped across the valley to create a terrain that I imagined might be fitting of a distant moonscape or inhospitable planetoid. As I cruised along the narrow and winding, single-lane road through the park, I encountered a plethora of wildlife: big horn sheep nonchalantly grazed along the side of the road almost close enough to touch, and antelope wandered about in the distance.

Dusk turned to twilight as I continued through the park, realizing that I needed to find a place to park the van and sleep for the night. Abruptly, I almost ran into a construction site. Road workers were working in the darkness.  The flagger kept us stopped for quite some time, long enough for me to turn off my engine and strike up a conversation as we waited for the pilot car to return.  As I stood, eating canned Chef Boyardee ravioli freshly heated on my engine block, she recommended a camping area about 5-6 miles off the main road ahead.  I took her advice and followed the pilot car into the night and turned where a dirt road split off from the main road. 

Chef Boyardee a la Dodge Caravan

Chef Boyardee a la Dodge Caravan

 

As the van rattled along the bumpy thoroughfare, entrenched in darkness which my headlights were barely able to penetrate, I thought I saw two or three enormous shadows cross the road up ahead.  Warily, I stopped the van and rolled down the windows.  With the pocket-sized LED flashlight charging in the van’s empty cigarette lighter slot, I shined the small but powerful light out into the night. I was greeted not by a pair or two pairs of eyes, but at least two hundred pairs of golden eyes reflecting back at me from a distance of less than 20-30 yards.  I had encountered the park’s resident bison herd, huddled together for defense in the darkness.  It is one of the most eerie feelings to stare into the darkness at so many bright, shiny eyes, every one of them fixed on you.  Knowing that these beasts are enormous and not being able to gauge their reaction to my presence made me a little nervous. I watched for a while and moved on to the campsite when my curiosity waned.

Later, I would learn that the reason an animal’s eyes reflect light in the darkness but a human’s do not is because animals have a tapetum lucidum, which is effectively a light-reflecting membrane in the eye. The tapetum lucidum gathers light and allows animals to see much better in the darkness, but is also related to why their vision isn’t as precise in the daylight.  

 

The Badlands Bison Herd

The Badlands Bison Herd

In the morning, I awoke early. The sunlight streamed through the windows of the van and warmed my face to the point of discomfort.  I slid into the driver’s seat and pulled the van around the cul-de-sac of tents and campers.  Not more than one hundred yards down the dirt road leading to the camping area, I encountered (presumably) the same buffalo herd.  There were more of them than I had estimated the night before, and they had spread out over a few surrounding acres on either side of the road.  All manner and shape of bison lingered and lounged in the grass as I slowly rolled the van past them, taking photos from its relative safety.  Cows and calves mixed along with the numerous bulls.  The mid-morning sun shone down on the big ungulates and I could see them shake their ears and thick fur coats as the insects tormented them.  On a hillside in the distance, a big bull rolled and kicked in the dry dust to try to cool down.  The day ahead would be hot out there in the Badlands.

I said my good-byes to Badlands Nat’l Park and continued on.  A little town called Wall, South Dakota sits at the cross-roads of I-90 and the access road through the National Park.  Not surprisingly, this is the home of Wall Drug.  Considering the persistence and ingenuity of their marketing campaign and the coercion from all those silly “Where the heck is Wall Drug?” bumper stickers, I felt like this place would be a reasonable exception to my ‘No-stopping-at-roadside-attractions’ rule.  What I discovered however, was a vast labyrinth of tourist swag tucked away inside the faux-prairie-style building on the main street of Wall… perhaps they should have called it Wall Street?

At any rate, I waded through the displays of gimmicks and merchandise to purchase a few post cards and try out a hot dog made from Buffalo meat.  My order was taken by a fresh-faced teenage European girl, and as I observed the rest of the staff, I realized that they were all teens from various countries around the world.  Striking up a conversation with one of them, I was informed that they were all some sort of work-exchange students and that the company obtained most of their seasonal employees from other countries. I was struck by the brazen exploitation at hand: what a miserable way to spend a summer for a young foreigner. Imagine being accepted into a foreign exchange program in a glamorous and exotic country, only to be shipped off to one of the most desolate regions and forced to work in retail customer service at a notorious tourist trap for the duration of your stay.  In my opinion it was a dirty trick played out on these unsuspecting kids. Nevertheless, I took my free bumper sticker same as the rest and went on my way.

 

Mt Rushmore

Mt Rushmore

After the vapid experience at Wall Drug, I got back on the road and headed west again.  It was roughly about noon when I hit Sturgis, home to the infamous annual motorcycle rally which the townsfolk appeared to be gearing up for already.  In this area, my cellphone coverage had finally disappeared completely and I had to rely on good, old-fashioned maps to navigate.  Perhaps I was a little rusty because in my attempt to get to Mt. Rushmore, I ended up driving through the historic gold rush town of Deadwood.  Deadwood and Mt. Rushmore are situated deep in the Black Hills, an area of roughly 125 by 65 miles of thick pine trees that differ drastically from the environments that surround them.  The Lakota-Sioux believe that the Black Hills are sacred and belong to their nation as their ancestral homeland.  I found that the area had a unique beauty and an unmistakable energy that seemed to radiate from the ground itself.  It is no wonder that despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that the Sioux were unjustly deprived of their home and that compensation exceeding more than a billion dollars was due them, the Lakota-Sioux refuse to accept the money and are still holding out for their land to be returned to them.

Ironically, the placement of Mt. Rushmore within the Black Hills seems to add insult to injury to the Sioux claims.  I found the Mt. Rushmore National Park to be a disappointment in the way that commercialism seems to have corrupted most things of such nature:  crowded and over-priced.  However, just a few miles to the south stands the half-built monument to a Native American hero: Crazy Horse.  The great warrior chief occupies a much larger position on a south-facing rock face.  Although the sculpture is far from complete (and may take generations to finish) the unmistakable face of a proud leader emerges from the rock.  Perhaps the unfinished status of the Crazy Horse monument is a silent reminder to all of the unfinished business that the Lakota-Sioux wait for in trying to reclaim their heritage.

I pressed on and the late afternoon sun waned as the pines of the Black Hills gave way to the rocky and barren landscape of Wyoming.  The long, straight highway from Newcastle to Lusk was interrupted only by a semi-truck which had jack-knifed and blocked both lanes of the road. Presumably, the trucker had fallen asleep at the wheel and lost control of the trailer.  While a cadre of state patrol officers and a tow-truck dealt with the obstruction, drivers stuck in the line of traffic took the opportunity to stretch their legs, myself included.

The darkness finally came about the time that I reached Lusk.  I turned west on Highway 18 toward Douglas.  The hours passed as the dashed lines on the road ticked by and the radio tuned to fuzz. My eyes blinked repeatedly as fatigue overwhelmed me.  My eyelids closed, my mind drifted to sleep and the van rumbled on.  I was awakened by a jolt as the tire collided with the warning track on the other side of the road.  I swerved back into my own lane and slowed down until I found one of the many turnouts along the highway and pulled the van over.  I climbed into the back and immediately fell asleep.

Sometime during the night, I was awaked by headlight beams intruding into my sleep.  My eyes fluttered half-open and I gripped the hatchet wedged under the mattress.  A silhouette in the shape of a man cast a shadow on the roof of the van.  Half asleep I shouted, “What do you want?!? Get the fuck the outta here!!!” With a few seconds the headlights arced away and the stranger disappeared into the night. Immediately I fell asleep again, too tired to investigate the intrusion. Perhaps he had stopped just to take a leak or perhaps he wanted to investigate my vehicle; either way, the fact that the van was occupied deterred any greater intrusion and I’ll never know who it was out there that night.

The next morning, I awoke with the dawn and continued my journey westward across the state of Wyoming on the I-25 through Casper down WY-220 to Interstate 80.  The day was filled with driving, but I allowed for one stop: the Fort Bridger Living Museum.

As a child, I read a biography of Jim Bridger, the mountain man who explored the Wyoming territory.  One of my heroes growing up in Alaska, I always felt a kinship with the persona described in that book.  Fort Bridger brought many memories back from my childhood when I pretended to be on grand explorations deep in the wild.  I learned that Jim Bridger was likely the first white man to see the Great Salt Lake and led many wagon trains into Utah, where the Mormons would eventually settle.

I climbed back into the van and made my final push to cross into Utah.  The interstate climbed over the mountain pass.  The color of the soil changed drastically to more of a rust color as the atmosphere thinned.  Finally, the van crested the pass and I dropped into neutral to coast.  Salt Lake City was just a few minutes away, where my friend Sunit and his family waited for me.

Salt Lake City is home to the Anaheim Angels Triple-A affiliate baseball team, the Salt Lake Bees.  We got tickets for the Sunday game against the Reno Aces at Spring Mobile Ballpark.  Sunit’s daughter was three years old and this would be her first baseball game.  We signed her up for the Knothole Club, which included an adorable ‘Little Bee’ t-shirt which we immediately changed her into. 

Our tickets were on the first base side, a few rows behind the visitor’s dugout.  The Bees kicked off the game with a run in the first inning.   Our Little Bee was enjoying the game, when an unanticipated turn of events made things weird.  Turns out that the mascot with the really big head (a caricature of a lineman for the local utility company) is really intimidating for a toddler.  Sunit’s little girl hid her face and cried every time the mascot was in the vicinity.  We walked around the stadium instead, which I must say is a rather nice park for a triple-A team.  We missed most of the game, but did get to witness a fantastic 8th inning rally by the home team, which consisted of two 2-run home runs. 

Since Spring Mobile ballpark has a grassy lawn beyond the outfield, home run balls land amidst the spectators lounging on the grass.  It’s fun to watch the folks out there chase down the balls as they crash down and bounce around among them.  The bottom of the ninth was unnecessary, as the Bees were ahead 5 to 3.  We left the stadium in good spirits and our Little Bee fell asleep in her car seat on the ride home.

The next day, I said my good-byes to Sunit, his wife and the Little Bee then climbed into the van for the final leg of the road trip.  It was 579 miles to Denver by the southern route through Provo, and I had five days left to get back to Seattle before my target return date of June 30th.  Time for “Bat Outta Hell” mode. Engage!

Minnesota to Milwaukee: Amish in the Night

Post-rain delay seating at Target Field

Post-rain delay seating at Target Field

After the Cubs game, I hiked back to the van which was parked near the shore of Lake Michigan at a small grassy park.  To my relief it hadn’t been towed and all the windows were intact.  I navigated out of Chicago through the bumper-to-bumper traffic of the narrow north-side streets toward the JFK Expressway.  Mentally, I counted the games left in my road trip; only four teams remained: The Minnesota Twins, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Colorado Rockies and my home team, the Seattle Mariners.  Within the next two days, I would be able to catch two of these games before heading west into the final leg of my journey.  So that night, I turned northward onto the Jane Addams Memorial Toll Way and motored off into the night, trying to make time toward the 404 miles to Minneapolis.

As the darkness of nighttime in Illinois cloaked itself around me, the van segued across the Wisconsin state line. Only the light from the on-coming traffic pierced the darkness as I stared ahead, passing the exits one by one and making a mental note as I passed the college town of Madison, WI.  Several long hours slipped away before I finally pulled the van to a stop at a rest area along the I-94. The mostly vacant parking lot surrounded a monument to roadside government entrepreneurship: a restroom/gift shop with several fast food joints to boot, all of which (save the restrooms) were closed.

Inside the rest stop lobby, I encountered a young Amish family. The husband and wife were about my own age and they shepherded several children around the lobby as the cleaning crew wrestled enormous, whirling buffing machines across the tile floors.  The father wore a black hat with a broad brimmed hat, a stark white buttoned shirt and a black pants and vest and his wife wore a long plain dress and a bonnet (standard issue for the Amish I suppose).   The harsh, overhead fluorescent lights glared across the freshly waxed tile floor as the chorus of whirring buffers mixed with the audible hum of the vending machines.  What had brought the young Amish couple into such a place in the dead of night?  I contemplated the possibilities as I quickly drifted off to sleep in the back of the van.

The next day, I reached Minneapolis-St. Paul about an hour before the game was due to begin.  Target Field is located off the I-94 and street parking can be found if one is willing to circle the stadium avoiding the trains and the “farmer’s market only” parking stalls.  I found a spot on the north side a few blocks from the stadium and walked.  I approached the field with the air of someone looking for cheap tickets.  In this city, the scalpers weren’t particularly aggressive (at least for this mid-day, early season game).  Of the few in the vicinity, one scalper offered me a single ticket for a box-level seat on the 1st base line for $40.  I glanced at the ticket and decided to be miserly, so I turned to walk toward the ticket window instead. Two steps later and he called out, “Ok, twenty five!”  I turned around with a satisfied smirk and paid the man.  The ticket was a wide, glossy production with a picture on it, the kind that only gets issued to season ticket holders. It would make for a great position to enjoy the game from.

They scanned my ticket and I entered the stadium through the turnstiles.  My usual ritual when I get to a new stadium involves wandering around the concourse to scope out the food vendors and the notable features, as well as the best vantages of the field.  True to his word, I could see that the ticket the scalper had sold me was indeed in a sweet spot: out in the open, and along the 1st base line.

Deep-fried Walleye on a stick

Deep-fried Walleye on a stick

As I wandered about the bottom level of Target Field, I spied a local culinary treat at one of the food kiosks: deep fried Walleye on a stick.  I always like to taste anything that is stadium specific and this was no exception.  I put my money and ordered; the Walleye came out as a wide skewer of filleted fish on a thick kabob stick with a side of tartar sauce (one thing many people don’t know about me is that I hate tartar sauce) so I dipped the “fish stick” in catsup and mustard from the condiment stand instead.

Continuing to walk around the concourse, I stepped onto an uncovered area and immediately felt the tiny, but unmistakable sensation of a rain drop landing on the back of my neck.  My eyes glanced skyward and noticed that the clouds had rolled-in since I had parked my car and that it was becoming increasingly overcast.  Within minutes, a steady drizzle had forced most of the crowd back into the covered areas.  There is no roof on Target Field and I watched from a narrow cantilevered patio as the game went on for a few more innings until the umpires called a rain delay on account of the downpour.

 

Rain delay at Target Field

Rain delay at Target Field

Noting the irony, I lamented the purchase of my “sweet seat” now that the weather was too unpleasant to enjoy it.  When the downpour ended about 45 minutes later and the ball game resumed, what was left of the crowd pulled a 6th inning upgrade and ran down to occupy the wet seats closest to the field.  Having done the same thing several times myself, it would be hypocritical to complain and futile as well, since the ushers simply ignored the mad dash to the front rows.

However, my perseverance paid off.  As I sat in the rain soaked seats, I witnessed one of the best diving catches of the season by Ben Revere of the Twins. This play would be repeated on highlight reels for the rest of the season.  Revere was in center field when Taylor Green hit a long fly ball.  Revere tore off toward the centerfield wall and made a diving, over the shoulder catch in the dirt of the warning track, almost crashing head first into the wall.  The entire stadium gave him a standing ovation, and a smile creeps across my face whenever I see that play on a highlight reel now.

 

After the game, I finally managed to contact my friend from way back.  Erik and I grew up together in Alaska and he now lives in Minneapolis.  We met up for beers at an old school bar in Uptown called William’s Pub where the bar is in the basement (must have been an old speak-easy) and the floor is covered in peanut shells.  Erik is serious about his beer, and William’s has one of the best selections of craft beers in the city, so we sat at the bar drinking the local brews and watched He-Man cartoons on the big screen while we cracked peanut shells.  Once we were nice and tipsy, we walked a few blocks back to his place in the pouring rain (which had returned to the area) and crashed out asleep.

When the morning came, Erik and I downed several cups of really strong coffee (apparently beer isn’t the only beverage he is serious about) and I took my leave.  I took the reverse direction on the I-90/I-94 toward Wisconsin.  I was astounded by the number of road-killed deer carcasses that littered the shoulders of the freeway.  It took me the better part of the day to drive the 5 hours (as the GPS navigates) to Milwaukee where my next ballgame was being held at Miller Park.   I remember that as I crested the hill on the freeway toward the city, I caught sight of Miller Park.  In the evening sun, it looked like a giant beetle.  The green-hued hemispheres of the open roof reminded me of wings and the golden rays of sunlight gave the round walls a texture that seemed to mimic the exoskeleton of an enormous scarab.  I thought it was a very beautiful ballpark from my perch in the van.

Miller Park, home of the Brewers, is surrounded in all directions by vast parking lots and the folks in Milwaukee are serious about tail-gating.  I walked through smoky family barbeques and pick-up games of touch football on my way across the parking lot.  I tried my luck with a scalper again this time, but found only a cheap seat on the 3rd tier for $20.  I wasn’t in a mood to argue, so I paid the old man his money and crossed the little bridge behind the stadium and continued around to the front gates.

Miller Park in Milwaukee

Miller Park in Milwaukee

The Brewers were hosting the Toronto Blue Jays.  I walked around the concourse, which I found to be dark (the lower-than-usual ceilings probably block a lot of the ambient light).  My seat was on the 3rd tier, along the 3rd base line.  Unknown to me, it was Little League Night at the ballpark and my section was filled with 8-year-old boys dressed in their baseball uniforms.  I was reminded of the fact that Little League games are only 7 innings long for the youngsters… these little boys squirmed, fidgeted, horsed-around, and crammed as much junk food into their mouths as they could.  These little guys made me smile, they weren’t old enough to appreciate the game yet but someday they would be.  Instead I decided to explore the stadium since I couldn’t see much from the back row with all those kids in the way.I found my way to a vantage point above left field bleachers. As I stood on the platform, Aramis Ramirez of the Brewers hit a home run that seemed to rattle off the foul pole.  Bernie the Brewer, the team mascot – a character with an enormous blonde handlebar moustache who dressed as a ballplayer, leaped from a balcony above me and slid down a spiraling yellow slide that had apparently been put way up there just for the purpose of celebrating Brewer home runs.

In the end, the Brewers took this game from the Blue Jays in a 7-6 victory.  Brett Lawrie hit a lead-off home run to start the game and Edwin Encarnacion decked a homer that actually hit Bernie Brewer’s slide, but neither of those blasts was celebrated by the Milwaukee crowd. The Brewers chased the Jays all the way until the 7th inning when Ramirez pushed the score ahead for the home team.  In the ninth inning, relief pitcher John “the ax man” Axford came in to close the game and the crowd celebrated with exuberance I have hardly seen elsewhere on my trip.  Axford shut down the Jays and ended the game without the bottom of the 9th being necessary.

Bernie Brewer's home run slide

Bernie Brewer’s home run slide

Dusk was settling around the stadium as I exited the stadium.  I had hung around in the gift shop while the crowds dissipated.  As I crossed the little bridge that separated the stadium from the parking lot, I passed a small group of ladies (who were obviously intoxicated).  One of them was a hot mess: stumbling drunk, crying and trying to pull her shirt up while her friends tried to keep her from flashing everyone else and calm her down.  I just shook my head and hurried past, trying to avoid getting involved.   I passed through a few rows of parked cars before I encountered a couple of guys who offered me some Jell-O shots, which I was happy to indulge.  These guys were really stoked that the Brewers had won, and I enjoyed chatting with them despite their drunkenness.Within a few minutes, the gaggle of drunk girls appeared, and wouldn’t you know, but these two guys were their friends.  Drama ensued between the shirtless guy with lots of tattoos and the hot mess.  As the quarrelsome couple argued, one of the girl’s friends offered me another Jell-O shot and introduced herself as Cheryl.

Cheryl was Asian and about medium height, her complexion was golden-skinned and she wore her jet-black hair in a short bob cut just below her ears. Obviously, she had already had several shots but she wanted more.  We experimented with different ways to carve the Jell-O out of the little plastic containers in which it had been poured, which evolved into sticking the little cups into each other’s mouths and sucking out the Jell-O.   Kissing noises began to accompany each shot, and within a few more shots a make-out session had begun.

Unfortunately, the fight between her friends finally popped our inebriated little bubble.  The rest of their group had decided it was time to go back to the hotel room where they were staying.  Cheryl put her arms around me and whispered the hotel name and room number in my ear then flittered back to her friends.  Within a few moments she was gone.

I slowly made my way across the rest of the parking lot to the van was parked and I climbed in.  I sat for a while, sobering up, as the gloom of the summer evening descended around me.  Then I turned the key over and drove out onto Selig Drive and around to Miller Park Way and off into the night.

 

Mid-West Locomotion (from Kansas City to Chicago)

I spent the day driving from St. Louis to Kansas City via the I-70 West.  248 miles of Midwestern roadway interrupted occasionally by freeway exits tempting me and my gas-thirsty van to stop and fill-up.  At roughly $3.60 per gallon in Illinois the day before, I knew I could find gas cheaper as I travelled west through Missouri.  The prices ticked lower as I passed by the small towns that lined the interstate and I pushed my little van as the gas gauge slowly showed a quarter tank.  When I saw $3.29 a gallon I couldn’t believe my eyes. A voice inside me said to keep going and I was rewarded a few exits farther down when I saw a Sinclair sign marked $3.18 in a little town called Columbia, Missouri.  With five teams left to go on my Major League Road Trip, my budget was tightening up.  I had certainly been frugal but two months out on the road had taken their toll on my bank account. I welcomed the relief from the summer gas prices.

Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City

Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City

My arrival in Kansas City was met by a young lady named Amanda , she is the sister of Alissa (who accompanied me earlier on my road trip to the Texas Rangers home game).  I had never met her before but she welcomed me to her home, city and team.  We met near Kauffman Stadium in the parking lot of the Double Tree hotel.  Amanda was able to score us sweet seats along the 1st baseline, just under the overhang of the upper deck above us.   Tickets for the “French Quarter,” a section of right field where fans of Jeff Francoeur sit to cheer their local fan favorite were sold-out.  Either way, Francoeur wasn’t playing that evening so the free t-shirt wouldn’t have been much of a consolation prize anyway.

We wandered around the stadium and checked out the fountain park (KC is known as the City of Fountains) in the outfield and the museum, which featured Kasey the old-timey ballplayer (a costumed tour guide) who answered number of Kansas City baseball questions for me.  According to Kasey, the name of the team derives from a local horse show, livestock auction and rodeo known as The American Royal.  I found myself unsatisfied with this explanation, considering the fame and notoriety of the historic Negro League team the Kansas City Monarchs.  It seems to me that there must be a greater connection between the names of these two teams than is officially acknowledged.

The Milwaukee Brewers were in town and the rivalry between these two teams was unknown to me.  Since both teams wear a similar shade of light blue, perhaps the conflict was over team colors. Considering the Milwaukee Brewers are more than 500 miles away their fans certainly mustered a significant showing of wearing Brewers gear at Kaufman Stadium.

I spent most of the game hoping to catch a foul ball, due to the angle and proximity of our seats to the backstop. Several wayward pop-flys fell close-by but nothing within reach of a reasonable dive (I like to think I could crash across a couple of rows and sacrifice a few sore ribs or a bruised knee if I thought I had a decent shot at catching a foul ball). I enjoyed watching the “Crown Vision” screen, the largest color “Jumbo-tron” screen in the MLB.  It is also the only vertically-oriented screen at any of the stadiums I visited.

The "Crown Vision" screen at Kauffman Stadium

The “Crown Vision” screen at Kauffman Stadium

Most of the game was a 2-2 tie, but the Brewers pulled ahead by a run in the 8th inning.  In the bottom ninth, and down to their last out, the Royals pulled two magic runs out of nowhere when Brayan Pena cracked a hit to left field which should have been good for a single but an error on the part of Rickie Weeks gave Jarrod Dyson (who’s a speed demon and was standing on 2nd base) the opportunity to score.  In two blinks of an eye, the Royals went from being an out away from losing the game to scoring two runs off a double.  The KC crowd went wild while the Brewers fans went home crestfallen.

The next day, said my goodbyes to Amanda and thanked her for her hospitality, climbed into the van and headed north on the I-35.  My next destination was Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Rain beat down in waves against the windshield as thunder rolled and lightening flashed in the distance.  This was one of the fabled Mid-western storms that I had heard about colloquially. I passed motorcyclists taking refuge under overpasses. Livestock trucks rumbled past the van at speeds far faster than I was willing to drive with that much water pouring out of the sky.  One of the semi-trucks lingering bit longer than usual in the lane adjacent to me was loaded with piglets.  I could see their pink little snouts poking out of the grating of the trailer and the tips of their ears bouncing to the vibrations of the road.  Initially I was struck by the cuteness of these tiny creatures and their presumed fate but then I realized that there wasn’t much bacon on a piglet and these guys had a few years of porking to do before they would end up on anyone’s breakfast table.

As I approached Des Moines, I saw a sign for John Wayne’s birthplace.  Somehow the asinine nature of this roadside attraction appealed to me and I pulled off the interstate.  The location of said ‘landmark’ eluded me but I found myself in the middle of Madison County, made famous by their quaint covered bridges.  Apparently, this is also Iowa wine country and I made a stop at the Madison County Winery where I sampled some fantastic reds and talked a little minor league ball with the owner.  Unfortunately, the Iowa Cubs were out of town that day or I would have stopped for a game.

I motored on westward from Des Moines and arrived in Cedar Rapids a couple hours later.  To my surprise and consternation, my buddy who I had come to see lived in another town on the other side of the state and I had been totally mistaken.  Somehow I had gotten it into my head that he in Cedar Rapids despite him telling me earlier.  Tired from a long day on the road, I found refuge at a local sports bar called Third Base that brewed their own beer (which I felt obligated to sample and enjoyed very much).  I struck up a conversation with a couple of local guys out on the back patio and ended up chatting with them for a couple of hours about all manner of things but they loved hearing about my road trip.  The folks in this part of Iowa didn’t have any particular loyalty to any of the nearby baseball teams: Jamie was a Brewers fan and his buddy was a Cubs fan.  These guys were kind enough to offer me a place to spend the night, but I respectfully demurred as I had found a fantastic nook to park the van nearby.  When the night wound down, I pulled the van into a little overgrown access road which looked into a tiny meadow.  The night sky had cleared and moonlight coated the wet grass in moonlit shades of grey as thousands of fireflies flashed like tiny beacons though out the meadow.  It was a fantastic sight to see before I fell asleep.

I arrived in Chicago via the Eisenhower Expressway and immediately took a wrong turn onto the eastbound Dan Ryan Expressway.  Realizing my mistake, I corrected course and drove up South Lake Shore Drive in the direction of Wrigley Field.  This was the first sunny day in at least a week according to the weather report and the sun shinned warmly down upon me; the traffic was so bad that joggers and bicyclists passed by as the cars and trucks crawled up the strip of road along the shore of Lake Michigan. A music festival thundered from Soldier Field as I passed by. “Kids” in retro 80’s plastic sunglasses bounced along outside to the dub-step beat.  Fortunately, I had plenty of time before the game to enjoy the scenery of this beautiful day before the Cubs game was scheduled to start.

Wrigleyville Rooftops

Wrigleyville Rooftops

When I arrived outside Wrigley Field, a small circus awaited me.  Tonight the Cubs faced the Red Sox, one of the oldest rivalries in Chicago (and second in popularity only to the local beef between the Cubs and the White Sox.)  Throngs of fans of both teams invaded the little neighborhood as scalpers and street vendors hawked their wares as bar patrons spilled onto the narrow and crowded sidewalks leading up to the stadium.   For this game, I decided to experiment by wearing my Fenway Park t-shirt that featured the Red Sox logo prominently.  Usually, I support the home team by default but today I wanted to see how a fan base as devoted as that of the Cubs would react?

Stay Thirsty

Stay Thirsty!

Wrigley Field is an old stadium from a golden era, in fact in 2012 Wrigley celebrated its 99th anniversary: older than any other major league ballpark save Fenway which is 100 this year.  It stands barely 3 stories high from the street and the adjacent brownstones host parties to watch the game from their rooftops.   The enterprising neighbors of “Wrigleyville” sell bottles of water and bags of peanuts for a buck to Cubs fans, $2 dollars to Red Sox fans and not at all to White Sox fans.  My Red Sox shirt earned me the $2 price but I humored them anyway.

My tickets to this game were “Standing Room Only” which means that not only did I not have a seat to this sold-out game but that places to stand from which a decent view of the field were few.  I entered through Gate K off of Clark Street and found a spot along the railing with a narrow sightline of the field.  To my left a tall and stout redheaded guy with tattooed sleeves and a Rock-a-Billy style leaned against the wall.  Perhaps, in another life, he could have been my older brother.  To my right a gaggle of young guys sat on the railing, the guy closest to me was mad-dogging my Red Sox shirt from beneath thick, dark eyebrows that made his eyes look too close together and surely deducted a few IQ points.

D'Agostino's Pizza in Wrigleyville

D’Agostino’s Pizza in Wrigleyville

The ballgame was a bit of a bust since I couldn’t see the game well, but I enjoyed chatting with the folks near me as they wandered through the stadium in search of beer and the incredible D’Agostino’s Pizza. Chicago-style “deep dish” pizza is something I had never tried and I must say that I’ve never had a better slice of pie.  Imagine a crust that more closely resembles a supple pie-crust and covered with a thick layer of mozzarella cheese then baked with the toppings buried in the cheese.  Then when it is pulled from the oven, the marinara sauce is added to top it off.  In my opinion, Chicago easily has the best pizza.

As I stood at my post along the railing watching the game, another random guy stepped through the crowd and struck up a conversation with the big rockabilly guy to my left.  Turns out that they were both White Sox fans incognito at the Cubs game (the Sox and the Cubs are almost never playing home games at the same time).  As I got drawn into their conversation and brought up my Major League Road Trip, the guys began to tell me stories about being Sox fans in Chicago.  They informed me that, the Southside was not only the “baddest part of town” but also the Irish side of town too.

The newcomer (I think his name was Don) made me promise to write up a story he told me about growing up on the Southside with an Irish grandfather who was a die-hard White Sox and was a dock-worker for 30 years.  Apparently, WGN the flagship station of the Cubs radio network saturated the Southside airwaves with coverage of Cubs games but WSCR (the local broadcaster of the White Sox) had spotty reception at best.  Don’s granddad would make him fiddle with the antennae until the Sox game was tuned in (which inevitably required young Don to stand holding the antennae/aluminum foil) in position while grandpa sat back and listened to the game.

The way Don told it, he would stand there stretched into a precarious position holding the antennae while granddad sat at the kitchen table interrogating 10-year-old Don with his favorite line of questioning:

“Hey Donny ma boy! What would ya do if the Cubbies were playing in the front yard?” Granddad would probe in his thick Irish accent.

“I’d pull the shade, Grandpa,” Don would respond.

“HA! PULL THE FOOKIN’ SHADE!” Granddad would chortle as he pounded the table with his palm.

Don just shook his head as he recounted the memory from his childhood before he looked over at the big rockabilly guy who stood stoicly with only a small smile.  “This guy,” he said pointing at Rock-a-Billy, “he knows how true it is…” and they shared a knowing smile that seemed to capture in a single instant what growing up Irish on the Southside of Chicago must have been like.

Don chatted for a few more minutes before his wife pulled him back into the crowd.  I promised to recount his story in my blog as he disappeared down the crowded corridor inside Wrigley.

Standing Room Only at Wrigley Field

Standing Room Only at Wrigley Field

As the game drew on, the Cubs’ chances of beating the Red Sox dwindled. The fans stayed put.  No one dared to get up and leave until the last out was called.  Only then did the crowd stream out from the tiny stadium, some upbeat and some downtrodden as they headed out into the warm air and darkness surrounding Wrigleyville.  I trekked back to the shore where the van was parked, relieved to find it intact for a second time in Chicago.  Traffic crept along the narrow streets of Chicago’s north shore as I navigated toward the northbound Kennedy Expressway.  My next stop was Minneapolis, Minnesota for a Twins game the next day which started early and I would have to make good time to be there for it.

From ‘The Pitt’ to ‘St. Louie’

The road from Chicago’s south side to Pittsburgh is a little more than 450 miles east on the I-80 through Indiana and Illinois which took almost a day to drive.  I arrived in Pittsburgh just in time for rush hour, a rather unpleasant time in the City of Bridges. The next Pirates game wasn’t until the next day so I bided my time cracking leftover peanuts out the window as traffic crawled along the exit to Boulevard of the Allies.  As I navigated the narrow, elevated highways through downtown Pittsburgh, I realized that most of the major roads in this town are just a series of chutes and ladders that funnel traffic from one location to another. No wonder the traffic is so bad, not to mention the infamous “Pittsburgh Left” where a driver making a left turn across an intersection with a stop light breaks left (or gets waved) across the intersection before the on-coming traffic has a chance to proceed with the right-of-way.

I spent a few days in Pittsburgh, my friends from Alaska, Dan and Sarah live in a part of Pittsburgh called “Squirrel Hill” near the campuses of Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.  Dan is a PhD student in Quantum Computing, the concept of which he tried to explain to me in layman’s terms but I really didn’t understand it anyway.  Never-the-less, upon my arrival at their place Dan whisked me away to a Hack Pittsburgh meeting where he was holding a lock-picking demonstration.  Not really baseball related, but true-to-form for my friend Dan.  I spent the evening trying my hand at opening various locks and managed to pop open a 3-tumbler cylinder lock and a MasterLockTM padlock by the end of the evening.  I was left feeling proud of myself, since the only lock I had ever picked prior to that evening was an El Cheapo wafer lock that I got that the dollar store when I was in college.

Overlooking PNC Park from across the Allegheny River

When the game rolled around on the 8th of June, Dan and I made the trip into downtown to purchase tickets at the PNC box office (I’ve discovered that you can save quite a bit of money by not paying fees to buy your tickets online and on a trip like this every little bit counts). The Pirates were scheduled to play the Kansas City Royals  and Erik Bedard was scheduled as the starting pitcher for the Pirates.  As a Seattle Mariners fan, watching Bedard pitch is bittersweet; his trade to the Mariners in 2008 is considered the 3rd worst trade in the team’s history (at least according to this list) and he spent the majority of his time in Seattle on the Disabled List before being released to free agency in 2011.

Dan, Sarah and I enjoyed the ball game (Dan and Sarah’s first) from the high spiral walk-way in left field which was a nice vantage to enjoy the game from on a hot summer evening.  The Pirates easily won the ballgame 4-2 over the Royals and the P-Nuts loved it. Free T-Shirt night at the ballpark made up for having to watch a former Mariner throw a winning game.

On my last full day in Pittsburg, Dan and Sarah took me on an unusual hike: to a graveyard.  Just a couple blocks from their house is a large cemetery filled with marble façade crypts and chiseled with names like Carnegie and Heinz.  It turns out that it is more of a park now, considering that most of the people buried there have been dead for more than 50 years.  The lush canopy of trees seemed to go on for miles as I looked up from the walking/bicycling paths below.  One of the attributes about Pittsburg that I was surprised to discover is how green the city really is. I remember an elderly uncle of mine who grew up here telling me stories of watching the slag heaps being built in the ‘Burg when he was a kid.  However, my experience there was nothing like that.  In fact, from what I’ve been told Pittsburg has the largest are of contiguous parks in any metro area in the U.S. with the exception of New York City (which has Central Park).

Half a roast beef sandwich topped with coleslaw and fries from Primanti Brothers

After the walk through the park, ahem, cemetery we got some lunch at an establishment that is unique to Pittsburg: Primanti Bros. sandwiches.  Pittsburgh claims to be the originator of the practice of putting French fries on a sandwich and Primanti Bros has perfected that tradition by adding coleslaw in place of lettuce and other trimmings.  I ordered the roast beef sandwich and was very much enamored by the combination of thin sliced deli meat packed onto a two thick pieces of sourdough bread which is then covered with a thick layer of shoestring potato fries and then topped with coleslaw (and mind you, this is not the sweet and mayo-saturated coleslaw served on the West Coast, instead it is vinegary and thick with cabbage).  I ate my fill, which was only one massive half of the sandwich I ordered and packed the other half for the road.  Y’inz (that’s native P-town for “y’all”) will love the sandwiches at Primanti Bros and I recommend a trip to The Pitt just to try one.

From Pittsburgh, my next stop was an all-too-brief social call back in Washington DC where I stopped in on my friends Jason and Jen again.  No ballgames were on the agenda but it was a great opportunity to sample more of the fantastic food in the area around the capitol.  This time they took me to an amazing Peruvian place that has custom chicken roasting machinery right in the restaurant and produces some of the most flavorful birds I’ve ever had. I took the time to pick a couple cartons of smokes while I was in tobacco country as well.  Parliament Lights ring up at about $45/carton in Virginia but over in Washington state they are almost twice the price.  What a coup d’etat it would be to bring a several cartons of half-priced smokes home to my sister.

When my time in DC was up (and then some), I hopped into the van and pointed it westward with some finality.  The East Coast leg of my journey was over and the next stop was St. Louis, 800 miles away.  The GPS pointed me north, up the I-40 through Maryland and back into Pennsylvania.  As I passed through Cumberland, Maryland and the surrounding mountains I sang bits and pieces of Grateful Dead songs to myself, which seemed appropriate to me.  The views from this part of the Appalachians were fantastic; each time I crested a ridge, I was treated to a splendid view of the sun waning over the green fertile valleys of forests and fields in the distance.

By nightfall, I had passed through West Virginia and into Ohio once more.  Somewhere past Columbus, I finally pulled the van over, which in the morning I discovered was less than an hour from the Indiana state line.  The van and I spent the whole next day driving through mid-western farmland, Indiana and Illinois went by in a blur as I raced to make the game in St. Louis, fortunately when the van crossed into Illinois I gained hour by crossing into another time zone and actually arrived with a couple hours to spare.

Busch Stadium, home of the Cardinals is nestled right off the I-40 freeway near the Gateway Arch on the Western bank of the Mississippi river.  Built mostly of brick, it has the retro styling of Brooklyn’s Ebbet’s Field (RIP) and even though it was built in 2006 it has already seen a World Series win just last year.

The van rolled off the freeway and into downtown St. Louis and the tide of red shirted Cardinal fans marching toward the stadium impressed me. In fact I briefly worried about the availability of tickets but  my fears were quickly alleviated as soon as I discovered that almost every street corner was occupied by a scalper.  This time I had no need for scalpers and would purchase my seats from the box office instead.  My seats were in the nosebleed section but I discovered that being on the top deck had its advantages: the views of downtown St. Louis and the Arch were fantastic from way up there.

View of the Gateway Arch from the Busch Stadium upperdeck

The ballgame itself was less than memorable, a nine inning pitching duel interrupted by a solitary home run in the 3rd inning by Carlos Beltran that gave the Cardinals a slim victory over the Chicago White Sox.  From the upper deck seating great pitching is hard to appreciate, so I spent the last innings wandering around the stadium stuffing my face with ballpark food and taking pictures.

However, I found a little bit of the soul of St. Louis after the game let out.  As I walked back to my car, I passed through a small park (Kiener Plaza according to Bing Maps) where kids were playing in a large, shallow fountain made of flat, un-hewn granite stones.  That summer day had been hot and I stopped to wet my feet with them.  With my feet submerged in the cool, rippling water I decided to take a timeout for the night and enjoy the local nightlife.  Stepping out of the water and passing by the Hooters on the corner I found a quiet little hole-in-the-wall joint about a block away that was just opening up for the evening called the Red Door Saloon.

I sat at the bar sipping my gin and grapefruit (yes, it’s an old lady drink but it’s also my standard poison) while I watched highlights from the baseball game on the screen above the bar.  Chatting with the bartender about my Major League Road Trip was fun and he was an interesting cat but the slow trickle of folks into the bar was a bit too anemic for me so I paid my tab and stepped outside.  Out on the sidewalk, several gentlemen sat on patio furniture drinking, smoking and conversing, and as I walked past they invited me to sit and chat with them.  Turns out that you can drink alcohol openly on the streets of downtown St. Louie, or at least the police have better things to do than hassle you if you do and you aren’t causing a problem.

Neon lights in St. Louis

As the cigarette smoke curled into the warm summer air and 80’s rock blared from within the empty bar, we discussed the St. Louis bar scene and the short but checkered past of the Red Door Saloon,  and how the owner (who I discovered was sitting next to me) had come to own the establishment.

Apparently, he was the “unofficial” mayor of St. Louis and owned as many as 4 different local businesses including a party bus and a nearby pizza joint.  The previous owner of the Red Door (which was technically part of the Chinese restaurant next door) had been run by a local gangster who stood accused of selling drugs and pimping from the premises .  Recently, the aspiring Mr. Big had been taken down by the local police and the owner of the Chinese restaurant had asked our local entrepreneur (and obligingly Good Samaritan) to step in and clean up the joint.  I spent the rest of the evening listening to all his stories as the inebriated little pixies and their admirers stumbled by, flirted with us and danced/stumbled off into the night around us.  As I wandered back to the van, I decided that St. Louis definitely had soul and that this was a favorite stop on my road trip.

Cincinnati, Chicago’s Southside and Arlo Gutherie

The state of Ohio is much larger than it looks on a map.  My trip from Toledo to Cincinnati seemed to take far longer than the 3 hours that the GPS had prescribed.  As I traveled north to south down the I-75, I mentally planned the next few games: that evening I would catch the Reds in Cincinnati, then drive like a bat out of hell to Chicago for a White Sox game the next day. After that, head to Pittsburgh to make up that Pirates game I missed the week before.  This schedule would afford me little time for sight-seeing but it would catch me up with the schedule I had set for the Major League Road Trip.  Since the Cubs and the White Sox are almost never in town at the same time, I decided that I would have to return to Chicago later in the trip to see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field.

The part of Cincinnati visible from I-75 on the way to Great American Ball Park (named for a local insurance company) is a lush spring-time green landscape interrupted by old brick factories whose smokestacks reach upwards beyond the tops of the trees to brandish their graffiti to those below. The ballpark is located along the riverfront of the Ohio River, a short walking distance from Paul Brown Stadium where the Cincinnati Bengals football team plays. There is ample parking along the riverfront where some of the local businesses will let fans park in their lots for as little as $5.

Because this was a Tuesday night game against the Pirates, I decided to try my luck at the box office before resorting to buying a ticket from the scalpers. I arrived just before game time and the ticket windows were crowded with fans dressed in red.  When I approached the ticket window, I told the agent I was looking for something around 20 bucks.

“Just you,” he asked and I nodded.

“Hang on a second,” the agent crackled through the speaker as his fingers rattled across the keyboard in front of him.

“How about section 111, row G, seat 15? It’s on the 3rd base line.  Great view!”

“Sounds good, I’ll take it,” I said quickly… like he might change his mind.   I paid the $18 and walked out into the promenade in front of the main gate.  Enormous banners featuring the likeness of Barry Larkin, a career player for Cincinnati who has just been inducted into the Hall of Fame adorned several buildings.  This looked like a good spot for a photo.

Mosiacs at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati

Mosaics at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati

I approached a very milquetoast-looking guy sitting by himself nearby and asked if he would take my picture in front of the stadium gate.  He gave me a quizzical look, stood up and reached out to take the camera from my out-stretched hand.  Then he asked, “You’re not going to rob me are you?”

I gave him a very puzzled look and said “No.”  He took a couple photos for me and went on his way and I went mine.  Just how I would rob this guy when he was holding MY camera is something I still haven’t figured out and has resulted in mildly confounding me in the days since.  However, I just moved on after that and went into the ballgame.

Do I really look like a mugger?

Do I really look like a mugger?

The interior of Great American Ball Park reminds me of naval yard; flat, grey-colored paint coats the many steel I-beams which support the lofty ceilings throughout the concourse.  The color red is everywhere, most notably coloring every seat in every section.  I admired the mosaics depicting some of the great teams that have built the Reds’ legacy over the years (including the Big Red Machine) decorate the walls of near the entrance.  However, my favorite feature of the park were the two smoke stacks in center field that blow fireballs when the Reds get a strikeout.

The game itself was very enjoyable despite the home team Reds losing to the Pirates 4-8. There were several strikeouts and a fantastic diving catch by Reds first baseman Joey Votto. I discovered that this ball park has a live organist (I always assumed that the music at ballgames was canned) and he has a penchant for playing Violent Femmes beats.

In the 8th inning, Josh Harrison came up to bat for the Pirates. Apparently he is a Cincinnati local and there were a whole crew of folks there to cheer for him.  When the Reds pitcher knocked him down with some chin-music, at least half the crowd booed the pitcher.  It was fun to watch the loyalties change so quickly.

When the game was out, I was disappointed to have to head back to van and immediately hit the road.  My next game was in Chicago the very next day, 300 miles to the north.  Knowing me, the trip would take far longer than the 4 and ½ hours estimated by my GPS.  So I turned back onto the I-75 and drove toward the state of Indiana until I couldn’t keep my eyes on the road anymore.

The next day I arrived in the south-side of Chicago a few hours before the game.  U.S. Cellular Park was built adjacent to where Comiskey Park once stood, and I have been told that the location of Comiskey Park’s old home plate has been marked somewhere out in the wasteland of parking lots surrounding  the new stadium.  I was immediately turned off by the monopoly the White Sox organization had on parking in the area.  The stadium prices are high but there isn’t really anywhere else to park in the offsite vicinity.   Fortunately, my Spidey-senses directed me several blocks across the freeway to a quiet street next to the cop shop where I was able to park for free.  I locked up the van and crossed my fingers as I headed back to the stadium to purchase a ticket for the game that night against the Blue Jays.

Pet check kennels at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago

Pet check kennels at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago

I purchased a $10 ticket for the upper deck and wandered around the outside of the ballpark.  The only thing that was visibily notable on the outside was a shady, grass-filled nook where several inconspicuous dog kennels were tucked away.  Apparently, U.S. Cellular Field is a pet-friendly place where you can check your dog instead of leaving him in a hot car while you take in a White Sox game.  Amen to that.

U.S. Cellular Field does not have a main entrance, instead there are many gated portals that lead inside. As I shuffled into the stadium with the rest of the crowd, I discovered that the main concourse is off-limits to folks with upper deck tickets.  However, the “security” is somewhat lacking in vigilance since I pulled a 6th inning upgrade by flashing my bogus ticket to the checker and looking like I knew where I was going.  There’s no substitute for a little swagger when you want something you can’t have.

A Chicago-style Comiskey Dog vs Wow Bao Hot Asian Buns

A Chicago-style Comiskey Dog vs Wow Bao Hot Asian Buns

At any rate, I wandered around the main level eye-balliing the offerings of all the concessionaires.  The Wow Bao Hot Asian Buns were most tempting but this was the home of the Comiskey Dog and I needed to try one.  It took a full loop around the concourse before I found the right concession booth. The object of my culinary search was a foot-long hot dog, a bargain at $8.  Comiskey Dogs are all beef hotdogs in a poppy seed bun served with chopped onions, sliced tomatoes, sweet relish, pickle spears, sport peppers (watch out, they squirt when you bite into them) and is topped with celery salt and mustard.  I believe there is a Chicago city ordinance against providing catsup for hot dogs, so don’t even think of asking for it.  I enjoyed the sweet pickely-spicey taste but the sport pepper juice that squirted in my eye burned a bit.

The game was a shut-out against the White Sox. The Blue Jays started Brandon Morrow (a former Mariner), Bautista and Rajai Davis homered in this 4-0 blowout.  One curious thing that I noticed from my “upgraded” seat near the right field foul pole was that Brett Lawrie (Blue Jays 3rd baseman) moved all the way from his spot at 3rd base into shallow RIGHT field while Joey Bats moved back into deep right field whenever Adam Dunn was up to bat.  Apparently the guy is such a predictable hitter that the Blue Jays didn’t even bother covering 3rd when he was batting.

After the 9th inning came to a close and I had collected my things I waited for the crowd to disperse before I wandered back to the van.  To my relief, there it was all by its lonesome on a dark street with windows intact.  A smile crept across my face as I unlocked the door and climbed in; the South-side of Chicago may be the baddest part of town according to the song but the van and I had remained unscathed.  The van’s engine turned over and purred to life as I steeled myself for another long night of driving.

My next stop, Pittsburg, was 462 miles to the east.  As the van motored along I-80 and the radio stations faded into one and another, and as the night grew long a familiar song began to crackle from the speakers: Arlo Gutherie’s version of City of New Orleans.  I pondered the nature my road trip and my experiences driving across America while the road hummed beneath the van.  I decided that City of New Orleans was an apropos theme song for this journey and that somehow I was fading off into “railroad blues” too.

Toledo, Cleveland and Detroit… It’s all on the same street

The morning after the Blue Jays game in Toronto I headed Southwest on the QEW through Hamilton, ON where I stopped and got some Tim Horton’s donuts (this is obligatory for any trip to Canada, even for Canadians) and then made my way across the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan.  This time, the American customs agent wasn’t aware that Detroit had a baseball team when I explained the purpose of my trip to her.  Nevertheless, I informed her that the Tigers would be taking on the Yankees that evening at Comerica Park and that was where I was headed.

We’ve all heard horror stories about Detroit over the years, from those dark years in the 90s when it was the murder capitol of the United States to the recent mass exodus that has left the city with about a third of the population it once had in its glory days.  I can’t speak for the city as a whole, but I can say that the area around the ballpark is quite nice.  Comerica Park is nestled just off the Fisher and Chrysler freeways next to Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions (and I believe that the Red Wings play nearby as well).  Both stadiums are made of brick and literally stand next to each other.  The entrance to Comerica Park is guarded by enormous stone tigers and the panther motif wraps all the way around the ballpark. Inside, there are bronze statues to some of the greats who have worn the Tigers uniform including Ty Cobb.   A breezeway passes behind the ivy wall in centerfield where you can walk behind it and see how the ivy is vertically supported. It is an uncovered stadium and the grass is real.

Outside Comercia Park in Detroit

My arrival at the box office was met with a sour note though. I hadn’t taken into account that the Tigers were playing the Yankees and that tickets had sold out.  “Damn, this could be a problem,” I cursed…  Missing this game would screw up my schedule again and cause me to miss other games down the line. I stepped away from the ticket window and surveyed my surroundings.  The scalpers stood across the street and off ballpark property, on the other side of an invisible river Rubicon.  But I only had $40 in my wallet, would it be enough to get a ticket to a sold-out ballgame? I’d bought tickets from scalpers before, but never in a clutch situation like this.

The first guy I approached waved his “I need tickets” sign in my face and asked what I needed. I told him I wanted a cheap single.  He pointed to a spot on a stadium section map that he held out to me and said “100 dollars.”

Haggling for scalped tickets is dance that we all have to do sometimes.  When a scalper gives you an outrageous price for tickets, it’s best to say “Hell nawh,” drop the ticket on the ground and walk away. If you’ve got brass balls, step on the ticket and be sure to leave a shoe print. If the scalper wants to negotiate, he’ll come back with a better price. Then you tell him how much you actually want to pay.

This guy didn’t bite, neither did his buddy nearby.  I walked to the end of the block where a guy holding a StubHub print out approached me.  He wanted $50 for a piece of paper that may-or-may-not have had a valid ticket attached to it.  My spidey-senses protested but as I turned away he said the magic words, “$30 dollars, you can check it at the ticket window.”

Of course, there’s nothing to stop this guy from printing out the same ticket stub and selling the same ticket to as many suckers as he can, but for $30 bucks it seemed worth the gamble.  He walked me as far as the causeway before telling me he couldn’t go any further.  Like a vampire who can’t come into your house uninvited, a scalper can’t go onto the ballpark grounds.  The ticket agent didn’t seem to confused or put out in my request to verify the ticket but there’s only so much he can do other than to see whether the ticket has been voided prior to the game.  Since it checked out, I paid the man and took my ticket/piece of paper.

I spent the remaining time before the ballgame in a local bar near the stadium called Elwood Bar & Grill enjoying an alcoholic staple of mine, gin and grapefruit juice chased with a local beer.  I sat alone at the only table downstairs, wedged between the restrooms and a stock room. The bar’s patrons seemed surprised to see someone down there with a laptop busily multi-tasking before the game, but once I explained that I was writing a blog for my road trip and that I was also drinking, the folks I met were very receptive.

Finally, game time rolled around and I stood in line with my supposed ticket.  The centerfield gate was crowded with lines of fans jostling to get in. I saw several people being turned back at the front of the line and my anxiety level grew.  What if they had bough counterfeit tickets too?  It’s not that unusual, I saw a guy at Yankee Stadium get hosed with a fake ticket off the internet…  The moment of truth: I approached the iron gates, handed my ticket of dubious origins to the guy with the scanner and cringed.

Beep. “Enjoy the game,” and I pushed through the turnstile into the stadium.

Within minutes of the umpire shouting, “Play ball!” a light sprinkle began to fall from overhead.  What had been a bright sunny sky a few hours earlier had become overcast.  By the 2nd inning, the grounds crew were rolling out the tarp over the infield as folks with uncovered seats crowded into the concourse to get out of the rain.  I stood chatting with a couple of Canadian guys from Windsor (the city right across the bridge from Detroit).  Turns out that despite a national tie to the Toronto Blue Jays, these guys were Detroit fans all the way… that is to say except for hockey, then they were Maple Leaf fans.

When the rain cleared and play resumed, I finally found my seat off in left field just beyond the home team bullpen.  Turns out that the ticket that I had purchased belonged to the guys sitting next to me and they had sold it to the scalper because their friend couldn’t go to the game.  At any rate, the game was a good matchup between the Tigers and Yankees.  The Tigers started the game out with a 2-0 lead over the Yanks thanks to a monster home run by Miguel Cabrera and an RBI knocked in by Berry.  In the 8th, New York tied it up thanks to Nick Swisher but Cabrera puts the Tigers ahead again in the bottom of the 8th with another home run to the exact same spot as the one he hit earlier in the game.  In the ninth, the Yankees get the tying run walked in then the Tigers score the game winning run on a sac-fly.  I love seeing the Yankees loose; Tigers take it 4-3.

Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians

My next stop was Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio to watch the Indians take on the Minnesota Twins the very next day.  I blew out of Detroit right after the game and headed South down the I-75.  As I passed through Toledo, I remembered all those re-runs of M*A*S*H and corporal Klinger extolling the virtues of the Toledo Mud Hens who still play AAA baseball as an minor league affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. I made a mental note to return to Toledo and catch a game as I proceeded on my way to Cleveland.

Progressive Field is located right off the freeway as you approach downtown Cleveland.  The box office is difficult to get to from the street if you are driving, so I ended up getting my ticket from another scalper but it was not nearly as dramatic since I got a regular ticket stub this time.   Despite the fact that the Indians were doing quite well this season, attendance has been really low for home games.  I was able to get great seats on 100 level, off the 3rd base line.  I let it slip that I was on my Major League Road Trip and the people sitting around me loved it, I’m pretty sure the family sitting in the row in front of me wanted to invite me home just to hear all about the trip. I demurred graciously, but enjoyed listening to the dad tell me about the history of Progressive Field and learned that up until Red Sox finally broke the curse that the Indians held the record for most consecutive sold-out games ever: 455 (Red Sox have 468).  Unfortunately, the Indians didn’t set any records that day, the Twins took the game 6-3 lead by Trevor Plouffe.  Jose Lopez (a former Mariner) knocked in an RBI or two but it wasn’t enough to avoid being steamrolled by Minnesota.

Elvis Presley's 1975 Lincoln Continental Mark IV

1975 Lincoln Continental Mark IV

June 4th was the day after the game and I had some time to kill since the Cincinnati Reds weren’t scheduled to play another home stand until the 5th.  I took the opportunity to visit the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame that afternoon.  It is an architectural piece of art reminiscent of the glass pyramid of the Louvre, near the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland.  There are about 5 floors filled with exhibits starting with grandcestors of Rock ‘n’ Roll: the blues men.  This was my favorite exhibits, I loved looking at the old acoustic guitars and all the ingenious modifications that the musicians tried just to make their instruments louder. There is a whole exhibit devoted to Les Paul and his quest to create an amplified solid body guitar.  And to top it off, they had a purple 1975 Lincoln Continental Mark IV that belonged to Elvis Presley.  I have to say that the King had great taste in automobiles.

With a few hours of daylight left after the museum closed, I made a beeline down the I-80 from Cleveland back to Toledo’s Fifth Third Field.  The Mud Hens were playing the Buffalo Bisons that evening and I just had to catch the game. Matt Tuiasosopo, a local Seattle kid and son of a former defensive lineman for the Seattle Seahawks plays for the Bisons so I made sure to cheer when he was up to bat.  The Bisons beat the Mud Hens 2-1 but the crowd was so friendly that it was hard to notice that the home team lost. As I drove off into the night, I realized that I liked Toledo a lot.

The next couple days were going to be a whirl-wind of activity.  My plan was to hit the first game of the series between the Reds and the Pirates in Cincinnati on the 5th, then drive like a maniac from the southern tip of Ohio all the way to Chicago to catch a White Sox game on the 6th and then back track to Pittsburgh to make up the game I missed a week earlier. That’s a lot of miles to cover in just a few days, but I was sure I could do it.

From Cooperstown to the Great White North, eh.

My three days of rest came to a close along with the end of Memorial Day weekend.  I had spent the long weekend visiting relatives in Western Massachusetts. Now my sights were set on Cooperstown, New York where the Baseball Hall of Fame is located.  Starting in Lowell, MA I headed southwest until I hit the Mass Turnpike, then west to the town of Springfield.  Not only is Springfield the town where I was born, but it is also the birthplace of basketball and home to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Despite not being baseball related, I had to stop and check it out.

Shaquile O'Neal's shoe

Shaquile O'Neal's shoe is bigger than a basketball

The Basketball Hall of Fame closes at 4:00 pm and I arrived at 3:30.  The lady at the ticket booth was nice enough to only charge me the ‘kid’ price of $8 for the 20 odd minutes I got to spend in the museum.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much to the Basketball Hall of Fame but I enjoyed the exhibits on the 2nd floor: Shaquile O’Neal’s size 22 shoes, Dennis Rodman’s fur coat (looks smelly) and Sue Bird’s Seattle Storm jersey.

After they kicked me out of the museum, I spent some time in Springfield doing a few mundane errands.  At the pizza place across from the Laundromat, I got a single slice of pizza that was larger than most medium pizzas on the west coast and the pizza it came from was the size of a small dining room table, all for the price of $3 per slice. I had to find creative ways to fold it just get it into my mouth; I was able to consume most of the pepperoni and a lot of the crust (my favorite part) but eventually I had to give up and admit that I couldn’t finish this slice of pizza.  It was just as well because as I sat outside the little pizza restaurant on the corner a storm was rolling into town.

In the year before a tornado had passed through the towns of Springfield, Monson, and Brimfield. The damage was so bad that when I initially passed through the area I thought that the hills had been logged by clear-cutting. Houses had been destroyed and roofs ripped off but there had only been one casualty.  At any rate, the people of the town were in a tizzy because a tornado warning had been announced, and we all sat around inside the laundromat waiting and wondering until the skies darkened and the cloud let loose a downpour of rain.  Apparently, the effects of Hurricane Bud had begun to cascade into the Northeast.

When the rain let up, I hopped onto the Mass Turnpike and struck out for Cooperstown. The night always makes driving seem to go faster. When I finally stopped for the night, after a few wrong turns and course corrections I was outside of a place called Duanesburg, New York.  I found a quiet and dark stretch of road where I could pull off and catch a few hours of sleep.   As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed hundreds of tiny but bright white flashes of light surrounding me.  I climbed out of the van to watch the little flashes as they moved about and realized that I was seeing fireflies for the first time in my life.

In the morning I continued on to Cooperstown along windy and wooded little roads in upstate New York until I rounded a bend and abruptly drove into the heart of that little town.  The National Baseball Hall of Fame is a large brick building set into a row of other older brick buildings, and this time I managed to arrive at a reasonable time.  Plenty of time to get to Pittsburgh for the 7 o’clock game that evening.

National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY

National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY

The Hall of Fame and the museum is quite extensive, encompassing several floors and spanning the history of sports involving balls and bats, and is somewhat critical of the veracity of claims that Abner Doubleday actually invented the sport.   Personally, I enjoyed the exhibits predating the National and American leagues when baseball was still blossoming into a professional sport and barnstorming cross-country to play exhibition games was the primary method that teams made money.  Most intriguing to me was the tradition of “winning a game ball” from another team after every game. There are several other exhibits in the Hall that I found interesting: Women in Baseball, Latin Leagues, Negro Leagues and the entire third floor devoted to stadiums, fans and ballpark traditions, very apropos to my road trip.  The Hall of Fame itself is on the first floor and simply consists of a wide hallway lined with brass plaques depicting the inductees by the year they were added.  At the far end of the hall is a rotunda where plaques for the original five inductees hang: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.  I was surprised to see that a number of the inductees were not even ballplayers but umpires, managers and owners. There is even a woman in the hall of fame: Effa L. Manley, owner of Newark Eagles (a Negro League team), class of 2006.

I walked out of the Hall of Fame building around 3pm that day, perusing the memorabilia shop windows on the way to the van.  The Louisville Slugger store, with their extensive collection of ball caps sucked me inside and I couldn’t resist buying a solid blue Montreal Expos cap.  The Mariners have been a hard team to love lately, so at least wearing an Expos hat doesn’t sell the M’s down the river.

When I finally made it to my car, the weather had changed drastically and rain fell from the sky like St. Peter had left the garden hose on.  As I typed in the address of PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the GPS informed me that this was a 4 hour drive from Cooperstown.  Realizing that I had made my first major mistake and would not make the Pirates game that night, I sat in my van reconsidering my options.  As the rain poured down around me, I settled on heading north to Toronto where the Blue Jays were scheduled for a series of home games and after that I would loop around to Detroit, through Cleveland and on to Cincinnati before finally backtracking over to Pittsburgh to finally catch up to the Pirates when they returned to Pittsburgh on the 8th of June.

I spent a day and a half bumming around Buffalo, New York and Niagara Falls.  The American side of the Falls is very beautiful but is one of the biggest tourist traps I have ever seen.  Crowds of tourists from every walk of life fill the walkways and the railings.  However, there seems to be a sweet spot just before dusk when the tour boats have quit for the day but before its dark enough for the light show that they project on the falls to be seen.  That’s when you can slip in and get some great photos without having to battle your way through all the other tourists.

Finally, the 1st of June rolled around and the Blue Jays were scheduled to play the Red Sox at Rogers Center in Toronto.  It was a rainy day as I sat in the line (queue for my Canadian readers) on the Rainbow Bridge that spanned the chasm just north of Niagara Falls.   When my turn at the gate came, the customs officer asked the obligatory question: “What’s your business in Canada?”

When I replied that I was just going to a Blue Jays game in Toronto, he skeptically replied: “You can all the way from Seattle to go to a Blue Jays game?”  The hook was set and I got to tell him all about my trip across the USA (and Canada I added).  Customs officers are masters of asking obvious questions with a straight face but I could see the twinkle in his eye as he asked a few more clarifying questions, such as: “and are you supposed to finish this trip in a certain amount of time?”

“Before the All Star break,” I replied matter-o-factly.

A few more formal questions and I got the wave through with a “Welcome to Canada,” and a smile.  I love telling people about my Major League Road Trip.  I get a kick out of every grin and wistful expression and seem to have infinite patience for answering the same questions time-and-time again.

The weather worsened as I travelled the 50 or 60 miles up the QEW (that would be the Queen’s Express Way for us Americans) to Toronto.  As I neared the city, I could see the whitecaps cresting across Lake Ontario.  The rain doused the city and the waves beat the shore with fury and the traffic was appropriately bad.  Fortunately, I found Rogers Center easily from the freeway and a reasonably priced parking garage within a few blocks from the stadium.

Outside Rogers Center, home of the Toronto Blue Jays

Outside Rogers Center, home of the Toronto Blue Jays

All the Canadians I had talked to prior to my arrival in Toronto regarded Rogers Center as a disappointment but I am pleased to say that I enjoyed my time at the sole Canadian stadium on my list.  Save for the AstroTurf, Rogers Center is every bit a credible ballpark on the inside.  I enjoyed walking the concourse that wrapped entirely around the field without having to change levels, the food was good (I got a steak sandwich with horseradish sauce) and the domestic beer was Labatt’s instead of Budweiser.  Most of all though, the crowd was a lot of fun; despite an early deficit in runs, the Blue Jays fans stayed supportive throughout the game.  Maybe it was the presence of Brett Lawrie (the only Canadian ballplayer on a Canadian team) or all that local beer talking but the Blue Jay fans were very jocular.  A streaker hopped the fence 1st base fence in the top of the 7th inning and we all cheered as the bumbling rent-a-cops chased him around the outfield before the three of them were able to converge upon him near 2nd base for the takedown.  As the police hauled him off in cuffs, the crowd gave the streaker a standing ovation.  Oh Canada! [sic… Thanks J.P.]

In the end, the likes of Brett Lawrie and Joey Bats couldn’t hold off the Red Sox from tearing a hole in the Rogers’ AstroTurf, they lost this game to the BoSox, 2-7.  As the crowd of fans emptied into the Toronto streets, I walked around the downtown a bit before heading back to my van.  Broken umbrellas littered the rain-washed streets and I heard that the University Street subway station had been flooded by the storm.  Traffic getting out of downtown was murder, but once I made it back to the QEW it was smooth sailing until I got to Hamilton, ON where I found a quiet spot to crash for the night.  In the morning I would make my way back across the border to Detroit, Michigan where the Tigers were scheduled to play at Comerica Park the next day.