Since I contributed to their collection of “Baseball’s Greatest Comeback Games” book, SABR has been uploading the stories individually. If you wish to warm up your off-season with a unique baseball story, feel free to take a few minutes with this wild interleague game. Enjoy!
UBT 2022 – Day Six (The Finale)
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!
UBT 2022 – Day Five
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.
UBT 2022 – Day Four
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.
UBT 2022 – Day Three
The Carpenter Complex looks vastly different than it did 34 years ago. Mindy and I attended games at Jack Russell Stadium (and other spring training parks) during our honeymoon.
Today’s games are played on Robin Roberts Field, which is just beyond Steve Carlton Field and parallels Richie Ashburn Field. For these rookie league games in the Florida Complex League, you park for free and walk right inside. (For perspective this had been called the Gulf Coast League since 1964.)
Mike Schmidt field features a pitcher throwing a simulated game with a live hitter wearing shorts standing in the right-handed batter’s box with a helmet and bat.
We sit on the single set of abbreviated aluminum bleachers next to the Blue Jays’ on deck circle. This setup reminds me of watching an American Legion game except with professional players and equipment on an extremely well-manicured field.
The Jays’ mini dugout is about fifty feet to our left. Players and coaches stroll past us. A couple of players sit on chairs between us and the tarp-covered, field-level dugout.
The scoreboard displays the basics (R/H/E totals, the score by inning and B/S/O). There’s no PA announcer or music played. Baseball is truly the focus. We can hear coaches calling to the players and players communicating with teammates. After one inning the Blue Jays’ coaches shout for the team to hustle off the field.
There may be five other spectators at this game. A couple of women behind us cheer when the Jays do something well. Between innings, one gentleman with an umbrella to shade the sun informs us that he attends most of these games. He also shares that he’s the PA announcer for the Threshers. We tell him that we attended last night’s game. He goes on almost apologetically about how poorly they played in the 8-0 defeat. I look back between innings and he’s busy typing player notes on a device.
If I lived here, I would attend every one of these games. This would be my current sweet spot for enjoying professional baseball. These are the new signees, the rawest of professional baseball players. Many are from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. At least one player is just 17-years-old. One of the Phillies’ players is from New Zealand. Mitch looks up each of the players and learns that this New Zealander could have been drafted as a pitcher as well. That’s quite a rarity, especially from a non-baseball region of the world.
Another lefty-hitting Phillie, Jordan Viars, hails from Plano, Texas. His arm sleeve features a cross. The Phillies selected him in the third round of the 2021 draft. With two strikes, he picks on a high pitch and laces a double in the gap. I know next to nothing about this young player, but I’m happy for him. Just like the players I coach, I want them all to perform well.
The Jays win 4-2, but the Phillies leave the go-ahead run at the plate when the game ends. It’s exciting, well-played baseball without distractions.
After sitting in the 90-degree sun on aluminum bleachers, we retreat to a local Latino restaurante called Huarache Azteca. This may have been the best carne del cerdo (pork) burrito I’ve ever had. Mitch commented that you know you’re in the right place when you’re the only native English speakers.
Soon it’s time to roll south to Bradenton. We cross the iconic Skybridge and arrive at LECOM Park an hour early. Fortunately, we notice Magnanimous Brewing directly across the street from the neighborhood ballpark. This small satellite brewing location boasts a fairly modern building featuring a good-sized U-shaped bar, a handful of tables and lots of taps.
Mitch and I grab stools at the bar along with three couples and scan the beer menu. I decide on the Juice Lord IPA, their signature IPA, although a few IPAs catch my eye (and thirst). The couple nearest us talk Mitch into the bourbon barrel aged imperial stout called Space Turtle. It’s a ten-ounce pour due to the alcohol content. I follow up with a Hazy Road double IPA pint before we re-cross the street to the ballpark.
Mitch had played on this field during his Pirates Fantasy Camp days. He shares fun memories of being here many times, including when Michael Jordan debuted as a baseball player on March 4, 1994.
While we walk around soaking in the ballpark, the Lakeland Flying Tigers go ahead early, 2-0. Our seats are front row behind the plate, but we sit in the fourth row for a better angle of the pitcher-catcher-batter-umpire dynamic. We both notice a very light crowd for a Friday night. In fact the announced attendance is only 825.
Scoreboard video catches my attention between certain innings. They’re playing interview segments featuring Morris Paskell, a former 9 Devils player. The tribute is very well produced to show 60-90 seconds at a time. What a refreshing, educational break from the usual between-inning circus!
Before the Flying Tigers hold on for an eventual 7-4 win, Mitch strikes up a conversation with a bearded gentleman sitting alone in front of us. He lives in Jacksonville, his two teenage sons play ball, and his wife is from York, PA, so we have a lot to discuss over the final two innings.
After the game we linger to chat with a couple of employees who comment on our UBT shirts. They thank us for making LECOM Park part of our 2022 itinerary.
UBT 2022 – Day Two
Thursday, July 28
Today’s schedule includes an early ride into Ybor City and the Al López homestead, which houses the Tampa Baseball Museum. As we seek a place to park the car in front of us slows and then stops to allow a few free-range urban roosters to cross the street. Of course they aren’t using the crosswalk, but we ignore their pedestrian faux pas. Street thugs!
My mind immediately goes to “Why did the roosters cross 19th Street?”
Apparently they’re everywhere, at least enough of them to have a sign posted at the parking lot entrance.
After a few more poultry one-liners, we arrive at the museum.
A Cuban-American, Al López became the first Tampa native to reach the majors, enjoyed a Hall of Fame managerial career (culminating in his induction in 1977), and won a pair of pennants while ruling the bench. The well-respected manager of both the Indians and White Sox led the Indians to 111 victories in 1954 and the Go Go Sox to 94 wins in 1959.
The woman who greets us at the museum is a wealth of knowledge of both Al’s family and the baseball history of the area. (She’s also the CEO of the local historical society and is the first woman to speak in this video.) Surprisingly, the museum has only been open since September, 2021, as you’ll learn from the video link above.
I don’t want to spoil this unique baseball treasure in case you’d like to spend some time here. It celebrates all of the teams and players from this area (going back to the 1800s) with a large focus on Al López, because he was the first Tampa native to join the big leagues. It’s definitely worth the time for baseball nerds (like Mitch and me) who especially enjoy the history of the game.
The woman is helpful with a lot of information, including recommending Columbia for lunch a few blocks away. Opened in 1905 this is Florida’s oldest restaurant. Since there’s a wait for a table, we decide to take the other Yelp-er’s advice and lunch at Duffy’s Sports Grill.
Duffy’s is a chain peppered along both Florida coasts that appears to be a typical sports bar, except it’s all times ten. The place features dozens of TVs and full-size college football helmets from every team surrounding every booth. We’re seated, and guess what’s directly behind Mitch?
Mitch informs the young man that seats us, “With hundreds of helmets in here, you seated us at my alma mater.” Without missing a beat, he quickly responds that he did it on purpose.
Mitch enjoys a Mahi Mahi sandwich while I order the Shrimp Po Boy special and a couple of Jai Alai IPA pints by Cigar City Brewing.
On our way back to the hotel we stop at Mitch’s nephew’s wife’s business, St. PetersBARK. (I love the punny name!) Neither relative is on site, but we browse through the doggie treats and toys. All of the employees are busy with customers, so I take a photo of Mitch with the store sign so he could send it to them as a surprise.
BayCare Ballpark is less than 30 minutes away so we leisurely trek to Clearwater, arriving well before first pitch. Little do we know that tonight is Craft Beer Night, the only such night scheduled during the entire month of July. (More UBT magical timing! I can just hear Harry Carey asking, “How about that?”) We taste a few and chat with some brewers before settling on something we each really like. All 24 oz. pours are only $3.75! I can’t remember the last time I paid that price for a ballpark pint, much less 24 oz.!
Our UBT shirts attract a husband and wife who became season ticket holders this year. They live three miles away so it’s a convenient night out of entertainment for their family with reasonably priced food and drink. They also walk occasional laps around the ballpark for exercise.
Mitch and I take a pre-game stroll around the concourse and on the walkway beyond the outfield. There’s even some grass seating available between the outfield fence and the walkway. Picnic tables dot the outside of the walkway beyond left and right fields.
It’s a modern minor league ballpark a long homer’s launch away from the Carpenter Field Complex, tomorrow morning’s destination for Florida Complex League rookie baseball.
Before the first pitch, we concentrate on ordering ballpark fare to complement our discounted craft beverages.
The Threshers, Single-A Phillies Florida State League affiliate, lose 8-0 to the Dunedin Blue Jays. As we discover, this game is part of a day/night split twin bill due to a Tuesday rain out so the teams only play seven innings.
In the parking lot we’re greeted once again by the enthusiastic season ticket holder couple. They ask how we enjoyed our BayCare Ballpark experience. We thank them for their welcome earlier in the evening before parting. More baseball (in two different cities) tomorrow!
UBT 2022 – Day One
Learn more about the background for our UBT tradition, which began in 2005 after Mitch Mansfield and I struck up a friendship while playing baseball with former big leaguers in 2004.
Wednesday, July 27
Mitch leaves his cottage along the Allegheny River at 8 AM, which is plenty of time for our 3:44 flight from HIA to St. Petersburg. Suddenly, plenty of time becomes almost won’t happen! Mitch is idled for more than an hour behind a serious traffic accident in the Lewistown Narrows. With Mitch still an hour out and sitting still, I decide to leave for HIA to check in and be ready. Mitch is finally up to speed while I’m arriving at the airport.
Over the years we’ve experienced minor setbacks from a classic NYC traffic jam to storms threatening game play. These inconveniences pale when compared to the UBT magic that always seems to find us. From rubbing up game baseballs with the umpires before a game in South Bend, IN, to being honored as VIPs in Madison, WI, UBT magic always surprises us. Both of us express that if UBT 2022 isn’t supposed to happen, then we would accept it. The odds could finally be turning the other way.
I check my bag and go through security. Every time I fly, my first priority when I get to my gate is to see whether a plane is on the other side of the glass. Today, the plane we’re supposed to take hasn’t yet arrived. Suddenly our boarding time shifts from 2:40 PM to 3:10 PM! Mitch texts that he’s two miles from the airport. UBT 2022 is off to a shaky start, but quickly hits its stride.
I wait for Mitch to come through security. Both of us immediately reflect back to UBT 2013, when I flew to O’Hare to meet Mitch and begin a 2,500 mile, eight day, nine game trip across the upper Midwest. Soon after we left the airport in Chicago, Mitch’s truck suffered a flat tire. We laughed it off, and soon were celebrating the 25th anniversary of Wisconsin’s New Glarus Brewing Company on the way to our first game in Madison.
Mitch asks me, “Do you know the girl at the Allegiant desk downstairs? When I checked my bag, she said, ‘Brian’s already upstairs waiting for you.’”
After we board, two passengers, one in front of me and one beside Mitch, pepper us with suggestions for pizza and craft beer during our trip. They almost battle to one-up each other – dueling Yelp-ers! Along with Mitch and I catching up on family and what we’ve been up to, this made our flight go quickly.
After retrieving our bags, we head for the rental car counter. Two customers are in front of us. The man heads for the lot. The woman in front of us has rolling luggage. The assistant finishes her paperwork and instructs her to “go out these doors, go right for 110 yards, and an attendant will greet you in the lot.” You’ll see why this is important in a moment.
When we reach the counter, the female assistant tries to persuade us to “Take the Camaro!” several times. We curiously ask if she receives a commission if we upgrade to the Camaro, but she shakes her head, “No” and smiles. Suddenly, the woman who received the explicit instructions returns in a huff, says she can’t walk that far with all this, and immediately cancels her car rental. My mind drifts to Steve Martin’s car rental scene in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” except instead of snow, this scene featured sweltering temperatures and humidity.
After securing our SUV (following the instructions to a tee) we take the advice of one of the Yelp-ers and head directly to The Nona Slice House in Safety Harbor. He had recommended Detroit Style, which I love.
Mitch and I order Death by Pepperoni and add mushrooms. We are not disappointed. We enjoy the guitarist while Mitch downs a couple of Big Storm TENFLARE Red Lagers and I nurse Marker 48’s Hazy River IPAs. We toast the gentleman who steered us to Nona.
Besides our lengthy conversations, there’s no baseball scheduled for this evening. We find our hotel and pretty much collapse following a long day of lots of moving parts. We have much to look forward to over the next few days.
The Power of Baseball
When we consider “power” in baseball, it usually involves a Ruthian swing and that special sound off the bat. Or it could mean a sizzling fastball nearing triple digits that pounds the catcher’s mitt. The power I’m thinking of is much more understated, more subtle, and plays out over time.
I wanted to treat my father-in-law to baseball, which he loved all his life. What I didn’t count on when we got to our seats for the first time were the folks surrounding us just beyond first base at the Harrisburg Senators ballpark on City Island. We all became fast friends. After a season or two, we became more like a family — a family brought together through the power of baseball.
What became “our section” was lost to the park upgrades a decade ago or more. However, our group of fans became so close that we all decided we wanted to move to the same new section so we could continue to sit together.
One of those fans was Barb Thomas. Although “fanatic” isn’t strong enough a word to describe Barb’s love for the Senators.
I mean, who else remains in her seat through blistering cold winds, torrential downpours, and searing heat? Who else, upon retirement, drives to Spring Training and stays at the players’ hotel for a month? Who else has been to every Eastern League ballpark multiple times … including some no longer used by Eastern League teams?
She even hosted a player in her home. That player and his wife kept in touch with Barb since that unique season. And, yes, Barb was there for Milton Bradley’s rainy walk-off grand slam to bring a fourth consecutive EL championship to Harrisburg in 1999.
Barb wasn’t at the game to predict a 3-2 slider or second guess a decision. Barb loved the Senators as people. She cheered their successes and offered standing ovations for home runs and victories.
More so, Barb became everyone’s friend. Staunchly independent, Barb could make everyone feel welcome in any situation. She got to know many of those players during spring training. She became friends with a Washington Nationals usher and visited with her whenever we took in a game at Nats Park.
Barb had a smile for everyone. She always reminded me of the Colonel Potter line from M*A*S*H: Barb had a drawer full of them. And she was great at letting you borrow one whenever you needed it.
Her soft-spoken demeanor never changed. In the two decades I knew Barb, she never raised her voice nor spoke negatively about anyone.
I could show up at the ballpark stressed over a project or traffic, and Barb could easily make me forget about whatever it was. She had the same calming effect over Senators Fan Club business. I would pick up Barb to attend a meeting with a thousand loose ends on my mind. By the time we arrived, everything seemed better.
Over the years, Barb became a regular guest at our home whenever Mindy made spaghetti, Barb’s favorite dinner. She would always arrive in a red top (very practical) with a bouquet of flowers for the table (very appreciative).
She also became a regular at our family birthdays, holidays (whenever she wasn’t visiting her family), ABC Mug Club events, and sometimes just a relaxing dinner with friends.
Barb’s social calendar never seemed to pump the brakes. She enjoyed bus trips, former work friends, family events in Pittsburgh, Penn State home games, and Senators road series to the far reaches of the Eastern League. Barb would cheerfully participate wherever her calendar took her.
That was the way Barb was. She could brighten any situation without any effort. That was just her nature.
Section 105 isn’t the same without Barb. She was so woven into our baseball and friendship landscape that we weren’t ready to let go. I’m thankful that we’ve gotten to know her family and that we have so many fond memories. As Barb would have wanted, we laughed much more than shed tears at her visitation.
As we toasted an empty pint glass at last Monday’s Mug Club gathering, here’s to you, Barb. Through the power of the baseball diamond, thank you for letting us into your circle.
While we’re hearing nothing but crickets from MLB teams and free agents, I want to share about two baseball-worthy events. This past week featured the first Senators Fan Club Diamond Talk of 2019. Yesterday marked the SABR Babe Ruth Chapter meeting in Baltimore. So while MLB struggles for new headlines, please allow me to shout from the rooftops … from the keyboard.
We introduced a lot of new content during our Diamond Talk. We voted to update our bylaws, discussed the Nats’ moves so far this off-season, and previewed what the club has in store through the Senators‘ Opening Day.
SABR historian and Fan Club member, Ted Knorr, shared some insights about the 1960 World Series. Ted and Fan Club member, Fred Walker, attended the Game 7 rebroadcast at the Forbes Field wall back on October 13th. They projected stats, photos, and told us about their annual APBA Game 7 replay.
This year’s event, played near the left field wall, featured unique qualities that you’ll only find in baseball. Their game even elicited some curious onlookers, which opened up a fun baseball conversation.
Speaking of conversation, I’d been fretting the forecast all week because Fan Club member, Terry Hartzell, and I had committed to the SABR Baltimore Chapter meeting on Sunday. Never underestimate the power of baseball! Like magic, the storm fizzled, the state of emergency lifted, and we were on our way to Peabody Heights Brewery on North 30th Street.
On the way, we encountered rain showers and fog, but spotted lifting clouds and even some blue sky after crossing the Mason-Dixon Line. We arrived in plenty of time to strike up some Hot Stove talk.
The first person I saw was Dick O’Keefe, the brewery owner. I met Dick more than a year ago when Terry and I visited for our historical baseball parks tour. Dick’s such an inviting gentleman! He offered the venue, built on the site of a former Baltimore Orioles’ minor league park (1916-1944), gratis to the local SABR Chapter. He also supplied free beer to all attendees!
We all enjoyed presentations throughout the day. The only time out was for all of us to enjoy a Mission BBQ catered lunch.
Author David B. Stinson, who was a Fan Club guest speaker after releasing “Deadball”, emceed. We heard from authors, long-time SABR members, researchers, even a former ballpark chef (named Grill) told their stories. A former Orioles Rookie of the Year, Ron Hansen, approached me after the meeting adjourned and warmly shook my hand. Since I’d never officially met Mickey Morandini, Ron becomes the first to greet me and turn an MLB unassisted triple play.
Ron and former Orioles’ catcher Larry Haney informed and entertained our group throughout their appearance. Both seemed would be just as comfortable sitting down to chat over a cup of coffee. Both enjoyed long coaching careers following their playing days and each has been married more than 50 years. Ron and Larry truly appreciated their time associated with MLB and it showed. Ah, respect for the game…
A few years ago, I received a wonderful gift. “The Last Boy” by Jane Leavy is one of the most comprehensive baseball biographies I’d ever read. Without referring to one note, Jane fed us details about her latest effort, “Big Fella,” a unique look at Babe Ruth. Just when you thought you’d read everything about George Herman, Jane unearths more about The Babe’s childhood and persona. I instantly purchased a copy onsite. And I wasn’t the only one. Jane spent a few minutes chatting with me while personally signing my copy.
After seeing Ken Mars and David Stinson‘s video presentation, I gained a new appreciation for their level of research on John McGraw. Our day was filled with wonderful baseball surprises like these. And then, we switched gears.
A former client when Terry and I were creative directors at a recording studio penned his own sports book and released it last fall. Jack GIlden’s “Collision of Wills” tells of the relationship between Don Shula and Johnny Unitas. Although I lost interest in football long ago, I have two relatives who grew up as Baltimore Colts fans.
After Terry and I said our SABR goodbyes, we secured two copies of Jack’s book and met with Jack at The Corner Stable. Jack kindly personalized each gift. We visited over refreshments before parting. Terry and I rolled toward Harrisburg (on dry I-83 North) with a terrific day full of fresh memories.
So nothing’s happening on the free agent front? Shhhh. Keep your eyes and ears open. You’re sure to find satisfying Hot Stove action nearby.
From Deep Short
Less Than 30 Minutes
Once upon a time a young broadcaster is hired as a member of the team to take an automated FM station (licensed to Harrisburg) live for the first time. He now needs a place to live that’s close by.
Someone else on that new on-air staff informs the young man that an air personality from another Harrisburg station is seeking a new roommate. (His former roomie left the area for a radio gig in another state.)
That air personality is 29-year-old Chris Andree from WKBO. I’m that immature 20-year-old, yet had already pulled shifts on four different stations.
We meet for the first time in the parking lot of Rock 99 in Wormleysburg. As we talk for less than 30 minutes in Andree’s car, we decide to sign a lease together on a townhouse right down the hill on Third Street.
First of all, that’s a commute to make anyone envious. Secondly and much more importantly, that’s how friendly Andree is.
That quality comes across on the air in the Harrisburg market for more than 40 years. It also creates an unmatched continuity and fun feeling during his 15 year stint as the Harrisburg Senators PA announcer.
We share a townhouse for two years before I take a position at Q106 and rent a house south of York. But the broadcasting community is close-knit. Andree and I see each other occasionally at area events and just to get together.
Fast-forward a few years. I’m hired as program director to take 97.3 FM live for the first time. I’ll handle afternoon drive. The midday shift will be covered by a current employee.
Who can we hire for morning drive and to help me with music? Andree agrees to bring his passion for music and enthusiasm behind the mic to Broadcast Center!
My contract ends after three years. New management doesn’t renew it. However, Andree continues to thrive through several position, format, management and even ownership changes into 2017.
He also continues to make his mark on the Harrisburg market through regional commercial production and ABC-27 News bumpers. And, of course, the magic he creates during Senators games. Since the millennium no voice has been heard more in this area.
During games we text each other suggesting clever walk-up music for opposing batters. We meet after games and continue to share in each others’ lives. The same Andree smile. The same signature, “Yeah.”
We attend out-of-town baseball games together: Reading, Philly, DC. I see my only NBA game ever … with Andree. Andree meets me downtown at the Harrisburg Brewfest last June.
That same month I schedule our mutual friend Dan Steele as guest speaker to the Senators Fan Club. Andree shows up. Dan hired Andree away from his hometown radio station in Bellefonte 42 years earlier. We all enjoy dinner and laugh over radio and baseball memories after the meeting adjourns.
I receive a call from Dan two weeks later on July 4th. Not a happy holiday call, but a shocking Andree-has-big-health-related-challenges-ahead-of-him call.
I get to play one-hit-wonder music trivia with Andree around his birthday. He beats Todd Matthews and me a number of times by quickly naming an artist after Randy Whitaker calls out a title.
The same Andree smile. The same passion for music. They’re still there.
Three months later there’s suddenly worse health news.
Two weeks later I’m notified that Andree’s fight has ended.
No more smile.
When I was very young and very immature, I still knew within 30 minutes that I not only was compatible with Andree, but that I’d found a lifelong friend.
Dan brilliantly conducts the Harrisburg Senators tribute to Andree at FNB Field. Surrounded by his family, his friends, the broadcasting community, the Senators front office, his favorite music over the PA and great photos on the big screen, I can see that Andree affected more than just me within the first 30 minutes of meeting him.
That was reiterated at his memorial service in Bellefonte yesterday. Andree is still radiating positively … just as he did to his listeners over several decades behind the mic. In fact you can still enjoy hearing his unmistakable voice on recorded messages prior to any Senators home game. I have to smile every time I hear them.