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July 16, 2007

 

-- Sports --

 

On the road to an unforgettable trip

 

By Sean Soltys

It was a road trip my father and I had been planning for years – a whirlwind tour of northern baseball parks, catching games along the way – and this spring, we did it.

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Sean Soltys freezing at Jacob's Field, Cleveland.

Each year when Major League Baseball released the team schedules, we dissected them, trying to find a convenient trip when all the right teams would be playing at home at the right time. Finally, our schedules meshed.

Leaving Connecticut during April vacation, we headed west, making stops in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago,  Detroit, and Toronto, Canada, before returning home.

Along the way, we spent 32 hours driving, took in six baseball games, visited five stadiums I had never seen before, and had one experience I will never forget.

Pittsburgh

Unfortunately, the first stop on our journey was dampened by rain, as the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates were rained out just as we arrived in the city. I had been excited to see soon-to-be all-time home run leader Barry Bonds play, even though I don’t like him at all. The feeling of driving eight hours to Pittsburgh anticipating a game, only to have it postponed, felt about as good as being injected by a needle, which is ironic since Bonds was the main attraction.

I had never been to Pittsburgh before, and the first adjective that came to my head was “ugly.”

While crossing one of the many rusty yellow bridges I thought, “Could they make a bridge uglier than this?”

A minute later, my question was answered. Yes, they can, and they did right next to the line of yellow bridges. They accomplished this feat by making the bridge a rusty brown color with a build that appeared to be ready to fall apart. I assume they only built it for the use of contrast, so the other bridges would look beautiful – and it worked.

From what I saw of PNC Park, it looked very nice. The seats looked comfortable and the styling of the catwalks and black-lights was eye-catching. There were also giant statues of legendary Pirates such as Honus Wagner and Roberto Clemente outside the stadium. The park was an oasis of beauty in a desert of rusty steel fixtures.

Before leaving Pittsburgh for Cleveland, we stopped for dinner. We like to find local food when we travel, so my dad asked one of his co-workers who grew up in Pittsburgh for some culinary advice. He recommended Primanti Brothers Deli and Bar. Unaware of what was to come, my father and I both ordered a Pitts-burgher Steak and Cheese sandwich, which was said to be served with fries and coleslaw.

Minutes later, the waiter appeared with two monstrous sandwiches, heaping with steak, cheese, coleslaw, and french fries, all packed between two slices of fresh bread.

Surprised and intrigued, I stretched and massaged my jaw before cramming the sandwich between my teeth. I thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of the sandwich for the first three bites, and then it got old.

However, in retrospect, the uniqueness of the sandwich somehow leaves me wanting to go back to get another, which is probably a marketing strategy to make people forget how bad it tastes.

After finishing the sandwich, we headed to Cleveland and it began to snow. 

Cleveland

Despite the overexcited weathermen who predicted four inches of snow by game time, there was actually no precipitation whatsoever after sunrise. However, the wind was brutal, with a wind-chill below 20°F. Feeling sympathetic for Cleveland Browns fans, we began our “spring” day.

The city of Cleveland was pretty nice as far as cities go. The streets were mostly clean and many of the buildings looked new. One of the best-looking buildings was the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. I am not enthusiastic at all when it comes to museums (my entire family will vouch for that), but I found the majority of things in the Hall of Fame interesting.

There were guitars from Jimi Hendrix, outfits from Mick Jagger, and hand-written lyrics from The Beatles, among many other cool artifacts and movies. After two and a half hours of music history, we headed for Jacob’s Field.

“The Jake” was a cozy but rather bland ballpark. With comfortable seats and friendly staff, the game was easily enjoyable despite the Arctic temperatures. I was amazed at how many giveaways and promotions they had. I was disappointed when I was turned away for being too old for free Indians’ money banks, but after the game they let me run the bases with the small children before handing me a free ticket voucher for any game in the next month for staying until the end of the chilly game.

Back at Fenway Park in Boston, a piggy bank, a pass onto the field, and a free ticket is more like a Make-A-Wish dream than a promotion.

One major pitfall for Jacob’s Field was the lack of food variety. Every concession stand had the same name, the same appearance, and the same predictable ballpark food. Not only was this the first game of the trip, but it was also an emotional day for me as it was probably the last time I could wear my Trot Nixon jersey, barring the unlikely chance that I will see another Indians game without the Red Sox in it before he retires.

Unfortunately, the former Red Sox right fielder didn’t perform offensively for the Indians, but Cleveland was still able to hold onto a 2-1 victory over Chicago’s Jose “El Abuelo” Contreras and his White Sox.

After the game, we started off through the Ohio farmlands towards Chicago with dreams of sunny, warmer weather. 

Chicago

Chicago was the first city on our trip that lived up to expectations. The first thing we did (after taking full advantage of 49-cent hamburger day at McDonalds for breakfast) was take a boat tour of the Chicago River.

This was a 90-minute excursion through the downtown river and out onto Lake Michigan, while the guide told us a few interesting facts – and every fact we never wanted to know about the architecture of every building.

Still feeling full from McDonalds and feeling much more knowledgeable on early-1900 framework designs, we headed to lunch. On our way to finding a deep-dish pizza restaurant, we passed the Chicago Mercantile Hall of Fame, featuring department store legends such as Charles Walgreen. I think I even remember seeing a statue of John CVS.

We stopped at Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria for the Chicago staple, deep-dish pizza, and it was delicious. I had consumed replica pizzas in the past, but nothing was quite like the real thing.

Bloated, we waddled over to the Sears Tower to gaze off the viewing deck. The view from 103 floors up in the air on this clear spring day was breathtaking, but it was difficult to identify some of the structures in the distance using the kiosks.

It was finally time to go to my most anticipated park of the trip, Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

I had heard so much about Wrigley and its old-time similarity to Fenway, and it was true. Walking around the park during batting practice, I noticed the bleachers on top of surrounding buildings, the manual scoreboard, and the ivy (although still brown this early in the season) that made Wrigley a unique ballpark.

The only thing I found that set it behind Friendly Fenway was the atmosphere during the game. There were minimal chants in the stands and pockets of empty seats, although there was considerable electricity in the air. On the way out of town, we made a quick midnight stop in the Southside to see the U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox.  Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Chicago and everything it had to offer. 

Detroit

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Sean Soltys with his dad, Mike Soltys, in Detroit.

On our way into Detroit, we stopped in Ann Arbor, Mich. to check out its legendary football stadium, and to walk around the University of Michigan campus.

The stadium was closed due to construction, but from the gate I could see the enormous 107,000-seat bowl. Already impressed, we entered the beautiful town of Ann Arbor. The entire campus and surrounding town is in great shape and is laden with shops and restaurants of all kinds.

I had never even considered Michigan as a possible school for me, but after visiting, it was added to my list.

Detroit itself was not a pleasant city because of all the poverty caused by the decline of old car factories. We figured we would try to make the best of it though, so we woke up early to visit the Ford Museum.

The tour consisted of a boring half-hour bus ride from the parking lot to the factory in which they showed an educational film. I don’t remember exactly, but I believe the title was “Top 10 Most Dull Facts We Could Find About Ford.”

After a dreary beginning of the factory tour, we reached the good part. We walked through a massive assembly and inspection line of the Ford F-150. None of the workers would tell me if there were free samples at the end (there were not). Overall, my impression of the tour was that it was three hours long when it could’ve been one. [For another view of the Ford Museum, check out Sara Greene's 2004 Tattoo travel piece.]

Comerica Park, and the adjacent Ford Field was a beautiful oasis in a dirty city. Giant statues of tigers greeted me as I strolled into the seven-year-old park.

Immediately I noticed the rather energized pre-game atmosphere, thanks in part to all of the activities and games there were.

My dad and I even took a spin on a Ferris wheel which had baseball-shaped compartments. Although a significant amount of the park was empty during the game, the surroundings were still relatively loud. Overall, I was very impressed with the stadium and would love to go back if I have the chance. 

Toronto

For our trip’s grand finale, we attended two Blue Jays/Red Sox games at The Rogers Centre in Toronto.

Our hotel was within walking distance, so we were able to park our car for our 24-hour stay. The only big (in size and reputation) tourist attraction in Toronto is the CN Tower, but we had been atop the Sears Tower a couple days prior, so we didn’t feel the need to wait in line again.

Instead, we visited our favorite Canadian landmark, Tim Horton’s. Not only was it delicious, but the cashier got my order wrong, so I got an iced latte and a normal latte for the price of one!

Our brief visit to Toronto included a night game and a day game, so our free time was limited. We spent most of the free time at the park, watching the Red Sox take batting practice, because we’re not able to do that at Fenway.

We weren’t the only ones with that idea, as there must have been more than 1,500 Sox fans there two hours before game time.

One man who dropped a home run by Red Sox slugger David “Big Papi” Ortiz came back into the grandstand with his sad son and showed off his bloody hands.

After batting practice for the second game, Red Sox outfielder Wily Mo Pena tossed some bubblegum to little kids around the dugout. I failed to catch a piece, but spotted one piece lying on top of the dugout. I read the nametag of the security girl standing on the dugout and chanted her name until she retrieved the gum for me, much to my pleasure.

The Rogers Centre was renovated before the 2006 season, when they changed the name from what was once the Skydome.

I’m guessing they did not renovate their decision-making staff, as the roof remained closed for a sunny 70-degree day. Overall I liked the dome a lot, and it felt very clean and new.

The cuisine selection was exceptional. I got Asian noodles at one game and a delicious Mexican fajita wrap the next.

Blue Jays fans did seem bitter towards the Red Sox, probably because A) now that the Yankees are horrible, the Red Sox are their only superior; B) the Red Sox are the most recent American League East team to win the World Series and C) the Red Sox fans at the Rogers Centre are just as loud as the Blue Jays fans.

One fan across the aisle from me continued to argue my reasonable points with responses such as, “When’s the last time the Red Sox won BACK-TO-BACK championships?” Security later removed him from the game for rowdy behavior.

The Red Sox won both of the games, so we headed toward Niagara Falls happy after an unbelievable and unforgettable trip.


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