NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Saturday, October 24, 2015, 3:34 PM
Take me out to the ball game! Daily News Night Editor Rich O’Malley celebrated his 40th birthday with a trip to Wrigley Field and several other Midwestern ball parks.
I was a mess when I was young.
I’m talking about in July, of course, when I was planning out my 40th birthday trip.
I put together a jaunt around the Midwest to see a couple of baseball games. It’s what I’ve always done: sat down with a map and schedules and chiseled away at reason until I’ve crammed in as much as a person can possibly do in 48 hours or five days or whatever amount of time I have.
I check out not only baseball, but whatever other sports are in season … concerts … slices of Americana just off the highway (world’s largest thermometer? Field of Dreams? Four Corners? Check, check, check).
But this time … call it old age, call it laziness, call it exasperation at other failed 40th bash endeavors (we’ll get to them) … I never looked at the NFL schedule.
I NEVER LOOKED AT THE NFL SCHEDULE.
Friends to whom I admitted this doubted my very core. Who WAS I anymore? Where was Rich? Putting together sports road trips is my raison d’etre, my love: I do them for fun! I do them knowing I’ll never take them! “Oh, look, you could get four NFL games in one long weekend, Thursday through Monday” … “Oh, look, you can get Philly and Baltimore in one day” … that kind of thing.
So when, exactly one week before my birthday, exactly three days before my departure, with all plane tickets and most car rentals and hotels already in hand, I saw that the New York Jets, my miserable scalawag of a favorite team, were the Monday Night Football game in Indianapolis, a mere four-hour drive from Detroit, where I was to spend the night … and THEN that the Sunday Night game was in Green Bay, three hours from where I was that day in Milwaukee … well, something broke. I had lost my way. I blew it. I was red-faced and red in the face. And I determined to turn a manageable stroll down baseball memory lane into a balls-out, screaming indictment of the age I was about to turn. I would no longer look at 40 as my death knell, oh no, I would gouge its eyes out with a mind-numbing, late-night, coffee-fueled pinball spin through seven states, complete with 4:30 a.m. wakeup calls and nonstop sports fandomania. To paraphrase Clark Griswold in “Christmas Vacation,” I was gonna have the hap-hap-happiest birthday since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny f*@#ing Kaye.
Bring it, 40. My 20s and 30s have something to say to you.
DAY ONE: T-MINUS 4 DAYS TILL 40:
To begin this newfound ride-or-die quest, I arrive at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and am handed the keys to a grey Volkswagen Beetle.
Err … Hmm …
I’m guess I should curb my enthusiasm a bit.
Which is good, because after a big Perkins breakfast outside Milwaukee, the specter of 40 creeps back into the picture and has some fun with me:
I have an uncontrollable urge to take a nap.
So I do. In the car, parked in downtown Milwaukee.
Miller Park offers plenty of good vantage points and not very many awful seats … especially behind the plate!
Old age 2, youthful exuberance 0.
I’ve never understood Milwaukee. There’s no there, there – to me. I’ve visited four or five times now and can’t tell you a single unique or interesting thing about it. Maybe that’s my fault, but it is a pretty dreary city to drive up to and through. The lakefront IS nice, but it’s a museum and a park and doesn’t feel very connected to “downtown” – whatever that is.
My dog, Alfie, was found on the streets of Milwaukee, though, before he came to us through the Havanese Rescue society. So I tried to imagine this dopey, floppity, half-blind hobo dog wandering door-to-door looking for handouts. And then I missed my dog [shakes fist: “damn you, age and sentimentality!], so I decided to get the hell out of there and head to my first baseball game.
Miller Park is a monolith. And it’s out in the middle of nowhere, so it is quite imposing to approach. That being said, aside from some unfortunate aging of the green metal used on its exterior, she’s holding up well and I even enjoyed it and appreciated it more this time than in the past. It had been 12 years since my last visit.
I should mention here that I have been to a game in every Major League city at least once – 12 of those cities in more than one ballpark (one in 3 different parks, if you count Montreal’s Stade Olympique, and Washington’s RFK Stadium and Nationals Park for the Nats). After this trip, I now have every current MLB park at least once, save the new Miami, which I have been outside of during construction, but not yet for a game. So I collect stadia as one might collect stamps. I also currently stand at 22 NFL cities, 16 NHL and 11 NBA. Now you see a bit more into the psyche of WHY ON EARTH I would want to take a trip like this in the first place.
So back to Miller Park, which feels enormous inside, but offers plenty of good vantage points and not very many awful seats. Good sightlines, plenty of light with the roof open and some pretty, latticework glass as a nice touch.
Food and drink options? Limited appeal. Not a lot out of the ordinary – but that’s OK because, really, what are you going to order in Milwaukee besides a bratwurst? Craft beers? It’s named Miller Park – what do you think?
I ponied up for nice seats on this trip – a vast departure from my usual modus operandi of buying the cheapest ticket in the house that allows me to do a full walkaround. For this game, I’m in the first row right behind the plate. It’s pretty sweet hearing the game in a different way than you do in the nosebleeds. For me, it was even more stark a difference than the visual change.
We happen to live in a city where this type of “value” buy isn’t really available. You can’t just plop down $ 40 in either Yankee Stadium or Citi Field and sit wherever you like. But I cannot urge you enough to do it if you ever take in a game nearly anywhere else in the country.
I remember little of the game, though I kept score, which increasingly marks me as an old-timer in most stadiums these days – fine by me. I enjoy it and it focuses my attention. Someone hit two identical home runs – Jay Bruce, maybe? – and I like the Brewers kid who pitched the eighth – I think he’ll be a closer someday soon. There is your 10-second hot take on meaningless Brewers/Reds September baseball. The Brewers won.
(PS, interestingly, as of the day I am writing this part, the Reds still have not won a baseball game – 12 losses in a row, outscored 79-28. They won the night before my Sunday afternoon tilt, but my attendance, apparently, has put them off. I’m rooting for them not to win another game this year.)
O’Malley got help from a Green Bay homeowner to print out his Packers ticket he bought on StubHub app.
Am I ready for some football? Yes. Yes, I am. As I walk to my car from the stadium, I buy my ticket to the Packers game on my iPhone and commit to the drive up to Green Bay and then, more importantly, the drive BACK from the hinterlands of Wisconsin afterward to my little hotel next to Chicago O’Hare. 197 miles through cheese country in the wee hours. But Green Bay is too unique a place to pass up.
When you drive to a Packers game, you are essentially making your way through a quaint little neighborhood – that just happens to have a huge stadium plopped in the middle of it. That setting is like no other in the country. Maybe the old Orange Bowl or even Candlestick had similar setups, but those neighborhoods were far from quaint.
And those venues are now rubble (and not a moment too soon for either – I spent my big 3-oh 10 years ago in South Beach and hit up the Orange Bowl for Colorado/Miami college football action (ooh) … I could not believe THAT was the place Joe Willie Namath waved his “we’re #1 finger” leaving the field after Super Bowl III … it was falling apart … THIS place?!).
Here in Green Bay, everyone is out on his or her lawn, or someone else’s lawn. Hell, lawns are SOLD for $ 5-$ 10 a spot as the locals make a little coin on the interlopers. But it’s all friendly and so, so twee. Every garage door is open, but guess what it isn’t – a garage! Nearly every one is a Packer cave with a ginormous TV and couch and bar. I’m riding a wave of nostalgia that I remember feeling 18 years (18 years!) ago on my first visit to Lambeau Field, before many of its modernization renovations. I can’t wait to see how it has shaped up since that much simpler stadium that I remember.
There’s only one problem.
I can’t get in.
You see, the NFL and Ticketmaster are official resale partners and I bought my ducat on StubHub. There was no warning that it might not work, though I could not find any confirmation that Lambeau accepted mobile tickets. It was not until I hit “BUY” that a message appeared that I would not be able to use my phone to get in. I went to the ticket window and they were of little help (but, but … Green Bay little-town charm and helpfulness, no?!). They pointed me to a nearby hotel where a StubHub rep “might” be. A 30-minute walk there and back, 15 minutes to game-time. As I try to get StubHub on the horn I remember the uniqueness of my surroundings … I am surrounded by homes … homes that, while they look straight out of the Brady Bunch, presumably have printers in them … and presumably a bit of the little-town charm and helpfulness I expected at the ticket window.
I go up to the first house I see on Stadium Drive. There are a few guys barbecuing.
“Excuse me, so sorry to bother, but is this your house?”
Mind you, I said they were barbecuing on the lawn.
This is not their house.
“Do you know who owns the house?”
I go up to the front door and knock. A woman answers.
“So sorry to bother…”
And boom, I am in the house, sitting in front of a computer, logging into StubHub, and the woman LEAVES ME ALONE IN THE ROOM AT HER COMPUTER to go back and check on dinner … I mean, wow. Anyway, after some issues she tells me to email her the ticket, I do, she opens it and prints it and I am set for Packer action. I cannot thank her enough, Mallory I believe her name was, for being so sweet and accommodating to a complete stranger, but she fulfills EXACTLY what I expect a Green Bay-er to be like. There are at least six nice people in the world. Mallory is one of them. Thank you, Mallory.
Lambeau Field, I decide that night, is probably the greatest of all the many sports venues in the U.S. of A. I cannot imagine a better setting for a sports event. It is old, but it is modern. It is loud, but it is, mostly, polite. Every seat appears filled with someone in green or gold for EVERY SINGLE PLAY of the game. The atmosphere is sporting utopia. The food and drink is, again, meh, but also again, no one leaves their seat and so what do you want besides a brat anyway (PS: I may have ingested two brats today).
I leave with about 10 minutes left because I just cannot sanction getting stuck in a small neighborhood with one major road out for an hour in the postgame rush when I still have a 3-1/2 hour drive ahead of me after waking up at 4:30am in New York.
The drive is fine – noneventful. Pleasant even? I love listening to the ends of games and postgames as I drive away from a stadium – but what I love most of all is plopping into a hotel bed and watching SportsCenter highlights on ESPN from the random game in a random city I just attended. I fall asleep. Fast. Hard.
STATES COVERED: 2 (Ill., Wisc); MILES DRIVEN: ~400; GAMES ATTENDED: 2 (1 MLB, 1 NFL) BRATS EATEN: 2
DAY 2: T-MINUS THREE DAYS TILL 40
I wake up. Fast. Hard. Oh, so hard. It’s 6:45 and I didn’t tuck in until 2 or so. But my flight to Detroit beckons.
I’m killing myself to get to … Detroit?
Yes, yes of course I am, because its Monday and it’s been 12 years since I’ve been there and this is the path I charted. Of course, when I did that, the plan was to get a day-night doubleheader and relax for a few hours in the Motor City. Finally ride the People Mover. Maybe spend a few hours playing craps in the downtown casino. Enjoy a night in a nice hotel for once.
Nope, scratch all that. We’re on to Indy after this game.
I park in a garage near Comerica and to get to the stadium they guide you through Ford Field, the home of the NFL’s Lions. Ironically, this will be the home of the following Sunday Night Football matchup, which, again, had I known, may have delayed my trip home an extra day. But right now it is stone silent. Have you ever walked through a dark, quiet stadium? It’s an eerie thing. It’s as if the place is just waiting for the curtain to be raised so it can show off. For now, though, it rests.
How can I describe Comerica Park?
GENERIC. BASEBALL. STADIUM.
Sorry, Detroit, but I liked your park a lot less on second perusal. It just … there’s … it’s … boring! The seating bowl is generic, there’s not a lot to see past the outfield (yes, I understand that is Detroit, but that’s not my point … I mean interesting walls configurations and seats and scoreboards and congregation areas … again, all generic). And for God’s sake, the food and drink selection is straight out of central casting. BOOOO-RING.
Also, what’s with the bees? Yes, bees. I am harassed at the drink stand by bees and then harassed IN MY SEAT by even more bees! After a few innings of this, even the guys behind me said, “Man, the bees really like you.” Yes, fine, ha-ha, but why are there any bees in the first place?! Am in the meadows? On an organic farm? A 19th century restoration? WHAT’S. WITH. THE. BEES?
By the way … I HATE BEES. There is only one thing on this planet that I hate more and that is spiders. Can I just enjoy my seat right off the Tigers on-deck circle? No. Not until at least the 5th inning, when I guess the bees got tired of menacing me and flew back to Hades from whence they came.
Anyway, quick game. As close to a perfect game as I’ll probably ever see. The White Sox’s Jeff Samardzija twirled a gem – allowing only one hit and no walks over nine innings against the Tigers’ b-team. No Miggy! This was helpful, though, as I needed to get on the road to Indianapolis for Monday Night Football and my Jetsies.
There are some drives that I would deem nice. There are some that are merely tolerable. There are some that are really terrible. The drive from Detroit to Indy is in a category I reserve for very special routes I call “never again” (also on this list, Kansas City to Denver and San Fran to LA on the 5, not PCH … idea: 40 drives for 40). I can’t even tell you why it was so bad. Maybe it’s because all I wanted from the get-go was a decent cup of coffee and I didn’t get the option until just past Fort Wayne, about 2/3 of the way through. Maybe it’s because Ohio is never not completely under construction. Maybe I was just tired. I was definitely tired. But man, if I went through with my original idea to drive BACK to Detroit after MNF, it would have been game over for me – I never could have done it.
Instead, I abandoned my paid-for hotel in Detroit, rented a car one-way and booked a one-way flight using miles to go back the following morning in order to catch up with my original flight out of Detroit – which, if missed, would cancel the rest of my planned itinerary, stranding me in Detroit. More on how that worked later. It’s a hoot.
On this Devil’s trail, at least I got to drive through Defiance, Ohio, the town that was the center of a crucial plot point on season one of Scandal. Snapped a shot with the exit sign and rolled in. Seeking coffee. Blessed coffee.
Got one! Which is good, because Indianapolis when approached from the east is one of those towns that doesn’t appear for a while after you have “arrived” according to road signs. Finally, I pull into downtown around 7:30 p.m. for an 8:20 p.m. start. Hell drive behind me. Monday Night Football in front of me. And chalk! Chalk is what I refer to as getting a new ballpark. So far on this trip I had been to three parks I already had chalked up. Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Colts, would be my first chalk of the trip. Always exciting.
One of a few Jets fans at Lucas Oil Stadium to see Gang Green take down the Colts on Monday Night Football.
Who knew the game would be, too? Jets/Colts, at that point in the season, on paper seemed like a mismatch. A team that had been to the AFC Championship the year before, with an elite quarterback, versus … well, the Jets, at almost any time in their existence – this would be a bad matchup for them.
And yet they won the damn thing! What was even stranger was being treated with respect as an out-of-town fan. Never, never-ever, in my years of Jets road trips (hmm let’s think here … in Oakland, San Diego, Denver, Minnesota, Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh) had I been treated this nicely. Fans were joking with me, high fiving me (?!) and just generally were swell folks. I was in my own little John Cougar song and it was lovely.
So was the stadium. It had every bit the uniqueness and grandeur of Jerry Jones’ pork palace down in Arlington, Texas, but at about half the $ 1.3 billion or so price tag. It also looked like a stadium and not a spaceship, yet still offered the now-should-be-standard-on-every-indoor-stadium large, openable window wall. Nice touch. Why the roof was closed that night, I could not tell you.
I bolted after the Jets scored to put game seemingly out of reach to once again avoid the crush of fans leaving and jamming up downtown Indianapolis and headed off to my little airport hotel for yet another 4-something a.m. wakeup call and yet another flight.
Mind you, it’s around midnight as I pull into the hotel lot…
“I’m sorry, sir, this reservation is for tomorrow night.”
Turns out I should have paid more attention in the hotels.com app when I booked at halftime of the game. I clicked “tomorrow night” instead of RIGHT FREAKING NOW I’M REALLY TIRED BED PLEASE SOON HELP.
“Well, can I switch to tonight?”
“Sorry, sir, we are full. There was a game in town tonight.”
You don’t say… I’m wearing a Jets jersey.
So. The hotels.com people were really helpful when I called and hooked me up about a mile away at a similar airport hotel and really I didn’t care at that point what its rating was on tripadvisor.com I just wanted that bed.
STATES COVERED: 4 (Ill., Mich., Ohio, Ind.); MILES DRIVEN: ~300; GAMES ATTENDED: 2 (1 MLB, 1 NFL) ODD FOOD CHOICE: Veggie burger at a football game in Indiana (thumbs up, though)
DAY 3: T-MINUS TWO DAYS TILL 40
The same lady who checked me in around 12:30 a.m. was still on duty when I rolled out about 4:45 a.m. She seemed … rather confused to see me again so soon. I bade her good day, dropped off my rental car and somnambulated myself onto the plane.
Now this gets tricky. Please follow along carefully.
I was flying from Indianapolis to Detroit with a stop at O’Hare…
…to catch my flight from Detroit to Minneapolis with a stop at O’Hare.
See? It’s very simple: I was flying IND-ORD-DTW-ORD-MSP.
I was flying into and out of the same airport twice in one morning.
And I had no room for error. Any delay or cancellation on the first two legs would mean I’d miss my originally booked flight, thereby cancelling every flight I needed from that point on, essentially ending my trip with me stuck in Detroit.
Luckily, American Airlines did its job and the next thing I knew, after TWO layovers in Chicago within four hours, I was on the light rail from MSP into downtown Minneapolis with an eye on more chalk.
The light rail was new to me (it opened in 2004, my last trip there was 2006, but I had driven) and I must say this one-seat ride from airport to town is what EVERY city should have. Precious few actually do, including here in NYC. But it made the experience of the airport-to-town and vice versa schlep far easier. Bravo, Minny.
My hotel was right by the site of the former Metrodome and soon to be U.S. Bank Stadium. After the poofy Metrodome, the sight of this stark, pointy, geometric erector set was quite jarring. It kind of doesn’t look safe – like it’s built to fall over on its side. But there were two dudes up on the peak of the highest point doing construction guy stuff, so I assume someone has thought this out very well. Anyway, I will be very curious to see her when she’s finished (yes, of course stadia are female … like a ship … duh).
Target Field in Minneapolis, home of the Twins, nearly cracked O’Malley’s 10 ten ballpark list. Good beer to be had at this gem.
Target Field replaced the aforementioned Metrodump in 2010 and really anything would be an improvement over that. Along with Marlins Park in Miami it remained the only current “need it” MLB stadium in my collection. Here’s what I’ll remember the most about it: best craft beer selection of any venue I’ve been in. Don’t overlook that. As a park, it’s good. Solid. Probably the most unique left field setup of any park, but it’s RF and CF views are a monstrosity. It contains what may be the worst seat in baseball (replacing the soon-to-be-imploded-anyway-and-rightfully-so Coca Cola deck at Turner Field in Atlanta). This one is approximately six miles from home plate at an elevation of 29,000 feet in dead center. I needed a Sherpa to get back down. Why? Why would you build that?
Here’s my inherent problem every time I get a new park; I want to immediately insert it in the rankings. And as I texted my friend from that game, “I need to stand in every park within 20 minutes of each other.” Because I forget the quirks! I forget – did they have good beer there? Was there a stupid set of seats in the OF? Is it better than Turner Dump (Gotcha! That’s not a real question – of course it is).
That being said, let’s pause now for our updated rankings before I forget everything about Target Field.
30. Turner Field, Atlanta (I really hate this place)
29. Joe Robbie/Landshark/ProPlayer/WhatevertheF, Miami (no longer active)
28. Tropicana Field, Tampa (the foul poles are, I swear, crooked)
27. O.co Coliseum, Oakland (do not play baseball in a football venue)
26. Comerica Park, Detroit (GENERIC BASEBALL STADIUM)
25. Rogers Centre, Toronto (vast, very very blue and very concrete-y)
24. U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago (AL) (a darker, steeper old Yankee stadium)
23. Busch Stadium, St. Louis (no excuse for what they got wrong, given its youth)
22. Angels Stadium, Anaheim (old Yankee Stadium west, plus fake rocks)
21. Nationals Park, Washington, D.C. (GENERIC BASEBALL STADIUM)
20. Citi Field, New York (NL) (fine, but gaudy signage and too many bad seats)
19. Progressive Field, Cleveland (a pioneer, but now a bit boring)
18. Camden Yards, Baltimore (I know, what’s wrong with me? Don’t get the love)
17. Minute Maid Park, Houston (vast, but interesting … plus a train!)
16. Chase Field, Arizona (also vast, but has a pool! Need to get back to it)
15. Miller Park, Milwaukee (ready? VAST! But I didn’t feel like it had a bad seat)
14. Globe Life Park, Texas (prob higher than it deserves, cool OF look)
13. Coors Field, Colorado (once way higher on list, faces neither city nor Rockies)
12. Target Field, Minnesota (see above, bad RF/CF, nice LF, good beer).
11. AT&T Park, San Francisco (man, was I cold there, but the bay view is cool)
10. Dodger Stadium, L.A. (once a crown jewel, now falling apart, needs a spruce)
9. Petco Park, San Diego (THERE IS A BEACH IN THE BALLPARK!)
8. Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia (Flying Fish beer, crab fries & Schmitters)
7. Yankee Stadium, New York (AL) (replicates feel of old park, just not ambience)
6. Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati (small town feel, good food/drink)
5. Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City (example of a renovation that worked)
4. Safeco Field, Seattle (THERE IS A TRAIN GOING THRU THE BALLPARK!)
3. Fenway Park, Boston (Only nice thing I can say about Boston. Just go… now)
2. Wrigley Field, Chicago (NL) (Renovation does job. Perfect, aside from d-bags.)
1. PNC Park, Pittsburgh (You can not build a better ballpark. What a setting.)
UPDATE: The Reds won a game!
I could talk for hours and debate the above list exhaustively and change my mind constantly, moving parks up and down a few slots here and there. Really, past Safeco Field, every park is mildly inoffensive until around Angels Stadium. Numbers 9 through 21 are all really just two forms of new venue with minor variations built in (ballpark or stadium – now go! Make it your own!). Only from 20 to 30 do you start hitting some very flawed parks and for very different reasons, but that’s a discussion for another time.
The breakneck portion of my trip has ended, I settle into bed in downtown Minneapolis with visions of Chicago dancing in my head and of course the hammer that is 40 sitting Damocles sword-like due north. Like that seat in Target Field.
STATES COVERED: 4 (Ind., Ill. Mich., Minn.); MILES DRIVEN: 8; FLIGHTS: 4; GAMES ATTENDED: 1 MLB, ODD FOOD CHOICE: Indian food at a baseball game (again though, thumbs up)
DAY 4: T-MINUS ONE DAY TILL 40, WOOP! WOOP! WOOP! 40 ALARM!!!
Travel to Chicago in the morning is yet another blur, another train, another plane, another train and suddenly I am in the honorable Richard J. Daley Plaza and my thoughts turn to The Blues Brothers and I can’t help but smile.
I pick up the keys to my Airbnb from a dude named Kent down in The Loop. The place is a block from Wrigley Field, so it’s only perfectly located. Drop my stuff, shower and it’s off to Evanston for a nostalgia-filled walk.
In Sept. 1997, I set off from home with two cars’ worth of stuff (actually one car, my 1989 Chevy Cavalier, “Little Red,” and my friend Steve’s 1984 Ford Bronco XLT, “The Bus”) bound for Chi Town.
My life as I know it pretty much began that week, as I settled into grad school at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. People can pooh-pooh a Master’s degree in this business all they want, and perhaps things are very different now (well, no, I KNOW things are very different now, I just mean the degree) but to me the experience was invaluable. And walking those streets today brought back such good memories of that time. My old dorm building. The restaurant I frequented a few times a week. The path along the lakefront. The Barnes & Noble I treated like a second home (and not because of the free wifi – to actually read books – wifi was in its nascent development then and would not see the world stage for years. The Internet in my dorm was via AOL dial up, but there wasn’t a lot to see except for chatting with friends back home … I still remember I ditched my usual gtonthebus username that year for something more Chicago-centric: Chiberzerker).
Aside from technique, I learned one big thing in grad school about journalism that has stayed with me to this day: If you make deadline, you get to go to the bar! Little did I understand then how valuable such knowledge would be through my career. For good or bad, it’s an evergreen truth of the industry.
And one of the men who taught me that, though he might not love being associated with that particular nugget, is Jon Ziomek – Jonny Z as we all still affectionately call him. And so I met up with him to quench our palates, though this time, 18 years later, not with a pitcher of Old Style at The Keg (R.I.P.) but with glasses of white wine at the Orrington Hotel bar. He is the only professor I have kept in touch with over the years, and catching up with him was delightful. 18 years? Really? We certainly had plenty to talk about, including the size of the Chicago Sun-Times and what exactly was the value these days for that piece of paper I earned way back when – at just the right time for me.
I hopped on the purple line down to FirstMerit Bank Pavilion on Northerly Island, which as Jonny Z had just confirmed for me, was not actually an island. But whatever. This terribly named venue on a terribly named, hard-to-access spit of land was host to a makeup show from a cancelled June date for Robert Plant and the Sensational Shapeshifters.
Again, karma was taking care of me and ensuring that the last live music show of my 30s would be the lead singer of my favorite band of my first 40 years. And a recent perusal of setlist.fm had me pretty sure that the last song I would hear live before the big 4-oh was my favorite Led Zeppelin anthem – “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a perfect 3:40 (forty!) instrument thrashing jam session.
It was, though Plant had altered its makeup somewhat, bluesing it up and slowing it down. Nothing wrong with that.
I suppose this is the right time to list a personal Top 40. Songs MUST be released in my lifetime, knocking out sure things like the aforementioned “Rock N Roll.” I tried to do one per year, but 1995-97, the heart of my college radio DJ wonderland, just laughed at me.
These are 40 songs that mean something to me. Compiling a list, in exact order, of my 40 favorite songs of “all time” would probably put me in therapy.
Aside from the top 10, this list is very fluid. Tomorrow a song may spike up, I’ll kick myself as soon as I publish this for forgetting “SONGX” and new ones can always be added (very rare, these days).
And before you argue, might I remind you, it’s PERSONAL! So ease up, Casey Kasem:
O’Malley likes to lose himself in sports – and lists – and counts Eminem as one of his faves.
40. Christmas in Hollis – Run DMC (1988)
Bit of fun to start. Grew up there, so this was a household staple for the holidays
39. A Sort of Homecoming – U2 (1984)
U2 doing what they were meant to do, a soaring, melodic tug at heartstrings
38. Tubthumping – Chumbawumba (1997)
Got thrown out of more than one Chicago bar “dancing” to this
37. Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen (2012)
Come on, something recent has to be on this list. Perfect pop.
36. Stayin’ Alive – Bee Gees (1978)
Find me the person who does not own the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack.
35. Go Your Own Way – Fleetwood Mac (1977)
Ditto “Rumours” – all were government-issue with “Frampton Comes Alive.”
34. Who’s Johnny – El DeBarge (1986)
Fun song, but cryptic. No really, is she just teasing him or a real you-know-what?
33. Whoever You Are – Geggy Tah (1996)
You’ve never heard of it, probably, but it makes me smile.
32. Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy – Big & Rich (2004)
Great memories of this being “trip song” on my Summer 2004 trek out west.
31. Romeo and Juliet – Indigo Girls (1992)
If you don’t have at least 3 or 4 breakup songs on your list, you’re doing it wrong.
30. The Other Side of the Telescope – Elvis Costello (1996
Elvis has so, so, so many songs I love. This one’s underrated and beautiful.
29. As (I’ll Be Loving You Always) – Stevie Wonder (1976)
Contemplative love song slowly turns into a bitchin’ funky jam.
28. When Doves Cry – Prince (1984)
An anthem of the 80s and The Artist’s masterpiece.
27. Perfect – Sara Evans (2003)
Sentimental, one of the songs that first bonded Christy and I via country music.
26. Heaven is a Place on Earth – Belinda Carlisle (1987)
An inside joke within more sentimentality within 80s nostalgia … plus vibrato!
25. One of Us – Joan Osborne (1995)
Beautiful craftsmanship with lyrics that ensured it would be noticed.
24. Angels of the Silences – Counting Crows (1996)
Get in a car, tired, late at night, with miles to go before a bed. Press play. Repeat.
23. Popular – Nada Surf (1996)
Lost gem of the 90s. Spoken word angst. Johnny Football Hero and newspapers.
22. You Oughta Know – Alanis Morissette (1995)
Holy crap did Alanis come along at the right time in my life. A Goddess.
21. Guerilla Radio – Rage Against the Machine (1998)
Bad day? Frustrated? Pissed off? Zack and the boys have just the thing.
20. Power of Love – Huey Lewis & The News (1985)
Timely with “Back to the Future” rage. Me, at 10, skateboarding in Chuck Taylors.
19. Mr. Brightside – The Killers (2004)
Deceptively memorable. Danceable (your mileage may vary). A kick-ass album.
18. …Baby One More Time – Britney Spears (1999)
Last “silly” song on list. Britney got me back into appreciating pop for what it is.
17. No One is to Blame – Howard Jones (1985)
Go ahead and tell me you never said, “That’s me!” when hearing this. LIAR!
16. Scenario – A Tribe Called Quest (1992)
I once labeled this greatest rap song ever. Still up there. Spot-on collaboration.
15. The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get – Morrissey (1994)
If you don’t have at least one creeper song on your list, you’re doing it wrong.
14. Sandstorm – Da Rude (2000)
I can still see my friend Cory spinning like a top across the dancefloor in Iceland.
13. Spirit on the Water – Bob Dylan (2006)
My wedding dance song. Yes. It took a lot of convincing. Mushy, growly Bob.
12. The Real Slim Shady – Eminem (2000)
Heard it first time and said, “What the hell is this?” Changed rules of hip-hop.
11. In the Meantime – Spacehog (1995)
Another song that, like, 6 people might remember. College radio incarnate.
10. Fight the Power – Public Enemy (1989)
This is the greatest rap song of all time. Scorched earth. Embodiment of genre.
9. Hands Clean – Alanis Morissette (2002)
You had to be there. Alanis always seemed to be.
8. The Distance – Cake (1996)
My favorite act to see live. A modern-day, spoken-word symphony. Bass baby.
7. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (1991)
Most people’s #1 song of 90s, and rightfully so. Music was never the same after.
6. No More, No More – Aerosmith (1975)
When I heard Joe Perry once say this outro was most fun he had, I felt vindicated.
5. Breakdown – Guns N’ Roses (1991)
The last pure rock n’ roll souls on this planet: Their peak, & then they were gone.
4. Billie Jean – Michael Jackson (1983)
Confession: I went to the Jacksons ’84 Victory Tour dressed like MJ in this video.
3. Everlong – Foo Fighters (1997)
David Letterman’s favorite song. Stirs every emotion I have every single time.
2. Bitter Sweet Symphony – The Verve (1997)
Beauty. Joy. Pain. Love. Played at my wedding, will be played at my funeral.
1. Lose Yourself – Eminem (2002)
A perfect song. Singular focus. Captures message precisely: Killing that moment.
Snap back to reality. Plant delivered and his band is, in fact, befitting its name, though the venue left much to be desired with rickety bleacher stands that had HUGE spiders nesting between its bars. And for this ambience you were allowed to spend $ 14 for something as icky as a Bud Light. I went for the cocktails at a mere $ 16. If I had a ranking of music venues (idea: ranking of music venues … not now) this horror show would come in right near the bottom. Its only saving grace is a spectacular city skyline view.
We are approaching the midnight hour now. I get on a city bus, which is somehow my easiest route home. I realize the bus goes directly past the spot I intend to stand the next day at the moment I turn 40: 4:14 p.m. (3:14 local) September 24. I decide to scout it out, and I’m glad I did because I found a better choice. The one I planned on was too high up and, again, covered by spiders (come on!). At the stroke of midnight, I shoot a practice photo. I walk home on quiet streets and tuck in one last time as a 39-year-old.
STATES COVERED: 2 (Minn. Ill.); MILES WALKED: 7; GAMES ATTENDED: 0, CONCERTS: 1; OVERPRICED BEVERAGE: $ 16 GIN & SODA
DAY 5: T-MINUS ZERO DAYS TILL 40.
IT IS HERE.
The first morning of the first day that I am officially no longer a young man begins consistently with my thoughts on the event: The restaurant in which I wanted to have breakfast, the in-town location of Clarke’s in Evanston, my go-to place in grad school, despite still appearing on Google Maps, is gone.
Man yells at cloud.
I consider travelling up to Evanston, but this seems too drastic so I settle on Batter & Berries, which is a fine stand-in and provides me the French toast sustenance I so badly need if I am to make it through this.
I should mention here the previous, failed plans for turning 40. The first involved chalking up the last two states I need to complete the set of 50 and then running as far away as possible. I was going to fly from New York to Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, then on to Fairbanks, Alaska … and from there take an Arctic Circle tour, snapping a pic of myself at a roadside sign on the legendary invisible barrier at the precise right moment. This plan, while badass in theory, proved to be a lot of flying for about 5 minutes of payoff. Plus there was no way my wife could (or wanted to) join me on this daft adventure. So I passed.
The next idea was to time travel. Go back to the future. I’m still sure it’s possible, I just couldn’t get it to work in an affordable manner. I wanted to fly across the International Date Line at midnight as it turns from September 24 into the 25th) and then cross back over the following day after it turned to … the 25th again). In essence, if timed exactly right, September 24, the day I turned 40, would never exist for me. POOF! Never happened. 39 forever. Sorry, time. You lose.
Alas, finding just the right flights for this proved very difficult and financially unfeasible. The one or two that were just about right (yes, I did airspeed calculations and everything. I hinted at it earlier: I am insane) landed on some godforsaken small island I had never heard of and cost many thousands of dollars. Pass.
So I landed on Chicago as a default, this-seems-good-enough deal. But it wound up being the perfect place to suss out all the emotions I would have facing 40. Nostalgia? By the boatload. Sadness. Regrets? I’ve had a few. Joy, plenty. Hope. Love.
My wife Christy arrived in the afternoon, just in time to accompany me to the spot where we would watch my life clock turn (not literally: she lost my watch this summer. YES YOU DID! I GAVE IT TO YOU!).
Anyway, at 3:14 p.m. CDT on September 24, 2015, she and I stood and snapped a few pictures of ourselves standing beneath a Chicago street sign (its only one-block long) that read:
As you’ve seen already, one of my favorite songs is Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve. It was released in the summer of 1997 as I prepared to move halfway across the country. The distinctive, sweeping majesty of the strings spoke to me then and still gives me the feels now. It is the song to which my wife and I walked into our wedding reception. Despite its sometimes-macabre lyrics, to me it’s an uplifting song, a beautiful song, a song I want to hear all the time, at all important moments of my life. If you ever watched Ally McBeal, it is my conjuring up a disco behemoth, my Barry White, my “Going the Distance” bells from Rocky – my own personal theme song. If you didn’t watch Ally (and I’m an old man now, I can start admitting things like this: that I watched and enjoyed and, yes, even cried at the finale of Ally McBeal) you should. Especially if you’re still reading this. Are you still reading this? Wow. That means you are someone sorta like me who probably appreciates the idea of a personal theme song. Shouldn’t we all?
Bittersweet Place seemed the perfect spot for such a moment in time.
With absolutely nothing else on our schedule until dinner, we found ourselves next at the Lincoln Park Zoo, not seeing very many animals, unfortunately. We had been before and it is a lovely spot – such a nice idea to have a free zoo right in the middle of a city. But on this trip we think it was nap time, having just been feeding time. We saw a rhinoceros. Yay.
Dinner was a terrific (if not only just slightly disappointing because we had built it up SO MUCH in our minds) meal at Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo. Our waiter asked if we were in the food and wine industry. We said no, but we were from New York and were, sure, a bit food and wine snobby and he said, “Oh, you must live in Astoria then.”
Wow. We do. That’s a pretty impressive leap. Turns out he used to live here too and anyway our flight of wine turned into extra tastes of this and that and suddenly there were more glasses on the table than dishes and the rest is a bit blurry. Win.
STATES COVERED: 1 (Ill.) – ONE?!; MILES WALKED: 9; GAMES/CONCERTS ATTENDED: 0; RHINOCEROS SEEN: 1 GLASSES OF WINE: ?
DAY 6: T-PLUS ONE DAY. THIS IS 40.
Happiness is waking up one block from Wrigley Field on a game day. And this one would be extra special. There was one plan I haven’t told you about yet for 40 and it was only enacted once Chicago was decided on. I asked the Cubs if I could spend my 40 “moment” standing on home plate at Wrigley. They, predictably and understandably, said no. No one goes on the infield. Okay, fine.
But then they did something they did not have to do, not at all. They offered for me to go down and hang out on the field behind the batting cage for batting practice for the game on this day, which I was already planning on attending.
So many, many thanks to Alyson and Travis and the whole @cubs gang, who put together the best and most engaging sports team social media presence I’ve yet seen.
(UPDATE: SORRY, @CUBS … THAT WAS A ROUGH SERIES VS. THE METS.)
My whole gang of four was allowed down on the field. Christy and I got to take pictures in the on-deck circle and that was pretty sweet as well. The Cubbies, whom I adopted as my National League team around 1996 on my first baseball road trip, were taking on the Pirates, for whom I have had a very soft spot since I first visited their magnificent PNC Park in 2003. It was pretty much known already that this was to be a preview of the NL Wild Card game – winner move on, loser go home.
On this day, the Pirates prevailed. When it counted, the Cubs shut them down. That was truly bittersweet.
But back then this was just an above-average-excitement-level regular season game.
The rest of the day was spent with friends catching up, but one more adventure awaited. Again, fate would intercede with some historic fun.
STATES COVERED: 1 (Ill.); MILES WALKED: 4.4; GAMES/CONCERTS ATTENDED: 1 MLB; DEEP DISH PIZZAS CONSUMED: ¼ (Too much … it’s just too much)
DAY 7: T-PLUS TWO DAYS SINCE 40.
We woke up and hauled off to Midway airport, but I couldn’t cheat on O’Hare after all she’d done for me on this trip, so this visit was not for a flight. We were picking up a rental car bound for Cincinnati – another meaningless September tilt involving the Reds … hold up.
Rich watched Matt Harvey and the Mets clinch the N.L. East with win over Cincinnati at Great American Ballpark.
The Mets can clinch the division tonight? For reals?! There’s a massive contingent of 7 Line Army faithful in their cars headed there from New York right now? Well, this might be pretty cool to see. I’m not a Mets fan, but I have no animosity toward them like many who grew up rooting for the Yankees. And this particular Mets team is fun, loveable and talented as heckfire. In many ways they have reminded me of my beloved ’96 Yankees with their blend of a young core 4 who would turn into superstars (for the Mets, the big 3 pitchers, plus many other talented kids who are only just finding their way), plus some big name free agents who have played a big part (Cespedes, Granderson).
Suddenly I realized, I had made a rookie mistake. I forgot to take into account the time zone change back into Indiana and Ohio. Despite our early departure time, we were going to be late to the game.
Amateur hour. Embarrassing.
As it turned out, after a mind-numbing (but not “never again”) drive, we only missed three innings. Could have been worse. We did miss most of the scoring, which had the Mets up 7-2 early. But that gave us time to wander the stadium and take some notes.
Christy has now been to 18 stadiums, an impressive feat, and a lot of that is my fault, but she actually enjoys baseball games – just not three in three days plus two football games, which is why she met me halfway through this trip. We both liked Great American Ballpark. It moved up my list. It seemed more intimate and small-town – a bit kitschy with the red “Pepsi Power” poles and steamboat replica in CF, but that also gave it charm. Great beer selection. Turns out Cincy is a very beer-centric town. And any time I can see a bridge or two from a park, I’m generally content.
The Mets fans were there in force – an impressive accomplishment – I’ve driven from New York to Cincinnati, it ain’t easy. But I guarantee they all think it was worth it now, as their team celebrated its first division title in nine years.
My aunt Joellen texted me “Let’s Go Mets! So exciting!”
Which is odd, because, again, I’m not a Mets fan. I just assumed she knew I was there from seeing my Instagrams or something and so she texted me.
I sent her back the video of the team celebration I had just taken.
She did not know I was there.
“Really? You’re like g–damn Waldo.”
That’s probably one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.
We found out that night that there is actually a cool section of Cincinnati, the historic district of Over the Rhine. I missed it on my first visit in 1996, leading me to believe Cincy was mainly just a dump. See? Never count a city out until you’ve been there twice.
We enjoyed a good meal and a better cocktail than I’ve had at many hoity-toity places in New York. So good on you, Cincy. Now I actually have a base of operations for that great college basketball trip I’ve wanted to take to Butler (Indy), Xavier & Cincy, Louisville and Kentucky.
That night we chilled in the hotel hot tub and soaked weary bones and feet. The vacation was over. It was time to go home.
STATES COVERED: 3 (Ill., Ind, Ohio); MILES DRIVEN: ~300; MILES WALKED: 5; GAMES ATTENDED: 1 MLB; DQ’S HIT: 1, ONLY BLIZZARD OF THE TRIP
DAY 8: T-PLUS THREE DAYS SINCE 40.
UPDATE: CHRISTY HAS FOUND MY WATCH! (I THINK I LEFT IT THERE.)
One last, little, delightful kick awaited me on the trip, and that was running into Keith Hernandez in the Starbucks next to the hotel. He was gracious enough to agree to a photo with me. Then he hightailed it out of there as another group of Mets fans was about to come in.
He must deal with that in every city he goes to all season. Shouldn’t Mex have someone to get coffee for him? Get on that, SNY. He’s Keith Hernandez.
We flew home and I went straight to work. One last plane to a train to yet another train. Bag on my back, I walked into the office.
A few hours later, Sunday Night Football came on. It was in Detroit, remember?
In the stadium I had walked through in the dark just six days prior.
A mere 260 miles from Cincy – a four-and-a-half hour drive.
I so could have made it.
STATES COVERED: 2 (Kent., Ohio); MILES WALKED: 3.3; MILES FLOWN: 589; SUBWAY RIDES: 1; GAMES ATTENDED: 0 MLB; WORK HOURS: 8
TOTALS: 8 STATES, 5 MLB GAMES, 2 NFL GAMES, 1 CONCERT, ~1000 MILES DRIVEN, 52.5 MILES WALKED, 1 MILESTONE PASSED
The author is already thinking about and soliciting ideas for his 50th birthday on Sept. 24, 2025.