- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2004

Some folks find a relaxing week at the beach the perfect way to spend a vacation. Others prefer someplace remote, the better to get away from everything.

And then there’s the option of the road trip, something that works especially well for baseball fans. After all, it isn’t difficult to hopscotch from city to city in an attempt to see games in as many ballparks as possible.

A friend and I had made a couple such trips in the last few years, but this summer we decided to be a bit more ambitious. So after lining up the schedules of about a dozen teams, we settled on a vacation that included most of the major league teams in the Rust Belt. A stop at Wrigley Field was cut out because the Cubs’ games were sold out, but the trip was otherwise pretty inclusive.

To add a twist, we made sure to sprinkle a few side trips into the itinerary. Even for the biggest baseball junkies, a stop at a museum, university or local restaurant is a welcome change of pace.

It’s hardly a surprise this trip — which checked in at seven days, seven stadiums, eight games, eight states, a few too many cut-rate motels and about 2,500 miles — needed a bit of planning. But the final result was a fulfilling, if exhausting, trek through the Midwest last month. A day-by-day look:

THURSDAY

On any road trip, it’s wise to schedule one of the most difficult travel days as the first one. With that in mind, we found a stadium that was close enough to some big league cities to also fulfill our minor league quota for the week: Canal Park in Akron, Ohio.

The fairly new park, home of Cleveland’s Class AA affiliate, is tucked into sort of a trendy downtown and would be difficult to identify if not for some fairly subtle light fixtures, but the stadium itself is a jewel. The seating is tilted toward home plate, and the ballpark’s dimensions are asymmetrical. Plus, the Aeros actually have some decent prospects. It’s a combo some minor league teams could learn from, though it’s hard to blame an affiliate for the talent sent its way.

About the only thing that bugged me about the place was, well, the bugs. The place was infested with gnats. At one point in the middle of the game, we looked up at one of the light towers to see a whole lot of dots buzzing around. I’m not sure if that’s the usual order of things, but I’d definitely take some Off with me if I went again.

FRIDAY

Detroit has a reputation — and rightfully so — for being a dirty and somewhat unsafe town. After all, smokestacks puffing out sulfuric fumes can’t be good for anyone.

But Comerica Park, the Tigers’ home since 2000, is the centerpiece of a solid revitalization effort. The place’s tiger theme is impressive but not overbearing, and most of the seating is affordable. Maybe the biggest improvement from our last trip to Comerica was the product on the field, which has been respectable this season. The Tigers, 8-3 winners this night over Seattle, also moved in the left-field fence about 15 feet, making their home a bit more hitter-friendly.

Two notable things weren’t baseball-related. First, there were no ticket scalpers in sight but a bunch of security, which means transactions that don’t involve the Tigers aren’t plentiful. Also, a church next door to the stadium offers spaces in its parking lot for $20. Apparently, getting extorted is the path to heaven.

• Side trip I: After spending Thursday night in Akron, we jaunted a half-hour down I-77 to Canton, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Weekday mornings are apparently a great time to visit since the place wasn’t crowded. The room with all of the inductees’ busts was a predictable highlight, though the Hall has enough interactive exhibits throughout to make it worthwhile.

• Side trip II: Before going toward Detroit in the afternoon, we took a 15-minute detour to Bowling Green, home of last year’s Motor City Bowl champs. The folks there seemed very friendly and, more importantly, there was gaudy BGSU apparel. After all, who can say no to orange T-shirts?

SATURDAY

I’d always heard new Comiskey Park (otherwise known as U.S. Cellular Field) wasn’t the best place to watch a game, but it was painful learning for myself. What made it worse, though, was comparing it to Milwaukee’s Miller Park, which we visited later in the day.

The White Sox operate a fan version of a caste system, denying access to the lower deck to anyone who does not have a ticket there. That leaves cost-conscious fans doomed to sit in the ionosphere, which is about where Comiskey’s upper deck seats are located.

About the only nice things about Comiskey were the Esteban Loaiza bobbleheads, (announced as “Your Chicago White Sox bobblehead”), since Loaiza had been dealt to the Yankees three weeks earlier, and an awesome rendition of the national anthem. That left nothing impressive for the game itself.

It was a sweltering day with an ugly 10-7 game (won by the Red Sox), and there were far too much unnecessary distractions. There were five scoreboard races of some kind, plus an annoyingly ceaseless array of sound effects. The worst part for us came when virtually no one in the stadium paid attention to Joe Crede’s eighth-inning homer because the guess-the-attendance game was going on. We then headed for Milwaukee.

As it turned out, Miller Park was the exact opposite of Comiskey. After buying some second-level tickets at half-price, we settled into our seats in the second inning. The fans were completely into the game and were knowledgeable about both their team and the rest of the league. The retractable roof was open on a mild night, which probably helped the atmosphere as well. Maybe Miller Park isn’t as great as it felt like as the Phillies rallied for an 8-6 victory over the Brewers, but compared to Chicago’s South Side it is paradise.

SUNDAY

After a rough travel day, we stayed in Milwaukee for a second look at Miller Park, which contrary to the recent trend, is located among a sea of parking lots instead of downtown. The positive first impressions held up on a bright day with the dome once again open. It should be mentioned the ballpark food — in particular, the bratwursts and Italian sausages — was well worth the $3.75 per item, which is high praise from a shameless skinflint.

As for the game, the Phillies scored five runs in the 10th to pull out a 9-6 victory.

That leads to maybe the saddest thing about Milwaukee. There’s such a large expectation among the fan base the team will lose that it is assumed by most the Brewers (who trotted out a Quadruple-A lineup in the finale) will find some way to screw up. There were grumbles both days, and both times Milwaukee lost games it could have won.

• Side trip: There’s something about food in Wisconsin, as we discovered at the Apple Holler, a restaurant located in a barn along I-94 in Sturtevant. The apple cider and cheese soup were simply incredible, a much-needed delicious and filling meal that allowed us to avoid more fast food. Interestingly, there were a bunch of friendly farm animals outside, including one pen with a contraption called the “Golden Goat Bridge” for, well, goats to scamper about.

MONDAY

Other parks get a lot of accolades, but Cleveland’s Jacobs Field is always a fine place to visit. The sightlines are great, most of the upper deck tickets affordable and the view of the skyline is a plus. There’s also a bunch of cheap parking within a half-mile walk of the Jake, which is easily accessible from I-71 and I-90.

Maybe the biggest upgrade this season was a new out-of-town scoreboard on the left field wall. Instead of just a list of scores, the Indians now list the current pitcher and batter in each game, a boon for fantasy sports players.

The fans were a bit of a disappointment, with a few too many drunk twentysomethings with no interest in what was happening on the field. But the actual game — a 6-4 Yankees victory capped by a Gary Sheffield homer — was plenty entertaining on its own.

• Side trip: Tucked about 10 minutes off the Ohio Turnpike in Fremont (about 20 miles east of Toledo) is the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. Not exactly a presidential great, Hayes served from 1877 to 1881 and is most noted for ending Reconstruction. However, the exhibits were plenty interesting, prompting my friend to ask, “Do all mediocre presidents have museums that cool?”

TUESDAY

One of the biggest misnomers in sports is Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark. It should really be called the Nice American Ballpark or the Slightly Above Average American Ballpark, because it’s nothing spectacular.

There is a lot of red in the stadium, something that became far too obvious with the sparse attendance. What’s worse was that much of the crowd left in the middle of a tight game. There couldn’t have been more than 6,000 folks left when the Reds defeated the Cardinals in 10 innings, which is really sad for a game against a popular division rival.

Still, it is an upgrade over now-demolished Riverfront Stadium (called Cinergy Field in its later years), one of the last of the cookie cutter stadiums. Tickets and parking are both plentiful and affordable, and the stadium isn’t an eyesore. It just isn’t very inspiring, and that isn’t always bad.

• Side trip: We drove about a half-hour on winding country roads to get to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. At one point, I wondered who would want to go to school in such a remote place. My question was soon answered. Miami is one of the most beautiful campuses either of us had ever seen, with a downtown as welcoming as Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, N.C.

WEDNESDAY

Pittsburgh hasn’t fielded a winner in baseball in more than a decade, but PNC Park might be the closest thing to a perfect baseball park.

An incredible combination of affordable seating, fan-friendly options, easy parking options and informative scoreboards (both video and out-of-town) are appreciated, but it is the presence of the Pittsburgh skyline and the Roberto Clemente Bridge just beyond the stadium walls that make PNC a fine piece of ballpark architecture.

But what makes a great ballpark even greater? Try a fantastic game. We didn’t expect to see a great contest between the Pirates and Diamondbacks, though the presence of Randy Johnson on the mound certainly had us hopeful.

Johnson didn’t disappoint, fanning 11 while surrendering only two solo homers. However, it was a run too many as Josh Fogg and the Pirates captured a 2-1 victory in a brisk 1 hour, 47 minutes. It was the best game we had seen during the trip, a perfect cap to a week-long jaunt.


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