Sunday, April 12, 2009

TravelBlog: 5 Days On The Road

It was a productive week for SDSU Baseball, and an interesting week for yours truly.  Five days spent traveling to Long Beach and Las Vegas with the team saw the Aztecs produce a 3-1 record, improving to 25-12, 8-4 MWC.  What did I see?  Let's review...


Back in my hometown.  We arrived early enough at Blair Field for me to take a "soul stroll", wandering Recreation Park and visiting some places I knew as a child.  A playground where I used to play.  An outdoor pavilion that was part of my preschool.  The old "Bruins Den", where my dad's MG club used to meet every Thursday.  It was a positive and enriching experience.  I felt reconnected to some old walks from my youth.  The weather was beautiful that day and the feeling of peace and comfort being in a place of familiarity was great.  It only took 30 minutes or so but honestly those were 30 of the better minutes I spent this week.  

I already wrote up the thrilling game that followed, with the Aztecs winning 4-3.  It was Tony Gwynn's first win at Blair Field as SDSU coach, he was 0-7 previously.  Prior to the game, Tony activated the positive karma by sitting down with a group of Little Leaguers, the Long Beach Aztecs.  Tony sat and talked to the kids for around 20 minutes, 2 hours prior to game time.  He signed autographs and took pictures.  

My favorite moment was right when he sat down with the kids at a picnic table behind the Aztecs' bullpen.  He asked the kids to tell him about their team.  They all shouted out in near unison:

"We're undefeated!!"

Tony asked, "so you know what that means, right?"

One kid answered right away: "we're gonna lose soon?"

So funny.

Bob Keisser of the Long Beach Press-Telegram mentioned this meet and greet in a weekend column.  All I can say is it is yet another example of the enduring class and grace of Tony Gwynn, a treasure for both his hometown of Long Beach and his adopted town of San Diego.  

After the game, the energetic ride home included a stop at In N' Out for a double-double, protein style, add mustard and onions.  


"30 minutes!!"

That's what Coach Gwynn announced as the bus door swung open in Barstow.  Lenwood Road is the long-accepted waystation between SoCal and Las Vegas, replete with every fast food eatery known to man.  Most of the players and coaches chose In N' Out, but no matter how much I love my lettuce-wrapped meat treats, I just couldn't in good concious bring myself to eat there twice in three meals.  So I walked across the windswept parking lot to what I now know to be The Worst Subway In The United States.  

Three pimply white kids were manning the counter.  The first was just tearing the bread and throwing down the meat, but he seemed to have a very hard time understanding the simple orders of the multiple people in front of me.  The second was doing produce and the register, but he kept wandering away, even with a big line.  The third was just making lunch for himself.  Right as I arrived a customer was returning his sandwich because there was some mistake with the order.  This threw a new monkey wrench in the line schematic.  Then, I stood there with my footlong turkey on wheat waiting in limbo, sans produce, the Three Amigos of the Subway all stood behind the counter, with their backs turned to the line, talking.  About what, I don't know.  A few minutes later, Mr. I Made My Lunch Instead Of Yours turned around and grabbed some gloves.  

"Ready for me now?", I asked.

He rolled his eyes.  "I suppose".  

22 minutes after walking into the store, I was hustling across the parking lot with my sandwich, hoping I wasn't the last one on the bus.  


After we checked in at Hyatt Place I hustled over to Caesar's Palace to play in a poker tournament, the one and only chance I would have to play in a tournament during my Vegas stay (the baseball games would inconvience my tournament dreams the rest of the trip).  I wound up playing about 6 hours and finishing in 6th place, which was worth a small prize.  Afterward, I was hungry and looking for something to eat.  You think of Las Vegas as a place where you can get whatever you want whenever you want, but that was pre-recession.  On this late Wednesday/early Thursday, I walked through Caesar's and the Bellagio and found, well...nothing.  The former 24-hour eateries were closed.  Row after row after row of gaming tables were empty, except for the dealers, who were essentially being paid to stand in place and then shift three steps to the right every 30 minutes.  You could have literally fired a bazooka down the middle of these two casinos without loss of life.  It was a depressing scene.  A town built on indulgence, without the indulgent, is teaching Vegas casino owners the meaning of easy come, easy go.  

The good news, personally, was that the excellent pizza joint across the street from our hotel was still open when I got back, after 1:45am.  Two slices to go, thank you very much!  Joe's Pizza By The Slice is Vegas' answer to Bronx Pizza in Hillcrest.  VERY good.  


The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is right across the street from Hyatt Place, where the Aztecs stayed in Vegas.  I was surprised at how small the place was, but enjoyed the vibe nonetheless.  Very VERY casual, lots of good tunes.  The poker room was practically empty, though, another sign of boom and bust.  In this case, the poker boom led every casino to add their own poker room.  Then, the recession ended the poker boom.  Now, Hard Rock's very cool 25-table poker room had one short-handed game going, and three dealers who would throw cards for 30 minutes, then stand around for an hour.  Just another sign of a city's economy in huge trouble.  

I already wrote up Thursday night's game in my Vegas post below.  Let me add the pictures to verify what I described in terms of wind effects.  It was a testament to the SDSU pitching staff that on both days when the wind was howling, the games still didn't get out of hand.  

Thursday night I wandered the Strip for awhile and found more emptiness, and maybe part of the problem for Las Vegas in terms of a business model.  The hotels and casinos have dropped their rates to try and attract customers.  So, there is the promise of a $45 hotel room, a reduced plane flight into Sin City, etc.  But now, try to find a decent meal under $20 on the Strip.  Good luck.  Everything is overpriced.  Even the Subway at one of the cheaper casinos mocked their customers with their $10 footlongs.  $5 for you at every other Subway in America, but here it's $10.  Combined with table after empty table with $25 price point blackjack and $15 craps, it sure felt like Vegas was asking people to show up on the cheap but then pay through the nose.  And the people weren't buying it, hauling up plastic grocery bags to their discount rooms with stuff bought at the CVS or Wal-Mart.  The casinos need to start rethinking their price points if they are going to drop their room rates.  


The one guy who seems to be doing things right in Vegas, a cabbie was quick to remind me, is Steve Wynn.  He was profiled tonight on 60 Minutes, and even though he said that if he knew then what he knows now, he wouldn't have built the ultra-luxury Encore, Wynn is one of the few moguls who isn't leveraged up to his eyes in debt.  I have to say, I really appreciate the atmosphere Wynn creates in his hotels.  Much like The Mirage, when you walk into the Wynn there is a wonderful floral smell and a beautiful veranda to wander.  The casino itself speaks of quiet class, with everyone in suits and ties and no blaring music.  Kind of the Anti-Hard Rock.  I very much enjoyed their poker room.  You can sit down and order basically anything you want.  I asked the server for a menu and was handed a tiny flip card with burgers, sandwiches and salads.  The locals at the table told me to ignore it completely and order anything I wanted.  One woman asked for a grilled cheese sandwich, cheddar on whole wheat, pickles added, with a side of barley soup.  The guy next to me told me that they made a great red clam chowder, so that's what I ordered.  And it was brought to me promptly for $5 (best priced meal of the weekend short of Joe's Pizza) and was indeed really, really good.  The game wasn't too kind to me but the people and the hotel/casino certainly were.  

The baseball game that night was a study in resiliency for the Aztecs.  Pregame forecasts of rain did not materialize.  Instead, the wind was again howling straight out on another dry and cold night.  SDSU jumped ahead 5-1 thanks to some miserable UNLV defense, but the offense was mostly shut down by freshman right-hander Tanner Peters.  This 6'0", 140(!) pound pitcher was aggressive in the strike zone all night with a fastball, slider and offspeed pitch.  I was very impressed by his tenacity and stuff.  He will be a thorn in the Aztecs' side for years to come.  Thanks to Peters' inspired pitching, the Rebels stayed in the game, then broke through to take a 6-5 lead in part thanks to a bad hop single that almost hit shortstop Ryan O'Sullivan in the shoulder after he thought he was going to catch the ball.  Ryan otherwise played a brilliant defensive game, making a number of outstanding plays.  

Thankfully, UNLV's horrible bullpen rescued defeat from the jaws of victory, as SDSU used one hit, two walks and three wild pitches to score three runs in the 8th, and they held on for an 8-6 win behind Addison Reed, who picked up his NCAA-leading 12th save in as many tries.  The game ended on a bad call, as UNLV outfielder Rance Roundy was called out at first on the tail end of a double play, when he beat the throw to the bag by a full step.  The first-base umpire, Asa Howard, made the call and then just turned and walked off the field.  Howard didn't make many friends in Vegas during the three-game series.  


Cabbies can tell you exactly what's wrong with Vegas.  As I was driven through an empty parcel of half-developed land behind the Strip, a cabbie told me how Harrah's is on the verge of bankruptcy, because they grew too fast, bought too much, and got too deeply leveraged in debt.  Now, half-built casinos are sitting there, waiting for a revenue stream that's unlikely to return for a while.  Right in the middle of this wasteland, the one tiny local casino/bar that refused to sell to the big guys, the Stage Door.  The picture I found on the Net is 2 years old.  The new sign says "21 Years Left On Our Lease!", a big F-you to the casinos trying to buy them out.  I can report that the 1/4 pound hot dog and Miller Lite is still $2.5o, just like it was in the pic two years ago.  Good for you guys, may you last all 21 years before getting swallowed by the big fish. 

Vegas makes you sick.  I'm convinced of that.  It's a confluence of factors: the dry air, the casino "smoky but smoke-free" air, and the constant, deliberate disruption of biorhythms.  What time is it in Vegas?  If you weren't looking at your own timepiece, you'd never know...and that's by design.    I woke up Saturday morning dried out, my nose stuffed, my throat scratchy.  Then I went to the hotel's mini-workout center and put in 25 minutes on an elliptical machine.  The sweat loosened everything up and by the end I felt great once again.  So that's my mini-tip for Vegas: mix in a couple of workouts, you'll feel much better.

Mother Nature made it tough for SDSU to complete their three-game sweep of UNLV.  The howling wind and dry conditions were replaced on Saturday by a very San Diego-esque combination of clouds and intermittent sprinkles.  The gray, moist day also saw the wind do a 180-degree turn, blowing in for the afternoon finale.  As such, three or four balls the Aztecs hit that would have gone for homeruns the day before got cut down for outs on this day.  The infield, though, was still rock hard and fast, much to the chagrin of Aztecs' sinkerballer Tyler Lavigne.  The Vegas native and JC transfer saw a handful of grounders shoot through that uber-fast infield for singles as part of a 4-run UNLV first inning.  Lavigne settled down from there, and the Aztecs started on the comeback trail, eventually tying the game at 6 on Chris Wilson's solo homerun to open the 8th.  But the Rebels mounted a three-run rally against tiring reliever Craig Rasmussen in the bottom of the inning, and UNLV wound up escaping with a 9-6 win, spoiling the Aztecs' dreams of a perfect 6-0 record against the Rebels this year.  

After the game, the team showered up and boarded the bus for the long drive home.  Before leaving Vegas, we stopped at a shopping center for dinner.  I grabbed a salad from Vons and walked it over to the Del Taco where most of the team was eating.  There, I saw another example of what it must be like to be Tony Gwynn.  The Aztecs' coach was sitting there, munching on chicken soft tacos with the coaching staff, dissecting the loss, when local after local came by gawking.  

"Hey aren't you Tony Gwynn?"  "What are you doing here?"  "Did you make the Hall Of Fame?"  No matter how pissed he was about the loss he had just suffered, Tony put on a smile and answered, shook hands, and left the random taco eaters with a positive image and memory.  It's gotta be tough to be a person who has experienced the ultimate highs in MLB, and yet still wants to be an average guy, sitting with his coaching staff in a Del Taco dining room.  You just can't do it.  You can't escape your past.  Tony has found a balance where he can accept that attention while still remaining as grounded as any other person you might meet.  He just has no airs about him whatsoever.  As if there was any room left in my Tony Gwynn Respect Bin, I added a new respect for the way he simply handles who he is and what he has decided to pursue.  There's very little that is glamorous about the life of a college baseball coach, even a Hall Of Fame college coach.  

1 comment:

  1. Craig...thank you for sharing your memories of the trip. It was a terrific read.