Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Baseball Skies

BROOKLYN, New York -- This has been a summer of transitions for me - moving to a new city (Brooklyn will now be my more or less permanent dateline), coping with life after graduate school, and looking for work in a tough economy. But there has been one constant throughout the summer: baseball.

I crisscrossed the nation between New York and Colorado three times this year, and on every trip, I made sure to stop at some of the hallowed sites of America's pastime - not the gleaming corporate cathedrals of the monopolistic MLB, but the minor league parks of America's small cities and the sites where baseball history was made.

Unlike most other popular American sports, baseball is played almost exclusively outside (and with the impending demise of Minnesota's Metrodome and Tampa's Tropicana Field, there will be no more indoor baseball in the major leagues) and during the most beautiful time of year. So, here I would like to share some of my pictures from the summer and the beautiful skies of America's ballparks.

Here were some of the other highlights of my travels:

Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, Louisville, KY: In addition to being home to the world's largest bat, the Louisville Slugger museum will teach you such interesting facts as how the two-tone bat was invented (it was a spare bat that we being used to stir paint) or how many bats a major leaguers uses in a season (over 100). One of the coolest things about the museum is that they have a batting cage where you can hit with a wide selection of wooden bats fresh off the factory floor.

Bob Feller Museum, Van Meter, IA: When Babe Ruth walked onto the field at Yankee Stadium for the last time on June 13, 1948, two months before throat cancer would take his life, he held a bat at his side to steady his ravaged body. That day the Cleveland Indians were in town, and the bat he grabbed off the rack belonged to future hall of famer Bob Feller. Today you can see that bat, signed by Ruth and Feller, on display in the pitcher's hometown museum.

Nemo's Kitchen, Detroit, MI: Located in the shadow of the now-demolished Tiger Stadium, Nemo's is as much a Tigers institution as Ty Cobb and gothic lettering. With the stadium gone, they have adapted to the times - where you could once walk down Michigan Avenue to a Tigers game, the bar now has a fleet of buses to shuttle patrons to games for a modest $3 (and parking around back is free). Anyone contemplating a trip to a Tigers game should make this a mandatory stop.

Collegiate Summer Baseball: When the college baseball season ends, players need a place to hone their skills and keep the scouts' attention - that's where the summer collegiate leagues come in. In small towns across America, players play for room and board, usually boarding with local families, and in the evenings they ply their trade for the crowds. It's not quite the big leagues, but the spectators treat the players like their adopted sons.

For future summer trips, I have put together a short wish list of baseball shrines I would like to visit:

Koshien High School Baseball Tournament, Japan: Though a bit far for a weekend road trip, the annual Koshien tournament is one of the most popular sporting events in Japan, eclipsing even the country's major leagues. 4,000 teams compete for the right to play in the tournament at historic Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, where more than a million fans show up to cheer on their hometown squads while millions more tune in at home. Japanese and American culture are very different, yet I find it remarkable that we both love such an idiosyncratic and arcane game as baseball; Koshien is one of those institutions that gets at the heart of the game - kids playing, not for money, but honor and glory. (The PBS program POV ran an excellent documentary on the tournament, a trailer is here.)

Esquina Caliente, Havana, Cuba - "The Hot Corner": Cuba is not known for its freedom of speech, but at this spot in Havana's Parque Central, people gather for heated debates - about baseball. Recently featured in the documentary about Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant's return to the island after 46 years of exile, The Lost Son of Havana, the Hot Corner is a sort of Speakers' Corner that American baseball fans should envy.

Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY: Now just a few hours drive from my front door, the Hall of Fame is near the top of my to do list.

Little League World Series, Williamsport, PA: As Kenny Mayne said, "The best entertainment, and the true spirit of any sport, can be found at any children's game." As an unmarried man with no children of my own, people give me strange looks when I show up at a random little league game, but the LLWS offers enough public spectacle that I could show up on my own to watch kids play without anyone calling the cops on me. Congratulations, by the way, to Chula Vista, California, who defeated Taoyuan, Taiwan 6-3 in Sunday's final.

Fenway Park, Boston, MA: Most people who know me are aghast when I tell them that I, a lifelong rabid Red Sox fan, have never been to a game at Fenway Park. I have traveled as far as Detroit and Baltimore just to see the Sox, but never to their home ballpark. Hopefully this fall I will get the chance to walk down Yawkey Way with a playoff ticket in hand.

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