America suffers an outbreak of wanderlust

Bruno Stadium, Troy, New York
Everyone’s hitting the road. Two of my co-workers leave tomorrow morning on a four-city baseball tour through the Midwest, while a friend of mine is off on a longer 10-day journey covering ballfields from Cleveland to Minneapolis to St. Louis. The New York Times’ Frugal Traveler is doing what I did nine years ago, even using the same name that I tacked onto the entries in a former blog. And writers, reporters, photographers and bloggers everywhere are doing all they can to mark the 50th anniversary this fall of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road — the first journey of which began on July 17, 1947, or 60 years ago.

And though I’ve got enough to keep me busy at home, though our funds are strained by projects on the new house, and though we’ve got a long weekend in Chicago to look forward to in just three weeks, I’m jealous of each and every one of them. (Particularly the NY Times guy. I mean, come on, “American Road Trip”? I never liked it when I chose it, and now you’re stealing it — albeit an “it” that’s not really “mine.” But I’ll save that whine for another blog.)

Floating second baseman

Perhaps I can satiate my own urge with a smaller undertaking, a more local journey emanating from home, a series of out-and-backs each day tucked in around my work schedule each night. It won’t be as fun as the 3-in-3 odyssey I put together two years ago, but it’s better than sitting at home dreaming about it. Day games are scheduled all over the tri-state area — both on New Jersey’s northern and southern ends — and I have my choice. I can hit four ballparks in four states in four days, or four in three states. I can visit three new ones out of the four, or split them two and two. That breakdown will be determined tomorrow, when I have to decide between the 48-minute drive (so says Google Maps) to Bridgewater for the Atlantic League’s Road Warriors-Somerset Patriots tilt, or the hour-and-48-minute jaunt up to West Haven, Conn., for the Can-Am League’s matchup between Les Capitales de Quebec and the New Haven County Cutters. Bridgewater will provide the convenient and the familiar; New Haven would be a new experience, but also more of a haul. And considering today’s journey, tonight’s sleep and the timing of everything, the drive to Connecticut would be much more taxing.

If I can make the trip in three hours or less, it fits my requirement for a “there-and-back” journey. In other words, any ballpark that is a three-hour drive one-way from our house, and I’ll consider it for a matinee — or the occasional night game — without staying over. I’ve done it to Baltimore and Pawtucket, but it’s not the kind of trip I would make on only a few hours’ sleep or if I have to work that night. So, depending on my schedule, only a handful of teams on the outer reaches of that three-hour window have games that are truly available to me. On Monday, the Tri-City ValleyCats just barely fit into that opening.

Sacrificed for the cause

Ideally, I like my time at a game to equal or exceed the one-way travel time. It’s not much fun when you drive three hours to get to the game but can only watch two hours of action before you have to get back on the road in order to make it home in time. I’ll take a 2-2-2 split — two hours driving, two hours at the park, two hours back in the car. It’s not great when your total travel time is twice as long as your ballpark time, but those are the concessions I make to expand my reaches.

The trip to Troy, N.Y., just over the Hudson River from Albany to the east, took me a few minutes longer than two hours. It was a simple trip, though, the Garden State Parkway easing into the New York State Thruway, which took me up along the eastern edge of the Catskills and spurned I-787 just outside Albany. I took the beltway a few miles east, exited, crossed the Hudson, and found my way to the campus of Hudson Valley Community College.

Joseph L. Bruno Stadium is a recent and modern minor league park, built when the ValleyCats — because they reside in the Hudson Valley — essentially moved across the state line. Until 2002, the franchise had been in Pittsfield, Mass., as a Mets affiliate. But the New York-Penn League underwent a bit of a sea change in the late 90s and early 2000s, when the Yankees bought the league’s Watertown, N.Y., team and moved the franchise to Staten Island; the Mets took over the club from St. Catharine’s, Ontario, and established the Brooklyn Cyclones; the Pittsfield club moved to Troy, and Cal Ripken bought the upstate Utica Blue Sox and expanded the NY-P League south to Maryland.

When the Pittsfield franchise made the 42-mile move west, it adopted the Tri-City nickname, encompassing the Albany-Troy-Schenectady area, similar to the way the Angels want to dominate both Anaheim and Los Angeles. Of course, New York’s Tri-City area is not to be confused with the Kennewick-Richland-Pasco region in Washington State, which is home to the Tri-City Dust Devils.

I have to say, I wasn’t drawn in by the Tri-City moniker. To me, it didn’t mean much, particularly because of the companion team across the country. To say I saw a game “at Tri-City” says nothing, but to tell friends what it’s like to experience a game “in Brooklyn,” “in Staten Island” or “at Trenton” is much more exciting. “Tri-City” sounds made-up, like something out of The Simpson. I’m not knocking it as a nickname for the Albany region, but it would not have been my choice on the Name the Team ballot. I’m sure it’s a great advertising tool for the fans in the area — which is what the team should be focused on — but it’s not going to draw me in as a tourist.

Off to clean the bases

Semantics aside, the game was enjoyable. As I tend to find at these weekday afternoon games, the cheaper seats along the outfield foul lines were jammed with kids in color-coded summer camp shirts, while the premium seats from the far end of one dugout to the other were largely empty, their season-ticket-holding owners stuck at work for the only mid-week matinee on the schedule. So I took whatever ticket they gave me at the window … and looked at it only out of curiosity. I never found section 230; instead, I spent the first couple of innings a few rows behind the third-base dugout, stood in line for another half-inning to buy my lunch, then ate it in a seat behind home plate and the protective screen, just slightly to the first-base side. After eating, I moved further out along the first-base line, getting out from behind the screen to have a clear view through my lens. (Pictures will be coming as soon as I can get them uploaded to the computer and sorted, but that may be a few days if I get to as many parks as I’m planning this week.)

Astros outfielder Hunter Pence is Tri-City’s most recent graduate to the majors — and its most beloved, it appeared — and watching these short-season Class A games in the NY-Penn League becomes a guessing game as to which players may have the tools to keep climbing up the ladder. The ValleyCats could have another outfield prospect in Collin DeLome, while third baseman Craig Corrado and second baseman Russell Dixon looked like they could move quickly through the first few rungs of the system.

The player I liked the most, though, was Mahoning Valley Scrappers center fielder Adam White, the Indians’ ninth-round pick in last month’s draft. He entered the game batting just .224, with a .265 slugging percentage — thanks to a triple representing his lone extra-base hit out of his 11 knocks so far this season — but I didn’t know his stats coming into the game and didn’t make a point to notice them on the board. I view the NY-Penn League a bit like Little League or high school games — your best players bat near the top of the lineup, with the best all-around players hitting first or third and the bottom of the order guys mainly fillers. Maybe this was White’s coming-out party, the game that jump-starts the rest of his season. So when I saw White put up two hits, hustle on the bases and get caught stealing in a rundown between second and third because of his aggressiveness (he jumped the wrong way on a pickoff attempt). He may one day move Pence to a corner, or he not make it much higher than Mahoning Valley, but he made Monday’s game pretty exciting.

I saw some early fireworks — including the only home run, by tall Mahoning Valley first baseman Todd Martin — in what turned into a Scrappers rout. As always, the experience was worth the trip. The fans treat it like it’s a vitally important contest and you’re sitting right on top of the field, where you can hear the crack, the thwack, the smack and the slide anywhere on the infield. If I get to bed soon, I should have enough time to get to sleep and build up enough energy to make it down to Bridgewater tomorrow.

I don’t want to overdo it on the second day of the week, not when Wednesday and Thursday have so much to offer.

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