The time is six o’clock on an August afternoon that is turning into an August evening. Maxwell and I are driver and passenger, respectively, in the silver Saturn Vue, and we are stuck in miserable freeway traffic at the edge of downtown Chicago. Just ahead, enticingly, is clear passage to the ramp for Interstate 290, also known as the Eisenhower Expressway, because the freeways in Chicago all have names. Maxwell has his iPhone connected to the appropriate Internet information, and he insists that the fastest route out of town is still the apparently-clogged Interstate 90, aka, to me at least, the Kennedy Expressway. Maxwell’s phone has been accurate and useful for the whole trip, but I see the daylight ahead on the Eisenhower and go for it. Incredibly enough, open lanes greet us for the remaining miles of Chicago, and then on through the rest of Illinois. Would the trip have been even faster had I stayed on the Kennedy? Ah, what might have been; there’s no way of knowing. Thank God it’s utterly meaningless.
We are on the final legs of a two-day journey from our home in Sterling, Massachusetts, to the good city of St. Paul, Minnesota, where Maxwell will board the bus for two weeks of summer camp in Bemidji, and I will leave the car at my cousin’s and fly Sun Country Airlines back to Massachusetts. Two weeks after that, the plan is for me and the remaining household (my wife Druh, our baby boy Nathen) to return to Minnesota, reclaim both the car and Maxwell, visit the extended family, and then embark on a proper summer road trip that we’ll call a vacation. How much of a vacation remains to be seen, and depends, I think, on the behavior of Nathen. Driving through traffic and rainstorms on tollroads past the corn fields and the shopping malls of the Midwest is marginally enjoyable under the best of circumstances, but with a screaming baby I imagine it would be downright miserable. Nevertheless, we do what we do.
The highlights of the me-and-Maxwell trip are:
1) Cheering on the Pirates at their stadium in downtown Pittsburgh
2) Admiring the fine art and sumptuous galleries of the Cleveland Art Museum
3) Buying clothes for camp at various Goodwill stores
As readers might find surprising, Goodwill Thrift Stores seem to be quite common within a mile of freeway exits. I have no idea how many interstate motorists venture past the gas stations and motels and fast-food emporia to find the Goodwills, but that’s what we did in Southington, Connecticut; Toledo, Ohio; and Elkhart, Indiana. Maxwell claimed some blue jeans and shirts that he deemed acceptable, which is more than can be said about our visit to the Target of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where none of the pants fit.
Here’s a rap by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis that seems appropriate to the topic, despite a few naughty words.
And here’s a version of the same song by the Hillywood Show, re-purposed as an homage to the BBC program “Sherlock”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
In the stands of the baseball stadium in Pittsburgh—which I have decided to call Insert-Corporate-Name-Here Park—everyone I notice, with the exception of Maxwell, is wearing at least some of the branded gear (shirts, jerseys, caps, et. al) of their preferred team. This is no surprise. What does surprise is that for an unusually large fraction of the fans, the preferred team is the visitors, the Cardinals of St. Louis, a city that lies 600 miles to the west. The red-on-white outfits of the Cardinal fans stand in stark contrast to the black and gold of the hometown Pirates. It’s a see-saw game, and the two camps stand and cheer alternately.
Later, in the elevator of the parking ramp, I ask a pair of the Cardinalistas why so many of them were here tonight on the far-away turf. Their answer is a daisy-chain of pertinent information that almost adds up to a coherent explanation:
1) We’re from Arkansas.
2) The games in St. Louis are always sold out, and tickets are expensive.
3) A night at a hotel costs about the same everywhere.
4) It’s fun to visit the different ballparks.
I always had thought we fans choose our favorite sports and teams, but perhaps it’s the other way around. Maybe the baseball gods soar across the skies, like raptors, periodically swooping to capture the easy prey, or zapping them, Zeus-like, with thunderbolts. They brand us with their colors, they infuse us with the commandment to gather and worship in the temples, they demand that we spend, spend, spend, spend. I can attest observing, in a cemetery outside Boston, some headstones engraved with the logo of the Boston Red Sox. Fans for life—and death. I assume that the headstone-makers pay a royalty or licensing fee.
Back in Pittsburgh, my son Maxwell, who is not a baseball fan, is enjoying himself nevertheless. He is eating the food, he cheers at appropriate moments, he offers a few snarky comments, and he exchanges text messages with his mom. She asks if I had purchased a baseball cap. Maxwell replies, truthfully, that I had not, and instead am wearing one I had brought with me. It’s a gold cap emblazoned with a black letter P, of the style the team wore back in the 1970s, when they last won the World Series. I had purchased the thing on ebay several years ago, for reasons I do not remember properly. I have a lot of baseball caps.
Among the baseball cogniscenti, ICSNH Park is widely praised for providing a first-class experience to visitors and players alike. Our evening supports that particular conclusion—we have a fine time—but while witnessing a game in my personal 23rd of the 30 current Major League stadiums, I may be getting a tad jaded.
Our seats offer a fantastic view of the field, and the quirky downtown skyline is pleasant to observe over the bleachers. The food courts sell favorites from local restaurants along with typical ballpark fare, like hot dogs and nachos, and ice cream in tiny replica plastic helmets. Between innings, the Jumbotron shows game-attendees dancing and bopping to the piped-in pop music and pointing gleefully to their larger-than-life images on the Jumbotron. Or cheerleaders and the mascot shoot T-shirts into the crowd from an air cannon. Or people in silly costumes stage a footrace on the inside of the wall separating the field from the stands.
And…and…and…it’s the same darned thing at every other modern baseball park in the country!
The new ballparks are so wonderful and welcoming and entertaining that they are emotionally indistinguishable. None of them have ghosts or odors yet; you can’t identify them by smell the way you could the departed New York stadiums, or the last of the two dinosaurs in Chicago and Boston. If you want a unique baseball experience, try St. Petersburg, Florida, where the home team plays in an expansive concrete bunker that feels like an abandoned dolphinarium, or to Oakland, California, where the best seats are still about half a mile away from home plate.
The visiting Cardinals won 8 to 4. Some homeruns were hit, some double-plays were executed. I forget which costumed pierogi—the racing characters are pierogis, I should mention, pierogis being a type of dumpling that are popular in the region. The racers are Home Depot tools in Atlanta, hot dogs and sausages in Milwaukee, cartoon automobiles in Detroit, and long-gone U.S. Presidents in Washington. I forget which costumed pierogi won tonight’s footrace here in Pittsburgh, but I expect I could find out on an Internet site. Details like this are tracked and recorded, you know, and available to the public.
Maxwell asks me—repeatedly—why I like baseball so much. The answer involves structure and repetition, as well as the pageantry. Baseball is a symphony of pitches, hits, outs, innings, and other events enacted very precisely, deliberately, and in obeyance of useful rules. It’s wonderful to identify the shortstop and know exactly what he does, or at least what he’s supposed to do. I suppose there is also an element of nostalgia to my fandom, as well as stubbornness. I still have the kazillion baseball cards that I collected as an innocent youth. I’m not planning to get rid of them any time soon.
The next day we visit the Cleveland Art Museum, where we marvel at Andy Warhol’s tribute to Marilyn Monroe, and some classical stuff with angels, and a big squeezed tube of toothpaste. They have lots of good stuff here; go see it, the next time you’re on the Ohio Turnpike and have a mind to escape near the Cleveland exit. Admission is free, although I did spend a couple bucks on postcards.
I am grateful for Maxwell for being a good traveler and a good sport. To his credit, and to my relief, he did not spend all of his passenger hours noodling away on his iPhone. He did spend many of those hours so engaged, but not all of them. We played a few car-trip road games, like identifying the alphabet, in order, off the passing highway signs and license plates. We also had a few conversations on various topics, most of which were pointless but still meaningful. For example, we discussed the attributes of the various cars in the Wacky Races, which you can discover for yourself here:
These are serious and disturbing times, for reasons I will let readers confirm for themselves. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to keep life in perspective. We’re here for only a brief number of decades, and to make every moment awash in beauty and meaning and importance is just too big a burden, I think. We need to manage the smaller and simpler moments as well, including being stuck on the freeway in Chicago, en route west to St. Paul.
That’s it from me, at least for now.