Thursday, August 27, 2009

My Summer Vacation

Sunday night I got home from a four-day trek to Cleveland and Pittsburgh with two of my friends (Ryan and Drew) and without my wife and child. The purpose of this trip wasn't to drink ourselves into a stupor, it was to check out the ballparks and have a good time. Since I'm usually pretty bad with remembering stuff after a certain shelf life, I am going to jot down some observations about the cities, parks and the overall experience.

It's going to be some self-indulgent crap, so if you don't want to read it, I won't be offended. And it's also not going to have much of a narrative flow, so don't expect “First we did this, then we did that and then we did that” I'm going to be jumping around all over the place, so if you're still with me, strap in.

- The drive to Cleveland didn't suck as bad as I thought it was going to—the drive back more than made up for it, but that's for later. All three of us were equally pumped about the trip and hadn't seen each in other in some time, so the stories were fresh, the jokes funny and our respective iPods were unheard.

Aside from a 15-minute typhoon as soon as we entered Ohio, the actual trip was uneventful. New York state is much bigger than I thought and I finally made it to Buffalo. That in itself isn't a big deal, but it seems like many times when I drive and see a sign noting the mileage to Buffalo it always seems to be 400 miles away. To me, Buffalo was at the edge of the world. If I was a Medieval cartographer and I was mapping out the United States, after I wrote “Buffalo” on the map, I'd draw a picture of a sea serpent behind it.

- We had a bit more time to kill in Cleveland as we got there on Thursday night and hung around until Saturday morning. One of the places that we went to was the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame. All HOFs are exactly the same thing: a bunch of memorabilia that sits in a bunch of rooms and a gift shop. That's pretty much it.

And the RR HOF was no different. On a scale of 1-10, I'd give about a 7. But it's not really the fault of the RR HOF, it's hard to recreate the excitement of a band without having the actual band there. And music is so subjective and it's importance to one person rarely is the guys in the band, it's what's happening around the listener that generates excitement.

For example, there was a wall devoted to the “Seattle Scene” of the early 1990s. It included Jerry Cantrell's softball jersey from when he was on MTV's annual Rock N' Jock softball game, a couple of Pearl Jam discs, some Nirvana lyrics and a beat up Soundgarden t-shirt (which was actually pretty cool it had a screen still of Godzilla attacking a city and it just said “Soundgarden” above it). And there was a couple of other things in the gigantic box on the wall and a well-written blurb about the music, but it all was pretty flat.

They also had a similar wall about hip-hop and had a Public Enemy SPIN magazine, Jay-Z's Carolina Hurricanes jersey (I have no idea why this was there, I looked for an explanation but couldn't find one – it was incredibly random) and a bunch of other crap. Again, flat and nothing really jumped out at me.

They did have an exhibit, but it was about Bruce Springsteen, and I understand his place in music history and how much people love “The Boss”, but he bores me. So I skipped it.

This being said, if you're in Cleveland you definitely should check the place out. It's worthwhile to go and see some stuff. Just don't expect to be blown away.
Ryan and I both thought it was weird (and very cool) that they had a little exhibit on New Order and Joy Division. You don't see that every day.

BTW, they also had this bizarre rule of not taking pictures at the RR HOF, what was the deal with that? Did Eric Clapton think our picture-taking things were going to steal his soul? Jebus.

- The bars in Cleveland were pretty cool. We hit a bunch of them on Thursday after stuffing our faces at Morton's. I can't remember all of the places that we went to, but one thing was certain the folks in Cleveland couldn't have been nicer. *

* Except for the homeless person that Ryan met on Saturday morning. Ryan wanted to have a Saul-like epiphany and spent about a half hour talking to the dude. Now here's something that you don't hear every day: the homeless guy said (at 3 AM no less) “Buddy, I have to be somewhere. Gotta go.”

So my good friend was blown off by a homeless guy. There can be no other explanation because where does a homeless guy NEED to be? He has no house. And it was 3 am, it's not like he's missing an important lunch meeting. You know what? I take this back, that homeless guy was the nicest person one of us met this whole trip. He listened to Ryan prattle on for a half. Dude is a saint, I guess Ryan did pick the right guy to talk to.

The one watering hole that we spent most of our time in (on both Thursday and Friday) was a place called Moriarty's. It was a complete dive, but the bartender (Kelly) was beyond cool. She plied us with a couple of free shots, did an Irish Car Bomb with us and told us that this was the place that Major League umpires hang out when they're in town. So if you're looking for a place to rip a man in blue over last night's blown call, hang out here.

We also hit a local brew pub called Great Lakes Brewery. It's a bit on the outskirts of town, but the beer is tremendous. If you're a fan of IPAs then the one that they have on tap will knock your socks off. It's 9% alcohol (so basically double that of a Bud Light) so tread lightly.

- The main reason we went on this trip was to check out ballparks and Progressive (nee Jacobs) Field is one of the better ones that I've been to. First off, our seats were amazing, Drew's seat was right along the rail in left field foul territory. Secondly, the entire place seems as if it's brand new ... though it has been around for 15 years.

The seats weren't cramped, there was a ton of personal space, the concourses were wide and they had a bunch of food and beer stands without many lines. You can say that's because the Indians suck and no one was there, but I'd have to call shenanigans on you, amigo. This place was packed (fireworks after the game!*) and you could walk as freely as you choose.

The game wasn't anything exciting, the Mariners beat the Indians 7-4 and Russell Branyon hit a bomb; but other than that it was a fun game at the old ball yard.

In dead center field behind the fence (obviously) there is a very understated Indians Hall of Fame. Just a few plaques for the greatest Indians and few dedications to members of the Tribe that have passed on while in uniform (Ray Chapman, Steve Olin and Tim Crews). There was also a wall with bricks of the 100 greatest Cleveland Indians which was really cool also.

After seeing this, we need a new ballpark in Boston. Desperately.

* In both Cleveland and Pittsburgh, when ever we'd tell the locals that we're going to that night's game people would always gush, “I hear that there's fireworks tonight!” like it was some marvel of man. I've lived through 35 Fourth of Julys, I've seen fireworks before. This is no big deal. I thought it was very odd.

- That takes us to Pittsburgh. We got there a bit later than we wanted to, so no Primanti Brothers or Warhol Museum for us. Instead we drank a bit.

I have to say, I wasn't impressed with the Pittsburghers. They were nice enough, I guess, but the bartenders at the one place we went to Olive or Twists sucked and the other place (I can't remember) weren't much better. I think that Olive or Twists (which is one of the better bar names I've heard of) was a more “upscale” bar. They certainly had nice looking bartenders, but (and I know this is wah-wah thing to say) when I asked them to turn on the Sox/Yanks game the bartender told me she didn't know how to change the channel, so we were stuck watching the World Series of Poker.

I did try an Iron City beer and it was pretty decent.

On each excursion to the two parks I wore a different Sox shirt and in Pittsburgh I had my throw-back Ted Williams jersey. Some guy who was selling Terrible Towels saw my shirt amongst the crowd and was screaming, “Big Sloppy! Big Sloppy! Steroids! Steroids!” I have no idea why a Pittsburgh Pirate vendor is give a Red Sox fan shit but I assume it's either because he's still bitter about the 1903 World Series or he doesn't like the fact that the Patriots kick the Steelers' ass pretty much any time they play in the post season.

- I have been to 16 different baseball fields and I can say that PNC Park in Pittsburgh is the best one of them all. It's a lot like Cleveland in that there are wide seats, big aisles, mammoth concourses and lots of beer and food stands. But it's more than that. The architects got this thing right. From the scoreboard in rightfield to irregular outfield dimensions to the gorgeous view of the Pittsburgh sky line; going to PNC Park is like going to baseball nirvana.

Angry towel salesmen aside, it angers me that there isn't a better team playing in these confines. It's a very intimate park (smaller than Fenway) but you don't feel like you're sitting on the guy next to you. It has a lot of old-school charm, but the modern touches feel “right” to. A few Pittsburghers I spoke to weren't happy with the game presentation: too much music, too much stuff going on, why can't the people focus entirely on the game? But that's what they have to do because the Pirates suck so bad and for so long.

You can get away with less game presentation if you're the Steelers or even the Penguins, those teams have won championships in the past year. But the Pirates haven't been above .500 since 1992, that's 17 years! The on thing that I noticed about the crowd was that aside from one or two Ryan Doumit shirts, everyone was wearing a shirt of someone from the Pirates past. It wasn't all just Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell jerseys either: Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay and I am positive that I saw guy wearing a Chuck Tanner shirt.

BTW, the Pirates smoked the Reds. And as bad as the Pirates are, the Reds are even worse. At least Pittsburgh has some young talent to build around. Cincinnati looks hopeless.

They know their baseball. I just wish that someone would drag them from their hardball purgatory.

- After the game we stuck around the park because it was 1970s weekend and among the treats lined up for the Steel Citizens (which included retro unis for both the Pirates and Reds and a reunion of the “We Are Family” Champions) there was an after-game concert featuring none other than KC and the Sunshine Band.

Yes. It was as cheesy as you would think, but it was also pretty fun. The dude has got to be pushing 60, but he still had his dance moves. His on-stage banter was stale (“Pittsburgh! Are you ready to do a little dance? Make a little love? Get down tonight? I am your boogie man!”) and for some reason he kept bring up how old he was, but I was shocked at how many songs I knew by him. We didn't stay the entire time, but I'd say that most of the packed house did.

But there were lots of middle-aged women reliving their glory nights on the disco floor under the sky surrounded by a retro-looking, brand new ballpark on a night where their floundering team honored a 30-year-old championship team. And while I wasn't shaking my groove thing, I knew how these people felt because here I was going on a road trip with two of my oldest friends reliving what it was like to be young and responsibility free, even if it was for a few days.

And I am damn glad that I did it.

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