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Posts Tagged ‘Baseball’


I had omitted to mention in my last post that, shortly after Alicia and Jerry joined us in our Chicago house, they presented me with my birthday presents – two t-shirts from their Land of the Sun store in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. I wore the Watchtower” tie-dye today, not only as a token of my gratitude but also because it was one I had been pursuing for some time, and was so excited to receive it.

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It was accompanied by a touching “card”, adorned with Aiden and Ely’s artwork.

Alicia was queen of the kitchen again, this time serving up scrambled eggs and bacon, providing us with the necessary fuel for what was to prove a long, exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable day.

Ely held court in his armchair while he waited for everybody else to get ready.

Our first port of call was Millennium Park, a former railroad yard in an industrial corner of Grant Park that had been reclaimed to celebrate the turn of the twenty first century. It is now a popular and successful attraction, especially for those interested in art, architecture and the performing arts.

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The extraordinary piece of sculpture, Cloud Gate, was the primary reason for our visit. Designed by British sculptor, Anish Kapoor, it resembles an enlarged, reflective kidney bean, prompting its nickname, The Bean. Wherever you stand on its perimeter, you experience a different, dazzling and somewhat disorientating reflection of the surrounding skyline.

Since the days of ER, one of our favourite US drama series, I had wanted to ride the “L”, the elevated trains that run overhead, providing a great rooftop perspective on the city going about its business.

We walked to the nearest station to Millennium Park, Adams/Wabash, serving, amongst others, the Brown Line, and took it in the direction of Kimball.

Aiden and Janet were happy to be riding the rails.

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Although most of the stations we passed through were quite plain, there were others with gorgeous murals.

We had learnt while standing in line for Willis Tower on the previous day that Jerry’s former business partner and his wife were also in town, and it had been agreed that we all meet up for pizza at 5pm today. With that in mind and time passing we alighted at Belmont on the North Side in search of lunch. Cheesie’s Pub & Grub opposite the station looked enticing, so we took our chances there. There was some confusion initially over what we should have, but my grilled cheese sandwich was certainly worth the wait.

Judging by the baseball memorabilia, we were in the vicinity of Wrigley Field, the fabled home of the Chicago Cubs, World Series Champions in 2016 after a 108 year wait.

While we waited for our food, the boys and I had a few vigorous games of table (ice) hockey. Although Ely may have not been especially tactically astute, his more rudimentary, enthusiastic style made him a match for both Aiden and I.

Cheesie’s was renowned for its root and craft beers, of which Jerry partook, but less so for its coffee. The Osmium Coffee Bar a few blocks away was recommended and we made our way there. We were able to sit in the backyard where all the wooden tables were painted beautifully .

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We took the return to Adams/Wabash. Ely decided that he was no longer with us and needed his own space. We were not the only passengers to be charmed by his subsequent siesta.

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It was time to honour our reservation at Pequod’s authentic Chicago deep dish pizza restaurant. We arrived around twenty minutes early which allowed me the opportunity to do something I had been starved of on the trip so far – look around a bookshop. The large branch of Barnes & Noble called to me from across the street and I escaped from the rest of the party for a few minutes. I did not, however, make any purchases.

Oh, but I could have with more time and money!

We met Joyce and Artie and sat down to dinner. I’ll confess that both Janet and I prefer the traditional Italian thin crust pizza, but there is no denying that our cheese, extra cheese, onion and black olive deep dish version was tasty – and certainly, filling, so much so that we requested a “box” to take back to the house. Jerry and Alicia did the same with their meat pizza. But more of those leftovers in the next chapter.

The final instalment of the day returned us to the Blues Highway theme that had triggered this trip in the first place. Janet, Alicia and I had bought tickets to Blues legend, Buddy Guy’s club, for the evening.

Jerry had expressed his willingness to stay behind at the house looking after the boys. This might just have had something to do with his desire to watch the San Francisco 49ers at the Green Bay Packers live on television in peace.

But if that was the plan, it was thwarted before we even left the house to pick up our Uber. Despite ploughing through what appeared to be hundreds of channels, we could not locate a live transmission of the game. To add insult to injury for Jerry, we discovered that the blues club was showing it on several television sets!

After checking in at the club, we found what appeared to be the only empty table close to the stage – though we may have annoyed a large group of women who had begun to place additional chairs around it as we arrived. Playing dumb was a successful tactic.

I took the opportunity before the outstanding house band, led by singer and guitarist Jimmy Burns, began their first set, and our server arrived with the first gin and tonic of the evening, to look around. Original guitars and photographs of some of the greatest Blues musicians adorned the walls.

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Towards the end of the first set, it was announced that there was a special guest in the house – none other than the venerable owner of the club himself, Buddy Guy, a guitarist revered by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name but a few guitar gods.

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Belying his eighty two years, Buddy delivered a suggestive, knowing and brilliantly phrased performance. He had the entire audience smiling and applauding, in particular holding women young enough to be his granddaughters in the palm of his hand.

If this were not enough of a gift, he agreed to sign t-shirts during the interval between sets. Alicia and I soon joined other starstruck fans in line for this unexpected and thrilling experience.

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It had been a great evening, the perfect ending to a lovely second day in Chicago in the company of our San Francisco family.

The only disappointment? The 49ers went down to the Packers in the last three seconds of the game. In some respects, it was probably a relief that Jerry had not had to witness it.

 

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According to most online reviews, one of the biggest benefits of staying in our St. Louis accommodation was the size and quality of the breakfast. And our landlady, Magretta, advised us on our first evening, that, such was his talent, she referred to her mild-mannered Japanese husband, Chuck, the “Egg Master”.

But it was Magretta herself who was responsible for our important first meal of the day on our first morning. The elegant dining table was laid out immaculately with the best china as the first course of melon was delivered. This was followed by scrambled egg and bacon, presented in an unusual and attractive way, and topped off with unlimited supplies (if we could have eaten them) of aebleskivers (Danish pancake balls). We joked at the time that, for the first time on the trip, we would not be in need of lunch – and we were proved right!

Throughout the meal we were watched over by Spike the terrier, though he had been trained not to beg for food. Mind you, I am sure he would have pounced gleefully on anything accidentally dropped from the table.

Although there were two other rooms in the house, we were the only occupants for the first two of our three night stay. So we enjoyed the full attention of our hosts.

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We were already aware of the Gateway Arch, the reputation enjoyed by its world class zoo, and, of course, its key role in the history of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll (Chuck Berry was born there), but St Louis was probably, of all the cities we were visiting, the least familiar.

And it was a dull, drizzly morning when we climbed into our Uber car to head downtown. In view of the much improved forecast for later that afternoon, we decided to spend the morning exploring an indoor attraction, namely the City Museum, which had been recommended by Magretta.

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We didn’t know what to expect, so were astonished by this former International Shoe building, whose exhibits consisted principally of repurposed architectural and industrial objects.

Opened in 1997, the museum, described as “one of the great open spaces”, attracts three quarters of a million people per year, and it was not difficult to see why. Whilst we were unable to access the rooftop theme park due to the intermittent rain, there was plenty of interest and entertainment in the remaining four floors of this eclectic, quirky space.

We spent the first part of our tour underground in the “enchanted caves”, a maze of tunnels which was a child’s paradise, judging by the number that ran around squealing with delight and popping up unexpectedly from below or through walls as we walked around.

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Every corner turned, every staircase mounted, revealed something new and surprising.

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Amidst all the industrial exhibits, including bank vault doors and machinery used to make fuselages for small airplanes, there were many more frivolous pieces such as a circus school, the world’s largest pair of men’s underpants (seven feet high by seven feet wide) and the world’s largest pencil (76 feet).

I did say it was quirky, didn’t I?

Another was an approximately seven foot high statue of the mascot of the Big Boy hamburger chain – a chubby boy in red and white checkered overalls holding a double decker cheeseburger.

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True to the forecast, the day was taking a turn for the better as we left the museum and walked down Washington Street towards the waterfront. But it was time for a drink (not lunch – Magretta had seen to that), which we had in Tigin, a friendly Irish pub, before heading to the Gateway Arch for our ride to the top.

Clad in stainless steel and built in the form of a weighted catenary arch, it is the world’s tallest arch and the world’s tallest man made monument in the Western Hemisphere. It was built as testimony to the westward expansion of the United States and officially dedicated to the “American people”. Unsurprisingly , it has become an internationally recognised symbol of St. Louis, as well as a popular tourist destination.

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The Arch was designed by Finish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1947 and built between 12th February 1963 and 28th October 1965 for $13 million ($77.5 million in today’s currency). It opened to the public on 10th June 1967. 

The first part of the tour, as so often in the United States, was a movie, Monument to the Dream, detailing the history of the Arch’s construction. We were astounded  to learn that there had not been a single fatality, not least as the film showed men, cigarettes poking out of the corners of their mouths, casually strolling along girders hundreds of feet in the air without the hint of a safety harness.

The tram ride to the top lasts four minutes, a more manageable journey than the 1,076 emergency stairs. Alighting at the top, passengers climb a slight gradient to reach the observation area with its sixteen narrow windows either side.

The views are exhilarating, especially those of the Mississippi River, Busch Stadium, home to the St Louis Cardinals baseball team and the beautifully restored federal courthouse.

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By this time, we had resolved to devote our second day in town, which was forecast to boast a clear blue sky, though cool, to a visit to St Louis Zoo, but allow us enough time to return to the Arch to take some more photographs, from ground level on this occasion.

Once down on terra firma, we spent a fascinating hour or more roaming among the exhibits of the outstanding Museum of Westward Expansion at the foot of the Arch.

Aside from the excellent information videos and displays, the recreations of a covered wagon and a full size buffalo particularly impressed me.

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Magretta’s ample breakfast was, by now, finally wearing off, so we began the search for a dinner spot. We found a modern Mexican restaurant, Gringo’s, a couple of doors up from the National Blues Museum, which had unfortunately closed for the day. Once again, the meal (mine was a satisfyingly chunky burrito) was excellent and the service hospitable without being effusive.

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We called an Uber to return to the house, where we found Magretta and Chuck diligently packaging items for their online crystal sales business. Spike and Haley were dutifully sat at their feet.

One of the many other nice touches about this accommodation was the communal room on the floor below us which contained reading material, snacks and decanters with port and sherry in them! It had already become Janet’s habit to take a glass of port back to our room to watch the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which had itself become part of our daily routine (when we not still out on the town of course).

We had throughly enjoyed our first day in St Louis.

And we were going to the zoo tomorrow –  how about you?

 

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After a restful night in our lovely suburban cottage, it was time to explore downtown Memphis (our other full day would be dedicated largely to Graceland).

And where else to start than legendary Sun Studio, the “birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll”?

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This was one of the moments on the trip that I had most been looking forward to. And it proved more moving than even I had expected.

Record producer, Sam Phillips, opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue on 3rd January 1950. But it was not until 18th July 1953 that an eighteen year old boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, named Elvis Aaron Presley, dropped in to record an acetate for his mother’s birthday, that the studio earned its place in rock ‘n roll history.

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Phillips was not immediately impressed until, in a ‘break” in auditioning, Elvis grabbed the microphone and launched into Big Boy Crudup’s That’s All Right that he realised this was a unique talent.

When our tour guide, Graham, played us those pieces, I confess that I was in tears. These were pivotal and emotional moments, not only in music history, but also in the chronicles of modern times.

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Janet, who alone among a group of about twenty guests, contrived to position herself on the exact spot where Elvis stood on that fateful day, took the opportunity to stand at the microphone – though, thankfully, she remained mute.

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The other heart-rending moment was listening to an original recording from the equally fabled “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session performed by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis on 4th December 1956 – pure gold!

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Aside from the musical gems (there were many others), we were permitted to explore some of the priceless artefacts that adorned the walls, including recording equipment, posters  and original discs.

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The tour may only have lasted around 45 minutes but it was a breathtaking experience.

Leaving Sun Studio we walked down Monroe Avenue, stopping at regular intervals to enjoy the “Rock Walk” signs. In addition to the two shown below, others included Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner.

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As we entered downtown we were able to investigate the compact and attractive Memphis Redbirds ballpark. It is a shame that such a major city as Memphis only has a Minor League team, but American sports are largely closed doors. I dare say, however,  that the team’s supporters will be no less fanatical than they are in New York, Boston or San Francisco.

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Another of the essential tourist experiences in Memphis is a visit to the Peabody Hotel, where twice a day at 11am and 5pm, a group of ducks are marched to and from their rooftop palace to the lobby fountain on the ground floor, where they spend the intervening hours.

It was after midday when we wandered through the lobby, so they were already blithely floating round their daytime home. We did not plan to return at the moment they returned to the “Royal Duck Palace”.

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After a tasty lunch of grilled cheese, chunky fries and wine at Automatic Slims, we began to explore the Beale Street area. Although we could hear live music emanating from some of the bars, it was much quieter in early afternoon than we would discover later in the evening.

Beale Street has been the beating heart of Memphis for over a century. The promise of musical stardom has lured musicians such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis and the wonderful Memphis Minnie from nearby Mississippi. Since the end of the Second World War, many – Elvis, BB King and Rufus Tomas included – became blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll recording stars.

But more of Beale Street later.

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Time for yet another music museum. This time, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum on 3rd Street (B.B. King Boulevard), described by the Performing Songwriter Magazine as arguably the “single best exhibition of American musical history in the country”.

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And a superb exhibition it is as it tells the important story of those “musical pioneers who overcame racial and socio-economic obstacles to create the music that changed the cultural complexion of the world”.

It begins with rural field hollers and sharecroppers of the thirties, through the explosion of Sun, Stax, and Hi Records, inside Memphis’ musical heyday in the seventies, to its global musical influence. A digital audio tour guide highlights a series of tableaux and includes over five hours of information, is packed with over 300 minutes of information and more than 100 songs.

You can wander around the museum at your own pace through seven galleries featuring three audio visual programmes, more than thirty instruments, forty costumes, and other musical treasures.

I was especially enamoured of the collection of juke boxes dotted around the museum, enabling you to select favourite songs from comprehensive lists for each era and style.

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Returning from the air conditioning of the museum into the heat of the street, an experience we endured with varying degrees of comfort over the whole trip, at least until now (and later Nashville), we strolled down to the riverfront alongside the Hernando Desoto Bridge that spanned the Mississippi.

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Unlike New Orleans, where we rode three lines of streetcars, we did not really have time to experience the Memphis version, though they are clearly an attractive and valuable addition to the city transportation system.

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There was some imaginative, locally themed street artwork around downtown too.

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As dusk fell, we went in search on Beale Street for live music and dinner. Our first port of call was the Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe and Honky Tonk where Jason James, with an excellent band, gave an energetic and authentic performance to a packed out crowd.

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After a couple of beers there, we wandered around, checking each bar in turn and visiting the gift shops. It was still relatively early in the evening but the street was filling up. The atmosphere was noisy and high-spirited, but we found it less threatening than Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The clear police presence at either end may have contributed to that of course.

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We selected the Rum Boogie Cafe, one of the most celebrated nightclubs in the city. Sybil Thomas, youngest daughter of Rufus and sister of Carla, delivered a high energy of soul and funk classics with her equally dynamic band while we had dinner.

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With the much anticipated trip to Graceland in the morning, we called an Uber at the bottom of Beale Street to take us back to the cottage in East Memphis.

 

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In a little over a month my wife and I will be returning to the place we regard as our second home (financial considerations dictate that it will never be our first) – San Francisco. In fact, this will be our twentieth anniversary since we first laid eyes on the imperious Golden Gate Bridge, sampled clam chowder in a sourdough bowl or cracked open a fortune cookie in a Chinatown restaurant.

After our initial trip in 1995 ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/you-were-so-right-louis/ ), it would be another three and a half years, and a further three years after that, before we settled into what became a routine of bi-annual visits. We would combine our stay in the city with a skiing trip to Tahoe and a few days elsewhere, such as Las Vegas, San Diego, Death Valley and Yosemite.

Invariably, after the eleven hour flight, we would stay the first night in a budget hotel, having dinner at Calzone’s on Columbus Avenue (but not without a visit to Tower Records first), followed by drinks at the Vesuvio Café nearby. Breakfast would be taken at the Eagle Café on Pier 39 the next morning, and I would buy my holiday reading at the Barnes and Noble bookstore (now long since closed) in Fisherman’s Wharf before driving over the Bay Bridge.

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On returning to the city we would stay in a hotel, making the small step up (or was it down) from the Tenderloin to the Civic Center on our second trip before heading to the Holiday Inn at the Wharf for three of the next four vacations.

With each passing visit, we became less inclined to rush around ticking off the guidebook highlights, and began to venture off the beaten path and discover those places, within the city and wider Bay Area, where the only (other) tourists we might encounter were getting wind burn from the top of a tour bus.

It didn’t concern us that we hadn’t jumped a cable car for five years, stepped foot in Nordstrom or Macy’s or taken the rough ride across the bay to Alcatraz. Of course, we didn’t avoid all of the more celebrated spots, always finding time, however short the vacation, to eat at the Cliff House, shop on Haight Street, drink in North Beach and ramble round Golden Gate Park on a Sunday afternoon.

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San Francisco quickly became the place where we wanted to live. Without the riches required to buy our way into residency, we would have to content ourselves with alternating between staying in the city (spring and autumn) and the UK (winter and summer) for three months at a time – and only then when we had both retired.

For now, it was a matter of a week here and a fortnight, and, more recently a month, there.

We wanted to “live like locals”, and staying in someone’s (second) home was a good starting point. There would be no maids knocking at the door in the morning anxious to clean the room, no loud, drunken conversations outside the room at 3am and no lift bells ringing or washer / driers humming at all hours.

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So in 2010 we abandoned the lazy predictability of hotel living and rented an apartment in Hayes Valley, following that up a year later with similar accommodation in the Western Addition, a short stroll from Alamo Square. The migration west from downtown, however, took a sunny south easterly turn in 2012 when we chose Noe Valley for our base. It was during our second residence there that we discovered Bernal Heights ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/a-hike-up-bernal-heights-hill/ ).

Much as we had enjoyed living in the other neighborhoods, we immediately felt an affinity with the quirky, artsy, small town feel of Bernal and rented a cottage there last year. Our first impressions confirmed, we will be returning to that same cottage twice this year for a total of six weeks.

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It might not have gone unnoticed that our original bi-annual visit strategy has now become annual – and, at least for this year, twice a year!

Over the past two decades, our time in the city has taken on a different, more relaxed tenor. It has become a familiar and habitual part of our lives, somewhere we have now spent more of our time than anywhere else, other than our permanent UK address.

Moreover, we try, as befitting aspiring locals, to engage  more with the city and its residents on a regular, deeper level. During those interminable months in which we are incarcerated nearly six thousand miles away. we maintain a daily interest in the life of the city, and indeed, I comment on it in a number of online forums.

In addition to my Facebook presence, through which I now enjoy a number of personal as well as virtual friendships (even bumming (pun intended) prime seats at AT & T Park to see “our” Giants), I started a blog on the last day of 2010 which focuses on the history, culture and characters of San Francisco.

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And I plan to explore our experiences in more depth in my upcoming book Smiling on a Cloudy Day: An Englishman’s Love Affair with San Francisco, scheduled to be published towards the end of this year.

In our temporary home in the city we neither have to pretend to be what we are not, nor do what we or others feel we ought to do. We can watch the Bay Area news on KRON4 while catching up on household chores in the morning, stroll out to a neighborhood café for brunch, swing by the local wholefoods store and return to the apartment for a bottle of wine on the patio.

All dining options are also possible. We might have dinner in the apartment or we might try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might brave Muni on a trip downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach – or even Union Square. We are under no pressure to conform to a set tourist pattern.

What has happened is that our version of San Francisco has shifted, not only geographically but also psychologically, from the waterfront to the southern neighborhoods. In a sense, our journey has mirrored the historical expansion of the earlier city residents from Yerba Buena Cove to the hills.

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But, of course, there is still room for those sights that first enthralled us as much as they have millions of others. They are still only a short drive, bus or taxi ride – or even walk – away. We still make a conscious effort to revisit those attractions we might have neglected on recent trips – for example we plan to explore Coit Tower and Grand View Park again after an absence of a few years – as well as sampling new locations altogether such as Glen Canyon, Dogpatch and Potrero Hill.

If that sounds as if living in San Francisco has become routine, less exciting, even a chore, that could not be further from the truth. We have become, in a modest way, San Franciscans, interested in its history, politics, culture and, undeniably, its sport (Go Giants!) – just as we do at home.

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I invariably turn to legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, for an authoritative, maybe definitive, view on such matters. Here he ruminates on what makes a San Franciscan:

I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interested in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methusalah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.

Increasingly, our hosts  marvel at our knowledge of, and adoration for, the city. I doubt, however, that the more strident members of online forums would agree with Caen’s loose, but characteristically generous, sentiments here, but I like to feel that we have moved beyond being “sophisticated tourists” who are “charmed and fascinated” by the city to warrant that title of “honorary San Franciscans”.

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It’s near two hundred days since I slouched atop green Bernal Hill,

Dismissing the dogs drooling over my “Progressive Grounds” wrap.

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I watched with increasing heavy heart the planes fly towards SFO,

Doleful omens that my own flight home grew ever nearer. 

Now, finally, my next pilgrimage is as close as the last,

But it might as well be another two hundred years as days;

With the city again in the grip of World Series fever,

I yearn to bask beneath the evening city’s orange glow.

So much I miss about this cool, gorgeous, dirty, expensive place.

The soulful song of the foghorns out across the Golden Gate.

That heart stopping moment when you crest the hill at Hyde  

And pier, park and prison under a pristine sky come into view.

Community singing with Elvis and Snow White in Club Fugazi 

Before following Casady, Kerouac and Ginsberg to Vesuvio Cafe

Where I sit beneath James Joyce with a glass of Anchor Steam.

Bowing dutifully to Emperor Norton as he leads his latest star-struck

Subjects round the now scrubbed and polished Barbary Coast.

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Standing on stairways in Sunset and Bernal,

Gazing open-mouthed as Karl the Fog weaves his moody magic,

Slicing Golden Gate Bridge and Sutro Tower in half before 

Rendering them clear and whole again in a heartbeat.

Mouthing along to “O Mio Babbino Caro” 

While wrestling a ristretto at Caffe Trieste.  

Devouring warm, thickly buttered popovers by the Pacific

Among the toffs and tourists at the Cliff House.

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Scouring for the latest tie-dye tees in still heady Haight.

Getting through a minor novel on the F Streetcar as it

Clanks and clatters down Market and along Embarcadero.

Savouring the scents of jasmine and lemon on the backyard patio.

Marvelling at the Mission murals and their passion and exuberance

Reassures me this changing city still harbours an independent spirit.   

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Sharing stories of Dead concerts at Lyceum and Fillmore 

In the line for breakfast at Martha’s on Church,

Where the Blackpool boat tram glides past and waves

Its bunting at “Lovejoy’s” ladies taking tea and tiffin. 

Shovelling down “Gilroy’s” garlic fries at the ballpark before 

The circling seagulls, mindful of each innings slipping away,

Prepare to swoop to reclaim their birthright.

Watching a liquid sun decline over the serene lagoon 

Of the soon to be centurion Palace of Fine Arts,

What better resting place after the Lyon Street Steps descent?

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And breathing a sigh of relief as the recycling police

Leave me alone for yet another week. 

These and many more images flood my brain.

But never mind.

For now at least, there’s more baseball torture to

Endure from afar in the dark of the night.

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We had purchased tickets before leaving home for three San Francisco Giants games at AT & T Park this month. The first was against the American League East’s bottom side, the Toronto Blue Jays, whom they had beaten on the previous day, courtesy of a two-run homer from Andres Torres and a rare for this year, quality pitching display from Tim Lincecum that evoked memories of his Cy Young award winning years of 2008 and 2009.

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We arrived, courtesy of two MUNI routes, around an hour and a half before the scheduled first pitch to enable us to survey the wares in the Giants Dugout Store, perambulate around the park, take photographs and, of course, avail ourselves of the culinary delights on offer. Despite a hearty breakfast, the Polish kielbasa dog on the Say Hey Sausage concession stand proved too enticing to resist.

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Early morning fog had been burned away by the time the Canadian and American national anthems were sung beautifully, though I do not recall the name of the chanteuse  in question.

The starting pitchers, Barry Zito and R.A. Dickey, kept the offenses quiet during the first four innings, though Dickey took an immediate grip of the Giants batters, whereas Zito (pictured below), whilst maintaining a better, two to one strike to ball ratio, struggled to finish off his opponents.

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Dickey’s dominance with his knuckleball received its deserved support in the fifth inning when the Blue Jays bats scored the only four runs of the game. At the time we thought that Sandoval had made an out at third base that would have ended the innings at the cost of just two runs – and Pablo felt so too as he stood, arms in teapot position, for several seconds. Apparently, however, TV replays narrowly substantiated the umpire’s decision. It proved academic anyway as the Giants “failed to trouble the scorers” in cricketing parlance for the remainder of the game.

Last year’s National League MVP, Buster Posey had a frustrating afternoon, but his presence, at the plate and behind it, still evokes excitement, and not a little adoration, among the AT & T Park faithful. He will not have to wait long before again being a major influence on a game.

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Pablo Sandoval, like Posey, leading the race for a position in the starting lineup in the National League’s All-Star team, was one of the few Giants to come out of the game with some credit, making the team’s first, and until the last inning, only, hit, and performing some neat, efficient plays at third base. Although his “running” around the bases is more likely to elicit chuckles than cheers, he is surprisingly athletic in the field and has an accurate, venomous throw.

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Hunter Pence, like many of his team mates, flattered to deceive with several ferocious swings of the bat that, at the moment of impact like that pictured below, looked as if they might end up in Oakland rather than the hands of the Blue Jays’ outfielders.

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Giants’ mascot, Lou Seal, entertained the crowd, especially the younger fans, throughout the afternoon, though he was conspicuous by his absence at the end of the game. It was hard at times not to contemplate whether it might have been worth Bochy letting him loose as a pinch hitter late on in the game. Having said that, his speed around the field makes Sandoval look like Usain Bolt.

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Tradition dictates that, if the Giants’ are losing at the onset of their ninth innings,  the home crowd is encouraged to join in Journey’s great anthem Don’t Stop Believin’ . It has done the trick many times over the past three years but did nothing to inspire their innocuous bats on this occasion. There was to be no emotional walk-off win this afternoon, though they did manage to get two men on base in the ninth inning when Sandoval came to the plate for the last time with two outs.

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A limp display by the Giants but there were consolations – the weather was hot and sunny, the bay looked serene and we had great seats immediately behind the Blue Jays’ dugout, half way between home plate and first base. I had, however, committed the ultimate sin for anyone visiting San Francisco in believing the weather forecast. The early morning cloud was scheduled to linger by the bay for the afternoon, so we omitted to take either suncream and, in my case, Giants cap, to the park. The resulting sunburn was not what I had  anticipated having to contend with after barely 48 hours in the city!

I did, at least, remember to take my jacket!

After two World Series in three years, expectation is now high, perhaps unreasonably so, in the Giants Nation. And some comments on social media following the game exposed the irritating modern impatience for victory every time the team takes the field. The team has faltered before at various points in the season over recent seasons and, whilst there might be just cause (decline of the pitching rotation, lack of batting power, frailty on the road) to believe that they might not be playing in October, it is still far too early to be writing this proud, resilient team off. And the atmosphere as we walked back along the Embarcadero was resigned but relaxed rather than critical. You cannot get too depressed about the fortunes of your sporting heroes in this city. There is too much else to raise the spirit.

Our first port of call (pun perhaps intended) was the Wine Merchant in the Ferry Building where we mulled over a bottle of Napa Valley “pink” before deciding where to eat. We succeeded in resisting the blandishments of Fisherman’s Wharf, preferring to walk up Market Street and cutting up along Sutter before reaching Union Square.

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The Daily Grill, next to Lefty O’Doul’s on Geary Street, was relatively quiet (though, purely coincidentally, full by the time we left), so we took refuge in its old-style San Francisco ambience, the sort of dining establishment that famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, would be found in late at night.

And what was the first thing our server wanted to talk about – yes, the Giants ailing fortunes! There is no escape from baseball talk in a city where every third person you see appears to be wearing a cap or Giants sweatshirt or cap.

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I have already referred in part to our first full day back in San Francisco (early rising and the trip to the Church and Market branch of Safeway) in the previous two blog articles. With a full month to play with, this was no time for dashing from one tourist attraction to another, but rather to acclimatise ourselves to the neighbourhood.

After breakfast in the apartment, inevitably of granola and sourdough toast, we ventured up the hill on Church Street to 24th Street, the principal retail and dining area of Noe Valley.

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What struck us immediately were the luxuriant flower displays, especially of bougainvillea, draped over shop fronts and garage forecourts alike. Accustomed to visiting in the spring, we had not witnessed their splendour before now.

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Our already full event calendar acquired another entry when we discovered that the Noe Valley Summer Fest was to be held on Saturday 15th of the month, the same day as the first day of the North Beach Festival taking place over that weekend. With the Stern Grove Festival in Golden Gate Park on Sunday, we were going to be busy! Thankfully, the Giants game against the San Diego Padres on the following day was an evening affair.   

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After coffee, served in large bowls, in La Boulange on the intersection of 24th and Sanchez, and a brief reconnaisance of those shops that held our interest, we embarked upon the steep climb up Noe Street to Dolores Park for one of the stellar views across the city.

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Aside from the obvious photo opportunities it affords, Dolores Park is a hugely popular venue for picnics, sunbathing and people watching. And what people watching! There has been a long running feud between members (literally!) of the gay community and city authorities about nude sunbathing, rendered sensitive by the presence of the fun and funky Helen Diller Children’s Playground in its centre.

But the still relatively cool morning meant that the occupants of the park comprised nothing more threatening than a couple of fully-clothed ageing hippies, impossibly cute Shih Poos and workmen (not so cute).

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We made our way courageously (adults are not permitted without being supervised by a child) over the spongy bridge in the middle of the playground towards the majestic Mission Dolores, oldest surviving structure in the city, before branching left to the J Church MUNI Metro tracks that wove alongside the western fringe of the park.

We had a lunch of peanut butter (Janet) and turkey, egg and cheese (me) bagels and iced lattés at the Church Street Café. I am under strict instructions not to post the photos of our respective half-eaten meals, so readers will have to make do with one of your author instead (which some might say was more likely to frighten those of a sensitive disposition).

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Observations and photographs from the afternoon stroll down Castro Street to follow.

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Oddly, it is only relatively recently that I became hooked on baseball.  Perhaps it was the flying rounders (the tame “British” version of the sport) bat that put me as a seven year old in the local hospital, for which I still have the bump on my forehead, which had, subconsciously, spooked me from engaging with the game earlier.

Or maybe it was the ambivalent relationship with American culture that I “enjoyed” until the mid nineties when I took that fateful first trip across the Atlantic.  Baseball epitomised the inferiority of American sport compared to games invented by the English such as association football (soccer) and, especially, cricket with which baseball has much in common.

Despite trips to San Francisco in October 1995 and then the springs of 1999, 2002 (a season which culminated in an unsuccessful World Series appearance for my now adopted San Francisco Giants), 2004 and 2006 a trip to, respectively Candlestick, SBC, Pacific Bell and now AT & T Park never occurred to me. The prodigious exploits of Barry Bonds, both on and off the diamond, relayed on KRON 4 and other Bay Area TV stations were as close as I got, and their features focused as much on his controversial lifestyle as his sporting prowess.

Perhaps the fact that we were never in the city during the regular season, and , therefore, TV coverage was limited to cursory references to spring training, may also have accounted for my indifference.  Put simply, the opportunity to attend a game just wasn’t there.

To be fair, the little I had watched on television at home had intrigued me.  The reason I hadn’t given it a chance was due in no small part to the fact that games lasted up to three hours and were relayed live in the middle of the night.  Even in the comfort of my own home I was denied reasonable access to the sport.

Our first trip to AT & T Park was in March 2008, less than a week away before Opening Day, when we saw an understandably below strength Giants team beaten 7-1 by their neighbours across the bay, the Oakland Athletics (“A’s”).  They greeted our arrival with a mediocre performance in a half empty stadium lacking in any real atmosphere, and played in a bitterly cold wind that we could not escape, wherever we moved.  But we were hooked!

Firstly, the design and setting of the stadium were, of course, beautiful and the facilities outstanding.   Having been brought up to think that the catering, if such a word dignified it, in American sports arenas did not extend beyond hot dogs, popcorn and soda / beer, we were amazed by its range and quality.  There were at least two more converts to Gilroy’s garlic fries in the Bay Area that day!  The celebrated American customer service was prevalent everywhere, and we were struck by how fan friendly the whole experience was.

And then there was the crowd,  Ok, it was only a “pre-season friendly” in soccer parlance, albeit between two bitter local rivals, but there was no segregation, in fact Giants and A’s fans sat together in our section and maintained a barrage of feisty but light hearted banter throughout the afternoon.

But why should I fall for baseball and not american football or basketball?  The affinity with the traditional long form (i.e. 3, 4 or 5 day) of cricket is the best answer I can offer – a game that unfolds slowly but subtly with periodic bursts of excrutiating excitement, a rich literature (no other games have offered more to the English language), a noble history graced with remarkable characters and an obsession with statistics and records (one of the reasons both games captivate and capture for a lifetime the male of the species).   And not forgetting the attractive spectacle of field and “flannelled fools” where pitcher (bowler) and hitter (batsman) test their skills and character on an epic scale.

So I kept a close eye on the Giants’ exploits over the next two seasons, which were modest but promising of future success.  By the time we made our next visit in March 2010 I considered myself a long distance Giants fan.  We took the ballpark tour which was fascinating, and were given the opportunity to sit in the home team’s dugout.  We bought several items of merchandise to take home, including a Tim Lincecum bobblehead that we then contrived to leave in our apartment!

The general consensus seemed to be that the Giants, with their pitching strength in particular, could be more competitive that year.  But few dared to dream then, or even through most of the regular season, of division, league or World Series championships.

Or that, throughout October and the beginning of November, I would be going to bed at home at 8pm in order to rise again at half past midnight, or, on other occasions staying awake until 5am, living every strike, hit, walk and stolen base against the San Diego Padres (in the last regular season games), Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers.  How I enjoyed the rare daytime starts which meant that they were over by midnight UK time!

And I went through the same exhausting ordeal all over again last autumn. But it was worth it!

Sporting a Tim Lincecum t-shirt, kept company by a Pablo Sandoval soft toy and with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s by my side, I too endured the “torture” and ultimate glory of those Giants’ play off campaigns.

We finally made our first MLB games last year with the early season visits of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Phillies, with Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum pitching. The outcomes mirrored the fortunes of the two pitchers over the past twelve months, with Zito spearheading a walk-off 1-0 victory whilst the ailing Lincecum pitched erratically in a narrow defeat. I have written about the experience in another blog post: http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/in-the-land-of-the-giants-and-garlic-fries/

Next month I will be back at AT & T Park for games against the Toronto Blue Jays, San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins and I can’t wait!

Go Giants!

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Born in October 1952 on the day tea rationing ended in Britain (good timing that, given my mother’s obsession – and subsequently mine – with the brew) and, as an only child, I enjoyed a happy childhood, revolving mainly around football and cricket.  I had the good fortune of growing up during the sixties, the music of which provided a thrilling soundtrack to my that period.

I attained a BA (Honours) in English and European Literature at Essex University, writing my dissertation on the novel At Swim-Two-Birds by Irish novelist and journalist Flann O’Brien.  This was followed by studying towards an MA in Anglo-Irish Literature at Leeds, majoring on James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and W.B.Yeats, including writing a treatise on the novels of Patrick Kavanagh (The Green Fool and Tarry Flynn).

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Eventually, I exchanged academia – via portering in a major department store and “making” sultana cookies and other exotic (for the time) biscuits – for the last refuge of the modern scoundrel and joined the UK civil service in March 1980.  I subsequently spent 29 years in the Department for Work and Pensions and its many antecedents, latterly in human resources and diversity before poaching early retirement in March 2009.

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My interest in the subject led me to undertake a Level 3 BTEC Advanced Certificate in Travel and Tourism via home learning.  I completed the course in December 2010, achieving a Distinction in all three elements – understanding the travel and tourism industry, tourist destinations and tour operations.  My ambition now is to concentrate on writing and, hopefully, to publish on a regular basis.  I have been focusing principally on my passions of San Francisco, cricket and travel, though I am not able to resist on pontificating on life in general from time to time.

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This blog has now been active for nearly two and a half years. But I want to do more than that. At present, I am in the final throes of co-writing a book on the centenary of Kent County Cricket Club’s fourth County Championship title in eight years, and future writing projects include a series of short stories based in San Francisco and an expansion of our U.S. road trip diary of September / October last year.

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Aside from the above topics, my other serious interests are walking, skiing, baseball (a fan from afar of the San Francisco Giants), association football (a life long fan of Gillingham), music (principally folk, blues, country and West Coast rock borne of the original Summer of Love in 1967), going to the theatre and eating out.

I feel extremely grateful to have the health and energy to pursue all of those interests, as I am also for the support and encouragement of my wonderful wife Janet whom I married in Vegas on Halloween 2009 after 27 years together (that makes it 31 now!).

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Finally, after a pre-season match against the Oakland A’s in 2008 and a rain-curtailed “friendly” against the Seattle Mariners two years later, I made it to my first two Major League Baseball (MLB) games at AT & T Park for the opening weekend of 2012.

On Saturday evening the San Francisco Giants entertained the Pittsburgh Pirates in the second of a three game series, and then hosted the Philadelphia Phillies in the opening game of three on Monday evening.

This is not a match report on either game, though I will briefly outline  the action. It is more a series of impressions on the baseball experience.

So – the figures. On Saturday, the Giants squeezed out a 4-3 victory in the ninth after trailing both 2-0 and 3-2 earlier in the game. CRedit should go to much-maligned, and many believe, grossly overpaid, starting pitcher, Barry Zito’s second quality performance at the start of the season.

A disastrous first innings by star pitcher, Tim Lincecum, in which he gave up four runs, meant the Giants were always chasing the game against the Phillies’ Roy Halladay. Despite Buster Posey’s three hits and improved pitching by Lincecum and the bullpen, the deficit was too much for Giants to pull back, eventually losing 5-2.

One win and one defeat, not altogether unexpected, so I’ ll take that.

Although we had already printed our tickets at home back in the UK, we wanted to get to the ballpark well in advance of Saturday’s 6.05pm first pitch. We disembarked from a Muni Metro car at 3rd and King at around 4.30pm, just in time to be welcomed through the turnstiles with a large number of equally excited fans, most wearing the Giants’ orange and black colours.

One of many reasons for wanting to get to the park early was that it would guarantee us securing the day’s free gift on entry. Although on Saturday this was a rather modest foam finger, the use for which is modelled in the photograph below, we received a far more elegant A5 size Giants 2012 schedule fridge magnet at the Phillies game. This was the first of a host of fan-oriented activities on both nights.

And it is this emphasis on ensuring that the spectators, especially families, have a memorable experience at the ballpark that is so impressive about American sports in general, and the San Francisco Giants organisation in particular, and which I want to concentrate on in this article.

Amongst the other gifts scheduled to be handed out at future home games during the season were bobbleheads of the most popular players, including Sergio Romo, Madison Bumgarner and Pablo Sandoval, a Brian Wilson gnome, a Matt Cain t-shirt, fedoras, knitted hats, texting gloves (sic), trading cards and caps. Some of these are limited to the first 20, 25 or 40 thousand fans through the turnstiles, one of many clever marketing ploys to get the spectators eating and drinking early inside the stadium rather than at the bars and restaurants around the “yard”.

For children aged 14 and under, they would be greeted at selected games with snap watches, rope necklaces, and Super Hero capes. Many of the above gifts were presented by companies such as Subway, See’s Candles, Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area and PG & E.

And then there would be the games that celebrated past glories such as the “Turn Back the Century Game – 1912” and the 2010 Giants World Series Team Reunion. On another day Virgin America would be providing two for one flight vouchers for all fans.

And it still doesn’t end there!

San Francisco is renowned for its commitment to diversity, demonstrated in a range of festivals and street fairs throughout the year that showcase its ethnic communities.

And the Giants play their part. Certain games are designated “heritage nights” where the culture and history of peoples that have played a key role in the history of the Bay Area is celebrated. The list includes Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mexican (Cinco de Mayo), Irish, Jewish, Italian, Polynesian, African American, Filipinos, and, this being San Francisco, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

And then there are the games that are dedicated to firefighters, law enforcement officers, masons and even singles! And, again, it wouldn’t be San Francisco without a series of food festivals, including one where leading chefs from around the area set up stall and offer their wares at a fraction of the price that one would pay in their restaurants.

Once inside the stadium, the off-field entertainment, both before, during and, on occasions, after, the game, is excellent. In the lead up to the start of the Pirates game, the crowd was treated to Jefferson Starship ripping through their – or rather Jefferson Airplane’s – catalogue of classic songs, including Somebody to Love and White Rabbit. They returned to lead the traditional pre-match rendition of the American national anthem – not perhaps their finest hour, but I doubt the great majority of the crowd, wrapped in the emotion of the moment, were too concerned about that.

Although the breaks between innings in a ballgame are rarely more than a few minutes, the gaps are filled invariably with quizzes, competitions and interviews played out on the large screen / scoreboard, with yet more prizes and special offers available to the lucky fans. The middle of the seventh community singing of Take Me Out to the Ballpark is another tradition that raises the crowd’s spirits, even if the Giants are faltering.

Perhaps the most popular moments are when the camera scans round the crowd to hone in on unsuspecting couples whose duty it is then to kiss each other in front of 41,000 other people. These bring huge cheers, notably when a chaste peck turns into a more passionate clinch. On more than one occasion I wondered whether the “victims” had ever kissed before, might even be on their first date, such was the embarrassed on some faces. But most carry it off with good humour.

The antics of Lou Seal, the Giants’ larger than life (particularly around his midriff) mascot, contribute to the party atmosphere. A feisty character, his finest moment is when he strides and struts on the roof of the Giants dugout, leading the ninth innings rallying cry of Dont Stop Believin’ by Journey, which has become the team’s unofficial anthem since the World Series season of 2010. And it had the desired effect in the Pirates game in inspiring the team to pull round a 3-2 deficit to secure a walk-off win in the bottom of the ninth, adding a triumphant note to the spectacular fireworks display at the end.

Oh….and there’s always a baseball game going on if you get bored with all the ancillary entertainment!

I shall now turn to the other visible demonstration of the fan-friendly approach that epitomises the Giants organisation – the provision of refreshment.

For anyone unfamiliar with American sports, and, as a result, erroneously supposing that the food and beverages at venues barely extend beyond Coca-Cola, Budweiser, hot dogs and hamburgers, would be astonished to see the variety and quality on offer at AT & T Park.

Amongst the dozens of outlets at the stadium are California Cookout, Clam Chowder, Crazy Crab’z, Mission Creek Cantina, Cinnamon Roasted Nuts, First Base Carvery, McCovey’s 44 BBQ, Gourmet Sausages, Tres Mexican Kitchen, Long Taters Baked Potato, Doggie Diner, Haagen Dazs, Outta Here Cheesesteaks, Pier 44 Chowder House, Say Hey! Speciality Sausages, Port Walks Pizza, Ghiradelli, Mashi’s Sushi Bistro and Edsel Ford Fong’s. Some of these have multiple stands.

But the crowning glory, the signature dish, the product singularly responsible for the unmissable, pungent aroma of the ballpark, apart from on Grateful Dead Day when it is overpowered by the heady waft of dope, are Gilroy’s garlic fries, served up in generously filled trays at many of the aforementioned stands. These are the must eat” option, not only for the human visitors but also for the savvy seagulls that swoop and hover over proceedings in the latter stages of the game.

And yes, of course, soda and beer dominate the drinks scene, but this is San Francisco and elegant dining is available too, as witnessed by the Francis Ford Coppola wines my wife and I gravitated towards on both evenings.

My only quibble with all this eating and drinking – which clearly provides the Giants organisation with massive income – is that it is so enjoyable that a significant proportion of the sell-out crowds that flock to every game feel the need to keep going back for more – and more – and more – during the actual game, meaning that they miss a not inconsiderable part of the play. If you have the misfortune to sit behind someone who is constantly getting up out of their seat to stock up on yet more food and drink, it can be very annoying.

Now, I like a drink and something to eat when I watch football, cricket or baseball, but not at the expense of missing the play. I will get that out of the way before the game, or, occasionally, during a scheduled interval in play, such as half time in football. After all, I am there for the game, no more, no less.

But baseball, with its short breaks in play between innings, doesn’t allow one to do that. There is no lunch or tea interval as in cricket, where you may have between 20 and 40 minutes in which to satisfy your hunger or thirst.

So I do understand, not only the urge, but also the compulsion to eat constantly during the game, particularly when the fare is so tasty. And if you have children badgering you for a hot dog, coke or ice cream, during the play, it’s hard to resist.

But for some people, and not necessarily those with families, the actual game appears almost incidental – or rather that it is no more than a part of the overall experience or the excuse for attending a foodie extravaganza.

By the end of Saturday evening when we sat in section 324 View Reserve Infield, overlooking from the clouds (if there had been any) third base, I wondered whether I had been the only spectator in my block who could honestly claim that they had seen every single ball pitched during the game. Even my wife had had to make a call of nature (your fault Mr Coppola – who was at the Phillies game) during the seventh innings!

That said, I was one of the first in the extensive queue for the gentlemen’s restrooms at the end!

By way of contrast we sat in section 135 Lower Box Infield, immediately to the right of the bleachers on Monday evening and the “problem” was almost non-existent. The higher you sit in the stands the more likely you are to have people leaving their seats obscuring your view.

The situation would be worse – if that is the correct word, if it weren’t for the army of incredibly hard working vendors of hot dogs, cotton candy, ice cream and beer that flit amongst the crowd from beginning to end. Their energy, good humour and efficiency are a sight to behold.

Lessons to be learned for future visits?

1. If it’s a night game in spring or autumn (or summer for that matter) take a blanket. Although both evenings were clear and relatively still, it became decidedly chilly when the sun went down.

2.Choose seats at a lower level than section 324 – few fans struggled to make it back to their seats without pausing for breath. More chance of catching a ball there too.

3. Take more photos to supplement my report. This article  would certainly have benefited from that.

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