- 12 May
- By Carolyn LaWell
- TeamStockton Ports
- LocationStockton, CA
- Tagged road trip, food, travel, baseball, weight gain
The stiffness in our legs is gone and so is the extra room in our pants. Today is Day 38 of 152 and, weather permitting, we’ll see 42 games in 40 stadiums in the first 45 days of this trip. Basically, we’ve hauled ass across the southern United States and our bodies are finally adjusting to life on the road.
Here are some of the causes, effects and cures for road trip body betrayal.
First, the excitement of the trip itself and finding ways to balance the workload and the driving overtakes any thought of hunger. You ask yourself: Did I eat today? This leads to a quick drop in weight. At the same time, your body and mind try to adjust to different working hours (instead of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., your schedule is now 8 a.m. to midnight). The lack of sleep leads to an increase in caffeine and you’ll drink anything that comes in a 20-ounce bottle or 12-ounce can.
Around week two, your immune system hates you. You start to cough and sneeze and feel like total crud. You try to add a few hours of sleep here and there and chew some Airborne to ease the symptoms. You offer your body some give and take, and wash down DayQuil with water instead of Mountain Dew.
Then, about three weeks in, you have a rhythm, so you can start to log a few more hours of sleep and eat regularly. You decide you can’t pass up the local fare and you commit to trying anything. Sounds great, until you do that with three different cuisines (seafood, soul and Cajun) in three different states (Florida, Alabama and Louisiana) in the span of a week and your stomach attempts to digest the combination of foods. Your stomach kicks and gargles and physically hates you. In retaliation, it makes you gain weight – at least that’s how we tell ourselves it happened.
Week four, after thousands of miles logged sitting in the car and several nights sleeping with barely enough leg room in the back of the car, your legs and back begin to ache. When you wake up, your late-20-year-old body feels like it aged 60 years overnight. Your quadriceps are sore from your legs constantly being bent sitting in the car and your calves are strained from the little work you made them do climbing stadium stairs.
Week five, your body calls a truce with you. It realizes six hours of sleep is better than nothing. And those In-N-Out Burgers and Jack in the Box milkshakes, well, they were tasty and free.
There’s still a long way to go. But when we finish this long stretch in California – there are fewer miles and more days between games – we hope we can return to regular running and a diet of vegetables and fruits. Hopefully our bodies don’t retaliate our return to the healthier side.
- 6 May
- By Matt LaWell
- TeamRancho Cucamonga Quakes
- LocationRancho Cucamonga, CA
- Tagged Brady Bunch, hamburgers, rainbows and sunshi
California, here we come
RANCHO CUCAMONGA, California | We circled the parking lots for four minutes, then six, then eight, 10, 12, all in search of a space. Compacts and pickups and SUVs filled most of them at that early hour, half past 10 on a Sunday morning. When we pull in five or six hours before the first pitch, stadium lots are normally close to empty. Here at the Epicenter, home of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, they were close to full.
The Epicenter is the focus of the Rancho Cucamonga Adult Sports Park, a collection of fields for baseball and softball and soccer, all of them packed Sunday with rec players, acres of metal bats and fluorescent yellow balls. More folks waited on the walkways for the next round of games. At the same time, inside the stadium that has been home to the Quakes for 20 seasons, hundreds of Little Leaguers spread across the outfield, listening to tips from a dozen players about as intently as possible for elementary schoolers. Some laughed. Some squirmed. A few shied away.
This was a sunny Sunday morning in Southern California, 74 degrees and close to cloudless. Mountains stretched for miles behind the outfield wall. Whispers of a wind flicked blue and white pennants back and forth. Families picnicked on green lawns. So help me God, all of this actually happened. It was so idyllic — the idealistic California of my childhood dreams, the syndicated California of Greg and Marcia and Peter and Jan and Bobby and Cindy — that it would be easier to believe I just made up every word.
When we crossed the state border a few hours before all that, an inspector at a check station asked us if we had anything to declare. He worked for the state Department of Agriculture and was checking for fruit — we surrendered six apples and a couple plums to quarantine because California roots out fruit flies before they can enter the Golden State — and it felt like we were entering another country.
California is the land of sunshine and Disney, no matter what claims Florida might make. California all but invented traffic and traffic jams and some of the most expensive gasoline prices in the country. We have a dozen days here. Every one of them will be an adventure in some way.
We ended our first at an In-N-Out off Foothill Boulevard, a mile and change from the Epicenter. The Quakes entertained a couple thousand fans with a 9-2 win, their fourth straight, and some of them were in a drive-through line that stretched to the road. We went inside and ordered a cheeseburger, a double-double, shakes, ate it all in the Element. Bits of cheese stuck to the paper. Shake residue hung around in the bottom of the cups. Our shorts tightened just a little bit.
Every word is so wonderfully true.
- 5 May
- By Carolyn LaWell
- TeamTucson Padres
- LocationTucson, AZ
- Tagged Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, road, drive
Just wait. There’s nothing out there.
That’s what people have been telling us about the West and the long drives between the few towns and even fewer cities. We’ve been in these parts before; we know the topography, the desolation.
We left San Antonio on Wednesday morning and drove to Midland. From Midland we drove to Albuquerque. From Albuquerque we drove to Tucson. In three days, we’ve covered about 1,200 miles through three states. We started in Texas, where you could see for miles across flat land, the sky and ground seemingly meeting in the distance and, today, we’ve ended up at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. We’ll be leaving for Phoenix shortly, for a couch and a few hours of sleep.
Between there and here, we drove through places like Andrews, Texas, where oil pumps bobbed as the sun rose. Places like Encino, New Mexico, where cafes, motels and houses have been abandoned and boarded up. Places like Hatch, New Mexico, where the Yellow Pages read: Chile Willie’s, Hot Damm Chile, Sparky’s World Famous, Pepper Pot. All the while, signs on the sides of the roads have read “Dust Storm No Visibility Possible,” “Gusty Winds May Exist” and “No Gas For 19 Miles”.
The most vivid memories, though, are the colors. The greens turned to tans turned to clay reds. And the blue, well, there’s a reason they call it sky blue.
It’s easy to look in all directions and say you’re in the middle of nowhere. I said it probably five times. And every time I used that phrase, Matt corrected me. Because down those dirt roads and beyond those hills – out of sight – someone calls these places home.
Photo: Encino, New Mexico
- 30 April
- By Carolyn LaWell
- TeamRound Rock Express
- LocationRound Rock, TX
- Tagged Texas, Texans, food, baseball
Thoughts on Texas
Hard to believe we’ve be in Texas for six days and we’ll be here for three more. Here’s what we’ve gathered about Texans, the grub and the drive.
No matter native Texan or new transplant, everyone has been extremely nice — except for a certain crossing guard in Austin. The crowds have been some of the best we’ve seen. The teams and stadium staffs have been generous with their time and have shared great stories. We’ve spent most of our nights with folks born somewhere else — a brother of a Tampa friend, a stranger (now friend) who grew up in Indiana, college friends from Ohio — who’ve been kind enough to give us a bed and show us around their cities. We don’t get this whole “Don’t mess with Texas” stuff. No one has an attitude, just lots of state pride. (And do you know how that saying got started? Read on.)
When you cross the state line on I-10 from Louisiana, the first mile marker reads “880.” Think about that. If you drove 70 mph on I-10, from one end of the state to the other and didn’t stop, it would take you roughly 13 hours. However, you would never be able to keep a consistent 70 mph pace because a fair number of Texans don’t understand the meaning of the term “speed limit.” You have people driving 45 in a 75 (we actually saw this several times). You have people driving 10 below in the left lane. You have semis going 10 over in the middle lane. You have people driving 35 down ramps as they try to merge with traffic going 65. Driving in Texas makes you sweat and scream and stare with utter amazement. We’ve hit some of the state’s larger cities — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Corpus Christi — which might have something to do with it. In a few days, we’ll see what it’s like driving in the vast openness of west Texas.
Whatever weight we lost at the beginning of this trip, we’ve packed back on — and maybe some more. In Houston, we had a Cañonball — a fried avocado stuffed with pulled chicken — and fajitas with a side of chipotle butter. In Corpus Christi, we just had to eat at Whataburger (photo above) since its headquarters are in the city and the Hooks play at a field named for the fast food chain. In Dallas, we had crab enchiladas, goat cheese enchiladas and sweet potato chips at Blue Mesa Grill. In Austin, we washed down slices of pizza the size of our head with some Shiners. In San Antonio, we’re going to The Cove. Any suggestions for Midland?
We have a copy of the new Texas Monthly in the car, which we hope can help us feel a little more Texan during our time in the state (Skip Hollandsworth is a state treasure who could write anywhere). Not even a multiyear subscription to the magazine can get us up to speed, though. This state is enormous. Nine days is enough to explore a sliver of it.
- 24 April
- By Matt LaWell
- TeamNew Orleans Zephyrs
- LocationMetairie, LA
- Tagged broken windows, Ignatius J. Reilly, powdered sugar,
Doughnuts in the dark
“Leaving New Orleans also frightened me considerably. Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins.” — Ignatius J. Reilly, A Confederacy of Dunces
NEW ORLEANS | Eight years ago, before I was old enough to revel in the full debauchery of Beale Street, I walked alone through the French Quarter toward the only place I knew I would be comfortable in a city I was too immature to enjoy. I was in the state to cover a track meet, of all things, and I wanted to at least see the French Quarter. After too many dark corners, I saw the green and white awnings of Cafe du Monde beckoning just off Decatur Street and walked toward them. I sat at a small metal table for hours, reading and writing and eating six beignets. I could have eaten more of those little French doughnuts. I was 20. I could have eaten anything.
The stick of moist powdered sugar rubbed on my fingers until I found my way to the airport after the sun rose.
I visited New Orleans again last year for about as short a stop as you can enjoy during a drive from Austin to Auburn. I wanted beignets and a handful of beads to take home and hang on the door knob. I parked off Rampart Street and walked alone, again, toward the cafe. I stayed for an hour or so that time, watching people and jotting notes, then walked back to the Element, stopping somewhere on the sidewalk to listen to jazz for a few minutes. Before I reached the car, I saw shards of glass, most as small as a fingernail, on the sidewalk. Whoever shattered my passenger window didn’t take much, just a bag of cereal and a greeting card from a box on the seat.
I pushed down the accelerator through the night toward Alabama in search of a new window. At least I had enjoyed six more beignets.
Carolyn and I traced those same steps Tuesday, our first trip to New Orleans together, my first trip to Cafe du Monde with anybody. She knew nothing about it — not its century and a half of history, not its wonderfully limited menu, not its cache with tourists and locals — and that was fine. I told her as much as I knew, which still wasn’t much, and we sat and looked around us. We cracked a few lines that made us laugh, at least, like Alvy Singer and Annie Hall — “Oh, look, there’s the winner of the Truman Capote Lookalike Contest.” — and waited.
When the beignets arrived, her eyes opened a little wider. “Oh, my God,” she said. “I’m going to get powdered sugar everywhere.” I looked over at a pile of it that someone had dropped near another table. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Everybody does.”
- 21 April
- By Carolyn LaWell
- TeamHuntsville Stars
- LocationHuntsville, AL
- Tagged GPS,
The glamorous life of baseball hobos
When you live out of your car for five months and travel to a different city almost every day, something is bound to go wrong. Or, on some days — like Friday — a lot of things.
12:05 a.m. After we watch a game at the beautiful new Blue Wahoos Ballpark in Pensacola, we move everything from the back of the car to front seats – two suitcases, a box of AMLS t-shirts, a big box of food, a box of work supplies, toiletries and far too many loose items.
12:20 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, tired and hot, we stretch out on top of our sleeping bags in the back of the Element. Wish the windows could open.
4:10 a.m. Carolyn wakes up freezing and looks for a sweatshirt. She finds one, then gets back into her sleeping bag.
5:10 a.m. The cell phone alarm clock goes off. We hit snooze.
5:15 a.m. The alarm goes off again. We reset it for 6 a.m.
6 a.m. The alarm goes off again. Stupid alarm.
6:02 a.m. We crawl over our belongings and out the front door. Then we move everything from the front seats to the back. We should be Tetris champions by Labor Day.
6:20 a.m. Pull out of the parking lot in Pensacola for the six-hour drive to Huntsville.
6:35 a.m. A stop at a gas station. Why? To use the bathroom, of course, and brush our teeth. The women’s bathroom has three locks. Luckily, someone took a black Sharpie and wrote “LOCK” and an arrow on the wall so Carolyn knew which one to use. There was a carnival scale that, for 25 cents, will measure your weight.
6:40 a.m. Cup of nasty gas station coffee. That set us back $1.50. Extortion spreads from the pumps to the pot.
6:43 a.m. Turn the wrong way out of the gas station.
6:48 a.m. Right way.
10:30 a.m. A stop in Birmingham to look for a Starbucks and free wifi to file a story for a Florida newspaper.
11:20 a.m. Another stop, this time at a Planet Fitness. Not working out. Just showering. We smell.
11:44 a.m. Back on the road to Huntsville. Two more hours in the car.
11:50 a.m. We turn the wrong direction looking for Chipotle. Blame the cell phone GPS.
12:05 p.m. We turn the wrong direction looking for Chipotle. Again. C’mon, GPS.
12:15 p.m. We find Chipotle. We order two burritos. One chicken. One veggie. One of them wound up spilled on one of our laps.
12:30 p.m. Matt realizes his computer charger might be somewhere other than the car. We pull off the highway for a search. No luck. Hurm. Back on the highway.
1 p.m. Wait. Did we really look everywhere we could for that charger? We pull off highway again to search for the charger.
1:02 p.m. Someone in Pensacola just got a computer charger. Crap.
2:02 p.m. Time for an unexpected stop at an Apple store in Huntsville to buy a new charger. At least that took, like, six minutes. Those iPhone cash registers are kind of incredible.
2:30 p.m. Arrival at Joe Davis Stadium in Huntsville to watch the Stars. Finally.
2:33 p.m. We forgot a bag in the car. We go back.
2:35 p.m. Matt’s water bottle breaks. C’mon, Nalgene. Really?
2:37 p.m. We walk into Joe Davis Stadium. Safe. Sound. (There was another fiasco about nine hours later, but you probably don’t want to hear about that one. It turned out all right. Really. We just thought we were going to have to sleep in an elevator for a night. Which would have been sort of awesome.)
- 17 April
- By Carolyn LaWell
- TeamDunedin Blue Jays
- LocationDunedin, FL
- Tagged Dunedin, Blue Jays, downtown, baseball
Small town, big baseball
Strachan’s Homemade Ice Cream and Desserts is packed. It’s around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, but by the size of the line you would think it was a Friday night. People take turns peering into glass cases, first at the rich colors in cylindrical tubs and then at each one’s matching label. There’s watermelon, popcorn, chocolate peanut butter swirl. Coke and root beer in glass bottles. Chocolate-covered key lime pie on a stick. The red stools that line the front window are filled with grey-haired people watching pedestrians stroll down Main Street.
Strachan’s is the type of place you would expect to find in a city like Dunedin. It’s a small beach community of 35,000 just northeast of the Tampa Bay area. Local antique and clothing stores, and diners and bars, all with bright facades of pinks and blues, dot the blocks downtown. Banners hang over the street, announcing upcoming events like the Highland Games, which since 1966 have raised funds for Dunedin’s Scottish bands, the city pipe band, and high school and middle school Scottish bands. After all, Dunedin is the Gaelic name of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. The Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, a 34-mile bike and walking path that starts north in Tarpon Springs and ends south in downtown St. Petersburg, cuts right through Main Street. A set of abandoned railroad tracks was torn up and replaced with paved surface.
Of course, there’s also the beach. And baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays came to Dunedin for spring training in 1977, the team’s first season in the Majors. The Toronto Blue Jays and their High-A affiliate, the Dunedin Blue Jays, have been there ever since. Besides the caliber of the game being played on the field and the faces of Blue Jays’ players on light pole banners every few feet down Douglas Street, nothing about Dunedin screams professional baseball.
It’s a quiet, charming city that happens to have baseball.
- 16 April
- By Matt LaWell
- TeamTampa Yankees
- LocationTampa, FL
- Tagged paper history, rubber stamps, Ryno
A glimpse into history at MiLB offices
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida | On June 6, 1978, the Philadelphia Phillies selected a young middle infielder named Ryne Dee Sandberg in the 20th round of the annual amateur draft. Negotiations lasted for about nine days, when Sandberg signed a minor league contract and shipped off to Helena, Montana, the first of dozens of notes on his player record card. Over the course of his career, that player record card filled with notes in pencil, blue ink, red ink, green ink, a collection of red stamps that read “OVER.” The sight of the card is fascinating, almost like hieroglyphics. Its location is surprising.
The card — or cards, to be more accurate, as Sandberg played more than enough seasons to have a number of cards grouped with the kind of white stickers used to correct tears in notebook paper — is one of about 175 just like it tucked in the top drawer of the second file cabinet on the left in the fireproof room of the Minor League Baseball offices, which are situated off a quiet road in an office park near the Gulf Coast of Florida. Only a couple dozen people work there. How many people even know the cards exist?
Steve Densa, for one. Densa is the executive director of communications for MiLB, and he culled those cards — all the Hall of Famers he could find — and grouped them a while back for quick reference. A quick flip through the unalphabetized pile is enough to drop jaws. Carlton Fisk is in there. Gaylord Perry, too. Sandberg, of course. Hank Aaron. The whole room is full of player record cards, thousands and thousands across decades from the 1920s until not long ago, organized in 11 file cabinets. Before digitization, Minor League Baseball updated all of them by hand, $25 in their coffers for each transaction.
Player record cards, a part of history, are history themselves now.
We met Densa early Monday morning and talked with him for the better part of two hours. We walked around the offices, met just about everybody who works there, watched out for the snakes that slither between the three buildings. Densa is a Clevelander, like us, just transplanted, down here in Florida for almost 20 years. His stories about a life in baseball are endless and beautiful. He has devoted a chunk of his life to the game. He loves what he does.
And no matter what else Densa does during the rest of his years with Minor League Baseball, his legacy will always include those player record cards, safe in that fireproof room. Heaven forbid the rest of the buildings disappear in a cowl of smoke, we will always be able to know that Sandberg signed new contracts on June 15, 1978, and January 21, 1979, and January 20, 1980, that he reported to Spartanburg and Reading and Oklahoma City. We will never lose the history that we love, locked away in file cabinets, safe from the world outside.
- 14 April
- By Carolyn LaWell
- TeamClearwater Threshers
- LocationClearwater, FL
- Tagged click, clack, tappet brothers
Driving 26,000 miles is a little crazy. Driving 26,000 miles next to your spouse ... well, some might say is outright insane. Weirdly, we’ve never thought that, which might say more about us than the dozens of people who have asked us about our in-car routine.
Before we headed for Jacksonville, Florida, our first stop, we set some ground rules. Here are some of them:
Who drives? Carolyn has done about 70 percent of the driving so far — that’s best for the relationship. She has the patience to deal with stupid drivers, but she doesn’t have the patience to listen to Matt yell at them when he’s driving.
Who controls the radio? The person driving picks the tunes. However, if the passenger is writing, the driver needs to ask if music will break their concentration. (Cue Jules Winnfield.) If the driver is tired, anxious or bored, they can politely ask that music be played.
Who controls the temperature? The driver. They need to be more comfortable.
Do we speed? We can’t afford to speed. There’s no allocation in the budget for speeding tickets.
What type of directions are you using? We mainly use the GPS on our phones. We do have a road atlas and a backup GPS just in case — we haven’t had to use either yet.
Any pet peeves? We both have a habit of missing a turn and then not turning into the next parking lot or onto the next road to just turn around, thereby, prompting the passenger to huff and say, “What are you doing?”
How do you sleep in your car? Simple: We took out the back seats of the Honda Element and brought as little as possible with us — just clothes for a week, work supplies, some food. Everything that’s in the back of the car fits in the front seat, leaving us plenty of room to spread out in sleeping bags in the back.
- 13 April
- By Matt LaWell
- TeamCharlotte Stone Crabs
- LocationPort Charlotte, FL
- Tagged free beer, gluttony, hot dogs
Hot diggity dog, Part II
PORT CHARLOTTE, Florida | I love hot dogs. I loved them before Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut stuffed their guts with them, and I loved them before ESPN turned them into the afternoon centerpiece of one of our national holidays. I love the crunch of the meat and the way the bun soaks up so much juice. I love Stadium Mustard. I love the idea of hot dogs. Who actually knows what’s in one of them? Who wants to know?
In high school, I one or two every time I watched the Indians at Jacobs Field. In college, I ate least one every week, with chopped onions and chili and brown mustard, at an alley of a shop in Athens, Ohio called O’Betty’s. A while back, I staged my own hot dog eating contest for a Fourth of July newspaper feature story about the rapid rise of the frank; I ate 10 in 10 minutes. Last year, I walked down to our favorite neighborhood bar for another hot dog eating contest, only because first prize was a free beer every day for six months; I ate 12 in eight minutes. And won.
Now, I just eat hot dogs at baseball stadiums. Since we started all this 10 days ago in Jacksonville, I have somehow managed to eat seven of them — in Daytona Beach and Jupiter, in Fort Myers and Viera and Port Charlotte — which projects to something like 93 or 94 over the course of the season, which is just silly. I should probably curb the hot dog consumption a bit. Who actually knows what’s in one of them? Who wants to know?
We shared hot dogs Friday night with Corey Brandt, the new director of food and beverage and operations for the Charlotte Stone Crabs and the genius behind The Stoney Dog at Charlotte Sports Park — a 10-inch hot dog wrapped in four slices of bacon, covered in pulled pork and onion straws, and nestled in a bun delivered fresh every morning from Nino’s Italian Bakery in neighboring Punta Gorda — and they were delicious. The Stone Crabs sell them for $7 at the concessions stands, and the team could probably mark them up another dollar or two — just because the Stoney really is a Wow Item — but they want to keep it at a reasonable price point.
Brandt pretty much invented the Stoney overnight, a couple of months before opening day. Just threw it together in his mind, almost effortlessly, as if bacon and pulled pork and onion straws are natural partners for a hot dog. I ate mine in one go, without a fork, probably five or six minutes from one end to the other. I could have eaten another one, but stopped.
My competitive eating days are mostly behind me.