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2001-07-31 (a look back) - 11:34 p.m.

Making the Trip: Overnight to Greensboro

GREENSBORO, N.C.

We boarded the bus as scattered individuals last night beginning around 11:15 p.m., the game over 75 minutes before, our departure slated for 11:30 p.m. The postgame lockerroom on a getaway day is a lonely sight. The players shower and dress quickly, packing up their bags in haste in order to throw their luggage beneath the bus and then hop in their cars for a quick run to McDonald’s or Wendy’s or Wawa, the choices of prompt late-night sustinence limited in Lakewood, as in other Shore towns. Some stand in the parking lot talking with friends and family before the trip.

On board Academy bus #1313, someone asks Irv the driver Irv if he’d noticed the number. This coach is not their usual bus, the overhead shelves of a different sort, a thick elastic cord the only restraint for the carry-on luggage placed above the passengers’ heads.

“That’s not good,” said the coach..

“Why,” Irv replied, “you superstitious?”

“I’m superstitious to the point where it’s superstitious to be superstitious,” he says.

There’s a bit of a heirarchy to the seating arrangement on the bus. The batting coach occupies the first seat on the left as you walk onto the bus. The pitching coach sits across the aisle, the trainer Paul – always the last to board, I’m told – behind them. I sit behind the batting coach with Neil the broadcaster behind me. The strength coordinator, Keith, sits across the aisle from Neil and behind Paul to round out the non-player personnel.

Irv, wearing the navy blue BlueClaws cap with the red bill, checks the mileage on the bus’s odometer – 285,118 – and on the newer wheel hubs – 4,071 – to use as a reference once we arrive in Greensboro. Once Paul is settled and the clubhouse attendant tells one player he left a bag behind, which the shortstop retrieves, Irv revs up the bus and we’re on our way at 11:38 p.m., out of the GPU Energy Park lot, south on New Hampshire Ave., and west on Route 70 all the way to the New Jersey Turnpike.

After an HBO Sports video on “Power” in athletic competition is cut short, the movie of the night is “Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail,” a PG selection necessary because of the pitching coach’s son’s presence on board.

In an informal poll at lunch one day, the coaches and staff agree that the worst bus trip movie of the season was “Ed,” the tale of Matt LeBlanc as a struggling pitcher and the chimp who played third base.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever heard applause for a movie because it was over,” Neil says.

During “Indiana Jones,” I doze off, waking up just as Indiana chooses the correct grail and administers a healing drink to his wounded father. It’s 2:13 a.m. and we’re on I-95, approaching the Harbor Tunnel, the lights of Baltimore blinking to the west, the orange orb of a setting first-quarter moon hovering above the skyline. After we emerge from the tunnel, the purple glow of PSINet Stadium cuts through the darkness, and the low lights of Camden Yards shine just beyond the home of the Ravens football team.

I doze off again, adjusting in my seat to get comfortable, putting my legs up over the open seat on the aisle as I lean on the window or stretching my legs beneath the seat in front of me and reclining my chair. I wake up somewhere on the Beltway outside Washington and notice the stark white glow of the illuminated Washington Monument and Capitol dome rising above the low lights of the city. The landmarks seem to move slowly across the landscape as we breeze by D.C. at 3:06 a.m.

Sleeping players stretch their legs out across the aisle, proping them up on the headrests of seats across from theirs or bending them at the knees and resting their feet on the floor. It means that anyone on a trip back to the bathroom must carefully navigate the armrests, creeping to the back of the bus above the floor, ducking to keep his head from hitting the ceiling.

At 4:29 a.m, Irv needs to stretch his legs, pulling off the interstate at some northern Virginia truck stop. “OK, 20 minutes,” he says to his groggy passengers, receiving a grunt in response from someone near the front. The players are slow to move, but some head inside to use the restroom and buy more drinks and snacks for the road. I grab a lemonade and some crackers and enjoy an early breakfast of sorts. Back on the road, we shoot by Richmond in the early morning, the interstate still empty, and I start up my portable CD player and doze off to the music of David Gray.

The next time I wake up, the sun has risen and we’re moving west through light traffic on I-40, perpetually under construction, it seems. We pass by a familiar high-rise hotel, a Howard Johnson’s with a Hooters restaurant attached where five of us from the Notre Dame newspaper stayed for the women’s soccer final four in 1997. It is 8:03 a.m.

Minutes later, we’re off the interstate and turning onto Big Tree Way and into the parking lot of the Microtel Inn (and Suites). The coaches step off the bus, grab their bags from the bays beneath, and walk into the lobby to get the room keys. The players linger in the parking lot, waking up slowly, before filing past Paul at the front desk to get their room keys. We all leave our bags scattered around the lobby and first-floor hallway to swarm the continental breakfast, sitting down to a quick breakfast before scattering to our rooms for sleep. It’s a 4:30 bus to the ballpark and no visit to the gym today. Travel days are light days once the bus ride ends.

My room is 336, the top floor, while most of the team stays on the first two levels.

After a nap, I wake up at noon and discover the Microtel Inn does not offer those little bottles of shampoo and conditioner I always considered standard in hotels. That should be a law, or part of travelers’ rights or something. I throw on a shirt and walk to the Texaco across the street to buy a bottle and take a shower before lunch.

Neil, Keith and I walk the hill up to the Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant in a shopping center adjacent to the hotel, sitting down in Leila’s section and ordering lunch as a few groups of players make their way into the establishment. The players are given $20 per day in meal money; Neil gets $25 and Keith and the coaches receive $30.

Leila’s in a good mood, smiling and calling us “Darling” in a North Carolina drawl. She teases me at my ability to suck down glasses of Coke and sits down in the empty chair to take our order. Once we let her know we’re staying in the hotel nearby in town on business with the ballclub, she begins to explain the discount for guests of the hotel.

“If you give me your room keys, it’s 10 percent off,” she says before stopping and smiling. “Uh, let me rephrase that.”

When she brings the check, she says she’ll only need one key if we’re paying all together. Keith hands her his and jokes, “Room 136. Come by at 11 and bring a six pack.”

Leila blushes, but when she brings the change from the bill back and puts it down on the table, she rubs Keith’s back, having forgotten his room key, which she retrieves.

After lunch, we return to our rooms for a couple of hours before the 4:30 bus to the ballpark, a 15-minute ride from the hotel. I’m told, though, that a 4:30 bus is really a 4:20 bus. “If you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re five minutes late,” Neil explains.

The BlueClaws arrive at World War Memorial Stadium, built in 1926 to memorialize just the one war to that point. It is the oldest park in any full-season league; only the park in Pittsfield, Mass., home to a farm club of the Astros in the short-season New York-Penn League, which was built in 1919. Greensboro has been in the Sally League since its rebirth in 1979 and been affiliated with the Yankees since 1990.

Inside, the field features wide foul areas in front of the dugouts, both clubhouses along the first-base line. The BlueClaws enter the clubhouse to change into their warmup uniforms, then must cross the field to their third-base dugout. The pitchers emerge first, running along the warning track in the outfield to maintain their conditioning schedule.

Once the entire team is present, Keith leads them in stretching down the left-field line. Memorial Stadium is the kind of park you’d picture for an old minor league field in the South. With only a few rows of orange and yellow seats with backs running from behind one dugout, behind the plate to the other dugout, the rest of the stands made up of flat metal bleachers. Down in the left-field corner, the Grand Stand bar wraps around the foul pole. The wooden outfield wall is covered with billboards, many of them white, a few of them blank – “Available. Call: 333-2287.” It’s the kind of park you’d expect to see in a movie, and if you remember one particular scene in “Bull Durham” when the Bulls’ bus pulls up in front of the old ballpark, you have.

The “suite” area consists of a rectangular structure atop the stands behind home plate, and the press box is just off-center, behind home plate to the third-base side. It is mainly a seven-foot wide box of wood and cinder blocks, with four tiny rooms – more like closets in size – divided by walls and tiny doors. Solondz and I take up residence in the far left room, the windows open to the scattered crowd in the stands in front of us.

And it is a small crowd tonight, as it is often in Greensboro. The Bats’ attendance figures fluctuate. They averaged 2,233 fans per game entering this series, but topping 1,000 in actual attendance tonight would involve mirrors – nearly one for each fan, it turns out. While 1,350 tickets were sold for the game, only 539 passed through the turnstiles on a warm but not humid Greensboro night.

The public address announcer works outside the box, wandering the seating area in front of the press box with a cordless microphone. As an announcer, his style is “a puker,” as Neil says. He sounds like he’s pushing the words out, forcing each one individually with increasing emphasis from the first syllable to the last. He starts each word with a low, quiet voice, his volume rising as the word passes between his lips: “The hitter ... nu-UMber nine-TEEN, To-NY Cala-BREEEEEEESE.”

The woman in the dizzy bat race – along with a male competitor – gave her name as B.J., which I believe is the first time I’ve heard that monkier willingly given by a woman as her own name.

The BlueClaws score three runs on home runs to take a 3-2 lead, but with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth, Yhency Brazoban delivers a bouncing single up the middle that can’t be reachedb a diving shortstop. Two runs score and Lakewood loses 4-3.

After the players have showered, I’ve written and filed my game story, and Neil has signed off the air and taken his equipment with him from the radio booth, we walk through the fence to the bus out beyond right field. Players mill around, walking in small circles in the gravel lot behind the chain-link fence, talking on cell phones. Two pitchers chat with Irv on the bridge over the tiny drainage ditch that emerges from beneath the field and runs along the outside of the stadium.

The bus leaves at 10:15 to return to the hotel, and the coaches and staff and I meet in the lobby to go to Ruby Tuesday for a few drinks. The restaurant manager wants to hold tight to the 10:45 last call despite 30 people still in the restaurant and bar hoping for some food or a drink. It takes some time for Amy, the young bartender, to tend to us, it being so busy and all, and by the time she’s taking our order, the manager who really wants to go home is telling her it’s past last call. She explains we were there in time, but it was too busy then, and over his objections she serves us. She refills our glasses and replaces our empty bottles again at 11:30, too, while we watch for the manager so he doesn’t see her kind gesture.

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Next page: Making the Trip: Rainout

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