As widely publicized, I recently spent a long weekend along the Gulf Coast of Florida to warm my winter-battered body, to visit with some of the family, and to stalk Alex Rodriguez in a socially acceptable manner. There were many amusing sights and sounds along my travels, and here I offer you the highlights.
I am normally very efficient about traveling. I pack no more than what I absolutely need to survive. I mentally map out my entire voyage from my front door to my destination, so as to not have to waste time consulting maps or asking for directions. And I set my alarm unnecessary hours ahead of the absolute latest time possible for me to wake up and make my connections without breaking into a sweat. This time, however, proved to be different.
For reasons as yet unknown—fatigue, anticipation, or intoxication—I set my alarm incorrectly the night before my flight to Ft. Myers. Whereas I intended to rise at 5:00 AM so I could reach Newark Airport using public transportation, I instead woke (of my own volition, thank you) at 6:20. Upon seeing the time, I may have actually propelled myself from a horizontal position in my bed to a vertical position on my floor in a single explosion of energy. I paced the length of my apartment twice, muttering obscenities, and then stopped to formulate a plan. I had no bags to check and it was still over an hour before my flight was to begin boarding. All I had to do was get to the airport, print my boarding pass, and sail through security.
The ten agonizing minutes I spent waiting for my cab were the worst of my vacation; that is, until my cab driver started heading north on the New Jersey Turnpike towards the Lincoln Tunnel instead of south towards the airport, which was clearly in sight. I never like being a backseat driver, particularly to a professional, but I decided to speak up. He had realized the mistake, and quickly and illegally turned himself around along the twisting hydra heads of on- and off-ramps. I was on the curb at the terminal with an hour to go before take-off, so I tipped him. Hey, he still got me to the airport, didn’t he?
The Big Hurt
My mother and aunt met me at the airport and we drove south to Naples. It wasn’t noon yet and the mercury had already passed 80. There had been no precipitation of any kind for two weeks. Though I brought my computer along, there would really be no professional reason to have to use it. I was as happy as one of the Gulf’s many clams.
Within an hour of my arrival, and only six or so after waking up in the unpleasant manner I did, I was on a smooth sandy beach modeling my newly purchased swimwear. The sun was starting to crisp my skin, so long hidden from the elements this winter, and we didn’t have a damn thing to do but relax. Kicking back under our beach umbrellas, I surveyed the scenery.
If you’re planning a trip to Florida for, how shall we say, recreational purposes, be sure you choose a destination on the younger, trendier, presumably healthier east coast. Now, I’m not one to judge. I mean, sure, I just signed up for three more months of personal training, but I’m eating mint milanos as I write this. Regardless, the fact of the matter is that I could not believe the number of grossly overweight people I saw on the beach that day. Maybe they weren’t all native Floridians, but I have to believe most of them were. This wasn’t a destination beach; it was a public park. These heifers hadn’t strayed far from their pastures, okay?
I just don’t understand it. And I don’t mean it to say, “You live five minutes from the beach. How could you let yourself go like that?” No, I mean it to say, “It’s 80 fucking degrees here and it’s only the beginning of spring. How can you not simply sweat 15 pounds off a day?” I got pit stains just loading beach chairs into the trunk of my uncle’s car. Are these people mixing cement into their cookie dough?
And I’m going to take this opportunity to request that in whichever city next hosts a fashion week, the preeminent designers of the world get together and create a new way to dress the lower half of a woman’s body for swimsuit season. Because while it might be lovely to see all the exposed flesh offered by a bikini on a Brooklyn Decker or an Elle MacPhereson, the garment does no favors for the women of southwest Florida whose individual thighs are wider than your typical swimsuit model’s waist. Between the quivering quads and disturbingly distended stomachs, there were a few terrifying moments when I wasn’t sure if these ladies had their bottoms covered at all. It looked like things were getting all lost up in there. Gross. Honestly, there has to be a better way, for all of us.
Sunday we drove back in to Ft. Myers to see the Minnesota Twins host the New York Yankees at their spring training facility at Hammond Field. This would be my first chance to succeed at my most challenging mission: to take a Christmas card photo with a Yankee.
Clearly, Alex Rodriguez was the prime target, but I wouldn’t turn down someone like Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner, or even one of the organization’s most promising minor leaguers (okay, maybe that’s not true). I wasn’t sure how I would manage to get into such close quarters with any of these fellows, nor was I sure how I would act when presented with the opportunity–especially if it happened to be Alex. Now, I’ve met some pretty famous people in my line of work, and I’ve handled myself with aplomb. But Alex Rodriguez? Let me tell you, I have had two separate dreams in which I met Alex Rodriguez, and even in the dreams I couldn’t form words. In the second of those dreams, I must have looked so literally dumbstruck that Dream Alex kind of quietly sighed and blinked his eyes the way you do when you’re about to engage someone of such obviously depleted mental faculties before extending his giant hand and saying, “You must be Tyler.” And I couldn’t speak. My unconscious self was rendered mute in the presence of an imagined Alex Rodriguez. That’s what we’re dealing with, people. A flesh and blood encounter would be DEFCON 1.
We had excellent seats in the last row of the field level, safe in the shade and just below the press boxes, right behind home plate. During Alex’s first two at-bats, whenever he would step out of the box and scan the crowd, I waved. A real attention-getting wave, too; arm straight up over my head, strong movement at the elbow, fingers spread wide. He had to have seen me. The beer and peanut vendors certainly saw me, and they were good-humored enough not to say anything when I explained that I had not, in fact, been flagging them down; I was just waving to my pal, Alex Rodriguez.
I had been watching with envy as numerous players, even the notoriously antisocial Alex, interacted with the fans seated closest to the dug-out. In the fifth inning, I decided to try my luck. This being spring training, I couldn’t imagine that there would be an army of ushers keeping the plebes from wandering down into the high-roller’s seats. Alex was on deck, seated in one of four folding chairs set up outside the dugout. I don’t mind telling you that as I got closer, I started to freak out just a tiny bit. I’m like twenty rows of seats away from him now. I can see the whites of his eyes, even hear his voice. There’s no way I’m going to be able to take a picture with him, I realize, but there’s a very good chance I’m going to get an outstanding picture of him. I decide I’ll wait for the current batter to finish before I nonchalantly stride down the steps to the third row.
Said batter strikes out. There were two outs, so now Alex won’t be batting this inning. To my disbelieving eyes, Alex Rodriguez hands off his batting gloves and other athletic accessories to the nearest attendant and heads into the dugout…for good! He was done for the day, and never came back out. I waited in vain, but when the Yanks take the field, Eric Chavez was now at third. Eric Chavez? Honestly? I’m sure he’s a nice guy and a solid player, but come on!
Defeated, I went back to my seat. I had one more chance at getting a picture with Alex. Perhaps when we traveled to Tampa, the home team advantage would help me out.
On Monday, I awoke to the sound of rain. And not a light, tropical misting rain. Rolling claps of thunder rain. I put the pillow back over my head. Hadn’t part of the purpose of this trip been to escape the constant precipitation in the northeast? Fortunately, the storm passed by around 10:00, which was when I finally decided to get out of bed. My uncle was golfing, so my aunt and mother and I headed into hopping downtown Naples to enjoy the sunshine while it lasted. And, of course, to eat.
I put on a good four or five pounds during this trip. There is some mighty fine eating to be had in southwest Florida. Maybe that’s how all the leviathans on the beach got their start. The three of us decided to check out a place that had long been on their to-do list: Joe’s Crab Shack. It was a kitschy joint with cocktails served in mason jars, rolls of paper towels for the table instead of folded napkins, and double entendres plastered floor-to-ceiling on assorted pieces of memorabilia.
The food was just as good as the ambiance.
On Tuesday, we drove the two-plus hours to Tampa to see the Yankees on their home turf. Steinbrenner Field is quite a different environment from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. For one thing, it isn’t hemmed in on all sides by busy New York streets, large apartment buildings, or elevated subway tracks. Steinbrenner Field sits across from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ much more impressive Raymond James Stadium, a six-lane highway with plenty of traffic lights being the only thing between them. The only other things along this stretch of road were car dealerships, strip joints, and fast food establishments (all, I imagine, of varying quality).
The Yankee facility consisted of a number of practice fields, most of which we didn’t see. I was on a mission, after all, so right into the stadium we went. We were rewarded for our punctuality with a free giveaway: replicas of the Yankees’ 2000 World Series championship rings! They were preposterously oversized, clearly designed to fit on even the doughiest of hands. Still, it looks pretty cool, and I spent a good portion of my return trip trying to conflate a believable story to tell you all about how Derek Jeter, in his infinite kindness, saw fit to give me one of his many rings.
There isn’t a bad seat in the house at Steinbrenner Field. The coolest views, however, can be found in the right field bleacher section. Beyond the hot dog stand and fully stocked outdoor bar, there is an elevated walkway from which fans can look down into the bullpens. And it was from here that I got the closest I ever have a New York Yankee.
Half an hour before the game, Nick Swisher emerged from the batting cages beneath the stadium with some lucky little Yankee fans. No, not midgets; children. Clearly a family unit, the mom was toting all kinds of souvenirs and camera equipment while The Swish played catch with the oldest and most coordinated of the group. Later, when I was watching the dugout intently for any sign of You Know Who, I saw Swisher hand a number of autographed baseballs to the mom.
As it was the last game of spring training, all the starters were on hand, save for those recovering from injury. My mom and I were seated in an almost identical location to where we were for the Twins game. My aunt and uncle, however, were seated about ten rows from the field along the third base line. When they came up to our seats to escape the heat, I was more than happy to trade places with them.
I didn’t last much longer than an inning or so. The heat was almost too intense to enjoy, and I didn’t really want my generous hosts to think that I was willfully ditching them for a chance to make a professional athlete feel vaguely uncomfortable. But it was still quite a rush being that close to Alex Rodriguez while he was in the game. He made one of his patented full body extension stops, laying out all 6’3″ of himself to stop the ball from rolling on into left field. It was amazing to see just how fast the ball was hit off the bat, and just how fast he reacted to intercept it. He is a big dude, but he was back on his feet in enough time to make the play at first. And his uniform wasn’t even that dirty!
Unfortunately, there was no way of getting close to the players once the game was over. Most starters had been replaced by the eighth inning, anyway. So I am sad to report that I did not bring home the Holy Grail. Oh, well. There’s a long season ahead, and I plan to attend a number of games. Perhaps that fateful encounter is in the cards for sometime in the future.
Since I had made my plans to fly home from Tampa, we had a quick, mediocre meal at California Pizza Kitchen (where no self-respecting New Yorker should be caught dead to begin with) before the rellies dropped me at the airport. My flight to JFK was already listed as being an hour late, so I worked my way through $30 worth of newspapers and magazines before disappearing into the men’s room to change out of my summer clothes and into my parka and snowshoes, so that I wouldn’t freeze to death when I emerged in New York.
The flight was uneventful, but I have to say that while waiting there in the terminal for a plane that wouldn’t come, I realized that everyone’s preconceptions about New Yorkers are by and large accurate. My fellow passengers were loud, pissy, had entirely too many electronic possessions on their person, and seemed to take this minor flight delay as a serious personal affront. The moment the plane taxied into the gate, they were jostling for position at the door. People, have you ever fucking flown before? It’s almost half an hour from the time the first fat fuck parks his rear in first class until lift-off. The plane will not leave without you! Trust me!
I was on the ground at JFK at 11:30. Seeing as how I had to be at work the next morning, I was debating whether to get home via the air train, subway and/or Long Island Railroad, and PATH trains, or simply pony up whatever cash I had left and see how far and fast a cab would take me. To my great surprise, neither the dispatcher nor the driver blinked and eye when I said I had to get to Jersey City. We were crossing through the boroughs with ease, until we got to the Holland Tunnel. Had we been two measly car lengths ahead, we would have sailed right through; but apparently midnight is when the traffic cops intervene and temporarily close the tunnel so that there is only one lane running in either direction. I cursed my luck with cabs these past four days. Here I was stranded in Tribeca on a Wednesday night, an automotive Cinderella. The tunnel was eventually reopened, but we had to drive behind a construction vehicle that acted like some kind of pace car. I never realized how long the Holland Tunnel was until I was driving through it at 15 miles per hour. All I could think was, “Robbie Cano lives in north Jersey, and I bet he doesn’t have to deal with shit like this!”
Out of gratitude, I more or less emptied my wallet into my valiant cabbie’s hands. I trudged up the stairs to my place and quickly got into my pj’s (Yankee boxers, natch). I set my alarm–correctly–and looked at what I now had on my nightstand. There was my phone (almost out of battery), my wallet (almost out of money), my camera (almost out of memory), and my keys (almost out of…damn it). And added to that pile, in a tiny protective pouch, was my World Series ring. Yeah, it’s fake, but it’s still pretty cool.