I'm going to level with you: 20 or so entries into Stealing Home, the chronicles of my baseball road trip of a lifetime, I hit a wall. I was worried. Afraid that I'd leave you thinking each and every ballpark was the same. On my way back to Toronto in June, after visiting all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums in only 55 days, I was invited onto The Fan 590's Prime Time Sports. The Globe And Mail's very own Jeff Blair was hosting the program that evening, and, as he bid me adieu after my segment, he said: "the writing's the hardest part." I didn't know what he meant; at that point I'd been regularly churning out columns. I understood only after I settled back into regular life -- whatever that is -- after four and a half months of traveling. And Mr. Blair, a veteran in this business, was right. I found myself unable to write. In search of inspiration, I bought and read John Updike's Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. I absolutely loved it. Yet, after reading the legendary essay, I felt even worse. How could I ever write half as brilliantly about baseball as the late Mr. Updike? In baseball speak, in my attempts to get to home plate, I tried to bowl the catcher over; take him out. Instead, I took the brunt of the blow, the catcher left standing, triumphantly holding the baseball in his hand. I was out. Dead on arrival.
But, as is more often than not in baseball, you get another at-bat. Another shot. And, as we reset once more here at Stealing Home, I'll be honest with you: I miss it. I miss baseball. Dearly. I miss being on my baseball pilgrimage. That's another reason why I've had, and am still having, such a tough time finishing Stealing Home. One part of me can't believe I pulled it off. The baseball road trip of a bloody lifetime! Another part of me doesn't want the experience -- and its documentation -- to end. It went by too fast, as most good things in life do. If I could turn back time, I'd rewind back to Chicago. Back to Wrigley Field's bleachers, where I sat with my older brother, watching the Cubs on an overcast Sunday afternoon in May. And here I always naively believed that it wasn't possible for baseball to pass me by.
As one of the blessed few with access to Rogers Sportsnet One since the fiasco began, along with a subscription to MLB Extra Innings, I watched my fair share of baseball since, well, "stealing home." But it wasn't the same. Not at all. I missed being on the road, travelling from city to city, ballpark to ballpark, baseball my entire existence. As much as I complained about how brutal, at times, the travel was, I longed to be back on the bus, back on the Greyhound, reading Joe Posnanski's The Soul of Baseball, or Dirk Hayhurst's The Bullpen Gospels, my next stop, and next magnificent baseball theatre, mere hours away.
For 55 days, nothing in the world mattered but baseball. Baseball and the daily weather forecast. That's it. I wasn't worried about finding a job in beat up and still bleeding economy, as I am now. I wasn't kicking my own ass for not asking The Globe And Mail to cover more of my expenses, as I am now. I wasn't even worried -- not as much as I should have been, at least -- about my burgeoning Visa bill, as I certainly am now. No, it was a simple time. Just me and MLB's 30 ballparks. Me and the road. Me and baseball. And as the 2010 regular season wrapped up on Sunday, so did my summer of baseball. I understand I may never be as close with the game again, a realization that has left me feeling nothing short of depressed. But I have no regrets. Only fond memories. As summer rolls into fall, the warm weather into cold, and regular season baseball gives way to the post-season, I will be finishing Stealing Home. And it was in Denver, Colorado, at Coors Field on a crisp Tuesday night in late May, where I pick up the journey, and where I was reminded why I'd fallen in love with baseball all over again.
Until We Meet Again
Saying goodbye to Phoenix wasn't easy. I grew rather fond of the desert in only 48 hours. It might have been the unseasonably cool May weather. Or the afternoon I spent writing by the pool at my hotel. But -- let's get real -- it was probably the Manager's Reception at the Embassy Suites Phoenix-Biltmore. Every evening at the establishment, from 5:00 to 8:00 pm, hotel patrons are treated to complimentary snacks, beer, and hard liquor. Thank you, recession! There's something about free beer. It tastes better. Yeah, that's it.
Before heading southwest to the Golden State (and rounding third on my journey, so to speak), I had to venture out of my way, north and east, to Denver, Colorado. On the map of Major League Baseball, Coors Field stands alone, smack-dab in the middle of the colossal United States of America. Between 18 and 24 hours away by bus from southern Arizona, my buttocks was delighted to learn it would be spared the journey. (Remember: 10 hours or more on wheels, and I vowed take to the skies.) Southwest Airlines came through in the clutch: $150 for a one-way fare; less than $40 more than the $111.76 Greyhound was charging. And Southwest, sweethearts that they are, don't charge an obscene $25 to check-in a bag. What they also don't do is assign anybody a seat, which meant I ended up, of course, sitting between two of my fellow passengers. The bottom line, however, is: I'm cheap. Actually, let's go with frugal. I'm frugal. I'm a journalist. We're not in this line of work for the money. And I'll gladly sit between two strangers -- one of them a little portly -- for a couple of hours if it means I don't have to pay an insulting checked baggage fee. Keep fighting the good fight, Southwest.
The Mile-High City
I landed in Denver having not done my homework, and without a clue as to how to get downtown to my hotel, the Holiday Inn Denver-Central. A cab? Between $70 and $75, I was told, by a kind old woman at an information desk. And she saw the fear in my eyes; she saw all the colour quickly drain from my face. "The airport's far from town, honey," she said. And Information Auntie wasn't messing around; Denver International Airport sits about 40 kilometres northeast of the city. I was screwed.
Sullen, I found a chair, and brought up the Holiday Inn's website on my BlackBerry. To this day, I'm not sure what I expected to find, but there it was: "Our free shuttle runs from 6:00 am until 10:00 pm daily to and from DIA." I looked skywards. The ceiling was in the way, but I thanked the baseball gods for continuing to walk with me. I rang the hotel. I'd just missed the shuttle, I was told, and would have to wait an hour and 15 minutes for the next one.
With time to kill, and not having eaten since early in the desert, I told myself it was noon somewhere, and ended up at the airport's Boulder Beer Taphouse. Unsure whether I'd have the chance to sample a microbrew at Coors Field, I decided not to let the opportunity pass me by. Boulder Beer was the fine state of Colorado's first microbrew, after all. As George Costanza once put it: "Mathematically, I had to do it." I went with a $6.75 pint of Boulder's Pass Time Pale Ale. Fitting, no? Caramel malt flavoured, I found it a touch sweet, but well-deserving of its silver medal at the 1997 World Beer Championships.
Mission Meat Loaf
With less than 24 hours in Denver (I was off to Anaheim the next day), I was a man on a mission. And that mission was to sample downtown Denver's Rocky Mountain Diner's Buffalo Meat Loaf before heading to Coors Field. You see, the meat loaf came Jeff Blair recommended. And Mr. Blair, Toronto's favourite sports columnist, isn't a fan of much in this world. So I knew that if he told me I had to have it, well, I had to have it.
Once again, the Holiday Inn courtesy shuttle came in mighty handy. While I'd booked my hotel in downtown Denver on Priceline.com, it wasn't actually downtown. It was a good four-and-a-half to five kilometres north of the tall buildings. That's the risk you run when booking with Priceline. You don't pick your hotel; they pick it for you. All you're in control of is the neighbourhood you want to stay in. I got lucky with the shuttle. Without it, I'd have paid out my rear end on cab fares, and a cheap room for the night would have meant little.
You'll find Rocky Mountain Diner's historic sandstone facade at the corner of 18th and Stout streets. Inside, they're serving up homemade food and an old school vibe, along with five beers on tap. Yeah, my type of place. And I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Jeff Blair. The Buffalo Meat Loaf was far and away the best meat loaf I've ever had. I might never eat meat loaf again, for I know it won't compare with what I had that fateful day in Denver. Along with vegetables and savory mashed potatoes, it was well worth $11.95. A bargain, dare I say. And speaking of bargains, I washed it down with a 12 ounces of Fat Tire beer, New Belgium Brewery's flagship amber ale, proudly brewed in Fort Collins, Colorado, for only $2.95. Happy hour is truly the happiest hour of them all.
The Power Of Baseball
From 18th and Stout, it was a pleasant 10-minute walk to Coors Field, in Denver's Lower Downtown Historic District (LoDo). And, let me unequivocally tell you, there's no better surrounding ballpark neighbourhood than Coors Field's. LoDo is a dream.
The LoDo area's been through it all. It began as the original city of Denver, and remains its oldest neighbourhood. Once a hub of entertainment, trade, and transportation, LoDo even saw time as a red-light district. By the 1950s, the 23-plus square block area had fallen upon hard times. Skid row, yo. Chock full of derelict warehouses that began to be demolished one by one, Denver City Council stepped up in 1988, and historic status was granted to what remained standing in LoDo.
Today, the area is touted as an example of successful mixed-use urban renewal. You name it, LoDo's got it: lofts, condos, more bars than you can count, restaurants, shopping, art galleries, businesses, museums ... everything. Not to mention the Pepsi Center, home of the NBA's Denver Nuggets and NHL's Colorado Avalanche, and Denver's Union Station, only three blocks from Coors Field. What was once a downtrodden part of Denver is now one of its finer locales. And I like to think baseball -- the Colorado Rockies and their home, Coors Field, built in 1995 -- have a lot to do with that.
Rocky Mountain High
I strolled up to Coors Field's first base entrance via 21st St., which ends at Blake Street, at the southeast corner of the building. I hung a left onto Blake, and stood in line at the box office, one of the longer lines I encountered on my trip. As I waited, a light rain began to fall. I wasn't worried, though. At that point on my journey, I'd begun to trust in the weather, out of my control as it was. I knew I'd be watching Rockies baseball that night. While in cue, I struck up a conversation with a man behind me wearing a Detroit Tigers hat. He thought he had me beat, having travelled to Denver all the way from the Motor City, until he asked if my Jays cap meant I was actually from Toronto. "Indeed," I said, and I think we both found comfort in the fact that we weren't the only crazy ones who'd adventured thousands of miles to watch a baseball game.
In terms of tickets, the Colorado Rockies might have the best deal in all of baseball: $4 for a Rock Pile bleacher seat in centre field. Unfortunately, they were sold out. As they should be, I thought. I settled on a $12 right field ticket.
From the box office, I continued south on Blake St., headed towards Coors Field's main home plate entrance, at Blake and 20th. And perhaps it was Denver's thin air, but when I got there, it took my breath away. Brick facade, mirrored windows, a large analog clock between "COORS" and "FIELD", and an American flag flying above all of it. I couldn't help but think: God bless America. And God bless baseball. And God bless beer, too.
In front of the main entrance, a statue. The folks down in Denver wanted a statue so badly in front of their ballpark, they put up a generic one, of a baseball player wearing no uniform, and called it "The Player." I couldn't believe it. I also couldn't help but think of home, of former Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, and how, when he tore Adam Dunn a new one and questioned whether the slugger actually liked baseball, he famously said "How much do you know about the player?" Good times. Now, whenever I hear or read "the player," I think of Ricciardi. And, now, Coors Field. About J.P.: I still maintain he doesn't get enough credit for what turned out to be an exciting and competitive 2010 Blue Jays ball club. When in doubt, remember: Ricciardi traded Robinson Diaz to acquire newly crowned Home Run King Jose Bautista. No, I don't know who Diaz is either.
The area southwest of Coors Field's main entrance, between 18th and 20th streets, and Blake and Wynkoop streets, is heaven. What it's got is exactly what we don't have in Toronto right next to the SkyDome (Yes, I'm still calling it that): bars, patios, restaurants, rooftop patios, and more bars. Yeah, we've got two options down the street from the Dome, Steam Whistle Brewery, and the "Devilishly Good!" St. Louis Bar And Grill. But I want more. I want as many as they've got in Denver. Blake Street Tavern, Sports Column, and Falling Rock Tap House, all in and around Blake and 20th streets. Jackson's All American Sports Grill, at Wazee Street and 20th. That's where I ventured, it's outdoor second-floor patio looking far too appealing, and packed, before the game. Even on Larimer and Market streets, between 20th and 21st, will you find a number of restaurants and bars to enjoy before or after the game.
LoDo's crown jewel, as it relates to Coors Field, anyway, is Wynkoop Street. At Wynkoop and 18th, you'll find Wynkoop Brewery, founded in 1988 by, among others, the mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper. I know what you're thinking, and, yeah, he's my type of mayor, too. The brewpub's arrival on the LoDo scene, along with the ballpark's, are a big reason why the area no longer has a reputation of being one of Denver's dangerous. That's the power of baseball, and beer, my friends. And it is to be applauded, and enjoyed, forever.
If you're traveling by car on Wynkoop, to 19th St. is as close as you'll get to Coors Field. Automobile access ends there. Pedestrians only from that point, and many of them walk from Union Station, at 17th and Wynkoop, to the ballpark. Wynkoop, between 19th and 20th streets, is lined with bars on its northwest side. Sing Sing, The Caboose, Denver Chophouse and Brewery, and Fado Irish Pub, to name a few. There may have been more. I was disoriented. I'd been told that I would be impressed by the LoDo area, near to the ballpark, but I wasn't expecting what I found. You're lucky, Denver. I hope you appreciate what you've got.
Make no mistake, the area is baseball themed. From the sports bars, to Wynkoop St., where, before you cross a short bridge over 20th St. to head into Coors Field, you'll find a granite tiled baseball diamond outlined on the concrete you're walking on. Between the faux chalk lines: more red bricks, inscribed with messages from Colorado Rockies faithful. On the basepaths: the fabled lyrics to "Take Me Out To The Ball Game." Yep; brilliant.
Another Hit Of Baseball
We're over 2,500 words deep and I've yet to, you know, actually go inside the stadium. Stay tuned for part two of the Denver baseball experience, where I tell you about the immaculate views, the conversations I had with Rockies fans about Troy Tulowitzki and Ricky Romero, and why sports, baseball in particular, are the greatest escape. And thanks; for sticking around and bearing with me, and for reading. I'm grateful.