Sunday, November 6, 2016

Barnstorming Through The Minor Leagues (Memphis, Nashville, Pulaski and Frederick)

July 28, 2015: "Walkin' in Memphis"

"Many cities make music, but no city breathes music quite like Memphis. The songs and sounds that come from here are uniquely American."
Shawn Amos

We left St. Louis around noon and settled in for the almost four-hour-ride, south to the land of the Delta Blues: Memphis, Tennessee. It was a straight shot down I-55, and there wasn't much navigation to do in order to get there, so we settled in and discussed what we wanted to see in the 48 hours we would be in the city known as "The Birthplace of Rock & Roll." While the MLB portion of our trip was over, we would still be seeing plenty of baseball in Memphis, Nashville, Pulaski (Virginia) and Frederick (Maryland), so we dubbed this portion of the trip the "Minor League Express Tour," as we drove through the "bushes" of minor league cities, but now there was something else to focus on besides baseball: music.

Our first stop, Memphis, is where a plethora of music sounds and styles stand apart, as well as blend with one another. All over the city you can find country, the blues, jazz, soul and the mash-up of all of the above, which was brought together in the control room of Sun Studios...Rock & Roll. It's the home of B.B. King, Al Jackson Jr., Al Green, Memphis Minnie, Isaac Hayes, Memphis Willie B and Bukka White, and where Sam Phillips changed the sound, forever, by recording Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and, another hometown boy, the man who became "The King," Elvis Presley. It is also, unfortunately, an infamous spot on the civil rights map, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down there, in 1968.

As we continued on our journey, we all agreed on the "must see" spots, which included; Beale Street (for live music and the party atmosphere), a tour of Sun Studios, a visit to Stax Records, a viewing of the Rock and Soul Museum, a trip to Graceland, a stop at the Lorraine Motel (site of the MLK assassination), a taste of Memphis, at Central BBQ, as well as the world-famous burgers at Dyer's and possibly a viewing of the Peabody Ducks. Our FIRST stop, however, was going to be at a drug store, where we were going to try and find Ryan something to help get him through whatever he was still battling.

The drive went by quickly and as we approached the city we noticed there were billboards for Elvis, and Graceland, everywhere. It seemed the entire economy was based on visiting "The King's" house, or had something to do with the man himself. It was something we would come to see, firsthand, a day later.

We pulled into downtown and quickly found a Walgreen's, where the pharmacist helped us with some meds that would, hopefully, stop Ry's sore throat and post-nasal drip and allow him to enjoy the rest of the trip with no issues. After that it was a quick ride down to the Beale Street area, which we could see was going to be a fun atmosphere, even before night fell and the party lights were turned on.

"Hey, what time is it?" Rob quickly asked.

"About 4:45," Tony told him.

"Quick, pull into this lot," he told me.

"Why? What are we going to see? I thought we were going to the hotel," Ryan asked

"Jim, trust me," Rob said. "Pull in here."

I did as I was told and parked the car in the garage, right in front of me.

"Come on," he said, taking off down the block. "We have ten minutes to get there."

"Where are we going," Tony wanted to know.

"You'll see, just move," was all he told us.

So we did.

Five minutes later we were coming through the front door of the Peabody Hotel, drenched in sweat, looking directly at a mob-scene.

"What the hell is this?" I asked, wiping sweat from my face.

"The Peabody Ducks," Rob said. "We're going to see the ducks."

"You brought us here to look at ducks?" Nick wanted to know.

"More importantly, why are there ducks in the hotel?" Ryan followed up
The Peabody Hotel
"Well," Rob started out. "The Peabody Ducks are five wild ducks that live here at the hotel. They have a penthouse, when they are not 'on display' in the fountain and come down their own special elevator every morning at 11 a.m. and go back upstairs every night at 5 p.m. There is a special ceremony each time they come and go from the fountain, complete with a master of ceremony, and a big to-do is made, with people coming from all over the city to see the presentation."

"You have got to be kidding me," I said.

"Just spread out, take your cameras and try to get some good shots. This place is mobbed, but you should be able to get some pictures," he told us, walking off to stake out a good spot.

The Duckmaster
We all did as we were told and, sure enough, five minutes later a gentleman dressed in a red jacket, holding a cane, addressed the crowd as to what was about to happen. He asked everyone to feel free to take pictures, but not reach out, or interfere in any way with the ducks. He gave a brief history of what we were going to see, telling us this has been a hotel tradition since 1940 and that the original "Duckmaster" Edward Pembroke served for 50 years. The five ducks (North American Mallards) are raised by a local farmer and serve for three months, before they return to a farm to live out their life "in the wild."

Ducks in the Fountain
I shot a look at Ryan, who was across the room, snapping pictures, and we both just smiled and watched. A little boy was the ceremonial duckmaster for the evening session and he had a blast interacting with the crowd, while summoning the ducks from their fountain-swimming pool to the red carpet and into the elevator for their journey back upstairs.

After the conclusion of the "Duck Walk" we headed back to the car, laughing at what we just saw, and made our way to our hotel, a few short blocks away. After checking in, taking a shower and changing, we headed back downstairs to a little club, Memphis Sounds, we had seen just outside the hotel, to have a pre-game drink, listen to some music and wait for our friends Sara and Bruce to join us for the evening ballgame.
"Our" Nightclub

We walked into Memphis Sounds, which describes itself as a club for "Cool Jazz and Hot Blues," only to find it was empty. We were a few hours early for any live music, but that was okay, as we just wanted a place to relax, get out of the heat and cool off.

We walked down a flight of stairs to find the "lounge" area, just as I would have expected it. There was a full length bar on the left-hand side of the room, a stage-like area off to the far side of the bar, cocktail tables the length of the room, a small dance floor and, off to the right, a small area with leather chairs, some stools and high-top tables, that we could relax. We quickly settled on that area, ordered some beers and sodas, and toasted being in another new city.

Rob, Sara and Bruce
After a few minutes Sara and Bruce joined us, and after some brief introductions we all settled in for a relaxing hour before we had to go to the ballpark. Sara is a petite, blond, teacher, who hails from and works in Memphis. She is the epitome of a Southern Belle and even has the knee-buckling Southern accent, as well. She is quite the lady, who loves her family, music, her doggies and her hometown baseball team, the Memphis Redbirds. Her husband, Bruce, is a lawyer, and reminds me a lot of Atticus Finch (from "To Kill A Mockingbird"), as he is thoughtful, socially conscious and everything about him just says "Southern gentleman." Together they make one hell of a couple and it's apparent, for the world to see, that they love being with one another.

After about an hour it was time to head over to the ballpark, which was about a quarter-mile from our hotel and made for a nice walk...except for the Memphis heat and humidity. Thankfully it wasn't too far, so we weren't drenched by the time we arrived, but no one was happy about the early evening temperatures, either.
Hangin' With Rockey, The Rockin' Redbird
We were going to see the Memphis Redbirds, the Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, which the
boys thought was cool, since we had just seen the Cardinals the night before. The Redbirds were a 1998 Pacific Coast League expansion team, dating back to 1998, who have done the parent club proud by winning championships in 2000 and 2009. Some of the notable players who have "graduated" from the Redbirds to St. Louis are; Matt Adams, Rick Ankiel, Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, J.D. Drew, David Freese, Yadier Molina and Kolton Wong. They continued to wear their Cardinals caps, but insisted on getting Memphis Redbird t-shirts once we got inside the ballpark.

AutoZone Park
Time For Some Baseball
AutoZone Park is located at 200 Union Avenue, in downtown
Memphis. The park opened in 2000 and was named the Minor League Park of the Year in 2009, by Baseball America. It is a double-decked stadium that seats 10,000 fans, has two open-air party decks, a picnic pavilion, lawn seats known as "The Bluffs," 48 suites, and several restaurants and bars along the main concourse. There is also a family-themed area, known as "The Boardwalk," which offers games, amusements and a playground for the younger fans.

Courtyard at AutoZone
The first thing you notice about the park, when coming to the front gate is the statue of a pitcher and a catcher, exactly 60 feet 6 inches apart, right in the main courtyard. The kids thought this was pretty cool, so of course we got some pictures before going in. Once inside we wandered around, grabbed some programs and shirts for the boys and decided it was definitely time to grab a bite to eat. I thought we were going to get off easy, as it was $1 hot dog night, but having Ryan as my son I should have known better.

"Look, over there," he said, poking me in the ribs.

"You see the pulled pork nachos, don't you?" Sara laughed.

All he could do was nod, while I shook my head.

"Don't encourage him," I laughed at her.

"If he didn't see them, I would have suggested them myself," she laughed back.

I was whipped and I knew it, so we headed over to the stand and grabbed an order.

"May I please have extra barbecue sauce, and jalapenos?" Ryan asked the lady behind the counter.

"Atta boy," Tony said, laughing and shaking his head.

"I don't know what's so funny. We're all sleeping in the same room and I'll be having some, too," I  said.

All of a sudden it wasn't quite so funny anymore.

BBQ Nachos and Beer
We grabbed our nachos, some beers, some sodas and more than a few $1 hot dogs, and made our way to the seats. For minor league games we like to sit close to the action, being that it's a lot cheaper than the MLB parks, and here was no exception. We were about eight rows off the field and everyone was excited to be this close to the action. All we needed now was a good game, which we got.

Dinner and a Ballgame
Tonight's opponent was the Oklahoma City Dodgers (Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers), who were led by prized minor league Cory Seager. The Dodgers drew first blood with a run in the second, on a home run, but the Redbirds tied it up in the bottom of the inning, on a double, and a single by former Yankee Dean Anna. The Dodgers retook the lead in the top of the third, on a two-run homer from Seager, but the Redbirds took control of the game in the next three innings, scoring one in the fourth, three in the fifth and one in the sixth and seventh.

We Were THIS Close

We were having a great time, rooting for the Redbirds, being close to the field and just relaxing for the evening. Ryan and Nick caught t-shirts that the cheer team, the Lady Redbirds, were tossing into the crowd, so they now each had two and we were all laughing and enjoying a blowout...when all of a sudden we weren't.

Redbirds Win!

As the ninth inning got under way we were ready for the game to be over, so we could partake in the party that was Beale Street, but the Dodgers had other ideas. A quick out was followed by two singles, a double, another single and a ground out, which brought in three runs. That brought the go-ahead-run to the plate, in the form of Corey Seager. Thankfully he struck out, ending the game and allowing the Redbirds to sneak away with a 7-6 win.

We're Here
It was now time to head over to the heartbeat of Memphis, Beale Street. Unfortunately Sara and Bruce wouldn't be joining us, as they had to get up early the next morning, so we said our goodbyes outside the front gate and went in different directions.

Party Time
Beale Street was everything I had always dreamed it would be: onegiant indoor/outdoor party, complete with street music, food, outdoor bars and restaurants, and a Mardi Gras-like feel. The first thing we did was hit an outdoor beer garden (you are allowed to walk around with an open container) so the three "adults" purchased the "Big Ass Beale Beer" - that's what it said on the cup - while the kids grabbed some sodas, and we walked up and down the street, soaking up the atmosphere.

Nice Marquee
We decided it was time to find a good live band - after all Memphis IS music - and decided on a place called Blues City Cafe. I wish I could say the sound of delta blues, which was streaming through the front door, was what made us decide to head into this establishment, but I wouldn't be telling the whole truth. The marquee was quite a read; it made us all stop and chuckle, and might have been the deciding factor in bringing us through the front door.

We slowly entered the club, not wanting to have to throw out any of the beer we still had left from the "Big Ass Beale Beers," but the bouncer told us to "feel free to bring them in, but please don't go out for another, just order from the bar." We looked at one another in shock, as we had never been told it was okay to bring in outside beverages to a club before. We decided then and there, this was going to be a fun city.

The place was a typical music club, with a bar on one side of the room, a stage at the far end, tables and chairs for patrons to sit between the two, and a kitchen in the back. We grabbed a table near to the stage, sat down and perused the menus, as the soul full sounds of the band washed over us.

Time For Some Music
We quickly decided on two of the "Best Meal On Beale Combination Platters," which was comprised of everything you could want, Southern-style. Each order had a half rack of ribs and a catfish fillet served with baked beans, Cole slaw, new potatoes or steak fries, Texas toast, and tartar sauce, and we also added two cups of seafood gumbo, which was loaded with veggies, shrimp, crawfish, catfish, and other things that weren't listed on the menu. There was more than enough food for all of us, though Tony wasn't too keen on Ryan and I having all those beans, but he was outvoted.

After ordering we turned our attention to the band on stage (The People's Blues Band), which was led by Earl "The Pearl" Banks. Now Earl has been playing music on Beale Street for over fifty years and seemed to have a very devoted following. He was a 79-year-old guitar-playing blues singer, whose fingers made magic along a fretboard. He had the perfect gravely voice for an old-time bluesman and we spent the next two hours listening to him spin tales, sing songs and play razor-sharp guitar solos, never once getting up from his chair at the front of the stage, all the while eating some of the best gumbo, catfish, ribs, beans and fries we had consumed.

Ryan and Earl

At the end of the night Ryan decided he had to get a picture with Earl, so he made his way up to the stage, introduced himself and asked, politely, for a picture. Earl was more than happy to oblige and for the first time all night, rose from his chair and smiled broadly for the camera. After taking a few more minutes to talk to Ryan, he thanked us for coming and told Ryan to "always take the time to listen to live music when it presents itself, 'cause it's good for the soul." After a night like this, we were not about to argue.

We slowly walked back to the hotel, wanting to savor every moment of this fantastic night. We were on a food and music high that we never wanted to end, but there was a lot more to do tomorrow, starting with laundry, so we quickly took showers and were fast asleep before the next hour had passed.

July 29, 2015: The Many Sounds of Memphis

7 a.m. came way too early for Rob and me, but laundry needed to be done and we had offered to be the ones to do it. After schlepping seven days of clothing to the SUV, we hit a Dunkin Donuts, for some necessary caffeine, and then wandered farther down Union Street to the laundromat.

For the next hour-and-a-half we washed, dried, folded and made friends with the patrons, all of whom had decided to get up early and beat the crowds. We took turns helping an elderly woman load and unload her machines, and when we made sure she was okay, we went back to the hotel to wake the others. Thankfully, Tony had them up and ready to roll, so they put the laundry away while Rob and I took turns taking a shower. Then we were off to start the day.

Our first stop was going to be Sun Studios, where many people, including myself, believe Rock & Roll was born.

Sun Stdudios
Located at 706 Union Avenue, Sun Studios was where owner/operator Sam Phillips introduced the world to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. Opened in 1950, the recording studio, in the early years, was graced by such talented bluesmen as B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker, Little Milton and Rosco Gordon. It's said the first Rock & Roll record, "Rocket 88," by the Delta Cats, was recorded there in 1951. The studio is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and is a U.S. National Historic Landmark.

At The Soda Counter
Buddy Holly Visited Here
We walked in the front door and booked the next tour, which started in about 30 minutes, giving us time to look around at all the assorted memorabilia, hanging on every inch of wall space. There were lots of pictures, and newspaper clippings, of the above-named recording artists (my favorite was a photo of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, which I found tucked away, up high), but the real eye-catching photo was a huge blow-up of the "Million Dollar Quartet" (Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis), which was taken in December of 1956, when Elvis "stopped by" for an impromptu jam session, with whomever was there. This photo was hanging over the old-fashioned soda counter, along the right-hand side of the room, where you could order food and drinks while you waited for your tour to start.

Sam Phillips
Once our tour started we were led upstairs and given a history of the Memphis music scene, Sam Phillips and the artists whom he recorded and helped reach the "big time." It was said Sam didn't try to influence an artist to a sound he heard, but listened for what made that artist natural and unique, and worked to hone that sound. His biggest "find" was when a shy, local boy came in one day, wanting to cut a recording for his mother's birthday. Sam liked what he heard, but didn't think it was anything extra special, yet the boy was persistent and kept coming back for the better part of the next year, wanting to sing for Sam. When finally given some direction and time that boy became an "overnight sensation" and the world would soon learn the name of Elvis Aron Presley.

Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins
After a few years Elvis had gotten too big for Sam to handle. He was floundering in debt and grudgingly sold Elvis's contract to RCA, for $35,000. He took the money, paid off his debts and reinvested in another round of musicians, who would later become world-famous; Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cleveland, because of Alan Freed, may be called the home of Rock & Roll, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but after hearing this story and seeing where the real roots of Rock came from, it's impossible to argue against Memphis as being its birthplace.

The King's Mic Stand
U2's Drum Kit
The final stop of the tour was downstairs, in the actual recording studio. Compared to today's studios this relic was sparse and not very large. There was a wall full of guitars and other musical instruments, a large piano - off to the side - a drum kit and a 1950s-style microphone, standing at the front of the room. The control room was at the back, behind the sound-proof glass, and seemed to be about the size of a closet. It was here that the magic was made. Elvis recorded "That's All Right (Mama)," Johnny Cash recorded "I Walk The Line," Carl Perkins made "Blue Suede Shoes," Jerry Lee Lewis sang "Great Balls of Fire," and Roy Orbison belted out "Ooby Dooby." We were told the Irish band, U2, recorded tracks from their Rattle and Hum album here, and left behind the drum kit at which Ryan had decided to sit, while listening to the guide. Finally, we all got some pictures "singing" behind the Elvis microphone, before leaving for our next stop on the day's musical tour.

Our next destination was, about, seven miles away, but in terms of location it might have been another world. It would be here that we would be "visiting" Rock & Roll royalty...The King's home...Graceland.

Visiting The King
Graceland is located at 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard (where else?), just outside the city proper, about four miles from the Tennessee/Mississippi border. Purchased from a local doctor, Dr. Thomas Moore, this almost 14-acre estate served as the home to Elvis, his parents, and his entourage, from 1957 until his death in 1977. Today, Graceland is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been declared a National Historic Landmark. Its primary function is as a museum, but certain sections are closed to the public as Elvis's widow (Priscilla) and his daughter (Lisa Marie) still come to live there at various times of the year. Graceland is such a popular attraction that it sees almost a millions fans a year, who come from all over the world to visit.

We pulled into the parking lot around 11:30 and the sun was beating down on us, like we were in the middle of the desert. There wasn't a speck of shade in the parking lot and just walking to the gate was like being on the Bataan Death March, as it was easily 100 degrees out. I was determined to get a picture of Ryan and me at the gate, but even that was a chore; all we wanted to do was get inside to some air conditioning.

We walked into what I called the "staging area," where everyone gathered to purchase tickets for the kind of tour experience they wanted. There are a myriad of tours, which can cost anywhere from $38.75  for a basic tour of the house and grounds, to $80 per person and includes the house, the grounds, the car collection, Elvis' movie theaters and recording studios, as well as his airplanes.

"This is nothing more than Disney World, for adults," Rob complained.

"Agreed," I told him, "but we're not coming all the way here and not seeing Graceland."

"Look at the number of people here," Ryan noted. "They'll pay off the original mortgage in the next hour, at these prices."

I quickly scanned the lobby; he was correct in his assessment.

"I don't need to see the cars, the theater, the planes or the studio, do you guys?" I asked.

"Not at those prices," Tony said, shaking his head.

"Okay, we're in agreement, the tour of the house and grounds it is." I shook my head and pulled out my credit card.

After buying our tickets we were herded outside, into another line, and told to wait here for our turn on a shuttle bus, which would take us across the street to the house, itself.  While standing in line, we noticed there was an Elvis-themed restaurant and two Elvis gift shops just off to our right. I shook my head - Rob was right - the almighty dollar was "king" here at Graceland.

As we were getting ready to board the bus we were handed an i-Pad and headphones.

"What are these for?" Nick wanted to know.

"They'll help you on your self-guided tour," the attendant responded.

"Sheesh, all this money and we don't get a tour guide?" Ryan muttered, under his breath.

Guitar-Player Gates
"Get on the bus," I told him, annoyed that he was correct in his assessment.

The bus - literally - drove us across the street, though the famous, guitar-player, gates and up the driveway to the front circle.

"See those gates?" I asked Ryan?

"Yeah," he replied.

"Back in 1976, Springsteen jumped the fence," I told him. "He ran to the front door and knocked, hoping to find Elvis home. He was unceremoniously ushered away, being told The King wasn't there, but I'll always remember how he talked about the guitar players on the gates."

As we pulled up in front of the house, I could hardly believe I was here. After all those years reading about, talking about, and seeing pictures of Graceland, I was finally here. The house itself sits atop a small hill, amidst a grove of trees. It is a two-story, colonial-style home, often described as a mansion, though it seemed "small," compared to how I had always pictured it in my head. The front is "guarded" by two stone lions, at the entrance to a small group of steps that lead to the front porch. There is a four-pillared white portico, which houses the front entrance, while the house spreads out, east to west, in a stone-styled finish. Though it seemed small, it has a very regal look to it, certainly fitting for a "king."

 Before we were allowed to go inside we were told what we would be seeing and what would be off limits. We were told to turn on our i-Pads and listen to John Stamos guiding us around the grounds. We were able to come and go as we pleased, taking as long as we liked, but please be courteous to the other visitors on our journey.

Living Room
Parents' Bedroom
As we walked inside, the living room and family room were directly to the right. Here we were able to see where the family spent most of its time, which had white carpets and couches, an ornate coffee table and a stained glass partition, which closed off from a smaller, more private room, where friends and family would go and listen to Elvis play piano for them. Father down the front hallway is the bedroom where Elvis's parents, Vernon and Gladys, stayed. This room was done in bright white (Elvis's mother's favorite color for a bedroom), while the bed, itself, adds a splash of color, with a royal purple bedspread .

Dining Room
Off the left side of the front hallway is the family dining room, which  is still in use today, when Lisa Mari and/or Priscilla come to town. The table is set with Elvis's favorite china pattern and there are curio cabinets flanking the table. This room is, obviously, off limits when the family is visiting.

Just past the dining room is the kitchen, which only became a part of the tour in the mid-1990s, as Elvis's Aunt Delta was still using it until her death. There were televisions all over the kitchen, we were told, because Elvis couldn't stand to be without seeing one, at all times.

"What the hell is THIS," I heard Ryan exclaim, as he walked into the room directly behind the kitchen.

"I see you found the "Jungle Room," I laughed.

Jungle Room
Jungle Room
The Jungle Room was the den Elvis had constructed after one of his filming's in Hawaii. It was his "Man Cave," which also doubled as a recording studio from time to time. The room itself is rather large, completely covered in Kelly-green carpeting, leather furniture, wild flowers, a waterfall on the wall, and wood-paneled walls. To say it was ostentatious was a "slight" understatement, but Elvis was known to be a bit eccentric, so it didn't really surprise me.

Basement TV Room
Pool Table
From the Jungle Room we moved downstairs and saw The King's
basement, which was split into two separate spaces. There was a  television room, with multiple televisions, so he could watch more than one program at a time, and his pool room, where he would entertain friends and relatives, over games of billiards, which he inevitably lost. In between the two was a small wet bar, where drinks would freely flow at all times.

Graceland's Back Yard

As far as the house was concerned, that was it, so we made our way outside, where we saw a sprawling back lawn where football games were played, a stable, a smokehouse, and the small office Vernon kept, to keep track of his son's career. There was a lot of acreage for Elvis's horses to roam, or for Priscilla or Lisa Marie to ride, which was a favorite pastime at Graceland.

Gold Records On The Wall
1968 Comeback Special Suit
We quickly followed a small path, through the back yard, to what is known as the Trophy Building. It is here that you can see his Gold Records, Grammy Trophies, movie posters, his famous clothing (from his early days of Rock & Roll, his 1968 Comeback Special leather suit, the gold lame and Las Vegas cape styles), as well as Priscilla's wedding dress, Lisa Marie's toy chest, and a multitude of other memorabilia. To see all the hit records was truly astonishing, as it took up multiple hallways, and showed how large a body of work he had before his untimely death.

In The Racquetball Building
The final building we came to was what used to be Elvis's indoor handball/racquetball court. It's a "small" structure, with a cozy nook that houses a piano, some furniture and a pinball machine. It was here, on the last day of his life, that Elvis was said to have entertained friends -until about 3 a.m. - playing them one final song on the piano ("Unchained Melody") before thanking them for coming, and telling them he would see them after he woke up. He never did and, as they say, the rest is history.
The Racquetball Court

The actual court, in the building, has been converted into another "trophy room." Here you can see, floor to ceiling, more hit records, movie posters, and memorabilia, and even purchase one of his famous on-stage jumpsuits. I told Ryan we should get the powder-blue one, but he quickly declined.

Meditation Garden
The King's Grave
The last stop on our tour was the Meditation Garden, which Elvis built
so he had someplace to go where he could reflect on any problems or situations that came about. It is a garden-like atmosphere, with religious statues, and a fountain, and was able to provide much needed quiet and solitude during difficult moments. It is here that Elvis, his twin brother Jesse (who died at birth), his mother, father, and grandmother have been laid to rest.

We quickly took the shuttle bus back to the nice, air conditioned visitor's center, before walking out to see Elvis's private plane, the Lisa Marie, which is housed just beyond the center itself.

"That was cool; I want a house like that," Ryan said, to no one in particular.

"Learn to play the guitar," was Rob's response.

"Study harder," Tony corrected him.

"I like Tony's idea better," I chimed in.
Too Hot To Eat Outside

By now it was well past lunchtime and we were all hungry. Rob said he had the perfect place to take us, just over the border, in Mississippi, for some Cajun seafood. We all agreed and took the ten- minute drive to the restaurant, only to find out they didn't have an inside dining room. With the temperature pushing over 100 degrees, there was no way we were sitting outside, so we unhappily walked back to the SUV and headed back to the city.

"I have a great idea," Rob told us.

"Your last place was a great idea...that had no A/C," Tony said, shaking his head.

"That made it a not-so-great idea," Nicky laughed.

"Could anyone go for more barbecue?" Rob asked us.

"Do bears bear, do bees bee?" Ryan wanted to know.

"Is Jim's ass gonna smell?" Tony chimed in.

"That decides it, barbecue for everyone...again," I laughed.

Central BBQ
Central BBQ is a renowned barbecue establishment in Memphis that has been voted in the top three restaurants, every year since 2003, and has taken home top honors ten times. There are no sauces used on any of the meats at Central; they use a special combination of dry rub spices, let that sit on the meats for 24 hours, and then slow smoke, over a combination of pecan and hickory woods, until the pit master says the meats are done. There are three locations (Downtown, Central and Sumner) and we would be hitting the Downtown establishment.

We started out with an order of BBQ pork nachos and some hand-crafted chips and bleu cheese. The nachos were very good, but I preferred the ones at the ballpark. I'm not sure why - maybe it was the atmosphere and being at an actual game - but Ryan and Tony felt the same as I did, while Rob and Nick called it a draw. The chips were light and crisp, gently fried, and the bleu cheese was cold, creamy and full of flavor, which was definitely a winner.

Memphis-Style Ribs
Lunch Time
For lunch we got two racks of ribs, a brisket plate, two pulled pork sandwiches and smoked sausage; after all we had to try a bit of everything. The meats were very different from what we had in Kansas City; different but very good. There was no sweet, tangy, saucy taste, as this was more of a dry, spicy, smokey flavor, where it seemed that you could taste the different flavors of the meats through the barbecue flavor, which enhanced everything. My favorite was the brisket, which I piled high with coleslaw and left-over bleu cheese, and the sausage, which had a nice "bite" to it. Ryan inhaled the ribs, declaring them as good as Kansas City's, while Tony, Nick, and Rob refused to be quoted on what was the best, as they liked everything.

As we walked outside I turned to Rob.

"Is that..."

"Yep, let's head over," he smiled.

Lorraine Motel
MLK's Balcony
Across the street from Central BBQ was the infamous Lorraine Motel, which
now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. It was here, on April 4, 1968, that James Earl Ray gunned down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as he stood on the second floor balcony to his room.

The Lorraine, today, is a monument to the history of the Civil Rights Movement in America and although the motel has been gutted to house exhibits - such as the history of slavery in America, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the sit ins of the 1960s, the Freedom Riders and the Black Power Era - while the outside has been kept just as it was the day Dr. King was shot. There is a giant floral wreath on the balcony of Dr. King's room, and the curators have even gone as far as to place vintage cars in the "parking lot" to look as if you have stepped back in time.

The day was very hot and the line to get into the museum was very long, so we walked around the courtyard, reading the plaques and markers, as well as taking pictures and discussing the world-changing event. Eventually the heat and humidity became unbearable and we were forced back to the air conditioning, in the SUV.

"Holy crap," Ryan said, pointing at the dashboard thermometer.

"That can't be right," I said, tapping on the dash.

"It certainly feels like 106 outside," Nick muttered, trying to lean into an A/C vent.

"I'm sure it'll cool down when we get the truck out of the sun, " I told them.

It didn't.

Rock 'n Soul Museum
We had one more stop to make before heading back to the hotel, which was at the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, at 174 Beale Street, on the corner of Highway 61. This museum is a part of the Smithsonian Institution, was created in 2009 and tells the story "of the body of music that had the most influence on the culture and lifestyles of the world during the middle 20th Century unto this day. It affected the way we walked, the way we talked, the way we combed our hair and the way we dressed – not only in Memphis or the nation, but the entire world."

The museum tells the chronological story of American music, which is traced through the different galleries. The really cool way this story is told is through a set of headphones, plugged into a device that looks like a calculator. Each artifact in the museum is number-coded and when you come to that spot, you punch the number into your device and its story is told. You can go as fast, or slow, as you like, see whatever your heart desires, and skip what doesn't interest you. We all agreed it was a fabulous way to tell a story.

Sitting on the Porch of a Shotgun Shack

The first is "Rural Culture and Music," which shows how the rural peoples of the Delta worked in an agrarian society and developed their music (country, gospel, and blues) around their hardscrabble existence. It was here that these peoples brought these different genres together to form the foundation for what would come later.

Memphis Bluesmen

The next section of the museum is called "Coming To Memphis," and told the story of how the people brought these styles to the city, from the farms where they were finding employment during the day, and experimenting with new musical styles, at night, in the clubs and bars. It is here that the radio waves could bring many different styles of music to the "segregated South" that people might not otherwise get a chance to hear.

The Sun Years

The "Sun Records and Youth Culture" gallery explores how these sounds were broken down and melded together, by the youth of the 1950s, to bring about the birth of Rock & Roll. It is here that Elvis forged his "sound and legacy," bringing together a mixture of hillbilly, gospel, country, and blues, which was eagerly adopted by the kids and spread, like wildfire, across the country.

Stax Records
The next two galleries, "Soul Music" and "Social Change," showed how the African-American music of the sixties became a backdrop for the Civil Rights Movement. It allowed for a culture to proudly explore its activism and desire for equality, and allowed the younger black audience to express itself in a myriad of ways, including speech and dress. Led by Stax, Hi and Satellite Records, this "new" type of music came to mean as much to the black youth as Rock & Roll did to the white.

Rock's Birthday
The final gallery was one called simply, "Bravo." It is here that theTime and Newsweek on the same day in 1975, and the explosion that was Michael Jackson's epic album, "Thriller."
great moments in music history were depicted, through plaques on the wall, memorabilia in cases, and storyboards at the foot of each case. We were able to read about B.B. King, Elvis recording "That's All Right (Mama)," "The Day The Music Died," "the British Invasions," Motown's coming of age, Bruce Springsteen gracing the cover of

After about two hours of becoming enlightened, we were ready to call it a day. We had been exposed to as much Memphis musical history, as well as social history, as possible in eight hours, and were now ready for a shower, some quiet time in the air-conditioned motel, and then getting ready for dinner and one last night out on Beale Street. We headed back out into the heat, made our way "home," and just relaxed as the sun started to set over the Mississippi.

"Our Feet Are Ten Feet Off of Beale"

About three hours later, feeling refreshed, hungry, and ready to listen to some music, we headed back out into the hot, muggy, Delta night. Our first stop was for a quick bite at a world-famous burger joint, on Beale.

Dyer's Burgers has been around since 1912, when Elmer "Doc" Dyer created his secret cooking process for burgers. It seems this "secret" is none other than NOT changing the grease that is used to create each meaty masterpiece. The grease is strained every night, but never changed, so the grease that makes your burger today is a remnant from over 100 years ago. This grease is so famous that it is literally transported to new franchises under armed guard and police escorts.

The restaurant itself, hearkens back to a 1950s burger joint, which is fitting, as everything in Memphis seems "old." There are ceiling fans, pastel-colored tiles on the walls, a checkerboard floor, and even the waitresses are dressed like extras out of the television show Happy Days. The menu is simple: burgers, served as singles, doubles or triples; a chicken tenders sandwich; chicken tenders; or wings. Each burger comes with mustard, pickles and onions, and you can order them alone or as part of a combo meal, which comes with an order of fries and a drink.

We ordered a few double burgers and a few combo meals, so everyone could have some fries (but there wouldn't be too many), and the kids could have a soda while the "adults" could have a beer. The food came very quickly, and was as good as advertised. The burgers were fresh, juicy, and just a slight bit greasy, so you could get 100-plus years of Memphis flavor. I found the fries on the bland side, but they were better if you piled them onto the top of the burger. We rated it an A-, mostly because of the fries, but the burgers were fantastic.

Jerry Lee's
We then grabbed another "Big Ass Beale Beer" and walked up and down the strip, listening to the street musicians and trying to figure out where we could go for some live music. There were plenty of choices, but having two teenagers seemed to limit our choices.We finally settled on Jerry Lee Lewis' Cafe & Honky Tonk , where the music was loudly blasting through the doors and windows, they allowed the kids to come in and, best yet, there was no cover charge. The only requirement was that each person at the table spend $10, which was easy enough.

We quickly seated ourselves in the crowded bar area, near the stage and grabbed a menu. Neither of the kids was hungry, but we knew they would be soon. Teenage boys are never not hungry for long.

"So, we have to spend $10 per person, but that's not going to be too hard with THIS," Rob laughed, pointing at the menu.

"Did I read that right?" Tony asked.

"You did," I laughed. "It says that a 32 ounce mug of Ghost River Golden Ale (a local Memphis beer), is only $8.25."

"Don't worry kids, we've got your $10 covered, easily," he laughed as we ordered.

Justin Hinson
The house band, named the Dixie Jam Band, took the stage and proceeded to rip through cover songs, their own material, and even some requests from the crowd. Led by singer Justin Hinson, the band played a mixture of blues, rock, country, and classics for about an hour, before heading off for a break. At this time I went over and introduced myself and Ryan and started talking to Justin, who loved that the kids were so into the show. He told us about himself and the band, and their trials and tribulations in the music business, and then settled in asking Ryan questions and really interacting with him. I was really impressed with this young man, his talent and his, more-than-friendly demeanor. He told Ryan he would have a surprise for us in the second set, and said to be prepared.

We didn't think about it again until, at the end of a song, Justin called Ryan and me up to the stage to sing with the band. Ryan was more than a little uncertain, but I was gung ho. It was most likely due to the fact I was working on the end of my second 32-ounce beer, but when given this chance to embarrass myself I wasn't going to say no. Quickly we got on stage and decided to do our rendition of Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day," which we had a blast doing, but I am not sure how much the crowd enjoyed. Thankfully they didn't boo us off the stage, we left to enthusiastic applause, and just like that, my stage career was over.

We ordered one more 32-ouncer for the last set, sat back, and sang our lungs out to the great music the band was playing. At the end of the show Justin personally thanked us for "helping out," and asked us to stay around with the band, after closing. We laughed, talked, and told stories until about 2 a.m., and then it was time to head on back to the hotel. We thanked Justin and the band for their hospitality and headed back across town, stopping at a restaurant called Huey's, because now the boys were hungry.

Huey's is a classic burger joint, just off of Beale, which was just fine with us. We were hungry, and this was close to the hotel, so we could be in and out relatively quickly. We ordered three burgers, an order of wings, and some queso dip, which we would split. Apparently "split" meant Tony would scarf most of the burgers, Rob would "love" the queso dip (ask him how MUCH he loved it, I dare you), and the boys and I would basically be picking at scraps. Initially they were annoyed, but quickly realized how much fun it was to watch the other two "adults" try to eat burgers, profess their love of a queso dip, and make a mess of themselves, after having had well over 100 ounces of beer.

I quickly paid the bill and shepherded everyone out of the restaurant and back to the hotel, where the boys and I took turns showering, while Rob and Tony were snoring away. I quickly got in bed, pulled the covers up, and closed my eyes. Tomorrow was going to be here soon enough, and we would be headed out to our next minor league park, in another city; Nashville.

July 30: A Loveless Lunch and a Visit with "The Man in Black"

Lunch Time In Nashville

Rob and Tony were not very cooperative when I woke them from their six-hour slumber, but it was time to get moving and the boys and I were already up, showered and ready to roll. Slowly they got a move on and an hour later, after a quick stop to visit the Elvis statue in the park on Beale Street, we were on our way east, on I-40, towards Nashville.

The morning passed quickly as we drove near places like Jackson (made famous by the Johnny Cash song of the same name), Franklin and Murfreesboro (known for Civil War battles). Tony and Rob took turns telling us how "not right" they felt, while we filled them in on the "foggier" aspects of what had gone on, later in the evening the previous night. Tony was complaining that he didn't get enough of the burgers, at Huey's, until he was told he'd eaten most of the food there, and Rob's amorous comment about the Buffalo bleu cheese sauce became a rallying cry, much to his chagrin.

We were going to be staying with Rob's cousin, Lauren, and her husband, Mitch, for the next two days, so the plan was to grab some lunch, drop our gear at their house and then head into the city to wander around before the baseball game, that evening. We were going to be meeting Coach and his wife, Lisa, for lunch at Loveless Cafe and as the hours ticked away everyone was getting very hungry, so we were thrilled when Rob told us we would be there in about ten minutes.

Loveless Cafe
The Loveless Cafe began serving their fried chicken and biscuits to folks traveling Rt. 100, from Memphis to Nashville, back in 1951. At that time it was the private home to Lon and Annie Loveless, but as word spread about the fantastic meals the Lovelesses decided to convert their home into a cafe and motel. Over the years, as word has spread, the Loveless Cafe has become a world-famous attraction, and while the motel is long gone, the property has been turned into an outlet of sorts, having a country market, a gift shop, an artisan crafts shop, a smokehouse and a barn, which has become the "it" place to hold weddings, functions, events and even concerts (notably Emmylou Harris, Alabama Shakes and Faith Hill) from time to time. People have come from far and wide to enjoy the down-home Southern cooking, in a friendly, laid-back atmosphere, and do a little shopping at the same time.

Relaxing On The Porch
We got to the cafe around 12:30, with Coach and Lisa about ten minutes behind us, starving and hoping to eat rather quickly, but, as we soon found out, no one eats quickly when they come to the Loveless. We put our name on the list, were told it would be about 45 minutes and were given a pager to let us know when our table would be ready. We wandered the grounds for a few minutes before heading back to the front porch of the cafe, where we sat down on the patio furniture and just enjoyed the beautiful afternoon.

It's true what they say about time just "slowing down" in the South, and we just enjoyed sitting on the porch, rocking away the day, as a warm summer breeze kept us cool and relaxed.

Lunch, With Coach and Lisa
Before we knew it the pager went off and the hostess was leading us to our table. The restaurant was bigger than I expected, with many rooms filled with tables and not one of them empty. There were autographed pictures of all the "famous" people who had eaten here and we recognized quite a few, without having to be told. All in all, it was quite impressive and reminded me a bit of a country version of the Carnegie Deli, back in New York City.

Our waitress was petite blond girl, who was cute, friendly, and had a heat-melting Southern accent that just dripped grits and honey. She was the epitome of what you picture every Southern belle to look and sound like and, even better, she had brought food.

Every table is given a complimentary plate of homemade biscuits and jam and HOLY COW were they good. The biscuits were light, flaky and buttery by themselves, but when the homemade jams were put on top, you might have thought you had died and gone to heaven.. We killed an entire plate in the time our waitress took the order, so she promised to bring two more orders back out, as soon as she could get back to the kitchen.
Ryan's Ready For Lunch

We all agreed to grab something different and offer a little bit to anyone who wanted, so we could get a true taste of everything, and when the food came out no one was disappointed. Rob had shrimp and grits, Ryan ordered the country fried steak and I had the famous fried chicken, while there was also meatloaf, country baked ham and Southern-fried catfish. The side dishes we chose - two came with every meal - were, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, creamed corn, hashbrown casserole, cole slaw and caramel sweet potatoes. The table was overflowing with food and looked like a Southern-style Thanksgiving dinner.

Fried Chciken, Mashed Potatoes and Mac and Cheese
There are not enough superlatives to do this meal justice, so I won't even try. Suffice to say the fried chicken was the best I have ever eaten; light and crispy, yet tender and juicy, it just melted in your mouth. The chicken-fried steak was so tender you could cut it with a fork, but the flavor of the beef mixed wonderfully with the breaded coating. The meatloaf was cooked to perfection, tender and juicy, like you would expect from something medium-rare, but cooked through. The baked ham had what seemed to be a maple-brown sugar taste, which wasn't overwhelming, but accentuated the pork; and the catfish was fried to perfection, extremely flaky and tender, yet rich and flavorful. The side dishes were just as good, with the mac and cheese and the mashed potatoes being the best, especially since the potatoes were covered in Southern-style white gravy, which has always been a favorite of mine.

"How's lunch?" I asked Ryan.

"Can't talk, eating," was his response.

I gave up trying to make conversation and went back to the meal; to be honest I should have known better than to bother the teenager whilst he was eating food he loved.

There was no way we were finishing all this food, I thought. Well, I was wrong. By the time we all were full, not a crumb was left, but we did leave room for dessert: peach cobbler, apple pie and a Southern staple, banana pudding. I'm not really a dessert person, but I tried a bite of each and found them to be as good as the meals, if that was even possible.

Eventually we paid the bill and went our separate ways. Coach and Lisa were going to see their nephew, while we were headed over to Lauren and Mitch's. Eventually we would all meet up at the ballgame, later that evening, with a lot more of Rob's family.

Our destination (Rob's cousin's house) was five minutes away from Loveless Cafe, so we didn't have to go far. Lauren met us at the front door (Mitch was at work), and invited us into their beautiful home. Lauren is a petite, brunette girl, with a bright smile and eyes that smile, which made us feel as if we were already part of the family. She offered us a choice of rooms (Tony and Nick took a bedroom on one side of the house, while Rob, Ryan and I decided on the family room on the other side), a quick drink and told us to make ourselves at home, while staying with her. We all graciously thanked her for her hospitality and told her we would see her later that night, at the ballpark. She still had things to do and we didn't want to interfere with the rest of her day, so we were now off into the city of Nashville, itself.

It took us about 20 minutes to reach downtown Nashville, where everything seemed to be located right on Broadway. We drove past the Ryman Auditorium (also known as "The Mother Church of Country Music"), the Bridgestone Arena (where the NHL's Predators play), lots and lots of country music bars, restaurants and souvenir shops, while the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum were just off Broadway. The city was flowing with people, both tourists and locals, and it was quite apparent this street was the "place to be," in the city.

It was about three-and-a-half hours before game time, so we had to decide what was best to see now, and what would be best suited to put off until tomorrow. It was decided the Ryman Auditorium and the Country Music Hall of Fame needed a lot of time to, so they could wait for another day, and we would go see the museum dedicated to "The Man in Black."
Johnny Cash Museum

The Johnny Cash Museum is located at 119 3rd Avenue S, which is a half block off Broadway, as you head down towards the Cumberland River. It is one of only six places in Nashville to receive an AAA Gem rating and ranks # 1 on Forbes and National Geographic Travel Lists. The museum, funded by Bill and Shannon Miller (two of Cash's friends) opened in 2013 and has become one of Nashville's top tourist attractions since.

"I Walk The Line" Gold Record
The museum itself  houses quite a collection of Cash memorabilia, which
spans his entire life. You will be able to listen to recordings from the many different eras in his career, see a lot of the clothing he wore during his various performances and read the hand-written lyrics that became gold records, as well as see movies and specials that were made about him, or that he starred in, in the theater, at the back of the museum.

Ry, In Folsom Prison

As we wandered through the museum, I gained a new-found respect, and interest, in an artist I knew a little about, but not as much as I should have. I read the letter he had sent to his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, and saw some of the gifts the two of them gave to one another over the years. One of my favorite exhibits was the one for his concert at Folsom Prison, complete with a jail cell, which I put Ryan in for a picture.

As we walked around looking, reading, watching and learning, I found myself humming and singing some of the songs I had already known, and decided I had to know more about this man who impacted music so dynamically over the course of his life. I always remembered hearing his music on my grandfather's record player, and my curiosity had been piqued in Memphis, when I found out he had recorded at Sun Studios. So when we were finished touring the museum, about two hours later, I made sure to grab a CD from the gift shop, to play in the SUV, and also jotted down the name of his biography, so I could get it at the library once we returned home.

The Sights and "Sounds" of Nashville Baseball

Home of The Nashville Sounds

Finally it was time to head out and see the Iowa Cubs vs the Nashville Sounds, so we hopped into the SUV and made our way across town to the park, or at least where we THOUGHT the park was. We plugged the address into the GPS and headed over to 534 Chestnut Street, arriving to find a barren parking lot and chains on the gates.

"Um, I think we have a problem, here," Tony nervously chuckled.

"This doesn't exactly look like a place where a game is going to be played anytime soon," Rob said.

"Where the hell is everyone?" Ryan said, succinctly.

We found some folks walking around the neighborhood, who laughingly informed us that we were at the FORMER park of the Sounds, Herschel Greer Stadium, which closed down after the 2014 season. The Sounds now played at First Tennessee Park, on the complete other side of the city. Of course we felt like fools, but thanked them and headed back, past where we had come from, and found the correct destination about 20 minutes later.

When we finally parked the car and were ready to go into the ballpark, Nick wasn't looking, or feeling, so well. He was sweaty, exhausted and said he felt "off." Tony decided they would hang out in the A/C, while Rob, Ryan and I went into the ballpark and walked around.

"I hope he's not coming down with what I had," Ryan said, as we walked to the front of the ballpark.

"Me too," I told him. "You were almost down for the count and you fight things off better than anyone else I know."

"Nothing we can do about it now," Rob said. "But we should make sure there is enough Pedia Lite and some cold meds, if he needs them."

"Blech, Pedia Lite," Ryan said.

"Yeah, I know," I told him, remembering how much he had hated it, earlier in the week. "But it helped."

"Let's just enjoy the game, shall we?" he asked, in a joking manner.

Nashville Sounds Baseball
Today the Nashville Sounds are the Triple-A farm team of the Oakland A's. In the past they were a Double-A team (1978-1984) and have been affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers (2005-2014), Pittsburgh Pirates (1998-2004), Chicago White Sox (1993-1997), Cincinnati Reds (1987-1992), Detroit Tigers (1985-1986), New York Yankees (1980-1984) and the Cincinnati Reds (1978-1979), again.

The Sounds play in the Pacific Coast League (interesting, since Nashville is not on the Pacific Coast) and were previously in the American Association (1985-1997) and the Southern League (1978-1984). Over the years the team has won three league titles, two conference titles and ten division titles and sent players such as Neil Allen, Steve Balboni, Skeeter Barnes and Don Mattingly, to the major leagues, to name a few.

Site of Sulphur Dell
The team played in Herschel Greer Stadium, as we all unceremoniously learned, until 2014, when they moved into First Tennessee Park, across town. The new ballpark, which was built on the site of Sulphur Dell - which was an historic baseball park in Nashville for almost 100 years (1970-1963), and still houses part of the original scoreboard - is state-of-the-art, with wide concourses that have view-access to the playing field, seats 8,500 people (it can be increased to 10,000 for non-baseball events) and has a comfy, cozy feel, for such an open park.

"Hey, look at that," Ryan said pointing at the outfield scoreboard. "That's so cool."

"It is the perfect scoreboard for a ballpark in Nashville, isn't it?" Rob agreed.

Guitar Scoreboard

When a baseball fan talks about the Nashville Sounds one of the first things mentioned is the scoreboard, which is 142' x 55' and in the shape of a giant guitar. Anything you wanted to know about the game - batting order, player stats, player pictures, out-of-town scores, animations and all the baseball world's news-worthy events- will be broadcast here. It truly was one-of-a-kind.

"Shouldn't your sister be here?" I asked Rob.

"She just texted me. You guys look around, I'll grab her and meet back up with you in a few," he told me, jogging off to find his sister.

Stephanie Zoch is one of a kind. She is a pint-sized ball of fun, energy and cute, all rolled into one. She is Rob's younger sister, by three years, and the middle child of the three Zoch kids. She is always laughing, joking and looking to have a good time, which makes her the perfect partner-in-crime to have on our trip. I knew I was going to enjoy having her accompany us around her city for the next two nights.

"Okay, who's ready to have a beer?" I asked. "Ryan, put your hand down," I told him, without even having to look.

"Silly question," Steph told me. "Especially since it's $2 beer night."

"Done," I laughed. "I've got the first round."

Back Row: Rob, Me, Coach, Nick, Tony, Mitch
Front Row: Lauren, Steph, Lisa, Ryan
We grabbed our beers, and some hot chicken and soda for Ryan, and headed to our seats, where we were met by a bevy of Zoch family...There was Lauren and Mitch, who had gotten home from work and were ready for a night out since the kids were at Camp Grandma, as well as Uncle Craig and Aunt Corky. Mitch is a grizzly bear of a man, looking like he could easily be a linebacker for the Tennessee Titans, while Uncle Craig looks more like a teddy bear, bespecktackled and bearded, always wearing a big grin and very seldom going anywhere without his guitar. His wife, Corky, is the spitting image of Paula Deen, complete with the charm, manners and drawl of an elegant Southern lady.

All of a sudden, Coach, Lisa, her nephew and his girlfriend came bounding down the steps, completing our "little" group, minus Tony and Nick, who were still nowhere to be found. I was getting a little worried about Nick; not being here as first pitch was about to be thrown meant, more than likely, that he was really not feeling well.

Neither team scored in the first two innings, but the Sounds took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the third, with a single, an error and a double; then again in the fifth, with another two-out single and a double. Right about now we were feeling pretty good about our chances of winning the game. Even Nick was perked up, having arrived for the top of the second looking a little better after his nap in the car.

The Cubs cut the lead to 3-1, in the seventh, when Javier Baez doubled and was brought home, two batters later, on an infield out, and then tied the game in the eighth, on a double, a single and two errors by the Sounds. No one scored in the ninth, so we all sat back and watched some "free" baseball, as the extra innings began.

Neither team could push across a run in the tenth or eleventh, but the Cubs scored two in the twelfth, when Beaz reached on a hit-by-pitch, stole second and was moved to third on a wild pitch, from Phil Coke. Baez came home on the next batter's single to center, and just when we didn't think we could be annoyed any further, Coke unleashed another wild pitch, which sent the runner to second and he came home when the next pitch was singled to right. 5-3, Cubs.

"Coke sucks," Ryan said, in frustration.

"Yeah, I agree," Steph said, trying to console him. "I always prefer beer to Coke, too."

Sounds Lost...BOO

The Sounds mounted a rally in the bottom of the twelfth, when the first three batters reached base safely, but it was not meant to be. The next batter hit into a double play, which scored a run, and the next two batters walked, again loading the bases, but it only delayed the inevitable when Anderson struck out on a 3-2 pitch, ending the game...and our winning streak.

"How the Hell do you load the bases, twice in an inning, and only score once?" Ryan yelled, in frustration.

"Why are you asking? You just saw how it happens," Rob told him.

"Do NOT make me tell your family about the sauce, last night," he threatened.

Those in the know got a laugh, as we said goodnight to everyone, headed out to the car and drove back to Mitch and Lauren's, to get a good night's sleep. Nick looked miserable, while the rest of us were exhausted and just wanted to lay down, so it was the logical thing to do, even though the city beckoned.

After getting home and making sure Nick was settled in, we sat outside with Mitch for about an hour and then headed off to bed. Friday was going to be a busy day, back in Music City.

July 31: "A Music City Extravaganza"

The Ryman Auditorium, AKA  "The Mother Church of Country Music"

We woke feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the city of Nashville; well at least some of us did. When we went to see Tony, he told us Nick had had a terrible night. He was achy, couldn't sleep and was now running a fever of 102. Tony made the executive decision that Nick was going to sleep all day, while he stayed back and did everyone's laundry. Hopefully Nick would feel better and be able to join us, later in the day, but for now he wasn't going anywhere. Rob, Ryan and I quickly ran out to get some meds for our ailing friend, in hopes that he would start to feel better and not miss out, and then we headed into the city, for our foray into the heart of country music.

Our first stop was the Ryman Auditorium, located just off Broadway, at 116 5th Ave North, in downtown Nashville. From the outside, the brick-and-mortar building bears a striking resemblance to an old-time church, which is exactly what it was when created in the late 1800s.

Thomas Ryman
Thomas Ryman was a local businessman and steamboat captain, who was so taken with the words of an evangelist, Rev. Sam Jones, that he vowed to build a church where Jones's words could be preached, for all to hear. This vow became a reality in 1892, when the Union Gospel Tabernacle was opened. The building, designed by architect Hugh Cathcart, was created in the Gothic architectural style of the time and, because of the amazing acoustics, became THE place for political events, community rallies and popular entertainment choices of the time, eventually becoming known as the "Carnegie Hall of the South."

Lula Nash Memorial
When Ryman passed, in 1904, the building was renamed the Ryman Auditorium in his honor and a widow named Lula Naff took over booking the acts that would grace the famous stage. For the next 50 years Lula would run the Ryman and turn it into a household name. Aside from the many stage acts that performed at the Ryman, the building may be most famous for a radio program that became synonymous with country music: The Grand Ole' Opry.

The Opry debuted in 1925 and was originally broadcast from WSM Studios. However, as the program became "famous" people flocked to the studio to see it, and the crowds grew so big they moved to the War Memorial to accommodate. Unfortunately, the crowds continued to grow bigger, and more unruly, so they were asked to leave there as well, which is when Ms. Naff brought the broadcast to the Ryman, which it would call home for the next 31 years.
Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl

It was during this time that The Opry would host the biggest names in country music, such as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, The Carter Family, Bill Monroe and Minnie Pearl, which gave the Ryman its nickname: "The Mother Church of Country Music."

By 1971 the building was falling into disrepair, but it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places, nonetheless. The Opry played its last show at the Ryman in 1974, choosing to move to a newer, larger, facility, called Opryland U.S.A., and the building was faced with the very possibility of demolition, though that never came to pass.

Bruce Springsteen
Bob Dylan
From 1974-1988 the building sat, dormant and unused, except for some movie scenes that were filmed there. But by 1989 renovations started, which were hoped to bring the Ryman back to its place in music history. Since then the building has returned to its beloved stature, being both a museum to its own past, and a functioning concert hall, where performers flock to play. Since reopening, acts such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Robert Plant, as well as country stars, such as Alabama, Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, Trisha Yearwood, Clint Black, Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris have performed there. The Ryman has even held the memorial services for such stars as Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Skeeter Davis and Waylon Jennings.

We had decided on a self-guided tour, so we could have all the time we wanted, and I was glad we did. The first stop was a "movie room," upstairs, where we were given a historical overview of the building and were then left to wander around, on our own.

The first thing you notice, when walking out of the "movie room," is all the concert posters, signed by the artist who was performing. The walls were covered in them and we took quite a few pictures. It was like a who's who of the music industry and, as I said earlier, it wasn't just country artists.

Downstairs View
Gallery View
As we walked into the upper gallery we saw all sorts of
artifacts, in cases and on the walls. There were outfits from stars such as Hank Williams, Minnie Pearl and others, as well as instruments, plaques and storyboards. There was also a section dedicated to Captain Ryman and his life, as well. From up here we got a fantastic view of the stage, which was more intimate than any venue I had ever been in, and we thought the benches (pews - after all, this was a church at one time), worn smooth by generations of backsides, were a really great seating idea, as opposed to individual chairs.

Eventually we worked our way downstairs and found ourselves front and center at the stage. Again, the setting was intimate and you felt as if you were right on top of the performers, mostly because you are. Ryan looked from the stage outward, pointed and said to me:

Confederate Gallery
"I love the fact that the balcony is called the 'Confederate Gallery,' but that's not politically correct."

"You know what I always say about political correctness," I replied.

"Yeah, you can shove it up your ass," he laughed.

"Let me get a picture of you on the stage," I said, motioning him towards the world-famous area.

"Sorry, folks," a man who was tuning a guitar told us. "No one allowed on the stage while we're setting up for a show."

"What show is tonight?" I asked, since I hadn't seen anything listed.

Ryan at The Stage
"No one y'all have probably ever heard of," he laughed back at us, jokingly. "Just a lady by the name of Dolly Parton."

"Dolly Parton?" I said. "We have got to try and get tickets. We need to see this show, she's a legend."

"If you can get them, son, they'll be about $160 per ticket," I was told.

"I don't need to see her that badly," I sighed, after doing the cost analysis in my head.

We took a quick picture at the front of the stage, with Dolly's gear being set up, and then wandered out of the Ryman, heading down the street to our next stop, the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The Country Music Hall of Fame
The Country Music Hall of Fame is located at 225 5th Avenue South, just off of Broadway, in the heart of Nashville. The museum itself is one of the world's largest music museums and research centers, dedicated to preserving, chronicling and telling the story of this form of American music. The concept of a hall of fame became a reality in 1967, when the museum opened its doors for the first time and since then it has grown into an amazing collection of memorabilia that tells the story of the country genre, from its humble roots to today's super-stars. In fact it grew so popular that in 2001 it moved to its current location to better handle the crowds that were flocking to it. By 2014 a major renovation took place, costing $100 million, and more than doubling the museum in size, from 130,000 square feet to 350,000 square feet. Today the museum has galleries, education classrooms, retail stores, event space, a 776-seat performance theater and a large archival storage center where exhibits can be placed and rotated in and out of circulation.

Roots of Country Music
The core exhibit of the Country Music Hall of Fame is one called "Sing Me Back Home," which tells the story of country music, from its beginnings to the multi-million dollar industry that it has become today. This exhibit includes photographs, video, interactive touch screens, storyboards, instruments, clothing worn by the entertainers, themselves, as well as personal belongings, too. Each artifact case has a different "theme," and tells the story of that theme through the memorabilia.

Trisha Yearwood
Southern Rock
The second floor is dedicated to country music from 1965 through today and is broken up into two sections by the theater in the middle. The first section tells the story of the music from 1965 through the 1970s when country music "split" and went in many various directions. There was the "classic country" sound of Johnny Cash, Barbara Mandrell and Charlie Pride; as well as the "pop country" of Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap; as well as the "Southern rock" genre, featuring Charlie Daniels, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, the Marshall Tucker Band and the Allman Brothers. In the middle is a small theater that shows a video entitled "Prime Time: Country Music in the Video Age," where folks can see how the MTV generation changed the face of not just Rock & Roll, but all styles of music. On the other side of the theater the chronology picks up in the 1980s, goes to 2000 and features artists such as Alabama, Roseann Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill and Alan Jackson. The last section tells the story of country music this millennium and showcases artists like Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban and many others.

The Dinah and Fred Gretch Gallery is next on the list and allows the fans to experience, country music interactively, with a replica tour bus, recording studio and many more technological activities that are fun for people of all ages.

Alabama's Plaque

The exhibit comes to a close in the Hall of Fame Rotunda, where you will see the plaques of the artists who have been enshrined here. Ryan and I walked through, taking pictures of the plaques of Elvis (yes, he's inculded here), Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Alabama, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and one of the newest members, Ronnie Milsap.

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash Exhibit
Aside from the "Sing Me Back Home" exhibit, the Hall also has rotating exhibits  of certain stars that have made a lasting impact on country music. When we visited they were honoring Trisha Yearwood, with a display of the story of her life, as well as a huge exhibit on Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and the Nashville Cats, which begins when Dylan was convinced to record here, for his Blonde on Blonde album. He would continue to return to Music City for future recordings, as well as to cement his relationship with Johnny Cash, whom he would stay friends with for the remainder of Cash's life. One of the most favorite videos in the exhibit shows Cash and Dylan dueting on Dylan's "Girl From The North Country," which was recorded when Bob agreed to come on Cash's TV show, in 1969.

Wall of Hit Records
As we walked downstairs, from the third floor, we looked out over the staircase and noticed an entire three-floor wall, covered in gold and platinum records of famous artists. Seeing that really struck home how popular country music has been, over the years. It was quite a sight.

"How is it you know so much about country music?" Ryan wanted to know.

"It's one of the types of music I grew up on," I told him. "Grandpa played a lot of different types of music in the house, and I can remember there was Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap, Hank Williams, Alabama and Barbara Mandrell records spinning, at any given time."

"Do we have any at home?" he wanted to know.

"Absolutely," I told him. "Just look when we get home."

"What was your favorite?" He continued.

"Alabama," I told him. I loved the way they were able to blend the 'country sound' with electric guitars, and they could harmonize like the Eagles, whom some people consider country, at heart."

"How good is Alabama?"

"Well, they had 41 #1 hits, 22 of which were in a row," I told him.

"I'm gonna have to borrow some, to listen to, when we get home," he told us.

"You're gonna be the most well-versed 15-year-old, when it comes to music," Rob laughed. You like rock, jazz, Motown, the blues, crooners, and, now, country."

"Time to go, guys," I told them. "We're supposed to meet Mr. and Mrs. Z, and Steph, for lunch."

"That reminds me, I'm hungry," Ry told us.

"Shocking," I replied, as I opened the door.

Legends Corner

We met up with Rob's mom, dad and sister, at a restaurant/bar up the street from the Hall of Fame, known as Legends Corner. This honky tonk saloon is a "legend" in Nashville and some folks say it's a crime to come to the city and not see some live music here.

Back Row: Me, Ryan
Front Row: Mrs. Z, Steph, Mr. Z and Rob
Some Live Country Music
Even though it was the middle of the day, on a Friday, the place was mobbed. We all grabbed a high-top-table, at the back of the bar, which had a perfect vantage point to see the stage. We grabbed some drinks, sat down and listened to the musicians, onstage, playing a mix of covers and their own songs, which covered all styles of country music. There were old album covers adorning the walls and Ryan quickly set out to find the artists he knew. We relaxed for a bit, sipping our drinks and talking as the band played. After about an hour, it was time to change bands, so we decided to change venues as well. There were so many places to go and we wanted to hit as many as possible.

Our next stop was going to be Robert's Western World, which Rob personally vouched for, but he and I never made it inside. Just as we were walking in the door, Tony called and asked if we could come and pick Nick and him up. It seems that sleep and the meds had worked some magic; Nick was feeling better and wanted to come into the city for Friday night. Steph and the Zochs offered to have Ryan stay with them, while we went back for Tony, which I gladly agreed to, as he was having such a great time and didn't want him to miss a thing.

"Be on your BEST behavior," I warned him.

"You think I'm going to be a pain in the ass with Mr. Z in charge?" He laughed. "Not a chance."

Rob and I smiled and made a beeline for the SUV. It took us about 25 minutes to get back to Lauren and Mitch's, where we grabbed Tony and Nick and started back into the city. It was then that Rob's phone rang and his Uncle Craig asked if we could please give him a ride into the city, being that he would love to come for a night out of music and a chance to spend time with family. Of course we said yes, and headed his way. When we got to his house we found him relaxing on his porch, strumming his six-string and just being. It was a picture-perfect moment, which I only expect could happen down South. So serene, relaxing and laid back, I could only chuckle and shake my head. This was living.

Honky Tonk Cenral
When we got back to the city, we found the Zochs waiting for us at yet another place, Honky Tonk Central. This unique establishment sits on the corner of 4th Avenue South and Broadway and offers quite a smorgasbord of live country music, on each of its three soundproof floors. On this night it seemed the first floor had a band that was playing today's country music, which didn't interest any of us, while Floor Two had music from the 1980s and 1990s, which was still a little too "young" for our liking, but Floor Three (where Steph, Ryan and the Zochs were) had a cute blond girl, singing classic country hits, with her band. This was everything we could have wanted.

Nick, Steph and Ryan, On The Balcony
As we wandered up to the table, Ryan and Steph pulled me outside, to the balcony (each floor had one), where we were able to see all the way up and down Broadway and the throngs of people
wandering from place to place, to listen to live music.

"Lookit this view," Ryan said, with a huge smile. "I love this place."

"He's such a great kid," Steph said, giving him a big hug.

"Great?" I joked. "How many beers have you had, already."

"Not the point," she said, sticking out her tongue. "I love him; now take a picture."

We headed back inside, ordered some beers, sodas and appetizers, and settled in to listen to the music. I found out the blond girl wasn't just a pretty face; she actually had a name, Jessica Ridley and was very talented. She played a mixture of cover tunes and her own songs, and had a great voice, as well as being very, very easy on the eyes. When her set was over she walked around the bar, as the next performer set up, selling her CD and making small talk with everyone. When she got to our table, she smiled, pointed at Ryan, and said, in that knee-weakening Southern drawl:

"I usually don't just give these away, but this guy was having so much fun singing and dancing that I want him to have one, on me," and handed him a CD.

"Thank you, very much," Ryan said, taking the present.

"Wow, good lookin', knows his music AND has manners?" she smiled. "You're a keeper, Honey."

"May I please get a picture with you?"Ryan asked.

"Of course, Sweetie."

Jessica Ridley and Ryan
I took a few shots, just in case any didn't come out, and then she was on her way. Ryan watched her walk away just a lit-tle longer than he normally would have, and Rob, Tony, Steph and I definitely noticed.

"I told you he was great," Steph smiled.

"He's got good taste," Tony chimed in.

"Yeah, and he's got no problem talking with the ladies, either," Rob added.

"I'm screwed," I laughed, finishing my beer and grabbing some wings.

"What did you get, Ry?" Mrs. Z wanted to know.

"My future daughter-in-law gave him a copy of her CD," I laughed.

Everyone got a chuckle at that, except for Ryan, which guaranteed I would use that line many more times before the night was through.

We stayed at Honky Tonk Central for about another hour and then headed to the next place, where we were going to order dinner, but on the way out I saw something I HAD to have.

"Where did you get that cowboy hat?" I asked a gentleman who was coming up the stairs.

It was a weather-beaten straw hat, colored to resemble the American flag.

"Michigan," he laughed, as he continued up the stairs.

"You're kidding, right?" I called after him.

"Maybe," he replied, as he ducked into the bar.

"We MUST find that hat," I said to Ryan.

"Please don't," Tony said, shaking his head.

"Okay, now we need it," Ry replied. "Dinner first, though."

"Deal," I told him.

Dinner was at the one place where there was no live music, Tequila Cowboy. We figured we could have a bite, relax and just talk for a while, before heading back out. It was the perfect place; we ordered BBQ Nachos (which Ryan said were not as good as Memphis), some burgers (Tony promised to remember these) and a steak sandwich, which Ryan devoured.

After dinner Mr. and Mrs Zoch said they had to go, so we bid them goodbye, and thanks, and headed off in search of the American flag cowboy hat.

It took us three shops, on both sides of the street, but we finally found it. I grabbed one for me and another for Ryan, while the rest of the group just shook their heads.

"When the hell are you going to wear that?" Tony wanted to know.

"Right now," I said, putting it on my head.

"I mean after we leave Nashville," he said.

"Wherever we go with you," Ryan shot back, laughing.

"We're never going out, together, again," he said, shaking his head.

"You know," Ryan said, scratching his chin, "Mommy should get one too, but like this."

"You think we should find her a Confederate flag one," I asked.

"NO!" Rob, Tony and Nick all said, at the same time.

Eventually we found the perfect hat. It was black, with a string of turquoise stones across the front.

Another Band, Another Great Lead Singer
Our final stop of the night was Rippy's Bar and Grill. The kids were allowed to be there, as long as we were seated before 11 p.m., and could stay as long as they had food in front of them. We sat down at the table next to the stage, and watched a beautiful brunette sing her heart out in front of us. As her set ended she headed over to talk to Ryan, whom she enjoyed watching sing along to the music, from her spot on the stage.

"Here we go again," Tony said, half-joking.

"My next daughter-in-law," I told them. "I wonder if they both can be talked into polygamy," I thought, out loud.

Ryan just shook his head and ignored us.

Eventually it was time to go. The kids were being asked to leave and we did have a long day of driving, starting in nine hours. So we said goodbye to Steph (promising to come back soon), took Uncle Craig home, and called it a night. The journey back to New Jersey was starting tomorrow morning, but there were still two minor league games to be seen; one in Pulaski: Virginia, and the other, on Sunday, in Frederick, Maryland.

August 1: The Babiest of Bombers

Saturday morning was upon us before we had even realized we'd slept. We got up, had a quick breakfast with Lauren, Mitch and their beautiful daughters, Adelaide and Claire, before getting back in the SUV for the six-hour drive, from Nashville to Pulaski. We said our goodbyes, thanked them for their hospitality and offered the same for them, the next time they found themselves in our neck of the woods, and started the long trek eastward.

I'd love to say we had some great story as we traveled I-40 and I-81, but the truth of the matter is that we were just listening to music, discussing what we had done and seen, and no one was really looking forward to being home, in about 60 hours. There was a VERY humorous story, which took place in the Carl's Jr. bathroom, near the border of Tennessee and Virginia, but Tony didn't find it as amusing as the rest of us did, so I think you'd better ask HIM why the stall door wasn't locked.

Pulaski Yankees
After lunch we discussed the evening's ballgame, where the Pulaski Yankees would be taking on the Princeton Rays, in a battle of Single-A, rookie ball teams, of the Appalachian League. Pulaski was a new affiliate for the Yankees and this was their inaugural season. As soon as the news had been announced I looked to see exactly where Pulaski was located, and decided we were going to stop here on the way home, once I learned that there would be a game fitting into our itinerary. I called the front office and spoke to a gentleman named Mike Fintel answered the phone. We discussed our trip, talked about the franchise, the upcoming season and when we were hoping to be there. He then asked for my address, which I thought nothing of at the time, and about three weeks later I came home to find complimentary tickets had been sent to us, with a business card telling me that Mike, himself, was the General Manager of the ball club. You can never say the Yankee organization doesn't take care of their fans.

While the Yankees were a new team in Pulaski, baseball was not. The organization has been around since the 1940s and has been a minor league affiliate for quite a few teams, namely the Brooklyn Dodgers (1947-1949), Philadelphia Phillies (1952-1955), Chicago Cubs (1957-1958), Philadelphia Phillies (1969-1977), Atlanta Braves (1982-1992), Texas Rangers (1997-2002), Toronto Blue Jays (2003-2006) and the Seattle Mariners (2008-2014). Over the course of their existence they have won nine division titles (1984, 1986, 1989, 1991, 1997, 1999, 2008, 2010 and 2013), three league titles (1986, 1991 and 2013) and sent numerous players on to the big leagues, such as Steve Avery, Aaron Harang, David Justice, Javy Lopez, C.J. Wilson, and Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and Mike Schmidt.

You Can See The Houses Across The Street
The team plays in Calfee Park, which is in a residential neighborhood, just off Rt. 11, and was built in 1935, as part of a Works Progress Administration project. It seats, approximately 2,500 people, is named after the former mayor of Pulaski (Ernest Calfee), and is on the National Register of Historic Places. When the Yankees took over the franchise, after the 2014 season, they announced a $3.5 million renovation project, which would greatly enhance the ballpark and it's amenities.

We arrived in Pulaski at about 5:30 p.m., about an hour before game time, and were immediately amazed by the neighborhood where the ballpark was located. "Residential" was an understatement, this park was beautiful, but situated right in the middle of the town's streets, with people's homes at risk of being hit by long home runs. We laughed and agreed we were definitely in a minor league town, but there was certainly a "down-home" feel to it that we loved.

The ballpark itself looked like a castle, from the outside, and I knew we were at a minor league facility when I saw their ticket booth was a card table and a laptop, outside the outfield fence, but that was the last thing that was "minor league" about this operation.

I explained our story, and how we'd come about having the tickets, to the lady in charge quickly she radioed for Mike to come down and meet us, personally. We were given a quick tour of the park, a history of the team and he thanked us for coming and being a part of the Yankees' first season. I was very impressed that the General Manager himself took the time to do all this, but as I said earlier, the Yankees always do things first class.
Home Plate Seating

Home Plate Pic
We walked down the left-field line, where the seating was general admission, under a roof, but on concrete steps. People had brought their own chairs and were setting up as they pleased, as we walked towards the fixed seats, directly behind home plate. The team store and concessions were located in the concourse directly behind home plate, while there were more bleacher-style seats along the first-base line. We walked around taking pictures, grabbed some Pulaski Yankees gear, as well as a program and some food, and headed over to the third base side, to grab a seat and watch the game in the evening shade.

I Made The Scoreboard
Calf-E, The Mascot
We settled in to watch the ballgame, hoping for a Yankees win, but right off the bat it didn't look good. The first Princeton batter flied out, but the next hitter singled and the following one doubled, putting runners on second and third with one out. The Yankee pitcher, Adonis Rosa, decided it was time to bear down and got the next two batters, keeping the Rays off the board. We were pretty excited, but that quickly faded as the Yankees went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning.

The Rays didn't score in the second, but the Yankees did, on Nathan Mikolas's fourth home run of the year. They could have added to the lead, but left the bases loaded, which would come back to bite them the next inning, as the Rays scored two runs on a single, a double, a sacrifice bunt and an infield out. Needless to say, none of us were happy.

"For God's sake," Ryan muttered, aloud. "The ONLY minor league team that I care about winning, on this trip, can't get out of its own way."

"It's early yet," I reminded him.

"Yeah, I'm just tired and I want a win," he said, right before yelling "LET'S GO YANKEES" in his best Bronx voice.

Damn Yankees
Unfortunately, all the cheering in the world couldn't help the Yankees' offense on this night. Princeton would score once more, making it 3-1, and that's the way it would end. We quickly filed out, with the rest of the unhappy crowd, and made a beeline to the SUV. We had a four-hour trip ahead of us, to Leesburg, Virginia, and it was already close to 10 p.m. It had been a long day and it wasn't going to be ending anytime soon.

We made a quick pit stop, for the bathroom and some coffee, where Tony was again accosted in a stall (if it wasn't for bad bathroom luck, he would have had none on this day), by a woman who couldn't wait for the line at the ladies room. Needless to say, we got quite the laugh out of it, while Tony was forced to deal with our constant reminders of the fact he had not been allowed to visit the men's room, in peace, all day.

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached Leesburg, Virginia. It was close to 2 a.m. and we still didn't have a hotel room booked. "Don't worry," Rob told us, "it'll be no problem." I should have known, as soon as he said that, it would be a problem. Apparently the first weekend in August is "wedding season" in Virginia and there was not a hotel room to be found. We went to three places before striking gold on the fourth, but even that had its issues.

When we got to the hotel, which will rename nameless, there was no one at the front desk. The place was open, the lights were on, but no one could be found. Normally I wouldn't be surprised at 2 a.m., but we had just called 15 minutes ago and informed the desk clerk we were coming and needed a room. For twenty minutes Tony, Rob and Nick wandered aimlessly around the place looking for the guy, while Ryan and I let ourselves into the "office," which was unlocked, and tried to find some clue as to where anybody in charge could be. Had we known how to access the system we would have activated a key-card and just taken a room, paying for it in the morning, but we couldn't figure that out either. Finally the clerk came back and got us a room, knocking a few bills off the cost due to the inconvenience, and off we went to grab just a few hours of sleep, before we had to get up for breakfast and our last game.

August 2: Homeward Bound

As the morning sun poked through the drawn curtains and forced us awake, I rubbed my eyes, let out a monster yawn and took the first shower. I couldn't believe this was going to be the last day on the road; it didn't seem possible. I took my time in the shower, enjoying the scalding hot water, knowing the others would prefer the extra few minutes of shut-eye, before I had to wake them. Needless to say, no one was happy to be up, but we had places to go and things to do, before setting out on a four-and-a-half-hour drive home, after the ballgame.

Brunch this Sunday morning was going to be at a restaurant Rob had frequented many a time, and swore by, when living in the area,. When it comes to food, Rob knows his stuff, so we completely deferred to his review and were very anxious to try the cuisine.

Dining, Al Fresco

The Cajun Experience is a wonderfully charming restaurant, serving New Orleans-style Cajun and Creole food, in a pre-Civil War home that was renovated to become a restaurant. It was a beautiful morning, and the heat and humidity hadn't descended upon the area yet, so we decided to sit outside and enjoy our meal in the sun and breeze.

The menu at the Cajun Experience is nothing short of amazing. All the food is cooked fresh, to order, and is dripping with old world charm. We started out with a Cajun Bloody Mary, which is made with peppered vodka, spicy Bloody Mary mix, cayenne pepper, hot sauce, and fresh horseradish, as well as the usual ingredients, and really opens your eyes, and sinuses. After that I switched to an Abita Wrought Iron I.P.A., which is brewed in Louisiana and has a smooth, distinctive, hoppy flavor, which the waitress told me would go perfectly with the meal I was about to order.

Shrimp and Grits
Breakfast Jambalaya
Rob ordered a bowl of shrimp and grits, which, like everything New Orleans-style, had a sharp biting flavor and a nice kick to it. Ryan and Tony had  huge bowls of Jambalaya, which were prepared with a blend of Cajun Andouille sausage, shrimp, chicken (known as "the trinity), and tomatoes, blended with a spicy rice and served with cornbread, while Nick had Eggs Benedict, as he wasn't very interested in the spices like the rest of us were. My breakfast, as far as I was concerned, was the piece de resistance: Eggs Benedict topped with crawfish etouffee, and like nothing I had ever had before. The creamy eggs were beautifully topped with cayenne pepper and what looked like an entire river of spicy crawfish, served with crispy jalapeno hashbrowns.

Crawfish Eggs Benedict

I am not usually a breakfast/brunch person, but I left nothing on my plate this morning, as it was THAT good and I wanted to finish every last morsel. I cannot rave enough about the restaurant, the service and, especially, the food. If you're ever in the area, this restaurant is a MUST.

After our unreal meal, we headed north, to the town of Frederick, Maryland, where we would see our final ballgame of the trip: the Myrtle Beach Pelicans vs. the Frederick Keys.

Nymeo Field
The Keys are the Class-A, Advanced affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, and play their home games at Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium. The team was founded in 1989, when the Orioles moved their farm team from Hagerstown, Maryland, to Frederick and decided to honor Francis Scott Key, who is buried across the street, by naming the new club after him. Since their inception, the team has won five division titles (1990, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011) and four league titles (1990, 2005, 2007, 2011), while sending players such as Andy Van Slyke, Arthur Rhodes, Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Manny Machado and Matt Wieters to the big leagues.

Inside the Ballpark
Ryan, Nick, Michael Me, Rob, Tony,
Allison and Johnny
We were meeting two folks at the game, one an "old" friend and the other a new one. The first, Allison Morse, was a friend I knew from a few years ago, whose family I had met at a Springsteen show in D.C. and whom Rob had dated for a while. She is a fun-loving, cute redhead who enjoys having a good time, especially if it can be spent with her family and friends, and whose father, Jim, I have the utmost respect for. Her husband Tony, a U.S. Navy man (thanks for your service, Tony), who works for the Keys, and her adorably precocious son, Johnny, would also be with us at the game, though Tony would be working. The "new" friend was actually an old college friend of Rob's, Michael O'Connell, who is married and has an adorable boy of his own, but could only join us for a little while. Michael is also great writer and I highly recommend checking out his blog from time to time.

After getting into the park, we did our usual walk-around, get the boys some swag, check out the food and drink and tag a group picture. It was a cute minor league park, not really any different in size, shape or scope from may of the others we had been to, but it was filled to capacity on this hot summer day. Obviously, the fans cared about their team.

First Pitch, From Our Seats
Our first surprise of the afternoon was our seats (I hadn't told the boys where we were sitting), which were two rows off the Keys' dugout and right up close to the action. The second surprise came from Tony, Allison and Johnny, who presented us with coupons for free food and drink, which we were certainly appreciative of since it was hotter than hell and our seats had no shade anywhere near them.

I sat on the aisle, with Johnny between Allison and me, while the boys sat on the far end of the row. It was apparent he was going to be fun to sit with, so I sat back and enjoyed the experience with a "little guy" again. Ryan looked over and smiled, possibly remembering all the games I took him to at that age, and moved closer. This was going to be a fun afternoon and the perfect way to end our trip.

The game wasn't one to write home about; there was little to no action and the score remained tied for most of the afternoon. Johnny was fun to talk to, play with and discuss the game with, but it was hot in the sun and it was hard for the little guy to sit still, though he was a joy to have around, except in the eyes of the two old bats right in front of us.

Now, I don't want it to seem as if he pestered the ladies, kicked their chairs, spilled his food or drink on them, or interfered with them in any way, shape or form, but they were just unhappy to have to sit in front of a little kid. At one point, when Allison had taken him to the bathroom, I overheard them complaining that she should keep a tighter leash on him, as he was ruining their day out. I quickly stuck my nose between them.

"I'm sorry," I said, as sweetly as possible. "The boy is not my son, but he's here with our group and as far as I am concerned he's a fun little boy, who's excited about being at a game and enjoying himself. He hasn't done anything out of line, or interfered with you ladies in any way and this is a ballpark, not a movie theatre. He's allowed to be rambunctious, talkative and ask questions. As for his mother, she is doing a great job, spending time with her son, making sure he has these memories with her and being an integral part of his enjoyment. I suggest you relax, grab something cold to drink and enjoy the rest of the game, without ruining their afternoon."

Quietly they got up...and never came back.

The score remained 0-0 until the seventh inning. Neither team had many scoring chances and the afternoon passed quickly. The Keys finally broke through in the bottom of the seventh, on a leadoff homer by the DH, Austin Wynns. Everyone jumped up and started high-fiving one another, especially Johnny, who was over the moon in his excitement.

Keys Win
The Keys added another run in the bottom of the eighth, when a single, a stolen base and an infield out scored Josh Hart, and when the Pelicans went down in top of the ninth, we had a 2-0, shut-out victory. Just like that, the game, and our trip, were over...except for the ride home.

We all walked out to the SUV, said our goodbyes and hit the road north. It was about 4:30, but we decided to drive straight through, not stopping for dinner, as we wanted to get home as soon as possible. We quickly stopped at a Dunkin' Donuts for some "supplies" and started the trek back to New Jersey. I let Tony take the wheel, as I just wanted to rest, but said as soon as he wanted a reprieve I would take over.

As we hit the highway, I closed my eyes and thought back on the last ten days. It was an incredible adventure, starting in Colorado Springs and ending back home, after an amazing amount of driving. We had seen two-thirds of the country, including the Rocky Mountains, the Olympic Training Center, the Air Force Academy, the Negro Leagues Museum, the Jazz Museum, the Gateway Arch, the Mississippi River, Sun Studios, Graceland, the Lorraine Motel, the Ryman Auditorium, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Johnny Cash's Museum. We had eaten everything from Rocky Mountain Oysters, fresh Colorado game, three distinctly different kinds of Kansas City barbecue, Memphis barbecue, fried catfish from the Mississippi, Mississippi Cajun seafood, down-home, country-food at Loveless Cafe and New Orleans-style Cajun food in Virginia. We had been in the big cities and the small towns, had spent time with many wonderful friends and had made some life-long new ones along the way and had seen America as it was meant to be seen, on a classic road-trip, and I had done it all with my son, and some great friends, at my side. I wasn't sure how we could top this, I wasn't sure it could even be done, but the one thing I did know, was that it was all brought together through our love of baseball and that was the driving force through all of our travels.

"Hey, Ry," I called to the back of the car. "You ready for California and Arizona, next summer?"

He "replied" with a snore/snort, which told me he was already fast asleep. I looked back and saw his eyes closed, his head tilted back and what looked like a small smile on his face. I didn't know what he was dreaming of, but I hoped it was all the amazing things we'd just done and the things that were still to come, with the next set of games, in the summer of 2016.