Sunday, July 22, 2007


"Well, that kind of puts a damper on even a Yankees win." --- Broadcaster Phil Rizzuto, after reporting the death of Pope Paul VI

The third installment is always the largest. X-Men 3, Spider-Man III, The Return of the Jedi, Batman Forever, etc. You run the risk of going overboard while missing what made the original two installments so special. Thankfully, baseball road trips seem to be immune to this prophecy. For the third straight year, and the second straight year of an increased cast, the annual road trip was a blast. The trip has grown from four to six to an ungodly eight people in 2007, thus necessitating two rental cars, two hotel rooms and twice as many lewd jokes.

This year's trip was the first year that the destination played an important part. While baseball took center stage in the first year (the scenic metropolises of Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh) and even the second (the admittedly cool Chicago and Milwaukee), the fact that New York City was the venue for this year's trip made the focus on baseball a little less...well, focused. Sure, we all wanted to see Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium, and for the first year ever, the last day of the trip wouldn't be spent at a game, but rather at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But there was just as much excitement over seeing the Big Apple as there was about seeing the Big Toilet -- my personal nickname for Yankee Stadium, but I digress. Of the eight of us, I was the one who had been to NYC in the past. I went on a field trip with my high school band in 2000. The highlights of that one included a concert at the Lincoln Center, a tour of Carnegie Hall, trips to the Statue of Liberty and the Guggenheim Museum and (my personal favourite) a tour of NBC Studios. It was there that I began my lifelong fandom of Conan O'Brien, and where I also got my infamous NBC Sports ball cap. I was wearing that cap during my first-ever drunken experience when I was 19, which prompted passersby on the street to shout "Hey NBC!" and "I love NBC Sports!" as I sat on a street porch and felt my innards gurgle.

But that's a post for another time. The cast of characters:

Dave -- Trip rookie. Ladies' man. Master of impressions. Kept irritatingly referring to me as, "the big guy" a la Wedding Crashers. If he met Steve Jobs on the street, would probably offer to give him a hand-jobs.

Dean -- Three-year trip veteran. The 'old guy' (i.e. nearly the ripe old age of 30). Mild-mannered pharmacist. A fellow fan of Fulham FC, which means that he and I share constant disappointment.

Eric -- Trip rookie. Repressed accountant. Made one funny joke about my dog six years ago and has been milking it ever since, even though my dog has been dead for over four years.

Jeff -- Three-year trip veteran. Used to be a Ben Stiller lookalike, but now is probably closer to Stiller-in-monkey-form in Zoolander. Rock star -- he can't walk down the streets in Sudbury without being mobbed by autograph hounds. One of the most positive and diehard Blue Jays fans I've ever met.

Matt -- Three-year trip veteran. Apparently hates baseball now that his fantasy team has hit the skids this year. Has an unnatural love of Chipotle Mexican food and if provoked will talk about it for hours. Chews tobacco.

Scott -- Two-year trip veteran. Local London radio celebrity. Outstanding at snide one-liners. Got lost last year in Chicago, but has promised us that it won't happen again, so we put away the leash.

Trevor -- Two-year trip veteran. Once drove a car into a bridge abutment -- though it was less tragic than the scenario postulated by Chris Farley in Tommy Boy -- and thus his otherwise impeccable driving ability has been a running joke ever since. Is nicknamed 'The Big Ham' for reasons only his girlfriend can postulate.

And of course, there's me. Three-year trip veteran. "The Big Guy." Floppy-hat wearing, wise-cracking, sweatrag-carrying Mark. Unofficial morale officer for the trip. Stupidly brought along three books through there was literally no time to read them. Likes to sit down.

This octet got rolling in our two cars, and already things got crazy during our long drive to the city. Our trip ended up stretching to more than 13 hours thanks to a two-hour lineup at the Niagara Falls border, a interminable search around Scranton for a Subway and a beer store (Scranton was chosen, of course, because it is the setting for The Office), and a stop to buy and set off fireworks. The video cameras were rolling just in case the fireworks went astray and someone was horribly burned, so at least we'd have a high-rated entry for YouTube. The long drive was paid off upon our entry into NYC, and at the risk of sounding like a a gawky tourist, it was a pretty spectacular vista looking at the city's skyline as we entered the Lincoln Tunnel. We drove out into a genuine New York traffic jam, which makes the worst Toronto traffic snarl I've ever seen look like a tea party. Driver Eric kept his wits about him as we made our way into the city, though as we drove past the incredible sights like a fully-illuminated Times Square, he did shout, "I can't believe I'm not looking at this!" Peace, Eric.

CELEBRITY SIGHTING #1: While we were stopped at a red light near Broadway, I could've sworn I saw actor Kevin Tighe standing on the sidewalk with a group of people. Tighe is one of those classic "Hey, it's that guy" actors who's been in a million TV shows and movies, but is perhaps best known currently as Locke's dad on Lost. Now, I know what you're thinking -- "Oh come on Mark. Of course you think you see an actor from Lost. I'm surprised you didn't say you saw Jorge Garcia and Daniel Dae Kim holding hands and skipping down Broadway." First of all, New York's sidewalks couldn't take the impact of a skipping Jorge Garcia. Second of all, I am ninety-five percent sure it was Tighe. I guess I'll have to check US Weekly, since they're always keeping track of the uber-stars like Pitt, Jolie, Cruise and...uh, Tighe.

We finally arrived at our very nice hotel (the Murray Hill Inn, for anyone taking a New York trip in the near future) and then immediately headed out on a walk back to Times Square. You have to love an area of town where businesses are required by law to have large, gaudily-lit signs promoting their wares. After taking a number of pictures, we took a short stroll around the area, found an Irish pub and had a couple of drinks before retiring for the evening. I was roomed with Eric, Trevor and Scott, and since Trevor and Eric drove, it was agreed upon that they should get the bed while Scott and I shared the fold-out couch. There was no repeat of the Steve Martin-John Candy "those aren't pillows" incident.

Enough of this tourist crap, it's baseball time. After a breakfast at a nice little diner known as Scotty's, we were off to Shea. We took the number seven train, which was immortalized by former Braves reliever and beacon of tolerance John Rocker.

"Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark, looking like you're riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing." -- Rocker, in a 2000 interview with Sports Illustrated

Unfortunately for Rocker, we didn't see any of these characters. Well, I guess there could've been an ex-con or two, or maybe an AIDS patient. Those folks don't exactly wear signs. What we did see, however, was one of the highlights of the trip. A 53-year-old gen-yoo-ine Noo Yawker who was trying to flirt with a much younger, increasingly bemused Russian woman with armpit hair. This guy, named Kevin, made the following statements, and just imagine them spoken in a thick Bronx accent and without an ounce of self-awareness.

"20 years ago I would've made a run at you...You wouldn't have stood a chance. My charm, my charisma, my savoir faire."

"Believe it or not, I owned a dance studio from 1994 to 1995."

"You should model."

"You think just because his last name is Perez he can't be Irish? I drank with him at a pub!"
(note: Mets pitcher Oliver Perez was born in Culiacan, Mexico, which is over 5100 miles away from Ireland according to Google Maps).

"I was a number-two rated ballroom dancing champion before I hurt my back."

"Yeah, I almost died four times. I was in special forces in Vietnam."

(to a kid on the subway, about the kid's father) "He borrowed 40 dollars? I don't believe this, this kid works at a steakhouse and his dad makes 400-500 a night and he's borrowing money. He should go to DJ, for Degenerate Jerkoffs."

"One time I fell through a window and hurt my back. I was 25. I was in a body cast for nine months."

Back when I was doing improv comedy, one of my biggest weaknesses was keeping a straight face during a routine. Time didn't improve my stone-face skills, as I had to bite my lip, turn my head and do everything in my power from laughing out loud at this guy. He was the unquestioned comic mascot of the trip. The few other candidates just couldn't match his sav-wah feh-ah.

Anyway, onto Shea. It's not much of a stadium -- big concrete bowl, limited bathrooms, unimpressive view. The Mets are building a new ballpark right across from center field, so we could literally see what the future holds for Mets baseball. The actual stadium atmosphere in terms of fandom, the scoreboard, etc. was actually pretty good. We each received a Mets cap with the 'NY' logo in military camo as part of a tribute to the Armed Forces. So I guess I'll have to reverse my stance on the war in Iraq since hey, it got me a free hat. Suspiciously, every one of the 'fans of the game' (those randomly selected people who win a free t-shirt, or food, or a gift certificate depending on the promotion) was military personnel. I smell a rat. I also smelled the stink that is the Cincinnati Reds, who dropped a 5-2 decision to the Mets. Jose Reyes homered for New York, and Dublin's own Oliver Perez threw a quality start for the win. Perez's success greatly impressed Dave, as Dave has a long-standing love affair for players he used in his MVP Baseball video game in 2004. He'll say things like, "Ah, Jeff Francis. He threw five perfect games for me."

So with Shea down, we headed back to the hotel for a couple of hours of R & R before heading to dinner at Mickey Mantle's restaurant (Motto: "Our Selection Of Liquors Will Make Your Kidneys Fail!"). We decided to walk, and thus our stroll took us past the Waldorf-Astoria, Central Park, and a large number of corporate headquarters for several of the world's largest banks. I was less impressed with the sites since I was concentrating on my sore feet (this was a bad time to realize my shoes are a half-size too small) and the overbearing humidity in the city. The walk saw the trip debut of --- you guessed it --- the sweat rag. Lord have mercy.

CELEBRITY SIGHTING #2: Who should be sitting at another table in Mickey Mantle's but actor/professional Bill Pullman impersonator Bill Paxton? Jeff and Dean approached him for a photo, which Paxton declined because he was with his family, but he did offer up handshakes. I think Jeff and Dean would've had a better chance if they had walked by the table yelling "Game over, man! Game over!"

CELEBRITY SIGHTING #3: Okay, this one is very tenuous. As we were leaving Mickey Mantle's, I thought I saw Edie Falco pass us on the street. She was walking with another woman and carrying an umbrella, so when I turned to do a double-take, all I saw was the top of her bumbershoot. None of the guys watch Sopranos, so nobody knew her from Adam, but when I showed Dave her pic on the internet, he thought she might've been the woman who passed us by. Call this one a 30-percent probability.

The rest of the night was spent taking the subway to see City Hall, and to pay our respects at the WTC site. I may as well mention this now, as I was already taking about my heat and discomfort. The subways were blazingly hot --- just muggy and humid as all get out. Toronto's subway, for comparison's sake, is also not air-conditioned, but it's just warm, not the sauna was was NYC. I mention this since two days after we left, a steam pipe blew up not a block away from our hotel and caused a shutdown of the city's subway system. The explosion was apparently caused by a combination of cold water seeping into the system plus the fact that some of the piping was over 80 years old.

Since my feet were on the verge of dying, I suggested a bus tour for the next day's activity. Scott, Jeff, Dave and Dean went off on a tour of Yankee Stadium in the morning, so Trevor, Matt, Eric and myself boarded a double-decker bus for a tour of Manhattan. It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours, since at least we can say we saw a number of the major sites, though we didn't actually experience them, per se. Our tour guide was hilarious, as she had an amusing habit of relating many of the major sites to their appearances in Sex and the City, Friends and the Spider-Man movies. For example, as we passed the world-famous Beth Israel hospital, our guide noted that it was where Phoebe had her triplets. Yeah, screw you revolutionary medical treatments, I wanna know about Lisa Kudrow's fake babies! Then again, I'm the same guy who pointed out during a stroll through Central Park that we were at the spot where Miss Piggy chases down Gregory Hines in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

CELEBRITY SIGHTING #4: When Jeff, Dean, Scott and Dave were out and about on Monday morning, they stopped in at the Hello Deli to see Rupert Gee. I'm counting this as a celebrity sighting by the barest of margins, because....well, it wasn't really a pure sighting. A sighting is randomly seeing a celeb in the street -- it's out of the blue. Going to the celeb's workplace doesn't really count. It's not like I counted seeing Jose Reyes, Adam Dunn and the other ballplayers as celeb sightings at Shea Stadium. That said, apparently Rupert was pleasant and the deli serves up a mean sandwich. Rupert must just go home and night and thank his lucky stars that the Letterman show came to town. He must run the most profitable deli in Manhattan.

Bus trip done with, it was time for the final pilgrimage -- Yankee Stadium. Now, I think that anyone who has read my blog for any length of time knows about my...well, let's say displeasure towards the New York Yankees. So the historical significance of Yankee Stadium was tempered by the fact that the place may as well have been the eighth circle of hell. Trevor and I trekked out to left field to see Monument Park, and while I got a pair of photos with the Lou Gehrig and Mel Allen plaques, I couldn't help but think it was a bit overdone. I mean, the scoreboard announced Monument Park as 'the most historic venue in all of sports,' which nearly made me throw up. You don't see the Cardinals, Red Sox, Athletics, Dodgers or any of the other major baseball teams construct a self-congratulatory tribute to their stars within the sight of the very playing field. You don't see the Blue Jays with the Rogers Canyon of Heroes, with commemorative plaques dedicated to the likes of Garth Iorg and Juan Guzman. Get over yourselves, Yankees. On the bright side, Trevor was innocently standing in line when a Frank Thomas batting practice home run found the two-foot hole between the wall and the netting, and the ball bounced harmlessly at Trevor's feet. Score! Combined with Jeff getting an autograph from his idol Reed Johnson, we had a better day of ball collecting than Mike Lowell and John Kruk's doctors.

The game itself was probably the most frustrating game I've ever seen. After a year of objectively covering the Blue Jays, I no longer have any tolerance for their flaws. The team just isn't any good, and fans like Jeff who think they're just a step away are fooling themselves. This game (and, as it turned out, the whole series) was a perfect sign of that. The Jays left a ridiculous 39 men on base over the four-game set, and when you do that, it's no surprise that you lose three of four. Monday's game saw 12 of those baserunners stranded in a game where you just knew New York was going to eventually win. Toronto kept blowing chance after chance to put a stranglehold on the game, and sure enough, with the score tied 4-4 in the sixth, the Yankees got the big hit to take a two-run lead. 'Big' hit is in name only, as Andy Phillips hit a bloop single about a foot in front of Vernon Wells' glove. The Jays have had a lot of injuries this season, but when that happens, teams usually revert to the fundamentals -- smallball, manufacturing runs, using the hit-and-run, station-to-station ball, etc. Instead, the Jays couldn't move baserunners over, and were useless with men in scoring position. Even in situations where only a sac fly or even a hard grounder was needed, you could count on a Jay hitting a pop fly or just striking out.

The hair-pulling nature of the game aside, the overall atmosphere in Yankee Stadium was pretty cool. Not even close to Wrigley last year or even PNC Park in Pittsburgh, but cool nonetheless. This was our yearly splurge on tickets, as we were located just slightly to the first-base side of home plate, about a dozen or so rows up from the field. The highlights included Jeff and Dean being loudly booed whenever they stood cheering in their Reed Johnson and Roy Halladay jerseys, respectively. I expected more creativity from the so-called hardcore baseball fans in New York. I wanted some clever one-liners and putdowns, not just 'BOOOOOO!' and 'Go back to Canada!'

CELEBRITY SIGHTING #5: Adam Sandler and Kevin James were in a box seat at Yankee Stadium, just a day removed from being in a box at Shea. Oh, to be a movie star promoting a new film. The downside of it would be always having to leave early to avoid a rush of autograph hounds at the end of the game, and thus Chuck & Larry themselves left around the eighth inning. As it happened, they exited the park through the ramp running right by our seats. So I stuck my hand out and got a high-five from the King of Queens himself. Wow, I touched the hand that was involved in antics with Jerry Stiller. I may never wash it again.

We left Yankee Stadium, I resisted the urge to urinate on my seat, and made our way back to the hotel for a quick checkout and to begin the trek to Cooperstown. C-Town, as I call it, is many things, but a metropolis isn't one of them. It's out in the boonies of New York state, which made our drive very interesting. A four-hour drive through the back roads was enlivened by The Michael Rapaport Show. We had brought a pair of walkie-talkies along on the trip for inter-car communication, what with cellphone roaming rates being so ridiculous, and with Dave in one car and me in the other, we quickly set up a communique that involved impressions of Rapaport, Jays manager John Gibbons (me), Bubbles and Conky from Trailer Park Boys (Jeff and I), original ball trip creation Blueby the Talking Pie (Matt), Sly Stallone (Dave), and a brutal impression of Jays announcer Jerry Howarth (me -- I can't do Jerry's voice properly so I just pinched my nose to create a bit of a nasal effect and went with it). I don't really do voices well, but my impression of Gibbons cracks the guys up. For those of you who are unaware, Gibbons sounds somewhat like a combination of Boomhauer from King of the Hill, and Dave Foley's chairman of AT & Love character on Kids in the Hall. I don't really do that good a likeness of Gibby, aside from his trademark noise when he's thinking of an answer to a question. I can only describe it as sounding like "Eahhhh...." Anyway, I guess spending all that time talking to Gibby paid off after all, as it has led to an impression that makes my friends laugh. The Rapaport Show went on for so long that it just about killed the batteries in the walkies, so if we had been stranded, we would've been screwed. But it would've been worth it.

We arrived in Cooperstown around 4 AM, and it took us a while to find our motel. We passed several known hotel chains (Holiday Inn, Howard Johnson) on the way into town, and Eric kept on being a dick and commenting that these all would've been great choices to spend the night. Trevor, who had booked our motel, kept a tight-lipped silence. We arrived at our little motel and Trev informed us that though the place was locked up for the night, our room keys were in the flower pots in front of the doors. This led to a running joke about how the continental breakfast would be in the shrubs, and the bill would be under the doormat, and how to find the clerk, you'd have to chase him down in a field.

After spending literally seven hours in our hotel room, we checked out (Eric didn't have to chase the clerk) and headed up the block to the Hall. Most of Cooperstown is concentrated in its one main street, on which you can find about a hundred baseball-themed shops. There's a bat store, a jersey store, several memorabilia stores, and even the Triple Play Diner, where we had brunch. For me, this was very much a Field of Dreams-esque, "Is this heaven?" kind of town. Before actually entering the Hall, we visited one of the jersey stores where I found it -- the Fergie Jenkins throwback Cubs jersey. If you remember last year's ball trip....

...I was frustrated in my efforts in finding either a Jenkins jersey in Chicago or a Paul Molitor throwback in Milwaukee. Now I had Fergie in my hands, which is something that only a few hundred Black Eyed Peas male groupies and half the people in the recording industry can say.

But...I didn't get it. For one, I've got to pinch pennies for the time being since I'm working just the one part-time job. And if I had a choice, I really would've rather gotten the Molitor jersey. Isn't there some fable about some animal that passes up something for the chance at something even more, and they're ultimately punished for their greed? Wait, that may not have been a fable, but rather an episode of Deal Or No Deal. The upshot of it was that my gambit of a Molitor jersey being sold at the HOF gift store was sadly not paid off. When I was 10, I remembered the Hall's gift store as being a nonstop cavalcade of jerseys and hats, but perhaps this perspective was molded by my young mind. Or, in the last 16 years, the store decided to switch from baseball-related gear to chintzy crap. Shot glasses, board games, fridge magnets...what the hell? Some jerseys were available, but hardly the gallery of HOFer gear that I remembered. It was mostly stars from the last 30 years (i.e. Tom Seaver, Ozzie Smith and a ton of Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken stuff since they're being inducted next week), and of course Molitor wasn't given any love. By the way, the HOF gift store had hats available for every Major League team except, you guessed it, the Blue Jays. What a slap in the face. The ratio was about 85% Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Padres and Orioles stuff, and 15 % for the other teams. Thumbs down to the HOF gift store for ruining an otherwise spectacular experience.

Oh yeah, I guess I should've talked about the spectacular experience before I got to the griping. The HOF was just as wonderful as I remembered it as a 10-year-old. The building has undergone a bit of renovation in the last decade and a half, so everything looked a bit newer, but it was still magical. One floor is a virtual timeline of baseball, running through the history of the game and focusing on various notable players and teams. This was there my nerdy knowledge of baseball came in handy, as my pals (no slouches at baseball knowledge themselves) turned to me for questions about such obscure players as Travis Jackson, Highpockets Kelly and Chick Hafey who happen to be HOFers. Yes, all those years of reading baseball stats on Saturday nights finally paid off. Sigh. Some of the displays were a bit family-friendly, shall we say. One large case was devoted to Ty Cobb, and mentioned his legendary competitiveness, his ownership of a dance studio from 1894 to 1895 and the number of records he still holds. Nothing about, you know, the fact that he was a horrible racist. Let's just omit that part of baseball history. Hilariously, the Cobb exhibit was right across the hall from the room devoted to the Negro Leagues and the history of black ballplayers. Other highlights of the second floor included not one, but two grammatical errors in George Brett's exhibit (I'm presuming the writer had money on the '85 Cardinals in the Series), a clearly awestruck guy mumbling about how Pete Rose was intense, and the somewhat funny instance of the wall displays abruptly ending in the main room. Now, they continued on through a hallway, but it was like, "Baseball history ran on until 2001, and then nothing. The end."

The Hall of plaques was very cool and led to many pictures. Plus, I got to show off some of my knowledge of players again while standing in front of the plaque of Negro League executive Effa Manley. A young lad standing next to me asked, "Is that a girl?" My answer: "Yes." My advice to children was at least more constructive than Babe Ruth's. We also hit the very well-updated hall of records (it had the numbers of the likes of Bonds, Hoffman and Biggio updated to the day on these large display boards), the exhibit of baseball films and the library. Now, we only perused the bookstore and didn't hit the library proper, since I didn't want to hold the guys up for five hours, but it was still good. When I was 10, apparently I actually burst into tears of joy when told by a Hall librarian that all of the information was available for easy photocopying. This is my mother's story, I don't remember it myself. Is there such thing as a happiness blackout?


5. Jeff and Matt posing in front of the plaque for Negro Leagues executive Cumberland Posey, because his nickname (as plainly stated on his plaque) was 'Cum.'

4. The obligatory pun about Three-Finger Brown's prowess at sexually stimulating women.

3. The Babe Ruth room featured a letter written by the Babe to a young fan where Ruth encouraged the young lad to "take his place." This led to an extended bit about why would Ruth want to be deposed from his job, which then led to jokes about the kid trying to top the Babe in eating hot dogs and sleeping with women of the night.

2. Dave posing in front of Kirby Puckett's plaque pretending to be blind. My exaggerated sigh/whimper when I saw what he was doing became a joke on its own.

1. Eric posing for a picture lying down under the skirt of a statue of a female ballplayer. It was, in a word, creepy.

After a quick look at Doubleday Field (Labatt Park pwns it), we got back in the cars and began the end of our journey. The one final highlight (if you can call it that) was listening to the Jays shit the bed against the Yankees again, this time blowing a ninth-inning lead due to a balk and then losing in extras. The one bright spot was Jeff getting through to the postgame JaysTalk with Mike Wilner. As I said before, Jeff is about as positive a Jays fan as there is, and thus it can be said that the views he expressed on the air did not exactly match the opinions of the seven other guys. Jeff: "You know, I love the Jays and I want them to be better, and I really think they're on the right track and I have a lot of faith, but I'm just not 100 percent sure about the direction they're taking." Us: "The team is a pile of suck that should be blown up and started over."

So that was Ball Trip '07. As always, thanks to my fellow travelers for a fantastic time. We're already planning a return to New York in 2010 once new Yankee Stadium and new Shea are built, plus a side trip up to Boston and Fenway. But as for next year, a Philly-Baltimore-Washington trek is looking pretty good. Stay tuned for our tour of the White House and more George W. Bush jokes than you can fit into a hat. An army-themed Mets hat, that is.

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