This blog is dedicated to the baseball travels my brother and I have taken over the past 20 years or so. Each entry will include pictures, videos (where available), scorecards and stories about our experiences on the road.
1. Shea Stadium (Queens NY) to Plattsburgh NY
After seeing a Saturday afternoon game at Shea Stadium (where the Mets beat the Boston Red Sox), we headed toward Montreal, Quebec, where we would see a game between the Expos and the Red Sox at Olympic Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Weaving our way through New York City traffic, we eventually arrived at Interstate 87 North (also known as the New York State Thruway). Once out of New York City, the drive was fairly straightforward and uneventful.
During our drive toward Montreal, we noticed an unusually high number of vehicles with Massachusetts license plates traveling northward on the Thruway. At the time, it was a curiosity, but I didn’t give it much thought. Following a four hour drive, we decided to find lodging on the US side of the border with Quebec. My concern was that we would have difficulty communicating with people in Quebec, especially late at night, so we secured accommodations in a hotel in Plattsburgh for the night.
2. Plattsburgh NY to Montreal
While checking out of the hotel and moving our bags to the car, we saw many vehicles with Massachusetts plates in the parking lot. It dawned on me that there were Red Sox fans doing exactly what we were doing: going to see a ballgame at Olympic Stadium. Following breakfast, we crossed the Canadian border, stopping to exchange currency for our day in Montreal. As we crossed the border, we saw a very interesting road sign.
The sign stated 100 = 65, to remind American drivers that speed limits posted in Quebec were in kilometers per hour, NOT miles per hour. Part of me could not help but wonder how many Americans received citations in Quebec before these signs were posted. The trip from the hotel to Montreal took about an hour, meaning we arrived well before game time. Since we did not plan to stay following the game, we spent some time conducting a driving tour of Montreal.
Not having been to France at that time, I couldn’t help but believe the Montreal was modeled after Paris. The “newer” portion of Montreal was clearly modern, not unlike many American cities we had visited. However, during our tour through Old Montreal, I couldn’t help but feel as though we were in a French city. The architecture reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Paris, especially along the Montreal River, with some structures dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
3. Olympic Stadium
As fascinating as the tour of Montreal was to me, it was soon time to head toward Olympic Stadium to catch the game. Though we had directions to the park, I was surprised to find that it was located immediately adjacent to a residential neighborhood. Parking was located under the stadium, with several decks offering tight parking spaces. Snaking our way out of the underground lot, we wandered around the park taking pictures.
The Montreal franchise was in trouble, a victim of the 1994 baseball strike. During that season, the Expos sported the best record in the league before the work stoppage prematurely ended the season. While the rest of MLB slowly recovered from the damaging strike, baseball in Montreal never recovered. By 2001, with ownership struggling to make payroll, MLB took stewardship of the franchise, actively seeking to move the team. Not surprisingly, attendance at Olympic Stadium steadily declined, with average game attendance bottoming out at about 5,000 fans.
On this Sunday, attendance was MUCH higher than average, due mainly to the influx of Red Sox fans. During the 2001 season, the Red Sox were playing well, and it was exceedingly difficult to get seats for home games at Fenway Park. Apparently, Red Sox fans thought that a road trip to Montreal would afford them better seats than they could get in Boston. As a result, the attendance for the game was 32,500, or about six times normal. The large crowd overwhelmed the staff at Olympic Stadium, who were struggling with not only the crush of visitors, but the language barrier as well.
Arriving early, we discovered that a carnival was in place at the stadium, and fans were welcome to come onto the field to enjoy the festivities. Stepping onto the artificial surface of the domed stadium marked the my first time on a MLB field, which I found exhilarating. Activities for the fans were set up in the outfield (the infield was roped off), and there was a sizable crowd enjoying the opportunity to walk on the playing field. Rather than engage in the activities, we wandered the outfield. It was clear that stadium maintenance was not a priority to the struggling franchise, and we saw many flaws in the turf.
Spending so much time on the field, we left ourselves little opportunity to tour the remainder of the stadium. After leaving the field, we headed to the concession stand, seeking a baseball lunch. Despite being in Montreal, we were able to secure standard baseball fare. With snacks and drinks in hand, we headed to the register. Despite the language differences, we were able communicate well enough to complete our transaction, then headed toward our seats. It seems as though our timing to grab concessions was fortuitous; we later heard that it took people an hour to get hot dogs and beer, as the concession staff was completely overwhelmed by the unexpectedly large crowd.
Getting our tickets as early as we did, we had great seats just a few rows behind home plate. Other than the protective netting in front of us, our seats were amazing, providing an unfettered view of the entire park. Soon after reaching our seats, it was obvious that the lighting in Olympic Stadium was not up to the task. In fact, the ballpark seemed dank, and much of the stadium beyond the playing field seemed dark and distance. Originally designed with a retractable roof, cables suspended from a 175 meter toward were used to open and close the roof as weather dictated. Difficulties with the design of the roof proved insurmountable, and eventually the roof was closed permanently, resulting in a dark fan experience.
For the 135 pm start, the Boston Red Sox sent right hander Hideo Nomo to the mound. Due to a rotator cuff injury to Boston ace Pedro Martinez, Nomo became the de facto number one starter for the Red Sox. Boston was in the midst of a pennant race with the AL East leading Yankees, trailing New York by one-half game in the standings. Starting for the host Montreal Expos was 6 foot 4 inch right hander Mike Thurman, the third starter in a struggling Montreal rotation. In contrast to the Red Sox Sox fortunes, the Expos were deeply mired in a losing season, 13 and one-half games behind the NL East leading Philadelphia Phillies. Given the difference in the trajectory of the teams, we expected a fairly easy Boston victory this afternoon.
Unlike the vast majority of Expos home games, there was a raucous energy within Olympic Stadium this afternoon. Perhaps it was the unexpected energy that allowed Montreal to take a two run lead in the first inning, courtesy of a two run home run by second baseman Jose Vidro. However, the Expos lead was short-lived, as Boston scored runs in the second and third inning to take the lead. A run in the bottom of the fourth brought Montreal back even with the Red Sox. It was clear early that neither starting pitcher was particularly sharp, and that we were in for a more competitive game than originally anticipated.
Though the Expos were struggling through a rough 2001 campaign, there were All Stars in the starting lineup. Right fielder Vladimir Guerrero was a bona fide superstar, a true five tool player capable hitting 40 home runs and stealing 40 bases in an given season. However, he languished in relative obscurity in Montreal. Playing anywhere else in MLB, he would have been hailed as one of the top players in the game. In this contest, Guerrero was fairly quiet, managing a single and a run scored in five plate appearances.
Boston erupted for three runs in the fifth inning, stringing together several hits to retake the lead. The seesaw contest saw the Expos answer with two runs in the sixth inning. By this time, the starting pitchers for both teams had exited the game, putting the outcome of the game in the hands of the respective bullpens. With the number of Red Sox fans far outnumbering the Expos fans in Olympic Stadium, it was almost like being at Boston home game. Given the dankness of the ballpark, I could only imagine how depressing the stadium must be with the typical small Montreal crowds.
The Red Sox tacked on two more runs in the seventh inning (as 3B Chris Stynes homered) to pad their lead, and Red Sox closer Derek Lowe shut the door on the Expos, earning his 17th save. As we filed out of the ballpark into the parking deck below, I realized that the future of baseball in Montreal was in serious jeopardy. After years in limbo, the franchise moved to Washington in 2005, rechristened the Nationals. While I was glad we visited Montreal to see a game, there was clearly no reason to come back for MLB baseball.
4. Montreal to New Jersey
After working our way through Montreal traffic, we headed back toward New Jersey. Just before US border, we stopped at the duty free store to get something to drink. We were astounded by the number of people loading up on alcohol before heading back into New York State. More than a few vehicles were stuffed nearly full with cases of Molson beer, which has nearly twice the alcohol level of Molson sold in the US. Once through the checkpoint, we stopped in Plattsburgh for lunch before heading home.
Hoping to get a quick fast food meal for the road, we were instead faced with crowded eateries with long lines, as people heading back to Massachusetts had the same thought. In one of the restaurants, servers were crying when confronted with the massive influx of patrons. Eventually, tiring of the wait, we obtained what we could at an Arby’s before heading south on Interstate i7 toward New Jersey.
While on vacation in San Francisco, my brother and I took in a Sunday afternoon baseball game at Pac Bell Park (now known as Oracle Park), where the Giants hosted the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks. From our hotel near Union Square, we decided to walk to Pac Bell Park, since the weather was crystal clear with temperatures in the 60s. Our walk took about 25 minutes (covering about one and one-quarter miles), mostly on 3rd Street. For those old enough to remember, we walked a path that was part of the famous car chase in the movie Bullitt (1968).
Though we chose to walk, there was plenty of parking available, almost all of which was across Mission Bay on 3rd Street (about one-quarter of a mile from the ballpark). Upon arriving at Pac Bell Park, we explored the area immediately surrounding it. Our first stop was McCovey Cove, located just beyond the right field wall. Famous for home run balls that plunk into the Cove, it was named for Giants great Willie McCovey, a power hitting left hand batter who would have deposited many baseballs into it, had he played in Pac Bell Park. Though there was nobody in the cove when we passed, it is common for people in kayaks to hang out there, awaiting baseballs to retrieve.
Walking past the centerfield wall, we arrived at the South Beach Yacht Club. Massive in size, there were more than 100 yachts moored at the club, though there did not appear to be many sailing before noon. Continuing our exploration, we wandered along Pier 40 before making our way back toward the stadium. While the Mission Bay area had some points of interest within walking distance of the park, we decided to invest our time wandering the inside of Pac Bell Park before game time.
Entering the ballpark through the gate behind home plate, we were greeted by a nearly deserted stadium. We arrived about 90 minutes before game time, and while there were a few fans milling around outside the ballpark, there were almost none inside. That left us plenty of time and room to explore. Moving toward centerfield, we encountered something I did not expect. Little Giants Park, a 50 foot by 50 foot replica of Pac Bell Park, was designed for young people to hit whiffle balls and run the bases. Designed for kids 42 inches or shorter, playing in the “ballpark within the ballpark” would have been a dream come true for a much younger me.
Just to the left of the Little Giants Park was the iconic Coke Bottle, located beyond the left field wall. With a length of 47 feet, the bottle rises up behind the stands in left field, and is home to two slides, which fans 14 and under use to “slide” into home plate at the base of the bottle. Located next to the Coke Bottle is the Glove. Created as a replica of 1927 four fingered glove used by the New York Giants, it is instantly recognizable as soon as you enter the ballpark. Thirty two feet wide and 26 feet tall, the glove lies about 501 feet from home plate, and a prodigious blast would be required to reach it.
Crossing over the walkway located on the right field fence, we were treated to a great view of Mission Bay, and the Navy vessels moored in the Port of San Francisco. As fans filtered into the ballpark, the walkway became quite popular, which caused us to move along. We headed toward the home plate area to get a picture of the stadium from the upper deck. Sunshine reflecting off Mission Bay gave the water a light blue hue behind the centerfield fence.
Working our way back along the right field line, we ducked into the concourse is search of a baseball lunch. While there was quite a variety of cuisine choices available, we opted for more standard fare. With snacks and drinks in hand, we went in search of our seats.
Today’s game between the visiting Diamondbacks and the hometown Giants had implications for the playoff race. Arizona was leading the NL West, with the Giants in third place, five and one-half games behind. Even without the added interest in the Sunday matinee, Pac Bell Park routinely sells out, which made obtaining good seats for the game very difficult. We settled for seats down the right field line in the lower level, adjacent to the Diamondbacks bullpen (unlike most new ballparks, the bullpens at Pac Bell were located down the left and field lines).
Though not ideal for a good look at the home plate action, our seats did give us a great view of the remainder of the stadium. Pac Bell Park, with three decks of seats from foul line to foul line, as well as bleachers in left and center field, had a capacity of about 41,000, and a full house was expected this afternoon. Open spaces in the outfield (except for the Coke Bottle, Glove and modestly sized video board) made the stadium feel uncluttered, with great sight lines through the park.
Starting for the visiting Diamondbacks was left hander Brian Anderson. Arizona’s fifth starter, Anderson was struggling through the 2002 campaign, which was sandwiched in between good 2001 and 2003 seasons. On the mound for the hometown Giants was right hander Russ Ortiz, the number two starter in a respectable but unspectacular San Francisco rotation. On the surface, this seemed to be a pitching mismatch after favoring the Giants, in what was an important game for both teams.
Arizona scored a run in the top of the first inning, employing “small ball” to take an early lead. The starters traded scoreless frames until the bottom of the fourth inning, when Barry Bonds led off the bottom of the inning with a solo home run. Fittingly, the home run left Pac Bell Park, splashing down in McCovey Cove. Though we didn’t see it firsthand, a replay of the home run on the video board showed fans in kayaks on the Cove frantically scurrying for the ball. Plating another run in the bottom of the inning, the Giants took a 2-1 lead.
Diamondbacks starter Brian Anderson’s afternoon ended after the Giants scored in the bottom of the fourth inning, and was followed a quartet of relievers that kept the vaunted Giants lineup in check. Meanwhile, Giants starter Russ Ortiz was cruising, allowing only the one run in the first inning. With the action on the field slowing in the middle innings, my attention wandered to the ballpark itself. Opening in 2000, Pac Bell Park was a precursor to the wave of “newer” MLB parks, which were designed to be smaller and more intimate to foster a better fan experience.
Though the ballpark is simpler than the new parks, its simplicity is a large part of its charm. For example, the centerfield scoreboard/video board was unpretentious yet functional, an unobtrusive feature that some stadiums cannot claim. Pace Bell’s asymmetric design, complete with a “see through” section within the right field wall, makes this stadium unique among the MLB offerings. When coupled with the wall to wall sunshine that afternoon, Pac Bell Park grew on me during the game, becoming one of my favorite parks thus far,
Sitting along side the Arizona Diamondbacks, we witnessed six pitchers warm up before entering the game. When Diamondbacks left hander Greg Swindell was warming up in the bottom of the sixth inning, we witnessed something I did NOT expect from San Francisco fans. As Swindell tossed his warm up pitches, Giants fans started peppering him with rude comments concerning his weight. While Swindell was a big guy, he didn’t strike me as someone who was significantly overweight. Still, Giants fans assailed him with insults I would expect to hear in New York or Philadelphia, not San Francisco. This was shocking to me, hearing baseball fans in California as obnoxious as any I’d seen back East.
San Francisco tacked on an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth, and the Giants closer, right hander Robb Nen, shut down the Diamondbacks in the top of the ninth inning to secure a 3-1 victory. Though the game time was a bit more than three hours, the beautiful ballpark and spectacular weather made the time fly by. We were very impressed with Pac Bell Park, to say the least,. We would have seen more games during our stay in the area, but the Giants went on the road following the afternoon contest.
During our overnight stay in Chicago, low clouds and fog descended from Lake Michigan onto the North Side. We awoke to a steady easterly wind and drizzle, with temperatures in the 40s. Following breakfast near the hotel, we headed out to Wrigley Field. Arriving just as the gates opened, we once again overpaid for parking at a lot near the stadium. Unlike the day before, we left ourselves plenty of time to explore the neighborhood surrounding the vaunted ballpark.
Our first stop was West Waveland Avenue, located behind the left and centerfield walls of Wrigley Field. Over the years, we saw MANY baseball fly out of the ballpark on TV, landing here or further down the road. For most Cubs games, there are hundreds of fans sauntering on the street, waiting for home run balls. Had we more time in Chicago, it might have been a unique fan experience to see a game from this perspective; perhaps some day I will do just that.
We continued our journey around Wrigley Field, wandering down North Sheffield Avenue past the right field wall. While there were some fans waiting to gain entrance to the stadium, there was not nearly as many people here as there were on West Waveland Avenue. During our walk, we got a first hand look at the buildings surrounding the ballpark, and the seats in place on the rooftops. It was obvious that the streets ringing Wrigley Field were every bit as much of the park as the stadium itself.
Completing our tour of the exterior of Wrigley Field, my brother got the image of iconic red signage above the home plate entrance featured above. Even with the cold early spring weather, the majesty of the stadium and its environs shone through. Though there were fans milling around outside the ballpark, there were few people inside, allowing us unfettered access to nearly the entire stadium. We visited the left field bleachers, where we had seen many opponents’ home runs balls land, only to be tossed back into the field of play.
From left field, we got a very good look at some of the seats on the building rooftops along West Waveland Avenue. From modest beginnings, these rooftop seats became quite organized, with some of the rooftops holding as many as ten rows with four or five seats per row. Despite occasional objections by the Cubs management, it doesn’t seem as though these seats were diverting much revenue from the park, considering that Wrigley Field often sells out during the season.
At the end of our tour of the inside of Wrigley Field, we wound up behind home plate, where my brother got his best picture of Wrigley Field. Lake Michigan, the second largest of the Great Lakes (and the only one completely within the US), is a mere five miles from Wrigley Field, and has a large influence on the weather at the ballpark. On this afternoon, wind off the still cold Great Lake funneled clouds and fog across the field, resulting in a cold and damp visit. The image perfectly captures the environment just before game time.
On this cloudy and cool afternoon, the visiting Colorado Rockies sent the ace of their starting rotation, right hander Jason Jennings, to the hill. Awarded the NL Rookie of the Year in 2002, Jennings won 16 games that year. On the mound for the hometown Cubs was right hander Kerry Wood. Featured on the Cubs’ scorecard for the month of May, the tall Texan was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1998, during which he tied the nine inning single game record with 20 strikeouts. Wood underwent Tommy John surgery the following year, taking the next couple of campaigns to recapture his best stuff.
Given the strength of the starting pitching and the cool and breezy conditions, we expected a low scoring affair. Unlike the previous afternoon, which featured crystal blue skies, Wrigley Field blended into the background of cloud and fog. This environment was not conducive to picture taking, leaving the park looking washed out and drab. Temperatures near 50 degrees at the first pitch felt even colder, reminding me that it was still early spring in the Midwest.
Following our tour of the interior of Wrigley Field, we obtained some snacks and hot chocolate before heading for our seats. Though the weather was far from ideal, the afternoon affair was well attended, and our seats were not much better than the day before. Nestled down the left field line between third base and the left field line, our seats once again did not have a good view of the plate, so we spent much of the game with our heads turned to the right, straining to see the action.
It didn’t take long for the scoring to begin, as the Rockies put up three runs on Kerry Wood in the top of the first inning. Chicago scored two runs of their own in the bottom of the first, and it appeared as though offense might carry the game, in spite of the inhospitable weather conditions. However, both starters settled down after the early outbursts, keeping the opposition scoreless into the middle innings. Though scoring was an a premium after the first innings, hits wand walks resulted in many baserunners, slowing the pace of the game to a crawl at times. Typically, slow paced games are not a problem for me, but given the cool and wet conditions, I found myself becoming impatient.
Chicago scored a run in the bottom of the sixth to tie the scored, followed by the Rockies taking the lead in the top of the seventh. With the game in the hands of the bullpen, the score remained tied going into extra innings. With one out in the bottom of the tenth inning, Chicago SS Alex Gonzales homered off Rockies reliever Steve Reed to give the Cubs a 5-4 victory. Three hours and 15 minutes in the raw conditions seemed even longer, and by the end of the contest, I was ready to find a warmer and drier place.
Even with the adverse weather conditions, I thoroughly enjoyed our time at Wrigley Field. A proud throwback to a bygone era of baseball, the simple layout and lack of large and obtrusive video boards was a refreshing departure from what MLB parks were becoming. Since our visit some 17 years ago, much has changed at Wrigley Field. Incremental additions at the park, including video boards in left and right fields, has detracted from the charm the stadium once had, making it more like more “modern” MLB parks. The changes make me feel fortunate to have visited when the park was closer to the original configuration, and the changes make me believe that I will not visit again anytime soon.
1. New Jersey to Chicago
Our first baseball trip of 2003 took us to Chicago to see the Cubs and the White Sox. Originally we scheduled a trip to see the Cubs in September of 2001, but circumstances made that impossible. Since we decided to make this a weekend trip, we flew from New Jersey to O’Hare Airport in Chicago on Saturday morning, May 3rd. Luckily, Newark-Liberty Airport in Newark, NJ was not busy, allowing us to breeze through security.
For the flight, we chose Midwest Airlines (now defunct). A Milwaukee based airline, they offered flights to many locations in the Midwest, and I was first introduced to the carrier for work in the late 1990s. Each plane had leather seats, and offered fewer seats than most mid sized airlines. In addition, they offered free chocolate chip cookies. Though it sounds trite, these cookies were actually very good. Though the fares were a bit higher than most airlines flying to Chicago, the roomier plane with leather seats was well worth the extra money.
After arriving at O’Hare Airport and picking up our rental car, we headed toward Chicago. Originally, we planned to see the White Sox on Saturday night, and the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Sunday afternoon. However, we arrived in Chicago much earlier than expected, and we realized we could catch the Saturday afternoon game at Wrigley.
2. Wrigley Field
Making our way to the North Side, we arrived at the park shortly before game time. Parking proved to be a challenge, as it often is with urban ballparks, and we ended up parking in the lot of a local business for an exorbitant amount. Not having tickets for the game, we went in search of scalpers, who were very easy to find. We secured two seats behind first base for more than face value. As is typical when we visit a new ballpark, we quickly toured the outside of the stadium. Arriving just before game time, our tour was truncated, and after we entered the venerable ballpark, we went in search of our seats.
Once we found our seats, it was immediately clear we had been swindled by the scalper. Our seats were terrible, in the lower level down the right field line with a limited view of home plate. Of course, not knowing the ballpark well, we foolishly took the scalper at his word that the seats were good. We laughed it off, being so gullible. Just being at Wrigley Field, a baseball palace, was enough to make us forget our faux pax, and we were determined to enjoy the experience regardless of our view.
Not surprisingly, Wrigley Field was filled to capacity. In addition to packed bleachers, we could see what seemed like hundreds of people crammed onto rooftops of neighboring buildings. Seeing the people on the rooftops on TV doesn’t give you a true idea of how many fans actually ring the ballpark. Beyond the left field, we could see the iconic Budweiser roof, located off West WVeland Avenue. But perhaps my favorite part of Wrigley Field was the hand operated scoreboard. A throwback to a bygone era, the scoreboard defined Wrigley Field for me, and I finally got to see it for myself.
We couldn’t have asked for better day weather wise, with crystal clear skies and temperatures in the 50s. Having seen Wrigley Field on TV many, many times, I could scarcely believe we were here. Dubbed the “friendly confines” by Cubs great Ernie Banks, the cozy ballpark teemed with history. Possibly the most famous of the features of Wrigley, the ivy on the outfield wall, was conspicuously absent. Being early May, it was too soon for the ivy to bloom, so instead we were treated to brown walls devoid of flora.
For the matinee, the hometown Cubs hosted the Colorado Rockies, with the first pitch slated for 120 pm CDT. Starting for the Rockies was journeyman left hander Darren Oliver, who was in his first season with the team. Taking the mound for Chicago was right hander Carlos Zambrano, the 23 year old who was beginning to show signs of becoming a Cy Young caliber starter for the Cubs. Good starting pitching, paired with a decent breeze coming in from Lake Michigan suggested a low scoring affair.
The Cubs struck first in the bottom of the second inning, stringing together hits and walks to plate three runs. Colorado responded with three runs of their own in the top of the third, and it seemed as though we would see an offensive display in Wrigley this afternoon. Chicago reclaimed the lead into the bottom of the fourth inning, with Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano hitting a solo home run to lead off the inning. While it is rare for pitchers to hit home runs, Zambrano was a good hitting pitcher, blasting 24 home runs over his career.
While there was a game at the ballpark that afternoon, Wrigley Field was the star of the show. Wall to wall sunshine and pleasantly cool temperatures made our visit to this baseball palace even more enjoyable, but the environment was indescribable. In between innings, I found myself admiring all that the ballpark had to offer, immediately understanding why Wrigley Park was considered a baseball mecca. Our seats were not ideal for taking pictures of the action, but from our location, we were able to enjoy the scene.
The Rockies scored three more runs in the top of the eight inning, taking a 6-4 lead that the bullpen held for the victory. Despite our seats, we thoroughly enjoyed our surprise visit, and would get a much better look at Wrigley Field the next afternoon. Following the end of the game, we inched out way out of the parking space, and headed toward our hotel. Our stay there was brief, just long enough to check in and drop off our bags, because we were headed toward US Cellular Field for a night game between the visiting Seattle Mariners and the home town White Sox.
3. US Cellular Field
We arrived in the South Side of Chicago about an hour before the first pitch of the game between the Mariners and the White Sox, scheduled for 605 pm. As we approached US Cellular Field (now known as Guaranteed Rate Field), it was clear that we were in a neighborhood very different than the one in which Wrigley Field is located. Parking around the ballpark was plentiful, with lots surrounding the stadium. Pulling into Lot B (across West 35th Street from the field), we asked the attendant the cost of parking. After telling us, he asked if our car was a rental, to which I said yes. As we pulled away he added “I hope it’s still here when you get back”. Not exactly what a visitor wants to hear, but we did our best not to let it affect over experience.
With little surrounding US Cellular Field but parking lots and I-94, we did not explore the outside of the park like we did for other stadiums we have visited. Entering through the home plate gate, I could not help but notice how much the outside of the ballpark reminded me of the main Yankee Stadium entrance.
US Cellular Field, which opened in 1991, was a replacement for Comiskey Park , the home of the White Sox from 1910 through 1990. Located across West 35th Street from US Cellular Field, Comiskey Park was razed in order to provide additional parking for the new ballpark. Opening a year before Camden Yards in Baltimore (the stadium that is generally acknowledged as the first of the “new” MLB parks), US Cellular Field had the feeling of a ballpark built in the 1970s or 1980s, generally symmetrical with three decks and bleachers almost completely ringing the outfield.
Following a quick tour of the inside of US Cellular Field, we went in search of a baseball dinner. Armed with drinks and snacks, we headed toward our seats. Surprisingly, despite the cool weather, the game was well attended, and the best seats we could procure were in the upper deck, directly behind home plate. Typically, we seek out seats in the lower level on either the first or third base side. However, when these seats are unavailable (as they were this night), we prefer to be closer to home plate when relegated to the upper deck. A long climb was rewarded with a great view of the ballpark as game time approached.
Though the sun was shining at the start of the game, a chill descended upon US Cellular Field, and it was evident that we were in for a cool early May evening in South Side. Starting for the visiting Seattle Mariners was right hander Freddy Garcia. The talented 26 year old was already an emerging star, yet listed as the fourth starter on a loaded Mariners rotation. On the mound for the hometown Sox was left hander Josh Stewart, who was in the first season of a brief two year MLB career. A seeming pitching mismatch favored the Mariners, who were just two season removed from a single season record of 116 wins in 2001.
We didn’t need to wait long for the fireworks to begin, as the Mariners pummeled Sox starter Josh Stewart for six runs in the first two innings, punctuated by two home runs in top of the first inning. Seattle tacked on four more runs in the top of the fourth inning, chasing Stewart from the game. Meanwhile, Freddy Garcia was cruising for the Mariners, putting the game out of reach fairly early.
With my attention straying from the game, I began to feel the chill more intently, as temperatures dropped into the 40s with the advent of night. Not surprisingly, the White Sox fans began to abandon what appeared to be a losing cause, steadily exiting as the home town fell further behind. As the announced crowd of 25,00+ thinned out, we noticed just how large US Cellular Field was. Unlike MLB that would follow, the stadium seemed to lack a sense of charm or intimacy, feeling more like a throwback to the past. Having said that, US Cellular Field was a comfortable place to see a game, and an upgrade to where the White Sox used to call home.
The Mariners tacked on two runs late in the game, as Freddy Garcia and a cadre of Seattle relievers held the Sox in check for 12-2 victory. Cold temperatures made the three hour 15 minute game seem even longer, and by the time the last out was recorded, I was ready to leave. Overall, US Cellular Field was a good place to see a ballgame, but generic enough not to be too memorable. While I was glad we took in a game here while in Chicago, there wasn’t enough of an attraction to being me back anytime soon.
Checking out of our motel Sunday morning, we still had a two hour plus drive to Arlington. We were not in a particular hurry, since the game between the hometown Texas Rangers and the visiting Oakland A’s had been “flexed” from early afternoon to early evening to accommodate ESPN’s Sunday Night game. Instead of a 215 pm CDT start, the first pitch would be thrown at 710 pm.
1. Heading to Arlington
With time to spare, we took our time getting into the Dallas metro area, finding lunch before deciding how we wanted to proceed. Since we were staying in the area overnight (flying out of Dallas the next morning), we checked into our hotel before heading out in the direction of the stadium. We arrived well ahead of the first pitch, and secured parking just outside of the Ballpark in Arlington, home of the Texas Rangers.
A demonstration was underway just outside the ballpark as we arrived. Based on the signage carried by the demonstrators, it appeared to be tied to gay rights. Being from the Northeast, I assumed that the demonstration was a pro gay rights rally. Almost immediately, I was proven wrong, as it was clear this was an anti gay rights assembly. This should not have surprised me, given the section of the country. To my great surprise, the demonstration was far from peaceful, as homophobic slurs were flying at what I considered an alarming rate.
Being from New Jersey, it took all of my restraint NOT to respond to the vitriol present at that rally, and there were several verbal altercations between demonstrators and passersby. Wanting to avoid a possibly ugly interaction, we left the area in search of a quieter location to wait for the gates to open at the stadium.
We stumbled upon the Legends of the Game Baseball Museum, located at the ballpark. Inside the museum, we found displays complete with bats, jerseys, and trophies belonging to baseball greats. There are exhibits on Texas Rangers history, the Negro Leagues and the Texas League, and the museum has facilities for students of the game to conduct research. While not as inclusive as the National Baseball Hall of Fame (nestled in Cooperstown, NY) or the Negro League Baseball Museum (located in Kansas City, MO), the museum was an enjoyable way to pass some time and is recommended if you attend a Rangers home game.
2. The Ballpark in Arlington
Fortunately for me, high clouds filtered the still strong mid September sun in Arlington, mercifully keeping temperatures in the 80s leading up to game time. The Ballpark in Arlington is an open air stadium, which was a controversial decision when the plans for the ballpark were announced. It is not unusual for temperatures to hover near 100 degrees F during summer afternoons and evenings, potentially putting the health of players and fans alike at stake. Because of the heat, most Rangers home games were played in the evening to avoid the worst of the conditions.
Cooler temperatures made exploring the park more enjoyable, at least for me. The Ballpark in Arlington was bigger than I expected, complete with three decks encompassing almost all of the entire playing field. With a capacity of greater than 48,000, it was one of the biggest “new” MLB ballparks. From our first look inside the ballpark, it was clear that a fair amount of planning was done to create the stadium’s atmosphere.
In a nod to the past, home plate, the foul poles and the bleachers were transplanted from Arlington Stadium, the home of the Texas Rangers from 1972 through 1993. The roof over the right field porch was reminiscent of Tiger Stadium, the former home of the Tigers. Finally, the white steel facade in the outfield was based on the facade of the old Yankee Stadium. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the park was the office suites in centerfield, beyond the grassy noll that served as the batter’s eye. All of the above resulted in a large ballpark, much larger than I had expected.
While touring the ballpark, we happened upon the visitor’s bullpen in left field, which was enclosed under the lower level concourse. A’s pitcher Barry Zito was warming up in the bullpen before the game, getting in his between start throwing. Because of the closed nature of the bullpen, Zito, a left hander who’s game was predicated on control and pitch placement (rather than velocity), was seemingly throwing very hard during his warmup (due to the echo).
As we were watching Zito throw, a young fan walked up and said “Hey Barry, you are throwing really hard”. Normally, players ignore fan comments, even during warmups, as they are concentrating on getting ready for competition. However, Zito stopped throwing, looked up at the young fan and said “Ah, don’t let the sound fool you”. With that one sentence, Zito showed me that he was respectful of fans, and that he was fully aware that he was indeed not a hard thrower.
Following our tour, we headed for the concession stands to get a baseball dinner. With hots dogs, pretzels and drinks in hand, we headed toward our seats. Despite a strong starting lineup, the Rangers were mired in last place in the AL West. With the home team limping toward the end of a disappointing season, there were plenty of good seats available for the game. We were fortunate enough to score seats in the lower level, just to the third base side of home plate.
Starting for the visiting Oakland A’s was right hander Justin Duchscherer. Not one of the five man Oakland rotation, Duchscherer was making a spot start, just his third of the season. On the mound for the Rangers was left hander Tony Mounce, the fifth starter in the Texas rotation. Given the relative weakness of the starting pitching, we expected the strong lineups for both teams put on a hitting display. We didn’t have to wait long for the offensive fireworks to begin, as the teams combined for seven runs in the first two innings.
After this outburst however, both offense were quieted into the middle innings. While Tony Mounce lasted six innings for the Rangers, the A’s starter (Duchscherer) didn’t make it out of the fourth inning, leaving the game in the hands of the A’s bullpen. As evening faded into night at the Ballpark in Arlington, conditions became a bit cooler. Scoring slowed the pace of the game, leaving us some time to get a sense of the environment within the ballpark.
Not surprisingly, a disappointing season for the Rangers resulted in a sparse crowd, which seemed even smaller than the announced attendance 17,000. So few people in the park made the ballpark appear even larger, robbing the place of any charm or intimacy. A collage of pieces from other parks gave the Ballpark at Arlington an almost forced feel, further diluting any sense of identity. To be fair, the ballpark DID provide a pleasant environment in which to watch a game, but I didn’t get the same feel I did at other ballparks in our travels.
Following Alex Rodriquez’s 43th home run in the bottom of the fifth, the hometown Rangers took a 5-3 lead. In the top of the seventh, the A’s broke the game open with three runs, and a trio of A’s reliever closed the door on the potent Texas office to seal a 6-5 win for the A’s. We filed out of the park with the rest of the remaining crowd, taking what would be our last look at the Ballpark in Arlington. Even though we had a good time seeing a ballgame here, there was not enough to bring us back any time soon.
1. New Jersey to Houston
Our last baseball trip of 2003 took us to the Lone Star State at the tail end of summer. Since our first stop in Texas was Houston, we flew from Newark, NJ to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Saturday morning. Because it was a Saturday, we breezed through security at Newark-Liberty Airport, and the nearly four hour flight was uneventful. Landing in Houston in the early afternoon, we picked up our rental car and headed out to explore Houston.
Since we had some time before the scheduled first pitch at 710 pm, we set our sights on the Johnson Space Center, home of NASA. While we didn’t have enough time for a formal tour, we did stop to visit the few features that were located outside of the center itself. The highlight of the brief visit was seeing the Saturn V rocket, which launched the Apollo spacecraft toward the Moon.
2. Minute Maid Park
Hot and humid conditions met us at Minute Maid Park as we arrived about 90 minutes before the first pitch. Parking did not pose any particular problem, as there were parking lots located just outside of the ballpark. Had those lots been unavailable, there were myriad options for parking with a quarter of a mile of the park. Walking up to the stadium, I began to feel the effects of the hot and humid conditions.
Upon walking into Minute Maid Park, it was obvious that the roof was closed, as we went from bright sunshine to the dimly light stadium. Apparently the heat and humidity was the primary reason for the roof closure, presumably for the comfort of the fans, as the weather was otherwise tranquil.
As is our custom, we conducted a walking tour of the park. Following the lower concourse around the playing field, it was immediately clear that quite a bit of thought and planning went into layout of the stadium. One of the quirkier features of the park was a hill in centerfield, complete with a flag pole. Dubbed Tal’s Hill (named in honor of former Astros Tal Smith), the hill was a nod to the past, when a few ballparks had features in play (such as Monument Park in the old Yankee Stadium).
Another of the quirkier features of Minute Maid Park was the train track on the top of the exterior wall behind the left field fence. As the Astros take the field, hit a home run, or win a ballgame, the train travels the 800 foot span of the wall. The train is an homage to Union Station, once a transportation hub in Houston, which had been incorporated into the construction of the stadium.
Though Minute Maid Park appeared huge with the roof closed (as do most domed stadiums), the relatively small dimensions of the ballpark made it feel almost cozy. Following our exploration, we went in search of a baseball dinner. Of course, the three year old park had many dining choices, including several grills featuring barbecue. Somewhat pressed for time, we chose more standard baseball fare from concession stands in the left field concourse.
With snacks and drinks in hand, we headed toward our seats. The hometown Astros hosted the St Louis Cardinals for the evening contest, and the NL Central Division rivals drew a large crowd. Because of the rivalry, good tickets were hard to secure, so our seats were located in the lower level, between third base and the left field foul pole. Though not the best of views, we settled in to our seats, awaiting the first pitch.
Starting for the visiting Cardinals was right hander Matt Morris. The six foot five inch right hander was an important part of the St Louis rotation, just two years removed from a 22 win season in 2001. On the mound for the hometown Astros was right hander Roy Oswalt. Pegged as the number four starter in the Houston rotation, Oswalt made 21 starts in 2003, posting a 10-5 record. Given the strong starting pitching and importance of the game in the playoff picture, we expected to see a pitcher’s duel at Minute Maid Park.
As anticipated, pitching dominated the first three innings of the game, which resulted in a very quickly paced game. With the Astros coming up to bat in the bottom of the third inning, Cardinals catcher Mike Methany was ejected from the contest, presumably for arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire. Following the ejection, St Louis pitching coach confronted the umpire and was also ejected. The fireworks associated with the ejections took some time to unfold, slowing the momentum of the game.
Following the ejections, the Astros scored single runs in the fourth and fifth innings, featuring 1B Jeff Bagwell’s 35th home run of the season. Meanwhile, Houston starter Roy Oswalt kept the Cardinals batters off balance, keeping St Louis scoreless into the late innings.
Being from NJ, my brother and I have accents that were out of place in Texas, and while talking amongst ourselves, we caught the attention of another out-of-towner. A young man a few rows below us recognized our accents, which was surprising until we discovered he was from Connecticut. He was kind enough to ensure that we displayed proper baseball etiquette for games in Texas. We were reminded that booing was considered rude in Houston (though we had no reason to boo), and that we needed to sing “Deep in the Heart of Texas”, clapping when appropriate, during the seventh inning stretch. Finally, when I questioned the meaning of a confusing public announcement, he told me “this is Texas, dumb it down”. Chucking at his retort, I’m not sure anybody else picked up on snarky comment.
During the seventh inning stretch, the roof of Minute Maid Park was retracted. As the action on the field continued during the bottom of the seventh, the roof slowly and almost inaudibly moved from left field to right field, taking about 20 minutes to fully retract. The heat and humidity before the game had been replaced by cooler conditions and a light breeze. Like most stadiums with roofs, Minute Maid Park seemed smaller with the roof open, and suddenly the ballpark seemed even cozier. After seven strong innings by Astros starter Roy Oswalt, closer Billy Wagner shut down the venerable St Louis offense in the ninth, nailing down a 2-0 Houston victory.
The briskly paced game took just two hours and six minutes to complete. If the two ejections hadn’t occurred in the third inning, the game would have taken less than two hours, which in our experience is quite a rarity. Most of the more than 42,000 fans had stayed until the end of the game, slowing our exit and giving us some time to reflect on our visit. It was clear that quite a bit of thought went into the layout of Minute Maid Park, complete with nods to the past, as well as amenities common in “newer” MLB parks. Our visit was relatively short, but enjoyable, as we were treated to an outstanding game in an excellent facility.
Our night was not quite over, however. Trying to cut down on the amount of traveling necessary to catch a game at the Ballpark in Arlington the next day, we drove from Houston on our way toward the Dallas Metroplex. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to complete the nearly four hour drive that night, we stopped at a motel just off Interstate 45 North about halfway between the two large Texas cities.Arriving after midnight, we needed to ring a bell for service. A young woman graciously checked us into a room for the night. Behind the desk, we could see a young boy, probably no older than five, jumping around and having fun. Apparently the young woman’ son, she smiled when I mentioned his late night enthusiasm, suggesting that his behavior was typical when she worked overnights.
1. Kansas City, Missouri
After breakfast near the hotel in Kansas City, Kansas, we decided to explore downtown Kansas City, Missouri. High cloudiness started to filter the strong early August sunshine, and even though it was still early, we were seeing all the hallmarks of a hot and humid day in the heartland of America.
While researching resources for this blog post, I was HORRIFIED to discover that I could not locate the pictures I took in Kansas City, MO. Somewhere among my many moves, failed hard drives and incomplete backups, I apparently lost irreplaceable memories of our exploration. Unfortunately, a quick description of what we saw cannot replace the images I took.
Our first stop was East Kansas City, in the Vine Street area. Rife with history, it was clear that this portion of Kansas City was in recovery, whose best days were decades before. Unable to locate 12th Street and Vine (made popular in the song Kansas City by Wilbert Harrison), we strolled through this historic section of the city.
Along the way, we discovered the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located at 1616 East 18th Street. Not knowing precisely what to expect, we found an amazing collection of history and memorabilia chronicling the story of the Negro Leagues from its beginnings into the early 1950s. While we were enthralled by the rich history of the league, by far my favorite display was the wax figures of the Negro Leagues stars arranged on a mock playing field.
Standing next to the life sized wax figures, I realized that the players were smaller in stature than I imagined, yet their presence was definitely larger than life. We spent nearly two hours in the museum, and we could have easily spent two more wandering among history, but the gates at Kauffman Stadium were about to open, so we cut our visit short. If you are even a casual baseball fan, you owe it to yourself for visit the museum if you are in the Kansas City area.
2. Kauffman Stadium
Following our visit to East Kansas City, we drove to Kauffman Stadium, home of the Royals. which took about 15 minutes. Kauffman Stadium is co located with Arrowhead Stadium, home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, as part of the Truman Sports Complex. Both stadiums are surrounded by large parking lots, with hotels and restaurants located beyond the complex. These stadiums were constructed during a time when other cities opted for multi-purpose stadiums, and the baseball-only Kauffman Stadium (commonly referred to as the “K”) opened in 1973.
We arrived at the complex just about as the gates opened at Kauffman Stadium, which gave us ample time to explore our surroundings. Arriving as early as we did, we had our choice of parking spaces, which cost a reasonable $10.00. Hazy sunshine brought with it hot and humid conditions, which limited our exploration to some degree. We first explored the outside of Arrowhead Stadium, which is a football-only facility. Unfortunately, we were much too early in the season to catch a Chiefs game.
We next focused our attention on the outside of Kauffman Stadium. Though this was my brother’s first visit to the home of the Royals, I had been here many times before. My employer had a training center in Kansas City, and we were housed at a Holiday Inn just across the street from the complex. Naturally, I visited Kauffman Stadium (which was called Royals Stadium in those days) as often as possible while I was in town. In fact, I first visited the park when it featured an AstroTurf surface, which was replaced by natural grass in 1995.
Though it had been a number of years since I’d attended a game here, it did not appear as though much had changed. Located just outside the park were statues of Royals greats. George Brett (perhaps the greatest Royal of all) crouched in his easily recognizable batting stance greeted fans as they walked up from the immense parking lot. Native son Frank White was also immortalized is stone outside the park.
The heat and humidity cut short our tour of the outside of the stadium, so we entered the park through the main entrance behind home plate. Clearing the main concourse, I could see that indeed very little had changed since my last visit. Kauffman Stadium was dignified in its simplicity, eschewing some of the trappings of “newer” MLB parks constructed within the past decade.
We wandered through the stadium, exploring the lower levels. Unfortunately, the right centerfield section of the park, where the iconic fountains reside (as well as the video and score boards), was not accessible on the concourse. In order to enjoy these sights, we headed back toward home plate. Kauffman Stadium was, compared to some of the newer MLB parks, uncluttered and almost elegant, which I found to be both attractive and refreshing.
Following our tour of the ballpark, we headed for the main concession stand behind home plate. The heat and humidity had taken a toll on me, and I was in need of hydration. While there many places to get something to eat at Kauffman Stadium, which not surprisingly featured beef and pork products, we chose more standard ballpark fare. With hot dogs, pretzels and drinks in hand, we made our way toward our seats. We were able to secure seats near the top of the lower level, just to the left of home plate.
Settling into our seats just before game time, we noticed that the crowd for the early evening start was fairly sparse. Perhaps it was the fact that the Royals were not competitive, or that the game time was 610 PM on a Sunday, but Kauffman Stadium was not quite half full by the time the first pitch was thrown. In fact, less than 18,000 fans attended the game, despite the warm and hazy conditions,
The hometown Royals hosted the Anaheim Angels for the final game of the three game set, with the first pitch scheduled for 610 PM CDT. Both teams were in the midst of disappointing seasons, especially the Royals, who had the second worst record in baseball. Taking the ball for the visiting Angels was right hander John Lackey, who was the workhorse of the Anaheim starting rotation. Starting the Royals was right hander Mike Wood. The 23 year old was struggling through a tough 2004 campaign, with an ERA over 5.00.
Both teams scored in the first inning, and I was beginning to wonder if we were in for a slugfest, given the mediocre starting pitching combined with warm and humid conditions. Each team scored runs in the fifth inning, and what I though might be an offensive outburst had turned into a tight ballgame. Even with the scoring, the nearly pinpoint control of the starting pitchers (who walked only one batter a piece). kept the contest moving at a brisk pace through the first six innings.
During the game, I found my attention captured by the foundations in right centerfield. Dubbed the Water Spectacular, it is the largest privately owned fountain system in the world. Among the fountains are waterfalls and cascades, which keeps the water in nearly continuous motion before and after games, as well as in between innings. Having seen the waterfalls on TV for decades, they seemed more majestic in person, particularly when backlit during night games.
With the Royals ahead 4-3 in the top of the ninth innings, Kansas City brought in right hander Nate Field to nail down the victory. However, Field did not have it this night, surrendering a solo home run to Angels LF Jose Guillen, which tied the score. A combination of Angels hits and Royals errors allows the visitors to tack on two more runs to take a 6-4 lead. Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez (K-Rod) shut the door on the Royals in the bottom of the ninth, striking out two while earning his eighth save of the season.
While waiting for the sparse Royals crowd to thin out before leaving, I took one final look at Kauffman Stadium. This park has always been one of my favorites, based primarily on the fact that it was simple yet elegant. Good use of space, the fountains and the unobtrusive scoreboard and video board produced a GREAT place to see a ballgames.
Since we last visited Kauffman Stadium, there have been a LOT of changes, not all of which appear to have improved the experience. Based solely on what I have seen on TV and in pictures, the “K” does not seem to be as appealing as it once was, as ownership seems to believe exchanging simplicity for extra amenities was a good idea. As much as I enjoyed Kansas City and the baseball atmosphere there, I am not sure I am as excited to go back to Kauffman Stadium as I was to visit in the past.
1 Newark NJ to St Louis MO
Our first baseball trip of 2004 took us to Missouri, the Show Me state, to see games in St Louis and Kansas City. Since this was planned as a weekend trip, there was insufficient time to drive from NJ to MO, we chose to fly. In order to catch the first pitch in St Louis at 1220 pm CDT, we needed to fly out of Newark NJ early Saturday morning.
A cold front had just passed Newark as our flight to St Louis started, so we experienced short bursts of intense turbulence as we climbed toward 10,000 feet. Once we reached cruising altitude, the turbulence subsided, but not before my stomach informed me that breakfast during the flight was probably not a good idea.
We chose to fly Midwest Airlines, a now defunct airline that featured spacious leather seats and complimentary chocolate cookies. Though the cost of the flight was a bit higher than other airlines serving St Louis, the roomy cabin was worth the extra money. Other than the bumpy climb out of Newark, the two hour flight was uneventful, bringing us into St Louis less than two hours before game time. After picking up our rental car, we headed for the stadium.
2. Busch Stadium
We arrived at Busch Memorial Stadium less than an hour before the first pitch, leaving us little time to explore the environment around the park. Instead, we headed inside upon arrival, wandering the concourses before heading to our seats. Busch Stadium was one of the cadre of multi purpose stadiums constructed from the mid 1960s into the early 1970s, housing both MLB and NFL teams playing on the then-new AstroTurf.
AstroTurf was developed as an alternative to natural grass playing surfaces, starting with the Astrodome in Houston Texas, since grass could not be grown under the dome. Laid out on a field of concrete (which provided a stable surface), the AstroTurf was an unforgiving inch thick “carpet” which often heated to 130 F during the summer. Eventually, AstroTurf was eschewed in favor of grass surfaces, which is what we found in Busch Stadium early that afternoon.
Crystal clear skies and rapidly warming temperatures greeted us as we found our seats shortly before the first pitch. Per usual, Busch Stadium was filled to near capacity, as St Louis fans are generally considered to be some of the best in the game. The opponents for the hometown Cardinals this afternoon was the New York Mets. St Louis was enjoying a strong 2004 season, with a commanding 10 1/2 game lead over the second place Houston Astros in the NL Central Division. By contrast, the Mets were battling their way through another sub .500 season, occupying the fourth spot in the NL East.
Starting for the visiting Mets was right hander Kris Benson. Making his first start for the Mets after being traded from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Benson was in the midst of a fairly average season, with a .500 record and an ERA over 4.00. The hometown Cardinals sent right hander Woody Williams to the mound. Williams was an 18 game winner for the Cardinals in 2003, and was still an important piece of the starting rotation for a formidable St Louis team. With the afternoon warming quickly, we were wondering if the ball would carry well at Busch Stadium this afternoon, resulting in an offensive display.
From the very start, the Cardinals fans were a force, with a loud din discernible for much of the game. Being from the Northeast, I would posit that the best fans in baseball were from the part of the USA, but the boisterous St Louis fans were slowly changing my mind. Despite the building heat, starting pitching dominated the early portion of the matinee. Each team scored a single run through six innings, and with both starters showing their best stuff, the game quickly became an old fashioned pitchers duel
As part of their playoff push, the Cardinals had acquired slugger Larry Walker from the Colorado Rockies at the trade deadline on July 31st. Walker’s first at-bat in a St Louis uniform came in the bottom of the 7th as a pinch-hitter. Looking to quench my thirst, I approached a vendor to purchase a soft drink as Walker came to the plate. Both the vendor and I paused the transaction to watch the at-bat. Walker received a standing ovation as he strode to the plate, which was understandable, as the Cardinals fans though they were welcoming a presence that would propel them through the playoff run. However, when Walker struck out, the Cardinals fans gave him another standing ovation, a highly unusual response to a strikeout. In fact, it was so unusual that the vendor pointedly asked me “have you ever seen anything like that?”.
Both starting pitchers exited that game by the end of the seventh inning, leaving the tight contest in the hands of the respective bullpens. Quite unexpectedly, a game that I thought might be one-sided because of the Mets recent struggles had become one of the best games I’d seen in person in years. The score remained tied at 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, giving the Cardinals one last chance to end the game before extra innings.
Having experienced the devoted and vocal Cardinal fans first hand, I was very surprised to see them execute “the wave” during a critical portion of a tightly contested ballgame. It was almost as though the fans were not fully aware of the game situation, instead becoming lost in the moment of being at the ballpark. The Cardinal pushed across the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, securing a well-fought 2-1 victory.
We’d just witnessed one of the best ballgames I’d seen in a long time at the home of an iconic MLB franchise. Though Busch Stadium itself was a typical multi-purpose facility, a product of its time, the crowd made it feel like a great place to see a ballgame (despite their curious wave display in the bottom of the ninth). Having seen the stadium, there was no reason to return until the new ballpark was ready, which was a couple of years away. Still, it WAS fun to see a baseball game in the heartland of America.
Our destination after the game was a hotel room in eastern Kansas, before we visited Kaufman Stadium in nearby Kansas City the following afternoon. Before heading out onto Interstate 70 west, we briefly visited the Gateway Arch, the longtime symbol of the opening of the western USA. It was also my first visit to the Mississippi River, an iconic symbol of the heartland of the USA. We would see the river at several points along its journey in the coming years.
We didn’t linger long in the Gateway Arch National Park, as we had a 300 mile drive ahead of us. Light traffic heading west on Interstate 70 allowed us to reach the hotel just outside of Kansas City in less than four hours.
Wall to wall sunshine awaited us as we ventured from the hotel (following breakfast) and headed toward the Great American Ballpark. With some time before the first pitch of the (scheduled for 115 pm), we found parking near the stadium, and walked the pavilion along the mighty Ohio River.
It was clearly evident that the Ohio River was running very high, swelled by recent heavy rainfall in the area. The normally docile river was roiled by flood waters, swiftly taking sheds, large trees and assorted clutter in its muddied currents downstream. Contrasted by the sunny skies and light winds, the Ohio running out of its banks in full fury made it even more dramatic.
Not surprisingly, the beautiful late summer weather brought a large number of people to the riverfront. Most seemed to be transfixed by the state of the river, while others were simply enjoying the weather and the scenery. Strolling along the pavilion, we were treated to views of northern Kentucky, as well as the paddle wheel boats on the river. Despite the swift currents, people were enjoying the ride, and had I planned more carefully, perhaps I would have been one of those people. Instead, we enjoyed the river from dry land.
1. Great American BallPark
Following our walk along the river, we headed toward the park as the gates were opening. Unlike last night, we left ourselves plenty of time to explore Great American Ballpark. In its second season of service, the ballpark still had a “new” feel to it. More than 42,000 red seats, arranged in three decks spanning from foul line to foul line gave the ballpark a nearly overwhelming “Redness” feel.
Arriving just as the gates opened, there were few fans inside the ballpark. This allowed us to explore the park with little obstruction. While the capacity of Great American Ballpark is a bit larger than its predecessor, Riverfront Stadium, the openness of the new park made it seem much bigger than the older, multi-use colossus.
Like most newer ballparks, the concourse encircled the stadium, allowing us to take pictures from all angles. As expected, the main attraction of the park was the view of the Ohio River. From the upper deck behind home plate, we could see the river, as well as the towns and buildings of nearby northern Kentucky. Crystal clear skies and warm late summer temperatures resulted in a beautiful view from the stadium, possibly one of my favorites among MLB ballparks.
In my opinion, one of the best features of Great American Ballpark is the Smokestacks. Located just to the right of the batter’s eye in centerfield, the Smokestacks were a nod to the history of the Ohio River, when paddle wheel boats were the main mode of transport for people and produce along the length of the river.
After completing our tour of the ballpark, we went in search of a baseball lunch. Though Great American Ballpark offered a wide array of places to eat and drink, we chose to stick with the more conventional concessions. Stocked up with drinks and snacks, we headed for our seats. While Sunday matinees typically attract a smaller crowd than Saturday night affairs, good seats were difficult to obtain for this game. Just like the night before, our seats were further away from the action, though we were at least closer to the plate.
The starting pitchers for the game this afternoon were both former Mets. Chicago sent veteran left hander Glendon Rusch to the hill. Rusch was a Met in 2000-2001, and we saw him shut out the Boston Red Sox in 2001, allowing only infield single to open that contest. Starting for the hometown Reds was right hander Paul Wilson. One of the Generation K starters for the Mets in the mid 1990s, a promising trio that didn’t pan out quite as Mets fans had envisioned, Wilson showed flashes of brilliance with the Mets, but ultimately lost favor with their management and disappeared. After landing in Cincinnati, Wilson’s career experienced something of a renaissance, and 2004 for his best big league campaign.
With the Cubs still in contention for a playoff spot, this was a meaningful game for them. In contrast, the Reds were simply playing out the string toward the end of a disappointing season. Surprisingly, both starting pitchers were at the top of their games on this warm afternoon, with a scoreless tie continuing through the first six innings.
The Reds broke the tie in the bottom of the seventh inning with an RBI single by LF Adam Dunn. In the top of the eight inning, the Cubs tied the score with a sacrifice fly. By this time, both starting pitchers had exited the content, allowing one run each, and the outcome of the game was left in the hands of the bullpen. Cincinnati reliever Danny Graves allowed the final run of the game in the top of the ninth, as the Cubs squeaked out a 2-1 victory.
We were not leaving the Cincinnati area right after the game, so we took out time leaving Great American Ballpark. Aside from the amazing view of the Ohio River, the newly minted ballpark offered all the amenities found in the “newer” MLB ballparks, except for scoreboard. Most new parks feature the latest video board technology, but the video board at Great American ballpark was surprisingly small, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Overall, I was impressed with the park, with my opinion dominated by the view over the center field fence. Unlike some of the newer parks we have visited, I did not feel a level of intimacy at Great American Ballpark, though the sample size was admittedly small. Though I was impressed with the environment, I am not sure I was impressed enough to return anytime soon.
2. Paul Brown Stadium
Since direct flights from Cincinnati to Newark, NJ were not available after the baseball game, we decided to stay in the area and fly out Monday morning. With a free night available, we decided to attend an NFL game at Paul Brown Stadium, the home of the Bengals. The stadium is part of a larger complex which includes the Great American Ballpark, so we didn’t even have to move our vehicle from the parking lot.
Not realizing that the Sunday night game was the home opener for the Bengals for the 2004 season, we found securing seats to be difficult. Since pickings were fairly slim, we settled on seats in the lower level of the southern end zone. While hardly ideal for viewing the game action, the seats did allow us to be part of the experience, which was enhanced by the enthusiasm of the crowd.
Because our seats were less than desirable, we didn’t get many good pictures of the action. Instead, we enjoyed the action and environment of the NFL contest.
1. New Jersey to Cincinnati
Our second baseball trip of 2004 took us to Cincinnati, Ohio to see the Great American Ballpark, the new home of the Reds. From central New Jersey, the drive to Cincinnati was deemed to too long for a two day visit, so we decided to fly. The flight was just two hours, so flying out of the Newark-Liberty Airport in the early afternoon brought us to Cincinnati a couple of hours before the first pitch, scheduled for 710 pm EDT.
After landing at the airport, we picked up our rental car and headed to the hotel to drop off our bags. Since the Cincinnati airport is actually in Covington, Kentucky, we stayed at a hotel near by, rather than in Cincinnati itself. Following a 15 minute drive, which took us across the Ohio River from Kentucky into Ohio, we arrived at the ballpark. Great American Ballpark is located along the banks of the Ohio River, part of a larger complex which includes Paul Brown Stadium (home of the NFL’s Bengals) and the Heritage Bank Center. Not surprisingly, parking was ample throughout the complex, and after securing parking, we walked up the stadium.
2. Great American Ballpark
Having arrived about an hour or so before game time, we skipped out normal walk around the outside of the stadium and entered the ballpark (as we would have a better opportunity to explore the area the next afternoon). Soon after walking into the stadium from the centerfield gate, we discovered the best feature of the new ballpark (which opened just the year before): the view of the Ohio River.
Located adjacent to the river, the park was constructed to take full advantage of the spectacular view of the river, as well as the structures across the river in Covington and Newport. Since the game time was about 30 minutes before sunset, the encroaching darkness diminished the view to some degree, but we would get a much better look during the afternoon contest the next day.
The opponent for the hometown Reds this evening was the Chicago Cubs. With the St Louis Cardinals running away with the NL Central in 2004, the Cubs were still in contention for the wild card spot, but the Reds were limping toward the end of a disappointing campaign. Starting for the visiting Cubs was future Fall of Famer Greg Maddux. The three-time Cy Young award winner was not quite the pitcher he was just a few years earlier, but was still effective and an important part of the Cubs rotation as they pushed for a playoff spot.
Aaron Harang took the ball for the hometown Reds. For the 6 foot 7 inch right hander, 2004 was his first full year in the Reds rotation. With both pitchers having mediocre seasons (especially Maddux), we were prepared for an offensive display from both teams.
Clear skies, light winds and comfortable temperatures greeted us as afternoon faded into evening. After picking up a baseball dinner, we went in search of our seats. Though the Reds had been out of playoff contention for some time, there was a sizable crowd for the Saturday evening contest. Consequently, our seats for the game were located down the right field line in the middle deck. Further from the action that I would have liked, but the great weather made up for the distance.
Despite my expectations of an offensively dominated contest, starting pitching dominated the first half of the game, which each team scoring just a single run in the first five innings. However, as often happens in MLB games, both pitchers struggled as they made their way through the lineup for the third time. The Cubs scored three runs in the top half of the sixth inning, including a home run by LF Moises Alou. Not to be outdone, the Red erupted on Greg Maddux in the bottom half of the inning, with C Willy Mo Pena hitting his second home run of the game, giving the Reds a 6-4 lead.
A solo home run by the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa in the top of the eighth inning brought Chicago within a run. Not quite the slugger he was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he was hitting 60+ home runs a year, Sosa was still a force to be reckoned with, exuding the same enthusiasm for the game as always.
Sosa’s home run ended the scoring, as the Reds bullpen shut down the vaunted Cubs offense to secure a 6-5 Reds victory. Despite the scoring, the game was completed in two hours and 45 minutes. My initial impression of the Great American Ballpark was positive, but we would get a better chance to see the ballpark with the mighty Ohio River as a backdrop during an afternoon contest the next day.