Saturday, August 30, 2008

Travelblog, Part 3--The Stadiums

During my trip, I attended games at all five Major League ballparks in California, and here are my report cards for each in the order in which I visited them…

Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles (C+)  All I’ve heard for the last 30 years or so is what a great stadium the "Taj Mahal of Baseball" is.  In one of my favorite books of all-time, From Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks, author Bob Wood traveled to every Major League stadium in the summer of 1985 and rated them, and he just raved about Dodger Stadium, and gave it his #1 ranking.  Many other stadium rankings by fans and media outlets like Sports Illustrated and ESPN place DS at or near the top of the lists, but I’m sorry to say that I found the place to be highly overrated.  Mr. Wood rated Kansas City’s then-Royals (now Kauffman) Stadium #2—"A Masterpiece…in plastic" he called it because we still had Astroturf at the time—but even the Astroturf-era/pre-renovation Kauffman Stadium would blow Dodger Stadium’s doors off.

My biggest problem with the place is one doesn’t have access to the entire stadium like in most ballparks.  You’re stuck on the level that your ticket is on and there’s no moving up or down, thus I was unable to roam around and see the park from all angles (including the bleachers) per my usual.  I was also surprised at the generally poor upkeep of the place, like the rickety condiment cart that was about to collapse (see pic with my vaunted Dodger Dog) and the cheesy 60-watt bulbs used in the light fixtures under the upper deck roof.  Mr. Wood wrote about concourse floors that were "clean enough to eat off of", but I saw nothing of the sort, and the infield grass—something Mr. Wood also raved about in his book—looked very ratty in places.  The place is definitely showing its age, and although I’m aware that there are major renovation plans in the works, the Dodgers are co-owned by that schmuck Rupert Murdoch, so there’s plenty of money in the till to do a little bit of basic upkeep in the interim.

Media-types are often so quick to dog on the fans for being late-arrivers at Dodger games, but they can’t help but be late!  Traffic getting into the stadium is a nightmare (not really the stadium’s fault), and even though I allowed over an hour to get from my hotel near Anaheim to the game, I barely made it in time for the first pitch.  Hell, I could see people still arriving at the parking gates during the 6th inning!  The parking lots there are a total clusterfuck, and it also didn’t help that I had to walk a country mile from the back of the parking lot behind the stadium that overlooks downtown all the way down to the bottom of the hill to the left field corner behind the bleachers to buy my ticket, then go all way back up the hill to enter the stadium itself.  Nuckin’ futs!

Another supposed perk of Dodger Stadium is all the stars you’re likely to see there, but the only one I spotted through my binoculars was Tommy Lasorda posing for photos with fans down in the luxury seats behind home plate.  I do give credit to the L.A. fans for at least being enthusiastic instead of laid-back like I’d always heard they were, and the stadium does have a beautiful vista beyond the outfield, but overall, I was very underwhelmed by the Dodger Stadium experience, thus I’m being very generous with the C+ grade.  I’ll take Kauffman Stadium over it any day…

Petco Park, San Diego (A-)  A beautiful park in a great setting right downtown amongst all the eateries and bars in what’s called the Gaslamp District.  If you go to the top row on the first base side and look outward, you get a nice view of the Coronado Bridge and part of San Diego Bay.  Petco would’ve gotten an A from me except for the area of obstructed view seats down the left field line (see pic) next to the old Western Metal Supply Co. building that they incorporated into the stadium itself.  Cute idea, but from these seats, you can’t see the center fielder or the left fielder, nor can you see the video board for replays of the plays you missed.  There’s no excuse for this in a modern stadium.

By the by, I visited the San Diego Sports Hall of Fame in nearby Balboa Park, and was fairly impressed with it, apart from one glaring and curious omission—there were no exhibits there for the San Diego Sockers, who dominated both indoor and outdoor soccer in the early ‘80s (10 league championships in all) and the Sockers were the Oakland Raiders of the MISL to us Kansas City Comets fans—i.e., the Evil Empire!  Apart from two individual members of the team (forward Juli Veee and head coach Ron Newman) being inducted into the SD HOF, there was nary a mention of what was easily the most successful sports franchise in San Diego history.  Even the San Diego Chicken was on display at the museum, but the Sockers got snubbed.  Come to think of it, so did Fred Sanford’s favorite roller derby squad, the San Diego Sapsuckers...

Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Oakland (C-)  I refuse to call this place by its current corporate name, especially since I’m less-than-impressed with McAfee’s computer software!  So this is the home of those evil empires known as Charlie Finley’s A’s and Al Davis’ Raidas, huh?  As with most ‘60/’70s multi-purpose stadiums, the Mausoleum serves neither football or baseball very well, although ironically I had a great seat—for a Raiders game.  My bleacher baseball ticket would’ve landed me on the 35-yard-line about halfway up for a football game (this pic was taken from my seat), as I got to sit in Mt. Davisthe monstrosity that was built in the outfield to lure the Raiders back from L.A. in 1995 that destroyed the beautiful views fans used to have of the hills and mountains off to the east of the stadium.

I also found it rather humorous how us bleacherites were granted access to the normally restricted hoity-toity areas closed off for Raider games.  It was the same story on the opposite end of the stadium behind home plate where part of the club level occupies the middle deck.  I do give them points for including a nice pictorial history of Oakland sports along the walls, as well as a Raiders Hall of Fame display.  Although I didn’t do any sampling of the food, the Mausoleum appeared to have a nice variety of eats beyond just hot dogs and nachos—the garlic fries sure smelled good, anyway!  I also had fun checking out the various quirks of the place, like the dreaded "stairway to hell" that leads to the field seats for Raider games (see pic).

On the downside, they have the upper deck of the stadium tarped-off to make the baseball crowds appear larger, a practice that I find to be quite abhorrent (the Florida Marlins do this too).  Even though the A’s are having a bad year, the fans were still into the game, and the atmosphere was far from dismal—I can only imagine what the place is like during a Raiders game!  They do the best with what they have in Oakland, but still, baseball in a football stadium (or vice-versa) just doesn’t work, and I sure hope the A’s are able to finally get their new proposed ballpark, Cisco (Kid?) Field, down the road in Fremont.

By the way, I now see where Oakland gets its second-class reputation from after cruising around their downtown—it’s a bit of a dive there!  Dirty streets filled with lots of unsavory cretins—little did I know I would later find exponentially more undesirables over in Oakland’s sexier neighbor across the bay!

Mays Park, San Francisco (A)  The home of the Giants and Mr. Steroid King has only been open eight years and has already had three different names, so I’m taking a cue from fans on the Internet and just calling it Mays Park, after the "Say Hey Kid" himself, Willie Mays, whose statue adorns the main gate of the stadium.  I’d heard lots of good things about this place, and most of them were accurate—this is an outstanding baseball park!  It’s definitely well worth a trip to the upper deck on the third base side before it gets dark just to check out the awesome view of the bay with the big ships lurking in the background.  The view from the first base side is just as awesome, with the Bay Bridge standing guard beyond left field.  I normally don’t like to wear a sweatshirt to a baseball game, but after another hot summer here in K.C., I absolutely loved the Fall-like winds coming off McCovey Cove!

Everything about this park is top-notch, like the huge Hi-Def video screen in centerfield and one of the better P.A. systems I've heardthey even have a chick P.A. announcer here.  The big playground with the Coke bottle tube slides in left center field is rather nifty, as is the "knot hole" section in the right field wall where you don’t even need a ticket to watch the game through the outfield fence.  The Giants also had various displays scattered about the park to commemorate their 50th anniversary in the Bay Area that were a nice touch.  Of all the new breed of ballparks, I put this rascal right up there with Safeco in Seattle and PNC Park in Pittsburgh.  Too bad the game was such a clunker, as the Florida Marlins skunked the G-men 6-0.

A word to the wise if you’re attending a Giants game—take the bus to get there.  Parking around the stadium is pretty scarce, and what little there is of it is quite expensive, as in $25 a pop!  In fact, I highly recommend the buses over the cable cars for getting around in S.F.—they’re clean and efficient and devoid of idiot tourists.  You can buy an all-day pass for the cable cars and buses on the Muni for $11 and it’s totally worth it.

Anaheim Stadium, Anaheim (B+)  I know it’s called Angel Stadium now, but I still prefer its original name.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, as it was a mid-‘60s park that went through a major renovation over ten years ago, but they somehow managed to bring it up-to-date after the football Rams bolted for St. Louis and they were able to remove most of the outfield seating that once totally enclosed the stadium.  There’s a bit of a changing-of-the-guard in the L.A. area these days, as the Angels are starting so supplant the mighty Dodgers in terms of stature, and with good reason—they field a much better team, and their ballpark experience is a lot more enjoyable in Orange County.  If nothing else, the Big A offered the cheapest parking—$8 as opposed to 15 bucks or more at all the other parks I visited on the trip, plus getting in and out was a snap, even with a big crowd on hand.

It’s amazing to look at old photos of Anaheim Stadium when it was first built basically out in the middle of nowhere, and compare the photos of today with all the urban sprawl that surrounds the place.  Today it’s strip mall heaven in Anaheim, along with lots of office parks and condos everywhere, not to mention the stately arena across the way formerly known as Arrowhead Pond, home of the NHL’s Mighty Quacks of Anaheim.  The stadium itself looks great in spite of its age, although there’s a little too much green to clash with the Angels’ red for my liking.  I’m with the rank-and-file of stadium aficionados and could also do without the phony rockpile and waterfall in center field that looks so out-of-place with its surroundings.  I also maintain that the giant Big-A scoreboard (see pic) should have been reinstated to its proper place in left center field after being evicted to the edge of the parking lot by the freeway when the Rams moved in.  All in all, Anaheim Stadium ain’t a bad place to watch a ballgame, even in the heart of downtown suburbia.

My Previous Stadium Grades
These are my grades for all the ballparks I've actually been to...

Current ballparks
Royals/Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City: A+ (Yes, I know, I’m biased!)
PNC Park, Pittsburgh: A
Safeco Field, Seattle: A
Coors Field, Denver: A
Comerica Park, Detroit: A-

Jacobs Field, Cleveland: B+
Wrigley Field, Chicago: B+
Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati: B
The Ballpark In Arlington, Arlington, TX: B
Oriole Park At Camden Yards, Baltimore: B
Miller Park, Milwaukee: B
Comiskey Park II, Chicago: B-
Metrodome, Minneapolis: C-

Defunct/demolished stadiums
Tiger Stadium, Detroit: A-
Busch Stadium, St. Louis: B+
Municipal Stadium, Kansas City: B+
Comiskey Park I, Chicago: B
County Stadium, Milwaukee: B
Riverfront Stadium, Cincinnati: C
Mile High Stadium, Denver: C
Arlington Stadium, Arlington, TX: C-
Municipal Stadium, Cleveland: C-
Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia: C-
Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh: D+
Astrodome, Houston: D

Travelblog, Part 2--The Eats

During my recent California fling, I endeavored to avoid the national chain restaurants as much as possible and check out as many local one-of-a-kind eateries that are unique to the area as I could, based on shows I’ve seen on TV, Internet recommendations and the film/book ‘Hamburger America’.  I’ve quickly discovered that the various places that are spotlighted on shows like Food Network’s "Drive-Ins, Diners & Dives" or Travel Channel’s "Hamburger Paradise", et al, can often be a mixed bag.  Some of these joints do indeed live up to the hype, while others not so much…

Anyway, here’s brief sampling of the various eateries that I sampled on my recent trip to California…

Squeeze Inn, Sacramento  The Squeeze falls into the latter category above—it turned out to be a big disappointment after the way they built it up on DD&D.  I knew it was a teeny little place, so getting there early before the lunch crowd arrived was imperative.  I did so, but I still encountered a gaggle of Paris Hilton wanna-be’s who were buds with the girl that waited on me, and they were quite annoying.  You have the option of dining at one of the eight stools at the counter, or outside at a dirty picnic table by the dumpster out back, and I now wish I’d chosen the latter.

Anyway, I tried their famous Squeeze Burger, which features cheddar cheese that is piled on the burger, and while it’s cooking on the grill, they throw ice on the grill and cover it so the cheese becomes crisp like a potato chip and sticks out from the meat about an inch all the way around.  A novel approach to cooking, to be sure, but I wasn’t all that blown away by the burger, which was rather bland, and the French fries were vile.

From what I’ve read on the ‘net afterwards, evidently I missed the pleasure of being waited on by a surly be-yatch there named Sam, who was referred to as a "skank" in at least three different reviews I saw.  Squeeze Inn is supposedly a favorite among the locals in Sacramento, but methinks they can do a whole lot better…

Joe’s Cable Car Diner, San Francisco  Joe’s is another one that came highly recommended, but once again, I was pretty underwhelmed.  First off, there wasn’t anything particularly special about the burger I had—Fred P. Ott’s or the Westport Flea Market Bar & Grill here in K.C. blows Joe’s away.  Second off, Joe’s is grossly overpriced—counting the tip, I paid over $20 for just a burger, fries and a drink.  I find it sad that these places let greed get the best of them and overcharge just because they were featured on Food Network.  The ambience at Joe's was kinda cool, but hardly worth the exorbitant menu pricesgrossly overrated.

Big Nate’s BBQ, San Francisco  Speaking of exorbitant prices, I took one look at the menu board here and high-tailed it outta there without eating.  I read about this place in Sports Illustrated a while back, as it’s run by former NBA star Nate Thurmond and was supposedly one of the best BBQ joints in the city.  I was expecting something along the lines of K.C.’s Gates BBQ or Arthur Bryant’s, but was floored at the prospect of forking over nearly $20 for a decent-sized dinner for one, especially when the only choices for sides were coleslaw and beans.  What, no fries?  Sorry, Nate, I’ll pass…

Tad’s Famous Steaks, San Francisco  I knew nothing beforehand about this place, so I took a chance on it for breakfast since it was close to my hotel, and looked like a cool old-school restaurant.  Neat atmosphere, but the food was pretty bland for such a "famous" place.  The t-bone steak I had was dry enough that I resorted to the steak sauce—something I rarely do, as I prefer my steaks straight.  The one I had at the Denny’s in Sacramento the night before was far superiorand two bucks cheaper!

Escape From New York Pizza, San Francisco  This was a spur-of-the-moment stop while I wandered around the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, and their big slice of Pepperoni really hit the spot.  I also loved the d├ęcor there featuring old 45 records mounted on the wall—very cool.

Carl’s Jr., somewhere north of San Diego  This isn’t about the food, but rather the manner in which I had to order it there.  Into our ever-increasingly impersonal world, we have now been bestowed the modern technology of touch-screen kiosks inside fast food joints on which to order and pay for your food.  It took me longer to negotiate my way through all the various options on the screen than it would have to place my order verbally like normal.  At least they still spared some flunky to bring me my food—I’m surprised they didn’t have some burger droid behind the counter. Ironically, I had just heard the old Zager & Evans song "In The Year 2525" on the radio, featuring the line, "some machine’s doin’ that for you…"

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Anaheim  I’ve seen these places everywhere but K.C., and had been wanting to check them out for quite a while, so since it was right on the way to Anaheim Stadium, I did an early dinner there before the ballgame.  Sad to say, I wasn’t all that impressed with their menu selections, and didn’t feel like I got $20 worth of shrimp from their sampler platter.  Joe’s Crab Shack is far better, and that’s all I have to say about that…

Mel’s Drive-In, San Francisco  Some enterprising folks pirated the Mel’s Drive-In logo and motif from the film American Graffiti and opened a chain of old-school diners throughout California, and I checked out the one in downtown SF and really liked it.  Good burger, dandy fries, and pretty speedy service.  The little jukeboxes on the counter were a nice touch too.  Hopefully Mel’s will drift eastward and open a few up around K.C. someday.

Zingo’s, Bakersfield While driving early Sunday morning, through Bakersfield, listening to Gospel music on that colored radio station, I stumbled across this kinda redneck-looking joint nestled between Hiway 99 and Buck Owens Blvd.  I wasn’t really in a Denny’s mood for breakfast, so I thought what the hey and took a chance on Zingo’s, and it turned out to be a wise move.  They were the best surprise of the trip, food-wise, and I enjoyed one of the best ham-and-cheese omelets I’ve ever eaten.  A tad pricey, but well worth it…

Bob’s Big Boy, Burbank  This is the famous one where Bob Hope used to hang out all the time, and where they have the classic car rallies that Jay Leno and other celebrities attend.  Located near NBC and Warner Bros. Studios, Bob’s was a very pleasant surprise, as it was easily the most inexpensive place I ate at on the trip (fast food joints included). I had their Big Burger Combo, which even included a salad, and it all cost me less than ten bucks.  I’d eat there all the time if I lived in the area.

Hodad’s, Ocean Beach  Just northwest of downtown San Diego, about a block and a half from the ocean sits local legend Hodad’s.  It’s a bit of a dive and full of surfers and slackers—in fact Ocean Beach was like a college town with surfboards—and I think I was the only person in the place who didn’t have a tattoo and/or piercings, but they served up one of the most killer burgers I’ve ever devoured!  I had their double bacon cheeseburger, and it made Hardees’ (or Carl’s Jr. for you West Coast folks) Monster Burger look like a White Castle burger by comparison.  I actually had to sit and formulate a plan of attack to figure out how to fit my mouth around it before I bit into the thing!  Good stuff, Maynard!

Have you missed me?

My apologies for not posting much this week, as I've been rather busy getting back in regular swing of things following my trip, both mentally and physically, but I will be delivering lots of new posts voluminiously this weekend, so strap yourselves in...

It's Labor Day weekend, so that can only mean one thingmy sinuses are freaking!  Right on cue, ragweed season has hit just like it always does on or around Labor Day, and if my post-nasal drip keeps up like it is, I'm liable to blow something out of my head that I need...

Ahhh, finally some games that count! I'm getting ready to watch my Mizzou Tigers pick up where they left off last season as they take on Illinois in St. Louis.  MU better be on their toes for this one, as there have already been a couple upsets today, like East Carolina doing the Hokie Pokey against Virginia Tech and Utah beating Michigan in what is becoming an annual opening day ritual at the "Big House" in Ann Arbor.  The Wolverines' nemesis from last year, Applachian State, didn't fare quite so well against the Bayou Bengals of LSU today.

As for the NFL, I'm rarin' to go after yet another needlessly-long exhibition season.  I'm glad to hear that there is now some serious discussion about shortening the NFL preseason to two games and adding two more to the regular season.  Hell, the Canadian Football League has played an 18-game schedule for many years, and they currently only have eight teams.  I still can't believe the NFL used to play six preseason games back in the early '70s.

Speaking of football, El Chiefos are saying that it's just a matter of time before they slap some corporate name on Arrowhead Stadium.  I suppose it's inevitable, but I'll never call the place anything but Arrowhead or just plain The 'Head.

Since I was gone most of the time, I didn't get to comment much on the Summer Games from Beijing.  It was rather surreal listening to the Gold Medal basketball game live on the radio while en route to LAX at 7:30 in the morning, but I'm glad the U.S. won, although it's hard to root for these NBA millionaires as opposed to a bunch of college kids.  Michael Phelps was mighty impressive in the swimming thang, but why do I have a feeling we'll find out later he was on steroids?  You can't help but wonder in this day and age...

I'm so sick of the whole Presidential campaignI can't wait until election night just to get it over with.  These party conventions are such a sham anymore, and I refuse to waste my time watching either of themit's all "hooray for our side" and very little substance.  I still have my doubts about Obama, but I'm sticking with him because you couldn't get me to vote for a Republican at gunpoint right now, especially one who doesn't know how many houses he owns and who thinks $5 million is "middle-class".

Speaking of McCain, a curious choice he's made for a running mate.  I'd never even heard of this Palin woman until 24 hours ago, and when I saw the headline "McCain chooses Palin as running mate", I immediately thought of Michael Palin of Monty Python's Flying Circus!

Your baseball team is really good!  I was rather appalled to read that even though the Tampa Bay Rays are still looking good for the American League East title, no one is showing up to their home games.  On Wednesday night, the Rays only attracted 200 more people than what bothered to watch the Royals' debacle at Kauffman Stadium herewe're talking less than 13,000 patrons.  Come on, all you Tampa-ites (Tampons?), get your butts in gear and get to the games, or I'll become a major advocate of contraction of your team.  There are too many cities out there who would truly support Major League Baseball if they had a team, like Portland, Indianapolis or Buffalo.

In what is becoming an annoying trend, yet another nationally-syndicated morning radio show is apparently coming to television this fall, as WGN in Chicago has been running promos for the dreaded "Bob & Tom Show" during the ballgames.  These promos feature nothing but incessant laughter, which is pretty much all they do on this crapfest, as B&T do nothing but laugh at their own lame jokes and bits for four hours.  They were on the air ever-so-briefly here in K.C. a couple years back, and their ratings were so abysmal that 101-The Fox dropped them like a bad habit and went back to local deejays.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Travelblog, Part 1--Familiar Places

A little look at some places I visited during my trip that you're bound to recognize...

To the left of the telephone pole is the approximate spot where Fred Sanford's empire/junkyard should be in Los Angeles, based on Fred's famous address, 9114 S. Central, if it existed.  There is no such house address on Central Avenue, therefore there's no Sanford, no Son, not even &.  However, I think I might've passed Rollo on a sidewalk in Watts, which I was crazy enough to drive through.  Truth be known, I've seen far rougher parts of town here in K.C. and in Chicago and St. Louis than Wattsit didn't seem all that bad to me.

This of course would be Chez Cunningham from "Happy Days", but it ain't in Milwaukee, and there's no upstairs apartment over the garage.  It's actually located just a few blocks from Paramount Studios, where the show was taped.  And of course, the exterior and the interior floor plan of Mr. and Mrs. C's abode are totally incompatible.

Welcome to the Tate mansion, also located near Paramount Studios, and just up the street from Rob Zombie's house.  And no, that's not Benson waving in the front yard!  Confused yet?  You won't be after the next episode of "Soap"...

I wasn't able to check out the Clampett Mansion in Bel Airaccording to the tour guide, there's not much to see since they've built high walls up all around the place.  So in lieu of that, here's the street the Beverly Hillbillies drive down during the opening credits of the show.  Oddly enough, it's just down the block from Will Rogers Memorial Park, where singer George Michael got busted for spanking his monkey in the john there (more on that in a future post).

Nestled in a quite little subdivision just north of Hollywood and just off Ventura Blvd. sits the famed Brady abode.  I was quite pleased to see that the current owners have righted an egregious wrong by replacing the evil astroturf lawn with natural grass!  And we can only hope the man of this house wasn't too "busy with three boys of his own"...

ALTADENA, 90210?!?
This would be Casa de Walsh from "Beverly Hills, 90210", but it ain't nowhere near Beverly Hillsit's located in Altadena, which is just north of Pasadena.  It's not located in an overly swanky neighborhood, but it's still a major upgrade over where I live.

And finally we have the former Osbournes residence, which I believe our tour guide said now belongs to one Jennifer Lopez.  The gargoyles have been removed from the front gates, but the cricifixes (crucifi?) are still affixed to the porch light fixtures.  Sharon!!