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.