Thirteen years of driving experience has taught me that it is never a good thing if you can look at your tire and see exposed steel.
The good news? It wasn’t my tire. The bad news? It happened in the middle of New Jersey, within shouting distance of Pennsylvania, and for a few awful minutes I thought the vacation I had been planning with my friends for months was over, almost before it had started.
Let’s start from the very beginning. That’s a very good place to start. The date was Thursday, June 25. My brother Tim and two of my friends, Chris and Billy, had left at 4:30 AM on an epic road trip that would take us through nine states, three major league ballparks, two sketchy hotels, countless highway rest stops, and the Baseball Hall of Fame.
By eleven, we had arrived at our first destination – New York City, the borough of Queens – and parked in a lot less than a ten-minute walk from New Shea. We took pictures of the planes taking off from LaGuardia, donned our non-Mets gear (Sox hat for Billy, Sox visor for Tim, Notre Dame hat for Chris, and Natinals hat for me), and hoofed it over to the glistening, shiny new stadium. As it came into view, I realized that I had never really seen anything like this. Remember the scene in Gladiator where Russell Crowe and the rest of the small-town gladiators went to Rome and saw the Colosseum for the first time? “I didn’t know men could build such things,” Djimon Hounsou says. Before Thursday, I had only seen Fenway Park and Veterans Stadium; as soon as Citi Field came into view, overwhelming in its hugeness and beauty and modernity, I understood the feeling that Hounsou’s character was trying to convey.
Inside, we stopped off at the Jackie Robinson Rotunda to have our picture taken as a group. If I ever return to Citi Field, one reason will be to revisit this area and view it in greater detail. The interior of the stadium was so overwhelming at first that all I remember is the big number 42 that served as a backdrop for everyone’s photos; I know there was much more to it.
After this first stop we headed up to our seats in Section 533. I had bought them off at StubHub with the intention of keeping costs down; as we kept climbing higher and higher into the sky, however, past the 200s and 300s and 400s, we noticed that Chris was starting to look a bit perturbed. It was then that the truth came out: he is afraid of heights. (He had made a comment about it when I told him I was thinking about buying tickets in the 500s; I thought he was joking.) As you can imagine, this posed a slight problem in a the upper reaches of the stadium, where the seats basically rose skyward on an almost vertical plane. I needed a rope and a Sherpa to make it all the way the top.
If nothing else, our obscenely high location allowed Chris to sneak in a few of the better one-liners of the day:
“I am literally at eye level with the New York skyline.”
“I know the foul pole is about thirty feet high. We’re at least twenty feet above it. That can’t be good.”
“You know you’re high up when birds refuse to fly above you.”
And my personal favorite:
“If popups never go higher than where you’re sitting, can you still call them pop “ups”?”
Section 533 was also where we met the young fan Chris later dubbed “the Mets Historian.” In his early 20s, clad in a Johan Santana jersey, a beer in the cup holder in front of him, he first made his presence felt when we returned from an early game sojourn around the lower levels, commenting on the fact that none of us were wearing Mets gear. We ignored him and his extremely quiet friend until the top of the fourth, when he voiced his displeasure over a leadoff walk to Chris Carpenter. Billy, sitting several seats away, piped up (in full instigator mode), “But it was a good walk.” The Mets Historian looked over at him and said, “Hey, I’m on my way to getting drunk, so you may not want to mess with me.” Since it was not our goal to engage in fisticuffs, especially at this ridiculous height where Chris would surely be less effective, we stopped talking.
A couple innings later, the Mets Historian looked back at me and said, “I’m calling a double play right now. He hits into a double play, you owe me a beer.” After the batter singled, he turned around again and said, “Hey, you win. I would’ve owed you a beer – but we didn’t shake on it!” Thanks for the tease, Mets fan. By the time the seventh inning stretch rolled around, he was chatting amicably with Chris and Billy about random stuff (Chris took to calling himself a “Baseball Gandhi” for his ability to bring Red Sox fans and Mets fans together in perfect harmony). Apparently, he knew his stuff (including the reason why they used to take the caps off of soda bottles before giving them to fans), which led to the nickname.
The Mets Historian eventually left and K-Rod entered the game with a 3-2 lead (I had never been in the ballpark when a marquee closer entered the game. His music caught me by surprise). He retired the first two batters before walking Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick. Yadier Molina came up, and I was sure that the stiff breeze that suddenly appeared, blowing out, was going to be a deciding factor in things. Molina couldn’t get the ball up high enough for it to make a difference, however, lining out to left to end things.
According to the box score there were 41,221 people in attendance that day, which made for an extremely enjoyable exit from the ballpark. We got out as fast as we could, getting back to the car just in time to sit and wait in traffic. Billy and I sat in the front, since we planned on switching off as soon as we were out of the city; I was going to drive the rest of the way to Baltimore. As we were sitting at the exit, waiting for the lot attendants to let us out, a car came flying up on our right, the driver yelling, “I’ve gotta get to work!” Fortunately, a third attendant was standing there, holding a red flag, an umbrella, and talking on her cell phone. Never before have I seen someone so clearly bad at her job. The guy in charge yelled at her, she fumbled everything around, and eventually managed to hold the flag out in front of us, prompting Billy to say, “Yeah, I know what I’m supposed to be doing.” Oh, and she was still talking on her phone. I kinda hope she got fired.
After awhile, we got back on the road. We hoped to make Baltimore by about eight and figure out what to do from there. It came down to catching a minor league game in Aberdeen, finding somewhere to watch the NBA Draft, or crashing at the hotel. The traffic in New York was pretty serious, but we eventually made it through and pulled into a rest stop to make the driving switch. Tim came up front while Billy went to the back to crash.
He was nervous about me taking the wheel, since nobody else had driven to that point. As I was backing out of the space, a car horn sounded, prompting him to shoot up in the back seat and shout, “Brian, what are you doing!” I assured him that nobody was honking at me, I was an experienced driver, and that everything was going to be fine.
We got back on the highway and everything was going great. I enjoy highway driving and told Tim that I could probably go for hours on this type of road. Everyone was relaxed.
All of a sudden, I heard a noise and the car started shaking. It sounded like we were driving over rumble strips, which would have been totally fine, except I was in the middle lane. Tim immediately yelled at me not to use the brakes (I was starting to slow and making sure to keep the wheel straight; there was nobody around us, which helped) and directed me to the right side of the road. Luckily, we found a grassy spot just past the guardrail. I eased off the highway and we got out to inspect the damage. You guessed it: tire shredded, steel exposed. Prognosis? Negative. (I wish I had a picture of it. Why didn’t I take a picture? Oh, right, because I was two seconds away from throwing a massive temper tantrum on the side of the Jersey Turnpike.)
I tried calling AAA to get some assistance, since we were, you know, stranded on the side of a major highway. It was hard to get through to them, partly because I was pretty angry with myself for causing this (even though it quickly became apparent that I hadn’t hit anything; the tire had just succumbed to the pressure of several hours of stop-and-go city traffic and highway travel) and partly because I wasn’t sure exactly where we were – I hadn’t noticed the number of the last exit we passed and the one sign we could see was just far enough away that we couldn’t be sure what it said. Eventually, we figured out that we were on the New Jersey Turnpike, which was bad news: AAA couldn’t help us because they weren’t allowed to service that stretch of road. While I was struggling to find all this out, Tim went ahead and called the police, who sent someone from the Department of Transportation to help us out.
Our Savior arrived in a yellow van with a flashing bar light on top. The spare was usable, but we couldn’t get far on it. We were still too far from Baltimore for that to be an option, and all the stores we tried calling were closed for the day. It was looking pretty dire when the Savior said, “You know, we may have a tire back at the shop.” One phone call later – “Yep, we do have one” – and he was on his way to get our new tire, with Chris as collateral. While we were waiting, Billy shocked the hell out of me when he looked at me and said, “So, are you still good to drive?” I figured I’d be tied to the luggage rack after what had happened. When they returned about 45 minutes later and put the tire on, however, I gladly took the keys and we got on the road again after a nice two-hour interlude.
It would be so nice if the story ended right there, with us overcoming this hiccup and charging into Baltimore two hours later as conquering heroes. (That’s not even foreshadowing. That’s just me telling you what’s up.) It was almost nine o’clock by this point, which put us in Baltimore around 11:30. With all the highway driving we had to do, I figured we could probably cut off a little of that time and get us there by eleven o’clock at the earliest.
Throughout much of trip, I kept a mental list of people I wanted to call on Monday morning and yell at. AAA made the list, as did the New Jersey DOT. There were others, I’m sure. Within a couple hours, the highway departments for both Delaware and Maryland had made it as well. Why? Because both states somehow thought it would be a good idea to take four lane roads – one of them a bridge – and close down all but one lane for “construction”. Making it even better was the fact that it didn’t look like there was any actual construction taking place – we eventually decided that Delaware was sick of being picked on by all the other states and chose to fight back by setting up cones to create a “construction zone”. Whatever the reason, we were stuck there for an hour.
The Maryland traffic was even worse because we had stopped in between and Billy had offered to pick up dinner for everyone, but we figured we’d grab something in Baltimore and turned him down. An hour later, we were sitting motionless in traffic, wondering how, exactly, we got to this point. (Some of my time was spent on such introspection; the rest was devoted to the car in front of us, which had a rack with three bikes on the back. I knew we could peddle out of there faster than we could drive, it was just a matter of who would be left behind.) Fortunately, Chris and his encyclopedic knowledge of useless stuff was in the passenger seat, in charge of keeping me awake (the only time I had slept all day was a twenty-minute nap on the way to New York. By 12:30, I was seeing purple unicorns). Somehow we got on the topic of Seinfeld, and for literally hours he went through every episode he could think of. He had me laughing so hard that while falling asleep was no longer a concern, driving off the road in a fit of glee certainly was. On the bright side, for the next three days, we recited this scene approximately 3,215 times:
It never got old.
As you might have guessed, we made it to Baltimore – five hours late, but we made it. We found our hotel, checked into our rooms, and immediately crashed.
So ended Day One.