My journey from Atlanta to Tampa Bay took me 450 miles down the I-75 highway. I left the A-T-L in the late afternoon of May 4th, just in time for rush hour.  As the traffic crept along and the sun slowly set, I found myself looking for a place to bed down for the night and the freeway exit towards Adel, Georgia caught my eye.  After a mediocre steak dinner at a rather odd diner just off the freeway, I found myself a quiet little place to pull off the road near the Reed Bingham State Park and finally had a restful sleep.  Upon waking up, I was treated to a most exceptional dawn as the sun burst across the southern Georgia sky.  I had found a tiny little clue as to why Ray Charles had written “Georgia on My Mind.”

That morning I spent a little time in Adel searching for a Post Office and then had breakfast at Waffle House.  Since they don’t have any Waffle House’s in the Pacific Northwest, I found the establishment (which can be found across the South) quaint and friendly much like the rest of the South.

Crossing the state line into Florida, the accent changed and so did the environs.  I made my way through a gauntlet of billboards consisting of a mix of advertisements for strip clubs and anti-abortion public service announcements.  The irony made me smirk and reminded me of a t-shirt I saw in New Orleans that said, “I support single moms, $1 at a time.”

5/5/2012 - Tropicana Field

At any rate, I made it to the Tampa Bay area by mid-afternoon.  “Tampa Bay” is a bit of a misnomer, as it doesn’t refer to a specific place, just the bay area surrounding the city of Tampa, which includes St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Clearwater et cetera. Tropicana Field is a dome stadium in St. Petersburg, but the dome sits askew on the building.  I took the I-275 bridge across the bay and bought my tickets to the game.  The Rays were scheduled to play the Oakland Athletics on the night of the May fifth, otherwise known as Cinco de Mayo.  Baseball shaped maracas were given out to the kids and old people.  After a couple of run-filled innings, the Rays tied up the Athletics 3-3 and the game stayed like that all the way until the 12th inning when Jonny Gomes hit a solo homer to break the tie and the Athletics won 4 to 3.

With the Miami Marlins on a road trip for several more days, I spent the remainder of my time in Tampa, mainly at a local hostel called Gram’s Place.  It’s a quaint little place just north of the Ybor City neighborhood, named after the country rocker Gram Parsons.  My introduction to Gram’s Place the next day was watching the next Rays game, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with the owner of the hostel.  As a stroke of luck, Gram’s Place is just a few blocks from the George M Steinbrenner stadium where the NY Yankees take their spring training and also where the Tampa Bay Yankees play (a single A affiliate of the MLB franchise).  I was able to connect with a couple of Canadian college students named Elaine and Mike who also love baseball and we took in a game between the Tampa Bay Yankees and the Bradenton Marauders.  The Marauders lived up to their namesake that night, stomping the Yanks 10-3 (I think).

Since I was in the Tampa area for a couple more days, the next night I crossed the Sunshine Skyway bridge, a beautiful and enormous expanse that stretches from St. Petersburg to Bradenton to the south. McKechnie Field is the home of the Bradenton Marauders who are a single A minor league affiliate of the Pittsburg Pirates.  This time, their opponent was another local team: the Clearwater Threshers, a Phillies affiliate.  The difference in score wasn’t as dramatic as the night before but the result was the same: the Marauders took the win.   However, I spent most of the game enjoying the warm Florida evening and chatting with a local aerospace engineer named Scott who I met at the game.

When the time came to finally head down to Miami for the Marlin’s game, I headed south again; made a stop at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg and took the US-41 route through the Big Cypress National Preserve.  Several toll roads later, I arrived in Miami and located the new stadium which is near the Little Havana neighborhood.  After buying a ticket to the game and exploring (read that as getting lost) the city, I checked into another hostel in the South Beach area and then headed back to the stadium.

2012 is the inaugural season for Marlin’s Park and the stadium certainly looks new and shinny.  It’s a big white dome in the southern part of the city.  The parking situation around the park is interesting; the stadium only has a small parking garage nearby, but the surrounding neighborhood is filled with folks who will let you park on their lawn for about $10.  I got a great spot about 3 small blocks away and the traffic was not too terrible either.

The sculpture in the Marlin's Park outfield

Outside, there are ticket windows for both English and Spanish (marked as Boletos) at the main gate.  Inside, the stadium takes on an air that is unique to Miami.  It is the only stadium I have been to that has a roaming cheer squad (both male and female) but also has a bar/night club with go-go dancers visible from the top deck seats.  In the outfield, there is a colorful art deco sculpture consisting of marlin fish on windmill spindles.  After a Marlin’s win, the sculpture lights up and the pin wheels spin.

I was treated to a Marlin’s victory over the NY Mets, although the Mets kept the lead up until the 9th inning when Emilio Bonifacio batted in 2 runs with a base hit and then stole 2 bases before being batted in to win the game.  After the game, LL Cool J came out and gave a post-game concert and a special Mother’s Day rendition of “Momma Said Knock You Out”.

My time in Miami was short, I left the city the next day.  Heading north, I took the I-95 north all the way to North Carolina where I met up with an old high school friend.  While the Durham Bulls were out of town on a road trip, we caught a college baseball game with ultra-rivals UNC and Duke squared off.  It was great to see some great defensive baseball and I was really impressed by the UNC team (sorry Duke).  They played a great game and I hope to see a few of those guys on future MLB teams.

Next I head north to begin the next leg of my journey into the Northeastern States, starting with the teams in and around Washington DC.