It's not often you can say you went to a baseball game that started in the month of July and didn't end until August. But that's exactly what happened when I took my family to see the Detroit Tigers take on the Cleveland Indians Friday night in Cleveland.
Usually taking in a professional baseball game is a 4-hour affair, give or take an hour depending on traffic, crowd size, and the pitching match-up. Friday night's game in Cleveland was a spontaneous deal - we were in Ohio on vacation when we noticed the Tigers were playing the Tribe in Cleveland over the weekend.
"Hey you guys, the Tigers are in town, wanna go watch them play the Indians tonight? I asked my wife and three kids, knowing full well the answer would be yes.
"But you don't have tickets." My wife pointed out.
"Don't worry," I said, "The Indians suck this year; plus they just traded away Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez (their two best players) and the fans are really pissed. I bet there won't be anybody there."
Somewhat resistant to the idea of just showing up without tickets, my wife finally agreed to the plan when I told her there were fireworks after the game and "we wouldn't want the kids to miss that, would we?"
With a 7:05 pm start time, we hit the road sometime around five o'clock for the 52-mile drive to Cleveland. First, let it be known that the 52-miles from my hometown of Berlin Hts. to an Indians game in downtown Cleveland is nothing like the 45-mile drive from Ann Arbor to a Tigers game in downtown Detroit.
In fact, the first time my wife, a native of Birmingham, MI., made the drive with me, she couldn't believe how easy it was. No white-knuckling on 1-94, no hoping and praying there won't be an accident to grind your progress to a screeching halt, or, God forbid, the ever-present road construction that boils the blood of even the most mild-mannered motorist.
No, the drive from B.H. to Cleveland was as easy a 52-mile stretch one might find. Two lanes most of the way, but well maintained and smooth as silk. Just one small town after another along the lazy shores of Lake Erie with nary an exit in between. In fact, until you hit Rocky River, you might think the existence of a major metropolitan area like Cleveland was strictly a rumor.
Ten minutes into our drive on a beautiful summer evening, the thought of scoring some really good seats for very little money (thanks to the Tribe's fire sale on talent and the fans upheaval at the front office) was still fresh in my mind when I was greeted by a familiar site that was very much Michigan...brake lights!
"What the...?" "Aww, you gotta be kidding me."
Brake lights, brake lights, and more brake lights, as far as the eye could see, nothing but brake lights.
Apparently those silky smooth roads don't just happen by accident; every so often road crews actually have to pave them, and that's exactly what they were doing at 5:15 pm, Friday evening, July 31st.
Ahead of me, roughly a mile or so, cars were trying to merge into the right lane as a series of steam rollers were flattening the freshly poured asphalt in the left lane. There wasn't even that much traffic, it just wasn't moving...at all!
"So much for batting practice." I announced to the car.
"Do you want to just scrap it?" My wife asked, hoping I might say yes.
"What do you guys want to do?" I asked the kids.
"Will we get there in time for the first pitch?" My 9-year-old son asked.
"Yeah, I think so," I said, "or at least I hope so."
After a few minutes of discussion in the stopped traffic, the kids decided the fireworks were too good to pass up and we continued on to Cleveland.
When we finally got to the construction site, it was like most construction sites - you know, the feeling of "how did something this small slow down traffic that much?" A true anomaly that scientists certainly should devote some time to study. Nonetheless, as small and insignificant as it appeared, the three steam rollers gliding up and down a 300-yard stretch of the left lane on westbound Route 2 had thwarted our progress mightily. Now the first-pitch arrival I'd hoped for earlier, seemed like a pipe dream (but I wasn't about to let the kids in on that little fact).
Our arrival in downtown Cleveland, nearly an hour and a half after departure, was greeted with even more construction near the Progressive Field exit.
"Geez, what's next, a sellout crowd?" I said under my breath before nearly putting the minivan up on two wheels while pulling off a nifty lane change at a high rate of speed trying to get to the game on time.
"Settle down you idiot!" My wife yelled as she tried extracting her fingers from their new home, deeply embedded in the dashboard.
"What? You wanna get to the game on time, don't you?" I said, somewhat sardonically.
"You're a moron. You're gonna get us all killed." She shot back.
"Would you two stop fighting." My oldest daughter requested from the backseat.
I looked at my wife. She didn't look pleased.
Ten minutes and four more risky lane changes later, we were pulling into a parking garage next to the gigantic LeBron James banner that graces the side of a downtown Cleveland skyscraper.
The "Jesus of Cleveland," as I call him, James' bigger than life presence can be found everywhere in town - bars, buildings, jerseys - you name it, he's on it. Now our car was parked beneath his protective gaze on Ontario Street. What could possibly go wrong?
"Man, there sure are a lot of folks downtown tonight." I told my wife. "There must be something big going on by the lake or something."
"You are an idiot." My wife said. "They're all going to the game and we probably won't be able to get tickets."
"That's impossible." I said, sounding a little like the Grinch when he realized the Hoo's were still having Christmas despite all his devilish plans.
"They traded Victor." I said. "They traded Lee." They traded Francisco and Garko, what's left to see?"
Still, it was true. The hoards of people pouring out of the parking garage all were heading in the same direction, and that direction was the ball park up the street.
"Grab someone's hand." I yelled to my wife behind me. "Time to go into overdrive."
Not to brag, but years of slithering through 100,000 plus people at Michigan Stadium on deadline, have made me somewhat of an expert at maneuvering quickly through a massive throng of slow-moving Neanderthals.
Like a snake, my son and I wove our way in and out of the crowd. Darting left, slashing right; every move a quick burst of accelerated smoothness followed by a brief stretch of contemplating our next move. Every now and then I'd glance behind me to see if my wife and daughters were still in the same zip code. Surprisingly, they were always right on my heels. Once they even passed us on a different path; shooting back defiant glare as if to say "the game is on, catch us if you can."
Now it was a battle of the sexes. My wife and girls pulling out all the stops as I dragged my son behind me like a kite tail through the crowd. We both were headed for the ticket office, so keeping each other in sight was of little concern, it was just a matter of simple competition - me against the wife; the boys against the girls. Who would get there first? Pride was on the line, and, as it turns out, it was a pretty long line. But not nearly as long as the line at the ticket window, which somehow my wife and I managed to arrive at the very same time.
The sound of the National Anthem could be heard drifting through the air.
"Dad, the game is starting!" My son exclaimed.
"Don't worry bud," I reassured him, "we may miss a batter or two, but that's okay."
My biggest worry now was actually getting tickets. For whatever reason, this particular Friday night in Cleveland seemed to be the one night that everyone in northern Ohio decided to be spontaneous and go to a ball game.
"We need five together." I told the ticket attendant. "Whaddaya got?"
"Well sir, sections 518 through 525 all a have seats available, would you like those?"
"Where are they?" I asked.
"Upper deck, right field." She answered.
"Eighteen dollars a ticket."
"We'll take 'em."
"Okay sir, that will $90."
I took the tickets and turned tail ready to sprint to the gates when the attendant called out to me.
"Sir, don't forget these." She said.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Well, these are tissues in case you get a nose bleed and this is an oxygen mask in case you start feeling dizzy."
Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating, but when we started the ascent to our seats in section 525 at Progressive Field, I swear the temperature dipped 10 degrees and I began to hallucinate.
The worse news for both of us, however, was the glaring sunshine in our faces and the constant stream of seat-seekers stopping in our aisle mid-climb to catch their breath, thus blocking our view of pretty much everything except their gigantic heads dripping with perspiration, no doubt from the exertion required to climb to their seats roughly 4,000 feet above sea level.
Two innings was all I could muster.
"I didn't pay 90 bucks to look at people's heads." I told my wife. "You can stay here if you want, but the kids and I are moving over there." I said, pointing to a section just behind the foul pole in right field that was completely open.
"Fine!" She grumbled, "have it your way, I didn't want to come in the first place."
Her guilt trip didn't work. I'd already been on too many in our 13-years of marriage to really be bothered. Besides, I knew she would thank me in the end.
As luck would have it, the end wouldn't come for a long, long, long time. The pitching duel we expected turned out to be a grueling walk-fest featuring more than 200 pitches between the starting pitchers before the 5th inning.
The score was close, Cleveland somehow leading 3-2 heading into the later innings, but the action was non-existant. My wife and I both agreed it may have been the most boring one-run game in the history of baseball.
Several times we talk about bailing. The kids already saw fireworks on the Fourth of July anyhow, what was the big deal? But every time we got up to leave, we told ourselves to give it one more inning. Of course, one more inning led to one more inning which led to one more inning and the next thing we knew it was nearly the end of the game.
More than four hours had elapsed by the time the Tribe took the field to try and finish off the Tigers, leading 5-3 in the ninth. Unfortunately, the Tigers had other plans. A lead off single by Placido Polanco was followed by a two-run homer from Carlos Guillen and the game was tied.
By this time we were staying no matter what. With midnight creeping closer, my middle daughter and my son decided to get into the spirit of the occasion by leaving the rest of the family and heading to the top row of the upper deck where they began maniacally dancing like they'd just raided a meth lab.
It was embarrassing really, but pretty funny too. Their intent was two-fold, my son told me later. "We wanted to get on the the big video screen." he said, adding it was also the only way he could stay awake.
Shortly after midnight, more than five hours after the first pitch I had so frantically tried to witness, the Indians and Tigers clash that started on the last day of July, mercifully ended in the early morning on the first day of August.
The Tribe's Jamey Carroll singled home the game-winner in the 13th inning, and somehow, the talentless-Indians squeezed out a 6-5 win over the first-place Tigers.
All that was left now was the fireworks display we expected three hours earlier. When it did come, we weren't disappointed. Even members of the Indians and the Tigers came out of their dugouts to watch. I don't know what it is that makes people want to watch colorful explosions in the sky, but whatever it is, it seems to be universal and ageless, as even million-dollar ballplayers can attest.
When the last burst of the grand finale had finished lighting up the Cleveland sky, leaving behind only a thick haze of sulfury smoke, we headed for the parking garage underneath the giant LeBron James in the sky.
It was nearly one in the morning and we were still an hour from home. Before we'd left the parking structure, all three of my kids were fast asleep and my wife was clinging to consciousness - basically useless in my quest to remain among the living.
The drive home was a doozy. I tried everything in my power to stay awake. First I listened to the post-game show on the radio. That worked for a while, but they went off the air at 1:30. After that, I thought drinking a ton of Pepsi might do the trick, but the bottle of Pepsi I started drinking on the way to the game was flat and warm. I tried slapping myself in the face, but that was just plain stupid. I was just as likely to put the van in the ditch by knocking off my glasses as I was from falling asleep. My last-ditch effort to stay awake involved the alternate eye-closure technique where I would drive with one eye open while closing the other for 10 or 15 seconds to give it a rest. The danger, of course, is that both eyes go closed for 10 or 15 seconds and you jerk awake just in time to avoid a fiery crash.
Somehow, someway, I managed to get everyone home in one piece, although I don't remember much of the last 20 miles. It was just after 2 am eastern time when I finally pulled in the driveway at my folk's house. One by one, I carried my dead-weight sleeping children upstairs to their beds. My wife thanked me for our safe passage, even going so far as telling me she got a good half-hour nap.
"No problem," I said, "I'm pretty sure I did too."
The longest night was finally over - a mere 9 hours, 22 minutes and 45 seconds after it began...