Thursday, September 26 – Sunday, September 29, 2013
I felt something pulsating in my pocket. First it was a vibration. But it quickly changed to the sound of a bluesy piano riff. I saw numbers flashing on the screen as I answered my cell phone.
“Hi Dad, I’m here,” said a familiar voice.
“Matt, where are you?” I asked.
“I’m here in Miami at the airport, calling you via Skype. Where are you?”
“I just got off the plane,” I said. “I’ll meet you at the rental car center.”
I quickly boarded the People Mover and weaved my way through the Miami airport, arriving at the Sixt rental counter in a matter of minutes. I saw a familiar face and gave my son a big hug.“I haven’t seen you in….”
“Ten weeks,” he said, completing my sentence. It was now late September, the final week of baseball’s regular season and the beginning of a new father/son journey.
In my mind, I flashed back to a Nicaraguan beach where my daughter Sarah and I had joined Matt for a Central American adventure. The summer solstice had kept the sun high in the sky, until the orange ball kissed the blue Pacific waters and descended into the sea.
In early June, Sarah and I had traveled fifteen hours to visit Matt, who was designing soccer fields and city parks for the town of Matagalpa, nestled high in the coffee-rich hills.
Now, Matt and I were meeting in Miami for a new baseball trip, this time to see a game in our 33rd ballpark.
We loaded our gear into our rental car, a silver Nissan Sentra and started driving to Marlins Park, where the home team was hosting the Philadelphia Phillies. We headed south on La Jeune Road to exit the airport and took a right onto State Road 836.
Something felt wrong.
“Dad you should be going east not west,” my son shouted.
“It looks like Wrong Way Mike has done it again,” I said to myself.
I quickly reversed course and hit the gas, knowing the first pitch was just 20 minutes away. We couldn’t be late. It would be sacrilege to miss the start of the game. Luckily, the baseball gods were with us that night as we navigated our way through traffic and into the parking lot. At the walk-up ticket window, we scored great seats.
“You see, spontaneity is good,” Matt lectured me. “You don’t always have to buy tickets in advance. Sometimes it’s fun not to plan anything at all, but go with the flow.”
“Just go inside,” I countered. We found our seats along the 3rd base line, a mere 8 rows behind the action.
The stadium was nearly empty and ours to explore. The retractable roof was fully extended to cover the entire skyline, shutting out the oppressive humidity but also blocking our view of the stars above.
Deep behind the centerfield wall, I noticed a massive monument to the Marlins, standing seven stories tall. It consisted of art deco style images of fish and flamingos surrounded by palm trees and water.
The structure was designed to sparkle and dance whenever a Marlins player hits a home run, but for this game it was a silent night.
75-foot tall home run structure
“I’m hungry,” Matt declared.
“Okay let’s eat,” I said.
Matt was meat-deprived in Nicaraugua and settled on a ballpark hamburger, while I selected a local seafood delight of fresh oysters dipped with lime juice and hot sauce. It was pricey but delicious.
Oysters at the ballpark
Matt and I clicked our bottles of beer and took in the sights of the game. In the second inning, Marlins slugger Adeiny Hechavarria tripled off Phillies ace Cole Hammels to drive in two runs and give Miami a 2-0 lead.
The Marlins are big on entertainment, which includes male and female cheerleaders dancing and singing throughout the stadium. It’s the only baseball park where I can recall seeing cheerleaders. Nightclubbing is also big in Miami and so the Marlins have created a hangout, known as the Clevelander for the hipster crowd.
It features a pool and dancers clad in go-go boots, rocking out to music with a Latin beat. It’s got a homegrown Miami vibe and certainly a different look and feel compared to the hallowed halls of Fenway Park or Wrigley Field.
Inside the Clevelander, you can get an up-close view of the visitor’s bullpen, where we saw Cesar Jimenez, a young pitcher from Venezuela, warming up for the Phillies. Upon entering the game, Jimenez walked two Marlins, but did not surrender a run, in a game the home team would eventually win 3-2.
View from the bullpen
Marlins Park is also the only stadium that features a fully loaded Bobblehead museum, consisting of miniature players from every Major League team.
Parents and kids of all ages hovered around the bobbleheads to get a closer look. For some reason, it triggered an emotional response in my son.
“I’m a bit homesick for America,” he confided.
“Why, they don’t have bobbleheads in Nicaraugua?”
“Well the point is, I miss American culture – not just bobbleheads but burgers and fries. I like the innumerable choices you can make here about restaurants, travel and freedom of expression. It’s easy to take democracy for granted, but when you live in a socialist country for a while, you begin to understand how important it is to have individual rights, not to mention hot showers and a dryer for your clothes. Those things are only luxuries in Nicaragua.”
“It sounds like you’ve become more patriotic,” I said.
“I appreciate how good we’ve got it in the United States,” came the response from my son who was showing signs of wisdom beyond his years.
“Well tomorrow I’ll show you more of it. We’re driving to Key West.”
Highway 1 meanders from Miami slowly southward through the Florida Keys, a chain of islands surrounded by the crystal blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s normally about a three hour to journey to Key West, unless you pull over every fifteen minutes to take pictures, which I insisted on doing. I was mesmerized by the multi-hued shades of blue water.
“Just one more photo,” I told Matt as we made our 14th stop.
“No worries, no hurry,” came the suprisingly calm response from a kid who used to complain every time we got out of the car.
“Wow, you’ve mellowed,” I stated.
“Older and wiser now,” he said as we approached the Six-Toed Cat, a restaurant across from the Hemingway Museum that to our delight, was still serving breakfast at 2:30 in the afternoon. Matt devoured the pancakes flanking his eggs benedict.
Ernest Hemingway lived at 907 Whitehead Street in Key West from 1931 – 1939. It was during that time span that he wrote some of his greatest works, including The Snows of Kiliminjaro and To Have and Have Not. Hemingway was also obsessed with cats and today his former house is home to literally dozens of felines that roam the place freely as if they own it. And in a sense they do, since the museum makes sure the cats are well fed.
The Hemingway Museum
Hemingway also loved his life in Cuba, which is just 90 miles away. Key West is the southernmost point in the continental United States, a fact reinforced by thousands of tourists who line up every day to have their pictures taken at the concrete buoy on the tip of the island.
And much to my surprise, Matt even agreed to make a cameo appearance with his old man.
“You’re allowing me to record this moment in time?” I asked. “I thought you don’t like to be used as a prop for pictures?”
“Just one photo,” he snapped. “That’s your quota for the day.”
We walked for miles along the beach, soaking in the sun and the salt water.
“Let’s head back to the hotel and put on our swim trunks,” I suggested.
Within minutes, we were diving into the balmy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
“I’m feeling really good,” Matt said.
“And I have no agenda,” I replied.
“That’s why I’m relaxed Dad. Let’s not make any plans.”
I closed my eyes on the beach and drifted into dreamland.
When I awoke, the sun was little more than a golden glow on the horizon.
“Are you thirsty?” I asked.
“Hungry too,” Matt said.
We quickly changed, then walked down to Sunset Pier, the perfect place to watch the sun dip from the sky into the ocean. We dined on fish tacos and drank beers until well past sunset, watching the sailboats go by as our evening entertainment. Life was good.
A bright light appeared in the newly darkened sky.
“That’s the planet Venus,” I proclaimed. “It’s the one they call the evening star because it’s the first one you’ll see at night.”
“I doubt that’s Venus,” said the mouth that roared. “It’s probably just another star.”
“Let’s watch it for a while,” I said. “If it moves in the next hour or so, we’ll know it’s a planet, not a star.”
Matt nodded his head as we tipped back our beers and watched the celestial show above.
The waitress reinforced us with refills, so I poured mine into the ice-cold glass, which created lots of foam that seeped out onto the table.
“Dad, when are you going to learn how to pour a beer? This is how you do it,” Matt said as he poured his IPA perfectly into the glass, with no spillage.
“Where did you learn how to do that?”
“I went to college,” he said. “Beer drinking 101. But obviously you didn’t take that class.”
Schooled by the kid, I said nothing. Incrementally, the bright light in the western sky began to move.
“It’s probably a plane,” said Matt.
“No it’s Venus.”
“Maybe you’re right,” he conceded.
“What’s that I didn’t hear you?”
“MAYBE YOU’RE RIGHT,” he shouted, as heads turned all around us.
“Yup it’s Venus,” I said to the crowd.
“Good for you,” Matt said. “I guess you can’t be wrong all the time.”
The next morning we were up early to go snorkeling on a coral reef, where I hovered over a nurse shark, just twenty feet below me. Luckily, it wasn’t hungry and swam away. We saw jellyfish too but avoided their stingers.
We finally made it back on dry land, where we headed north in the rental car to Key Largo, home of some of the best Key Lime pie anywhere. After dinner, we drove back to Miami, where Matt insisted on getting new underwear at Macy’s.
“You’ve been living in Nicaragua for a year and that’s what you want? Underwear?”
“Yeah Dad, we have no washers or dryers in Nicaragua. I have to wash my boxers by hand and dry them on a clothesline. But now I want to get boxer briefs. White ones, to be exact,” he informed me.
“Are you serious? You used to tease me about wearing briefs. You called them Tighty Whiteys.”
“Yeah, but I’m grown up now and I want boxer briefs. And white ones are cool.”
“Don’t you see what’s happening here? You’re becoming more like me?”
“Don’t worry Dad, I’ll grow out of it.”
Matt wanted to sleep in on Saturday, but I was back in agenda-mode and couldn’t allow that. “We’re heading to the Everglades today,” I informed him. “We’ll head west from Miami for about 25 miles and you’ll see a whole different side of Florida.”
Highway 41 is known as the Tamiami Trail because it traverses the Florida swamps between Tampa and Miami. The Trail intersects the Big Cypress National Preserve, which is home to Buffalo Tiger’s Airboat Rides. Buffalo Tiger is the legendary chief of the Miccosukee Indian Tribe that was historically part of the Seminole Nation.
Buffalo Tiger’s on the Tamiami Trail
We rented an airboat for two and our tour guide Fabian instructed us to put on headphones for our ride into Florida’s natural wonder.
After 10 minutes of gunning the propeller blades that served as our engine, Fabian cut the motor to explain the history of the Everglades, Nature’s River of Grass.
“This is the slowest river you’ll ever travel on,” he told us. It flows from Lake Okeechobee to the ocean and is teeming with wildlife. Here’s one of our local gators now,” he exclaimed as the 13-foot monster approached the boat.
Fabian began clicking the roof of his mouth as the gator swam closer.
He held out a lumpy load of white bread and dropped a nugget into the hungry reptile’s open mouth that was lined with a razor-sharp row of powerful teeth.
“His vision is basically peripheral. He looks sideways to see,” Fabian explained as he waived his hand in front of the gator’s snout. “He doesn’t see this,” Fabian said calmly.
“Well that’s probably good,” I exclaimed.
“Otherwise you might lose a finger.”
Too close for comfort
“He has a very good sense of smell,” Fabian explained. “If you ever get cut and bleed, he can smell the blood. He can also smell small animals. That’s why I always tell people if you really love your pet, it’s best not to bring them here.”
On the airboat
The Everglades have a primitive beauty and I came away from the experience more awed than ever by the power of nature. Matt and I were silent on the drive back to Miami. We hung out in the hotel, reading quietly until the phone rang.
“We’re here in the lobby,” my Uncle Richard announced. He was waiting with my Aunt Joan to drive us to the ballpark where the Marlins were hosting the playoff bound Detroit Tigers.
I was excited about seeing Miguel Cabrera step up to the plate. The Tiger slugger was about to win his third straight batting title with a stellar .348 average. He also had 44 home runs and 137 Runs Batted In.
No one in Major League Baseball had won three consecutive hitting crowns since Wade Boggs did it from 1985 – 1988. Rod Carew also hit the trifecta from 1972 – 1975, while the legendary Ty Cobb did it three times (1907 – 1909, 1911 – 1915, 1917 – 1919).
The drive to the ballpark was frustratingly slow as we came to a grinding halt in gridlock on NW 6th Street. Making matters worse, it had started to rain. The retractable roof would be shut tight over Marlins Park tonight. The umpire would be shouting “Play Ball” in just 20 minutes and we were stuck in traffic a mile from the ballpark. My uncle sensed I was getting antsy.
“Why don’t you and Matt hop out and we’ll meet you there?” he said. “Take my umbrella,” he added.
“We won’t need it,” I replied.
I was so wrong.
Thirty seconds later, as Matt and I were running to the ballpark, a blinding light split the sky in two, as lightning pierced through the darkness.
The thunder roared like cannon fire as the skies opened up with full Florida fury.
Suddenly, Matt and I were caught in a torrential downpour. We sprinted back to the shelter of my uncle’s car. The rain gods were angry and let us have it for 15 uninterrupted minutes of hell on earth. The traffic moved at a snail’s pace, crawling inch by inch to the park.
And then suddenly, it stopped raining.
“Go!” my uncle exclaimed. “Go now while you can still catch the first pitch.”
Matt and I bolted for the ballpark, just in time to see Nathan Eovaldi deliver the first pitch to Detoit’s Austin Jackson.
“Strike one,” yelled the home plate umpire. On the next pitch, Jackson lined a single to right. But he couldn’t advance beyond first base because Torii Hunter struck out swinging.
Then Miguel Cabrera stepped up to the plate, generating a raucous ovation from the crowd. The Venezuelan slugger was a big hit in Miami, where it seemed that half of the 28,750 in attendance were wearing the orange and blue Tiger colors and openly rooting for Detroit.
Tigers fans fill Marlins Park
On a 1-2 count, Cabrera stroked a single to right, sending Jackson to second base, much to the delight of the Tigers fans in attendance.
Cabrera connects on a single to right
But Detroit’s rally was cut short when Prince Fielder lined out to third and Jhonny Peralta grounded out to end the inning. In the bottom of the first, Anibal Sanchez was dominant for Detroit. The former Marlin struck out two of the three batters he faced in the bottom of the first. The Marlins were hitless and placed a goose egg on the scoreboard.
My aunt and uncle finally arrived in the bottom of the second inning of a scoreless ballgame. “It’s 0-0,” I shouted out for them.
“You see we didn’t miss a thing,” my Aunt Joan said.
Matt and I looked at each other. “Sounds just like mom,” he said.
My Uncle Richard and Aunt Joan
“Watching baseball is like watching the grass grow,” my aunt reaffirmed. “It’s painfully slow.”
“But that’s what I love about this game,” I stated. “You can see the strategy behind every play. There’s drama before every pitch.”
As it turned out there was plenty of drama on this night, as the Tigers took a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth. But the Marlins started a one-out rally when Christian Yelich singled to center and Giancarlo Stanton walked.
The Miami fans started chanting for a hit but my aunt had another plan in mind. “I hope they hit into a double play,” she said. “I want to go home.”
But the baseball gods had a very different outcome in mind. With two outs, Miami’s Ed Lucas singled to center off Joaquin Benoit to tie the game. We were going into extra innings and my aunt was not a happy camper.
“Maybe we should go,” Matt suggested. “We can listen to the game on the car radio.”
Leaving a game before it’s over is just not part of my DNA. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done it. But in this case, I didn’t want to put my aunt through torture, so I agreed to bite the bullet.
Had we stuck around just one more inning, we would have seen the Marlins load the bases on two walks and a hit batter, setting the stage for Giancarlo Stanton to single home the winning run for a Miami victory. For the last-place Marlins it was their first walk-off win since July 13.
As it turns out, just one day later, Henderson Alvarez would pitch a no-hitter for the Marlins over the first-place Tigers. Seeing a no-hitter in person is definitely on my bucket list, as I’ve never actually witnessed one, despite attending hundreds of games.
But on this night, I was eager to see the ESPN highlights of our game. I was watching the winning run score when Matt opened his mouth.
“Can you turn off the TV now?” he shouted. “It’s after midnight and we have to get up early.”
I was stunned. “Wow, talk about role reversal,” I said.
“You used to be the night owl. Now I’m the one burning the midnight oil and you’re concerned about not getting enough sleep. How did that happen?”.
“I guess I’m becoming more like you Dad,” he said. “And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”
“You mean we finally understand each other?” I asked.
“Yeah, something like that,” he said.
I switched off the light.
Baseball truly is a perfect game.