Posts Tagged ‘St. Louis Cardinals’

Seeing Strasburg and Paying the Cost

Sorry I am little late in writing this, but did you know The Battle of New Orleans took place two weeks after The War of 1812 ended?

What do you mean, that was 200 years ago?

Last Sunday on a gorgeous day in sunny Viera, Florida, I saw “The Next BIG Thing” Stephen Strasburg make his second spring start as the Nationals squared off against the St. Louis Cardinals. I was impressed as were the Cardinals.

To be honest, I was a bit surprised by Strasburg’s wind-up. Having never seen him pitch before, I pictured him as more of a straight up and down, standing tall pitcher – a la Mark Prior – but his wind-up reminded me a bit of David Cone, except with only one arm angle.

Unfortunately, the Capital City Messiah only pitched three innings. Then the Nationals featured a litany of has-beens, never-will-bes, and future insurance salesmen. The only names I recognized were Livan Hernandez and Ron Villone.

Of course, the Nationals lost.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t mind. As cliche as this sounds, I was there to have a good time. I met up with fellow BusLeagues writer Will, made friends with the Nats Tiki, heckled Mitchell Boggs of the Cardinals, saw former Mets manager Davey Johnson (now working with the Nationals in some capacity), bought a cheeseburger, almost met Mark Zuckerman of NatsInsider.com, talked blues with a random stranger, and saw people wearing some awesome jerseys, to include a Don Drysdale, an Ozzie Smith, a George Foster, a Johnny Bench, and one that just said “Funk”.

Unfortunately (yes, again), my day at the ballpark almost didn’t happen. Even though I was told there were plenty of seats inside Space Coast Stadium, there were no tickets being sold outside the ballpark.

That’s right, it was a sell-out.

Thank you, Mr. Strasburg.

Fortunately (again), I found someone scalping a ticket. 30 bucks for a 17 dollar seat! For a spring training game! Where the main attraction is only in 1/6 of the action!

I am seeing this more and more every spring. When I was a kid growing up in Central Florida, I used to be able to go to the ballpark right before a game and buy a seat in the bleachers for less than 10 bucks. Now the only team you can do that with is the Pirates.

I know it makes me seem old and crotchety, and maybe I am, but I miss those spring training days. Before teams realized they could capitalize on spring match-ups. Before tickets were 30 dollars each (as they are to see the Yankees).

Before the dark times. Before The Empire.

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Bus Leagues Road Trip: PNC Park, Part Deux

Just over two months after my first visit to western Pennsylvania with my brother Tim and two friends, I went back to the Keystone State, this time with my wife. Our anniversary was Friday, we both had a three-day weekend for Labor Day, and the free Pirates tickets I won in June were burning a hole in my pocket, so we each took a couple extra days off and planned a trip. She originally wanted to go to Amish country and see the sights, but I vetoed that plan as too expensive. So she opted for Plan B: two nights in Philadelphia, followed by a trip to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates.

Now, we try to keep it loose around here when it comes to the topics we cover. Generally, if something is even tangentially related to minor league baseball, it has a shot. But I’m pretty sure that there is no possible way to connect our time in the City of Brotherly Love, which was mostly spent touring historic sites, to the Bus Leagues. So I’m not going to bore you with those stories.

Okay, I’m not going to bore you much.

In fact, I’ll just do bullet points on some of the interesting stuff so we can get through this quickly and get to the Pirates stuff. I know that’s what you care about.

— We played it by ear in terms of a departure time and didn’t get on the road until about noon on Friday. Little did we realize at the time that our route, as planned by VZ Navigator, took us through the Bronx. We hit New York at about 4:30, just in time for bumper-to-bumper, Friday afternoon, rush hour traffic. Never again, I tell you. Never again.

— To get to our hotel in Philadelphia, we had to drive down a cobblestone road. My wife thought this was the coolest thing ever; all I could think of was the fact that parts were probably falling off the car from all the shaking.

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— I come from a small town of about 5,000 people and have never lived in a city with a population of more than 90,000. Let’s just say that Philadelphia (population 1.4 million, plus tourists) was just a bit overwhelming, even for a short stay.  Big city living is definitely not for me.

— We ate dinner at the Hard Rock Café on Saturday night and were served by a waiter who resembled, in spirit if not in looks, Vince from “Employee of the Month.” It’s like he watched the movie and decided, “You know, that dude has it together. I’m gonna act like that from now on.” I bet he drives an ’81 Honda.

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— If you go to Philly for the historic attractions, make sure to visit the National Constitution Center first, then move on to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. We did it the other way around, and while Independence Hall was amazing, the NCC was the place that really got me fired up with some good old-fashioned, “Proud to be an American” feelings. It would’ve been awesome to bring that patriotism into Independence Hall with me, rather than going in right off the street.

— I loved the interactive nature of the displays in the NCC, but two things rubbed me the wrong way: one, some of the information needed to be proofread: New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s first name was misspelled in one area, and another exhibit featured an apocryphal story about Muhammad Ali throwing his Olympic medal in the river after being denied service at a restaurant (pretty sure that story was made up at the time and has since been proven false); and two, no pictures allowed, which was too bad because there was an absolutely outstanding exhibit featuring statues of Declaration of Independence signers. (I did make my wife turn on the camera to snap the picture you see above; it was just too cool.)

— Didn’t get to see the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, the Second Bank of the United States (a pity, since it was right across the street from our hotel), or Citizens Bank Park. Maybe next time. I did, however, get pictures of the Rocky statue and the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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And that, friends, was Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Pictures 174We left the Omni Hotel early on Sunday morning and proceeded west on I-76. The nice thing was that we were on 76 for 270 miles, which was good because I hate having to worry about changing roadways and which lane am I supposed to be in and that type of stuff. On the other hand, it sucked because we were on 76 for 270 miles. That’s almost five hours. And there were tunnels.

Pennsylvania Pictures 165(They have signs leading up to the tunnels to prepare travelers for entry. One of them said, “Remove Sunglasses,” which made sense to me because you don’t want drivers wearing shades inside a dark tunnel. My wife didn’t see it that way, instead taking it as a sign that the state of Pennsylvania was trying to impede here personal freedoms, which led to her yelling loudly at one point, “Stop telling me what to do, Pennsylvania!”)

We got to Pittsburgh at about noon, parked at our hotel right across the street from PNC Park, and walked over to take a look around before the 1:30 game. From reading up online, I realized that there were a bunch of things we had missed in June and I wanted to make sure I saw them on this trip. The highest priorities were the statues of Willie Stargell and Honus Wagner. We’d seen Roberto Clemente’s outside the centerfield gates, but had never crossed paths with Pops and Hans. Also, there was supposedly a statue of Ralph Kiner inside, just outside Section 135. This would have been really cool to see, if we could have found Section 135. Alas, Kiner was not meant to be.

What we did see as we came through the gate on the third base side was even Pennsylvania Pictures 208cooler.  We had been unable to find Stargell and Wagner right away, which was sort of disappointing.  Immediately inside the gate, however, was a statue of Josh Gibson.  Further investigation revealed more Negro League greats – Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson, Satchel Paige.  It was unexpected because nothing I had read had mentioned this area, but I wasn’t complaining.  Just one more thing that the people who designed PNC Park did right.

On our way up to our seats, we saw the famous prize wheel that was really the reason we were there in the first place.  My wife wanted to take her chances at winning a visor, so of course we waited in line to spin it again.  She didn’t get what she wanted – it landed on a Willie Stargell plate (with a sticker on it that says it may be poisonous to food).  For my turn, I gave it a whirl…and ended up on the square for free tickets.  There’s no way I’m traveling from Pittsburgh to New Hampshire three times in less than three months, so…somebody else will get to enjoy a Pirates game this month.  Two’s my limit.

Our seats for this game were in the infield grandstand, on the 300-level, which provided an even better view than I could have imagined:

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If someone wants me to believe that this is not the most beautiful ballpark in America, they’re going to have to convince me.  Outstanding.

Also outstanding was the way St. Louis centerfielder Colby Rasmus covered all that ground out there.  I know ballpark crowds aren’t the best judge of fly ball depth, but there were at least three or four times where a batter hit one deep, a roar went up from the crowd, and Rasmus just cruised back and handled the play effortlessly.  He also came very close to throwing a runner out at the plate, playing a line drive in front of him and uncorking a great throw that was just a second or two late.

Rasmus’s counterpart and fellow top prospect-turned-rookie Andrew McCutchen had a good day as well, finishing 2-5 with two runs scored and coming about as close as Rasmus to gunning someone down at home.  He was also one of the players featured in a video Q&A on the scoreboard in between innings.  The question was, “What would you do if you were president?”  A few different players gave the usual answers – “lower taxes” is the one I remember – but McCutchen got on the screen and started laughing.  “Oh, man,” he said,” Can I just sit back in the Oval Office, put my hands back, be like, man, president.”

I think Andrew McCutchen might be awesome.

Oh, and one of those runs?  The game-winner, scored when he came around from second on Garrett Jones’ drive into the left-center field gap with one out in the bottom of the ninth, a ball that Rasmus wasn’t able to outrun.  McCutchen crossed the plate with the Pirates’ second run of the inning, erasing a lead the Cardinals had gained on a Rick Ankiel homer in the top half, and immediately impressed me again when he led the charge to meet and celebrate Jones near second base.

I think Andrew McCutchen might be one of my favorite players.

The Pirates had lost eight straight leading up to that game and were merely postponing the loss that would give them a record seventeenth consecutive losing season, but for that moment, they might as well have been Little Leaguers celebrating after a big, well-earned win.  It was nice to see them display such heart in a game that meant relatively nothing in the grand scheme of things.

A few other notes from the game: Pirates broadcaster Steve Blass started throwing hats from the booth into the stands late in the game – a lady in the row behind me dove for one, missed, and I had to catch her; Neil Walker picked up his first major league hit in the eighth inning; my wife got a sunburn – on one side of her body; I’ve seen the Pirates play twice this year, and Paul Maholm has started both games.

On our way out, I took a few more pictures of the Negro League statues (it had been too sunny earlier to get good ones) before we went out the left field gate to see the Willie Stargell statue.  It was just as impressive as Clemente (which we saw from a distance but didn’t visit up close):

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I tried to get a picture of just the statue, but it was a madhouse.  Even while these kids were posing, a father was getting ready to jump in and take a picture with his daughter.  So, I get a picture of Pops with a couple of random kids.

After I took my pictures, we walked the hundred yards back to our hotel to relax for awhile before going out for dinner and finding the Wagner statue.  We decided to go to Jerome Bettis Grille 36, mainly because it was within easy walking distance.

We had to wait for about fifteen minutes for a table, but it was well worth it.  The waiter was friendly, the food delicious, and the atmosphere good.  As my wife said, “I like that it’s Jerome Bettis’ place, but it’s not like, ‘Look at me, look at me.’  It’s not showy.”  And it was inexpensive, too, which was a big deal because cash was running low by that point.  The only thing I noticed that might be worth criticizing was the service – a table of six people next to us had their food brought out over a period of about ten minutes, so some people were eating while others sat and watched.  Our waiter said that when it gets really busy, the kitchen can have a hard time keeping up.  Really, though, the food was so good that it didn’t matter.  I would’ve waited.

On our way back to the hotel, we asked a guy at a valet booth about the remains of Three Rivers Stadium.  He pointed back in the direction from which we had come, where Heinz Field loomed, and said, “Well, there’s that parking lot over there, and they left up one of the gates.”  He went on to tell us a little bit about the demolition – Heinz Field was built so close that they had to take special precautions when Three Rivers came down – and answered a question I had about Forbes Field (home plate is still located in one of the buildings on Pitt’s campus), and we were on our way again.

And then, finally, Honus Wagner.  He was literally parked right in front of the main entrance to the ballpark, smaller than the other two but higher because he is on a pedestal.  The picture came out a little darker than I would’ve liked, but tell me this doesn’t look cool:

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With that, the sightseeing portion of our trip essentially came to a close.  We went back to the hotel, passed out by 9:30, and slept for about nine hours in preparation for the ten hour drive home on Monday.  It was a long drive, fortunately light on traffic (we specifically avoided New York City and its traffic), and absolutely nothing of note happened.

The end.

The Ongoing Saga Of The Brothers Rasmus: Colby Strikes Back

It’s been five days since we last spoke of the glorious Rasmus Brothers, which always feels like about four days too long.  This time, however, I nearly forgot about it until a trip to Twitter jogged my memory.

Cory Rasmus had a nice night on Thursday: six innings, one run, three hits, one walk, eight strikeouts.  And he picked up the win, which is always nice.

Brother Colby was 0-4 and left a couple runners on base against the Astros.  But he was also the beneficiary of a very special video that was uploaded to YouTube nearly three weeks ago and posted on Deadspin this morning.

That was…amazing.  I’m beyond words.  I wish I’d known about it on August 11, because this video is the only thing with the raw power to counter Cory’s no-hitter.

I just…I think I need to go to sleep now.

It’s Deadline Day For MLB Draftees – Lots To Do, Lots To Do

As mentioned here the other night, today is the deadline for major league organizations to come to terms with the players they selected in June’s First Year Player Draft.  Call me crazy, but this strikes me as one of the more exciting days of the summer.  According to MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo, thirteen first-rounders remained unsigned as of early this afternoon:

Stephen Strasburg (No. 1, Washington); Dustin Ackley (No. 2, Seattle); Donavan Tate (No. 3, San Diego); Zach Wheeler (No. 6, San Francisco); Jacob Turner (No. 9, Detroit); Tyler Matzek (No. 11, Colorado); Aaron Crow (No. 12, Kansas City); Grant Green (No. 13, Oakland); Matt Purke (No. 14, Texas); Alex White (No. 15, Cleveland); Shelby Miller (No. 19, St. Louis); Kyle Gibson (No. 22, Minnesota); LeVon Washington (No. 30, Tampa Bay).

Most of those are likely to agree to terms before midnight, which means that the next seven hours should be very busy for all parties involved and very interesting for casual observers such as myself.  I plan on following along throughout the night (or trying to, at least) and trying to keep Bus Leagues updated as much as possible.

Rumor has it that Baseball America is tracking all unsigned picks in the first ten rounds.  Unfortunately, Firefox does not seem to like Baseball America (or vice versa), so I’ll have to take Alex Pedicini’s word for it.

Update (5:24 PM): Rangers Blog at the Dallas Morning News  web site reports that Matt Purke has been in town for about a week (he’s preparing to attend Texas Christian University if a deal can’t be worked out with the Rangers) and negotiations are ongoing.  Jeff Wilson compared and contrasted Purke’s situation with that of Justin Smoak:

That’s about on par with the Justin Smoak negotiations from last year. That ended well for both sides. Purke, though, seems to have a genuine fondness for TCU, and the Tom Glavine fan has been given No. 47 for next season.

Via the comments section of Nationals Journal at the Washington Post, Baseball America’s Jim Callis is reporting that Donavan Tate has been seen in San Diego and could be close to signing with the Padres.  (How’s that for hearsay?) Tate is a Scott Boras client and outstanding athlete who held a football/baseball scholarship offer from North Carolina as negotiating leverage.

Update (5:41 PM): Saw this somewhere a little bit ago, maybe in that Mayo column linked above, but it also just came to me from CBS Sports via Baseball Musings.  The Tampa Bay Rays do not expect to sign either their first or second round picks.  As David Pinto said in his post, “Losing out on two picks has to hurt.”

Update (5:56 PM): Via Yahoo’s Kendall Rogers on Twitter (@ysportsncaabb) about 45 minutes ago, Shelby Miller passed up Texas A&M to sign with the Cardinals.  Rogers also reports that the Aggies also lost K.C. Hobson, Butch Hobson’s son and Toronto’s sixth-round selection.

Update (6:04 PM): Maury Brown is tracking the remaining draft picks and their bonuses at The Biz of Baseball.  He started with seventeen names, including three supplemental first rounders, and has updated two: New York’s Slade Heathcott ($2.2 million) and St. Louis’s Shelby Miller ($2.875 million).  Both signings are well over the recommended slot for their draft positions.

It is noted in the comments that Heathcott announced his signing on his Facebook page.

Update (6:49 PM): LeVon Washington’s willingness to sign with the Rays has changed greatly from Draft Day to Deadline Day.

Cleveland isn’t getting anywhere with Alex White.

Update (7:22 PM): Kendall Rogers hears good things about Kyle Gibson’s chances of signing, bad things about Alex White’s.

Update (9:38 PM): Jon Heyman says that the Padres are close to close to a deal with Donavan Tate (via MLB Trade Rumors).  Gammons apparently sees that news and raises him: picks two through ten have agreed to terms.  No attribution beyond that, so take it with a grain of salt.

Update (10:47 PM): Alex White WANTS to sign with Cleveland.  The two sides just haven’t been able to agree on a deal.

Supplemental pick Kentrail Davis signed with the Brewers.

Maury Brown has three players signed – Miller, Heathcott, and Davis – and I’ve seen stuff here and there that says Tate has also reached an agreement.  Just outside one hour to go – this will either be one hell of a finish, or an amazing cluster you-know-what for next year’s draft.

Update (10:57 PM): By the way, I forgot to mention that I totally friended Slade Heathcott on Facebook earlier (me and hundreds of others, no doubt).  So now I have a friend named Slade, which is really all anyone should want out of life.

Update (10:59 PM): RumorsandRants on Twitter – “Padres officially just announced signing of No. 3 overall pick Donavan Tate”

Update (11:06 PM): ysportsncaabb – “The Tigers also have signed first-round pick Jacob Turner, who was committed to play at North Carolina.”

Update (11:12 PM): The folks at USS Mariner are offering to sweeten any prospective deal for Dustin Ackley.  The Nationals would like to do the same for Stephen Strasburg, according to Jon Heyman.  One of those “sweeteners” involves actual money.

Update (11:28 PM): Donavan Tate is officially a Padre.

Update (11:41 PM): Twenty minutes, ten first-rounders still unsigned (or at least unannounced).  Maury Brown noted on Twitter earlier this hour that news of Aaron Crow’s failure to sign last year didn’t emerge until after 1 PM EST.

Update (11:46 PM): Seattle has scheduled a teleconference with general manager Jack Zduriencik for 9:15 Pacific time.  Announcing a deal, Mr. Z?  I’m sure he hopes so.

Via Twitter: Will Carroll, Aaron Gleeman, and Kendall Rogers note that Kyle Gibson has signed with the Twins.

Eleven minutes to the deadline.

Update (11:51 PM): And there goes Zach Wheeler.  Picks three through ten are now official.

Update (12:00 AM): Tracy Ringolsby breaks the news that Tyler Matzek signed with the Rockies.  Supposedly, the Nationals were very close with Strasburg as the deadline approached, still awaiting final word.

Update (12:04 AM): Ackley and Green have signed.  Strasburg might have signed for more than $15 million over four years.  Crow, Purke, White, and Washington are left from the first round.  Of those, Crow has the ability to continue negotiating because he is not eligible to return to college.  Purke will go to TCU, White will either return to North Carolina or hit the independents, and Washington, I believe, was heading to Florida.

Update (12:10 AM): As soon as I wrote that, I flipped back over to Twitter (that’s where all my info is coming from at the moment) and saw that Baseball America’s Jim Callis is reporting that Alex White has signed with the Indians.

Update (12:19 AM): I usually hear nothing but good things about the MLB Network, but what little coverage I’ve seen tonight has dropped the ball.  They “broke” the story of Strasburg’s signing at almost 12:15, nearly ten minutes after I saw repeated mentions of it on Twitter, were very late on the Tyler Matzek signing, and for some reason teased Zach Wheeler’s deal before unveiling it as though it was the biggest signing of the night.

And maybe I’m just biased because I think this whole signing deadline thing is kinda fun, but couldn’t they have devoted more in-studio attention to the deadline as the clock wound down?  Showing the late innings of a meaningless Yankees-A’s game and going to commercial at 11:59?  I expect better.

Update (12:29 PM): Well, that’s all for me.  After seven hours, it’s time to call it a night.  My brain can’t handle all this stress, and I didn’t even do anything – guys like Keith Law and Jon Heyman and the guys from Baseball America, who do this for a living and know everything that’s going on and keep it all straight, they amaze me.

All I know is that everyone that was supposed to sign, did sign.  Matt Purke clearly wanted to attend college (and who can fault him for that?) so Texas was in a tough spot to begin with.  It was obvious early today that LeVon Washington wasn’t going to become a Tampa Bay Ray.  And I’m sure we’ll be hearing from Aaron Crow and the Kansas City Royals before too long.

Circle August 21 On Your Calendars: Round 3 In The Battle Of The Rasmus Brothers

Five days ago, I brought you the story of the Brothers Rasmus: older brother Colby, one of Baseball America’s Top 100 preseason prospects and an outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, celebrated his birthday, only to be upstaged by little brother Cory, who pitched a seven-inning no-hitter for the Danville Braves.

Tonight was to be the night Colby got his revenge. The rookie broke a 5-5 ninth inning tie with his twelfth homerun of the season, a two-run walk-off bomb off Padres closer Heath Bell. Score one for Colby in the ol’ sibling rivalry contest, right?

Probably – a walk-off is pretty cool – but let’s look at the facts first. As the fates would have it, Cory also started for Danville tonight, his first outing since the no-hitter, and he did alright for himself: despite control problems (walking four and hitting a batter) that led to a pair of runs, he did not allow a hit for the second straight game. With five hitless innings under his belt tonight, seven in his last start, and two in the start before that, he has now gone fourteen consecutive innings without giving up a hit.

It appears we got ourselves a good old fashioned rivalry brewing between the baseball-playing Rasmus Boys.  I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.

Average Distance From Majors To Affiliates: National League Central

(A blog was nice enough to link to this post last week – I can’t seem to find the name – and one of the commenters noted that I had left out the Cardinals affiliate in the Gulf Coast League, which changes the team’s overall average but not it’s placement on the list. The new numbers are included below.)

Pittsburgh Pirates (average: 374 miles)
Pittsburgh to…
…Indianapolis Indians (AAA): 360 miles
…Altoona Curve (AA): 98 miles
…Lynchburg Hillcats (A): 353 miles
…West Virginia Power (A): 228 miles
…State College Spikes (A): 139 miles
…GCL Pirates (Rookie): 1,065 miles

St. Louis Cardinals (average: 630 miles)
St. Louis to…
…Memphis Cardinals (AAA): 284 miles
…Springfield Cardinals (AA): 217 miles
…Palm Beach County Cardinals (A): 1,136 miles
…Quad Cities River Bandits (A): 268 miles
…Batavia Muckdogs (A): 779 miles
…Johnson City Cardinals (Rookie): 593 miles
…GCL Cardinals (Rookie): 1,136 miles

Cincinnati Reds (average: 695 miles)
Cincinnati to…
…Louisville Bats (AAA): 106 miles
…Carolina Mudcats (AA): 538 miles
…Sarasota Reds (A): 977 miles
…Dayton Dragons (A): 49 miles
…Billings Mustangs (Rookie): 1,522 miles
…GCL Reds (Rookie): 977 miles

Chicago Cubs (average: 943 miles)
Chicago to…
…Iowa Cubs (AAA): 333 miles
…Tennessee Smokies (AA): 560 miles
…Daytona Cubs (A): 1,156 miles
…Peoria Chiefs (A): 166 miles
…Boise Hawks (A): 1,695 miles
…Mesa Cubs (Rookie): 1,749 miles

Houston Astros (average: 953 miles)
Houston to…
…Round Rock Express (AAA): 167 miles
…Corpus Christi Hooks (AA): 222 miles
…Lancaster JetHawks (A): 1,571 miles
…Lexington Legends (A): 996 miles
…Tri-City Valley Cats (A): 1,764 miles
…Greeneville Astros (Rookie): 997 miles

Milwaukee Brewers (average: 970 miles)
Milwaukee to…
…Nashville Sounds (AAA): 562 miles
…Huntsville Stars (AA): 671 miles
…Brevard County Manatees (A): 1,300 miles
…Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (A): 107 miles
…Arizona Brewers (Rookie): 1,780 miles
…Helena Brewers (Rookie): 1,398 miles

The Great Baseball Road Trip of 2009: Day One – June 25 – New York to Baltimore

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.

citifieldBy 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.