On our recent trip to the south, we focused on America’s two great original art forms: jazz and baseball. Our trip was planned around baseball, but it’s so far between St. Petersburg, Miami, and Atlanta that we (father and son) still had still plenty of time for Count Basie, Oliver Nelson, Lee Morgan, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis as we drove along.
First stop was St. Petersburg. We got there too late for tailgating and had to leave our burgers in our cooler and our grill in the trunk.
Oddly, the Tampa Bay Rays don’t actually play in Tampa; Tropicana Field is in St. Petersburg. From the outside it looks like a municipal convention center; inside, the place is an indoor shopping mall with a baseball field in the middle; behind the stands are more restrooms, food vendors, and souvenir shops than at any stadium we’ve ever visited. But the place was comfortable, well laid-out, and, of course, nicely air-conditioned. It didn’t seem nearly as bad as its reputation. If baseball has to be played indoors — and we’re not persuaded it ever should be, even in Florida — this really isn’t that bad. Anyway, it’s far superior to, say, Toronto’s Skydome.
The local team isn’t the “Devil Rays” anymore, just the “Rays,” but as a sideshow the management still keeps a large tank of rays on the second level of the stadium. We didn’t want to miss the first pitch, so we put off our visit to the tank till after the game — but the aquarium closed as soon as the game was over, so we missed them after all.
The Rays went to the World Series last year, so all its fans wear Carl Crawford, B. J. Upton, Carlos Pena, or (most popular) Evan Longoria jerseys. Unfortunately, Longoria (no relation to the actress) was held out of our game because of an injury. Gil Meche of the Kansas City Royals and Jamie Shields of the Rays both pitched deep into the game, and this exceptionally well-played contest was decided by a two-run home by Upton in the bottom of the eighth. Rays 3, Royals 2.
Friday morning in Sarasota, we visited the Ringling Museum, then headed south and across the Everglades for the first of three games in Fort Lauderdale, where the Florida Marlins play. We parked in the tailgating section, got out our folding chairs and charcoal grill, then had to jump inside the car to escape a sudden torrential downpour. The game started an hour late. Unable to grill, we had to buy ballpark hotdogs; the choices at the concession stands were pathetically limited.
The name of the stadium was a puzzler. This was where the football team played and the signs outside said “Dolphins Stadium.” But inside, they were calling it “Land Shark Stadium.” Finally, at the final game of the series, a guy next to us explained that 70s one-hit-wonder Jimmy Buffett had just paid several million dollars for the right to rename the stadium. Turns out that “Land Shark” is the name of a new beer that Buffett is sponsoring.
For our first game in Land Shark Stadium, we found ourselves sitting in the best seats in the house: front row, 50-year line. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a football game. Literally no baseball players were in our line of vision as we faced forward in our seats (along the right-field line), and we had to turn our heads a good 80 degrees to see the infield. We got better seats for the second and third games of the series.
This was unquestionably the worst baseball stadium we’d ever been in. Rain or no rain, we didn’t blame the local fans for staying home, which most of them did. Many of those who did come were wearing jerseys of Marlins stars who were traded away years ago — Gary Sheffield, Juan Pierre, Dontrelle Willis. On the positive side, we got a kick out of the Marlins’ team song, which the p.a. played before every game. It was a hip-hop thing delivered by a rapper with a Latin accent, with a catchy “Let’s go Feeeesh!” refrain.
We finally got to grill our hotdogs and burgers in the Marlins parking lot before the Saturday game, just before the rain started. This time the first pitch was an hour and a half late. We stayed sweating in our car till the Marlins radio broadcasters told us the tarp was coming off the infield. It started raining steadily again in the fifth and never stopped, but they kept playing. Curiously, in a climate where it rains hard every day without fail around gametime, Marlins management has a “no-umbrellas” policy for patrons. The rain drove us from our seats and we listened to the last two innings on the radio.
On Sunday morning the weather looked fine, so we headed for the Keys and got as far as Key Largo, where, amidst perfect weather, the son grilled more dogs and burgers on the beach while we dipped ourselves in the Atlantic. The signs on Route 1 said “Crocodile Crossing Next 6 Miles,” but we didn’t see any. We were puzzled: aren’t alligators, not crocodiles, indigenous to Florida?
We cut short our grilling so we’d get back to Dolphins Stadium — er, Landshark Stadium — by the 5:00 p.m. gametime and made it with 10 minutes to spare. At almost exactly 5:00 p.m., the heavens opened and the rain came down again. This time, the opening pitch was two hours late.
But Giants ace Tim Lincecum (the anchor of our fantasy baseball team) was pitching! That day we saw more Lincecum jerseys in the Florida crowd than anything else. Lincecum wasn’t his sharpest; he walked four in seven innings, and the manager left him in one batter too long, as he gave up a two-run homer in the top of the eighth, but he got the win. And we left Land Shark Stadium fans of Giants first baseman Pablo Sandoval. He’s a bear.
As we are Pirates fans, the climax of our trip was to be a pair of games (Monday and Tuesday) between the Pirates and the Braves in Atlanta, where we were joined by the daughter-in-law. Little did we know when we planned the trip that Pirates center fielder Nate McLouth would be traded to these very Braves for three prospects just five days before we got to town. Like all Pirates fans, we loathe the Braves, making the sight of McLouth in a Braves uniform an especially bitter pill.
McLouth himself apparently conquered his disappointment at being traded quickly enough; he hit a home run against Zach Duke in the opening game of the series on Monday, which went 15 innings before the Braves pushed a run across. In fact, the Braves won both games. We were consoled in part by the performance of Pirate rookie Andrew McCutchen in the Monday night game (he was called up to take McLouth’s place in center field), McCutchen impressed the Atlanta fans mightily with a single, a double, and two effortless triples, not to mention his outfield range and throwing arm.
And we were gratified at the generous numbers of other Pirates fans at Turner Field, mostly wearing Clemente and Stargell shirts. Several of them greeted us as we grilled chicken and asparagus in the stadium parking lot before Tuesday night’s game.
There are many reasons for men of good will to despise the Atlanta Braves. Surely one of the most compelling is the mindless chant that their fans sing while they do the infamous tomahawk chop. We noted dismally that the Braves still don’t know the melody of their own six-note chant. In the most familiar version, the third note in the chant (the fifth of the minor scale) is repeated, and the last interval of the chant is a fourth. But although the p.a. system at Turner Field played this version, it also played a subtly different version (we were told that it was a recording by the Florida State University Seminoles marching band) in which no notes are repeated and the last interval is a minor third. Our contempt was boundless.
After we left Atlanta, the Pirates took the final two games of the series. As of today, even without McLouth, the Pirates are only four games out of first place.
June 15, 2009