Monday, February 18, 2008

OK, so maybe it's pretty fair

Updating yesterday's mild ranting, the outlook has changed.

Casey says I should go for it. My heart says I should go for it. My younger, eager-to-travel self says I should go for it.

I think I'm going for it.

If I leave the Braves game in Orlando by 4 p.m. -- and I'd probably leave earlier than that -- I can be checked into my hotel in Fort Pierce by 6 p.m. I can have dinner and crawl into bed by 7 to try to get some sleep -- shouldn't be a problem, since I think my flight out of Newark leaves at 8 a.m. or so. Four hours should do it, then I can be on the road to Cocoa Beach or some other free, slightly-south-of-Kennedy viewpoint.

If liftoff occurs before 2:30, as it should -- rocket scientists are pretty on-time and accurate when it comes to numbers -- I can be back in my hotel bed by 5 a.m. Sleep until 10, make it to Dodgertown by 11. And since I'm staying in the same hotel that night, there's no need to rush out after the game, so I can take in the atmosphere afterwards, too. (New bonus wrinkle: Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda will be managing that day.)

The only major issue would be if the launch is scrubbed -- and scrubbed late. Like, within the final three hours, when I'll already be on my way. If it's going to be an overcast night or if rain is forecast, I'd like that to be known by the time I get to Fort Pierce, so I can just stay there.

OK -- hang on. New plan just came to me. Why the heck would I drive from Orlando to Fort Pierce, only to head back up 95 to Kennedy? Orlando to the Space Center is an hour. I think I'm better off looking for a hotel in that area for the first night, then checking into my Fort Pierce hotel after the Dodgers game. I can get more sleep before the launch -- and much more after it -- and can cut down on the night driving. Then I can get up earlier to drive down to Vero Beach for the game.

NOW I'm getting back into the traveling groove. Instead of two nights in Fort Pierce, roughly equidistant from the Dodgers' and Mets' camps (two nights in one place for simplicity's sake, and to avoid having to bring everything with me in the car to the games each day), I can deal with the hassle of moving each night in order to cut down on the driving. So, then, this: Braves game to hotel near Kennedy for launch. Down to Dodgertown for game, then to new St. Lucie hotel for the night. Mets game, then to Orlando to Donna's. Much simpler.

See how easy that became just by talking it out?

Oh, that's SO not fair

In my years at the paper, I made two trips to Clearwater, Fla., to do some advance work on the Phillies' minor leaguers, but I'd never experienced the Major League side of it. From stories I'd heard, people love it. I was eager to see for myself.

So with the Dodgers' likely move to Arizona next year -- leaving Dodgertown in Vero Beach, where they've been since their Brooklyn days -- I decided I had to go this year. I can't miss Dodgertown, and I couldn't let myself see Dodgertown with the Orioles (the presumed replacement) as the tenants. Vero Beach is sort of isolated on the eastern coast of Florida, with only a couple of other teams training in the area -- the Nationals in Viera and the Mets in Port St. Lucie. So, naturally, I had to see the Mets, too, and planned the trip to allow for exhibition games at both sites.

I fly to Orlando on March 10 to see the Braves at their Disney World complex. The Mets play the Red Sox that day, and tickets sold out before I could get them. But because Port St. Lucie is a two-hour drive from Orlando, I would've been cutting it close, especially if I had any flight delays. After the game, I'll head down to Fort Pierce -- between Vero and St. Lucie -- to check into my hotel. On the 11th, I'm at Dodgertown and on the 12th, I see the Mets. I'll head up to the Orlando area to stay with my cousin before flying home on the 13th.

But the other thing I've always dreamed of doing is seeing a live space shuttle launch. My previous trips to Florida have never coincided with a launch, and we've never planned a trip around one.

So, of course, the next launch is currently scheduled for March 11. Right now, they say the launch target is 2:31 a.m. EDT, with only a 10-minute launch window. I didn't think that was likely, because I'd thought they were trying to keep all launches to daylight hours to observe any debris hitting the shuttle on its way up. Maybe they've managed to work around that.

What this all means, then, is that I could fit the launch into my plans, but it means a 90-minute drive to Cape Canaveral during my first night there. And it could take away time at Dodgertown if I have to catch up on sleep in the morning.

It could also mean major jealousy from Casey.

So it's an unlikely side trip. But one I can't stop thinking about.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Valentine's Day scenes, New York City

  • A man -- out-of-work, struggling actor? -- dressed up in a white jumpsuit and Elvis wig, with wings on his back, handing out free red carnations to women entering Chelsea Market on 9th Avenue.
  • A woman crossing 9th Avenue with a bouquet of flowers and a "Happy Valentine's Day" balloon dropping her receipt in the crosswalk. No love for the environment, I guess.
  • A man causing a scene at the corner of 8th Avenue and 15th Street with a profanity-laced tirade aimed at a woman. It was physical, too. If she tried to walk away, he grabbed her and pushed her up against the wall of the building. Anyone who passed the corner on either side of 15th turned to look, and as I was passing on the opposite side of the street, I had to step around a woman who was calling the police on her cell phone. As I waited for my lunch at Swich, I saw the couple turn the corner and enter the apartment building together at the corner of 8th and 15th.
  • A man with an actual heart-shaped box of candy.
  • A co-worker writing out a valentine to his wife on the computer.
  • Various men and women carrying bouquets or single flowers on the subways and trains.
  • A woman at the Secaucus station writing out a card.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Leather and laces at The Pru

Finally made it out to the Prudential Center, the gleaming new home for the Devils in Newark. Only I'm not seeing the primary tenant. It's college basketball -- Notre Dame and Seton Hall playing on Ash Wednesday. There must be a priest giving out ashes around here somewhere.

I walk around the concourse to find my seat and stop in at the Ice Bar, the blue-tinted lounge with actual ice for surface of the bar (helps keep drinks cold as well as promoting the hockey theme). The beer is a bit expensive, natch, and doesn't include too many inviting selections, but I like the setup -- the long end of the space opens up to center court/ice behind a section of seats, so if you want to spend the entire game (or concert) in there, you can do so without having to watch on TV screens.

Kyle McAlarney has a big contingent here, including his mom behind the bench. But I haven't seen Richard Codey yet.

The Pru is a good venue for Seton Hall. More intimate, especially with the top level blocked off. It's bright and clean and inviting, and the walk from Penn Station wasn't bad at all. The worst part of it would be the winter winds, but that's not all that worse than the stroll from the parking lot at the Meadowlands.

The best part, though, is the final score: Notre Dame 95, Seton Hall 69

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

If you ain't first, you're last

They say that NASCAR has overtaken the NHL as America's fourth "major league," though up here in the north we just don't see it. Stock-car racing just isn't an enjoyable spectator sport on the television, though each week during the season, the site of the race is overflowing with fans setting aside a weekend to watch cars go fast.

After spending a weekend at Daytona International Speedway for Dave's bachelor party, we started to see what all the excitement was about. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not planning any Daytona 500 trips this year or any year, but having now been to a professional race, I can see the allure, if you're into that sort of thing. It's probably very similar to a golf tournament. Standing for hours on end in the sweltering sun of a July day just to watch Tiger Woods and a bunch of other millionaires walk by and send a ball off into the distance where I can't see it doesn't draw me in, but there are plenty of people who attend the big events each year.

The allure of a race is that it's an event. The one we went to -- the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona -- certainly gives you more bang for your buck. On Friday -- the 25th -- we saw practice runs and then a three-hour race called the Koni Challenge. On Saturday, the 24-hour race began at 1:30 p.m., and $85 got you inside the gates in the morning and all the way through Sunday afternoon when the race ended. Add on the garage access upgrade (which brought the tickets to $85), and you're allowed to walk through the garage area, where the teams prepare -- and repair -- the cars. Fans walk right up to their driving heroes; it's like having access -- as a fan -- to a Major League clubhouse or NFL locker room before the game. And on race day, we walked onto the track, leaning into the banked front stretch and walking across the start/finish line. There aren't too many fans who get to cross home plate at Yankee Stadium the day of a game.

One particular cool story: I heard of one fan who spent his first day at Daytona taking pictures of his favorite drivers. That night, he took his memory card to CVS and had prints made. The next day, he had the drivers autograph the photos he took the day before.

Both races we saw made use of the infield course at Daytona. Instead of 24 hours of left turns and driving in circles, the cars made a left turn at the end of pit road and drove onto the infield course, where two sharp horseshoes made things interesting, before coming back onto the main track only a few hundred feet from where they left it, just before Turn 1. So there's a lot more technical skill, strategy and braking involved in the races we saw than your standard NASCAR race.

But the biggest thing you don't get a feel for watching on TV as opposed to being there is the sound of racing. Daytona is huge, but no matter where you go -- the stands, the infield, the lake, the turns -- the drone of engines is always in the background, and when you get close to the track, the roar is intense. It's the difference between attending a rock concert and watching the summer concert series on the Today show.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to go back to the track at midnight Sunday with the rest of the group. Felled by an illness, I chose to sleep in preparation for my early departure the next morning to drive back to Orlando for my flight home. I'm told the night scene was even more thrilling -- the brake discs glowed orange with the heat and the atmosphere took on a different tone under the cover of darkness (and the klieg lights illuminating the track).

The weekend drained me, but I still managed to enjoy the foray into a new world, a car geek's world, a race fan's world. While there are similarities to a college football Saturday, there is no three-hour window where you're inside the stadium, focused on the action. When you're in the infield, the action continues around you, and the tailgating is part of the spectating. It's like attending a football game, a car show, a carnival and a picnic all at once.

But I think it will forever remain a Southern obsession, with only the die-hard niche fans giving it any attention up in the Northern reaches of America.