It’s Monday. I’m exhausted from vacation, though not as much as I could be. I’m starting week two of a two-week vacation, and this is a pause. Last week was an all-out sprint, starting with seeing a band (Lifter Puller) on July 4 that I never thought I would see play a live show again. Those who saw me outside at the Triple Rock are still marveling at my happiness that night. To anyone still puzzled by the grown man shouting: sorry/not sorry.
It continued with an all-day July 5 cookout in which a full 60 people were at our house, many of them children. There was a blissful solo day off in there (hours at a time just reading for pleasure, which NEVER happens these days), quality time catching up with Minneapolis friends, luxurious bike rides, a massage, a day off (just the two of us) with my wife … and then Thursday, the big one: the start of the Great Baseball Road Trip, which I’ve written about in this space many times since its inception in 2000. This coming week will be another escape, this one far more tranquil, up to Lake Superior.
Before I get into the GBRT details and thoughts, I’ll stop to say I am not complaining about exhaustion. This last week or so has been an exercise in privilege. Even in the midst of the so-called day-in-day-out drudgery of middle-class America, I feel this privilege – having a job I enjoy tremendously, having the means to live without much worry, having the love and warmth of friends and family. I believe that to a certain extent we make our own luck, create our own lives and control our own destinies, but I’m also not naïve enough to think that’s all there is to it. I’ve worked hard to get where I am, but plenty of people work hard and have a relatively greater proportion of burden or struggle or unhappiness that is no fault of their own.
I’m an active member of a segment of society that has a lot of choices. You need not be a “one percenter” to experience this privilege. And I actively aim to remind myself that there are those who look at their perfectly fine refrigerator and don’t think about upgrading to stainless steel but rather think about how they might fill it up with food for their family. All of this is a long way of saying: I hope I know how lucky I am, and at the very least that I try to appreciate it. The very act of thinking about it is probably a good start. I can do more. I will do more.
But yes, the time and means to take a two-week vacation in the middle of the summer is a privilege. And the Great Baseball Road Trip, a four-day sprint, offers me in retrospect a chance to think a little bit more about the national pastime and life as I now know it and experience it. Even having the time and choice to write and think about it right now is a privilege.
First, the baseball: Our group of five charted an ambitious course, one led by circumstance, timing and my sometimes insane desire to see a good plan come to fruition. I’m the trip constructor. We all decided on a rough outline and destinations. Then I filled in about every available minute. The result was an itinerary that brought us to six games in four days, which sounds impossible unless you’re willing to get ridiculous. And we are always ready for that.
The itinerary: Fly into Chicago on Thursday morning; White Sox/Blue Jays at U.S. Cellular at 1:05 p.m.; drive from there to Geneva, Ill. (about 45 miles west of Chicago, technically a suburb but a commute that will take a year of your life for every day you go back and forth) for a 6:30 p.m. Midwest League game between the Kane County Cougars and Wisconsin. Friday, it was off to South Bend for another Midwest League game. Saturday, on to Toledo for a scheduled doubleheader. And Sunday, back to Chicago for a Cubs/White Sox 1:20 p.m. game at Wrigley, followed by a flight back to Minneapolis on Sunday night.
Quite by design, we wound up with as much baseball as possible. This is the Great Baseball Road Trip, after all, and my obsession with day-night multi-city doubleheaders has grown almost maniacal over the recent years. Quite by accident, as I would discover, we ended up with a case study in the different levels of baseball – two Class A games, two Class AAA games and two major league games. The road trip has gravitated toward minor league games as the participants have grown older, a commentary on both seeking new experiences and finding more enjoyment in the small than the large.
In some ways, of courses, the differences are obvious. Class A games are smaller, and the quality is clearly lower; Class AAA games are a step or two up in every way; and MLB games are the show. In other ways, the differences are a little more subtle though just as stark.
In Class A, you get intimacy. The ballparks we were at in Kane County and South Bend were wonderful little gems that hit all the right marks in terms of concessions and atmosphere. The baseball is important to the crowd, but in some ways it feels like a county fair or other town event. If it’s a nice night (and the weather was perfect everywhere we went), it’s a pleasant place (and perhaps THE place) to go and hang out with friends or family. On the field, you will see flashes of brilliance, but you will primarily see exceedingly young players who have just started to embark on pro careers (this was low-A ball). There are a few who are clearly hanging on, a year or two older than they should be for the level; there are a few who are clearly on the rise, prospects who could very well fill out major league rosters someday. And then there are the majority in the middle, trying to figure out if they belong. The games are a mixture of development and sound baseball strategy. And in both of the Class A games I went to, postgame fireworks followed – solid shows that added to the “come out for a nice night” feel.
In Class AAA, you get an altogether interesting mix of a few prospects, a bunch of guys who have had a taste (or more) of the majors and are dying to get back and a few players who seem to have accepted their fate as good players at the second-best baseball level in America (and there could be far worse fates than still playing baseball for a living).
The atmosphere is more akin to a big league park – quieter, more focused on the game itself. The quality of play is very similar to that of a major league game. The breaking pitches are sharp. The routine plays look slick. But you can sense the quiet desperation in some of the players, like ambitious high school seniors in a small town with just a few months to go until graduation. There an urgency of movement, a get me out of here longing with the goal being so close.
Former Twins infielder Alexi Casilla, who will turn 31 in a week, started Game 1 at second base for Toledo. He has nearly 1,700 major league at bats (most of them with the Twins, but a few of them as recently as last year with Baltimore). Brennan Boesch, a decidedly decent player with Detroit from 2010-12 and the owner of a fine .707 career OPS in the majors, was on the other side with Louisville (and is batting .380, so maybe a return to the Reds, where he had 56 at bats earlier this year, is in the offing).
The seemingly real life Crash Davis (Bull Durham fame) plays for Toledo. His name is Mike Hessman. He’s hit 14 homers in 223 career MLB at bats, but those were among just 42 hits. His last MLB at bat came in 2010. He’s now 37 years old and has hit an incredible 429 minor league home runs in more than 7,000 minor league at bats while striking out 2,337 times. The journalist and baseball fan in me became obsessed with Hessman as Game 2 went along, desperately wanting him to come to the plate with the bases loaded in the final inning (instead, the game ended with Hessman on deck in a 2-1 Toledo loss).
This is Class AAA – guys working on a pitch or honing a specific skill or simply hoping another chance or change of scenery will be the one they need to finally stick in the majors. In the world of WAR (Wins Above Replacement), Class AAA is a field full of replacement-level players. All of them would have something to add to a major league roster, so the games look very like major league games. Knowing that creates a mix of urgency. Even the postgame fireworks (three nights in a row on the trip!) shared that urgency. It was a 10-minute show that was so rapid-fire it felt like one big finale. Do it bigger and better. Be bolder. Get noticed. Get us all out of here.
And the majors, of course, are the destination. We saw plenty of All-Stars and prospects (like the Cubs’ Kris Bryant) who have clearly arrived and don’t intend to return to the Toledos of the world. We saw similarly established players – solid major leaguers who might never be All-Stars but have proven enough on the top level to be comfortable. And there are the final guys on the roster who will never go as far back as Class A again but are looking over their shoulders at the likes of Brennan Boesch. The margin between the top of Class AAA and the bottom of the majors really amounts to luck and circumstance, though the difference in perception is immense. The fans at a major league game are ostensibly there for the baseball (even at Wrigley), particularly at a Cubs/Sox game. But the difference in ticket prices from one section to the next – which might be a few bucks at a minor league game – is tens or even hundreds of dollars at a major league game. So there exists a class system among fans, just as there is with players.
We sat in decent seats at Wrigley, which set us each back about $70. When the GBRT started 15 years ago, that would have seemed outlandish and we might have just skipped the game or waited for a more affordable time to go to Wrigley. These days, nobody really batted an eyelash – which leads me to the meditation on the nature of the trip itself.
The core group that started out on the yearly trip in 2000 has evolved over the years, but all four of the original members (and a recent joiner) were part of this year’s trip for the first time in many years. We have money but we don’t have time, whereas when all of this started 15 years ago we had time but didn’t have money.
The GBRT used to be a sprawling, 7-10 day affair with full days off between games and nights spent sleeping on friends’ floors to cut costs. Now a four-day escape is about what most of us can carve out of our busy family lives, and even that feels somewhat extravagant (and again, fortunate). It’s a sprint from start to finish, four days of urgency with ridiculous purchases and actions – instead of a ridiculous amount of driving — now marking the ways in which we prove in the name of baseball that we are all 16 years old still.
Along the way this year, after we learned that our rented vehicle had a TV monitor and the necessary plug-ins, members of our group bought not one but two video game systems (PlayStation and Sega Genesis) so we could play the video games of our teens while we drove. Dropping some cash to play NHL ’94 was automatic, a no-brainer.
Nobody slept on a floor, nor have we for quite a few years. Maybe we carry ourselves in ways that make it seem as though we have clout or greater importance; at two of the three hotels on this year’s trip we received fairly significant upgrades at minimal cost. We weren’t staying in luxury, but were staying in plenty of comfort. Even the start and end of the trip – flights into and out of Chicago – were a bit of a luxury. Sure, the GBRT has flown to destinations before, but this was a time and convenience move more than anything. Would you rather spend $200 on a flight or an extra 13 hours in a vehicle at a fraction of the cost? The answer was different 15 years ago.
So when I got home at around 10:30 last night, just ahead of the STORM OF THE CENTURY, I was tired but not ground to a nub. This is part of adulthood, I suppose, even if we are still overgrown children: understanding your means and understanding what you are willing to pay for. Even more so, though, it’s about appreciating what you have and enjoying a life you’ve created without feeling your privilege has pushed you to excess. The road trip has evolved but it hasn’t ditched its skin. It’s still a perfectly imperfect crazy thing, and I hope I never take that or the life that affords it for granted.