Road Trippin’

Every year since I retired in 2012, I have taken a road trip to Phoenix, AZ to watch spring training baseball, specifically to watch my San Diego Padres play meaningless exhibition games while sitting out in the desert sun.  I wrote about the experience of those games in a piece called The Hope That Only Comes in Spring. But, part of the fun every year is getting there–road trippin’.

Departure–8:30 AM

300 miles–no problem; I got this.  Car is loaded up with enough stuff for four people, 4 snacks, and two water bottles.  It takes me an extra 10 minutes to do all of the paranoid house checks I do–lock windows, check the doors, make sure the water is turned off.  Hit the road.

Buckman Springs Rest Stop–9:05 AM

First available rest stop.  Necessary because sometimes my bladder is the size of a teacup.  Hoping this gets me through to Yuma.  Ironically, I pack plenty of water and then force myself into a state of dehydration so I don’t have to stop to go pee.

Soundtrack

John Lennon (Imagine) and then Jackson Browne (Running on Empty) get me through to Yuma.  Imagine is OK because I haven’t heard it in a while, but Running on Empty is one of my standard traveling discs, just full of great road songs.  I let it run all the way to Yuma.

Yuma–11:00 AM

Making good time when I stop at the Arco on 16th St. and discover that gas is 78 cents cheaper here than in San Diego.  78 cents a gallon cheaper.  Of course, you have to live in Yuma to enjoy those prices. I find that I’ve gone through all my snacks already.  Do you know that there is virtually nothing edible at gas station mini-marts if you care at all about your health?  I mean, I have plenty of bad habits, but I can’t eat any of that crap.  The bathrooms are nice though.

On the road again–11:15/Soundtrack

I’m halfway there, but there is road construction everywhere slowing things down from Yuma to Gila Bend.  I pull out Michael Franti and Spearhead’s Yell Fire CD which seems much more relevant now than it did a few years ago.  I haven’t listened to him for a long time, and I just let it run all the way to Gila.

Gila Bend–1:00 PM

Time for lunch at my all time favorite greasy spoon, The Space Age Restaurant.  It is part of a motel there and has a mock-up of a space ship sitting on top of the restaurant.  It has been there for over 50 years, and I can remember stopping there when I was a kid and we were on a family vacation to Oklahoma City (relatives) and to see the Carlsbad Caverns.  I stop here every year for lunch on the way in and breakfast on the way home.  Gila Bend–population 1,917 souls.

On the road again–2:00 PM/Soundtrack

Neil Young.  Neil Young the rest of the way.  The more desolate the desert, the better his reedy voice sounds.  I play Only Love Can Break Your Heart over and over and over again.

Phoenix–3:00 PM

The upgrade to a Cabana suite that they tempted me with in an email I got yesterday (depending on availability) is not available.  Fuck!  I was imagining having my own sitting room with a fold-out couch and separate bedroom with a king bed AND promised access to the Sun Deck, and I don’t even know what the Sun Deck is, but I decided that for only $20 more a night, I wanted it.  Forget that I didn’t actually need any of those amenities.  They had dangled a sparkly thing in front of me, and I wanted it.

I get into my standard room, which now seems shabby to me, and discover that the cabinet that houses the fridge is minus one fridge.  I am told that the fridges are for customers “as available.”  I point out to the young lady that my reservation says that I get a fridge, and if I’m not getting the goddam Sun Deck, then I’d better be getting my own goddam fridge.  I don’t actually say any of that out loud.  She says she’ll work on it, and I get my fridge within 30 minutes.

Nap–3:30-5:30

One of the top ten best naps ever.  Just time enough to get showered and ready for the game.

Game–7:10-10:00  Peoria Sports Complex

It’s a balmy evening–shorts and t-shirt weather. I allow myself not just one, but two hot dogs during the course of the game.  Padres give up 2 in the first and then tie it in the eighth on a home run, win it in the 9th on another homer leading off the inning. I discover that despite the hotdogs, the victory has made me ravenous, so I stop at the Safeway on the way back to my hotel and buy a salad, some yogurt, and a fruit bowl which I eat when I get back.

Hotel–11:00 PM-2:00 AM

I’m out on the warm deserted patio writing because at the time I was involved in a 30 day writing challenge and I had to get my piece written for that day.  While on-line, I discover that there are other writers still up and active and we begin chatting through comments and FB Messenger. Since I never quite know how to go to bed on my first night of travel by myself, I linger on the patio long after I should. It’s a pleasant and unexpected way to spend the night.

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“He Swings, and Hits a Loooong Drive to DEEP Centerfield…”

 

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…where I loped after it as I watched it sail over my head, chased it down, and ran it in toward the infield until I felt I could make a respectable looking throw into the pitcher.

It’s a warm night in Kalama Park in the town of Kehei on the island of Maui and thanks to my brother-in-law’s invitation, I’m chasing fly balls around the outfield as the guys on his team take their weekly batting practice.  It is the first organized baseball activity I’ve done in maybe 25 years and the first time I’ve put on a glove since 2009. I know that because on a spring night in 2009 I, along with the other four San Diego County Teachers of the Year, got to throw out the first pitch at a San Diego Padres game.  From the mound, I threw a perfect, 47 MPH fastball for a strike, and the entire experience was much, much cooler than I could have ever imagined.

Tonight though, I have very modest goals.  I would like to avoid injuring myself, and I’d really like to catch at least one fly ball hit to me. And while this is the most casual of practices, in the most casual of settings, it only takes moments before my imagination kicks in, and I’m getting into a “ready position” and imagining that I’m the new centerfielder for my San Diego Padres.

As I adjust my cap to shield my eyes from the lights, and as balls start flying toward the outfield, I can hear the Padre radio announcer begin to narrate my every play.

Ground ball right up the middle.  Rookie centerfielder, Tom Waldron, is on it quickly and flips it in toward second base holding the runner to a single.

I discover the ground balls are pretty much a cinch except for the fact that my arm isn’t warmed up properly and my shoulder gets cranky on me almost from the first throw. That’s OK.  Have to play through the pain.

There’s a drive into right centerfield.  It looked like Waldron had a shot, but he didn’t get a good jump on it, and it’s past him.  This one will roll all the way to the fence.

In fact, any ball hit past one of us rolls all the way to the fence since it is a fairly small field, but I’m definitely having trouble tracking balls as they come off the bat, trying to judge just how hard they are hit.  This is tougher than it looks.

My brother-in-law steps in and waves me over into right field so he can practice hitting to the opposite field.  This puts a wicked slice on the ball and makes them even harder to judge.  Plus, he’s the teams best hitter and sprays the ball around everywhere.

Urban hits a rocket into right.  Waldron is giving chase, but the ball is curving away from him, and he will not get there.  Another double for Tom Urban.

I try standing on the line and letting the ball curve toward me, but nothing works.  I’m either too deep or too shallow or just too darn slow.  I’m getting a little winded chasing after his line drives and I’m starting to not like him very much.  However, I’m happy that I’m running fairly well and haven’t pulled or sprained anything yet.

I can tell practice is beginning to wind down and starting to despair that I will have spent an one and one-half hours chasing down balls without a single catch. And then suddenly there it is.   One of the players lofts a ball into short center, and I drift over and feel the ball settle into my glove as if I do this kind of thing all the time.

It’s a pop fly to center field.  This should do it.  Waldron trots over and….he’s got it.  Routine play, for out number three.

I’m actually delighted beyond words.  I have to pretend that it’s no big deal, because it isn’t, but it just felt so darn good–outdoors, on a beautiful night, playin’ ball.

The Hope That Only Comes In Spring

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On March 21 I’ll pack up the car and make the 5½ hour drive from my home in the San Diego area to Phoenix, AZ where I will spend the next three days jetting around this sprawling metropolis to watch entirely meaningless baseball games.

I will follow my San Diego Padres around to Peoria, Glendale, Scottsdale, Goodyear or wherever they might be playing on a given day and find a place in the shade to sit and watch. Like a baseball scout, I’m curious about the team they have put together, and the only way to evaluate is to be there and watch maybe twenty players and 5 or 6 pitchers rotate through the game as I play along with the coaches and trying to figure out which players will bust out as stars and which players will simply be busts.

I will probably even go three hours early to one of the games to do nothing other than stand with other fans and watch both the major and minor leaguers go through drills and batting practice. It is boring and repetitive stuff, but you get to be so close to the players, watch them trip up, listen them razz each other.

And then as the players rotate to different fields, they will stand near a fence or cordoned-off area and the gracious ones will sign autographs, chat with fans, and allow them to take pictures. Others will load their hands up with gear and trot quickly on to the next field ignoring the fans or promising to sign, “as soon as I get done.” They never do.

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I watched former Padre stars Huston Street and Jake Peavy go out of their way to sign every item thrust at them and lean in for every selfie requested. I watched former skipper Bruce Bochy sign a ball for my daughter and kid around with her about a question she asked him about an impending trade.

I caught the great Tony Gwynn a couple of times back when the Padres trained in Yuma, once as he took the long way around the fields trying to sneak in the clubhouse away from the throngs of fans who adored him. I spent two or three wonderful minutes chatting with Jerry Coleman, the voice of the Padres for so many years, asking him about his days with the Yankees before he got dragged away by someone more important. I stood in line to get an autograph from the forgettable pitcher Eric Show, passing on a chance to ink a promising young second baseman, Roberto Alomar. After all, he was just a minor leaguer—a minor leaguer who would eventually end up in the Hall of Fame.

Two years ago I contacted Corey Brock who covers the Padres for the MLB.com. He writes articles almost daily as the season begins and is a frequent contributor on sports talk radio and does TV interviews as a “Padre insider.” I emailed him about my interest in sports writing, we exchanged phone numbers, and eventually arranged a time where he came out of the Padre offices and sat with me for about ½ hour just talking baseball and the business of sports writing before he got called away to cover a press conference.

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There is an intimacy in spring training that you just don’t get anywhere else. The ballparks are small, and players will frequently sign autographs and hang out with fans before and after the games. While I don’t certainly don’t venerate any of these guys, I get a kick out of watching them up close before they get to the real season, playing real games in their cavernous stadiums. That being said, I will undoubtedly become a drooling, idiot fan if I stumble upon Trevor Hoffman this spring and happen to have a fresh baseball and Sharpie in my hand.

If you hate baseball, you probably did not read past the first line of this one. If you are not a San Diego fan, almost none of the names I mentioned will mean anything. It’s OK, I get it. But for three glorious days, I will be toasting in the warm Arizona sun, drinking beer, and rooting for Tyson Ross to find his rhythm, and for Andrew Cashner to get his head screwed on straight. I’ll be cheering if there is any sign that Matt Kemp might find his swing before July this year, and that Wil Myers will get through the season without having his wrist fall apart.

Any baseball fan knows that spring training is the season of hope—the hope that this is the year when the gods of baseball will choose to smile on their team.

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Competitive Backpacking

Mount Mendel, Mount Darwin and the Hermit, Evolution Valley, Kings Canyon National Park, Sierra Nevada, California

In the late 80’s and early 90’s every summer meant one week away from the family for the annual “guy’s backpacking trip.” Three or four of us, depending on availability, would gather together and plan a trip, usually in the Eastern Sierra. You would think that backpacking would be the ultimate in collaborative camaraderie, but for some reason, in our group, there was a strong streak of competitiveness.

Part of getting a “win” meant spending the year scouring backpacking and sports stores for some gadget that would make one’s life better for the week on the trail and inspire jealousy among all of one’s partners. My friend Scott was consistently the most creative and that’s why we generally hated him. His one epic fail was a “solar shower,”  a small, black, plastic bag that one was supposed to fill with ice cold stream water, lay out in the sun for an hour or two and then experience the joy of a steaming, hot shower in the wild. In truth, the water never reached anything warmer than tepid and drizzled out in a stream that wouldn’t be strong enough to shower a moderately-sized rat.

But in subsequent seasons, Scott was first to discover the Thinsulite air mattress, a “self-inflating” waterproof sleeping pad far superior to the 2-inch foam pads that we had lugged around for years. He followed that with a sling chair that weighed about 1.5 pounds and allowed him to sit in comfort while we perched on rocks. By the next summer we all had Thinsulite mattresses and sling chairs and that’s when Scott came up with his most perversely successful innovation. He spent an entire $1.95 on an insulated plastic mug.

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Until that moment the Sierra Cup was considered state-of-the-art. Generations of backpackers used this dysfunctional piece of crap convincing themselves that it was as essential to the backpacking experience as a Swiss Army knife. The angular, wire handle was meant to hang on your belt so that at any thirsty moment one could dip the cup into a stream and be instantly refreshed. In truth, there was no place to hang the cup without it banging about and there are no streams in the Eastern Sierra that are considered free from contamination. No one drinks unfiltered water. In addition, if you were to use it for soup or food you had two choices. Wolf down the meal while it was still hot, scorching your mouth and esophagus or wait 60 seconds and eat your food cold.

It wasn’t enough that we recognized his genius immediately. At every meal, Scott had to make a production of blowing repeatedly on his soup or hot chocolate or coffee and explaining to us that it was just too hot for him to eat. For six days, he went through the same thing repeatedly no matter how loudly we cursed him.

Finally on the last night, we were in a cold and windy pass with little protection, and he started blowing on his cup again.   Before he could even start in on us I interrupted.

“Scott,” I said, “if you say one more word about that cup, I’m going to kill you and bury you up here under a pile of rocks and when people ask me what ever happened to my friend Scott, you know what I’m going to say?”

“What?”

“Scott who?”

Six days of freeze-dried food and taunting can bring out the worst in a man, but he just smiled, biding his time until he would be able to outfox us again the following summer.

 

“Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose”

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If those words don’t give you a chill or a jolt of adrenaline then somehow you missed out on the five seasons of the “teen drama”, Friday Night Lights, a television show that recreated the experience of living in the small, Texas town of Dillon, a town that lives and dies with the fortunes of its football team, the Dillon Panthers.

If you never watched the show, this piece may not make much sense, and I suggest you call in sick, stock up on supplies, and get ready to binge watch all five seasons immediately.

I was first offended a little when I noticed that Netflix had relegated FNL to the category of “teen drama.” I don’t watch teen dramas, I thought. Why do I like this show so much? Then it occurred to me that I had spent my entire life watching teen dramas as I stood in front of a high school classroom for 36 years. Secretly, as I watched them all unfold, I had a longing to go back and enjoy that teenaged life again.

So this weekend as I finished watching the entire series for the second time, I started to imagine who I’d want to be if I could somehow insert my teenaged self into this fictional narrative. It would be great to be Matt or Luke or Vince, all of whom reach stardom at some point. But no, these are all good boys. I’ve already done the good-boy thing. I would have only one choice, hands down—Tim Riggins.

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Me.

I like Tim because he keeps it simple. He wants to suit up every week, play hard, hit people, drink beer, and allow a seemingly endless string of pretty girls to pursue him. He’s a laconic, hunky, bad boy with a heart of gold. For all his lack of social graces, Tim is quietly one of the most compassionate characters on the show—you almost don’t notice this about him at first because he always seems to be apologizing for having done something wrong. But in the end, Tim just wants his girl, a patch of land, a beer, and a Texas sunset. Nothing wrong with that (except actually being in Texas).

My teenaged self would have to find a girl and FNL manages to parade an array of beautiful young women through the show without it ever looking like a van full of young Victoria Secret models has descended on tiny Dillon. So there are lots of choices here; it’s no simple Ginger/Maryanne dichotomy. Julie? Too sulky and whiney. Lyla? Too bipolar. Becky or Jess? Maybe when they grow up a little. No, my teenaged self would have been entirely and hopelessly in love with Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki).

 

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My girl.

Tyra grows from a fluffy beauty to a strong, thoughtful young woman as the show progresses. Don’t get me wrong, she also gets even more beautiful, but she veers away from spending her life working at Applebees to being a college girl with a strong sense of her future. I especially love her (and the writers) for including a sweet, but short-lived romance with likeable nerd Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons), my actual alter-ego.

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Everyone’s favorite coach.

As a teenager in Dillon, I know I would need emotional support. I’d need strong guidance and a kind but firm presence in my life. For that I’d have to look to Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). Coach Taylor is the master of the pep talk, both to his teams and to individuals. He is the tough but caring mentor for whom a kid would do anything to please. He’s the kind of man my imaginary teenaged self would like to grow up to be.