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May 4, 2012It was the dangling carrot. The prize at the finish line. An insane baseball trip, the idea for which was spawned during recruiting season.
Three parks. Three days. Three games. Forty-two hours from the first first pitch to the third first pitch.
So while waiting to talk to the same prospect, Ryan Callahan and I settled on the itinerary: Minneapolis, for Twins-Red Sox, on Monday; Milwaukee, for Brewers-Astros, on Tuesday; Wrigley Field matinee on Wednesday. Home on Thursday.
Callahan and I have known each other for about seven years; since I hired him as a correspondent at The Daily Times and we became good friends. We compete on the UT beat, but we never let it get in the way of our mutual hatred of the Cubs.
We executed the trip last week, and I wanted to share the adventures and mishaps with you folks. Maybe some will find it entertaining, perhaps even helpful. Anyway, thanks for indulging me. I won't make this journal anywhere near as long as the 2,000 miles we logged from Sunday through Thursday.
Sunday, April 22
After polishing up my recap on what seemed to be a very productive spring camp for Tennessee, which clearly upgraded at some key coaching positions like offensive line, running backs and secondary, I head out around 1 to pick up Callahan, who's already running late. Let me say this right now: Theme warning for us.
We have reservations in Madison, Wisc., which is approximately 10 of the 15 or so hours we will drive to Minneapolis. We gain an hour going, which is good since we don't leave till after 1. The early theme is that we are children; we have several running jokes among us on the beat, many of them "Step Brothers" references or juvenile "That's what she said" jokes. It's amazing how applicable both are in life. Of course, Ryan works almost the entire drive up except for the hour I'm on the phone doing the final show of "The Nation" until Chris Low and I pick things back up in August.
The driving Sunday is mostly nondescript. Drive-thru lunch in Kentucky holds us off till we begin the second-best part of the journey, our quest for the best pizza we can find. This night it's Piece Brewery and Pizzeria in Chicago. For "New Haven-style" pizza. It's a thin crust, decidedly non-Chicago style and it's spectacular. Point, Callahan.
I mentioned earlier we compete but don't let it get in the way. After he's worked the majority of the drive, I chat up Jalen Ramsey after we leave Chicago. We're off, but we're lucky. So we work when we can.
But we don't make great time for various reasons, some of them toll booths near Chicago. But they provide the day's top humor. One female toll booth attendant is flat-out killing it to Usher's "Love in this Club." Moments later, Callahan is convinced the next toll-booth attendant is checking out an adult magazine. Ryan points out that he barely looks up for our money and is reading something below the window and completely out of sight. I'm an optimist. So maybe it's just a Web site not owned by Rivals or Ryan's employer and the guy's ashamed. I kid.
I'm participating in my nephew's "Flat Stanley" school project, and "Flat Parker" travels well in April. He gets to five Major League Baseball games by trip's end, the Predators' clinching win against the Red Wings and several appearances at UT football practices. But, "Flat-P" doesn't get to go inside the Ho Chunk Casino near Madison. Unfortunate, but I was working "Ho Chunk Casino" into this column at any cost.
We reach Madison at 1:15 a.m. central. I hit the fitness center; Callahan works until maybe 4. If he was more efficient it would be perhaps only 3. But that's his challenge. I've got plenty of my own areas for improvement.
Monday, April 23
Facing another 300 miles, we target 10 a.m. for departure. We don't make it. But still find our targets; no pun intended.
The trip through Wisconsin is splendid. It's genuinely beautiful scenery; dairy farms, green pastures, elaborate barns and plenty of interesting towns. Near Baraboo, we see advertisements and then actually behold "Cupid's adult novelties and bakery." I don't even have to write a lame joke here.
Baraboo, however, has an interesting footnote in American cultural history. It's the birthplace of the "Ringling Brothers Circus," founded there in 1884. Ryan and I see the historical marker for its original site. I'm a geek. I'm impressed.
It's smooth sailing into Minnesota. The weather is sunny and mid-60s. I should have mentioned we bought our baseball tickets months in advance for Minneapolis and Chicago. We bought off the street in Milwaukee. We did not book hotel rooms in Minneapolis or Chicago until the Monday we were staying in Minneapolis; until the Tuesday we were arriving in Chicago after the Brewers game.
But it works. We get the Hotel Minneapolis on Hotwire, and it's a spot I'd definitely recommend and hope to stay at again. Seven blocks from Target Field. Directly across the street from the train line, which is important because I'm rolling "Flat-P" out to Mall of America for pictures at LegoLand. And Ryan's shopping. Hey, some stuff I can't make up.
Target Field is better than expected. I've been to about 16-17 MLB parks; it ranks near the top along with PNC in Pittsburgh. The sight-lines are great, the weather is ideal, the game is entertaining. And we get free umbrellas.
We hit up "Sneaky Petes" after the game, and Twins fans are very friendly. So is the blonde that snaps pictures with one of us.
Tuesday, April 24
We're meeting an old high school classmate of Callahan's for lunch in Lacrosse en route to Milwaukee, so we need to be rolling by 10 in order to ensure plenty of time in Bud Selig's town before first pitch.
But it's another scenic drive out of Minnesota, lunch in Lacrosse and on to Milwaukee. Two things stand out on the drive, other than the fact that we again somehow get ideal weather, with temps pushing near 70: We pass billboards advertising Hu Hot Mongolian Grill. It's in Apache Mall. On my best day, I couldn't write creatively enough to make this up. We also see Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Lacrosse. I'm fixated on the name.
In Milwaukee, Ryan scouts spots for us to eat. Urban Spoon fails to mention one joint highly recommended is shuttered. We end up at "Fourth Base," about a mile from Miller Park. It's in a run-down looking building on a sidestreet, and it's a great meal. Plus the memorabilia inside is strong. They've even got full-size, old-school college football helmets lining a shelf above the bar. The Tennessee and Alabama helmets are side-by-side. These people know their stuff.
Plus they provide a free shuttle to the game. We're pushing it for first pitch; it's 6:57 and we neither have tickets nor are off the bus. We buy $40 face value tickets for $25 apiece, and that was probably too much. Callahan, decked in Cardinals gear, is accosted by a middle-aged Brewers fan as we file into the park. It's absurd, as he politely explains to the guy he's a baseball fan and we're on a trip. But he's one bad seed; the folks around us in the mezzanine down the third-base line are incredibly gracious and love hearing about our trip. They try to encourage us to polka during the seventh-inning stretch. We demur. Can't be too tired to drive 100 miles to Chicago after the game.
Wednesday, April 25
We stay near Lincoln Park and have an easy walk and train ride to Wrigley. Our weather fortune is gone. It's barely 50, windy and raining a bit. First pitch is delayed about 25 minutes, which gives us time to finish our lunch at Goose Island Wrigleyville. Kudos to Austin Ward on that one. The cheese curds and fish and chips gain high marks.
Despite the inclement weather, we're under the overhang about 32 rows directly behind home plate. The Cardinals roll; Callahan cheers. I'm shamefully delighting in the Cubs' agony. I kept it rated 'G,' I promise, but I finally get a Cubs fan to say, "What's the deal? Are you a Cardinals fan? Or a Braves fan? You've got a Cards shirt and Braves hat." My reply: "Anyone but the Cubs, to be honest." I don't take a bow, but I know my work here, like the Cubs' season, is done.
It's Giordano's for pizza post-game. Callahan gets shrimp on his half. On a deep-dish pizza? Oh well. The next bad meal I get at Giordano's will be the first. I understand some folks prefer Geno's or Lou Malnati's. We vow to try Malnati's before we roll out Thursday; we find our way to the Magnificent Mile Wednesday evening. My iPhone, from sending so many photos, is dead. I spend about 30 minutes just standing in the Apple store on Michigan, charging it. No one says a word.
We grab popcorn at Garrett Popcorn Shop. Callahan's sweet girlfriend, Melissa, has requested a batch. He refuses to splurge for the tin. SMH.
Thursday, April 26
Lunch at Malnati's near downtown is solid to very good. The atmosphere is good; they've even got a framed Larry Bird Celtics uniform and an autographed George H.W. Bush Yale baseball jersey among their collection. Good stuff.
Traffic is worst at a toll booth just outside of town. Of course, not quite half the booths are open. So we sit in line for several minutes. Which is nothing compared to ...
The rush-hour traffic we encounter in Indianapolis. But we're in no hurry. We're driving fast but not rushing. I'm inundating Callahan with Dave Matthews Band, O.A.R. and a new rap-mix CD. By trip's end, I'm proud to say I've got Callahan singing, saying and hash-tagging #ballsohard. He's a poor man's Kanye West I suppose.
Dinner at Ted's Montana Grill in Lexington and I'm home around midnight. I throw my bags in the floor, head upstairs and help contribute to and edit the "War Room."
The odometer shows 2,000 miles from Sunday around 1 till Thursday around midnight. Fortunately, there was nothing keeping track of all our lame jokes.