Monday, July 12, 2010

Day 3 - Lions, Tigers and Sloth Bears, Oh My!

Toledo, Ohio was only supposed to be a stopping point on the way to Detroit last Saturday night.   We had tickets for the Tigers - Mariners game which started at 7:00 pm.   Since Toledo was only a couple of hours away, we took our time that morning.   We actually were in Maumee, Ohio which is a suburb of Toledo, staying at a Fairfield Inn that was under renovation. So much so, that the entrance to the pool didn't have a door handle.  

First on the agenda was breakfast at a Cracker Barrel in Maumee.  It was my first time at a Cracker Barrel and to be very honest, I felt like I was transported back in time and on to the set of Hee Haw.  It's a very southern restaurant chain with a country motif, including I guess what you call a general store entrance.  There were also a ton, and I mean a ton of rocking chairs on the porch of the restaurant up for sale.  All that was missing was Roy Clark and Buck Owens playing and saying "Pickin and a Grinnin".  You need to know your Hee Haw for that line.  Now breakfast was actually quite good, and also to be honest, I really liked beng there. It was a nice change of pace.

After now getting one of the Hee Haw songs stuck in my brain, we decided to head toward a shopping mall on a very hot Saturday to get my kids some presents.  As we followed my navigation system's route, we realized that we were heading directly towards the Toledo Zoo.  So we decided to chuck the shopping mall idea and hang out at the Toledo Zoo.  As I noted on my Facebook status,"What do two guys on a baseball trip do to pass the time before the Tigers game?  Go to the Toledo Zoo!"

The Toledo Zoo is a large zoo right outside of the city. It's actually quite well done.  The zoo is split into two parts.  Each part of the zoo is on separate sides of the highway, joined together by an enclosed walking bridge, or as we call at Hofstra, a Unispan.  The cost of the zoo is quite reasonable, $11.00 for adults.  

There are a lot of exhibits at the zoo - snow leopard, lions, cheetah (though it was closed), a an African safari exhibit with wildebeest, giraffes, antelope and zebra, a nice aquarium and insect exhibit,  Our favorite was the gorilla exhibit, where the one dominant male gorilla, put on a show during feeding time.  He clapped his hands for the oranges and kept wanting more.  And oh yeah, there was those couple of times he scared off the other gorillas there when they went near an orange that he wanted.  Very entertaining.

We ended up spending three hours at the Toledo Zoo and our mission was accomplished.  Two guys with seemingly nothing to do before going to a ball game in Detroit ended up having a really good time at a zoo that my two boys would love.  And oh yeah, I got each of them a toy Volkswagen Beetle that had either leopard spots or zebra stripes.  Nice.

We headed out to Detroit and made it there pretty quickly.  As we made our way toward the city from the highway, we could tell we were in a city that was a veritable postcard for the industrial revolution. From a distance there were lots of smokestacks which dominated each side of the highway.  

As we got into the city itself, we could tell how much of a toll the downturn of the automobile industry had taken on the city of Detroit.  On each side of the highway, a significant number of  houses and buildings had their windows boarded up or had no windows at all.  The buildings were abandoned, just like the industry that had put Detroit on the map.  It was sadly everything you  had seen from news reports over the years, but you had wished it was just media hype.  

We parked in a parking garage right next to the Fox Theater and decided to hit the Hockeytown Cafe for an early dinner.  The Hockeytown Cafe is literally across the street from Comerica Park and it's really a major tourist attraction.  It has several levels and has a ton, and I mean a ton of sports memorabilia.  Of course, I had to take a picture of the Trammell and Whitaker jerseys, inseparable as the double play combination was in their heyday for the Tigers.

We had a pretty good early dinner, standard sports cafe food.  The pulled pork sandwich on white toast was a nice touch and we had a front row seat for the large flat screen TV showing the Mets - Nationals game in which Steven Strasberg was pitching.  We fortunately got in there early because when we left there was a lot of people waiting for a table. 

Then it was onto Comerica Park.  It only took a few minutes for me to fall for this truly magnificently done ball park. There are so many touches, little and small, too numerous to even write in this blog, but I will try to capture many of the details I can.  

First, the entrance with the giant tiger and the tigers on top of the entrance is downright impressive. Quite possibly the coolest entrance to a MLB ballpark I have seen (and I have now seen 16 Major League ballparks, including the now extinct Shea Stadium and Old Yankee Stadium).  Second, the ability to completely walk around the entire park on the same level is what I consider one of those small neat touches. Third, before you go into the ballpark, walk along the side street between Comerica and Ford Field, the domed football field right next to Comerica.   It's pretty neat to see a line of Tigers banners on one side of the street and Lions banners on the other side.  You also see that every so often on the side of the Comerica building is a tiger head with a baseball in its mouth.  Another neat touch.

Fourth, the Tiger carousel in the food court was just a great idea.  Something for the kids while you go online for food is just a nice thought and very well done.  Right by there also is a Tiger painted Statute of Liberty.  I am sure Yankee fans will find that sacrilege, but I thought it was pretty neat.  Now I can't say anything about the food at the Tigers game because we ate at Hockeytown USA.   But you won't go hungry.

However, the touch I loved the most was the historical decade centerpieces that are in the first level walkway as you go around the park.   Each of them has a review of the Tigers from the 20's, 30, 40's etc.   It's a baseball historian's wet dream (for want of a better term).  And I really liked the fact that they put in something historical from that decade, like an old fashioned radio.

Here's a tip, get to the ballpark early for enough for batting practice, even if it's just the road team's batting practice.  Then go sit in the outfield seats, whether it's left field or right field.   The first thing you realize is that the park is ENORMOUS and it takes a good poke to hit a home run at Comerica.  No wonder Juan Gonzalez had a conniption when he played there when it first opened.  And you can see in left field  because they put up a new fence for the bullpen and you can see the difference between the new fence and the existing wall where the first row of seats are.

The second thing you notice when you are at your seat is that the Tigers did an excellent job with the field, the scoreboard, the center field Chevrolet Fountain, the whole backdrop is really well done.  The one thing I highly suggest is that if you go to a Detroit game in early July for a 7pm start, and your seats are field level on the third base line, bring a pair of sunglasses (which I thankfully did).  The sun is right in your eyes for a good four innings.  

As for the game itself, well we were fortunate to be there when the Tigers ace, Justin Verlander was starting.  He was definitely by far the best starting pitcher we would see pitching on this trip.  He also was a hit with the ladies as a lot of female Tigers fans went to the third base line to take his picture as he strolled out to the bullpen.  The only other player I have seen that with in the past few weeks was the Phillies Jayson Werth, when I had RF tickets for a Phillies home game during a conference I was attending. Memo to the Phillies - Don't trade Werth.  The guy is a freakin rock star in Philly.  Try to pawn off Ibanez and spend the money resigning Werth.

Verlander didn't disappoint the fans (or the female admirers for that matter).  He was on top of his game.  The weak Mariners lineup struck out early and often.  Meanwhile, it took a few innings, but the Tigers lineup finally got to Mariner starter Jason Vargas in the fourth inning for two runs, then knocked him out with four runs in the fifth inning. That broke Vargas' span of fourteen straight starts of allowing three earned runs or less in a game.  

What I really think did Vargas in was the Tigers All Star player Miguel Cabrera.  After Cabrera hit a leadoff double in the bottom of the second against him, Vargas walked Cabrera two straight times, one intentionally.  Both were in the middle of the two innings where the Tigers scored all their runs.  Cabrera simply intimidated Vargas.  

And rightfully so considering Cabrera is hitting .346 with 22 HRs and 77 RBIs.   The previous day during breakfast, I was reading a Sports Weekly in the hotel lounge about Cabrera turning his life around and stopped drinking last season.  He actually is now more focused than ever and it shows. Here's the scary thing. Before this season,in his previous six full seasons, Cabrera only once hit less than 33 HRs, never had a full season less than 103 RBIs and in his six full seasons never hit under .292 (and hit above .300 in four of those six full seasons).   Cabrera is close to being the Albert Pujols of the AL.

You could have left the game after the fifth inning.  The Mariners were toast. The lineup featured a cleanup hitter hitting .240 and the five through nine batters were for the most part even worse.  We actually left for the long trip to Chicago after the sixth inning.  Verlander would go seven innings and strike out ten Mariners.   Anyone who attended the game could tell that Cliff Lee was going to be traded in a short amount of time.   The Mariners are going to need to require a lot of revamping in the offseason.  A lot of revamping.

Meanwhile, Tigers' fans should rejoice as the Tigers should be good for several years to come. Cabrera is a dominant force in the lineup and Magglio Ordonez makes a great Pippen to Cabrera's Jordan.  The Tigers have young star hitters in Austin Jackson and the pictured Brandon Boesch.  And Detroit has good young pitching in Verlander, Max Scherzer, and if he can straighten himself out, Rick Porcello.  

As I noted we had seen enough and we headed back to the parking garage to get our car for the long trip to Chicago.  But first, I had to take a picture of the large Tiger in the front entrance.  So cool.  I took a couple of pictures also of the Fox Theatre and of Hockeytown Cafe.   As we headed out of the parking garage, we saw a lot of young twenty somethings lined up for a club nearby the stadium, with a lot of the female clubgoers wearing things I would not want my daughter wearing (well if I had a daughter that is).  Then, we left Detroit as quickly as we came in.  Sadly there was nothing else to see but more abandoned buildings on the highway. 

We then traveled across the state of Michigan.  As we did, we ended up taking out a lot of kamikaze bugs on an interstate highway in Michigan.  When we stopped for gas later on, Tieff had to clean the windshield and the front of the car a few times from all the bugs that gave up their lives on my Honda Accord.  Finally, we got to our hotel room in Chicago around midnight.  Another day, another city, another stadium.   

And if you are wondering, "why the title to the article?"  Well, we saw lions at the Toledo Zoo.  And of course, we saw the Tigers play.  Sloth Bears?  Well that was also at the Zoo.  And if you are wondering what a sloth bear is, look at the picture to your left.  Again, the things you learn on a baseball trip.

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