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Ending Up

August 16, 2011

Well, that’s it, I guess. On Monday we made the last two sightseeing stops on our cross-country trip: Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. By the time you read this we may already be back home in New York.

The Hamster continued lamenting the end of the trip but I insisted that he stop focusing on the end and focus instead on enjoying each activity. Perhaps the most enjoyable activity of the day was checking out of and leaving the Clarion Inn in Florence, Kentucky, which was the worst place we’ve stayed in the entire trip, and that’s not an easy title to claim. We had a huge one-bedroom suite comliments of all the rewards points I’ve racked up by spending so many nights in hotels and motels. But free or not, the room was so badly stained everywhere that I wondered if we were  actually sleeping in a Jackson Pollack painting. There were streaks and splotches of various colors on just about every surface: the carpet, the couch, the headboards, the walls, the shower curtain–everywhere.

We had nowhere to go but up, by which I mean Cincinnati. We had only about 4 hours to jam in as much Cincinnati as we could, so we started with Fountain Square, which I guess is like a very small Bryant Park in that it’s in the middle of downtown and hosts frequent concerts, movies, etc. It gets its name from the large fountain in the middle, which looked somehow familiar to me though I couldn’t figure out why.

As I was typing this it suddenly occurred to me where I’ve seen this statue before: in the opening credits for “WKRP in Cincinnati“! I suppose that’s fitting since, as the opening theme song says, I’m definitely “kinda tired of packin’ and unpackin’ / Town to town, up and down the dial.”

Anyway, across the street from the fountain stands Carew Tower, an art deco office building that used to be the tallest building in the city (it’s now the second-tallest) and has an open-air obersvation deck on the roof, 49 stories up. It doesn’t really compare to some of the other, much taller buildings we’ve looked out from but it still gave us some great views of the city.

And at only $2 each, it was an even better bargain than the $1 downtown parking garage where I left the car while we climbed the tower.

At this point it was still too early in the morning for most places to be open so we went to Eden Park, which is a sizeable public park on the riverfront that houses a conservatory, an art museum, some ponds and fountains, and several walking and biking paths. It’s much smaller than, say, Forest Park in St. Louis or Central Park in NY, and it’s in somewhat of a more residential area, but it provided peace, quiet, pretty across-the-river views of Newport, KY, and an opportunity for Sam to feed some ducks and geese.

My original plan for our half-day in Cincinnati was to take a riverboat ride on the Ohio River, but it turns out the sightseeing cruises don’t start until 3 or so and we needed to be on our way to Pittsburgh by then. So instead Sam suggested we substitute a tour of the Reds’ Great American Ball Park.

I had been to a game at Great American before and enjoyed it, but I think I liked it better this time around. Part of the difference was that the last time I went it was for a night game, and ballparks are always etter during the day. But the Reds have also made some small but noticeable improvements since the last time I was there, including adding a vaguely riverboat-shaped party terrace right next to the decorative smokestacks beyond the outfield.

I also really appreciated Scout’s Alley, a sort of mini-museum of the Reds’ scouting department that’s hidden in one of the premium seating sections. Sam liked the ballpark but was more focused on quietly mocking an incredibly annoying woman who was on the tour with us. She voiced considerable amazement at every single thing we saw and wasted everyone’s time with inane questions about the Paul McCartney concert that was held there a few days earlier and the size and location of the stadium’s food prep area, and complaints about the directional signage in the parking garage.

One little bonus of our particular tour was that it was given while Reds Fantasy Camp was havign a reunion game on the field. Sam and I tuned out the crazy woman by watching average schmucks like us play baseball on a major league field, complete with commentary by the team’s announcer and their images on the scoreboard.

After the tour we stopped by the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, which makes the recently created Mets Hall of Fame at Citi Field look pretty lame by comparison. Of course the Reds have much more history to celebrate but the museum is truly imaginitive, with lots of fun things for both kids and adults to do and creative displays like a huge wall covered with 4,256 baseballs to show the sheer volume of hits Pete Rose collected in his career. I think my favorite part of the museum was a display about Johnny Bench’s his unique ability to hold seven baseballs in one of his enormous hands that gave fans the opportunity to try replicating the feat.

(The seven baseballs I’m holding in this photo are actually attached to each other in the same configuration in which Bench held them. With real, unattached baseballs, the best I could do was five.)

After a quick lunch it was on to our very last stop: Pittsburgh. On the way we passed through a 10-mile sliver of West Virginia, which I hadn’t expected and thus puts us in 22 states over the course of this trip instead of the 21 we expected.

Eventually, though, we did make it to Pittsburgh, where for the first time in a few weeks we were finally able to have dinner at a restaurant. I was happy to have a night off from cooking on the side of a random highway; Sam was elated to finally eat pizza, which he’d been jonesing for since I picked him up from camp. It was lousy pizza but we didn’t care.

After dinner it was time for–what else?–baseball. I didn’t really think about this when I was planning the road trip but it worked out nicely that the last stop of our tour of the country was PNC Park, my favorite major league baseball stadium (and I’ve been to 39 of them, so I kinda know what I’m talking about).

All the ballparks that have been built in the past 15 years are fantastic. But they’re also all kind of the same. Most of them are designed by the same firm and they share a lot of the same features: lots of brick and exposed steel, statues of the team’s best players placed at the entrances, quirky outfield dimensions and wall heights, super-expensive padded seats right behind home plate, a giant glassed-in restaurant in one of the outfield corners, an open promenade behind the center field bleachers, etc. One of the things I love about PNC Park is that it feels the most different and unique out of all of them.

For one thing, its upper deck is lower than it is at most stadiums and its outfield seating is extremely open, giving the park a cozy, almost minor-league feel. Also, there’s no giant, glassed-in restaurant. In fact, a lot of the stuff that new stadiums have for the uberwealthy (posh restaurants, large sections of seating you can only get to through other posh restaurants that, in turn, you can only get to with exclusive tickets, etc.) is either not there or just placed in such a way so that it’s not as obvious. This makes the ballpark feel more like a ballpark and less like a shrine to corporate wealth. There’s also much less focus on all the playground-and-video-game area that every new stadium has for kids. There’s some kid stuff at PNC, but it’s much more subdued, leaving the focus on actually watching a baseball game instead of doing baseball-related things while a baseball game occurs nearby.

A lot of stadiums nowadays celebrate the team’s history with statues and banners of former star players and prominent display of retired numbers. Pittsburgh does this also, but somehow just does it a little bit better than most. Their retired numbers include each player’s name as well, and just look a bit prettier than those of most other teams’. There are player statues at most entrances, but one entrance is dedicated to stars of the Negro Leagues and features not just statues of several of the greatest Negro Leaguers but also interactive touch screen displays about the players. They’ve also scattered little touches around the park, like this cool bust (if that’s what you call this) of Hall-of-Fame Pirates slugger (and longtime Mets announcer) Ralph Kiner’s hands:

Even the mundane stuff is done well and thoughtfully. Most teams show pitch speed on the scoreboard; Pittsburgh shows pitch speed and horizontal and vertical break. The escalators work in reverse so that they take you up at the beginning of the game and back down at the end. Instead of launching ugly sponsor T-shirts into the crowd they launch hot dogs. The Pierogie Race is the second coolest bit of between-inning entertainment behind Milwaukee’s Sausage Race. Even the vendors are cooler. Well, at least this one guy is:

By far the ballpark’s best feature, though, is the view of the city skyline. A few other teams have something like this (the skyline view in St. Louis is especially beautiful) but the openness of the PNC Park outfield, the location both right on the water and right in the middle of downtown, and the presence of the Pirates-yellow suspension bridges (which, by the way, in a very cool touch are closed to cars immediately before and after games so fans can teem across them) just makes the view of Pittsburgh much, much more breathtaking than any non-Pittsburgher would ever expect the view of downtown Pittsburgh to be.

As the game ended Sam and I congratulated each other on surviving this crazy trip, the Pirates congratulated each other on an exciting victory, and fireworks exploded above the outfield. It was a great way to end a fun night and a great way to end an extraordinary adventure that neither of us will ever forget.

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