Today’s itinerary? Get back to the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport to return the rental car and catch our early evening return flight to HIA. A friend of Mitch suggested we tackle this coast-to-coast ride on a mostly two-lane highway. State Route 70 will take just about four hours driving time, yet shave off several miles from using the I-4 portion of the Florida Turnpike; plus, we’ll get to see a lot more of rural Florida than a four-lane interstate can provide to us.
Since any number of issues could delay us, we hit the road early. Route 710 angles north to get around Lake Okeechobee, then flows nearly due west before hitting I-75. Our final ride over Skybridge takes us back to Clearwater and to the airport.
With coffee in hand we settle in for the long trek. We find different local radio stations while taking in the scenery. Route 70 flows through small towns like Arcadia and Myakka City. We stop for a bite (and more coffee) in tiny Joshua.
This route is mostly two-lane road through vast farms. We’re both amazed at the many tractor trailers passing even on these stretches. One attempts to pass us, notices an eastbound vehicle, and slides back in behind us … until the next stretch.
As we near I-75 we discuss eating again prior to reaching the airport. We decide one last time to stop at Simply Delicious. While most of the strip plaza remains empty, there’s a line of people waiting at the door of this hidden gem. The locals rave in anticipation of their orders. The line behind us continues to grow.
Fortunately, we have plenty of time to wait for our two made-to-order large Cubans. Unfortunately, we could have shared with a family of four and still been satisfied.
This photo doesn’t do the freshness, incredible flavors, or the size any justice. The final Cuban of the week is hands down the very best. Thank you, Mama, for an amazing sandwich for our final bites in Florida!
We shared our final bottles of spring water with the folks working in the heat of the rental car return parking lot. That process went smoothly. We still had plenty of time, which was good, because the lines for checking our bags and security inched along slowly. Well, it was either wait in line or at the gate, so this wasn’t stressful — especially compared to our close call before our flight south.
The flight was uneventful. Since we sat at the very back of the plane, our checked bags were already at baggage claim when we got downstairs at HIA. Again, it’s wait one place or another.
Since we parked in the same section, we walk to the garage together. As we had throughout the week, Mitch and I share suggestions for our next UBT adventure. He only has two California MLB parks in which to attend a game; I have eight remaining. Our only mutual debut game destination is PETCO Park. I’m certain we’ll work something out.
Mitch reaches into the back seat of his car and hands to me a signed reprint of Robin Roberts looking for the catcher’s sign. According to the outfield scoreboard, Roberts is pitching with two outs in the bottom of the 10th. The Phillies picked up three runs in the top half to give their starter a 4-1 cushion.
This treasure finds its way onto my home office wall near a framed Roberts Hall of Fame plaque, a Rich Ashburn photo, and a pen-and-ink reprint of five HOF Phillies. Thank you, Mitch — not only for your extremely generous nature, but also for allowing me to tag along on incredible memorable baseball journeys. ‘Til next UBT!
Mitch and I need to get an early start. Our 160 mile drive to Miami is ahead of us. Today’s journey features the Mets–Marlins tilt at what is currently labeled as loanDepot Park. Afterward, we’re to meet with two of Mitch’s nephews for dinner in Lake Worth near Palm Beach.
Following a quick stop for coffee, we start south on I-75, which bends due east at Naples to begin a drive clear across the state from gulf to ocean. The highlight is the endless 729,000 acres of Big Cypress National Preserve. The vast landscape reminds me of UBT 2013 when Mitch and I drove through North and South Dakota in the middle of the night to catch an afternoon game in Omaha.
We continue to watch the summer sun rise above as mile after mile of undisturbed lands and fresh water stretch as far as we can see. Exits are rare. The occasional pull-over facility features fan boat launches and hiking trails. This area is also labeled Alligator Alley.
Eventually we see signs for Route 27 and Fort Lauderdale, where the interstate bends back south to Miami. Traffic really picks up as the terrain quickly becomes more urban.
Again we search for a local, authentic lunch spot before heading for the ballpark. We settle on El Valle BBQ. The traditionally Cuban/Brazilian exterior becomes more disco-esque inside. Very clean and bright with a long bar, a stage and stage lighting across a seating area that doubles as a dance floor at night.
A woman greets us warmly as the crew seems to be just getting started this morning following an active Saturday evening. Cuban music is playing. A worker sings along while washing windows toward the outdoor sidewalk seating and 103rd Street. Others set tables as we’re seated.
Mitch and I enjoy a leisurely, satisfying lunch as we listen to the crew speak exclusively in Spanish among themselves. A few other diners filter in, some for take-out.
After saying our goodbyes to the friendly El Valle staff, it’s time to turn our attention toward loanDepot Park. This will be the first game here for both of us.
The drive isn’t bad until the stadium comes into view. That’s when traffic halts due to road closures for construction. With a few blocks to go, our goal is to avoid the parking garages. Exiting a parking garage after a major league game can take forever. We continue to inch along toward the ballpark. All of a sudden, we’re motioned to turn right, which forces us half a block and … you guessed it, into a parking garage. The worst part was having no available spaces until we reach the top, outdoor level. So we’re left with no protection from the summer sun and a likely delayed exit. We pull into a space next to the Phillies and Pirates signs.
Due to the traffic and parking garage delays, we scurry to the ground floor to enter the ballpark. Just like the Trop, the indoor climate is very comfortable.
Today’s starters? Taijuan Walker and Pablo López, a good matchup … on paper. Their ERAs coming in to today’s action combine to around 6.00. Mitch and I enter at the third base side. By the time we settle on a view from behind the plate, the Mets jump to a 3-0 lead. Pete Alonso‘s RBI double is key.
In the 3rd inning, Tyler Naquin triples into the right field corner to score another run and chase López after only 2.2 IP. Soon it’s 6-0 and the Mets, winners of five straight, continue to press the accelerator and cruise to a 9-3 win to sweep the road series. New York pounds 19 hits while each team strands 10 base runners. Walker picks up his 9th win, lasting just 5.2 IP and surrendering a Charles Leblanc solo shot, which gives the home fans something to cheer.
With the game out of hand, Mitch and I discover an incredible display of bobbleheads behind left field. Imagine bobbles from every team, every era, unique giveaways, and treasured keepsakes. The display case itself is a marvel.
This photo doesn’t do justice to this massive display, featuring several rows of bobbles on every side. (Of course I had to take a pic that included the Phillie Phanatic!)
After hiking all around the park, we settle back behind some Mets fans near home plate. (I was always a Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger fan, too.)
There seem to be a lot of Mets fans. Many are surely NY transplants to the Sunshine State. A few friendly folks, including a security officer, ask us about our trip after noticing our UBT shirts. Just like yesterday afternoon, I’m more impressed with the park than I’d expected.
On the way back to the top of the parking garage, we discuss the most confusing payment system ever invented. The sign by our rental car somewhat explains the process, so we need to go back to the ground floor to access a kiosk. I still don’t recall all of the steps; however, by the time we’re back in the car, most of the garage traffic has dispersed. We believe the lopsided final score also contributed to our fairly smooth exit.
Now we’re on our way to Dave’s Last Resort for dinner with Mitch’s nephews. We seem to arrive in Lake Worth in no time compared to our earlier drive today. Dave’s is only seven blocks from the ocean and looks exactly like a “last resort.” In fact all of narrow Lake Avenue is a tourist’s destination. Dave’s is inviting with an open air entrance and is very crowded.
I thoroughly enjoy meeting George and Shannon, a pair of men half my age who share their background and concrete plans for their successful future. While they impress me while they catch up with their uncle, so do Dave’s Gator Bite Tacos.
George and I place the same order, including Funky Buddha Hop Gun IPAs to wash down our tender gator bites. After dinner Shannon, who has to work early on Monday, says his goodbyes. On the other hand, George has worked nearly a month straight and wants to continue his evening. He suggests we move to the Irish bar next door to Dave’s. Mitch and I agree as the night is young.
The Rock Irish Pub is experiencing a quieter Sunday evening than Dave’s. We grab a table and some drafts so we can continue our conversation. I stick with the interesting Hop Gun from the Oakland Park, FL, Funky Buddha Brewery. The bartender and even the cook make occasional appearances to our table to chat about anything and everything. After we close our tab, George rides along with us to show us around before we stop for ice cream. Soon, we part. George continues his evening while Mitch and I check into our final hotel of UBT 2022.
This Saturday features another multi-game itinerary. The hometown Rays host Cleveland this afternoon, which fits perfectly with a night game in Fort Myers where the Yankees and Twins farmhands tangle. Following that game we’ll remain south and drive to Miami for tomorrow’s Mets-Marlins matchup.
Today is our opportunity (or so we believe) to try the local “Simply Delicious” Country Market and Deli. The Internet tells us they open at 11:30. Silly Internet. When we arrive at the tiny, completely empty strip mall, there’s a handwritten sign posted in the tattered screen door that reads: “Open at 12 noon today.” That would cut into our stadium exploration time prior to the 1:40 first pitch so we decide to head toward Tropicana Field, park and find something nearby for pre-game. So much for whatever would be “Simply Delicious,” at least for today.
Eventually we stumble across a local gem downtown called The Burg Bar and Grill, about three blocks from The Trop.
We immediately know that we’ve come to the right place for pre-game. The Burg has a handful of high tables and a decent sized bar inside. Only one table is open. The remainder of the seating features folks of all ages in their Rays and Cleveland caps and jerseys.
Having the advantage of sitting at the corner table at the back, we observe baseball fans coming and going. Two hard-working servers help everyone as even the umbrella-covered tables on the sidewalk fill with fans. Mitch and I enjoy the baseball vibe along with our delicious lunch.
My Cuban with potato chips really hits the spot. It’s tender, juicy and flavorful. Mitch enjoys a burger with chips and cole slaw. A couple of drafts top off a satisfying lunch that stays with us until we arrive at tonight’s game in Fort Myers!
Maybe I’m just comparing to the low level baseball crowds of the past few days, but there appears to be a lot of folks heading toward The Trop. Largo police officers assist with traffic flow and pedestrians crossing wide avenues.
Mitch shares that he had attended the inaugural Devil Rays MLB game here, opening day on March 31st, 1998. He’d also been here for Tampa Bay Lightning hockey.
On the way inside employees hand out sleeveless basketball jerseys featuring the name and number of Rays center fielder Brett Phillips. Between innings Brett would interact with fans in the outfield. They really appreciate when he tosses warm-up ball into their seating area.
As is the norm for Mitch and me at major league parks, we never go to our seats. We always walk all around to soak in the perspective from each area. We usually stand or lean for an inning or two before moving to the next view.
The park is much more crowded than I was used to seeing on TV. There’s an electricity that we attribute to a winning ball club and today’s giveaway. As domed ballparks go, The Trop itself isn’t nearly as bad as the cameras display.
The concourse is narrow with fans darting in different directions while others attempt to stand in line for concessions. They did add a new outer concourse with newer food options. Those areas are less crowded and much easier to negotiate.
I’m impressed with players tracking pop flies against the off-white ceiling. Amed Rosario (who I saw when he hit .341 with AA Binghamton in 2016) and José Ramirez would put their heads down, run to a spot, turn to find the ball, and end up exactly where the ball was descending.
We witness three long home runs as the Rays jump out to an early lead and hold on for a 6-4 hometown victory over Cleveland. José Ramirez represents the go-ahead run with two outs in the 9th, but Pete Fairbanks records the final out for his second save. (This marks the first home team win on UBT 2022!)
Official attendance is a solid 22,576. And they all surround us on our way out! In addition, once we reach the exit, more people are lined up to come inside. We never stop to find out why. We have a night game to catch in Fort Myers.
From our neighborhood (one-third the price) parking, we have clear sailing to the interstate, travel back over the Skybridge, and continue south. I-75 takes us past Bradenton, Sarasota, and about 130 miles total, to the home of the Mighty Mussels.
We arrive at the Twins complex in plenty of time for tonight’s game against the Yankees affiliate, the Tampa Tarpons. Each lane of the grassy parking lot is named for a Twins legend: Pohlad Lane, Killebrew Lane, Mauer Lane, etc. Of course, we select Harmon Killebrew and take a brief walk to the stairs in front of Hammond Stadium. Until we reach the concourse behind home plate, we’re unaware that this will be Game 2 of a twin-bill due to Friday’s rainout. The Tarpons took the opener, 5-2.
As we peer onto the field, the grounds crew has a rolled up tarp near the right field line as a quick sprinkle begins from above. Soon, however, preparation for the nightcap commences.
I walk around the concourse, which doesn’t provide a view of the field. Several tables are set up with cans of beer, seltzers and hard ciders. A wristband gets you samples at each of the dozen or so tables. I only notice a couple of ales that I would try, so I opt for a High Five IPA pint draught from Fort Myers Brewing Company. Mitch orders an amber ale called Red Tape.
Because the workers notice our UBT shirts, we chat at the concession stand for a few minutes. With a bite in hand (our first nourishment since The Burg) and a cold brew, we settle into the front row at the Tarpons on-deck circle. Mitch acquired our “true Bob Uecker” seats online and surprised me as we neared the backstop netting. Now we can reach out and touch it.
The Tarpons firstbaseman is a tall, lank lefty who smokes the ball way out to right in his first plate appearance. Impressive. Between innings, I text a high-schooler who I currently coach who shares the same name and also plays 1B.
I notice the Tarpons starting pitcher removing his cap between his warm-ups and the start of his inning to pray. Richard Fitts is a 6th round selection out of Auburn. This is his first professional season. In another week he will be promoted to High-A Hudson Valley to complete a successful rookie season.
The Tarpons and Mussels trade runs in the 2nd. The Mussels score candlesticks in their next three at bats to split the doubleheader, 4-2, in seven innings. It’s a crisply played game with no extended rallies. The between inning entertainment is typical for MiLB as is the PA announcer.
Since it’s a quick game, Mitch searches for Fort Myers Brewing online for “one more” before checking in to our nearby hotel. Bingo! It’s only fifteen minutes from here and open late so away we go. We’re at the edge of town following the designated six mile drive and are instructed to turn left into a business park.
Having missed the turn, we continue into pitch darkness to attempt to turn around. This would be the first time either of us have ever encountered “Panther Crossing” signs. Once we can turn around and enter the dimly lit business park, none of the several side-by-side businesses appear to be open. Mitch suggests that we drive around the back and ta-da!
Fort Myers Brewing Company is hopping with activity and looks exactly as it appears on the website, except darker. Lights are strung across the driveway, picnic tables are filled with pleasant customers, music is playing, and food trucks are still open. The open air, modern bar is full of taps.
Once I learn that High Five is their signature IPA, I order one fresh from the brewery. Mitch sticks with Red Tape even though they have a sour called “Sour Mitch.” We park ourselves at the only unoccupied picnic table. Happy folks keep coming and going, some on golf carts from a nearby development. We don’t stay long, but we really enjoy our experience.