The Great American Baseball Trip: Part II

Halfway through our trip we awoke to a sunny, blue-skyed Minnesota morning. Over a decidedly mediocre motel breakfast, Ted and I set about trying to rate all the stadia we had already been to in our lifetimes. For a long time, I had Pittsburgh’s now-departed Three Rivers Stadium as my worst ever. Between bites of overcooked eggs and undercooked toast, Ted convinced me that Olympic Stadium in Montreal was, easily, the worst. I put my new acquisition, SkyDome, just one spot up. Canadians are not great architects of baseball cathedrals.

We set out along the mighty Mississippi for the start of a very long day on the road. We had reached the westernmost point on the trip the day prior, which was, by my estimation, a point on I-94 just west of downtown Minneapolis. As such, our journey was now taking us ever so slowly eastward, back toward home.

We had three more fields to visit, though, before the trip was done. Three, you wonder? While I said we would only be visiting five stadia, we would actually be seeing six fields. Today’s first destination was in the very small but (in certain circles) very famous town of Dyersville, Iowa.

Between us and Dyersville, though, lay over 100 miles of not-so-exciting terrain. We would make our way through some tremendously sleepy little burgs. I don’t know if there are any exciting towns in Iowa, but I can now speak from experience that neither Lansing nor McGregor are they. I know we stopped in one for gas (Lansing) but I cannot remember why it was we drove about McGregor. I do know who was on the radio during our “sightseeing” and so, in one of the more unlikely pairings of history, in my mind McGregor will always be associated with Star Trek legend George Takei.

Also unlikely was the traffic jam we sat in somewhere between New Vienna and Dyersville. But once things broke free we rolled into Dyersville and stopped for a bite of fried chicken before we headed out Dyersville East Road toward a baseball field cut out of a cornfield.

Field of Dreams came out in 1989 and is one of my personal trio of the best baseball movies (Bull Durham and Major League being the others.) It opened in late April of that year and pulled in a woefully unimpressive $531,346 during its opening weekend. It had actually filmed on location in Dyersville the year prior and through the combination of time and box office business, I wonder how exactly the owners of the field had the foresight to keep it there. They did and for that I am grateful.

The film was shot on location in and around the house. The filmmakers did some significant work on the home to make it possible to use it that way. Once they walked away, the owners made no changes.

It is free to enter. You drive down the same big long dirt driveway that all those who “will come” did at the end of the film. The only change is a small, unassuming wooden souvenir stand and a white picket fence around the house that I don’t recall actually being there in the movie.

Ted and I brought neither bats nor gloves with us so we couldn’t do what others were – actually playing a little ball. Instead we walked around the field. I walked the bases and along the outfield “wall” of corn. I, of course, took the obligatory handful of steps into the stalks so that I could turn around and emerge again, just like Ray Liotta’s Shoeless Joe Jackson did.

I sat on the stands, much like a younger Kevin Costner once did, and looked out on all the people hitting, catching, and running around the field. There was no James Earl Jones (or, for that matter, that red-haired guy from Thirtysomething and The West Wing) but the effect was complete. It was, for me, a magical and totally appropriate stop on what was our baseball journey. I don’t know if it was the Mecca of this pilgrimage, but it was as close as it was going to get.

Credit where it is due: I initially scoffed at the idea of going there when Ted presented it. It was decidedly out of the way, after all. But Ted convinced me and I couldn’t be gladder that he did. The trip simply wouldn’t have been the same without it. It was the lyrical cherry on the top of our baseball sundae.

I grabbed a t-shirt (which proved to be the only souvenir I got for myself during the entire week of travel) and we hit the road again. We had just shy of 400 miles to cover between this little cornfield west of Dubuque to our brother’s house in Indianapolis, our home for that night (which, as I recall, had a cornfield of its own just around the corner.)

Worthy of note is the fact that between one cornfield and the next was, seemingly, nothing but other cornfields. Ted and I talked at length during this interminable portion of the drive about the fact that up to half of all the world’s corn is grown in the United States. Given all the uses for stuff – sweeteners, corn meal, ethanol, plastics and fabrics, and, most popular of all, feeding it to livestock – it seemed impossible to believe that half of it came from right here.

Spend a day driving through Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana and it won’t be so hard to believe anymore. Holy cow, there is a lot of corn there. Wow. Cornfields, for the record, don’t make for interesting scenery. I think that day was the closest I’ve ever come to being in an actual coma.

We finally rolled into Indy (another state capital!) well after dark and made it to my brother’s driveway after kids had gone to bed. Ted and I weren’t far behind.

We enjoyed a reasonably relaxed morning with family that included my nephew Kevin’s concoction of ice cream sandwiches, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream. This frozen lasagna of a dessert was our breakfast.

Our itinerary for the day was a nice Thursday matinee game in Cincinnati followed by a drive as far into Pennsylvania as we could comfortably get before exhaustion took over. This particular game was the most magically convenient one on the schedule. While it would have been nice to be able to stay longer in Indianapolis had the Reds played in the evening, the twelve hour drive the following day that we would have had to undertake would have been tough.

Such as it was, after a couple hours with family, we began the relatively easy two hour trek to Kentucky. (We parked across the river from the ballpark which put us, officially, in the South just one day after being in Minnesota.) We were there in plenty of time to find seats in the optimistically named Great American Ballpark.

The Reds’ game against the Padres was nearly as forgettable as the stadium in which it was played. It was similar to a number of the newer stadia that try to recreate what Camden Yards invented – new nostalgia. When Baltimore’s iconic stadium was built prior to the 1992 season, it incorporated parts of an old rail yard including its now-famous warehouse. While new, it managed to feel old and gave birth to the term “retro ballpark.”

Unfortunately for parks like this one in Cincinnati, they didn’t have the bones of something great to build around and therefore tried to create it themselves. What was most questionable to me about Great American (named for an insurance company that paid for the rights, not because of some inflated sense of greatness) was the fact that it was right on the banks of the Ohio River. To get to the park from Kentucky, we had walked across a beautiful old bridge designed by John Roebling. It looked like a miniature Brooklyn Bridge, which really didn’t come as a shock since the same John Roebling designed that too.

It would seem like the perfect thing to have as a backdrop to your new stadium, right? Not in Ohio. They instead had the centerfield gap open out on the Route 27 Bridge that is just as beautiful as its name would suggest. It was a disappointment not so much in what was but what could have been.

After the game (Reds lost), we drove the road through the flatlands of Ohio and, eventually, the misty hills of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. We bunkered down in a Howard Johnson’s in New Stanton, PA that was far more nostalgic than the ballpark earlier in the day could have hoped to be.

Pennsylvania is a long state when driving across it in an easterly direction and there isn’t a lot to see in the middle. We did manage to swing through the visitor’s center at Hershey’s Chocolate World, which, beyond getting to hold a chocolate bar the size and weight of large print copy of War And Peace, didn’t offer a whole lot. We rolled into our former hometown of Madison, New Jersey. With our lifelong friend Alex in tow, we headed downtown and enjoyed some pizza from Italian Village.

Our bellies full of chocolate and pizza, it was time to set out for the final park on the trip – the Mets new home in Queens, Citi Field. But with each mile that we had covered since that old motel in western PA it seemed more inevitable that the constant flat grey of the skies meant it might rain on our parade.

Point of fact, as we crossed the George Washington Bridge back into New York State, the skies opened up dramatically. The enthusiasm with which the rain fell was matched only by that which our fellow New Jerseyites laid on their horns in the building traffic into the city.

We arrived at our last ballpark and hopped through the enormous puddles in the parking lot. We had actually managed secure seats that gave us passage into the ridiculously named Caesar’s Club behind home plate. All this meant was that we had access to semi-comfortable leather seats near some wildly overpriced food. Well, to be fair, it also meant we could do all of that away from the rain. Also, all the seats were taken.

I was pretty sure our trip was going to end in a washout. The saving grace was that New York was just four short hours from Boston so, in the event of rainout, this would be an easy one to return to.

The rain did some lighten a bit but I felt little confidence as we left the douchebag club to head to our assigned seats for the night. On this long trip, though, many things had come together perfectly and, as it turned out, this night would be no different.

About ten minutes before first pitch, the rain had stopped falling and the clouds literally parted. It was an amazing turn of events and the game began on time under a remarkably impressive sunset. Our cousin Willy came in from his hip company to join us and was completely game with our moving from seat to seat to seat throughout the contest.

After the game was over (Mets lost), we walked around the ballpark a bit more before calling it a night and, for the most part, a trip.

We stayed with good friend Lou that night (owner of his own hip company) and enjoyed a nice breakfast at his favorite café the next morning. We hit a couple Manhattan spots before making our final drive home later that Saturday. In fact, I had moment to reflect on just how far we’d come as, while standing in the middle of Times Square, it occurred to me that we had been in the middle of the cornfields of Indiana just 48 hours before.

It had been a long week and I was ready to go home. In the end, Ted and I travelled precisely 3,506 miles in his car. Add another 100 miles for me driving to and from his house to mine. Those 36-hundred miles took me through fourteen states and two countries. We drove through seven state capitals (not including Boston which we never actually entered) and, most importantly, I made it to five new stadia.

Both during the trip and in the few years since, any number of people have reached out to me and expressed that it is exactly the sort of trip that they would like to do…someday. It was exactly the sort of trip I wanted to do someday as well. I would also like to, someday, take my family to the Grand Canyon, go on an African safari, and walk of the Great Wall of China. For some of those it is completely possible that someday may end up never coming. But for one week, my someday was that day simply because I put in a bit of effort and time to make it so.

If I can offer any lasting impression of this journey it is that you make your someday happen soon.


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