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2001-08-04 (a look back) - 8:00 a.m.

Making the Trip: Back home

GREENSBORO, N.C.

I didn’t want to wake up at 9 a.m., but my alarm went off to what must be Greensboro’s morning shock show – the hosts were taking calls from listeners who were sharing their stories of weird fetishes and women who revealed how soon they slept with someone after meeting him.

My lack of interest in such low-brow “entertainment” forced me up, and I went downstairs for my morning Lender’s bagel, cream cheese and apple juice, and brought it upstairs this time. All the seats were taken, so I ate my bagel in my room watching Comedy Central and then showered and packed to check out at noon.

After putting my bag on the bus, I catch up with the coaches, Keith, Neil and Paul at Ruby Tuesday for lunch. Paul gets a Thompson Twins song on the radio – “1-0,” he says – and a short time after I get on the board: “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” I say when “Don’t Do Me Like That” comes on. “1-1.”

After lunch, three of us walk over to Staples just to kill time. The afternoon after checkout, in the hours before the bus to the ballpark, is a slow time. Anything to fill the void is welcome.

Back at the hotel, I grab my copy of Kerouac’s “The Town and the City” and my notebook and camera and settle into a table in the lobby. Two players are there watching a Spanish-language daytime soap on Univision. Another picks up a copy of USA Today and looks through the sports section and a fourth sits down with the Greensboro paper, reading about the previous night’s doubleheader.

Returning from lunch, four players slouch on the sofas near the front door, talking college football and looking over the preseason Top 25 in USA Today.

About 15 minutes before the players will begin boarding the bus (at 3:25 p.m.) Irv emerges from the elevator, likely having napped in his room. He’s got the tough job – driving eight and a half hours through the night back to New Jersey. He sits down at a table, where one player joins him, and the two talk about home and families.

Irv’s twice retired, from the civil service and the military, and became a bus driver because he likes the road.

“It’s not bad for me but it’s rough on my wife,” he says. “But I’m fine – I like to drive. If you like it, it’s relaxing to you. If you’re doig something you want to do, ou enjoy it. Like playing golf, or playing baseball. If somebody told you you had to do it, it’s a different story.”

Irv drove the BlueClaws on their first trip and three thereafter, but missed those leading up to this visit to Greensboro. “The wife got him,” Neil says. But after some time at home, Irv’s back on the road, read to finish out Lakewood’s schedule to Hagerstown, Md., Kannapolis, N.C., Hickory, N.C., and Salisbury, Md.

Just before we head out to the bus, Irv looks at me and smiles under his BlueClaws cap.

“Let me tell you something about women,” he says. “And you go home and ask your father. By the time you think you got it figured out, she’ll change it. They keep you on your toes.”

The BlueClaws lose another heartbreaker, coming back twice from two-run deficits to tie the game, only to lose it in the ninth on a home run by Jason Turner, his second of the game. I don’t wait for any cool-down time; I head out to talk with players and coaches before returning to the press box to write my story. Neil comes back from the clubhouse and tells me the bus will be leaving at 10:30 p.m. – giving me 20 minutes to write and file my story.

I make it with five minutes to spare and change into some traveling clothes – a clean t-shirt and nylon workout pants for the cool conditions on the bus. Stopping by the clubhouse, I help carry out the leftover pizza, which later becomes late-night road food in Virginia.

With Paul having left the team to fly home to the Quad Cities for the weekend, I’ve been designated Entertainment Coach for the ride home. I’m the one who must put a movie into the VCR. With the pitching coach’s son now gone, off to Georgia to visit family before returning home, the selection expands and the players call for the R-rated “Swingers.” The coaches complain about the movie, and one stops it and picks up the microphone for the bus’s intercom.

“OK, we’ve got about eight new guys since the last time we played ‘Who am I?’” he says. “So we’re going to get the new guys to come up here and tell a little about themselves. Give us your name, where you’re from, a baseball story, a nickname, something we don’t know about you. And then pick a friend.”

One player after another walks to the front of the bus and sits down facing the back of the bus. Each takes the microphone and talks about himself, making wisecracks and joking with the coaches, seated next to him and prodding him along.

After five have told their stories, it’s my turn. “Dan the reporter guy! Get him up there!” someone yells from the back. I slide over to the aisle and turn to face the back of the bus and a team of ballplayers looking at me.

Someone else asks if this is going in the paper, so I sit down and say, “First thing I should tell you is that the tape recorder has been on the entire time,” drawing laughs. I go on to explain where I’m from and about the time in Little League I nearly hit my first home run.

“There was no fence, so I had to leg it out,” I say. “But I was so surprised at how far and how hard I hit it, that I was laughing all the way around the bases. I was laughing so hard that I only made it to third by the time they got the ball back to the infield, so I had to settle for a triple.”

And the story of my nickname was pretty simple: “The movie ‘Rudy’ came out my senior year of high school, and since I was going to Notre Dame, all my friends started calling me Rudy.”

That one carried over – when I walked into the clubhouse Saturday night after the game, Keith Bucktrot turns around and says, “Hey Rudy.” Mario Delgado looks up and shouts, “Rudy!”

Story time over, “Swingers” does not start up again. Instead it’s “Vertical Limit,” which succeeds in putting the bus to sleep. Some action-adventure flick.

Sometime around 4 a.m, having passed Washington again in the night, the Monument and Capitol building shining pure white in the darkness, I doze off for an hour until Irv stops at the Maryland House rest area on I-95 north of Baltimore. It’s 4:30 a.m. and Irv needs a half-hour rest to stretch his legs before the final push home.

Back on the road, I fall asleep until we’re back on Route 70, heading east to Lakewood. The final adventure of the trip comes at the light at the intersection of 70 and Vermont Ave. When the light turns yellow, Irv stops the bus quickly, locking the brakes and laying rubber on the highway. It wakes up most of the team a mile from the park. Back in the parking lot outside the BlueClaws’ clubhouse, Irv steps off the bus to see smoke coming from the right rear wheel well, the result of the locked brakes. The smell of burning rubber and brake fluid continues to come from beneath the bus.

And so, just before 7 a.m., the BlueClaws step off the bus, retrieve their bags from the luggage compartments, and scatter to their cars, heading home for a few hours’ sleep before returning for tonight’s game. They’re told that they’re to be ready to stretch at 5:30 p.m. The players will be back at the ballpark an hour before then, dressing at their lockers and ready for another game in front of the home crowd.

My dad picks me up – so I wouldn’t have to leave my car at the ballpark for four days – and back home at 8 a.m., I hit the pillow for a four-hour nap, something that will nearly get me back on track, back into my routine.

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