Sunday, April 29, 2012

To St. Louis and Beyond

We returned last week from our second baseball road trip after last year's blissful buzz through Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Syracuse, Toronto and Buffalo.  My brother Kevin says that geographically speaking there are four legs left.  One is a second sweep through the Midwest:  Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago (Cubs) and Minneapolis.  One a quick Southern jaunt—Atlanta, Tampa, Miami.  The third the Southwest:  Texas, Colorado, Arizona.   These two could possibly be combined, or stretched to include more sightseeing (Busch Gardens, Grand Canyon and the like). The last is the West Coast, though it’s possible (depending upon game scheduling and flight cost) to add Southern California to the Southwest trip, or possibly to break it into its own fifth trip.  It’s a long, long way from San Diego to Seattle. 

All this does not take into account the tremendous difficulty of getting the time, money and spousal permission to do such trips ever again.  As more sightseeing gets added the trips become more appealing to more people in my family as well, increasing the cost and complexity.  I would say any future trips are indeed wishful visions.    Therefore, I will need to savor this one.  Here goes:

Flights:  We had four legs of the trip, each uneventful and yet difficult.  AirTran is indeed now a bottom feeder in the realm of discount carriers and the planes looked well-used, likely on their second or third airline.  They were also somewhat dirty, and so slim in the hip that if you didn’t know your seatmate well at the start, you would by the end since one’s silhouette was pressed into theirs like flowers into books.  I would not fly them again if I could help it, even for the dirt-cheap rate.  Probably not, anyway.  We’ll see what the rate is.

Kids:   Lizzy and I did come to an understanding about greed on the first day of the trip, nearly the first hour, at the layover in Atlanta, and after that she was very reasonable and appreciative.  Every day involved hours of travel, aka boredom, and few choices in terms of food or activity but they got used to it, and were largely playful and content. 

Routine:  The rhythm of the road was the same every day.  I got up at 6:15 or so, walked, ate and read in some combined order until my daughter, brother and his kids got up sometime after 8:00, then watched or assisted as they did the same and we packed up and headed out.  Kevin did most of the driving, and I worked on my presentation while we drove, and read aloud about the parks, or from the USA Travel book.  The main event was the game, eight parks in eight days.  At some point we relaxed at the pool with a swim and a drink, and at night before bed we gave the kids each a pack of baseball cards to put into their looseleaf albums.  They pored over these until they fell asleep, happy.  I would read again until I fell asleep around midnight, then we’d do it over again. 

I told my husband Mark it was not work but it wasn’t entirely play either, like camping (but not close enough to that for him to like it).  Settling in for just an hour or two each day before sleep and then packing it all up again the next day was a lot of work, and the driving and attending to the kids was labor.  It was more that the trip was an adventure or an achievement, that required some amount of blood, sweat and tears but also gave back immensely in satisfaction.

For me, this began the moment we sat in our seats and I pulled out a scorecard we just soaked it all in for a few minutes before diving into the minutiae of the game—pitching changes and officially-scored errors and whether it was the 2nd baseman or the shortstop who caught and threw that one-hopper up the middle to first.  I learned the first game that assists were rare from the outfield (the best last year was 20) so I looked and waited for one, which did not come (though there were a few that were close).  We also saw some pitching duels (all 3 East Coast games) but nothing close to a shut-out, and some offensive blow-outs (Kansas City especially) but no homers hit near us, and no balls thrown our way.  

The anticipation that any of these things could happen was intense, and the concentration required to score the game a contest between my will and the myriad distractions around us—a race between bobble-headed presidents!  Tee-shirts shot from the field into the third tier!  Bridesmaids getting drunk for a bachelorette outing!  Balloons being handed out so we could be the Relish section and compete for free Hardees burgers!  The small dramas of the people around us were always compelling as well—will the Dad take the fussy baby for a walk or give her to the girlfriend to settle?  Will the screaming college kid stop teasing the right fielder for his facial hair or get thrown out of the game?  Will it rain?  Will we have to use the Severe Weather Shelter?  If so will we be stuck in there with the fussy baby and the screaming college kid?  No wonder the kids were never bored.

I loved it, and though I missed home, Mark especially, I never really got tired of it. 

Food:  God, how I missed vegetables.  Unless I had an egg white omelet in the morning at an Embassy Suites, I had little chance of catching any during the day since it was fast food and ballpark fare for the rest of the day.  The kids were happy, though.  Apparently Mia and Lizzy could eat cheese pizza daily, indefinitely.  I tended not to eat at night, except pizza leftovers, unwilling to pay for something I didn’t really want.  Kevin rebelled once or twice, wanting to find a restaurant to have something decent to eat.  Catfish and veggies at the Tiki Bar in Des Moines was the closest we got, sitting on the fringe of an indoor water park so we could do our watchful duty.  I had veggie…pizza.

One last note:  I didn’t get to partake in the burgers or hot dogs until the East Coast, where I was treated to a veggie burger at the Baysox game;  a black bean burger at the Nationals game;  and a foot-long veggie hot dog at the Mets game.  In some ways, the culinary snobbery of the East Coast pays off for me;  they were all delicious.   Now the towns:

St. Louis 
We flew into St. Louis along with a million other people for Opening Weekend.  I learned we had competition when I tried to reserve a hotel room, after we had bought the plane tickets.  The Cardinals are the World Series champs, as it turned out.  For our trouble they give us quite impressive ring replicas, heavy, worthy of hanging around one’s neck (since they were so giant, though I’m sure they could fit on a man or two in the stands), if they only were for our team.  We also went on the Anheuser-Busch brew tour, including a genuinely-scented meander through the Clydesdale stables;  and sat in the lounge at the Embassy Suites while tornado warnings began in Kansas and worked their way eastward.  These continued for another twenty-four hours and had everyone back home texting us and clambering for our exact location.

We thought the warnings might limit our access to the Gateway Arch, but no:  unless that specific county was under a watch they let us go up in the tiny cubicle they call a tram to the observation deck sixty stories up, where because of the weather we saw little else but clouds.  The weather also caused a solid two-hour rain delay, during which I took off my poncho to cover my purse because the rain was flowing under the seats like snowmelt towards a river, making that shelter worse than being unprotected.  Since the bag held the ring boxes, I had to protect it, leaving me dry under an umbrella, but whipped by chilling gale force winds. 

Shockingly, when the rain stopped the sun burst forth with abandon, giving us the hottest, driest game of the entire trip.  Our clothes dried in minutes, and unbelievably, the kids got relatively bad sunburn.  It felt like a marathon of sorts, with one trial after another.  We had three Standing Room Only seats so we learned what that meant (anywhere in the stadium being the yellow line), and we had to jockey to get visibility from our spots, while trading off with the two seats we did have, and one given to us by a jovial kid who told us an awful lot about his team and his life while he Dad looked on, bemused.  Well worth it for the use of the extra seat.  Attendance for this game was 46,792, near the attendance for all seven other games combined.  
This was the excitement of it;  the game, which the Cardinals won 5-1 due to a big 4th inning started, as it turned out many rallies are, by an error, a bobble, a hope.  Their big player, Carlos Beltran, never got on base (two strikeouts looking, two fly outs).  This was also a theme—the big players tended to underperform on any given day because of inflated expectations.  Jon Jay got a home run, which is always great.  They played the Cubs and my nephew Conor rooted for the visitors, which he did nearly every game, even if he did buy (receive) and wear a home team hat—and he was disappointed, because seven of the eight games were won by the home team.  It was a bit epic to be here.

Kansas City
I still don’t have a good handle on why Kansas City is divided, why the larger part is in Missouri, and why you can’t get a united map—there were two, very different maps, put out by the two states, though one claimed to be representing the united-Kansas City corporation or some such hooey—but I can tell you that Kauffman stadium, the only “cookie-cutter” stadium of concrete and steel that we visited, was awesome because of the extreme friendliness of the natives.  “Welcome to the K!” was chanted by every stadium employee I saw, sometimes so quickly I had to think back to what they said to see if it fit within the parameters of the mantra.  It was, in fact, varied with “Hope you enjoy your day!” and “What a day to watch our team play!” intermittently. 

Our seats were in a section filled with blue shirts, including those we wore because it was Jackie Robinson day and we were given number 42 Royals shirts in commemoration.  All the players wore 42 on their jerseys, and were announced as such on the overhead.  The concept of “we are all Jackie Robinson” struck me as very right and good.  We sat in a covered section of the right field high seats, in front of a group related to the choruses who sang the Star Spangled Banner and the National Anthem who got drunk and then left early. 

The kids sat up high and to the left of us, crawling around the empty seat rows like hungry ants.  Alas, the Royals lost, 14-7, but we weren’t tempted to leave early, in no hurry to get to Des Moines because there was no traffic to beat, no crush to avoid.  The barbecue was, I am told, quite good.  Brisket.  Conor got to boo Shin-Soo Choo because of something he did to the Red Sox last year (he was on the Indians), the Royals star (Eric Hosmer) actually played quite well and the thrill for me (I still am happy about this) was when the Royals ran out of pitchers (they had been hammered all three days of the Indians’ home opener) and, behind 14-7, brought in their centerfielder to pitch late relief (Mitch Maier) in the ninth inning.  Don’t you know he got them out 1-2-3 with a fly out, a single and a double-play?  Awesome, with an encore of Kids Run The Bases.  Though we loved this in Pittsburgh last year, here even the adults get to take the spin.  This picture was from right field.  

The main event we wanted to see in Kansas City was the Negro Baseball Hall of Fame, but its hours were sketchy on Sunday (12-4:30), overlapping almost completely with the game, so we missed it, and headed to the Ramada Tropics hotel with the Tiki Bar and water slides to watch the end of another horrible Red Sox game, and crash.  This was the day tornadoes (many of them) came within 100 miles of us and indeed frightened even the natives.   It was also the day we could not find a coffee shop to save our lives (even with GPS) and when we went to McDonald’s they clearly microwaved that morning’s brew for us, incompletely, then covered the bitter taste with a cup of cream.  Coffee is apparently not a designer event out here.  And the land was green, rolling hills, for hours on end.  Creeks and farms, though the land was mostly fallow, awaiting corn planting, flat.  Fewer cows than we expected, just a few clusters.  It was still lush—though there is a national drought, Iowa has had its own reserve of rain.  Beautiful. 

The Quad City River Bandits’ stadium was gorgeous, parked on the edge of the river, backlit by an elliptical bridge, with a walkway across the backfield and, of course, very friendly fans.  We knew we were in good hands when we paid three dollars to park and they gave us five dollars in “bandit bucks” to spend inside.  The hometeam beat the Clinton LumberKings 6-3 and we watched a lot of twenty-year-olds play their hearts out, smashed bats in the dugout included.  One was nineteen-year-old Stratford, CT resident Dan Paolini, the second baseman for the Bandits.  He looked like my son Chris, who turned eighteen the next day.  This was the roughest night in terms of hotels—the Fairfield Inn was by far the smallest room of the places we stayed in, but they were also surprisingly generous in letting us shove a cot in a corner, thus salvaging Kevin from having to share a double bed (not a queen, not a king) with both his kids.  Something was going on in Davenport to make hotel rooms scarce but I never did figure out what it was.  

Our day started with a trip to the Milwaukee zoo, which surprised us with its breadth and grace—they had an impressive ape house, with chimps and orangutans that were sentient enough to hold a nonverbal conversation with their visitors, making their cages (though each had a yard to accompany the glass enclosure) seem inhumane.  We stood for long minutes, watching.  Everything else they had was impressive too—rhinos and elephants and lions and hippos and cheetahs and giraffe and fish—each corner contained a new thrill, though the kids were most fascinated by the machine that made plastic animals, finally deciding upon a grey elephant to bring home to my granddaughter Ava.  It was also good to walk around during the day.

Then by night oh my goodness can these folks party, I mean tailgate.  It was a Tuesday night, 50 degrees, and the hibachis and gas grills were fired up in the parking lot, providing food and heat to offset the drink and cold for hundreds of Brewers fans.  The brats did smell mighty fine, but we (collectively) found some inside and were nicely warmed by the surprise of a roof that folded out like the fans of the Sydney Opera house.  Cool, I mean hot—it went down near freezing on this night.  Our seats were under an overhang in the right field, which when combined with the roof did give a stadium (vs. a park) feel to the game but the kids were mighty thrilled by the free Kids Park right by our seats (other fields had them but you had to pay), and the extremely exciting game, the best of our trip—pinch hitter George Kottaras came on in the bottom of the ninth and hit a double that lifted the Brewers over the Dodgers, 5-4.  Since KC lost their next eight games (and counting) I consider this to have been a lovely gift to us.  We braved the last moments of the game for this potential thrill, and headed over the walkway bridges with thousands of happy, drunk Brewers fans.  It was blissful, though getting out of the parking lot without getting hit was dicey.

After an hour at the Jelly Belly factory (I was indecisive about going but Kevin asked me if I would have second thoughts if we missed it, and I would) we headed to the hotel and enjoyed a swim and a beer before heading to the game, which was on the South Side (long discussions with everyone in Chicago about who is a fan of which team) but relatively easy to get in and out of.
We didn’t see anything else in Chicago, which just means I need to go back, more often.  Honestly, it’s not expensive if you take AirTran…

Our seats were in the left field bleachers and were quite comfortable and rocking—the good time feel was strong, as was the urgency of the fans rooting for their favorite players.  The kids were drawn to a pitching/running/hitting field upstairs (I did not see it because I needed to keep scoring, but Kevin took pictures) and were happy posing in the Comiskey shower (one pitcher was sent there) and eating deep-dish pizza (actually they refused the deep dish pizza, and ate flat-crust cheese).  The game was not close, with the White Sox crushing the Orioles 8-1. 

We arose at 4am on Thursday for our flight back to LaGuardia, and after being on planes or in airports for eight hours we then drove for another four to our hotel at the Baltimore-Washington airport.  After this Kevin was, unsurprisingly, ambivalent about going to the Bowie game since it was another 25 minutes away, but when I agreed to drive he agreed to ride and we had a good time.

Prince George’s Stadium is quite workaday, nothing like Quad City even though it’s a division up (AA vs. A) but they had rides, and Lizzy became enamored of their name (feeling more comfortable liking the Baysox than the White Sox in lieu of her true love the Red Sox) and got a sweatshirt with her name on it (after nearly an hour of negotiations between the two of us) and everyone was, in the end, quite happy.  The Baysox beat the Erie Seawolves 5-2 on a chilly but bearable spring night. 

While I gave a workshop at the Office of Child Abuse and Neglect conference at the Washington Hilton (an adventure in public transportation as I took a shuttle to a train to a subway and walked the last blocks, arriving with a couple of hours to spare, prepare a little more, pace and call Mark—the reverse trip took much longer and rattled my nerves twice as much) Kevin took the kids to Camden Yards for a tour.  They apparently had a blast, and Kevin decided he wants his 50th birthday in one of their party suites. 

Getting to the Nationals game was also a bit of a chore—we had to drive to a commuter lot and then take the Green Line metro to the Navy Yard, which again was much more difficult on the way out—there were tens of thousands of people trying to get on the Metro, necessitating Special Response (SWAT) teams in the cave of the station moving people around and keeping them steady—but all was worth it.  The park is exquisite, the hawkers had $5 hats outside, and while Strassburg wasn’t pitching, the fans were also en fuego, cheering with all their hearts.  Our seats, through StubHub, were completely awesome, bordering on the right field (I mean right on it, the first seat), the food was great, the weather warm, and the game exciting.  The innings flew by because the pitching was still v. good, with a final score of 2-1 clinched at the bottom of the ninth.  Makes me want to move back to D.C., or almost.  It was my pick city of the bunch. 

New York
Though it seems silly to add a New York leg to the trip since it's close enough to home for a day trip, I have only been to Fenway twice in my life, once to Shea when I was a kid, and never to either Yankees stadium, so we catch them as we can.  Citi Field has a gorgeous Jackie Robinson rotunda, gripping really, but the rest of it…the parking was a nightmare, the signage getting me lost in Flushing, Queens twice, the advertising completely over the top, the sight lines not great, the promotions nowhere near the excitement of the Nationals or the Brewers who had the fans pounding with enthusiasm.  Then again, we had $20 tickets that included a hot dog or burger (including veggie), Nathans’ fries and a medium soda.  So we were well fed, which meant happy.  It was supposed to rain, but didn’t (none of our games, obviously, were rained out) and I enjoyed getting in a little more National League ball.

I really like having the pitcher in the lineup.  It seems much more natural to have those on the field then go out and bat—last year at the Pirates-Red Sox game the big breath-hold was over whether Ortiz would actually take the field so he could play, which seems wrong—and watching all the strategy about when to pull a pitcher and replace him with a pinch hitter makes the managers seem that much more clever. 

So, the game:  the Mets can really struggle and though they were ahead 4-2 at the top of the ninth when we left, we listened to them try badly to blow it.   Bobble, drop and the score was tied by the Giants, who had more than a few fans in the stands, due either to West Coast transplants, or the long-before history of the Giants in New York, or both.  Thankfully the Mets pulled it together and got a run in the bottom of the 9th to win it. 

Soon enough we were home, safe and sound, missed and tired.  No more than an hour afterward I was thinking about next year, for better or worse.  The pleasure of trips, for me, is in the anticipation, though the reminiscing will also be good with this one, like last year.  The jelly bellies alone should last me until Mother’s Day, or beyond—dipped in chocolate!  Imagine!