Friday, June 13, 2008

2008 baseball trip: a taste of old and new


This year's baseball trip that Tick and I took last week was a tale of two days, two vastly different stadiums, two unique experiences.

I loved them both.


After a ridiculously long bus trip, it began in Philadelphia. While neither Tick nor I made it to Veterans Stadium -- not exactly something I'm punching myself about -- I noticed a sign for the stadium as we walked toward Citizens Bank Park.

The sign was next to a parking lot for the current ballpark. Nice.

The interesting thing about Philly's sports complexes is that they're all within a block radius in the south part of the city. Across the street from the ballpark are Philly's football stadium, "The Linc," and basketball and hockey arenas, both sponsored by Wachovia.

I'm hoping that in the future there will be an October Sunday when the Phillies have a home playoff game, the Eagles and Flyers have home games, and the 76ers are home for an exhibition contest. That would be chaotic fun.

But I'm wandering here. Let's talk baseball.

I entered the ballpark excited, primarily, about two things: the opportunity to see Ken Griffey Jr. swing for his 600th home run and $1 hot dog night (I'm not kidding). My ideal scenario was to be eating my fourth hot dog as Griffey hit one high, hit one deep!

That, of course, didn't happen. Griffey didn't even play until a pinch-hit, four-pitch walk in the eighth inning. And I only downed three dogs. But there were other things to be excited about.

For one, the stadium didn't exactly fit the mold of a lot of modern stadiums, something I was worried about. No, there was no overhanging upper deck like in Tiger Stadium, but the upper levels were more up than back. If you want an example of an upper deck that is far from the field, visit Comerica Park. That wasn't the case in Philly.

We sat in third-level seats down the left-field line. If we had been a little closer to the field, we would have been in foul-ball territory. The seats weren't bad.

The stadium towered around us. There are four levels, not including suites that are packed in right above the third level. The altitude of the ballpark gave me the feel that we were in an enclosed park, which holds sound much better than a park like Comerica.

And there was the added benefit that between the seats down the right-field line and the outfield seats, there was a patch of blue sky through which airplanes flew nearly every minute on their way to the Philly airport. A nice distraction for the kids, or for fools like Tick and I who guessed how long it would be until the next plane came.

As for the game, can I submit an MVP vote for Chase Utley? That guy is remarkable. He's got that short, compact swing that prevents him from striking out much, but he also has a wealth of power. Add that to a humble persona, and he's your perfect franchise player. Utley had a couple of big hits in the Phils' 3-2 win over the Reds.

I learned later that if Utley wins the National League MVP award, it will mark the first time since the early 1960s that a team featured three consecutive MVPs (Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins won the past two years).

A note about Howard: He got booed. The slugger was a strikeout machine, with his most frustrating "K" -- at least for Phillies fans -- coming with the bases loaded and just one out. It was a taste of the Philadelphia sports fan; they're not afraid to rain boos on a player, regardless of what he did two years ago.

With a delicious cheese steak earlier in the day at Reading Terminal Market and wasabi peas at the bar we visited after the game, I'd give our Philly experience an A-.

Not bad at all.


Here's the thing about New York: There's so much going on, so much activity, that at times you forget there is the most famous baseball team in town.

But the great thing about Yankee Stadium is that it's solely about baseball. Once you take the "B" train to 161st street in the Bronx, once you ditch your backpack or non-lady bag (Tick had to throw away the one our friend Stan had provided him), once you hand your ticket to the ticket-taker ... you know you're in a baseball stadium.

There are no Ferris wheels, no "kids area," just baseball. The main pregame attraction is Monument Park, which is located behind the center-field fence and features statues of all the Yankees greats. With a 15-minute wait for that and batting practice in progress, Tick and I opted to head toward right field.

And what a good decision it was. In Philly, Tick -- who had the only glove; I had somehow forgotten mine -- had just missed on a couple of batting-practice flies, including one that sailed just over his head. I guess he was just waiting for the ultimate experience, inside MLB's most storied stadium.

A fly ball was hit -- I don't remember the batter, but it was a Blue Jay -- and it sailed toward the short porch. Tick and I, positioned in the first row behind the aisle, intently viewed the line drive as it screamed toward us. And next thing I knew, Tick had the ball in his glove, and he had fallen back a row -- he had made an acrobatic catch over his head, and the force of the ball pushed him over his seat.

Wow. I knew right then that regardless of how the game went, my only Yankee Stadium experience would be a memorable one. As Tick stood up with the ball still deep in the webbing of his mitt, he received a smattering of applause from the folks around us scattered in Yankees jerseys. What a moment.

Then we headed up. It was funny, but walking up the wending aisles to the 600 sections of the stadium, I was actually excited. Usually when I'm doing such a thing at a ballpark, I'm depressed. It means I'm destined for the dreaded upper deck, otherwise known as "50 miles from home plate."

But Yankee Stadium is different. Mainly, I guess, it's simply antiquated. When we arrived at our left-field, upper-deck seats, we were far from the field, yes, but not so far that I would have rather been camped out in front of a high-definition television.

I had watched enough Yankees game to know that home runs occasionally reached the upper level -- just like at Tiger Stadium -- so I wouldn't let Tick keep the glove in his plastic bag (which was provided him after he had to dump Stan's bag). If A-Rod connected on a bomb toward us, there was no way I wasn't catching it.

Alas, there wasn't even a lower-deck home run to our part of the field. In fact, the game was a bit of a dud, save for Mike Mussina's excellent pitching and a dominant 1-2-3 ninth inning by Mariano Rivera. The Yankees' 5-1 victory wasn't anything to get overly excited about, but I'll never forget my only Yankee Stadium experience.

The rumbling of the train going by right behind the bland scoreboard in center field.

The $11.50 beers they sold (no, I didn't get one). Besides paying $45 for our tickets, I now know why the Steinbrenners have always been willing to spend so much on big-name free agents. With nearly 55,000 expensive seats and pricey beers, they can afford it. Just do the math.

The fans in the center-field bleachers, who were clearly a gang of their own. Just like the Tigers fans who would congregate in Tiger Stadium's bleachers, these fans had a grand time, doing chants and cheers in unison. It was as if one huge extended family was out there.

And just the sense of history that I could smell while in the stadium. As fans were leaving, a man chipped a piece of a wall off, giving himself a souvenir of the soon-to-be-closed stadium. I thought about doing the same, but I was comfortable that my experience would never abandon my memory.

Plus, I had the scorecard from the game (a tradition Tick and I have held since we began these trips in 2006).

As we walked outside, the new Yankee Stadium loomed across the street. I asked Tick to take a picture of it, but it really wasn't necessary.

After all, there are plenty more baseball trips to come.

And New York will once again beckon.


Sportsattitude said...

Jake, so glad you liked your experience in Philly and your treatment of the Park, the Phils and the Phans was a great read. Proud to have someone come to our neck of the woods and actually admit to having a good time.

Spencer said...

Awesome you got to see a game before Yankee Stadium is closed. Definitely something you can remember for a long time to come...