OpinionJune 29, 2006

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2005 Baseball Road Trip Part VI
Tampa Bay and Florida

By Kevin Naughton

After spending the night in a campsite south of Georgia, we woke up the morning of July ninth and drove toward Tampa Bay. We stopped somewhere near the border of Georgia and Florida. I bought some Pralines while Andy bought some chocolate-dipped peanuts. The peanuts were really good and tasted like crunchy Reese’s Pieces.

The whole way down to Florida we were worrying about the weather and the electrical system in the car. However, after more than four starts with no problem, the car issue was starting to fade from memory as the clouds darkened. I knew to expect a lot of wind and rain out of Hurricane Dennis, but I had no idea what we were driving into. Somewhere in Northern Florida we had to come to a complete stop several times, and sat and waited in the middle of the freeway for the rain and wind to let up enough to allow us to see. People were seeking shelter underneath overpasses and a lot of cars were pulling off the freeway. We decided to keep going so that we would not get too far behind schedule in case the weather kept up. We drove slowly and left plenty of space between our car and the car ahead of us whose taillights we could barely see. Eventually we pushed through the heavy stuff. The rain kept up all the way to Tampa Bay and by the time we got there the weather was getting worse.

We were not sure whether or not they would cancel the game that night. If they did it would not be because of the rain, since Tropicana Field is a dome. We thought that it might get canceled because of a lack of fans able to get out to the stadium, and to keep the teams away from the area. The idea seemed more and more plausible as we headed into Tampa Bay which was getting absolutely pounded by wind and rain. We headed over a couple of causeways, which was something new for me, and almost wrecked a couple of times. The causeways were sitting right on top of the ocean water. The waves were so high that they were crashing over the side of the jersey walls that were lining it. So now not only were we trying to keep the rain off the windshield, we were also dealing with the saltwater coming over the walls, and the wind that was pushing our tiny car all over the place. It was a mess but we eventually made it to St. Petersburg, Florida which is actually where Tropicana Field is located. We drove around the stadium a couple of times looking for parking. We wanted it to be close enough that we would not get completely soaked walking over to the stadium, but also not too expensive. We settled on a parking lot less than a block away from the stadium, and I think it cost nine dollars. We gladly paid the few extra dollars so that we could stay dry.

We headed over to the stadium in full rain gear with our umbrellas drawn. I had been making fun of Andy about his umbrella which seemingly inverted at the slightest hint of wind. This was because I had gone out and bought a super-engineered umbrella from REI which was supposedly impossible to invert. I guess the geeks who designed this thing never took it out of the wind tunnel though because within about ten seconds of opening it, I had a bucket instead of an umbrella. Andy could not help but laugh at me, and quite frankly I deserved it after making fun of his umbrella. I fixed it pretty quickly though and it did not invert the rest of the way to the stadium, while Andy’s continued to flip. Along with our rain gear we had each grabbed a package of sunflower seeds and a couple of bottles of water. We were hoping that we would be able to bring them inside. We took our customary pictures of the signs outside the stadium and headed over to the ticket window. Predictably, we had no problem getting tickets, but we picked the cheapest ones anyway. Thanks to my handy road trip book we found out ahead of time that the ushers here really do not care if you do any seat hopping, so long as you are not disruptive while you’re doing it. After going past the eight ticket takers who were not taking very many tickets, we headed into the dome and got some food before the game started. I’m against the whole idea of a dome in the first place, especially in normally sunny Florida, but on that night I was glad that there was a roof overhead.

We went and found our cheap seats and were pleasantly surprised at how good they actually were. We were in the upper deck, but we were directly behind the home plate umpire and we spent the first inning arguing over balls and strikes. The stadium was almost completely empty with the announced attendance at around nine thousand. We saw that there were fewer than that actually at the game, but one fan behind home plate was going nuts. Every time the Detroit Tigers’ leadoff hitter Brandon Inge came to the plate the guy would start chattering at him loud enough to be heard throughout the whole stadium. He would not stop until Inge had either reached safely or was back in the dugout. That was the only guy that he chattered at the whole night so I don’t know if Inge made a comment about the guy’s mother, or kicked his puppy or something, but he definitely let him hear it.

After the first inning we decided that it was time to upgrade our seats to somewhere on the first deck, which was actually starting to fill up a little bit with people from everywhere else in the stadium. We settled on some seats down the third base line about ten rows back. They were great seats and we enjoyed the rest of the game from there. The action on the field was actually pretty enjoyable considering the two teams involved. Remember, they were not the 2006 version of the Detroit Tigers that were on the field but last year’s ugly team, and the Rays entered on a ten game losing streak. I expected a blowout win for one team or another as the other just rolled over and gave up, but I was pleasantly surprised. Hideo Nomo, the Devil Rays starting pitcher surrendered three home runs to the Tigers. One of those home runs was hit by catcher Ivan Rodriguez and bounced off the catwalks that hang above the field. At first we were not sure whether it was going to be called a ground rule double or a home run, but the umpires got together and ruled that it was a homer. Sometime toward the end of the game the Public Address Announcer came on and informed everyone at the stadium that management had decided to reward everyone who had come out to the game that night. The fans would receive a free ticket in the outfield for any future game that season. Even though we would not be able to collect it, we thought that it was a great gesture by the team and hopefully will only inspire more people in Tampa Bay to go out and cheer for their team.

The end of the ballgame was very exciting even though it came way too early. The game was completed right around two hours and twenty minutes which is pretty quick for a professional game. With one out and down by one run, Tampa Bay first baseman Travis Lee hit a single into the outfield which brought Jonny Gomes to the plate. He turned on a Troy Percival offering and planted it somewhere in deep center field for the game ending two run home run. I found out later that it was the second longest home run ever hit at Tropicana Field and measured at an estimated 474 feet. There was no doubt as soon as it left the bat and Gomes lingered at the plate for a few seconds and admired it. This was not just any homer after all. It was a walk-off two run job that also ended the Rays’ ten game losing streak. Ivan Rodriguez took offense at the admiration by Gomes, and had some words with Tampa Bays’ shortstop Julio Lugo before storming off the field. Before the game, I had been trying to prepare Andy for a stinker, but we wound up seeing two walk-off games on consecutive nights.

We headed back to the car after the game and guess what, it was still raining. My umbrella did not invert this time though and I made it back without having to change clothes. I called a friend of mine who lived in Titusville, Florida that I had met playing an Online video game, that we were planning on staying with him for a few days while we were in Florida. Yes, I know that meeting people that you have only met Online is not only stupid but dangerous as well, but luckily for us, Aaron actually turned out to be Aaron, and not some former felon named Bubba. In fact, Aaron’s family was pretty cool with us staying there for the better part of five days. We were not sure what to expect and neither were they, but everything worked out well. As we were heading there after the game we had to go back over the causeways that had given us trouble earlier. Now we had the same problems as earlier with complete darkness thrown in. It was hairy, but we made it over them. A couple of hours later and we were in Titusville, Florida meeting the Brand family face-to-face. They invited us in and after meeting everyone, Andy and I hit the sack.

We woke up early the next morning and planned on heading to Miami to see the Florida Marlins take on the Chicago Cubs. We checked the various news stations and consulted some Online weather charts and they all said one thing: It looked like we were going to get screwed. This was the worst possible time for a rain out for us, since there wouldn’t be anyway for us to make up a game until late August, after we had finished all the other stadiums. We decided to head to Miami anyway on what we thought would be a pointless trip to see the stadium and maybe pray for some sun. One thing I forgot to mention is how much I hate toll roads. We do not have any in Nevada and for good reason. They’re pointless and even with all the money they collect, their condition is just as bad as any other road anywhere. Here in Florida we passed through four different toll booths in span of about twenty minutes. I could not believe it. As soon as we got done counting out change it seemed like we were re-opening the ashtray and pulling some more money out. Sorry for the digression, but I had to get that out there. I’m sure this won’t be the last time that I mention toll roads and how much I hate them, but now it’s out there.

I was in contact with my Aunt back home in Nevada the whole way down to Miami who was tuned into the Weather Channel and gave me the bad news. It looked like Hurricane Dennis had made landfall on Florida and according to the TV, heavy rain was expected in Miami all day long. The road that we took to Miami is known as “Alligator Alley,” and Andy and I planned on snapping some pictures with an alligator if we happened to find one that had become road kill. How cool would it be to have Christmas cards with your head inside an alligator’s mouth? Even if it was dead you probably would not be able to tell from the picture. After further discussion, we decided that it was probably not a good idea for a variety of reasons which included disease, and the possibility that the reptile might only be temporarily stunned, only to snap back to life once your head was inside its jaws. Luckily we did not get the opportunity to tempt fate that day anyway because we did not see any alligators, living or dead.

We got into Miami and were pleasantly surprised to see that although cloudy, there was no rain. We got to the stadium parking lot and were welcomed by the site of tailgates and several thousand Marlins fans. It looked like the game was going to take place after all. We hopped out of the car, and grabbing our umbrellas again, headed over to the ticket office. Once more we had no trouble securing tickets and went to go into the stadium. Before we had even handed our tickets to the gate people we were told that we could not go in until we had put our umbrellas back in the car. Now I realize that some people out there could probably use an umbrella as a weapon, but in the middle of a hurricane you would think that you’d be allowed to carry one. We decided not to listen to the ticket takers, and instead concealed our umbrellas and took them into the stadium. We were not planning on pulling them out, but just in case the clouds opened up we wanted them close by.

Our tickets were in the center field bleachers and we headed there as soon as we got into the stadium. Pro Player Stadium was definitely designed with football in mind and the baseball diamond was thrown in as an afterthought. All throughout the outfield there were tunnels that were blocked by large potted plants, and if you were to squeeze past one, you would plummet to a concrete floor 50 feet below. Have I mentioned yet how much I hate dual-use stadiums? I have? Good, then you already know what my problem was with this place. The game was good if you were a Cubs fan. Al Leiter got absolutely destroyed and I was in disbelief when my favorite team, the New York Yankees, made a deal for him later on in the season. He allowed six runs in over three innings of work while his counterpart Greg Maddux looked untouchable. He gave up just four hits in eight innings and looked like the Greg Maddux of old. Meanwhile I was excited to see Derrek Lee in action because I had been following all of the Triple Crown hype. He did not let me down as he belted his 27th home run and drove in four runs. The Marlins finally broke through with a Carlos Delgado home run in the ninth off of Glendon Rusch, but by that time it was too little too late. The Cubs cruised to a nine to two victory. Throughout the game we only had a five minute sprinkling of rain and there were no delays at all. I also almost got another baseball, this time from Marlins’ center fielder Juan Pierre in the ninth inning after he warmed up. He tossed the ball up into the bleachers and it was right above my head. I made a snow cone catch on the ball, but the woman behind me knocked it out of my glove and a few rows in front of me. Then she had the nerve to tell me that I had cost her the ball even though it had been in my glove.

We headed out of the stadium and I managed to get us lost in the parking lot. The whole parking complex looks the same from the outside. Therefore, once we got outside I immediately thought I knew exactly where we were. I tried to lead us to the car without consulting the GPS system that had the car saved in it as a coordinate. Big mistake. Not only did I get us lost, but we also walked right into a fight that was taking place. I don’t know how I’d managed to forget, but it completely slipped my mind that the Steve Bartman incident had occurred between the Cubs and Marlins. I guess the thing that sticks in my mind more is the nature of the incident rather than the opponent of the Cubs. I don’t know if that was that reason for the fight, but I walked right through it while looking for my car. Andy, who was thinking a little more clearly, saw what was happening and managed to steer clear of it. Once I had gotten out of the way and Andy had pointed out how I could have almost been hit, we decided to stick around from a safe distance and watch the action unfold. There was a lot of screaming and yelling but no fists. The Cubs fan that had been instigating the fight eventually got dragged back into her minivan and the Marlins fans were left hanging around. Just as everything was starting to cool down, a fellow New York Yankees fan took the opportunity to taunt everyone in the area by waving his cap, and reminding everyone how much greater the Yankees are than their teams. As a Yankees fan I felt the need to do the same with my hat. I did not stick around too much longer after that and we headed off. Once we decided we were a safe distance from the freshly perturbed Marlins fans I opened up the GPS and it guided us to the car.

We drove back to Titusville with only a minimal amount of rain but plenty of wind. We hung out the rest of that night and went to bed early to catch up on some of the sleep that we had missed. Before we went to bed we made plans to hit the beach the next day. The next day came, and after sleeping in pretty late into the morning, we decided to just hang out at the house and not go to the beach after all. Aaron seemed perfectly happy with it, and Andy and I were more than glad to be able to just enjoy the day without having to do anything. We went over to another guy’s house that I had met playing the Online video games and hung out for a while. Once again we were lucky that he was who he claimed to be, and not a former felon named Bubba. That night we watched the Home Run Derby where Bobby Abreu set the new record for total home runs and home runs in a round. We went to bed and again made plans to go to the beach the next day. Once again the next day came around and we slept in too late, and came up with a bunch of other excuses to not go to the beach. Aaron didn’t seem to mind so we hung out at the house and watched some movies. That night the All-Star game was on which we watched. The American League once again established its dominance with a seven to five victory.

On July 13th we woke up and planned to hit the road to Charleston, South Carolina sometime later that day. Originally we were going to wake up early, get an oil change, and head out, but a day or two earlier we found out that NASA was planning on launching the space shuttle which was just a few miles away. Andy and I are both kind of nerdy/touristy when it comes to that sort of thing so we decided to wait and watch the shuttle take off before heading to Charleston. We hopped in Aaron’s car and headed toward a good viewing spot, when along the way we heard that the launch had been scrapped. I could not blame NASA for not wanting to take chances on the first shuttle launch since it was the first one in a few years, but I was still bummed that I did not get to see it. There were a lot of people crowding the streets but we got the news before most of them and were able to get back to Aaron’s without any trouble. When we got there we packed up the car and said goodbye to Aaron and his dad.

On our way through Georgia, Andy and I both almost threw up at the same time. It was not because of motion sickness or anything like that, but because of a middle aged, overweight woman in a bikini riding a motorcycle. It was one of those things where as disgusted as you are, you just have to look to see if it’s for real. Unfortunately it was and we both almost paid for it. We got into Charleston late that evening. I had met Mike and Charlotte before at a family Barbecue, and knew that they were both officers in the Air Force. Being that they were in the Air Force, I did not know what kind of house to expect when we got there. I figured it might be on a base and rather small, but it was actually really nice and in a golf community. Their house was awesome and had plenty of room for Andy and I. We talked for a while and found out that they were probably going to have to leave Charleston in a few months for Delaware. They were not too happy about it and I cannot blame them. Charleston seemed like a really nice city and they had a spectacular house.

We got to sleep that night and prepared for the drive the next day to Philadelphia.
By this time the problems with the car were starting to slip from memory since we had not had the slightest hint of a problem. The new thing for us to worry about was taking place in New York City. In response to the terrorist bombings in London, England on July seventh in the subway, the New York Police Department was now locking down security on their own subways. I was not too keen on the idea of heading into New York City during the middle of a terrorist threat, but that was where we were heading in just a few days. We decided that New York was probably as safe as any other major city in the United States at that moment, maybe even more so since they had raised their security measures. We decided not to worry about it. Thirteen stadiums down, Philly, New York, and Toronto coming next time.

Kevin Naughton is getting ready to mark a full year since he started his road trip. He can be found on the Cafe’s forums where he posts as luckygehrig.

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