Saturday, June 19, 2010

Rob review of a national treasure: the Baseball Hall of Fame

Driving northeast on I-88 yesterday evening, I saw the sign: Cooperstown Exit -- National Baseball Hall of Fame. A choice presented itself: arrive in Albany by 7:30 p.m. for a casual solo dinner, or go hungry and detour to Cooperstown. Arriving at the hotel hungry at about 10:30 p.m., this baseball fan had made the right decision: an incredible experience to knock off the life list. The National Baseball Hall of Fame isn’t huge. Though staffers had to kick me out when the doors closed at 9 p.m., I’d hit the high points (and then some) during my 21/2 hours at the “museum.” Not reading every exhibit piece thoroughly will give me an excuse to visit again. The main drag through Cooperstown has nifty gift shops and ice cream parlors that I totally ignored but would like to enjoy with Annette and the boys someday.

There are many highlights, starting with the actual main hall containing all the plaques. I snapped pics via iPhone of some of my favorites. Former Twins and Brewers like Kirby and Robin Yount. And of course the legends, like Babe, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, Teddy Baseball, Honus Wagner, and a few others. One fact that might surprise folks: There were five inductees in the inaugural class that occupy the center of the front rotunda. Ty Cobb occupies the centermost spot with Babe Ruth offset to the lower left. I doubt that’s a simple layout left to chance, since most baseball purists probably would say that Cobb was the more complete ballplayer. After viewing the life-size sculptures(?) of Ruth and Williams, I found myself alone with all 292 plaques, so I grabbed a bench and just quietly absorbed the aura. A pretty busy place, the National Baseball Hall of Fame probably doesn’t provide such moments of solitude very often, but that’s a benefit to showing up on a weekday evening, me thinks. Eventually a couple of loud kids came roaring through. This parent of three very loud, energetic boys understands that kids at times need to cut loose and be obnoxious. My boys will fully understand that if they ever enter that National Baseball Hall of Fame that they are entering sacred ground. No, it’s not a church, but it’s a special place to lifelong baseball fans, and they will remain quiet and respectful. They can run wild up and down the street upon exciting the hall.

Heading upstairs, you’ll see one room with an interesting, and short group of displays on the history of the Hall. Well done. The 10-minute movie is forgettable, especially the faux fence and scoreboard that emerges at the end, complete with unsubtle sponsorships from the likes of several companies and sports media conglomerates that don’t deserve mention here.

The second floor exhibits, particularly the History of the Game section, are the second-best part of the building. Abner Doubleday inventing the game is just lore, and baseball probably was a conglomeration of many stick-and-ball games that have existed for hundreds of years. Historians agree that the New York Knickerbockers wrote down the first set of rules for the game in 1845, and there is an actual photograph of two teams on a field (with bats on the ground in front of them) from 1859. Hard to believe the game truly predates the Civil War. Troops returning from the War between the States helped spread the game around the country.

The Babe Ruth corner is incredible. To see the “Called Shot” bat or home run ball No. 714 is almost befuddling -- it’s that amazing. There are lockers from greats like Henry Aaron, Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig. Normally very anti-Yankees, I didn’t feel that way while touring the BB Hall of Fame. All ballplayers are good guys, even Yankees, unless of course they’re roid-ragers or cheaters.

Speaking of cheaters, Pete Rose doesn’t have a plaque (keep it that way) but pictures of him exist in displays of the Big Red Machine of the '70s and Phillies teams from the early '80s. That’s appropriate but he’d better never get a plaque. One small placard does mention Giamatti’s decision to ban Rose from the game.

A section devoted to the African-American baseball story moved me the most. The story of black Americans and baseball is a microcosm, maybe a macrocosm, of the larger African-American story in this country. It’s terribly sad and unjust, yet ultimately a story of incredible achievement. A little history that most baseball fans, including this one, probably don’t know: At least a few black men played in baseball clubs in NY and elsewhere until a de facto color barrier was implemented in the 1880s. Racism eventually forced them off the teams. A few journalists endorsed and supported integration of baseball during that post-Civil War era, but Jim Crow laws and institutionalized racism nationwide ultimately repressed it for more than 60 years. The Jackie Robinson section is incredible; I actually got a little misty-eyed when I saw his jersey and jacket, bats he used. Under a steady barrage of insults and even threats on his life, that guy won rookie of the year in 1947, was N.L. MVP in 1949, achieved a .311 lifetime batting average, played in six world series, hit 137 home runs, and stole 197 bases. He excelled on the field and not only changed baseball but helped improve the entire country. What a hero. Every person in this country owes this great man a debt of gratitude.

The final section of the second floor contains lockers for all existing major league teams with some fun recent historic treasures. Example, the locker for the Minnesota Twins contained the batting helmut and bat that Jason Kubel used to hit for the cycle during a game the squad won 11-9 early in the 2009 season. A buddy and I attended that game, and Kubel’s grand slam to complete the cycle was one of my top two live moments at a ballgame. A Christian Guzman inside-the-park home run back in 2001 is still either first of a very close second. The locker also contained several Joe Mauer bats from his batting title years. (Doesn’t look like we’ll be adding another in 2010, now does it Mr. Hometown Catcher?)

One small beef about the Hall: the relatively clueless staff. Yes, they were friendly, but most couldn’t answer any questions, like where to find Henry Aaron’s No. 715 home run ball. Also, a nice display and life-size statute to a great baseball ambassador Buck O’Neill left me with some questions, notably why no “lifetime achievement award” in his name had been awarded since 2008 when he received it. The first two (young) people couldn’t fathom my question, and a 40-something was pretty baffled, too, but he at least searched for an answer, sought me out in the gift shop right before closing time, and explain the discrepancy. Apparently the Buck O’Neill award will only occur every three years, so the Hall will name the second recipient in 2011. They should just inducted the man, the first black minor league manager, and whose commentary was arguably the best thing about Ken Burns’ Baseball series (actually a Red Sox and Yankees lovefest) on PBS.

Oh yeah, the giftshop. Had to buy the boys a T-shirt and some postcards showing the plaques of some legendary players. Bought a Rod Carew postcard. Maybe stand in line among the rubes for TwinsFest next winter to have him sign it. Or not.

American tourist traps mostly embarrass me. They typically revolve around a perfectly good natural resource, say the Black Hills, Wisconsin Dells, or Grand Canyon, then drown said treasure in overpriced pap and cheesy private exhibits. The Hall is a respectfully well done operation, and the community of New England-esque Cooperstown has not been swallowed by rampant development or gaudy exhibitions. I’ll be returning with my whole family and would recommend it to anyone who cares about the game, its greatest platers, and its role in America history.

Friday, June 18, 2010

BBHOF review coming soon

Watch for a review of my brief, albeit marvelous trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame later today. Probably will write it while waiting for my flight out of Albany, N.Y.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Ugh... my alma mater

Reading online at Indianapolis airport and stumbled into this headline. From Minneapolis City Pages: Wisconsin high schoolers think KKK t-shirts are a big joke. And people ask why I don't attend class reunions.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

An intense day of travel

Ike’s in downtown Minneapolis has been one of my favorite pre-Twins games destinations. Pricy but fantastic burgers. A California buddy who accompanied me there once declared it the best burger he’d consumed in his 40-plus years on Planet Earth. A middle-boy baseball tilt this evening forced my wife to deposit me early at MSP, which meant I had time to indulge in an burger at airport Ike’s. After clearing security, I figured there was time to see how its slab of beef compared to the downtown version.

Traveling solo, I sauntered up to the one remaining spot at the bar and pulled up a chair. Now, I wore comfortable clothes for my flight this evening: shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers. So perhaps, I shouldn’t be offended when the bartender at airport Ike’s asked for an ID. I’m 40 years old, so it’s a compliment, right? Nonetheless, I don’t drink and told the rotund barkeep that I just wanted water and a burger. His reply at my nonalcoholic request? “I don’t care. You still need an ID to be in here.” (Keep in mind, I’ve just cleared security at an international airport and odds are pretty good that I have an ID.) Then he plodded away as I fumbled for my wallet. 90 seconds later, watching the bartender ignore me and realizing that another business might appreciate my money more, I got up and walked out.

Suduku puzzles in the in-flight magazines usually occupy a sizable chunk of my time aboard aircraft. Tragically, because it’s mid-June, the inflight mags are old, and everyone has worked the puzzles. So I succumbed to people-watching. A herd of 70-somethings was particularly fascinating on this flight to Indianapolis. They scurried around, up and down repeatedly in the row ahead of me, which is particularly irritating as they bumped the seats. Several of them traded locations with another group of proto-geriatrics four rows back. If teenagers behaved this way, the flight attendants would contact Homeland Security and divert the flight to Gitmo. And of course, these seniors would be the first folks to bleat about children speaking in any tones above a dull whisper.

Did I mentioned the hour wait on MSP tarmac before we took flight?

Had a nice conversation with the gal next to me when we landed in Indianapolis, at least until I told her I was from Eden Prairie to which she responded that my ‘burb is too “hoity-toity” for her. Really, ma’am, and your town is too stinkin’ redneck for me, but I’m too polite to say that aloud.

Then there was the hour wait for the shuttle bus, a clueless driver who drove 10 under the speed limit, and the hotel staff who couldn’t answer yes to a single question.

All in all, a great day to be the Intense Traveler. Tomorrow will improve I’m sure.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Outdoor Writers conference

Spent Friday at the Outdoor Writers Association of America annual conference in Rochester. The four-day event travels every year, and it last visited Minnesota in 1996. (Madison hosted the conference in 2005, but I missed that one thanks to the arrival of Jameson Thomas Drieslein that exact same weekend. I had my priorities straight.)
In my 13 years as an OWAA member, I've attended six conferences, and they usually offer some saving grace that justifies me attending. Yesterday I drove south through a torrential downpour from the Twin Cities for the second full day of the gathering, which coincided with "breakout day" at the Gamehaven Scout Camp – about 10 minutes south of Rochester. Miserable weather en route convinced me that organizers probably would cancel any outdoor activities, but the show went on. Overturned tents and lake-sized puddles greeted attendees early, but things cleared off as the morning progressed.
I headed for the rifle shooting area immediately upon arrival, and found myself surrounded by a grand total of nine other people. Wisconsin Outdoor News Editor Dean Bortz and myself had the run of the place, firing a nifty assortment of Smith & Wesson and Browning rifles and handguns. (Thank you very much to those two manufacturers for attending with some very competent, safe, and knowledgeable staff present.) Dan Hansen, a regular shooting writer from the Outdoor News Publications also was on hand helping out.
Had a great time shooting the AR-15s, which the gun industry would like me to begin referring to as "modern sporting rifles." Whatever you call them, they're fun to shoot. I would dare even the most ardent anti-gunner not to enjoy shooting the little AR-15 .22 from S&W. No kick and empowering rapid-firing a dozen rounds in mere seconds at a target. The centerfire .223s had significantly more kick, but I fully intend to buy one of each. Never thought I'd be the kind of guy who purchased a military-style firearm, but strictly speaking, they're no different than any other semi-auto. And dang they look cool.
This morning, Outdoor News sponsored a breakfast for participants, and clearly a good share of the writers were up late last night enjoying the hospitality suites. I counted roughly 100 people in the room, which means a solid share of the other attendees were sleeping in. Those who listened to my brief talk about Outdoor News and its history were very attentive and complimentary. Though I scooted out for a morning of kid baseball (and moving chores) back in the Cities, I'm glad I headed south for 24 hours in Rochester and the OWAA Conference. Next year's event will happen in June in Salt Lake City (Snowbird Resort) followed by an eagerly anticipated conference in Sept. 2012 in Fairbanks, Alaska. Haven't been to Alaska in more than a decade, so OWAA 2012 might offer an obvious excuse to visit again.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Remembering trip to the Gulf Coast

My one and only spring break trip occurred in 1992, my senior year in college. Six buddies – all burly, loud, hard-drinking, working-class students at a state university – pooled a few bucks and borrowed a rundown van. Like many of our fellow Midwesterners, we pointed the hood south. Unlike many of our fellow students, we went … wildlife watching. No kidding. Two guys were buds from the wildlife ecology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and along with this science-journalism major, we convinced three others to tent-camp along the Gulf of Mexico. For guys who’d grown up hunting and trapping in western Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota, it was an opportunity to view a whole different world of alligators, nutria, and saltwater marshland birds of the Louisiana and Texas Coast. OK, there was a hazy 24 hours in the Big Easy, but overall, our focus was camping and wildlife watching … with some campfire imbibing. It was a significantly more productive, and cheaper, than spring break in Mexico or Daytona.
Like many Minnesotans in the midst of prime fishing and kid baseball seasons, I find it easy to ignore what’s transpiring in the Gulf of Mexico. But I see the names of our incredible destinations from almost two decades ago, places like Grand Isle, La., and Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, and can’t imagine the long-term effects of the oil spill on the region and its wildlife.
The hyperbole from both political extremes hasn’t helped the discussion. On the right, we have congressmen like Alaska’s Don Young declaring the spill no big deal. Nevermind that there’s an oil slick the size of Iowa, and growing, waiting for waterfowl and other shorebirds this fall. (Not to mention underwater marine life and shutting down a third of the Gulf Coast fishing industry.) On the left, we’re hearing a call to end all offshore oil drilling. I’m all for finding alternative energy sources for automobile fuel, but crude oil has lots of uses beyond gasoline. Unless the hardcore environmentalists would like us rendering whale blubber again, humanity will be using bubbling crude in some capacity for a long time.
The oil industry has been conducting deep-water drilling for decades, but one incident like this is one too many. No matter how unlikely the odds of it happening again given existing safety standards, the industry needs to take those standards to an even higher level. My gripe: How often do you hear some right-wing TV or radio blowhard bashing unnecessary “environmental regulations?” Um, you mean like laws that might require functional emergency valves on underwater oil pipelines? You just know some congressman with Big Oil in his backpocket called in favors and proclaimed that the feds could rely on “industry recommendations” for blowout system maintenance. Why does it take a disaster like this for everyone to agree (even industry) that existing safety protocols don’t cut the mustard? The whole thing stinks worse than that van at the end of our spring break trip.
Dennis Anderson at the Star Tribune wrote this past weekend on the potential effects of the Gulf oil spill on waterfowl management this fall. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and flyway council completely baffle me every year on season frameworks. Doesn’t matter what water or weather conditions greet the Duck Factory, we always have a liberal season. Too much emphasis on mallards and too much influence from the Southern half of the flyway. No, many of these birds won’t use areas affected by the oil, but the nation’s duck managers had better consider the wintering grounds thoroughly when setting this fall’s season strategies. If it’s another liberal season, then something stinks about duck management, too.