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.