Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Travelblog, Part 2--Indianapolis

Last time I passed through Indy in 2006, they were just starting to construct Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts and this year’s NCAA Final Four.  Seeing the House That Manning Built on TV is one thing, but I was floored at how huge this place is when I first got a gander of it from the highway.  It’s a sight to behold—very stately-looking and easily the tallest stadium of any kind I’ve ever seen and it would positively dwarf Arrowhead Stadium if they sat side-by-side.  I was able to get a brief peek inside through the glass doors, and the interior looked equally impressive.  If nothing else, LOS is a major upgrade over the venue it replaced, the now-demolished bubble-headed Hoosier Dome.

Just as Evansville’s Bosse Field co-starred in A League Of Their Own, Indianapolis’ Bush Stadium was used in the film Eight Men Out (as both Chicago’s Comiskey Park and Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, alternately).  Sadly, unlike Bosse Field, which is still in use and thriving, Bush Stadium is dying a long slow death on Indy’s west side, even though it’s on the National Registry of Historic Places.  It was once home to the AAA Indianapolis Indians, but when they moved in 1996 to their new downtown digs, Victory Field, the old stadium was left to sit and rot.  The city tried converting it into a small race track for a time, but that fizzled out, and now they don’t know what to do with it, and the stadium currently suffers the indignity of serving as an auto graveyard in the wake of the Cash For Clunkers fiascokinda reminds me of R2-D2 having to serve cocktails on Jabba The Hut's floating barge.  The place has been abandoned so long that there are now trees growing around the backstop area and in the grandstands.  Seems almost fitting for a place named ‘Bush’, don’t it?  I’m all for preserving old stadiums and arenas and finding new uses for them, but that isn’t always feasible, and when they are unable to fease it, then I say put the place out of its misery and tear it down already.

I caught a nice break on Saturday when I visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  My original plan was to just do the museum and track lap they offer for $5 each (both of which I’ve done before), but on this particular day, the track laps weren’t available because they had a private function going on for regular track patrons.  However, for 15 bucks, for this one day they offered a behind-the-scenes track tour, and I wound up seeing more of the place than I would have otherwise.  The tour included the media room where they hold the post-race press conferences, the media center where all the journalists and reporters work (which was about the size of a Wal-Mart, btw), the press box and the winner’s circle, followed by a quick spin through Gasoline Alley on the tour bus.  I’m not what you’d call an auto racing fanatic, but I’ve always watched the Indy 500 every year as long as I can remember, so it was really cool to see some of the innerds of the most famous race track in the world.  It ain't much to look at on the outsideit's sorta like an over-sized high school football stadium, but once you get inside, the place comes alive.  One thing I don’t get is why the “Biggest Spectacle In Racing” is blacked-out on local TV in Indy every year.  It ain’t like they struggle to get people to come out to the track—this year’s attendance was like 400,000.  Those are Woodstock-like figures, so surely they can cut the good Indianapolisians (Indianapolites?) a break and let them watch the race that rakes in zillions of dollars to their fair city.

In previous trips to Indianapolis, I was totally unaware of this place’s existence, let alone its importance, but I made it a point to check out Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse this time.  I wasn’t able to go inside, unfortunately, but it looks like a great place to time-travel for old-school bassit-ball, just as they did when Hoosiers was filmed here in 1986.  In light of Butler’s Cinderella run in the NCAA Tournament this year, I’m willing to bet we’ll see a few more games from Hinkle on ESPN next fall…

…Wild Beaver Saloon, I couldn’t resist stopping in for a couple beers.  I wound up feeling like Charlie Daniels at the Do-Drop-Inn, though—there wasn’t a soul in the place except me and the bartender, which I thought was rather odd for 6:00 on a Saturday in downtown Indy while all the other bars and restaurants were hopping.

Once again, I endeavored to sample some local one-of-a-kind eateries during my trip but without the help of Guy Fieri’s “Drive-Ins, Diners & Dives” this time, and whaddya know—I actually fared better!  My favorite on this trip was definitely the Boogie Burger, which sits in a quaint little neighborhood called Broad Ripple (don’t ask me why) north of downtown Indy near Butler U.  The Boogie is a teeny little place no bigger than my living room (kitchen included), but I very much enjoyed their Rise ‘n’ Shine Burger, which included bacon and a fried egg on top. I also enjoyed a delicacy Kansas City still has yet to discover—garlic fries (like in this photo).  Unfortunately, I got the food to go, and the fries funked the car up pretty good—d’oh!  Louisville had a similar burger emporium called Bunz, which also carred a burger with egg and bacon on it, but I didn’t like theirs quite as well because their “special sauce” pretty much overwhelmed the flavor and I couldn’t even taste the egg or bacon.  I also checked out a place in downtown Indy called Dick’s Bodacious BBQ.  They weren’t quite bodacious, but they weren’t Dicks either, and for Texas-style BBQ, the eats there weren’t too shabby.  I’m biased being partial to K.C.-style BBQ, but I liked their brisket and ribs, the sauce was tasty, their portions were generous and the corn-on-the-cob was quite good.  As for the rest of the trip, I dined at institutions we don’t have in K.C. like White Castle, Lion’s Choice roast beef and Jack-In-The-Box.  Rumors abound that Jack may be poised to make a return to the K.C. area later this year.  I hope so—their breakfast menu is excellent.

Travelblog, Part 1--Louisville

I was eastbound and down last week as I hit the highway for a brief vacation to northern Kentucky and the Land of Mellencamp (Indiana).  I’d been to both Louisville and Indianapolis before, so these weren’t new frontiers for me at all, but there were some new things to do in each place since my prior visits, so here’s a little visual coverage with commentary…

My first stop on my little journey was Evansville, Indiana, where I finally got to see Bosse Field, home of those dreaded Evansville Otters of minor league baseball’s Frontier League.  BF opened just a couple months after Chicago’s Wrigley Field did in 1915, making it the third-oldest professional ballpark in America still in use behind Wrigley and Boston’s Fenway Park.  The place might look familiar to you—it served as the home field of the Racine Belles in the 1992 hit film A League Of Their Own, and apart from the modern scoreboard and current-day signage on the outfield wall, the place doesn’t look much different than it did in the movie.  And in a nifty touch, the “Support your Racine Belles” sign still remains behind the third base grandstand.  While in town, I took a quick swing through downtown Evansville, and was quite underwhelmed—a lot of history here, but sad to say, it’s a bit of a dive.

Once I got to Louisville, I headed right to the Muhammad Ali Center, located on the southern banks of the Ohio River.  Muhammad Ali was/is a polarizing figure, and I have rather mixed feelings about him myself.  As I was growing up, he was generally despised in our household, thanks mostly to my narrow-minded (and somewhat bigoted) old man.  I, in turn, generally disliked Ali until after his fighting career ended when I began to appreciate his witty personality and humorous bravado and understood his impact on popular culture a lot more.  Still, I have issues with a lot of the racist crap Ali uttered about white people back in the day and I can honestly do without the whole Islam thing, but then again, I think all religions are bullshit anyway, so take that for whatever it’s worth.  Not trying to offend anyone, here—just being honest, folks!

I’m not even a terribly big fan of boxing (even though I like the Rocky movies) but it was impossible to ignore Muhammad Ali when I was a kid, and he was every bit the ‘70s cultural icon that Kiss, the Bee Gees, Joe Namath and Elton John were, so I decided to give the Ali Center a try, but I came away somewhat disappointed with the place, overall.  I thought there was way too much emphasis on the racial/religious/socio-political aspects of Ali’s life and career.  By no means should all those issues be ignored, but I would like to have seen more emphasis on his actual boxing career, the Parkinson’s disease he now suffers from, and even his friendship with Howard Cosell, etc.  I also felt a sense of self-righteous preachiness emanating from the place, almost as if a guilt-trip was being laid on us “white folks” for the “suffering” Ali went through, and I didn’t like how they practically canonized the man and made him out to be some sort of martyr—he was a professional boxer, for crimeny’s sake!  Yes, he’s a legend to millions and a great humanitarian too, but he’s hardly a saint.  And somehow, even though it’s his hometown, I get the feeling the city of Louisville never really gave a rip about Ali until they realized they could make a boatload of money off him with this museum.  On my grading scale, I give the Ali Center a C, overall.  It would’ve gotten a C+ if it wasn’t so stifling hot in the building—fix yer damn a/c, will ya!

Next on the hit parade was the Louisville Slugger Museum and manufacturing plant just a few blocks from the Ali Center.  The museum portion wasn’t all that impressive, but the factory tour more than made up for it, as they take you through the actual work areas where millions of America’s wooden baseball bats are created.  The tour winds through the various automated lathes that cut and shape the bats, including the super-duper computerized mega lathe machine that produces bats for Major League players.  Us peons get the standard-issue bats that LS produces, but this particular machine is designed to cut and mold bats to the exact specifications of the individual players (minus the cork), the templates for which are all stored inside the computer and can be dialed up at any time at the click of a mouse.  On the day I was there, they were doing up a shipment of Mark Teixiera bats.  You also get to see how they brand the bats with the company logo, as well as the dyeing/painting process, etc.  I also admire the actual plant employees—I don’t think I’d much care for having hundreds of strangers gawking at me all day while I was on the job.  I give the Slugger museum a B, overall.

“Laugh-In”’s JoAnne Worley would no doubt get a kick out of this little fowl exhibit near Louisville’s riverfront, which is some sort of ersatz tribute to Col. Sanders.  I guess…

TO THE BATCAVE!It didn’t dawn on me until after I got to Louisville Slugger Field on the NE corner of downtown that I was attending my first Triple-A ballgame ever.  I’ve done minor league games on the AA level and whatever level the K.C. T-Bones exist on (A-minus?), but never AAA.  Grandpa Munster’s favorite team, the hometown Louisville Bats (as in the rabid winged critters, not the wooden weapons) took on Cpl. Maxwell Q. Klinger’s beloved Toledo Mud Hens.  Jamie Farr was nowhere to be found, but he no doubt would have enjoyed the outcome, as Toledo prevailed 6-1.  Dandy little stadium too, with its retro/old school design, not to mention (relatively) cheap beer.  Constant motion seems to be the theme here, as you have cars whooshing by on I-64 to the north and on I-65 to the east, jet planes overhead taking off and landing at Louisville International to the south, and a huge merry-go-round spinning in the right field corner.  Nice atmosphere too, worthy of a B+.  I hate this time of year though, because even though this game started at 7:10PM, it was still daylight when it ended!  So much for night games…

“I can’t believe you actually talked me into giving away my hard-earned money to a bunch of grown men named Newk, Duke and Pee Wee!”—Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III

When I saw this statue of late Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese outside the ballpark, I was reminded of those immortal words spoken by Maj. Winchester on “MASH” after he’d been suckered by Klinger into betting on the Brooklyn Dodgers in the famed 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” playoff game against the Giants.  Harold Henry Reese was a native Kentuckian and spent a couple years in the minors with the Louisville Colonels in the late ‘30s before moving on to stardom with Dem Bums in the ‘40s and ‘50s.  His nickname didn’t refer to his size, but rather to his love of playing marbles as a kid, with “Pee Wee” being one of the denominations, so to speak, of marbles.  Reese was also known for being one of the first white players on the Dodgers to befriend Jackie Robinson during his early days on the team.

The first time I visited Louisville in 2005, Churchill Downs was undergoing major renovations, thus the museum and grounds tour thereof were unavailable, so I dropped by the world’s most famous horsie track to try again.  Not unlike the Slugger plant, the museum itself was just so-so (floppy hat exhibit notwithstanding), but the tour of the paddock and grandstand was worth the price of admission.  I’m not a huge equestrian fan, but I always enjoy the Triple Crown races every year on TV, and this was very educational for me.  First off, I always thought the paddock was out in the track infield somewhere instead of behind the main grandstand, thus the horses are led through one tunnel under the stands, then mounted by the jockeys in the paddock stalls, then paraded back to the track through another tunnel.  I was also surprised to learn that the track itself is composed of about 75% sand instead of dirt.  Youse environmental enthusiasts will be pleased to know that all the horsie doody at the track is rounded up each day and recycled into fine mulch and is stinking up lawns throughout America at this very minute.

Churchill Downs would’ve received a B-minus from me, but I have to take points off for where they made their customers park for the museum/tour.  Even though the nice asphalt parking lot adjacent to the main entrance was virtually empty, for some reason only FEMA could explain, us visitors were sent off to park in a crappy gravel lot in Outer Mongolia at the edge of complex and forced to hoof it a country mile back to the museum.  WTF?!?  Being as I drove my late father’s car on this trip, I could’ve been a crap-weasel and whipped out his still-valid handicapped tag and parked in one of the cushy wheelchair spots close to the building, but that’s not my style.  And for an able-bodied person like me who needs to drop a few pounds anyway, this little hike was actually beneficial, but I saw an awful lot of elderly people being forced to walk a long way for nothing (on a hot humid day, no less), so I’m downgrading the Downs to a C instead.  Come on, Derby peeples—you can do better than that, especially considering this was a WALKING tour!

Just as an aside, for those of you who’ve never been there, you’re in for a shock when you see the neighborhood Churchill Downs resides in.  If you’re envisioning picturesque rolling hills and country club farmland surrounding the track like I did years ago before my first visit, forget it.  The track complex abuts a very ordinary and borderline-seedy part of town—for my K.C. area friends, think the Leeds district where the GM plant used to be or the Independence Avenue corridor, and you’ll get the picture.  While I wouldn’t quite call it the ‘Hood, it ain’t exactly the Ewing ranch either…