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July 3, 2012

Western Front

Ready, Set, No!

by Geoff Young

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“If you're going to fail, make sure it's epic.”

“Who said that?”

“Nobody, I was just trying to make you feel better.”

The day began innocently enough in Forks, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula. A logging town, Forks is now best known as the setting for Twilight, a popular emo-vampire book series whose essential message is that women are only as valuable as the men they covet. Don't hold me to that; I'm relying on third-hand information and don't know what the books are actually about, nor do I care to do so. I am as qualified to discuss Twilight as certain people are to discuss Moneyball.

I feel pretty confident about the vampire thing, though. And in Forks, because the streets are lined with shops that contain the name Twilight in them, in the hope that some angsty teen will convince his or her parents to buy whatever crap that particular shop is selling.

This is why we left at 6 a.m. Also, we had a full day ahead of us, including a ferry ride to Canada to visit the famous Butchart Gardens. The gardens were both lovely and entirely too full of people like us, but that is a story for another day.

The important point is that we would return to Port Angeles, on the United States side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca (defiantly named Juan de Fuca Strait on the Canadian side, calling to mind all manner of variations on the People's Front of Judea or what have you), around 5 p.m. This would give us 2 hours to drive to Tacoma, where the Rainiers were scheduled to host the Las Vegas 51s at 7:05.

I'd thought of purchasing tickets the night before and checked for availability. As of around 10 p.m. on Wednesday, I could have bought two tickets 15-20 rows back of home plate for $11 each. It seemed like a good deal, but I wasn't sure that we'd make it to Tacoma in time. When foreign countries are involved, you never know what will happen. High tea at The Empress might run long, and then what recourse would we have?

More importantly, the availability of those tickets told me that good seats could be bought, so I decided to wait until we were actually in Tacoma before doing anything. Meanwhile, we raced east along US-101 past Sequim Bay and Discovery Bay, hung a left on WA-104 and took it across Squamish Harbor to WA-3 and finally WA-16 south across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and into town.

We got to our exit in 1 hour, 55 minutes, a good 10 minutes before first pitch. Then traffic—which we hadn't seen in days along the California, Oregon, and Washington coasts—came to a standstill. It took us 45 minutes to get from the freeway off-ramp to Cheney Stadium, where a red-lettered SOLD OUT sign greeted us and bid us farewell in one cruel yet graceful motion.

The moose out front should have told us. The Mariners have a moose, right?

While waiting for cars to move, I'd turned on the radio and found the Mariners game. We had thought of continuing to Seattle but decided we'd had enough driving for one day. Besides, Felix Hernandez was pitching and the Red Sox were in town. Thursday night notwithstanding, it might be a tough ticket.

As we learned while listening to the Mariners broadcast, star prospect Danny Hultzen had been promoted to Tacoma recently and was making his home debut. That may have created buzz. Or the fact that Jamie Moyer was starting for the 51s despite not quite being 51.

This is a photograph of a rose that grew and bloomed in Butchart Gardens. It is also a metaphor for Danny Hultzen, whom the Mariners hope will grow and bloom in Seattle, east of the gardens. I got to see this rose live in person on Thursday. I did not get to see Hultzen. This is a terrible metaphor, but a nice photograph, if I do say so myself.

Whatever the case, we continued along 19th Street to a hospital, not because I needed mending—although this could be another metaphor—but because we had to find our motel. We got directions from our somewhat trusty phones and proceeded to a part of town that defies reasonable description.

To the north, there is an adult bookstore, a thrift shop, and an empty lot strewn with trash. To the south, a dingy-looking Chinese buffet. The freeway was spitting distance from our room, which I know because I felt droplets while we walked to the pizza chain just past the adult bookstore. Or maybe that was rain.

There were some negatives as well, but I'll spare you the details.

Either way, Hultzen was pitching against Moyer about five miles from us. Hernandez was pitching against the Red Sox 35 miles away. And we were carrying a box of chain pizza back past the adult bookstore, the thrift shop, and the empty lot strewn with trash to our room, where we dined in luxury, washing our pizza down with fine craft beer procured some days earlier in Oregon and now sipped—in the mode of Paul Giamatti's character from Sideways—out of paper cups generously provided by our motel.

So if you ask my opinion of Hultzen, I will tell you that his presence in Tacoma helped destroy a perfectly good evening of baseball for me. If you want to know what I thought of Alex Liddi, I can tell you only that the beer was delicious despite being consumed out of paper cups and that the flowers on Vancouver Island made our delay worth the while.

I have no memories of a game I did not attend, but I'll not soon forget the day. From the meandering drive past Lake Crescent, to the gentleman in Victoria who—on learning that I came from San Diego—said in earnest that it used to be a rough town but is much better now, to the coach (Canadian for bus) driver who sounded and acted like a Kids in the Hall character (I think Bruce McCulloch, my wife thinks Mark McKinney), to the flowers in the garden, to learning that Juan de Fuca is actually the Spanish name for a Greek navigator who served under Phillip II in the 16th century, these all have become important threads in the fabric of my being.

Not to mention painful reminders that I didn't get to watch Hultzen pitch. Or Moyer, who for all I know is a vampire.

Because he never gets old. You know, like the jokes about his age.

* * *

This isn't the worst experience I've had trying to get to a ballgame, but it ranks among the top three. The other two involved Albuquerque in 2007. That summer, I drove from San Diego to Cooperstown to see Tony Gwynn inducted into the Hall of Fame. I was supposed to visit several minor-league ballparks along the way. I managed to catch games in Oklahoma City, Durham, Fort Wayne, and Springfield. But I also missed a game in Knoxville and two in Albuquerque.

The Knoxville incident doesn't bother me. I drove straight from Oklahoma City and got issued a warning two miles into Arkansas, forcing me to proceed with extreme caution through the entire state. This allowed me to arrive at the ballpark just as they were turning out the lights. I was tired after negotiating I-40 past Oak Ridge in the semi-dark, and the promise of a comfortable bed held more appeal to me than the thought of watching a few innings of baseball in a light drizzle after 15 hours on the road.

Albuquerque, however, is a different story. It is the only place I'd planned to visit twice on the trip–—once on the way out (which you can read about in excruciating detail at my old blog), and once on the way back. On the way out, I was behind schedule and so decided to head straight to Isotope Stadium. The directions I'd printed mentioned a road named after Cesar Chavez. So I found such a road and drove through a rural area on the outskirts of town. As the sky darkened, I arrived at a sign: END COUNTY MAINTAINED ROAD. It seemed unlikely to me that a ballpark would be here, so I turned around and searched for the motel I had booked for the night.

After some effort, I found the motel. Its parking lot basked in the glow of lights from Isotope Stadium. Turns out there are two roads in Albuquerque named after Cesar Chavez, and I chose the wrong one. That, as Robert Frost would say, made all the difference.

My second close encounter with Albuquerque came a week later. My wife had flown to Buffalo to join me on the return trip, and this was our third day on the road together. After watching games in Fort Wayne and Springfield (home of diehard Cardinals fans despite being clear across Missouri; also where I saw members of the visiting team's bullpen set up buckets into which fans could toss money in the hope of winning an autographed baseball—not a bad way to augment one's meager income at that level), we headed to New Mexico.

My plan to expunge the earlier disappointment was dashed early that morning when we were run off the freeway by a big rig near Sarcoxie, Missouri. I've documented this elsewhere, but the short version is that we lost more than an hour while regaining our composure over breakfast at Cracker Barrel, talking to an insurance agent who had trouble with time zones (“The accident occurred at 8 a.m.? But it's only 7 now.” Yes, we are in Missouri.), and slapping duct tape onto the passenger's side mirror so it didn't dangle and spin like some bizarrely shaped marionette.

We ended up spending the night in Tucumcari, which is like Albuquerque only in the sense that if you are unfamiliar with the name, you might not know how to pronounce it. There was no baseball game. There was no anything, other than a place to sleep, which by that point was more than enough.

* * *

Understand that relative to what most people confront in this world, these are petty concerns. But they seemed important at the time. And I know I'm not alone in this experience. Others have stories of epic failure in their pursuit of happiness as represented by the simple pleasure of watching a baseball game. If you need to get something off your chest, or you want to help me feel like less of a loser, please feel free to share your tale of misfortune. Then we can all hug or whatever.

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