Seattle is really very far away from Boston. So, years ago, when I determined I would like to see a game in the Kingdome before it was torn down, I had to come to terms with the fact that it would simply cost too much to fly to Washington State for one game of baseball.
St. Louis is (very roughly) about half as far away as Seattle. Still I failed to make it out there before they replaced Busch Stadium with, well, Busch Stadium. Just because they’re not very original when it comes to names out there made it no less an entirely new ballpark.
I had these failures of travel in mind three years ago when I noted that the Minnesota Twins were entering their final season of play in the Metrodome. They weren’t tearing the building down as the Vikings still need to play there, but the Twins were moving and I wasn’t going to miss out on another of these soon-to-be defunct stadia.
Two notes of importance here:
- The plural form of “stadium” is “stadia.” It just is. I know if you look in a dictionary, it will now tell you that “stadiums” is acceptable. That’s only because people said it wrong enough for long enough that it became correct. I’m all for the evolution of the language, but only when it happens over hundreds of years. Now, it seems, say something wrong for a couple months and, all of a sudden, it’s right. You think scoreless soccer games are contributing to “an entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy”? I counter that changing the language at the whims of the uneducated does it worse and for longer.
- Why would I want to travel to see these crappy ballparks to begin with?
The second point (actually a question) is at the core of so many things brotherly. As I have noted before, I was no baseball fan before 1994. Back before then, a few of my brothers were busy going to see games in places like Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, and Candlestick Park in San Francisco. These were some of the most craptastic parks baseball ever did see. I stood on the outside of Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta once but never made it inside.
Why does this matter? It’s all about the competition. I have four brothers and all of us have, admittedly at varying levels, engaged in a competition as to who could see the most major league baseball stadia possible.
The rules are simple: you can’t just see the park. You have to watch an actual major league game inside. No ballpark tours or college baseball games. It has to be real major leaguers playing a real major league game. All-Star games count, too, which was once an important distinction (only actually to me) until I managed to return to Coors Field to watch the Red Sox and Rockies play in the 2007 World Series.
When I entered the fray on this deal I had three: Yankee Stadium (1978), The Astrodome (1979) and Fenway Park (1990) and was sitting in a distant fourth place. By the time I set about making sure I saw the Metrodome before it closed, I had 27 and was, I think, tied with Ted for the lead.
Those aforementioned parks, along with those in Seattle and St. Louis, no longer exist. I will NEVER be able to get them now. To the hockey fan out there, they are equivalent to games in hand. This is why the Metrodome had added importance. Morgan, as an example, can now never get it.
As it turned out, Ted himself hadn’t been the Metrodome and wanted in on whatever trip I was going on. Given that there would be plenty of driving between Boston and Minneapolis and then back again, I thought we should add one or two other stops on the trip.
One day, in my office (back when I had an office), I sat down with Google Maps and a 2009 baseball schedule. I plotted out a wish list of destinations that would coordinate well with affordable (or free) places to stay between manageable stints on the highway. I would have to do it between weekends, leaving no earlier than a Saturday and returning no later than the following Sunday.
The first couple passes at an itinerary failed. Baseball schedules are remarkably fussy. But then, like the clouds opening up or curtains parting or some other similar analogy – a week emerged.
The trip would take me to five new ballparks in the cities of Toronto, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, and Queens, New York. Ted had been to Toronto but the rest were new for him as well.
We set out early on a Saturday and the first day of travel took us across the boringly familiar Mass Pike and New York Thruway all the way to Buffalo, NY. We camped in a nice enough state park before going, the next morning, for a quick walk around Niagara Falls. It was then time for the trip around the tip of Lake Ontario to head for the SkyDome*.
*(I am well aware that SkyDome is no longer called SkyDome but, as with all parks that were built before naming rights were in vogue and all those parks that change their names as frequently as they do their third baseman, I ignore that they’re officially known as “Rogers Centre” now.)
It was a miserably grey day and the rain was making for a traffic jam as far as the eye could see. I don’t know what the city of Toronto looks like on a nice day, but certainly nicer than it did on this one.
SkyDome, as it turns out, is as ugly a ballpark as they come. As unattractive as it was from the East German-like concrete outside, it was even more so on the inside. While I imagine that, with the roof open on a sunny day, it would be better, it still wouldn’t be good. The artificial turf field was a literal patchwork of mismatched green pieces of really fake grass. The roof was so high that I kept imagining someone falling from the rafters and splattering onto Jose Bautista’s head. People were amazed that Roy Halladay stayed a Blue Jay for so long despite the fact that they always lost? I sat there thinking that I was amazed he stayed a Blue Jay so long despite the fact that they played in this craphole.
When the game was over (Toronto lost), we hit the road again. Driving out of town, I posited aloud that this could be my one and only ever trip to the city. I suppose there’s a chance I could return some day but I don’t know for what.
We were going to camp again that night but with some very stormy skies ahead, we instead pushed all the way to lovely Flint, Michigan and holed up in a motel instead.
As the sun rose the next day over “The Town That Michael Moore Made Famous”, I couldn’t help but like it more than the provincial capital of Ontario. We drove around Flint a bit, caught some breakfast at a diner with a big cow in front and the set out on the road again.
Our route that day was going to take us all the way across the middle of the mitten of Michigan by way of Lansing, around the bottom of Lake Michigan, through lovely Gary, Indiana and not quite-as-nice Chicago. We drove by both the homes of the White Sox and Cubs in Chicago (but stopped at neither as they were not new to us), and eventually made our way up I-94 to baseball destination number two: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Almost fifteen years prior, Ted and I, along with our younger brothers Carey and Morgan, made roughly this same drive to see these same Brewers play in their old home: Milwaukee County Stadium. I loved that park despite there being absolutely nothing about it to love. It was very old and rundown but, I suspect, was rundown even when it was new. While earlier and later stadia made wonderful use of brick facades, County Stadium (as it was known in the shorthand) made questionable use of corrugated metal siding the likes of which is typically favored by hobos and those whose homes have been lost in a hurricane. It rained torrentially the night we were there in 1995 and we weathered (ha!) a two-plus hour delay. “Nasty Boy” Rob Dibble pitched that night for the White Sox and walked four guys in one inning, including two that drove in runs. He was released two days later and then signed back with those same Brewers (who were still an American League team at the time) because they must have seen something in that dreadful performance that they liked.
Rob Dibble had been retired for thirteen years by the time Ted and I walked up the ramp into Miller Park, the Brewers new home since it opened in 2001. We paused to take a couple candids with the sausages from the between-innings race made famous in this town and then headed in.
As much as I was surprised how little I like SkyDome, I was surprised at how much I liked Miller Park. With the roof closed here as well, the park had the feel of a European train station with the enormous arched windows at either side. Despite a baseball stadium being as incongruous with le Gare de Paris as Marshmallow Fluff © is with escargots, it worked for us.
There were a couple of other notable from our night watching the Brewers (they lost) play the Nationals on Monday night in July. First, Washington outfielder Josh Willingham hit grand slams in both the fifth and sixth innings. He became just the 13th person in major league history to hit two grand slams in one game. Second, we became entranced with a little known relief pitcher by the name of R.J. Swindle. He had a funky delivery with which he was able to deliver a 55-mile per hour curve ball. For the baseball unengaged, that’s very, very slow. It made us chuckle. Finally, we determined, almost without question, that Milwaukee has, by far, the fattest fandom in all of baseball. We were surround by the obese wherever we looked. No wonder Milwaukee loved Prince Fielder. He looked downright svelte to them.
After the game we made our way back to our very dark campground in Eagle, Wisconsin. We woke up there the next morning to some absolutely voracious mosquitoes. I ended up practically running to the car to escape.
We had a relatively short drive ahead, only going so far as Minneapolis. It amounted to a trip about half as far as the day before. We managed to make our way through two more state capitals, as well, in Madison and St. Paul. I mentioned earlier driving through Lansing and this is because, like stadia, Ted and I compete in the collecting of state capitol buildings. It is certainly a more obscure “collection” and I can’t say for sure who is ahead but I do know I have stood in the courtyard of the capitol building in Honolulu, Ted hasn’t, and that’s a hard one to get to.
We arrived in Minneapolis with plenty time enough to go visit the Mall of America. Despite its claim to fame as the largest mall in the country, it really doesn’t feel all that different from any other mall. Point of fact, it seemed a bit more run down than I would have expected. It also has an amusement park right in the center of it. This contributes not only to its size, but also its effectiveness as a tourist destination. Ted and I rode a couple rides and I am glad I went but I feel no particular need to return.
After meeting an old friend for an early dinner, we headed over the place that launched this trip, the dying gasp of a ballpark known as the Metrodome.
I had actually walked around this stadium once before on an achingly frigid January afternoon in 1988. It looked a bit different on this comfortably balmy evening in late July. We bought seats for the upper ring of the Metrodome that the team called “The Cheap Seats.” It was a general admission of sorts for an entire chunk of stadium.
I suspect that some people would be very annoyed attending one of these stadium-exploring games with us. While we certainly watch and pay attention to the game on the field, we are also very much there to experience the ballpark. As such, we don’t stay in one spot but instead move from one side to the other, one level to another. The goal is to experience the place from multiple different viewpoints, thereby giving ourselves the most complete stadium experience that we can get in nine innings.
Before we even sat down in our first set of seats, Ted and I made a bet. That night’s starting pitcher for the visiting White Sox was Mark Buerhle who had, five days before, thrown a perfect game. The question was, how quickly would he give up a base runner in this game?
I predicted it would happen in the first inning, second batter. Ted predicted something a bit later, but not too far. We were both wrong.
As we made our way around from one seat to another, it became clear that Buerhle still had some of his good stuff left. In the end, he retired the first seventeen batters he faced that night. Adding that to the game before he ended up setting a new all-time record for setting down 45 consecutive hitters. He broke the record previously set by two men, including his teammate, Bobby Jenks, who watched from the bullpen.
The baseball pundits have said it countless times: this is a game in which, on any given night, you can see something that’s never been seen before. It is a game so steadfastly dedicated to the keeping of even those most obscure statistics that we pretty much know everything that has happened before.
One night after seeing a batter hit two grand slams in one game, an exceedingly rare if not actually brand new accomplishment, we were witness to something entirely new. That Buerhle ended up crashing back down to earth and ultimately losing the game is but a postscript to what happened just an inning before. That was history. Buerhle, for his part, won just two more games over the course of the final two months of the season.
We drove out of Minneapolis that night to a destination unknown. Our longest drive of the trip was the next day, as we had to get to Indianapolis, by way of a particularly unique stop along the way, for the next night. It amounted to over 600 miles and 12 hours of driving. Whatever we could get under our belts on this night, we could save the next day. We got as far as just west of LaCrosse, Wisconsin before collapsing into a room at the local Days Inn. We were exhausted but also only halfway through our baseball pilgrimage.