I went on the trip with my father and a high school friend of his. Those two originated the epic baseball trip almost 20 years ago, but this was the first time I got to go along. Their most epic trip was a six-games-in-six-days marathon starting with two games in Chicago, a trip to Detroit, games in Cleveland and Cincinnati, and then back to where the trips usually end, in Milwaukee. (The trips have been shorter since then, either due to the age of the participants or the fact that that’s a really long itinerary for anyone.)
It was entertaining to hear the two of them talk about their younger days, although it gave me the feeling most sons probably feel about their fathers, something along the lines of: If I had done one-eighth of what he did, he would have killed me. My father turns 70 in December, and although he's in good health, you never know how much time you're allotted.
The trip was, frankly, just about perfect. The weather was not so obscenely hot (as it was the first time I visited St. Louis — in sequence, 80 degrees and rain, 95 and 97, and it wasn’t dry heat) as it often is in the Midwest this time of year. All of the games, featuring five contenders for playoff berths, were at least entertaining (Dodgers 4, Cardinals 1; Astros 9, Reds 5 in 10 innings; Red Sox 6, White Sox 2; and Brewers 5, Nationals 4 in 13 innings) with memorable moments in all.
The Dodgers now have former Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez, who seems to be this generation’s answer to Reggie Jackson, judging from the boos that rained down in each of his at-bats. Like Jackson, known as “Mr. October” during his playing days, Ramirez, dreadlocks and all, rose to the occasion with a two-run home run that proved to be the winning runs in the Dodgers’ win.
Ramirez was part of a funny coincidence. Just before the trip, the Red Sox (who we saw Saturday) traded Ramirez to the Dodgers (who we saw Thursday), and the Reds (who we saw Friday) traded Ken Griffey Jr. to the White Sox (who we saw Saturday). Griffey didn’t play, though. (Then, on Monday, the Reds traded outfielder Adam Dunn to Arizona.)
St. Louis might have the best baseball atmosphere of any city I’ve been to. (I have not been to Fenway Park in Boston, though my wife has. Not that I’m jealous of that or anything.) Busch Stadium — which opened two years ago to replace Busch Stadium, which replaced Busch Stadium in 1966 — is a wonderful place to watch baseball in an area where the Cardinals are clearly front and center. The neighborhood is very industrial, but bars are jammed in between the ballpark and two freeways and a railroad track, and it’s a very festive environment, with people dressed in red whether they went to the game or not.
After an all-day drive through Indiana and Kentucky to Cincinnati, game two featured a similarly nice ballpark, Great American Ball Park, but in a less exciting atmosphere. It’s in a great location, with the skyscrapers of downtown Cincinnati to the north and the Ohio River immediately south, but there is one sports bar in the area, and the fans are not nearly as interested in the Reds as the Cardinals’ fans were. (Then again, the Cardinals are in the hunt for a playoff spot, and the Reds haven’t been a contender since their new park opened in 2003.) Friday’s highlight was a bit of schadenfreude for 2½ fans (my father’s character flaw is that he is a Cubs fan) who witnessed former Brewers closer Francisco Cordero, who signed with the Reds as a free agent for $46 million, give up four 10th-inning runs in the Reds’ loss.
Great American Ball Park (right photo) had two things in common with Busch besides prominent use of red — attendance far higher than what one’s eyes saw. Friday’s attendance was allegedly 25,652, which looked about 10,000 optimistic to me. Thursday’s attendance was 40,500, but it appeared as though at least 5,000 fans were dressed as empty seats. In both cases, the reported attendance figures were probably tickets sold. I must say, though, that at up to $72 in Cincinnati and $120 in St. Louis, it’s hard for me to imagine that many people buying tickets to a game and then not attending.
Both Great American and the newest Busch are replacements for older stadiums (even down to the same round shape and old-style artificial turf) that were used for baseball and football, with the retro touches, such as irregular distances from home plate to the walls, of the stadiums replaced by the multiple-use stadiums. (And fans pay for the new ballparks in more ways than one: Beer at Busch was $8.50.) There are now identical square craters where both old stadiums stood; Great American was built east of the old Riverfront Stadium, and Busch was built across the street from the previous (middle-aged?) Busch. The former Busch crater is to be replaced by Ballpark Village, a “first-class entertainment and business center,” in time for the 2009 All-Star Game.
Cardinals games used to be on KMOX in St. Louis, a station that could be heard throughout the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. at night when the venerable Jack Buck (whose bust is next to me in the first photo) was their announcer. (Listening to Cardinals games was such a great experience that it almost made up for the fact that the Cardinals beat the Brewers in the 1982 World Series.) Reds games are still on WLW (700 AM) in Cincinnati, a station that can be heard throughout the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. at night, with the legendary Marty Brennaman as their announcer. Brennaman got to announce two World Series wins within two years of his 1974 hiring, but other than the Reds’ surprise World Series win in 1990, he has announced more bad teams than good in recent seasons. He does, however, now get to work with his son, Thom (who also does baseball for Fox), who chose to come to Cincinnati to work with his father. Joe Buck, Fox’s main football and baseball announcer, got to work with his father with the Cardinals. Chip Caray, son of late Braves announcer Skip Caray, worked with his dad in Atlanta and was going to work with his grandfather, Harry Caray, in Chicago before the oldest Caray died before the 1998 season.
Chicago wins the award for having the best ballpark in the worst neighborhood. The first thing we saw before we got to U.S. Cellular Field (known locally as “the Cell”) was, believe it or not, a rat walking across the street. What originally was called Comiskey Park (which replaced the older Comiskey Park across the street) was designed before the wave of retro-design parks began with Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The new Comiskey, in a primarily industrial and lower-class residential neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, was immediately criticized for its liberal use of concrete and its vertigo-inducing steep upper deck (which is where we sat, and yes, it is quite steep). Renovations made the park look better, although it’s still quite a haul to the 500-level seats.
The surprising thing about the White Sox game was how many Red Sox fans were there — upwards of 10,000, I’d guess. (A few of them sat behind us for their second game of the day, having paid $140 a seat to see the Cardinals defeat the Chicago Cubs that afternoon.) Then again, like Packers fans on the road, given that Fenway Park is perennially sold out, it’s probably easier to see the Red Sox on the road than at home. The Red Sox fans were the happy ones after David Ortiz (a former Wisconsin Timber Rattler) hit a bases-loaded double to propel the Red Sox to their win, which knocked the White Sox out of first place for one-half day. (The game also knocked out White Sox starting pitcher Jose Contreras for the season and possibly his career after his Achilles tendon snapped on a play at first base.)
Our baseballathon ended at Miller Park for the 13-inning game between the Brewers and the Nationals. I’ve argued before that the best $100 million southeast Wisconsin taxpayers ever spent was the roof at Miller Park, which, of course, was open Sunday. It benefits the Brewers immensely, nevertheless, for fans to be able to have assurance, beyond an act of God (one game in Miller Park’s first year was postponed because of a power failure), that, if they buy tickets for a game, that game will be played, regardless of weather. I predict that the Minnesota Twins, who are replacing the unloved Metrodome with a new roofless park, will rue the day they decided against a roof when their attendance drops into four digits for cold early-season games a couple years after the newness of their as-yet-unnamed new stadium fades.
I heard two of the funnier lines I've ever heard at a baseball game:
- After a disputed strike call: "Hey ump! The eye doctor called! Your contacts are in!"
- To Brewer Bill Hall in the 11th inning: "Let's go, Billy! They stopped selling beer four innings ago!"
Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver believed that every baseball team wins 60 games, and every baseball team loses 60 games; the remaining 42 games of the 162-game season determines the success, or lack thereof, of the season. Sunday’s Brewers win (happily followed by Monday’s win) was in the 42-game category, and a perfect way to end a grand slam of a trip.