This kid is having a hard time leaving his childhood behind. I've been a life long baseball fan, carrying a dream of visiting all of these new ballparks from around this great country of ours.
Recently, I decided to put my business on cruise control, pack a duffel bag, include a box of fine cigars, throw my clubs in, fire up the "Red Beast," and head east on I 10 out of Scottsdale, AZ. Trust me folks...the satellite radio in my bright, red Mazda Miata was pounding out the best hits from the 60's...the top was down...the weather was clear...I didn't have a care in the world!
Before we continue...a little background might be helpful. I grew up cheering for the Minnesota Twins, attending numerous games at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington...later on, at the Metro Dome in downtown Minneapolis.
I learned to admire and appreciate the skills of all these major leaguers who'd pass through town, from Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox, to name a few. Our own hometown heroes of Harmon Killebrew, Zoilo Versalles, Bob Allison, Earl Battey and Tony Oliva added to the mix.
What a thrill it was to attend batting practice and infield practice prior to the games.To see the major leaguers turn a 6-4-3 double play was a thing of beauty. To watch hitters straighten out a nasty curve ball with a single to center field was a remarkable athletic achievement.
My appetite for ballpark food was just as voracious...I could easily eat four Peter's hot dogs and wash 'em down with a couple of beers in one setting. Life was good...it was GREAT fun!
Now, on with my adventure. I'm one who doesn't like alot of structure, I had a general itinerary in mind for this trip but I had made no advance reservations, I didn't buy any advance tickets. If necessary, I was prepared to pull an all nighter...or I could just pull over and catch a few winks.
My first stop was the Texas Rangers' ballpark in Arlington, TX. If you haven't been there, put it on your list.
This is a GREAT ballpark, well designed, colorful, plenty of parking with a very cool, little league look-a-like stadium for all to enjoy. The life sized Nolan Ryan bronze statute welcomes all fans. My first GIANT, grilled, turkey leg, smothered with bar-b- que sauce was all I needed for dinner. Pudge Rodriguez hit a grand slam that night to lead the Rangers to victory. I always like to work the crowds and shake a few hands along the way...these Texans were FUN, polite and passionate about their Rangers.
My trip was off to an excellent start!
Enron Field in Houston, (yes...Enron Field at that time) was next on my horizon. The "Red Beast" performed like a champion and got me to Houston in good shape after a quick jaunt down the freeway from Dallas. Enron Field and the Astros had never really caught my eye, so I caught only a few innings, checked out the stadium and headed to New Orleans.
We arrived in the "Big Easy" about 3:00 AM...I was in the mood to gamble a bit, maybe play a slight game of chance...see if I might reimburse my trip expenses which, at that time, amounted to about $250.00.
Harrahs Casino provided the venue...I picked up a quick $490 in just a few minutes. I promptly cashed out and headed to Biloxi, MS, using my profits to pay for a four day, three night stay at a beach front hotel. Biloxi hosted me during my Air Force days at Keesler AFB, so I was well equipped to enjoy my old stomping grounds. Biloxi is home to several excellent seafood bistros, I devoured the ciappino one night, creole shrimp the next and oysters-on-the-half-shell...this was my idea of a good time!
As I was heading on to my next destination, Atlanta for the All Star Game, I happened to see a sign advertising one of the premier golf courses on the Bobby Jones Alabama Golf Trail. I was up for a round of golf, so I turned off the freeway and quickly found a game in Opaleika, AL at the stunning Grand National golf complex. I got matched up with an attorney from the Federal Reserve Bank, in Washington, D.C. We played a quick 18 in hot, muggy weather, on beautifully, well manicured grounds.
Grand National was preparing to host the NCAA Golf Championship so it was in immaculate condition; this is a first class operation in every respect. The golf staff was excellent and well versed in customer relations. I'd recommend it to any golfer.
After golf, it was time for the one hour drive into Atlanta, just enough time to find the stadium, get a safe parking spot, buy a ticket and regroup. I found a guy willing to accept my $150 in exchange for a box seat, fifteen rows from the field.
Inside the ball park I was seated next to a husband - wife team from a small town in Alabama...as luck would have it, they were just as passionate about their baseball as I was. We cheered loudly for Torii Hunter of the Twins, when he robbed Barry Bonds of a first inning home run with a leaping, over the wall center field catch. All in all, this day and night included everything I enjoy...baseball, golf, new friends and tasty ball park food.
Next on the agenda was Augusta National, for a couple of souviniers. My plan was to simply drive in and park near the clubhouse, walk in, shop and leave. Well, this was Augusta National and the security guards had a little different idea.
Turns out I had to park in a separate area, call the Pro Shop, tell them what I wanted, give them my credit card number and then the staff would drive down in a golf cart and deliver the goods directly to me. I selected a wrist watch featuring the Master's logo...later on I got it engraved...it made for a terrific momento.
Washington D.C., Baltimore and Camden Yards were inviting me in for the next leg of my journey. I had heard from several sources that Camden Yards was the premier baseball facility in the country.
I had also heard about Boog Powell's Roast Beef sandwiches, dripping with juices, fresh from his Webber Grills. I made sure my hearty appetite was ready for this beauty. Trust me folks...you can't go wrong with Boog's $9.95 production which includes a touch of horseradish and cole slaw...a good, cold beer tops it off.
Boog sits on his chair giving autographs and makes small talk with the fans waiting in line for their sandwich. I hear Boog generates a high six figure annual stipend from his concession...more power to him...there's nothing like the good 'ol American free enterprise system.
My seat at Camden Yards was way up in the top deck, with a panoramic view of Baltimore. The people seated next to me were terrific, a boyfriend/girlfriend combo in their early 30's, she was an attractive attorney based in D.C., he was a businessman and ardent baseball fan.
After getting introduced, they were generally interested in my trip, so much so, they invited me to join them at their reserved seats at Shirly Povich Field the next day in Bethesda, MD. This minor league park was named after the legendary sportswriter for the Washington Post. Mr Povich had recently passed away, his associates and friends raised $800,000 to build a nifty ballpark in his honor.
My new friends insisted I get there early so they could introduce me to the owner of the ballclub, meet the manager, the coaches and the Public Address announcer. With a break in the action, the P.A. man invited me in to his booth to do an interview about my trip, with about 800 fans listening...I reluctanly agreed !
A person would do himself a disservice by not spending some extra time in our nation's capitol. I also caught the Viet Nam Memorial Wall of Honor for the first time, had lunch at the Willard Hotel, caught a play at the Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts and devoured a superb Crab Cake dinner at Nathan's in Georgetown. I've got to admit, this adventure was progressing nicely, the best, however, was just around the corner.
As I'm leaving the D.C. area, the "Red Beast" and I were heading north on I 95 to NYC when we saw the exit for Atlantic City. I hadn't been there in thirty plus years so I decided it would be a good time for an encore. Besides, I wasn't real anxious about driving in to New York during the morning rush hour. I decided to check out the sites and sounds...and the slot machines, driving in to NYC later in the day.
Well, that turned out to be a wise decision as I eventually hit a $1,200 jackpot at a $5 slot machine. I then sauntered over to another section at Bally's and hit a large payout, cashed it in, returned to the same machine, hit again, cashed out, hit again, cashed out...you get the picture.
After a bit, I started losing money so I left about 3:30 AM, got to my car, counted my bankroll and discovered I had won $3,400. This unexpected windfall would come in handy entering the next stage...NYC and The Big Apple.
For any doubters in the audience, all you have read so far is accurate to a tee.
The "Red Beast" was performing flawlessly, we had no rain outs and our schedule was right on the money.
NYC is one of my favorite places in the world. My wife Chris and I enjoyed the City a few years prior while we were attending the Million Dollar Round Table meetings at Radio City Music Hall.
We stayed at the New York Athletic Club, hit the "Late Show with David Letterman", (Billy Crystal was one of his guests that night), had dinner at Palm , caught "Cats" on Broadway, were dinner guests of Minnesota Mutual at the Waldorf Astoria...and ran a 5 K race through Central Park...needless to say..."We LOVE New York!".
Well, this time we're talkin' Yankee Stadium and baseball. I had been to the Stadium several years before, but for a baseball fan, this is as good as it gets.
On gameday, I took a subway out to the Stadium and bought a ticket from a scalper for $30. I was assured I was behind home plate, kind of close to the action. In reality, I was in the last row of the third deck...GREAT for picture taking, but lousy for baseball. After the fourth inning, I picked up a few souvenirs, a hot dog & headed back to the Marriott Suites on 40th street. I hung around New York for the weekend, did alot of cool stuff and got prepared for Fenway Park in Boston. Before we leave NYC, I should mention the $3,400 winnings in Atlantic City eliminated any cash flow stress that might have been developing...New York is VERY pricey.
Fenway Park was always a stadium high on my list...I had to get there before it either got replaced....or demolished. I got to the park two hours before game time and when the ticket office opened, I popped for a choice box seat just off home plate near the Red Sox dugout. I sat with a father and his twelve year old son, who was smiling ear to ear to be at the ballpark with his Dad. He squealed with delight when I answered his, "where are you from?" question with: "Scottsdale, Arizona". Turns out he was a huge Arizona Cardinals fan, with quarterback Jake Plummer being his favorite player.
Fenway lived up to it's impressive reputation. The fans were GREAT...knowledgeable and enthusiastic. I've had better Clam Chowder in my day but...hey...when in Boston...do as the Bostonians do.
My next stop was Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies....this was going to be the crowning achievment as I had often dreamt of witnessing basball's premier showcase.
The seven hour drive to Cooperstown took me thru the beautiful countryside of New England. I got in late and found there were few, if any, hotel rooms available. My search for lodging however, gave me a good opportunity to explore thisgem of a town which exists soley for the HOF weekend. The lawns were all freshly mowed, the houses were meticulously painted. The predominate house seemed to be a two story colonial, painted white with green shutters. Flower gardens and window boxes were the rage. The local churches and steeples were all text book Americana...Norman Rockwell must have had some input with the city planners.
I ultimately had to swallow my pride and rented a deluxe room for $250 at a hotel that was centrally located. I was in no mood to haggle though...I had spent a long day on the road...my trip was beginning to take its toll...I could tell I was starting to physically run out of gas.
After a good nights sleep, I got up, showered, shaved, had a tasty breakfast and settled in with an older couple in the hotel lobby. The husband, in particular, was anxious for conversation. He was able to answer all of my questions on the HOF ceremonial details.
I quickly discovered I had found a delightful person and a good sports fan. We eventually got introduced by name, turns out he was the father of Tim Kirkchian, the ESPN baseball guru. He was a retired Professor from the University of Alabama and had numerous stories to share about his departed friend and colleague...Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. Our conversation reinforced in me once again, it's not possible for a person to put a price tag on the benefits of travel. What a treat!
After a two hour conversation with Mr Kirkchian, it was time to head over to the ceremonies. I, of course didn't have a ticket. I politely asked one of the ushers if I could enter a special area to get some up close pictures and take in the ambiance. She let me in for a quick peek with the understanding I could only stay for a few minutes.
Well, one thing led to another and I discovered there were a few empty seats, so I grabbed one. For a sports fan, this was like dieing and going to heaven. All types of legendary sports figures were in the area. Bo Schembechler and his wife were there along with the inductees families and numerous ESPN celebrities.I was truly like a little kid in a candy store.
After the preliminaries, the emcee introduced the living Hall of Famers. I couldn't believe my eyes as so many of my childhood heroes walked on stage. In all, 49 of the 60 living Hall of Famers were in attendance. Stan Musial couldn't make it, but they played his soulful recording of, "Take Me Out To The Ball Game", with Stan playing his beloved harmonica.
There wasn't a dry eye in the audience as his last chord played over the P.A. system.
A large contingent of Cincinnati Reds fans were in attendance to welcome Marty Brennaman into the Broadcasters Hall of Fame. It was fun for me to hear his famous voice give a heartfelt acceptance speech.
Next on the docket was Carlton Fiske, representing the Boston Red Sox. Fiske recounted his numerous knee surgeries and the highs and lows of his extraordinary career. We sometimes forget the pain and suffering these athletes endure in order to play a game they love. His heart-pounding recap of his famous playoff home run at Fenway, made the day.His "never give up" attitude was rewarded with his Hall of Fame Induction. Like all high achievers, he gave credit to his many friends and teammates who helped and supported him along the way. His beautiful wife and family, and several in the audience, were teary eyed by the conclusion of his remarks. Those of us who were there will never forget Carlton Fiske.
Manager Sparky Anderson and Tony Perez from the Reds, each added their final touches. It was heartwarming to hear Sparky introduce his National Champion American Legion baseball team to the audience. These players are still the best of friends even after so many decades...once a champion...always a champion! Tony Perez concluded the ceremonies with his heartfelt recap of "The Big Red Machine".
Afterwards, the crowd filed out and headed towards downtown Cooperstown. I, of course, spent some time in the baseball museum and loved reading about the players who overcame so much to reach the pinnacle of their chosen profession.
It was ironic to see a sign downtown inviting everyone to a nearby restaurant to get a Pete Rose autograph for $35. The crowd was held back by a snow fence, as I approached the autograph area, it was a sad sight indeed, to see Pete sitting by himself. Mr. Hustle was a lonely figure...there were few, if any takers.
My trip back to Scottsdale started later that evening. I couldn't help but feel as if I had just hit a home run in the baseball game of life. What a terrific adventure it was...to experience the best our great game has to offer.