Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Midwest baseball journey


ON BASEBALL

Bud Selig has nothing to worry about. Major League Baseball is just fine. People still love the game. Fans still turn out in droves (in fact, according to Sports Illustrated, the 39,977 average fans who attended Saturday's 16 games was "the highest single-day average ever.")

Ever.

And baseball's been around for quite some time.

On Saturday, my baseball watching companion, "Tick," and I were in Milwaukee — part of a sellout crowd — to check out the Brewers' odd, yet appealing, revolving-roof Miller Park and, of course, Barry Bonds. It was just the first day of a four-day trip which led us to three major league ballparks and four major league games.

Here's a day-to-day recollection of the trip.

DAY 1 — SAN FRANCISCO VS. MILWAUKEE

This game was the main event of our trip. This was the game we had bought tickets to four months in advance, before the season started. In planning our trip back in March, it had occurred to me that Bonds might be right around 755 in mid-July. So when I saw that he'd be playing in Milwaukee, things fell right into place.

I quickly purchased tickets, knowing that there wouldn't be many empty seats in the huge ballpark come game day.

In a weird twist, Tick and I had our picture taken outside the park in front of a Hank Aaron statue before entering to watch Bonds.

On Friday, it appeared Bonds would take Saturday off because he doesn't play day games after night games. He's no Julio Franco. But I guess he made an exception for us (or, more likely, the fact that Saturday's game was a 3 p.m. CST start instead of 1 p.m. start influenced him to play).

Bonds was much more exciting during batting practice than the game, however. During BP, as I stood behind the Giants' dugout videotaping Bonds, I heard "oohs" and "ahhs" as he sent — according to Tick; remember, I was focusing on Bonds — several balls into the upper deck in right field without even breaking a sweat (it was kind of a cool day; only in the upper 70s).

BP was the highlight of Bonds' day.

He was booed each time he came to bat. And his longest hit was a line drive he pulled foul down the first-base line — actually the first ball he hit all game. Bonds struck out, grounded meekly to the pitcher, walked and was intentionally walked. He was pulled after the second walk in the eighth inning.

Bonds also looked tired. When he grounded to the pitcher, he didn't even make it halfway up the line. And when he was warming up in left field before an inning and the ballgirl he was playing catch with overthrew him, he walked as slowly as possible to retrieve the ball.

Luckily for Bonds, he didn't have to do much in left field. No balls were hit to him all day as the Giants cruised to an 8-0 victory.

After the game, Tick and I played catch outside the stadium in a grassy area next to a playground. Miller Park is about as suburbia as a major league ballpark can get. It is just outside the city off the highway, which is why — we realized — no scalpers were present (scalpers, usually, don't have cars and can't afford to pay $8 to park). Instead of being surrounded by skyscrapers, it is circumvented by pine trees on one side and the highway on the other.

The several parking lots around the park were filled with tailgaters both before and after the game for several hours. Walking through the parking lot, scattered with trash and beer bottles, after the game, I felt as though I'd just left a college football stadium. Not a MLB park.

In short, Miller Park and its surroundings were completely different from that of any ballpark I'd ever been to before.

DAY 2 — ARIZONA VS. CHICAGO CUBS

While Bonds was the main player I wanted to see on the trip, Wrigley Field was the stadium I wanted to see, especially since I don't know how long it will be around (in this day and age, you never know). As a Michigan native who frequented many games at Tiger Stadium, I'll always have a special affinity for old stadiums — both for their history and their structure (Tiger Stadium was amazing because of the upper deck overhang; the lack thereof at Comerica Park sickens me).

Wrigley Field did not disappoint.

Because I'd never been to the old ballpark, I convinced Tick to take the train from his uncle's house in North Chicago (by Lake Michigan) to the stadium more than two hours before the 1:20 p.m. CST first pitch. I wanted to see the atmosphere. I wanted to smell the atmosphere.

And, man, was that the case. We stepped off the train at 11:15, more than two hours before the game, yet the streets outside the stadium were alive (I guess no one in Wrigleyville sleeps in on Sundays). I was met by a cornucopia of blue. Ticket scalpers wearing Cubs apparel. Fans wearing Cubs apparel. Vendors wearing Cubs garb. They were all over the place. I was greeted by a ticket seller, who told me to ditch my Cal Ripken jersey and Tigers hat in a not-so-friendly tone. It was great.

With the Cubs just two and a half games behind first-place Milwaukee, there was no doubt the game would be sold out. So Tick and I decided to purchase standing-room-only seats. They were only $12, but we figured we'd be standing in the upper deck sun all game.

So naive of us.

But before finding out our fate, Tick and I decided to live the entire Game Day Experience by grabbing some grub at a local diner. We agreed on the Salt 'n Pepper diner, which was absolutely mobbed. Luckily for us, there were two vacant seats at the counter calling our names. As we waited for our food then got our grub on, it was fun to watch the chefs before us frantically prepare meal after meal. Heaps of hash browns were prepared at once. There was a main chef, a sandwich chef, a burger guy and others.

Everyone had roles, and they performed them hurriedly but accurately. And the entire time, their boss was watching over their shoulders. I was impressed. I've worked in some kitchens before, but nothing like what we saw at the Salt 'n Pepper.

Satiated for the time being, we headed off to watch some baseball. And from great seats. After being booted from excellent seats down the third base line, Tick spotted a small group of empties down the right field line, which we migrated to. As it turned out, all but two of the seats around us were taken, but two green seats were all we needed. We didn't have to move again (although Tick continued to worry about being eschewed from our seats until the fifth inning).

The product we saw on the field represented nearly 100 years of suffering for Cubs fans. For the second consecutive day, the visiting team pitched a shutout (what are the odds?). The Cubs mustered a few lousy hits as they lost 3-0. Still, most of the blue-clad fans were into the game until its conclusion (and out of their seats).

I have never seen more transient fans than Cubs' supporters. A half inning didn't pass where nobody from our row got up to grab some food or drink. Because we were on the aisle — a must for SRO ticketholders — we got into a routine of standing as the kid went for peanuts or the adult went for beer. It was both galling and humorous. I guess Cubs fans need something to keep their minds off the actual game.

As for the game, when a Cub singled, the fans celebrated — high-fiving with each other — as if he had hit a home run. They were desperate to cheer for anything. And there wasn't much to be happy about at the end of the afternoon — with the Brewers winning to increase their lead in the NL Central.

After the final pitch, Tick — a Cubs Hater — said happily, "Cubs suck."

And off we went to catch the train.

DAY 3 — DETROIT VS. CHICAGO WHITE SOX, GAME 1

After graciously accepting a home-cooked meal from Tick's uncle Sunday night (we take whatever we can get food-wise; usually, it's just turkey and PB&J sandwiches and peanuts), we headed to the southwest suburb of Oak Park, where we would stay with a couple of Sox fans — my aunt, Sally, and uncle, Chuck — for two nights.

On the way across town, Tick nearly ran over a kid who biked right in front of us. At that moment, I knew that we had crossed the tracks. While we would run into a few Cubs supporters the next couple nights, we were in White Sox territory. Where wealth isn't common and the team's supporters wear black.

On Monday night, however, many in the crowd of 30,000 and U.S. Cellular Field were sporting blue and orange Tigers apparel. Many Michiganders, like us, made the short trip to cheer on the team with the best record in the majors. We had initially noticed the strong Tigers presence earlier in the day when we spent a few hours walking the streets of downtown Chicago. First, there was a Tigers family that walked by as we ate some chips (and battled voracious seagulls) while viewing the Chicago River. Then there were the dozens of Tigers beer bellies at the ESPN Zone, where we bought overpriced booze and discussed sports issues.

Finally, after taking the red line train south to 35th street, we started walking toward the stadium, and the first shirt I noticed in my path was a Tigers jersey. I would see many more before the night was complete.

Tick and I were shocked when the cheapest tickets available (in section 518 — at most stadiums, the highest sections are in the 300s) were $25 a piece. One lousy upper deck seat to see the last-place White Sox cost more than two SRO seats at Wrigley. Go figure.

Our frustrations were tripled when upon entering the stadium (after waiting half an hour — the gates didn't open until 90 minutes before game time) we were told that we couldn't go down to the lower level unless we had lower level seats. So, um, basically, we were expected to sit 439 miles from the field for 90 minutes.

Luckily for us, I had my video camera stowed in my backpack, and we concocted a story involving us doing a documentary for DePaul University, which got us by a lower-level usher who couldn't have been older than 17. It had taken some work, but we were on the lower level, where players are visible and the sounds of the game can be heard.

During the game, I could tell that Sox fans hadn't quite forgotten about their World Series title in 2005. Despite the Sox's ineptitude this season, there remained plenty of support for the team from vocal fans. When the Sox mounted a rally to gain a brief 6-5 lead, there was an electricity in the ballpark as if they were just a few games out of first place (instead of 14 and a half).

But the thousands of Tigers fans assembled were the ones clapping late Monday night after a marathon of a game that took well over three hours. Finally... after 15 runs, 29 hits, an assortment of walks, a hit batsman, plenty of pitching changes and two lead changes, Detroit's rocky closer, Todd Jones, shut the door in the bottom of the ninth with a 1-2-3 inning, giving the Tigers a 9-6 win and allowing the remaining fans to head for the exits before 11 p.m. struck.

The atmosphere had been fun (every play was cheered), we had easily found good seats (down the right field line — although Tick and three of his friends moved to the outfield for a few innings), there were plenty of offensive fireworks (Detroit's Curtis Granderson, from the South Side, had a grand homecoming, going 3-3 with a HR), and Detroit won.

We approached our long train ride back to Oak Park in jovial spirits.

DAY 4 — DETROIT VS. CHICAGO WHITE SOX, GAME 2

I woke up feeling a tad sad. Our baseball trip was nearly over. This was our last day, our last baseball game to watch, our last scorecard to fill out, our last chance to catch a foul ball (we ended the trip foul-ball-less). But I didn't have too much time to lament because our final game was a day game, a makeup from an earlier rainout.

Aunt Sally drove Tick and I downtown, where we picked up Uncle Chuck before heading to the ballpark. Tuesday was a day of firsts. For the first time, Tick and I didn't have to pay for our tickets (Sal and Chuck provided them). For the first time, we ate ballpark food (Sal and Chuck bought us delicious hot dogs and beverages). And for the first time, the home team won. Additionally, we saw a piece of rubber history, as Sal and Chuck showed us the original home plate used at the historic Comiskey Park (see picture).

Behind three home runs, including Paul Konerko's game-winning two-run blast, the White Sox satisfied their fans and disappointed the Tigers fans who had made the trip with a 5-3 victory. After Bobby Jenks (who owns the Tigers like nobody else) retired former White Sox Magglio Ordonez (who, by the way, was greeted both games by an assortment of boos and cheers; a few more boos, I think), fireworks were shot into the cloudy sky. I guess they were a sign of the culmination of our trip.

If the four days taught me anything, it is that Major League Baseball is alive and well. Sure, fans are disgusted by Barry Bonds and the whole steroid controversy, but that sure didn't stop them from selling out Miller Park on Saturday in anticipation of Bonds' appearance. Sure, the White Sox have gone from the top of the baseball world to Kansas City Royals territory in a mere two years, but they didn't keep their loyal fans (along with thousands of Tigers' supporters) away from "The Cell" — as it's called — on a nondescript Monday night.

And then there's Wrigley Field. As long as it's around, it will continue to fill up summer after summer with Cubs fans who — as certain T-shirts worn Sunday read — believe "It's gonna happen," it being a World Series title. The ivy on the outfield walls may now be disturbed by two advertisements, but Wrigley is still special, still not as commercialized as the 29 other major league ballparks. It continues to look and smell like a baseball field (and nothing else).

As we drove home late Tuesday night, listening to the Tigers blow a 7-1 lead to the White Sox, I couldn't help but wish that I was back at the ballpark, listening to the ChiSox faithful go crazy as Detroit's unsteady bullpen blew another winnable game. Because as I learned in just four days — and as I'm sure I'll continue to remember whenever I attend MLB games — nothing compares to being there, hearing the sounds, and watching America's game.

NEXT YEAR
This was the second out-of-state trip Tick and I have taken. In 2006, we visited Cleveland's Jacob's Field and Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark.

As the trip was winding down, we were already thinking about 2008, which should be very special. Tick and I plan on going to New York to see Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium for the first time before they're both shut down at season's end. We also hope to get to Fenway Park — which Tick hasn't been to — to see the Red Sox.

I encourage all baseball fans to get out there and visit MLB stadiums (especially the older ones). While other sports are nearly as good on TV as in person, there is no comparison when it comes to baseball.

You have to be there get the full experience.

3 comments:

Tyler Hampton said...

Jake, I don't think that you know how much I wish I could have gone with you, for at least on game. I am stuck in Florida though. That trip sounds amazing and I am glad to hear that there are still people who continue to honor America's pastime. That weekend or so devoted to traveling to the great ball parks in the nation is a great way to pay homage to those greats who have played the game since the early 1900's. Mayes, Ruth, Dimaggio, Lloyd. I love baseball and if I am back from my summer abroad by the time you take your trip next summer, I would love to go with you. Keep it up big guy.

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