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!
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.
Wednesday, June 5 – UBT Day Five
Day Five has already been a great day, yet a ball game awaits at Kauffman Stadium. On our way to the hotel, Mitch spots something you don’t see every day (unless you live in Kansas City): a cow on a pillar on a hill high above the treetops. We’re thinking this bovine is somehow related to CowParade Kansas City, but someone in the know can (hopefully) provide the true story.
Our hotel is conveniently just across the Interstate from the ballpark. As we arrive, we see plenty of both Twins and Royals gear. I guess we aren’t the only ones on a baseball trip this week!
Fortunately, the hotel room offers my favorite view. (Below is an actual shot I took from the hotel room window.) I’ve stayed in hotel rooms in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland where I’m actually closer to the stadium, but this is as close to Kauffman as one can stay.
We don’t have much time if we want to enjoy our usual pre-game. As a starting pitcher prepares on game day, Mitch and I need to soak in the park early to enjoy the amenities before the first pitch.
Shuttle buses leave the hotel parking lot every few minutes. We step onto one with several Twins and Royals fans.
There’s a buzz of excitement as the driver asks baseball trivia questions. Eager fans respond.
We pull up to a gate where Mitch and I acquire our tickets for the evening. After a quick jaunt around part of the outside of the stadium, we enter and head for the fountains.
Across the concourse from the fountains, a sign promotes college student Happy Hour: hot dog and craft draft for $7. Usually unheard of in MLB parks, so Mitch and I partake.
After snapping some fountain and statue photos, we head toward left field and the Royals Hall of Fame. A brief video with stadium seating (second time today, I know!) precede Royals memorabilia and a shop featuring Hall of Famer gear.
You can also take your photo on a bench next to a statue of Buck O’Neil. (Both of us did. Surprised?)
Behind the concourse (away from the left field wall) from the Hall of Fame is a netted mini-ballpark, where younger employees/interns pitch whiffle balls to youngsters. This was a great, unexpected family gem. Mitch and I wanted to participate, but decided to allow for some dignity. Looked like fun though!
At this point in the season, Minnesota is ahead of the Royals in the AL Central. The game starts out offensively. Josh Willingham knocks in a 1st inning run off Jeremy Guthrie, but the Royals answer with 3 in their half. Thanks to Salvador Perez and Billy Butler accounting for 5 of KC’s 8 hits, the home team pockets a 4-1 win.
Throughout the game, Mitch and I make our usual rounds for different perspectives. One perspective eludes us, however: the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat.
The only differently colored seat in the stadium is behind home plate in the Diamond Club area. Near the end of the game, we strike up a conversation with an usher, who radios to the usherette near the Legacy Seat.
“Can these gentlemen take photos after the game?” She responds that we could once the Diamond Club area clears out.
It’s worth the wait. Especially considering the meaning behind it.
Following the game, we look forward to a frothy beverage or two and maybe an appetizer in the hotel’s sports bar. That’s when we discover a true marketing gaffe.
While on the shuttle van, we agree that I’d get a table for us while Mitch drops off his camera in the room. We figure that post-game celebrations would abound in such a convenient venue with a captive and thirsty hotel audience.
I’m a little surprised to only see a few folks at the bar and none seated at the many tables. The waitress invites me to sit anywhere, but they aren’t serving food. Mitch is in disbelief when I relay the message.
Okay, it’s barely 10 PM after more than 12,000 people leave a baseball game across the street. You’d think they’d want to keep the kitchen open a couple of hours to serve a percentage of them 81 days a year.
So we check apps. We have to drive away from the hotel to pay someone else to satisfy our appetites. Am I missing something here?
From Deep Short
“How do you pronounce ‘Tomah,’ Wisconsin?” Mitch asks the woman at the hotel’s front desk. “TOE’-mah” comes the reply. “Hell, if you live here.”
Seems quaint and peaceful enough to house the tripsters for the first night of UBT; plus, we always enjoy a fine sense of humor. Besides, Tomah — with its forests, farms and wooden lodges — gives us a jump on getting to Minneapolis when the gates open at Target Field. Sunday, June 2, features a 1:10 start to wrap up the Mariners series.
It isn’t that we’re any more eager to see a new Major League ballpark. It’s just that there’s more square footage to explore than in the more intimate venues.
We arrive soon after the gates open, but do we enter? Not on UBT. We take a stroll around the outside of the ballpark, which unveils several treasures: banners of many key Twins players over the years hang neatly on a fence toward a construction site; statues of the most highly regarded Twins dot the landscape at various gates; and, families are everywhere.Today’s giveaway? A Josh Willingham jersey for the youngsters. We see lots of cute young fans, from infants to Little Leaguers, donning them throughout our stay.
And, it’s good they have that extra layer. A stiff breeze accompanies the bright sunshine all day.
Our seats are second deck in the shade in right field. Folks are wrapped in blankets.
After an inning or two, Mitch and I begin our trek around the inside of this fairly new park. It reminds me somewhat of Nationals Park, but is less conventional.Nooks and crannies and small, exclusive sections dot the various tiers. Open concourses can accommodate large moving crowds.
One can enjoy the action all around the park on both levels as there’s plenty of room behind the seating. That’s our mission the remainder of the game. Areas in the sun feel most comfortable.I’m not sure if the wind assisted, but the home team launches four bombs to back Scott Diamond in a 10-0 shellacking. Mitch and I don’t believe the wind is a factor for any of them.
As the game winds down, we’re in center field, where a friendly usherette directs us to get our “First Time at Target Field” certificates. A pleasant couple asks about our trip. They notice our next destination, their home town.
From Deep Short