Florida Food

Our favorite subject, other than baseball itself, is food, as anyone who’s read any of our blogs will know. We do spend a great deal of time sampling local—and not so local—fare, both at that ball park and on the road. And our trip to Florida was no exception.

First, you need to know that a great many people from the Cincinnati region have retired/relocated to the area between Clearwater and Naples and have brought the local Cincy favorite fare with them. So we were delighted to be able to indulge in the food from our youth. (We haven’t lived in the Cincinnati region for 38 years.) When we weren’t enjoying the unusual ball park food, we were in search of Skyline Chili restaurants and pints of Graeter’s ice cream from Publix grocery stores.

Cincinnati-style chili is unique and it seems people either love it or hate it. For those of us raised on the stuff, it’s an addiction. And it can’t be found in many places outside of Ohio. This delicious meal consists of a layer of spaghetti, topped with a chili sauce based on a Greek-style dish. The sauce is tomato-based, made of boiled hamburger and either chocolate or cinnamon, depending on the brand. (There are about 260 chili parlors in Cincinnati, each with its own variation of the original sauce.) The next layer is of pinto beans, then a layer of onions, all topped with thin-shred mild cheddar cheese. If you order all these layers, you’re having a 5-way; one less layer is a 4-way; two less layers is a 3-way down to just chili and spaghetti, a 2-way. We found a Skyline in Clearwater, one in Ft. Myers and one in Naples (although we didn’t travel that far south). We were lucky enough to imbibe in our favorite meal three times while on this trip, loving every morsel of it!

Likewise, we also had the opportunity to delight in our favorite ice cream, Graeter’s. It’s made of something like 27% milk-fat and begins to melt as soon as it touches the bowl or a spoon, leaving a lovely tasteful coating on your tongue. A few years ago, Oprah announced on her show that it’s her favorite ice cream and their website crashed that afternoon due to the overload of orders. Yes, it’s that good!

Beyond our hometown foods, though, was the unique ball park fare that we came across. Since several of the games we attended were Gulf Coast League (one of the instructional leagues), there were no concessions at all. (We were lucky if there were bathrooms of some sort!) And other games often only had the bare necessities of ball park food—hot dogs, hamburgers, peanuts, pop and beer. However, we did come across a few very interesting, and often quite tasty, food treats. The Port Charlotte Stone Crabs had crab cake sandwiches that were yummy and fantastic French fries (coated and crispy!). They also sold a passable Cuban sandwich. Of course, being great aficionados of Cuban sandwiches, we did spend much of our time in Florida looking for a bad one; this one was fine.

In Dunedin, the Blue Jays actually had food trucks (all the rage everywhere now) in their parking lot outside the gates. Here we could get hot food—Mexican, BBQ, Asian, and “fried everything.” The samples we had (the BBQ and the Mexican) were quite good. Inside the park, the concessions only sold non-heated items, peanuts, candy, ice cream, etc., and drinks. They didn’t want to compete with the trucks.

At the Threshers stadium in Clearwater, the food wasn’t noteworthy, but they had a “Beers of the World” stand that truly was beers of the world. They had so many choices, it would be difficult for any beer fan to choose what they’d like.

By far, the most unique food we had was at the Ft. Myers Miracles park. Specifically, they had two sandwiches that are absolutely worth trying if you’re in the neighborhood. First, the Carolina dog would please most all BBQ fans with a hankering for a whole meal on a bun. The sandwich consisted of a hot dog smothered in pulled pork, baked beans and coleslaw. At first, Ginny was skeptical of having her whole meal at once, but a couple of bites convinced her it was a worthy choice. However, the coup de grace was most definitely the Richard Simmons burger. Just the name made us curious. Was this an ounce of such lean ground steak that it would be paper dry? Or a chicken breast the size of a walnut? Oh no. The name is sarcasm at its best (or worst, depending on your outlook). The sandwich was layered with a hamburger patty, a chicken breast, a sausage (split in half), bacon and cheese slices between each layer. The diameter was a normal size for a burger, but was about five inches tall. We had to eat it from around the sides in hunks because we couldn’t get our mouths open wide enough for the thing! While it was very messy, it was quite the tasty adventure. Who knew all that meat at once could taste that good? On top of serving these great sandwiches, the park offered an all-you-can-eat deal for just $10. It’s certainly worth it. But bring your appetite and your stretch pants!


Baseball Travel Guidelines: Make Sure I Have a Room

OK, now that you have your copy of the Baseball America Directory, (or maybe it’s on order), we can talk about the details of planning your family (or without) baseball vacation. Here are the threshed out details that we mentioned in our last post.

1)   Determine approximately when we want to go and how much time we can take.

2)   Decide where we want to go and consult Baseball America Directory for parks in the general geographic area we’ve targeted and dates they’re playing.

We need to discuss both one and two above together, because they are often interchangeable. Our trips usually start as a conversation between us about where we might want to go on our annual baseball trip, how much time we have for a trip, if there is someplace that we have to go to which we can attach a minor road trip, or some reason we can justify taking a special trip someplace, and whether there is someone we want to see (for example, some relative we can mooch off of).  We start our planning almost as soon as we get home from the current trip. We hash out some grandiose ideas and then continue tossing around ideas throughout the fall and winter—always thinking (wishing) we could do some fall and winter baseball. The conversation about where usually comes before when, because, being academics, we’re not always sure if one of us is teaching during the summer months, or if there are plans for family visits, or conferences to attend. So once our summer schedule is solid, then we can finalize our choice of where.

As mentioned above, we sometimes have the opportunity to connect our baseball trips to other trips, be it family- or business-related. Being academics, we attend a number of professional conferences. These conferences vary in location and time every year, some during the school year—October, March, April—or some in the summer. When we know that we will be attending one of these conferences, the first think we check is whether there is baseball close by. Even if it’s visiting a stadium during the off-season.

For instance, the first time we saw the Round Rock stadium, we were driving from Dallas (where we had flown in) to San Antonio for the Conference on College Composition and Communication. It was March, too early for the team to be playing yet. The front office—and most important—team store were open. We stopped…of course, we did. And we shopped. (Ginny wears her last-year’s-model-discounted-drastically Round Rock denim jacket everywhere). After hearing about our enthusiasm for minor league baseball, the people in the front office also graciously gave us a tour of the stadium that was being readied for opening day a few weeks away. Several years later we finally had the chance to actually see a game at this stadium.

3)   Lay out a tentative itinerary based on when teams are playing and a basic logical (or a close approximation to logical) geographic pattern so we aren’t backtracking too much.

The next step is to use the Baseball America Directory to find what teams play in that part of the country, and figure out who will be playing at their home field during the time frame that we will be traveling. Dan starts tracking down schedules in January on websites (getting the website addresses from the Directory). Schedules start coming out in mid-January for a number of the leagues; sometimes you can get tentative schedules for triple A affiliates at the end of the previous season. Check the league websites to see if the teams are still playing and if there are any new teams just starting up. Part of the reason we start this early is to make sure we can get tickets for the new teams, whose games are often all sold out. In the inaugural year for the Lansing Lugnuts, we could only get lawn seats (standing room) for a grassy knoll out at the end of the third base line in left field—and it was a “family-no-beer-drinking zone.”  Likewise, the first year of the Dayton Dragons we were out at the end of the left field, but at least we had seats and Dan could have a beer.

At this point, if you have your firm dates, and flying is required to your chosen region, you might want to book your flights. Considering the ever-changing costs of air travel, the sooner you have your tickets, the better. Of course, you may run into other problems later on, such as we had in the summer of 2011. We finalized our decision in March to make the trip to Texas and Oklahoma because we could get a flight to Dallas much cheaper than other places we wanted to go. However, by the time August rolled around, it turned out to be one of the hottest summers on record for both states. They had already both been ravaged with tornadoes, fires and floods. We had begun to believe that Armageddon had arrived for them. But it wasn’t too exceedingly bad, if you didn’t mind sitting perfectly still at the ball park and sweating through that new souvenir t-shirt you just bought. And it was still in the bag!

4)   Fill in with sites that we would like to see along the way, leaving enough lag time in between for serendipity—that is, those great sites found along the way.

Other sites will depend on your personal interests. Our trips tend to follow our primary interest of baseball and then our secondary interests of American history, women’s issues, writers, food and kitsch. Some examples of baseball related sites we’ve seen are Geneva, New York’s McDonough Park which now hosts a New York Collegiate League team, but was for a number of years home to the Geneva Reds, a New York-Penn Leagueteam whose roster once included Tony Perez and Pete Rose. Likewise, there is Robin Roberts Field in Springfield, Illinois, which was the site of games of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League’s Springfield Sallies.

But life is not all baseball, so we check out the many other sites/activities that an area may offer. Over the years we have been to places such as Graceland, a coon dog cemetery, the place where James Dean was killed, the movie site of Field of Dreams, the grave of Mark Twain, the place where President Grant died, numerous Civil War battlefields, Shaker villages, Dollywood, the grave of Dan’s great, great, great grandfather, and one of our personal favorites, taking the opportunity to renew our wedding vows with Elvis in a Las Vegas wedding chapel.

The AAA Guide to the states is the next most handy item to set up a trip. They give a good overview of some of the places you will be going and will list some of the sites of interest that you may not have known about. Some of the other references that we use include Road Food (interesting road side restaurants), a guide to historic baseball sites, several guidebooks on American kitsch and places of the weird. Besides these, we peruse the guides to Civil War sites, women’s history sites, political history sites, religious history sites, Revolutionary War/War of 1812 sites and then some of our favorite movie/TV sites. (For a list of these references, see the appendices.)

The danger here is in locking yourself too tightly to your itinerary. You want to make sure that you give your family enough options for sites to visit, but not be so rigid that you can’t just bag the original planned visits when you serendipitously stumble across something you all just have to see. Always leaving some time open for those surprises led us to one of our favorite finds: the monument to the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise in Riverside, Iowa.

5)   Once the itinerary is somewhat definite, book flights, reserve a car, buy game tickets and book the motel rooms (or contact those family members off of whom we intend to mooch).

Second only to deciding how much time and where to go is finding those places to sleep. You notice we don’t say finding a place “to stay.” Usually, on these trips, with few exceptions—like the three-day Florida trip—we are always on the go: museums, historical sites, food. Even if a game gets rained out, we still ordinarily use the motel room only to sleep and store our stuff. Why always book the motel ahead of time? As we stated earlier, you don’t want to sleep in the car. We once spent over two hours after a night game driving around the back roads of Illinois searching for a motel. We were not happy campers (especially Ginny). Speaking of which, there are many campgrounds that the more adventurous may choose to use. We, on the other hand, believe that the definition of “roughing it” is when the motel TV doesn’t get HBO.

We normally book our flights fairly early on, at least as soon as we have some dates and know for sure that several of the teams will be playing at home. Then make sure that you line up those game tickets—as we said before, you don’t want to go all that way and get shut out. The car reservations are a little different. We’ve often reserved a car at about the same time as the flight, but then Ginny (who does the flight and car bookings) will revisit the rental car sights to check for cheaper deals. Only once have we used the “book a hotel + car for a great deal.” That was our trip to New York City and indeed it was a great deal! You can also check with your own travel clubs—AAA, etc.—or you can use your frequent flyer miles. Our flight to Texas was a “freebie” because of Ginny’s credit card miles. (All those Christmas presents and household appliances can sometimes pay off.)

Mooching, well…visiting family and friends is a great way to save money on these trips. Any time you can combine a family/friend function with a trip, it’s a good deal. Any time you can combine a family/friend function with a trip AND get a free room out of it, you’ve hit a homerun. That’s the case for most people. One problem we have, though, is that we don’t like staying at other people’s homes, not even a Bed and Breakfast. (Ginny loves staying at her parents’ house, but even after 37 years of marriage, it still makes Dan feel a bit uncomfortable.) It really is wonderful to see friends and relatives on our travels. We often just opt to sleep at the motel down the road. So you and your family need to make those decisions for yourselves.

6) Pack lightly, leaving room for all those souvenirs and baseball kitsch, and don’t forget the rain gear.

Since the airlines now like to nickel and dime us to death, charging for every little thing imaginable, it’s a good idea to pack light. Depending on what part of the country you’re going to, you might get away with nothing but shorts and t-shirts. For our trip to Texas and Oklahoma during a record heat wave, we took one nice set of clothes each (for Sunday church) and a few pairs of shorts and enough t-shirts to last half way through the trip. Then we did laundry in the motel (which can be problematic, depending on the reliability of the washers and driers). Before the trip, Ginny even bought a couple of very cheap shirts that could be thrown in the dryer and she wouldn’t care how they came out. As it was, we still had to pay $25 for each of the two bags we checked with the airlines. That was an extra $100 for the trip. You need to make sure you’re prepared for these possible “hidden” costs.

The main reason that we took two bags instead of one is because of the souvenirs. Of course, a trip is not an adventure without the collectibles (or crap—given the “eye of the beholder” and all that). There are the team programs, the giveaways at the gate, the lucky number drawings and game prizes…and that’s just the baseball game take-aways. Don’t forget all the sites you’ll be visiting and the souvenirs, t-shirts, hats, jewelry, books, brochures, CDs, DVDs, just to mention a few of the possible items that will find their way back to your car and into your luggage. We even like to do Christmas shopping while we’re on these trips. Dan has two young pre-school nieces for whom we often pick up shirts from unusual places. So far, they’ve received shirts from the National Bowling Museum, the National Tattoo Museum and the Jello Museum. Their father and grandfather always get quite a chuckle out of our choices. (What can we say—Dan’s family has an unusual sense of humor.) When the girls get a bit older, I’m sure they won’t appreciate being the recipients of such not-quite-understood humor as much as they do now.

And by all means, don’t forget the camera! We own an Olympus SLR that does a great job, but it is bigger and heavier than the compact models that also take lovely photos. Someone will have to carry the camera through the airports and schlep it onto the plane. Think about the extra weight when deciding on a choice through which to preserve those memories.

Finally, it’s a fact of nature that rain happens. Some years we’ve had no rain at all, and others so much rain we thought of going to Home Depot to buy ark materials (what is a “cubit” anyway?). Be prepared. Ginny always carries a white plastic poncho that she bought at the Akron Aeros team shop (guess what the weather was like) because it covers both her and her scorekeeping paraphernalia and does a rather good job of keeping out heavier rain. Dan tends to tough it out, or moves to a place where there’s shelter. If the rain lasts too long and is too hard, Ginny will join him. Yes, being rained on can be unpleasant, but it can also be entertaining watching the grounds crew, or the other fans and how they deal with it. A few times, we have been among a hand-full of people who stuck it out to see the game either finished, or finally called a rainout. Our secret is being prepared for the weather—and a whole lot of patience.

We love baseball and any reason, despite the weather, is always a good excuse to do a minor road trip. A little planning, a good relationship with your traveling companion and the philosophy “Some times you win, sometimes you lose, and some times you get rained out” helps you to enjoy the trip no matter what.

How Did We Get Here?

Baseball, the all-American game. Family entertainment at its best.

Alright, so it’s a cliché, and maybe it’s not the only All-American game (other usurpers have tried to claim the title). But to use another clichéd scenario—think of sitting in the bleachers on a warm summer evening, eating that tasty hot dog and slurping that drink (beer for the adults and pop for the youngsters), waiting for the latest homerun king to come to the plate. The sounds, smells and tastes of a baseball park can not be equaled anywhere. And the smaller the park, the more intimate the game. Who could ask for anything better? A whole vacation of ball parks. And what better way to see this country than traveling the backroads of the United States on your quest for more baseball? The adventures your family can have—the alligator farms, the amusement parks, the museums, the national memorials, the water parks, and so much more. Our own quest for minor league baseball began years ago, but we’ve never gotten tired of the traveling or the sightseeing.

Our journey (or journeys) to becoming baseball travelers is a long one. From 1988-1992, we lived just outside Toledo, Ohio. Not an exciting town—the singer John Denver once recalled his experience in Toledo as his having spent a week there one night. But our home was only a mile from the Toledo Mud Hens stadium. At the time, we had no idea how that would influence the rest of our lives.

Ginny was in graduate school working on her PhD and Dan was a newly minted Episcopal priest working at a parish in Maumee (a suburb of Toledo). As the youth group minister, it was Dan’s job to find interesting—a highly subjective term, since he was far from being a “youth” and the “youth” often disagreed with his idea of “interesting”—activities through which the group and he could bond. The stadium was close to the church, was inexpensive and offered the perfect spring/summer/fall activity.

We both had grown up as fans of the Cincinnati Reds. Dan’s mother and grandmother listened or watched all the Reds’ games and Ginny’s father would take his brood of seven children out every evening after dinner to play baseball in the side yard—an expansive five acres surrounding their home. So the Mud Hens were a perfect answer to what to do with the youth group on several Sunday afternoons. Ginny would even accompany them to the games—and she was not much of a joiner when it came to church activities.

Then came 1992: Ginny accepted her first full-time college job in the northern area of the lower peninsula of Michigan, four plus hours from the closest baseball team, the Detroit Tigers. While they were happy to be in a familiar and beloved resort area, there was no baseball, save the local intramural civic teams. Thus, in 1994, when the West Michigan Whitecaps opened a new stadium in Grand Rapids—a mere three hours away—Dan said, “Let’s go” and Ginny agreed. But because of jobs and the distance, they only managed a couple of games a year.

When the Lansing Lugnuts opened their stadium two years later, Ginny suggested a road trip: “Better still, what other teams are within driving range? Let’s choose a team and follow them around the Midwest.“  That proved impractical. But the idea of the road trip stuck. Instead of one team, why not just visit stadiums to see many different teams play? But how do we do that? Believe it or not, in 1996, the Internet did not exist to the extent it does now, and few teams had websites. So, Dan found a copy of the Baseball America Directory at the bookstore and we sat down to lay out a trip—which turned out to be a killer: over 1100 miles in six days.

We traveled from northern Michigan to Iowa, then back through Illinois and Indiana hitting minor league baseball stadiums in each state. In Muscatine, Iowa, we searched for a distant great, great, great grandfather’s gravestone—which stated he was the king of Hanover, Germany—and records of the Linnenberg clan that had moved there in the 1800s. We got to see a stadium, built by the WPA during the Great Depression, that the Mississippi River floods every spring. We got caught in rush-hour traffic outside of Chicago on our way to Rockford, Illinois, almost ending in divorce court. And we stayed in a hotel suite with three rooms and two televisions for the grand price of $75—a treasure, after looking for some place to stay for two hours in the dark of night in rural Illinois. The trip culminated in seeing the Lugnuts’ new stadium then driving home after the game—arriving at 1:30 in the morning. But we were hooked. We loved seeing America, the back roads, the places and peoples that aren’t in the regular tour guides, and many that are.

We have had great fun over the years traveling and learning about our country. And our travels aren’t over. There are about 250 minor league teams, including independent leagues and college leagues. As of Summer, 2012, we had seen 141 minor league parks. However, teams move, new parks are built and leagues fold and begin. We figure we’ll have enough baseball to keep us busy until we die. And if we finally see all the sites of North America—there’re always other countries that have baseball: Italy, Argentina, Australia, just to name a few.

So pack up the car, load up the kids, grab the Baseball America Directory. You’re on your way to seeing the sights of your country. Oh, and don’t forget, some great baseball. And through this blog, we hope to be something of a guide to the ballparks and cultural sites along the way. We’ll also throw in some memoirs to entertain you as we share our experiences with the people and places of America.

Next time, we’ll talk about how all this comes about. Just how do we plan our trips?