Baseball parks fascinate me. I had been to 11 major league parks, sometimes in clusters -- the two in New York, where I lived, the two in Chicago, the three in Southern California. It's at the point where I crave more and more parks. I want to see every one. Because it's more than just seeing the game. It's seeing The House That Ruth Built, The Friendly Confines, The Green Monster. Even The Carbon Copies That Some Yuppie Master Architect Built.
Football stadiums, basketball and hockey arenas -- they're all the same. (I know, I know, Boston Garden. But even The Gaaahden is not long for this life.) Football stadiums are cold and I'm usually freezing in them. Basketball and hockey arenas are dark and stuffy. I always played basketball outdoors in the schoolyard.
I had been to every baseball park in the East. The area to search out was the near Midwest. Close enough to drive to, a concentration of parks: Cincinnati's Riverfront, Detroit's Tiger, Milwaukee's County, Pittsburgh's Three Rivers, Cleveland's Municipal.
Wanting to go in the summer, I scanned the schedule -- July . . . August . . . back to June . . . Bingo! Reds, Tigers, Indians and Pirates all home at the same time.
That's it, I'm gone.
Cincinnati-Atlanta on June 14, Detroit-California on the 15th, Cleveland-Milwaukee on the 16th, Pittsburgh-New York on the 17th.
Call it my 4 by 4: four parks, by car, in four days.
Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and my 1983 Camaro. Off We Go
I leave Wednesday, the 13th, allowing for a driving day to Cincinnati, about eight hours from Falls Church. It takes about four and a half hours to hit Ohio, where, I'm pretty sure, there are more construction sites than McDonald's. Midway through the state I pick up the Reds' radio station and hear the best team in the National League getting bashed by fans, something about a losing streak. I hear the bashing focus on Eric Davis, one of baseball's stars, hitting .188. I also hear Thursday's forecast: "Showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon, a chance of rain at night, humid with a high in the nineties."
Super. Rain is this trip's Kryptonite.
Midafternoon at Riverfront Stadium and it's hazy, humid and, as forecast, in the nineties. Welcome to Washington West.
The park looks so much like others: Veterans Stadium, Fulton County Stadium and, I suspect, Three Rivers Stadium. (If the American League is the junior circuit, how come all the old parks, save Wrigley, are there?)
Riverfront truly is river front. A 1 1/2 gainer from the plaza level and you're smack dab in the Ohio. Despite the weather, fans begin milling about at 3:30, two and a half hours before the game and an hour before the gates open. People are peering over the 4 1/2-foot concrete barrier on the south side of the park, taking in the brown, murky waters and Kentucky, a stone's throw away. The breeze makes it much cooler than the north side, which faces downtown.
Come 4:30 sharp the gates aren't open. "Hey, what's going on?" "Open up!" come the screams. Reds bashing, now this. Rough crowd.
Riverfront, artificial turf and all, is pretty nondescript. Oh, to have seen Crosley Field, knocked down 20 years ago for an industrial park. Charlie Hubbard saw it. Good bet Charlie Hubbard has seen it all.
Charlie, 66, has been an usher for the Reds since he was 19, in 1943. Dressed in a white shirt, gray slacks and a Reds cap, and armed with his trusty rag, he's sort of a Doodles Weaver clone, about 5 feet 9, hunched back, sharp blue eyes, a couple of cauliflower ears, and a cauliflower nose (if that's possible).
Charlie first came to Crosley to try out for second base. Really. The way Charlie tells it: "The guy says, 'I'm gonna send you to the farm.' I said, 'I don't wanna go to the farm.' "
So he stayed with the big ballclub -- as an usher. "I started at Crosley Field way up there in Section 19," Charlie says, pointing toward Riverfront's upper deck in right, "and I moved to third base by the Reds' dugout." That's the prime spot for an usher, behind the home team dugout. When the Reds moved to Riverfront, they moved their dugout to the first base side. That's where Charlie is today, Aisle 113.
"See, I'm the number one man here."
But "I'd rather be at Crosley Field any day, 'cause I was between third and home catching foul balls. And old Waite Hoyt used to talk about me on the radio. He'd say, 'Ol' Mother Hubbard made another good stop.' One time I got hit in the jaw by a ball. They stopped the game; all the umpires knew me."
As the rain arrives about 5 o'clock, Charlie says he's "gonna go two more years, then I'm gonna try and call it quits. After 50 years. That's the way it's gonna be."
Charlie has made me hungry. Someone tells me about a "Mett," a smoked sausage on a hot dog roll. She tells me whenever New York comes to town, the fans yell "Grill the Mets." I chuckle. I have a Mett.
The first rain ends quickly. The second delays the game for an hour at the start. Four batters and it rains again. (Scoreboard rain delay quiz: Who is the Yankees' all-time home run leader? Answer: Duh?)
The unbearable weather leaves the crowd subdued, almost sleepy -- and more than a bit short-tempered. The Reds score three in the first, but Rick Mahler gives the Braves a run in the second.
"Get him outta there."
I chalk this up to the conditions, which, unfortunately, have made this a lousy night for baseball. Then I remember the Reds bashing.
Davis comes up in the third.
How can they boo? Sure, Davis is having a rough time, but he's a superstar, the team's in first. (Davis goes zero for three with a walk. To be honest, he looks absolutely awful. But he's still their best player.)
In the fifth, a section in right-center tries to get a Wave going. Thankfully, the crowd doesn't bite, probably because it's asleep.
To the ninth. Rob Dibble, the guy they were calling for, blows the lead, 3-3 (pleeeease, no extra innings). The Reds win in the bottom half (thank you) on Barry Larkin's two-out single. Cheers. Finally.
Tailing the Tigers
En route to Detroit Friday, the Davis bashing continues. "Trade him to Cleveland for Maldonado." For Maldonado? Huh? "Trade him for Griffey." Griffey? Seven years younger. No deal, unless of course you throw in Redford, Costner and Shoeless Joe.
Just north of Dayton and the Detroit station comes in, detailing the violence following the Pistons winning the NBA title.
I hate to get to the punch line so early in the joke, but Tiger Stadium unquestionably is the finest park of the four, a magnificent, storied structure. Unfortunately -- amazingly -- there is talk of tearing it down.
Outside, it's white. The house I grew up in is white.
Inside, I'm awe-struck. It's everything everybody told me it would be. I look at the 440 sign in center, the deepest dimension in the majors. But it looks anything but big. It's downright cozy. A comfortable, secure feeling. The roof curls inward, seemingly putting its arm around you, saying, "You're at Tiger Stadium, everything's okay."
And this night is 20th annual Polish-American Night. About a half-hour before the 7:30 start, here they come: musicians and dancers -- lots of dancers, almost all elementary school kids, performing the Krakowiak.
Meantime, the grounds crew is watering the grass. A rather comical site seeing the 12-man hose team spray the field without spraying the performers. (And if you think the dancers moved in unison, you should have seen these hose guys.)
What to eat on Polish-American night? Of course, a Polish sausage. It's okay, about the same as the Mett.
I'm in the upper deck, just to the left of home plate. I was told this is The Place to Sit, where you can reach out and almost touch the players. The upper deck is so close there's a net to block foul balls. I'm just to the left of it. Peering over the field, I feel like an orchestra conductor, the players majestically awaiting my cue.
Bottom of the first and the announcer salutes the Pistons. They get the biggest ovation of the night, 30 seconds of Standing O-ness.
Second biggest goes to Cecil Fielder, who, out of nowhere, has given the fans hope. But in the third inning he takes a mighty swing, missing for strike two. From the people next to me:
Mother: "Whyyyy does he swing so hard? Whyyyy doesn't he just swing for a single?"
Son: "Maaaaa, he's hitting .327, leave him alone."
Next pitch, called strike three.
Father: "Kill the umpire."
(People really yell that?)
I ask my usher, Gary Stupyra, what the attendance is. Gary comes from a House of Ushers: His father, cousin and brother-in-law work at Tiger Stadium, his brother used to.
Gary guesstimates "tweeeenty-oooone thousand" -- and that's pretty much what I'm after, but he continues -- "twoooooo hundred eiiighty-threeeeee."
The kid who defended Fielder now pooh-poohs Gary, saying, "Nah, about 18 thousand."
Innings later, the attendance is announced at 21,252. Wow! Amazing! Gary misses by 31! Only 31!
The kid says, "See, he was wrong."
To the bottom of the ninth of a much quicker, more festive game than in Cincinnati and the Angels and Tigers are at 1-1.
With a runner on first, Lou Whitaker, batting .186 (two points lower than Davis), pinch-hits. The fans go wild, they love him. Pretty much the same average, but Davis hears the boos, Whitaker the Lous. He flies out.
The Tigers win in 10. Again, the home team triumphs in its last at-bat.
Chilly in Cleveland
Saturday afternoon, off to Cleveland for a night game. The Tigers are already playing. Tough on them, but in the car I get a treat: Ernie Harwell. I'd heard much about him but never heard him. Truly a joy, a velvet-voiced baseball joy. And the signal stays all the way to Cleveland. Getting off the exit for the park, I see a vacant lot: "This property acquired for the future home of Cleveland's NEW Stadium." Good grief.
While Tiger Stadium emits a friendly feeling, Cleveland Stadium does not. Situated between Lake Erie and the railroad tracks on the edge of downtown, it's a cold-looking mass of beige brick -- like a fort. And once inside I'm stupefied by its expanse. But the dimensions are similar to Tiger's, even 40 feet shorter in center.
It's Fifth Annual Salute to Champions Night. About 50 high school students are honored for academic and athletic excellence. They get to shake hands with Indians catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. (I say to myself that the Brewers should steal like crazy; Alomar's arm must be dead.)
I had heard about a guy, John Adams, who sits in the last row of the right-center bleachers and bangs a drum. But it's 7 o'clock, moments before game time, and he's nowhere. Suddenly, he emerges from a ramp and, even though there are only about 30 people in the bleachers, he heads directly for the last row.
He starts banging as the Tribe takes the field and the crowd responds, clapping along with him.
In the fourth inning I head to the bleachers from my first base side box seat. I introduce myself and he shakes my hand, a strong grip. I meet his wife, Kathleen. John Adams -- "just like the president," he says -- is not what I expect.
What I expect is some sort of annoying jerk who gets drunk and pounds, and pounds. What I don't expect is a 38-year-old data systems analyst for the telephone company. I kind of anticipate the part about the lifelong Clevelander and die-hard Indians fan. The 6-2, strapping, Larry Csonka look-alike attends "virtually every game," often by himself. He buys his tickets.
John first came to Cleveland Stadium at age 3 in 1954 -- "not a bad year to start," he says of the Indians' last World Series appearance. He saw six games that year, "begging my father to take me. I remember my first game, against Boston, and we won, 5-3. I couldn't tell you the date. But I still remember the bus ride, coming down on the number 15 Union bus downtown. . . . Baseball's always been in my blood."
As for the bleachers, "I came out on a whim once and it was very comfortable. Met a few folks who are regulars. It isn't the wacky people who sit in our bleachers. A lot of families."
I break for a hot dog because John tells me I "have to try the stadium mustard." I soon discover it's Stadium brand mustard, a fixture in Cleveland. I also discover that the hot dog most likely would fit perfectly into the diet of a vegetarian.
The drum made its debut 17 years ago. "I looked for something dirt cheap -- I mean, junk," John says. "I found an entire drum set for 25 dollars. Somebody just wanted to get rid of it. I mean, the cymbals were like garbage can lids. It was worthless, but what I was looking for. . . . This 26-inch drum has -- by accident, not by design -- perfect resonance for this ballpark."
The first time John brought it, "we beat Texas. Frank Duffy hit two home runs. I don't think he ever did that in his life again. As I was leaving, people were shaking my hand, giving me all this credit for rattling the pitcher. Now, when you win you're great and when you lose you didn't hit the drum hard enough. . . .
"I do it responsibly. I'm here to have a good time and cheer on the team. I love the game, it's a love of mine, so I go in the flow of the game."
The flow of this game is not good for the Indians. There has been little to bang about as the Brewers ride a 7-2 cushion into the home eighth.
Get ready for "Bang the Drum Really Fast."
Jerry Browne doubles with one out, John sits up.
Candy Maldonado walks with two out, John gets ready.
Brook Jacoby singles for 7-3 -- BOOM BOOM.
Cory Snyder reaches on an error, bases full -- BOOM BOOM BOOM.
Tom Brookens singles for two runs, 7-5 -- BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM.
Sandy Alomar walks, bases loaded -- BOOM BOOM BOOM.
Pinch hitter Carlos Baerga doubles home three, Indians lead, 8-7 -- BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM.
Mitch Webster singles for 9-7 -- BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM.
The Brewers score two in the ninth, but Browne flies home from second on a double play in the bottom half: 10-9. Indians win! BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM (BOOMS to the nth degree, if you will).
For the third straight game, the home team wins in its final at-bat, albeit the Indians do it the hard way.
"It's never easy for us," Kathleen Adams says.
Finally, a Day Game
Driving to Pittsburgh Saturday night since the Pirates and Mets play Sunday at 1:30. Listen to the Yankees-Blue Jays on the Toronto station. Tie score, extra innings. The reception fades. I find the New York station. Yankees lose. So what else is new? The postgame show tells me the Reds win and Davis hits a long home run. Bet they didn't boo that.
Finally, a day game.
Father's Day and the crowd at Three Rivers Stadium (as expected, oh so similar to Riverfront) is big. After all, the Bucs are playing the hated Mets. (Grill the Mets?) Three Mets fans, one a little kid, are in the parking lot. "Get back to New York," comes the yell.
Sitting in the sun in left-center and it's hot: They say it might hit a record. To my right is a family. Not mom and pop and sis and bro. I mean a family: Grandpa, Grandma, uncles, aunts, cousins, sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, even friends. Maybe 20 in all.
They're ready. But, apparently, Neal Heaton is not. Third pitch: Mark Carreon goes deep, 1-0.
Fifth pitch: long flyout. Seventh pitch: long foulout.
Normally, Darryl Strawberry bats fourth. "Why'd they take Straw out," Grandpa moans. "Chickens. That lefty-lefty crap."
The home first and from the loudspeaker comes a locomotive sound to get the already riled crowd more riled. Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga, Wooo Woooooo.
It doesn't help. Dwight Gooden is sharp. I remember him saying he loves to pitch in hot weather.
Second inning and Barry Bonds comes up, bringing with him the 007 theme music. He singles, steals and scores on a wild pitch, 1-1.
"Hey, Rick, start the Wave," yells an uncle. Ugh.
To the third and the bases are full of Mets, two out.
"Get him outta there," a cousin yells.
"Pull him," a grandson follows.
Another short-tempered, first-place crowd. No runs.
Heaton goes to a 3-2 count in the fourth.
"Get him outta there," that cousin cries. Take the guy out for ball three?
Just then Grandpa spills beer on Grandma. They all love it. Me too.
Carreon homers again in the fifth, 2-1.
"Get him outta there." (Yep, same cousin.)
The Mets make it 3-1 in the fifth, the Pirates score in the bottom half. The joint is jumping, the tying run on second. Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga, Wooo Woooooo. The rally derails, 3-2.
It's 4-2 in the seventh and the Pirates threaten. Loudspeaker plays "Havah Nagilah."
Nonetheless, It's good for one run and that's the way it ends. The home teams' streak ends at three.
Oh, well. So, now it's off to Grandma's house (not me, them). "She's gonna cook for us," the pain-in-the-neck cousin bellows. Grandma does not look amused.
He's Headed for Home
In central Pennsylvania heading home Sunday night, I tune in the Phillies-Cubs pregame show. They wrap up the day's games and, lo and behold, Davis hits two homers. I hear the call of the second one; the fans go wild. Touche', Eric the Red.
Hey, wait a minute. Phillies-Cubs pregame? From the Vet? I could probably be there by the fourth inning. . . .
Hmmm. . . .
Len Hochberg plays left-center field and bats second on The Post newsroom softball team.