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A tour of six stadiums with a baseball (and Pirates) fan

One of the things that attracted me to Pittsburgh was its location as a crossroads for the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. This also makes the region a natural for a multi-city baseball tour, something I’ve been thinking about for years. The stars align and I take husband Fen and son Steven on a six-game, six-day, six-city baseball tour, visiting (in order) Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Cleveland. It goes something like this...
Sunday: Nationals Park
The Washington Nationals are having a banner season and Nationals Park is packed. The ballpark is expansive and its food stalls sport clever names like Senators Sausages and Steak of the Nation. I make a beeline for the ballpark outpost of Ben’s Chili Bowl, where the “Half Smoke All The Way” is a plump red-brown sausage topped with chili, cheddar and onions. The flavors dance in my mouth and it’s easy to see why this place is one of Obama’s favorites. Pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg is on the mound for the Nats and, save for a bit of facial hair, he doesn’t look much older than my ten-year-old Steven. Strasburg loses his bid for a no-hitter in the top of the second but strokes a two-run single in the bottom of the inning to make it 2-0 Nats. In keeping with my fetish for skinny tees emblazoned with pro sports logos, I walk around the stadium looking to add to my collection. The Nats rock the red (much like the cross-town Caps) and the first store I visit is loaded with possibilities. One tee has a V down to here.
“How are we supposed to wear that?” says an attractive blonde.
Feeling her pain, I keep walking and bump into the Beltway Bar, a fully-stocked bar in the middle of the concourse. Not far away is the Capitol Club, another bar. I’m in the land of lobbyists and three-martini ballgames. Strasburg captures the major-league lead in strikeouts by the sixth so we leave in the seventh with the home team firmly in command. Our hotel for the night is the Fairmont Georgetown, whose Far East motif is Zen to me. We’ve snagged the Magnolia Suite, where Steven’s half of the accommodation includes a Murphy bed and bath. Unbeknownst to me, Steven showers and slips into a signature Fairmont terrycloth robe and velvety slippers from the valet stand in his room. I find him sprawled on his bed, reading, and can’t help but think of Macauley Culkin and his pinch-me moment in a Plaza suite in “Home Alone 2.”
Monday: Camden Yards
Our first stop in Baltimore is Nick’s Seafood at the Cross Street Market on Federal Hill. A lacquered wooden counter is anchored by a tray filled with Maryland blue crabs dusted with Old Bay. It’s not an “R” month but who cares? The crabs look great. We order a dozen and the counter gal, Julie, senses our confusion.
“I’ll show you how to crack ‘em,” she cracks.
Armed with a sturdy plastic knife, Julie finds just the right spots in the shell to crack the crab and snap the legs and shows us what to eat and not. She also brings bowls of drawn garlic butter and more Old Bay. We proceed to crack, snap and eat for nearly two hours, our fingers morphing into a sticky, salty stew. Steven’s smile is as wide as the Inner Harbor.
The Orioles are celebrating 20 years at Camden Yards, one of the early retro-style ballparks. Our seats are on the club level and as we walk the clean, cool corridors, we pass food buffets, carving stations and numerous bars.
“It’s sweet in here!” squeals Steven.
Our boy grabs a slice of pepperoni pizza while I save myself for Boog’s Barbeque, the latter named after O’s icon Boog Powell. I slather my platter of pork and beef with homemade jalapeno barbeque sauce, certain it wouldn’t be available in the stands. Steven and Fen share my feast at a cozy seating area that faces a large, flat-screen TV. The O’s logo, a happy bird with a big orange beak, has to be one of the best in baseball so I make my way to the store in search of a tee. There’s lots to like but orange is a tough color for me. I notice the name “Markakis” across the back of most of the gear and, sure enough, it’s Nick Markakis who launches a two-run bomb while I’m shopping to make it 3-0 Birds. The store erupts in cheers.
Tuesday: Citizens Bank Park
SquareBurger is one of Philadelphia restauranteur Stephen Starr’s nearly 20 restaurants. It’s arguably the most accessible, a walk-up window at one end of Franklin Square, a greensward that’s a play space for kids. The requisite burgers and fries are bested by thick shakes including a Shake of the Month and I’ve been told to ask for the Cake Shake made with Tastykake butterscotch krimpets, a Philly institution that look surprisingly like Hostess Twinkies. The krimpets are blended with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream and the resulting shake is intensely sweet and the pride of Philly.
We take SEPTA, the city’s rapid transit line, to Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies’ sprawling home. Our seats are on the fourth deck and directly above home plate so while we’re sky high, it’s a fine sight line. A friend and environmental activist, Joy Bergey, joins us and she has encyclopedic knowledge of both her team and the ballpark’s food. Steven’s dog comes on a warm egg bun, easily making it best in class. Fen’s sausage is awash in red and green peppers and while the meat is good, I tell Joy what it needs is the egg bun.
“They’re called rolls in Philly, not buns,” she whispers.
My eco-friend tells me about storm water reclamation efforts employed by the Nats in D.C., and how the Phillies are substantial purchasers of green energy. She also directs me to Ashburn Alley, home to food stalls and a statue of Phillies great Richie Ashburn. As instructed, I buy a roast pork sandwich at Tony Luke’s topped with provolone and broccoli rabe. It’s as big as my forearm and I take the juicy mess up to our seats, where Fen and Steven sneak bites as I’m busily chatting. I tell Joy I’m in love with Philly food and laugh about how a shake made with Twinkies could be so good. She looks startled and puts her finger to her lips.
“Don’t say that around here!” she implores. “They’re not Twinkies. They’re krimpets.”
‘nuff said.
Wednesday: PNC Park
It takes us three days to realize that a baseball tour is an endurance sport so we wake up late in Philly and take a leisurely drive to Pittsburgh. Hitting the ‘burgh late in the afternoon, we head to Winghart’s, where the Market Square Burger is padded with bacon, mushrooms and melted Gruyere and slathered in a honey mustard dressing. Post meal, we pad over to the Fairmont Pittsburgh, whose Grand Slam Baseball Package comes with game tickets, an in-room Wii baseball game, use of baseball gloves for the kids and house-made, light-as-air Cracker Jacks that are positively addictive.
Katrina McCutchen, mother to All-Star Andrew, sings the national anthem and she’s no Roseanne, hitting the high notes with ease. Our field level seats are across from third base and the ideal vantage point from which to enjoy the stunning Pittsburgh skyline, all glass spires and interesting angles. The Buccos are experiencing an all-star season after 19 straight losing campaigns and the crowd is electric. The team has yet another terrific logo, a snarling buccaneer. At the Majestic Clubhouse store, I find the perfect tee: Bucco logo, team name, v-neck, fitted. And black. Leaving the store, I spot two leggy gals sporting even cooler tops, gauzy black numbers that are off the shoulder, cropped at the waist and trimmed with pompoms at the bottom. Turns out they’re students, one at Pitt and the other at Duquesne.
“Did you make those?” I ask.
“Yeah!” they say in unison.
“We were bored and wanted something for tonight’s game,” says the taller of the two.
An electrical storm takes hold in the seventh inning but play goes on and the “Hammer” comes down in the ninth, striking out the side for a 7-6 Pirates victory.
Thursday: Comerica Park
The Detroit Tigers play in Comerica Park and their mascot is everywhere: tall stone tigers snarl at the entrance and a conga line of tigers shimmies across the stadium facade. Inside, there’s a carousel whose every seat is a tiger and a Ferris wheel with seats like giant baseballs. On an outfield wall, I see that Ty Cobb’s number has been retired along with other Tiger greats, however, there’s no number next to Cobb’s name. Fen tells me that’s because Cobb played before numbers came into usage.
My Coney Dog, a Detroit institution by way of New York, is topped with soupy chili and crunchy onions and goes down easy. It makes sense that I’m taking a bite of the Big Apple, sort of, since the Yankees are in the house and it quickly feels like a battle of the American League All-Stars, brawny cats Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera doing battle against Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira. The ballpark is filled to the rafters and it’s clear that many in attendance are rooting for the visitors. In the bottom of the fifth, Yankees manager Joe Girardi takes exception to a fair ball and argues emphatically with the home plate umpire, who exhibits considerable patience. All four umps talk it over and tell Girardi it’s still a fair ball, so the Yanks’ skipper argues even more. He gets tossed and the fans roar. Not to be outdone, Girardi throws his cap across the infield, stomps off and screams at the fans. They cheer even more.
On our way out of Detroit the next day, we stop for lunch at Good Girls Go To Paris, a creperie close by the world-class Detroit Institute of Arts. A blackboard lists a slew of savory and sweet crepes, each graced by a girl’s name. My “Annette” is a medley of Nova lox, brie, tomatoes, spinach and Herbes de Provence and transports me to...Paris? To my surprise, it’s topped by the Good Girl, a confection of bananas and Nutella that would find fans anywhere.
Friday: Progressive Field
As we step into Progressive Field in Cleveland, a staffer points us to our seats.
“Go Tribe!” he cheers as we walk away.
As we walk along the concourse, each food stall looks better than the last and we find ourselves saying their names out loud in the hopes of remembering them: Calling All Onion Fans, Spuds and Suds, Food Network Hot Dog Bar. We double back to the last and are greeted by a smiling cook.
“Welcome to Progressive Field! How can we help you?”
Our new friend tells us that we can make our own hot dog or sausage with one of over a dozen toppings and offers Fen a piece of sausage. Hubs pronounces it spicy goodness and the cook offers me a bite of a milder sausage. It’s terrific, so I order one and top it with baked beans, cole slaw, onions and cheddar cheese. Steven orders a hot dog and tops it with pulled pork and barbeque sauce. I spy golf-ball-sized, crinkle-cut fries out of the corner of my eye and flag down the woman carrying them.
“Where did you get those?” I ask.
“Right over there,” she says, as she points to a burger stand. “Go to Shelley’s line – she’s so nice.”
Our field level seats are behind home plate and no sooner has the game started than a fellow a few sections over gets down on one knee and proposes to his girlfriend. She accepts, and it’s all broadcast on the big screen. In the Cleveland lineup, Carrera is followed by Cabrera, then Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana, that last one a fitting name in the land of the Rock Hall of Fame. And the hits keep coming: while the Indians go down swinging to the Red Sox, 3-2, it’s fireworks night and pyrotechnics light the night sky to the strains of summer rock like “Purple Haze” and “Brown-Eyed Girl.”
“Wow!” says Steven.
‘nuff said.
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