Unfinished Business – Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland,and Minors In Between!

I had dreams of October baseball in 2009.  No, not the Mariners.  Sadly, they were out of it.  Again.  No, I was hoping to catch the Tigers.

Work had me scheduled to be in Ohio during the 2nd week in October, which was smack in the middle of the playoffs.  I made my reservations to fly into Cleveland early with hopes of seeing Detroit (a short hour and a half away,) play the Yankees in the playoffs…  How would I know the Tigers would have a historic collapse, losing game after game, before losing to the Twins in extra innings in a one-game playoff.  (And a botched umpire call to boot.)

Son of a bitch. 

The Tigers went from virtual locks for the playoffs, to out.  So like the local fans, I was left outside of Comerica looking at the empty field from the street.  I ended up seeing a Red Wings game instead and went by a freshly demolished Tiger Stadium, wishing I’d been there a month earlier, all the while vowing to return.

I had unfinished business.

Huntington Park (Columbus Clippers) – April 28th, 2010

My trip started with a redeye flight out of Seattle on Tuesday night.  I say it after every redeye, I’m just not built for them!  The flight crushes me and I don’t sleep much.  Thankfully, the adrenaline for the trip gives me a boost or I would be ruined.

I had the week planned to a “T” for games.  Getting in around 6am in Detroit gave me enough time to make the 3+ hr drive to Columbus for an afternoon game with the Clippers before coming back up for a night game in Detroit.  The traffic down was surprisingly bad.  The freeways around the airport and towards Ohio are all under construction.  Part of the ‘create jobs for America’ push was making road changes all over the US to try and help us through an awful recession.  I made sure to plan for that on the way back up from Columbus.

Columbus as a whole seemed like a nice area, but as I’d find through the upcoming days, a brutally dull drive.  (As were Toronto and Cleveland.)  Just vast areas of fields and a few sparse droplets of towns.  It was hard to keep it under 80 MPH.

Huntington Park was the top rated ballpark for 2009 on a few of the ballpark websites.  It was a nice enough park, but nothing jumped out to me that made it #1.  I guess they were just grading parks that opened last year, which would have put them up against New Yankee and Citi, along with a few other MILB parks. 

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The outside of the park has a long ivy covered wall, along with a long gate where you could watch the games for free at street level with ease.  It was Ohio Tourism Day, so I IMG_1067walked up to a press conference, complete with a live lynx sitting contentedly next to the statues outside the gate. 

Inside the park was nice and open.  There are 2 separate picnic areas, one under cover and one out in the middle of what was a hot and sunny day.  There were a few groups of school kids at the park for an 11:30am game, and they packed the stands and every open space in Centerfield.  It was a gorgeous day, I just wish I had sunblock.

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Brisket and pork sandwiches along with a $1 rib. Solid!

I had a set timeline for the week with a calendar of games and contingency plans.  If there was a threat of a rainout, I could have flexed to Toronto earlier.  I had a breakdown of drive times from point to point, so I was thinking of that when I left the game after the 7th inning stretch to head to Detroit, and Comerica Park.

Comerica Park – April 28th, 2010

I’ve done day/night double headers between parks a few times for Seattle/Tacoma and Yankees/Mets when we were in New York.  What I haven’t done are day/night double headers separated by over 3hrs on the road, after a redeye and 3hr+ drive in the morning.

The drive to Detroit was a battle of wills.  I stopped a time or two to just stretch and try to focus, but by the halfway point I needed a break; if I didn’t get a quick nap I would be risking an accident.  I called Amy and asked for a 30 minutes wake up call.  I don’t think it took me 10 seconds to fall asleep.  The half hour passed by fast, but when I woke up to the phone ringing on my chest, it felt like I’d slept for 8hrs.  The catnap made all the difference, and was everything I needed.

I had been to Detroit the year before, so finding the park wasn’t that difficult.  I picked the parking lot that had the easiest freeway access and paid $15 to park before walking down the street and saving $17 off the face value of a ticket above the dugout.  Good deal.

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I was anxious to finally be in the park that I’d been an outsider at 6 months earlier.  The large tigers perched on the park and the snarling over-sized tiger at the entrance are all really cool looking.  I would bet there are plenty of people that think it’s overkill, but I really like it.  I think my favorite part of the exterior are the blue and orange colored tilesIMG_1112 that add a splash of color to the park.  You can really tell that they gave the exterior an extra thought.  Combine that with the tiger heads with the lighted baseballs in their mouths, and you have a real visual package.

I made my way around the park knowing that there was one thing I really wanted to do first:  The carousel and the ferris wheel.  Flat Megan and Flat Maddy both rode with me (a carryover from my trip to Atlanta a few weeks before).  The carousel was all tiger themed, unlike the baseball themed one in Kansas City.  I liked KC’s better.  The ferris wheel was situated in a courtyard area towards LF.  There were large kid shaped trees and a baseball fountain.  The ferris wheel was nice enough, but it would have had way more impact if it was visible from the field.  (Imagine being able to see the field and watch the game from the peak of the ferris wheel.)  Still, it was a good value for $2.IMG_1140

The field looks terrific.  The statues in CF are blurred as if in action and they have giant color tigers looming over the scoreboard.  One thing I noticed that seemed a little odd were the retired numbers.  Jackie Robinson’s #42 was present, but it was in a far corner of RF, almost like it was an afterthought compared to the other honored numbers.  (I noticed the same thing later that week in Toronto, where #42 was completely divorced, if not segregated, from the rest.)

Comerica Park had been worth the wait.  I was excited to go by the Tiger Stadium site on the way to Toronto the next day, as well as back to Comerica on Saturday.  I had toyed with the idea of driving to Wrigley on Saturday instead of another game in Detroit, but I liked Comerica and felt like it deserved another game that weekend.

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Rogers Centre – April 29th, 2010

The night was long and the sleep was short, as is always the case on my trips!  I live to try and see so many things on my times away – I have a “You only live once, sleep when I’m dead” mentality when I’m on the road.

I was on my way to Toronto by way of Tiger Stadium.  When I was there in October it was a pile of fresh rubble.  Today, the rubble was gone.  What was left was a field of dandelion covered grass, the flagpole, and fading memories.  What wasn’t there this time, was a security guard.

Surprisingly, the only thing keeping me from standing on the field, was a small, unlocked carabiner.  It honestly wouldn’t have mattered.

I walked out towards the flagpole, then towards the front left corner, disoriented since I’d never been to Tiger Stadium while it was standing.  I remember thinking how sad it was that the outfield grass was there, but not the infield.  Then I looked to my right and walked towards a hump peeking out from the grass.  The Pitcher’s mound stood out from the grass, a few weeds sticking out from the clay.  As I got closer, I could see the natural progression as a bare area moved from 1st to 2nd to 3rd to Home.  Unbelievable.  The infield was still here and untouched by equipment or the destruction that brought the stadium down.  It was worn, and slightly faded with bits of grass and weeds, but at its heart, it was the soul of Tiger Stadium.  

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I ran the ‘bases’ one time and stared out at the flagpole in CF before taking a picture.  I knelt down in between 1st and 2nd and kicked into the infield dirt.  Beneath that first kick was the pure, fresh dirt from games past.  I put some in my pocket, along with a few pieces of concrete left behind and walked off the field shocked that no one had come to yell at me.

Contrary to Amy’s worries, I didn’t have any issues getting over the border and into Canada.  I stopped at McDonalds to wash Tiger Stadium off my hands.  For the next 4+ hrs, it was lonely driving through what could have been Ohio for all I’d know.  It was a looooong drive.  I parked in Toronto and spent the next hour trying to find a place to stay for the night. 

IMG_1215I’d like to say that Toronto was great, but to be honest, it really wasn’t.  The scalpers outside the park were incredibly aggressive, and quite frankly, real dicks.  I was asked if I was on drugs by one, told it wasn’t Christmas by another.  I swear there were more scalpers than fans at the game.  These guys clearly don’t understand how supply and demand work.  I was tempted to spend $10-20 more for a ticket from the team just to spite them, until I found some more reasonable guys a few blocks up.  It was the same at the restaurants.  I left one after 10 minutes.  No one ever came to say Hi, even after I moved to the bar.  The service at the second place I went was awful too.  I don’t know if I went to Toronto on a bad day, or what, but everyone was pretty rude.

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The game itself was empty.  I was tempted to count the fans, and probably could have in a few minutes.  99% of the upper deck was empty, and it was close to 75% vacant in the lower decks.  It was really embarrassing for such a nice day.  Most of the upper deck was roped off.  Bathrooms were closed.  IMG_1226Concession stands were closed.  It was a ghost town.

The park itself isn’t awful.  Sure it’s turf, but it looks crisp, and with the roof open the CN Tower stands tall above.  In the 7th they closed the roof, which they probably do during every game for tourists like me.  John Buck went ‘Babe Ruth’ and hit 3 HRs before flying out to deep CF in his last at bat.

Rogers Centre is officially marked off, and unless they get a new park, I’m in no hurry to go back to Toronto.

Progressive Field – April 30th, 2010

Cleveland was pretty much the polar opposite of Toronto. 

It was another early morning out of the gate.  I was anxious to get out of Toronto and had a busy day (and drive) ahead of me.  I’d told Amy I was going to avoid Niagara Falls so we could see it together down the line, but I didn’t realize I would literally be driving right past it.

Niagara Falls is a pretty sight.  The Canada side has a huge park and easy access and IMG_1267parking to match the spectacular view of the Horseshoe Falls.  There’s a long line of hotels and trendy/touristy shops on the drive in.  I took pictures with Flat Megan and Maddy and enjoyed the view while fighting the urge to try and stretch for a glancing touch of the water.  While Toronto is not on my list of revisits, the Falls is. The New York side of the falls was drab; the neighborhood underdeveloped (not in a good, natural way) and was quite honestly, pretty old and dumpy looking.

I drove through Western New York and the side tip of Pennsylvania on my way into Ohio.  The drive took longer than I expected, but I still had plenty of time.  I was happy that I hadn’t tried to shoehorn in a visit to Cooperstown, it would have been impossible.  (I’d have a much longer, and better visit to Cooperstown a few years later.)

I drove past old League Park on my way into Cleveland.  League Park had opened in the late 1800’s.  They plowed it a long time back, but left the front corner of the building.  IMG_1276Like my trip to the old Negro League sites, I was definitely ‘odd man out’.   It’s always sad to see entire areas that are just rundown and obviously poor.  You could tell that historically, it was an interesting area.  (You could see it in the buildings and the architecture.)  But now it’s a forgotten area, surrounded by vacant storefronts and their washed out or chipped paint and moss covered stone.  (The good news is since then, they’ve been improving the area.)

I’d been to Cleveland in 2009, but this was my chance to check out some different areas IMG_1291than the year before.  I walked a few mile radius of the city before grabbing a bite at ‘Local Heroes’, a bar across from the park.  There was a whole alley of trendy restaurants on 4th, but I was looking for something, well, more local.  The chicken strips were good and fresh and the onion rings felt and looked like fresh glazed Krispy Kreme donuts with a sprinkle of garlic on the shell.

I walked over to Progressive to grab tickets but stopped into the gift shop first.  It was a good thing I had too, because if I spent $50 in the gift shop I’d get a free ticket, so I bought $50 in stuffed mascots and hot dogs (stuffed hot dogs, not $50 in real hot dogs) and made my way in.

The park has a great vibe.  They have ‘Heritage Park’, a clear homage to YankeeIMG_1309 Stadium’s ‘Monument Park’, that spreads nicely over two levels.  It’s a great use of the Batter’s eye in CF.  Heritage Park is bright and inviting, with plenty of space – That’s one thing that it looks like the New Yankee Stadium is missing.  (It is, as I found out later.)

The hot dogs, “Ketchup”, “Mustard”, and “Onion” (who is a girl mascot) are mobbed by kids.  Each one has their own personality and actually interact very differently.  Onion poses, Ketchup high gives with his Ricky Vaughn inspired glasses, and Mustard is ‘zany’.  I laughed outloud when Mustard was posing briefly with a beer.

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It was a good crowd in a town that has Cavs Fever.  The last few innings I talked with a guy named Dennis, and his friend Gary.  I don’t know if Gary was disabled or if it was a result of an early stroke like a friend of mine from work.  Dennis and I talked about the different parks I’d been to and he told me I was welcome to stay the night at his place if I needed a room.  He said he wasn’t ‘weird or nothing’, that he was married with a two kids, but honestly?  That’s a little weird.  So I lied and said I already had a hotel.IMG_1315

I took a last look at the field as I left, and made my way back towards Detroit.  I had every intention of getting a hotel in Cleveland, but it was a short 3hr drive to Detroit, where I had a day game planned for the next day, so it was just easier to get where I was going.  I was in bed at my Detroit hotel by about 2:30am.  Oh well, it just meant that I’d have a helluva lot less driving to do tomorrow.

5th/3rd Field (Toledo Mudhens) – May 1st, 2010

The early morning clouds, scattered from leftover thundershowers, burned off in a hurry.  It got hot and sunny enough that by the 5th inning I’d moved into the shade.  I could feel the sunburn.

I started the day with a chili dog at Cheli’s Chili across from Comerica Park.  It was an easy, but bland few bites, that I followed up later with a kosher dog at the game.  I spent more time looking at the different displays and just looking out and enjoying the view than really watching the game.

By the 9th inning, it was tied up.  Bottom of the 9th, Johnny Damon up to bat.  I look to my right and see a man holding his son.  Someone is taking their picture.  I see a look on the man’s face, and I know.  He’s just so damn happy.  He’s at a ballgame with his son, who couldn’t be any older than 3, and you can just tell that to the dad, this day means the world to him.  And with that, at that moment, Damon hits a home run to end the game.  I watched the ball sail over the RF fence.  I missed the actual hit watching the stranger across the aisle, but I saw a “moment”.  Was this his son’s first game?  Will his dad tell him stories as he grows old about his first game, when Johnny Damon hit a walk off home run to end the game?  And will the boy, when he’s a man, do the same for his child, telling her that “When he was a kid, his dad took him here too, and did I ever tell you…”  I’m at that point in my life that that’s what baseball has evolved into for me.  Sharing those memories and moments with my girls, the same way that the man has with his son.

I took a last longing look at the park before walking to my car for one last game.  It was a successful trip to Detroit, and the “Unfinished Business” part of the trip was behind me. 

It was a short hour to Toledo.  I was glad that I’d saved the shortest drive for last.  I don’t know how guys drive all 30 parks (although I’d still love to try it).  How can you take the time to see everything and have the patience to drive that much?  By the last day, I was burnt out on driving.  Over 1,300 miles in 4 days.  Not bad!IMG_1343

I wasn’t prepared for how depressed Toledo was.  5th/3rd Field (worst sponsor name ever, btw) is newer and a nice looking park.  Every dime in the city must have went into it, because I’m not exaggerating when I say that there may have been 90% vacancies on the storefronts for a few square blocks from the park.  The only survivors were a used furniture store, a few bars, a scattered restaurant or two, and a cleverly named strip club named Marilyn’s on Monroe (on Monroe St).

How could a town with such a nice, new park (and a new Minor League hockey team) be so bad off?  The weird thing is they had great attendance when I was there.  How do businesses not survive?  It seems like they would have the traffic! 

IMG_1352I had lunch/dinner at Packo’s at the Park, a well known restaurant that gained prominence in the 70’s thanks to M.A.S.H.  I had the MOAD (Mother of all Dogs) which was a 14 inch or so kielbasa with onions, cheese, sauce, mustard, and chili.  I eat the whole thing with ease.  It was alright, but the chili could have been meatier, and the kielbasa needed to have more flavor.  Still, I was tasting it the rest of the night, so it was a good thing I had gum. 

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Child’s play. It needed more chili.

When it was time to pay, I apologized for the scattered mess of cheese on the table.  She said “Don’t worry about it, the birds will get it any minute… or the hobos.”  Huh?!  It was another sad statement on the town.  The vacant storefronts, and a homeless problem big enough that the waitresses joke about it…  As I watched the game later, I could see 4 clearly homeless men watching the game from the other side of the fence.  It reminds me again how fortunate we are as a family.  Besides being able to have/do things, we have the family support structure where these guys don’t.

The park itself was very nice.  It has two separate screens so you can see the stats regardless of where you’re sitting, and they’ve built the RF wall into the side of a building to give it that ‘built-into-the-city’ look you get in Baltimore and San Diego.  The Kentucky Derby was broadcast before the game.  Sugar Card won by a length or so, which reminded me of my trip to Churchill Downs just last year, and the beauty of the spires and flower covered grounds.

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By the end of the 5th inning I was ready to drive back to Detroit.  As I walked out of the park and to the street a foul ball bounced right in front of me.  I went and picked it up, a final memento, and a sign that my trip was officially over.

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