DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
by Ed Wetschler
“Bad break,” I said when Yankees left-fielder Hideki Matsui bobbled a pop fly at Yankee Stadium. Californian Gary Milne wasn’t buying that. “It’s his own fault — Matsui should have held onto that ball,” he declared, and the other out-of-towners in our group agreed. Tough crowd.
We were on Sports Travel & Tours’ East Coast Sampler, a package that fits four great baseball shrines and four games into five busy days. The trip began in Boston, made all the right stops in New York (at the risk of offending certain readers, this means we skipped Shea Stadium), and ended in Baltimore. Let others walk barefoot to Lourdes; our pilgrimage was to Cooperstown, where Abner Doubleday is believed (by some) to have invented baseball in 1839.
Most of the 22 participants in the tour were guys with a profound love of baseball who flew in from other parts of the country, but there were some notable exceptions. Jo Petronio came along to humor her husband, Dom, an East Coast Red Sox fan; Jerry Bible did likewise for his wife, Diane, who’s on a mission to visit all 30 Major League ballparks. And Nadine Blanshei was treating her grandson, ten-year-old Joey. “I’m not really a fan,” she admitted. “This is a labor of love.”
For my wife, the Yankees booster, this would be a test of character. Who would Carol root for at Fenway Park? And would bygone rivalries against tough Baltimore teams of the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s harden her heart in Baltimore?
After checking into the Best Western Longwood in Boston, everyone got on the bus so promptly that it left early for Wednesday evening’s events. Now, when’s the last time you heard of a tour group who boarded their bus ahead of schedule?
Sports Travel hosts John “JD” Davis and Billy Canavan, two moonlighting schoolteachers, handed a microphone to driver Paul Finn, a moon-lighting fireman. As Finn pointed out the sights while he took us to a get-acquainted dinner at Cheers, we soon realized that his Boston accent was a thing of beauty. Responding to a dig from Billy, he exclaimed, “Wow, there’s an ‘R’ in ‘Gahden’?”
The home of the Boston Red Sox since 1912, Fenway is a jewel. Granted, it’s a jewel with lousy sight lines — the overhangs block fans from seeing fly balls from some of the seats — but the park’s old green walls bespeak baseball tradition. The concourse, a closed-off street behind left field, is a carnival of Sox shops, food stands, music makers (or unmakers, depending on their skills), and locals getting their faces painted with the team colors.
A few years ago, the folks at Fenway installed new seats on top of the right field roof — there was no other place to put them — and that’s where Sports Travel put the East Coast Sample gang. I sat next to Jeff Singleton, a Cincinnati Reds fan from Ohio. “I’m rooting for Boston,” he confessed. “Terrible, huh? But it seems natural here.”
Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield threw strike after strike, a rare feat for a knuckleballer, and Boston’s batters kept punching hits between Blue Jays fielders. The fans did an immaculate wave and the ladies screamed for center fielder Johnny Damon. This was fun.
We were privy to an anthropological phenomenon, too: a sort of eighth-inning stretch during which Fenway fans belt out “Sweet Caroline.” None of the locals we talked to had the faintest idea why they sing this tune (made famous by Neil
Diamond — a New Yorker), but they were awfully good-natured when we asked about it. With two outs in the 9th, Boston reliever Keith Foulke almost gave away a 6–2 lead. When Damon stopped the bleeding at 6–4 with a dramatic catch, all of us, including Carol, joined Jo and Dom in an ovation. Sometimes we surprise ourselves.
Our bus left early Thursday morning for Cooperstown. JD kept us loose by telling tales about his encounters with baseball royalty. Once, when Yogi Berra refused to sign a photo properly, JD showed him up by getting spitballer Gaylord Perry to autograph a jar of Vaseline.
Full disclosure: I don’t find the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum as compelling as its own road show, Baseball As America, which toured the country a few years ago. But clearly, mine is a minority opinion; my bus-mates loved it all, from the old film clips to the all-time records to the Hall of Famers’ plaques.
And they didn’t just find history in Cooperstown, they found souvenirs. Our crew wandered through stores buying bats, balls, pennants, jerseys, caps, cards, kids’ clothes, the works. Babes in ball-land. After spending Thursday night in Kingston, New York, we got up early again to head Bronx-wards for the morning tour of Yankee Stadium, and it was worth the effort. Not only did we get to sit in the press seats (what a view!), but we were allowed into the Yankees dugout. Yes, our fannies touched down where A-Rod sits. Two degrees of separation.
After that we walked down the left-field line without being arrested, and we communed with Yankee ghosts in Monument Valley, the area beyond the left/center field fence that’s chockablock with plaques of Yankee greats. I caught Jeanne Grippo, one of the few other East Coasters on the tour, rubbing the Babe’s bronze head for good luck. Hey, it worked for Roger Clemens, the Yankee pitcher who used to follow this ritual.
Sports Travel distributes little guides to restaurants and sights in each city on its itineraries, but for New York it also hired a guide to board the bus and show everyone the highlights. His name was Darryl, so in honor of New York’s most infamous Strawberry, we got his attention by chanting “Daaaaarryl.”
Home base for the next two nights was the New York Hilton. The hotel is smack in midtown, but by 5 p.m. it had been six hours since any of us had seen a baseball field, so these folks were happy to head back to the Bronx.
Our seats were in left field, which is why we had such a good view of Matsui’s flub, not to mention a barrage of line drives off Yankees pitchers. In the seventh inning a power failure silenced the P.A. system and darkened the scoreboards, while the Yankees suffered a power failure of their own, so Anaheim won 5–0, to the delight of the many Californians in our group. And you had to love the sign that the electric company flashed during the partial blackout: “Con Ed: ON IT.” Yeah, right.
We returned Saturday afternoon for a second Yankees game. This time the Angels scored three runs in the first three innings. Then a storm caused a three-hour, 42-minute rain delay.
Most of the fans went home, but not our crew: Nothing the heavens could throw at these people would chase them from the ballpark. Eventually, the Californians got to enjoy another Anaheim win, which they celebrated that night at Manhattan’s best steakhouses.
When the bus pulled up for the ride to Baltimore at 7 a.m. Sunday morning, everyone was still in an upbeat mood. “Where do you get your energy?” I asked Gary Milne. “This trip is easy,” he told me. “I go to all these places, and I don’t have to drive.”
JD had warned us, gently, that we might not find our first stop, the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, endlessly engrossing. He was right, so Carol and I followed his excellent advice to visit the Inner Harbor before strolling back to Camden Yards.
Sportscasters often call this the perfect ballpark, and they’re right. From fans-only Eutaw Street, which is Baltimore’s answer to Fenway Park’s concourse, to the old-style architecture, cozy size, clean restrooms, reasonable food prices (!), and friendly staffers, the Orioles’ home field is a winner. Tour participant Joe Herrera, who knows both baseball and the food biz, judged the hot dogs to be the best he’s had at any ballpark.
We had great seats in the Club level, replete with food courts, lounging areas, and waiters who offer prompt and cheerful food and beverage service. The ballpark’s bandbox proportions encouraged lots of runs and fielding heroics, so it was an action-packed game with a final score of Blue Jays 8, Orioles 5. A few people spent Sunday night in Baltimore; our bus took the rest to the airport. Carol and I headed home with a deeper appreciation of baseball’s past and a better understanding of what makes the game great at three very different, first-rate ballparks. In fact, when Boston beat the Yankees for the American League Championship and then won the World Series (for the first time since 1918), Carol and I surprised ourselves by feeling downright happy for the underdog Red Sox.
Sports Travel and Tours packages such as the East Coast Sampler cover lodging, tickets and transportation to games and museums, information about destinations, a get-acquainted meal, plus knowledgeable hosts and guides. Because of baseball schedules, each season’s two or three East Coast Sampler tours are a little different. (Some include a Mets game; some even squeeze in a Broadway show.) This one cost $1,175 per person, double occupancy.
For information about the various scheduled and custom baseball packages, as well as tours for fans of auto racing, basketball, football (both NFL and college), golf, tennis, and more, contact Sports Travel and Tours: Tel: 800-662-4424 or 413-247-7678; Fax: 413-247-5700; E-mail:email@example.com; Website: www.sportstravelandtours.com.
BASEBALL GAME — Travel Tips
• Sports Travel and Tours can arrange flights to trip starting points and hotel accommdations for extending stays as well as entirely customized trips.
•Some of the company’s itineraries, such as Southern Exposure and West Coast Express, include air as well as bus transportation because of the distances involved.
•Most intriguing package? The Mystery Baseball Tour, which includes six or seven ballparks. Of course, the starting and ending point offer some clues, but the rest is a surprise.
•Sports Travel offers a Passport to Baseball for fans who want to see all 30 ballparks. When a passport is stamped at all 30 parks, Sports Travel invites its holder to Cooperstown during Induction Weekend, and he or she is inducted into the Baseball Stadium Hall of Fame.