Monday, July 28, 2008

WED, July 9th - MON, July 14th - The Baseball Part of the Trip (Part IV)

(for a little while, and then North Jersey)

The plan all along had been to try our best to attend the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium on the Monday before the All-Star Game. Since this is the last season that the Yankees will play in the old Yankee Stadium, I really did want my kids to try and experience an evening there before it closes down. So on Monday afternoon, we made the trip into the Bronx with two tickets in hand, and needing two more.

We arrived in the Bronx around 4:00PM, exiting onto River Road and getting a good look at the new Yankee Stadium which is right across the street from the current (soon to be old) Yankee Stadium. In talking to my dad, despite his status as a Red Sox fan, he mirac
ulously maintains friendships with many Yankee season ticket holders. Apparently, the new Yankee Stadium will house a baseball experience that is at least five times better than the current baseball experience for Yankees fans because the prices of tickets are literally quintupling. I, for one, completely understand; I mean, how else can you afford to pay set up relievers $6M per year? Seriously, upper deck tickets in the new Yankee Stadium have a face value of $400 apiece! After walking around the Bronx, I am going to make a calculated estimate that approximately 0% of the people living in the neighborhood near the park will be able to afford to go to a game. Thank God for the YES Network, though!

Jumping down off my soap box, I had a number in mind for the other two tickets; if I couldn't acquire them for less than $300 combined, my plan was to flip the two tickets we had for maximum profit margin and then go find some other activities for the evening. As it turned out, not only could we not find tickets for less than $300, we couldn't find any for sale at all! Seeing the dearth of available tickets, I put a 30 minute shot clock on finding tickets before it would become time to flip the two we had and go to Agenda B for the evening. My daughter was mildly fearful of her well being walking around the Bronx, and my sons decided to make up a new game called "Who can high five more homeless people?" So the sooner we resolved the ticket acquisition (or sell off), the better. As it turns out, we sold the two we had to a couple of baseball fans from Virginia, netting enough to pay for our gas and our activities for the evening. Only problem was, we weren't sure what those activities would be. We got back to the car, which miraculously I was able to park on the street while we were hunting down tickets, thus saving me from having to donate a kidney to pay for parking in the Bronx. I pulled out the atlas and noticed that we were a quick jaunt over the George Washington Bridge from North Jersey. It was at this point that I recalled a Youtube video done by Sopranos fixture and good friend of "The Sean and John Show", Joe Gannascoli ("Vito Spatafore" from the Sopranos); the video describes a Sorpanos reality tour. Here it is ...

So in my continued efforts to garner Father of the Year, I thought "What better
way to spend the rest of the afternoon than to visit some Sopranos landmarks?" To be clear now, my kids do not watch "The Sopranos" (not until they are at least 12 years old, I say), but they do know who some of the characters are and they've seen the final scene on Youtube because they are big fans of Journey. (Sopranos fans know the Journey/final scene correlation.)

We started with a little trip over to Lyndhurst to take a picture in front of La Cebeles, which is a Spanish restaurant that serves as the home of Vesuvio. On the show, Vesuvio is owned by Tony's boyhood friend Artie Bucco's, and it continually spirals downward in terms of food quality and clientele throughout the arc of the Sopranos series.

Next we jumped over to Satin Dolls on Route 17 in Lodi, which is better known as the Bada Bing to Sopranos fans. This was the one landmark that I did not ask my kids to pose in front of, as there reaches a point in a Sopranos reality tour where you wonder if Child Protection Services would get involved. So I merely told my children that Satin Dolls was a "dance studio" and left it at that. Not exactly a lie, but certainly not the entire truth either.
Once I finished the "How to explain a strip club without really explaining it" obstacle course with my kids, we headed up the Belleville Turnpike in North Arlington to Pizzaland. Anyone who has seen the Sopranos opening credits probably subliminally recognizes the place pictured to the right. It's on for a total of about 2 tenths of a second in the opening montage but the bright green letters and the sheer joy that I experience when seeing the word "pizza" are enough to make it easy to remember.

After scarfing down a quick slice and a Coke at Pizzaland, it was time for the two main events of the impromptu Sopranos reality tour -- Tony's house and Holsten's, which is where the final scene was located. We drove all the way out to North Caldwell which is an absolutely beautiful suburb located out in the hills of North Jersey, and after winding our way down many wooded back roads, we pulled into a cul de sac and found 14 Aspen Drive, and maybe the most recognizable house for a family on TV. At worst case, it is second behind the kick ass duplex monstrosity designed by Mike Brady on "The Brady Bunch". (Thankfully, unlike Mike Brady, Tony Soprano had the foresight to (a) hire someone else to design his house, (b) build a back yard without Astro Turf, and (c) make sure the house had an occupant to bathroom ratio better than 5 to 1.)

Last but not least, it was time to get some dinner at Holsten's in Bloomfield, NJ. Now when I figured out that we would be making this trip over the bridge from New York, I figured that getting dinner at Holsten's would be fun, but potentially a really long wait. I mean, if I lived near the place where they filmed the final scene of the Sorpanos, I'd be eating there every night. I figured there would be a line out the door and we'd have to be patient. Well, apparently, the novelty has worn off for residents of Bloomfield because not only did we walk right in, but we also ate in the exact booth where they filmed the last scene! Yes, the sign in the booth says "This booth reserved for the Soprano Family".

You remember the final scene, right?

Three things that are depicted at Holsten's in the Sorpanos that are different in real life at Holsten's:

(1) The mural in the Sopranos is different than the actual mural currently (and normally) on display at Holsten's. You can see the normal mural in the picture to the left.

(2) The booths don't have the little jukeboxes at them. Those were added to the TV show for obvious reasons. No jukebox, no Journey.

(3) The mysterious guy sitting at the counter in the Members Only jacket, who some theorize killed Tony after going into the bathroom and getting a gun (a theoretical "Godfather" homage), actually walked into the LADIES room. I don't know if that makes it more or less likely that he killed Tony, but it does make it more likely that the seat didn't get put down in the ladies room that night.

And for the record, I ordered a bowl of onion rings for the table like Tony....


WED, July 9th - MON, July 14th - The Baseball Part of the Trip (Part III)

(via Philadelphia)

Having finished up all of our business in D.C., we took to the road on Saturday morning to begin heading north. The ultimate destination on this trip had always been the Connecticut shore, and now I was a mere six hours away. The trip from D.C. to the Connecticut shore is surprisingly easy. If you Mapquest it, the directions are basically this:

1. Find I-95
2. Head north on I-95 until you get to the state where liquor stores all close at 8:00 PM.

Our agenda for Saturday consisted of lots of windshield time and two stops -- first, we were going to in the south side of Philadelphia for lunch at the legendary Pat's Steaks; second, we had tickets to the MLB All Star Fan Festival at the Javits Center in Manhattan.

We arrived in Philadelphia right around noontime, and since the Phillies were playing an afternoon game, this means we arrived right in the middle of the lunchtime crush of Philly Fans getting their steak on before the game that day. The temperature hovered somewhere between 95 degrees and "surface of the sun", so cramming roughly 1,000 overweight Philadelphians onto one street corner, all with a common goal of devouring red meat had the air of a cruel joke from the gods. Regardless, the Pendergast family jumped into the cheesesteak fray, happily so.

If you've never been to the south side of Philadelphia, just rent Rocky 1 or Rocky 2, and you'll get a pretty accurate feel. It's the Italian section of Philadelphia and the row houses/apartments are plentiful. Also, in this part of town, you'll find the Italian market, probably most famously displayed in Rocky 2, where Rocky jogs through the market proudly waving and fist pumping to every passerby. Most importantly, you find the three-way street corner of 9th Street, Wharton Avenue and Passyunk Avenue housing Pat's King of Steaks. Worth noting, it's located right across the street from the almost as legendary Geno's Steaks, thereby making each day a Steak War in the Italian section of Philadelphia. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for the sitdown when Pat and Geno sat with the Steak Boss (presumably Rocky's boss Gazzo from Rocky 1) and divided up the steak territory on the south side.

The first challenge in doing business at Pat's is making sure that you order properly. Since the line to eat is usually about 50 or 60 people deep, they have a very efficient method of taking orders that involves insider lingo (i.e. "give me two steaks, no onion, wiz wit', to go") and a shot clock of about 10 seconds to get your order conveyed. Somewhere, the Soup Nazi is nodding with approval. After ordering, you take a walk down to the pick up window passing by another window in front of the actual grill where the delectable mountain of red meat is constantly being refreshed. Seriously, looking at that grill piled high with steak, I felt like Rudy's dad walking into Notre Dame Stadium for the first time. "This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen." Me, I went with the cheese steak, no onions with provolone (as opposed to cheese whiz, thereby making my sandwich a "wiz wit'out"). Sitting in a crowded Italian section of Philly already gives this meal a minimum of a B+ on atmosphere alone. The food did nothing to detract from the grade.


Having successfully escaped the south side of Philly without getting caught in the Pat vs Gino crossfire, and with bellies full of red meat and various forms of processed cheese, we jumped back onto I-95 to head to New York City for the All-Star Game Fan Festival. Originally, we had planned on going to Shea Stadium to see the Mets play the Rockies, but we called an audible and decided against it for a couple of reasons:

(1) The aforementioned temperature.

(2) I've been to Shea Stadium before so it didn't really have "Bucket List" status for me. And my kids ... well, they'll never know the difference. To be honest, crossing Shea Stadium off of your "baseball stadium visited" bucket list is a akin to crossing Toledo off of your "cities visited" bucket list. If it doesn't happen, your quality of life hasn't really been impacted one way or the other.

So instead of sweating like stuck pigs at Shea, we decided to head to Manhattan to the Javits Center for the All-Star Fan Fetsival. If you've never been to this event, it is essentially one of those convention center style events with various booths containing different baseball experiential-type games, such as clocking your fastball on a radar gun, taking batting practice against in a cage, or singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame". Conspicuous by their absence were the booths were you could take fantasy injections of HGH, testify on fantasy Capitol Hill, and date a Mindy McCready lookalike, but I'm hopeful these will be in place next year!

The business plan for an event like this is simple -- sell tickets for $30 a pop for people to come inside and (1) stand in line for an hour to take part in the aforementioned events and (2) spend another $200 on All Star Game gear. It's essentially the Amusement Park Business Plan, where the one-time expense of admission to the event buys you the right to stand in line and spend more money all day. Good times. And when you're doing it amidst thousands of Jeter and A-Rod jerseys ... well, even better times.

The big selling point of the event was the ability to get autographs from some of the legends of baseball, including Rollie Fingers and Fred Lynn. Naturally, by the time we arrived at the event, the legends had left to go get up on the early bird special at Denny's. So we let the kids have one crack at batting practice, had my daughter sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" (available on CD! Yes!), and we hit the road for the Connecticut shore. I'll chalk up the All-Star Fan Fest as a healthy reminder of the age old adage that "Amusement parks suck".

Onward and upward ....

Sunday, July 27, 2008

WED, July 9th - MON, July 14th - The Baseball Part of the Trip (Part II)

Astros vs Nationals, 7/11

At this point in the trip, I was no longer traveling solo. My kids made the flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh on Thursday, and I did what any self-respecting father would do -- I gassed them up on Mountain Dew and hit the road to head to our nation's capital for a couple days of education on our nation's history and, yes, more Astros baseball. We were also joined in Washington, D.C. by the patriarch of the Pendergast Family tree, my dad Paul. Since I don't think you peruse this blog for stories about the Lincoln Memorial or the Smithsonian, I will skip ahead and get right to our Friday evening at the Washington Nationals new ball park -- the ultra creatively named Nationals Park. (How did they come up with that one???)

We arrived at the ball park right around game time. I had a media pass waiting for me, so first order of business was getting tickets for my dad and the Penderkids. I left ticket duty up to my father who is to ticket acquisition what Tiger Woods is to golf. After watching him masterfully work a scalper over for three tickets under face value (the drive), somehow talk his way into the ball park with only three tickets for four people (the chip), and then find five seats 20 rows up behind the third base dugout (the 25 foot putt for eagle), my respect level for the old man was never higher.

As for the ballpark itself, it is the newest one in the big leagues so from a standpoint of comfort, convenience, spacious concourse areas, and a vast amount of food selections, it was exactly what you'd expect. However, it was my trip to Nationals Park that made me realize that we're going to have to start grading these new ballparks on some sort of sliding scale. Since they are all being built as sort of a correction to the sterile, generic, metallic/concrete beasts of the 1960's and 70's (Riverfront, Three Rivers, Veterans Stadium, to name a few), every single one of the new parks grades out from good to excellent on the comfort and aesthetics scale. What would bring the Nationals Park grade down to something in the low B range for me was the overabundance of visual and auditory encouragement to cheer, scream, yell, or "make some noise". It seemed like the jumbotron (extra points for jumbotron in HD, by the way) and the visual screens on the front of the upper deck were constantly telling us to do something, and doing so in a blend of bright color and booming noise that made it all feel like a bad acid trip at a Metallica concert. It came off almost amateurish.

Other notes from the Nationals Park visit:

- I have never caught a foul ball in my life at a game. Not at a minor league game, major league game, little league game, or even a beer league softball game. I left my kids and my dad for a few minutes to go handle some business at the Nationals' media relations desk, and when I came back, my kids were celebrating their grandfather snagging a fly ball off the bat of Nationals CF Willie Harris. When I'm 61 years old, I hope I am snagging foul balls at major league games. And sober, too. That would be good.

- The game itself was a complete waste if
you are an Astros fan (which I am, my kids are, and my dad sort of is now after visiting Houston in late June for the Red Sox series). Roy Oswalt (and his 4.56 ERA) started the game and pitched one inning before leaving with a recurrence of this mysterious hip ailment that he has. So that means the game was left in the hands of the Astros bullpen, which is a little like leaving a spelling bee in the hands of Jessica Simpson. Anyway, Chad Paronto came in and gave up three runs in two innings. Then Dave Borkowski came in and did his best impersonation of a golf tee, giving up seven runs including two mammoth home runs.

Dave Borkowski, who as of this typing is no longer with the Astros, is absolutely brutal. Quick actual sports take, I am not nearly as offended by guys like Alex Rodriguez making $28M/yr as I am by guys like Dave Borkowski making $400K/yr. I mean, at least Alex Rodriguez is really good at what he does. At least peo
ple pay to see Alex Rodriguez. Dave Borkowski absolutely sucks at his job, he is the absolute worst, a total laughing stock. If he disappeared from the face of the earth, major league baseball wouldn't feel a thing. In short, nobody has ever bought a ticket to see Dave Borkowski, and no one has ever TIVO'd a game because there may be a Borkowski sighting. Yet he will make 10 times what a teacher will make this year. That bothers me. Not A-Rod, or Puma, or even Carlos Lee getting paid big bucks. (Ok, maybe Carlos Lee a little bit...)

- Once Borkowski gave up runs 9 and 10 in the sixth inning and we were firmly in the apocalyptic aftermath of another Astros pitching meltdown, I decided to email my friend Alyson Footer. For those of you who don't live in Houston, Alyson covers the Astros masterfully for and is the perfect sounding board during 10-0 blowouts because she will respond with just the right combination of sarcasm, wit, and clarity. Fortunately, in addition to being a baseball guru, she can capably discuss topics like kiss-cam, Billy Joel, and Tom Cruise's epic performance in "Top Gun". Alyson was sitting up in the press box at Nationals Park so we got onto the topic of the ball park itself. We agreed that maybe the Nationals audio/video folks were a bit over the top in presentation, but that the one thing that was a five-star winner was the Dead Presidents race that they do between (I think) the fifth and sixth innings.

They have people in Presidential costumes with huge, oversized heads racing around the perimeter of the ball park, starting in centerfield and ending at home plate. You can see in the picture to the left, the presidents involved are Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, and George Washington. This event is very similar to the sausage races at Miller Park in Milwaukee. Truth be told, costumes with oversized heads are never "not funny". They are ALWAYS HILARIOUS. Without exception. Kind of like claymation characters. The fact is dudes made out of clay are always ten times funnier than the exact same dude in flesh and blood. It's a fact. Anyway, the Presidents race is a surefire winner. Alyson and I collectively lamented the fact that we have no "oversized headed costume race" in Houston, and decided that maybe it's time we started a movement to get one. Astros fans deserve it. We briefly debated who the contestants would be, knowing full well that they had to in some way capture the rich tradition of the city of Houston and in particular the ballpark itself. From there, the choice was obvious -- each night, the Astros need to conduct Disgraced Enron Executive Racing. Go get some costumes with oversized heads of Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, and Ken Lay and race them around the yard between innings in orange jumpsuits. "Skilling is coming up around the oustide, Fastow is trying to hold him off ... meanwhile Ken Lay is going the WRONG WAY!!!"

- Food wise, at the recommendation of Brian Powell from the uber-blog Awful Announcing, I went to the Ben's Chili Bowl concession stand and went with the Chili Bowl Chili Dog. Ben's is a D.C. institution and their franchise inside the ballpark is their second location, adding to their historic site at 1213 U Street in D.C. As ball park chili dogs go ... hell, as ANY chili dogs go, this one was a beauty. Mustard, onions, chili, oh my ....

GRADE: a very spicy, hot A

Thursday, July 24, 2008

WED, July 9th - MON, July 14th - The Baseball Part of the Trip (Part I)

Astros vs Pirates, 7/9

After five days of a road trip agenda that was predominantly centered around barbecue, alcohol, and SEC cities, it was time to inject another facet of Americana into the mix. And really what says "good ol' USA" like the Pirates and the Astros on a random Wednesday night in July? IT's MOEHLER ... IT'S VAN BENSCHOTEN ... LIVE AT PNC PARK!!!!!

I had heard for a couple years now about how awesome PNC Park in Pittsburgh was, mostly from my dad. A couple years ago, he and his wife went on a road trip around the country seeing various ballparks throughout the Midwest and Northeast (I know, the apple doesn't fall from the tree). Miraculously, my dad remains married to this day. Anyway, he gushed about how great PNC Park was, that it was his favorite ball park he saw the entire trip. So I had to see for myself.

Despite the fact that at this time of year my radio show centers more around topics like the chances of Tom Cruise making a "Top Gun" sequel than rabid discussion of the Pirates and Astros battling to see who is the taller midget, the Pittsburgh Pirates were kind enough to provide me with a media pass to the game. As you can see from the picture above (taken from seat 46 in the front row of the PNC press box), the engineers got it right with this yard. Bordering the Allegheny River and with a beautiful view of the highly underrated Pittsburgh skyline, PNC Park is exactly what the baseball gods had in mind when the renaissance of nouveau ball parks started with Camden Yards back in the early 1990's. The only problem as I see it is the fact that the Pirates haven't put a compelling product on the field since Barry Bonds skipped town in 1994. Since then, a combination of a mass exodus of marquee stars (Bobby Bonilla, Doug Drabek, Bonds), poor decision making (Jason Kendall for $10M a year anyone?) and the general financial dysfunction between the haves and have-nots in baseball have left the once proud Pittsburgh franchise a laughing stock. So you have a gorgeous jewel of a ball park with an utterly crappy baseball team. Imagine the producers of the movie "Vacation" deciding to put Amy Winehouse in the Ferrari instead of Christie Brinkley. That's what this was -- a beautiful vehicle with the homeliest of gnarly scum whores driving.

To be fair, this Pirates team has some young players you can get behind, most notably center fielder Nate McLouth, but bad is bad, and this team is ... well, as Charles Barkley would say "they not turbull, but they not verah good." The banners on the wall say it all -- the last time this franchise accomplished anything truly noteworthy was when the Pops Stargell-led "We Are Family" Pirates won a World Series in 1979, coming back from 3-1 down to beat the Baltimore Orioles.

And yet miraculously, the Pirates were able to convince the city to build them maybe the most plush yard in the bigs. As I sat high above the field before the game, I watched each of the 13,000 fans file into this 40,000 seat superstructure (seriously, it was so sparse that the usher to fan ratio allowed for each paying fan to have his/her own personal usher .. or so it seemed). All I could think of was the argument that all of these owners who are/were seeking new ball parks in mid-level to small markets espouse -- that without a new park, they won't have the revenue streams to compete with the big boys. And yet here are the Pirates with the most beautiful yard in the league, and on July 25th they are practically in last place and dumping Xavier Nady (and his .330 batting average) and Damaso Marte for a bunch of New York Yankee farmhands. Same old Pirates, same old baseball. But it is a damn fine yard, a Ferrari to be sure. Too bad the team is Amy Winehouse.

PRESS BOX NOTE: Perhaps my proudest moment as a media member was one that none of you will ever see nor hear. You see, the Pittsburgh press box is glassed in with windows before and after the games. During the games, they open the windows allowing for you to feel like you're at the park but also allowing in a fair amount of insects on warm July nights. Well,
after the game there was a junebug sitting to the left of my seat on the counter at seat 46. Well, perhaps fearing that PETA may actually consider an annoying little flying insect an animal, rather than squash my new press box neighbor, I decided to flick it down the counter away from my personal workspace toward seats 47, 48, 49, and so forth. (NOTE: There was no one sitting to the left of me so it wasn't as though I was depositing a new pet into someone else's area.) Well, I gave the little bugger a mighty flick with my right middle finger and it went in the laptop extension cord hole past seat 50! SWISH!!! You can see the hole in the counter to the left of Seat 50. To give you an idea of the degree of difficulty of this shot, it's like the equivalent of chipping in from about 120 yards, according to my calculations.

I don't know why I am sharing this with you other than to show how it's really the little things in life like flicking a defenseless junebug about 25 feet into a two inch hole that make life worth living. Isn't it?

PITTSBURGH CUISINE NOTE: For those wondering, yes, I did make it out to a Primanti Brothers restaurant while I was in the 'Burgh. If you haven't had a Primanti Brothers sandwich, you are missing out on one of the truly unique sandwich eating experiences. If you're not sure if you've had one, then you haven't. The sandwiches have been a staple in Pittsburgh since the 1930's. There are times where eating establishments or food companies will combine seemingly unrelated food products into one eat-it-simultaneously amalgamation with hopes that they are discovering the eating equivalent of plutonium. Sometimes the results are historically great, like when the dude accidentally plunked his chocolate in the other dude's peanut butter. VOILA! Reese's cups are born! Other times the results give you disastrously sharp stomach pains all day, like McDonald's deciding it would be a good idea to use miniature, maple saturated pancakes as the bread device for a breakfast sandwich. VOILA! The utterly horrific McGriddle is born, complete with complimentary Pepto Bismol.

Primanti's sandwich combination (freshly made cole slaw and french fries cut right in the store, along with your choice of meat and the best bread you will ever sink your teeth into) just works. There's no other way to put it. And like anything this gluttonous and messy, it's always better at around 2 in the morning with a twelver of Iron City beer coursing through your veins.

Me, I went with the roast beef. It's the old reliable, never disappoints. Got the lovely and talented Aubrey to flash the double rods as well. Viva La 'Burgh!!!

FOOD: ROAST BEEF SANDWICH (w/ slaw and fries)
GRADE: rock solid A

Thursday, July 17, 2008

TUESDAY, JULY 8th (Part II) - Goodbye SEC, Hello West Virginia

Seeing as we are about to move forward with the northeast leg of my cross country road trip, allow me for a minute to summarize the part of the country through which I had driven up to Tuesday afternoon. To recap, I spent the first five days of my vacation traversing Louisiana, cutting through Mississippi on my way to Alabama, before making a sweet sojourn through Tennessee which begat a beautiful two day ride across Kentucky. Along the way, there were plenty of green mountains, friendly people, fine food, and beautiful women. This was virtually across the board, in the rural areas and in the cities. The college campuses I saw ranged from pleasantly quiet (Southern Miss) to SEC Awesome-riffic (Alabama, Kentucky). I bring this up because people who attended SEC schools -- those who earned their degrees and the remaining 90% who either dropped out, played sports, or didn't attend Vanderbilt -- are very parochial about SEC football and SEC country and how it is different than any other conference. Truth be told, I always rolled my eyes at it a little bit. I mean I know the football is great in the SEC, but good college towns are good college towns, or so I thought. And to some degree, that is the case. Ann Arbor and Austin have every bit the college cache as Tuscaloosa or Knoxville. But there are certain places where the difference between "SEC college town" and, well, "not an SEC college town" can become very pronounced. The trip from Kentucky through West Virginia is one of those places.

The drive through West Virginia itself, if done on the interstates, is nearly identical to driving through most of Tennessee and parts of Kentucky. It's very green, very hilly, and very rural. But get off the interstate in one of the cities with a major college (and in West Virginia, there's really only two -- Huntington which houses Marshall University, and Morgantown which houses criminals), and immediately you can tell that you're not in SEC country anymore.

In SEC country, football stadiums are majestic cathedrals, surrounded by meticulously manicured landscaping, reminding its fans that this is where the best of the best have brought them to a higher place on Saturdays for decades ...

At Marshall, the football stadium is a reminder that Division I football is actually played amidst this cavalcade of generic urban squalor they call a college campus ....

Clearly, one person who hasn't forgotten about Marshall football is Kaye from the Marshall bookstore, who had this to say when I brought up the rivalry with West Virginia ....

When I told her that I would be going through Morgantown later that evening, she warned me not to "look at any of them cross eyed" or else I'd catch a beating, to which I replied "Why not? Won't most of them be looking at me cross eyed?" (Inbred jokes in West Virginia are like the 1st grade questions in "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" They're so easy that you aren't even really proud you nailed it, just relieved.) That said, Kaye got such a big belly laugh out of that burn on WVU, that I probably could have easily made out with her right then and there ... and if she were 30 years younger, I might have done that. Instead, I did the only logical thing ... squelched out her laughter by saying "What the hell are you laughing at lady?? You live in HUNTINGTON!! It's not like NASA is camped out here looking for future scientists ... " That crack on Kaye was not meant to disrespect the entire state of West Virginia, just the uneducated parts of it (or as I like to call it, "the other 99%").

And by the way, if you're wondering what I purchased at the Marshall bookstore, I purchased a Marshall Soccer t-shirt, in protest of former Marshall QB Chad Pennington getting $9M this season from the Jets (assuming they don't cut him) despite being able to barely outthrow my 10 year old daughter.

Just before getting back on the interstate to leave Huntington, I saw this final little piece of constructive brilliance. A Super 8 Motel built high atop some random hill just off the highway, with parking in front of the facility and no guardrail at the edge of the parking spaces. I have no empirical research to back this up, but I am going to put the over/under at 75% (and take the over) on the percentage of people pulling into a Super 8 Motel parking lot in Huntington, WV who have either (a) been drinking, (b) been using drugs, (c) haven't slept in 24 hours, (d) are shitty drivers, or (e) all of the above. I mean, isn't this a Faces of Death scene waiting to happen? That said, it is a pretty kick ass sledding hill in the wintertime if you get a nice snow cushion built up below the cement wall barricade at the bottom. So to review, in the world according to Sean Pendergast -- driving down this hill in an automobile because you were too impaired to properly park your rig, BAD .... sledding down this hill on a small piece of plastic shaped like a saucer with the only thing protecting your head being an old school Pittsburgh Steelers ski cap with a pom pom on top, GOOD. (And yes, I just made fun of West Virginians for being uneducated two paragraphs ago ... so what? You got a problem?)

I continued my journey through the Mountaineer State headed for Morgantown by dinnertime, all the while with the lyrics to "Country Roads" by John Denver ringing in my head. I could hear him singing "Almost heaven ... West Virginia", and I began to think that if this is really almost heaven maybe it's not so bad that I've committed all of these sins. In fact, maybe I should commit more sins, so I pulled over in Charleston, purchased a Playboy magazine (lust), read it at an all you can eat buffet (gluttony), went to a casino (greed), took a nap (sloth), killed a spider (wrath), became jealous of people with hair (envy), put on some cologne (pride) and jumped in the car to head to Morgantown, safe in my assumptions that my activities of the previous two hours (not to mention the previous 39 years) would be enough to keep me out of "almost heaven", let alone heaven itself.

I had spoken with my father just thirty minutes before arriving in Morgantown with his words still ringing in my head -- "Why in the hell are you stopping to spend the night in Morgantown?!?" I originally had not planned to; my rough draft on this leg of the trip had me arriving in Pittsburgh in time to see the Astros and the Pirates play on Tuesday night and Wednesday night. However, as the day wore on it became apparent that my late start combined with my "nooner" with the Mega-Ho in Lexington combined with torrential downpours the whole day were going to keep me from seeing my beloved 'Stros try and stay out of last place in the NL Central, at least on Tuesday. So Morgantown seemed like a proper stop on the tour, especially given the collegiate nature of my previous four stops (Baton Rouge, Tuscaloosa, Nashville, Lexington). I mean, maybe they had a Pac Man Jones/Chris Henry Reality Tour where you could ride around town and see the places they committed all of their felonious acts, narrated by the Morgantown Chief of Police.

So I pulled into Morgantown, and the closer I got to the WVU campus, the more I could see what my dad was talking about. Now keep in mind, my dad spent ten years in athletic administration at the University of Connecticut from 1998 through 2007, so his impressions of Morgantown are largely formulated from experiences where he had whiskey bottles jettisoned his way at WVU v UCONN football and basketball games. All of that said, I was thoroughly unimpressed with Morgantown. The roads around campus are all about ten feet wide and wind agonizingly through some of the most depressing "rurban" decay you will ever see. (NOTE: "Rurban" is my made up word combining "rural" and "urban". It's for areas that are in towns, but just hillbilly enough to where they have a rural feel to them. With demographic awareness like this, I'm sure Obama and McCain are on the edge of their seats to see which of them I will publicly endorse come November.)

Aesthetically, the campus itself was a blah 3.5 on a 1-10 scale, especially on the heels of seeing the great campuses of the SEC. Also, the campus was ultra-hilly, which I know sounds like nitpicking but there is something supremely depressing to me about a campus that has so many hills that walking or biking to class becomes a dreaded chore. I mean let's face it, I'll be the first to admit that walking or biking to class is a dreaded chore on the flattest of campuses (see Dame, Notre), so injecting 45 degree hills into the mix seems almost unfair.

So with nighttime rapidly approaching, I had a decision to make -- do I stay in Morgantown tonight, or do I keep on trucking to Pittsburgh, despite John Denver's contentions that West Virginia has "almost heaven" status? The decision was an easy one. I bolted. It came down to three things:

(1) Realizing that if this place was not good enough for Rich Rodriguez, who went to WVU, to stay then it certainly wasn't good enough for me to stay.

(2) Seeing this guy leaving a meeting for the gifted and talented students at Morgantown High School ...


The choice was easy. I pressed on, headed for that Pennsylvania state line. Made it to Pittsburgh around 10:00PM. Ironically, the Astros-Pirates game had multiple rain delays and didn't end until nearly 1:30 in the morning. So I got to stay up and watch the Astros blow a lead that they had held for nearly 6 hours. For this, I was bitter. However, the good news is I was not on a canoe in the outback of Appalachia. For this, I was grateful.

And I was going to PNC Park on Wednesday. For this I was grateful, too.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

TUESDAY, JULY 8th (Part I) - The Good Kind of HO

Shortly after forfeiting an hour back to the time zone gods heading east, I arrived in Lexington, KY around 8:00PM Monday night 7/7. I could tell you that the reason I didn't do much in the way of partying in Lexington on Monday night was because school was not in session and without the college scene in full force, Lexington is just another sleepy little city in the middle of God's country. However, truth be told, after a weekend of eating, drinking, ogling, and laughing my way through the SEC, I needed a night of Chick-fil-A and WWE Monday Night Raw in my hotel room. This was not necessarily a bad thing, as I got to see the new WWE Champion C.M. Punk (pictured here at the Wrestlemania press conference in Houston on June 25th; he looks a little like the drunk trail cook in "City Slickers") in his first title defense, I got to eat the grilled chicken salad with extra Honey Dijon dressing which is one of my favorites, and I got to fully experience the Fairfield Inn-Lexington, which has two -- count 'em, TWO -- treadmills and a continental breakfast to die for. All in all, life was pretty good in Lexington.

It only got better on Tuesday as I was able to make my way over to campus and chalk up my digestive experience for this leg of the trip -- a swing by Tolly Ho's, a 24 hour eatery right across the street from one of the bookstores on campus. This little dive (and I mean that in the most flattering way) came highly recommended from one of my listeners, Kerry Guidry. Kerry is a lawyer, so I knew that not only was I about to get a good burger, but there was probably a decent chance that I would slip and fall somewhere in this joint and have a shot at a six figure "pain and suffering" settlement. Bonus! So I parked my car on the street, and walked over to Tolly Ho's, keeping a watchful eye for any potholes on Tolly Ho property into which I might be able to trip and fall.

You can see the awning over the front door in the picture above, and you may even be able to make out the slogan on the front flap. It says "A UK Tradition Since 1971". Do the math, they've been around for about 37 years. How do you stay in business that long in the "greasy spoon" business? Well, the immediate knee jerk answer is "you cook great food", and I suppose that's partially true. But in Kentucky, you also can't get too caught up in modern technology. In other words, when new video games come out, if the ones you already have ain't broke, then don't swap 'em out. I can only assume this is the philosophy of the King Ho at Tolly Ho's because the first thing you notice about this place is it's decided 1984 feel, complete with all of your arcade favorites (multiple pinball machines, Galaga, Centipede, Ms. Pac Man, and yes the original Donkey Kong). I was half expecting Stacy from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" to come out and take my order, and for Damone to be selling Blue Oyster Cult tickets over by Space Invaders. Hell, even the TV in the upper corner of the room was playing "Days of Our Lives" and the character getting major screen time was "Bo" (portrayed in all of his worse-than-porn-acting glory by Peter Reckell), who was one of the main characters back during the Reagan Administration. To bring the 1980's references full circle, it was like I stepped out of a Delorean into the year 1985.

After resisting the temptation to drop about five dollars in Dig Dug, I strolled up to the counter to place my order. Knowing that the specialty of Tolly Ho's is their burger, I asked if there was any burger in particular that I should sample. The shapely tomcat behind the counter told me that I should choose between (from smallest to largest) the Tolly-Ho, the Super-Ho, and the Mega-Ho. (Basically, the difference between each was that with each level of Ho you went up, another 1/4 lb beef patty got added. There's a metaphor for something in there.) So in honor of most of my formal dates in college (if one of you is reading this, I don't mean you, I mean the other skanks), I went with the Mega-Ho. Three all beef patties of artery clogging goodness, topped with three slices of cheese, ketchup, mayo, mustard, lettuce, onions, tomato. Total fat grams, who cares? I'm on vacation.

I texted Kerry to let him know of my whereabouts and that I went with the Mega-Ho as my choice. He replied in about 30 seconds with a long soliloquy on how he and his buddies always ate there when they were drunk at three in the morning, and finished off the text message with "God, I miss the Ho." Indeed, Kerry. Don't we all ....

Kerry also told me to be sure to convey to the cashier that I am a "virgin ho", which I happily did even if that's the biggest lie this side of Roger telling us Andy misremembered. Well, apparently the phrase "virgin ho" has nothing to do with my sketchy intimacy track record, instead it is a moniker for those who are experiencing Tolly Ho's culinary delights for the first time. What did my status as "virgin ho" net me? Well, when it came time for me to pick up my order from the counter, the announcement that my burger was ready was adjoined with a spirited proclamation from the cashier as to my maiden voyage status into the world of ho-ism. The only thing missing was Jim Ross proclaiming that "GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY BUSINESS IS BY GOD ABOUT TO PICK UP!!"

After sheepishly waving at the other five patrons in the Ho (whose reactions ranged from indifferent to nonplussed) as if I were receiving an Academy Award, I took my tray back to my seat and dove into the Mega-Ho ... not unlike the Christmas Formal at Notre Dame back in 1989. Of course, my dates then never looked this beautiful ....

The key with any Mega-Ho (the burger or otherwise) is toasting the buns. The difference in taste when you have a Mega-Ho whose buns are toasted is palatable, noticeable, and quite frankly, a gift from the heavens. I will never, ever have a Mega-Ho with soft, squishy, uncooked buns. Ever.

You might think that it took me a while to down that tower of cholesterol you see to the left of this text. As Red in "The Shawshank Redemption" might say, I wish I could tell you that Sean fought the good fight, and that the Mega-Ho let him be. I wish I could tell you he didn't drop ten bucks into Donkey Kong and Q-bert. I wish I could tell you that - but Tolly Ho's ain't no fairy tale world.