Author Archives: kurt
Stadium Journey published the much-anticipated debate between me and Joe Mock – and our locking horns over which of America’s two oldest ballparks is a better place to see a ballgame. I thought we put it together well. Hope you enjoy the read. (Click here to see the PDF from the magazine; click here to visit the excellent Stadium Journey website.)
BALLPARK VERSUS BALLPARK
Fenway or Wrigley – Which is the best?
Joe Mock (www.BaseballParks.com) and Kurt Smith (www.BallparkEGuides.com) are webmasters for two of the most popular ballpark-themed websites on the net…and both are foremost authorities on what makes Wrigley Field and Fenway Park special. But which ballpark takes the top spot in the battle of the two classics?
The two disagree on the answer, with Joe preferring Wrigley and Kurt siding with Fenway. Let the debate begin!
Each Ballpark’s Place In History
JOE: When you have two parks that date back over a century, that’s a LOT of history. Wrigley, though, wins in this category, but not by a lot.
Simply standing within the Friendly Confines fills you with a sense of history that can’t be matched by any other facility – of any sport. One reason for this is because of the way the park looks. The stately stands. The bleachers. The ivy. Just everything.
In 2014, I got to cover the 100th birthday of Wrigley for USA Today, and the way the Cubs put on the event showcased that history. While wearing throwback uniforms, they played as the Chicago Whales of the 1914 Federal League. You had no trouble envisioning the Whales playing in that ballpark. And to give the proceedings an extra air of century-long authenticity, the home team blew a lead and lost the game.
From the legendary called shot by Babe Ruth to the tragedy of Steve Bartman to the mind-blowing prowess of Jake Arrieta, Wrigley is history.
KURT: I agree with Joe that both Fenway and Wrigley can’t help but feature history as the backbone of their greatness…Babe Ruth (supposedly) called his shot at Wrigley and pitched at Fenway…but I disagree on the key point Joe makes about the ballparks’ look, at least now.
The Red Sox and Cubs have both recently renovated their classic ball yards, but the Red Sox enhanced the historic aspects of their ballpark, while the Cubs disrupted it. The Red Sox placed seats atop of the Green Monster and closed off Yawkey Way during games to create a great pre-game atmosphere, and the new video boards in Fenway actually look like the hand-operated classic in left field and blend in very nicely.
By contrast, the Cubs placed a huge, high-definition video board in left field that is anything but historic…and many fans agree looks completely out of place. In doing so the Cubs not only blocked the view from the Waveland Avenue rooftops, but also made the hand operated out-of-town scoreboard in center field look completely unnecessary. The rooftops and scoreboard, to these eyes anyway, were as iconic as the ivy. Maybe they had to install the video board, but it’s impossible for me to believe it couldn’t have been done better.
Before both parks were renovated, I might have given the history nod to Wrigley, but the Red Sox seemed to have much more of an eye for the ballpark’s history in their renovations.
JOE: While I like the street fair atmosphere of Yawkey Way before a Sox game, you have to admit that it’s somewhat contrived. A street that is normally open to traffic is shut down for a few hours when there’s a baseball game. That’s the opposite of being “organic.”
Wrigleyville, though, is Wrigleyville 365 days a year. From the bars across the street (I mean, everyone knows the Cubby Bear, right?) to the Addison station of the red line of the L train to the neighborhood businesses and tenements that come right up to the ballpark’s footprint, nothing compares.
And does Fenway have anything like the rooftops across Sheffield and Waveland? Hardly.
No, just mentioning the “corner of Clark and Addison” evokes images of the one-of-a-kind neighborhood that surrounds Wrigley.
KURT: Again, Joe is right about Wrigleyville and the entire neighborhood being part of a Cubs game celebration…but unfortunately, the Cubs are disrupting that too, with their plans for a high end “plaza”.
Fenway has one very special surroundings element that Wrigley doesn’t…sausages. Lansdowne Street alone has almost a dozen purveyors of pregame sausages, dogs, chicken teriyaki or steak tip sandwiches…each one unique and many with their own brand of hot sauce.
Fenway also is right there with Wrigley in your choices of pre- or post-game party…play ping-pong at Game On, have a Bunker Hill Blueberry Ale at Boston Beer Works, or get some very cheap eats at the Baseball Tavern. Or even watch the game for free from the Bleacher Bar for a few innings. There’s something for everyone.
And while Yawkey Way may be contrived to be similar to Eutaw Street in Baltimore, it’s not a bad idea…I wouldn’t mind the Cubs turning Sheffield Avenue into part of Wrigley during games.
KURT: The Green Monster says it all…this ballpark is not only built on one city block, but that block is shaped such that if we put a normal fence in left field, bloops just barely out of the infield could become home runs.
The big wall in left field is the centerpiece of a design so asymmetrical that a team would be accused of ridiculous contrivance of dimensions if they tried it today. Fenway Park almost looks stretched sideways looking at it from overhead.
I’ll never argue that Wrigley has a million unique things about it, but its dimensions aren’t one of them. It was built on one city block too, but the block is square and as such the dimensions don’t give a hitter an advantage on either side of home plate.
Only in Boston could a ballpark be shaped like Fenway…it makes the ballpark one of the more architectural wonders in a city with quite a few of them.
JOE: Kurt, it’s interesting that you bring up both Fenway’s shape and its dimensions, because I believe both are drawbacks.
Regarding the shape of Fenway’s footprint, I would term it “misshapen” more than “stretched sideways.” Like a lot of parks built during the concrete-and-steel era in the first couple of decades of the 20th Century, Fenway’s design evolved over time (but was always limited by the non-square parcel of land).
But this evolution has created a truly undesirable arrangement of seating in Fenway, where a ridiculously large percentage of seats are beyond right center field and, worse, in the right-field corner beyond the foul pole. If you’ve tried to watch a game from a seat in that corner, you’ll know what I mean.
Wrigley, though, evolved in an orderly way that the original architect, Zachary Taylor Davis, could’ve easily envisioned. Hence you have a true upper deck with fantastic views of the field – even from its farthest reaches – and outfield seating that makes sense.
Regarding the dimensions of the two fields, I would again apply the word “misshapen” to Fenway. With foul poles that are 302 feet away in right and, we assume (since the Red Sox discourage anyone from actually measuring it), 310 feet in left, and the silly “triangle” near center, it makes for bizarre dimensions. While I like some originality in outfield dimensions (like the two “wells” in Wrigley’s outfield), the number of oddities in Boston outfield are far too numerous.
KURT: When the Red Sox expanded the ballpark, so to speak, into Yawkey Way (now Jersey Street), they created a wonderful pre-game atmosphere for kids of all ages. The old-time band playing, Big League Brian on his stilts, carts selling roasted peanuts and Luis Tiant selling Cuban sandwiches…that’s baseball at its best.
Red Sox and Cubs fans both deserve props for their dedication, and both teams’ fans are raucous and show up in large numbers. But while I’m not knocking anyone’s reason to come to a ballgame, there are fans at Wrigley that are there more for the party than to cheer the Cubs. It’s not just me saying that…I’ve read that a lot. Red Sox fans are rarely accused of this. Everyone in the ballpark lives to hear “Dirty Water” blaring on the PA after a Red Sox victory.
Not to harp on the renovation point again, but the Cubs also did some damage to the gameday atmosphere with the video board and strong arming of businesses like street guys selling programs. The Bucket Bangers, for example, are essential Wrigley…I don’t know if the Cubs were responsible, but I didn’t see or hear them in my last visit. And I missed them.
JOE: While I concede that the Cubs’ current owners made a number of changes based on business decisions rather than aesthetics, it’s still a blast attending a Cubs game. Without the need for the contrived closed-off-street of Yawkey Way, the area around Wrigley is truly alive before and after games.
And there’s something endearing about fans who for generations have come to the Friendly Confines more for the park and the experience than to root for the perpetually losing team. And you can’t say it’s not an “experience” to go to a Cubs home game, win or lose. The front office makes sure of that. The entire season of Wrigley’s 100th Birthday in 2014 was a testament to that.
KURT: Both Wrigley and Fenway are relatively simple in their concessions, at least compared to places like Nationals Park (shawarma) and Progressive Field (Froot loop dogs). When it comes to the basic ballpark food…the basic hot dog…Wrigley doesn’t have the uniqueness of the Fenway Frank. Mushy white bread buns are part of baseball.
Actually, one could argue that there’s a better variety at Wrigley, and there is, at least inside both ballparks. Wrigley does have Gilbert’s sausages and Hot Doug’s dogs, and Giordano’s deep dish pizza is better than Papa Gino’s. But when you add the outside sausage vendors, Fenway has a definite edge…the Inner Beauty hot sauce at the Sausage Connection and the plain sausage and peppers from the Sausage Guy are without peer even inside of Fenway.
Plus Fenway has lobster rolls, so Wrigley featuring Italian beef doesn’t weigh in favor of Wrigley as much…
JOE: I’ve always felt the concessions at Fenway were fine, but never in the top ten in the Majors. If you insist, Kurt, on including food sold outside of the ballpark, that does elevate Fenway’s food ranking, but not by much.
I agree that the Giordano’s pizza at Wrigley is better than what’s in Boston, but I think the difference isn’t slight. I think it’s huge. Giordano’s is that good.
The sausages and franks at Wrigley speak for themselves, and far outpace anything of the sort at Fenway. New this year are variations on chicken sausage by Gilbert’s.
And since you’re including food found outside Fenway, I’ll do the same with Wrigley. In the Wrigleyville area, you’ll find perhaps the best corned beef sandwich anywhere at DMK Burger Bar, and next door at the Fish Bar there’ a zesty po-boy that includes both shrimp and crawfish, and a wonderful lobster roll (!). And at Giordano’s sit-down eatery, you can experience their entire array of scrumptious pizzas of varying crust thicknesses, and a savory chicken parm.
JOE: In 2013, USA TODAY asked me to write an article about each MLB park. They then ran one article per week in their Sports Weekly publication, doing a countdown from number 30 to 1. My top park was Wrigley. I supported that ranking by pointing out the wonderful gameday environment there and the stupendous sense of history.
There’s no doubt that both Fenway and Wrigley are national treasures, and are among America’s most beloved parks – probably the top two on that list. Wrigley, though, edges out Fenway, especially when you consider architecture, surroundings and concessions.
KURT: In the pre-renovation years of both ballparks, I had actually preferred Wrigley to Fenway, largely because there were a lot of pitfalls to mar the experience at Fenway…small concourse space, parking difficulties, and lots of not so great seats. Now that I have researched both ballparks thoroughly, I’ve come to realize that the challenges of Fenway are what makes it great…it’s not a ballpark for amateurs, and it brings out the best in fans.
Wrigley is still a fantastic, iconic venue and as Joe says, a Cubs game is still a blast. It’s just going to take some time for me to get used to the gigantic video boards…and the loss of the rooftops and many of the nearby vendors. There is a stark contrast to how both teams handled their renovations, and it what makes Fenway superior these days, in my totally humble opinion.
Enjoy this article? Check out more about ballparks from Joe and Kurt!
Joe Mock is the writer and photographer for BaseballParks.com, which dates back to the dawn of the Web in 1997. He also writes regularly for USA TODAY Sports. Kurt Smith is the owner and author of Ballpark E-Guides, the highly acclaimed (even by Joe Mock!) detailed fan’s guides to 15 major league ballparks, including Wrigley and Fenway. He is also a staff writer for JerseyMan and BostonMan Magazines.
It was a great privilege to contribute this piece about one of my favorite ballparks to the debut issue of BostonMan Magazine, which was released in the fall of 2018. You can read the article on BostonMan’s website, or click here to see the PDF from the magazine.
It wasn’t easy to conceive an angle about Fenway that would be new to Boston sports fans, but every Red Sox fan that read it loved it, which made me very happy. I hope you enjoy it.
“The Hard Is What Makes It Great.”
The venerable home of the Red Sox has survived not only a relentless ballpark boom, but a new wave of disregard even for relatively new venues. There’s a reason for it that few people outside of Boston understand.
By the time you read this, there may be another World Series about to take place in the ballpark that has sat in Beantown for over a century. The Red Sox have, after all, shown a palpable disregard for supposed curses in the last decade and a half.
When you think about it, it’s no small miracle that Fenway Park is still standing. Lately, you don’t even have to think about it all that much. As ballpark architecture changes at a dizzying rate, Fenway insistently puts its foot down, asserting its unassailable right to continue hosting the world’s greatest game. It remains the immovable object that triumphs over the irresistible force.
Over the last three decades, as municipalities and teams realized there were billions to be made in corporate suites, some romantic and profoundly historic temples of baseball met with the wrecking ball. Most distressingly, even Tiger Stadium, old Yankee Stadium and Comiskey Park were unceremoniously felled by baseball economics. It’s hard to imagine it now, but there indeed was a time when Fenway was in the crosshairs too…and the idea of replacing it had plenty of support.
In recent years, the discarding of venues considered shiny by Fenway standards makes it even more remarkable that the ballpark continues to defy its demolition. Teams are now departing from delightful and appealing baseball homes that most fans remember opening. Turner Field in Atlanta lasted just 20 seasons as the home of the Braves, magnificent Globe Life Park in Arlington will be replaced in 2020 after just 26 seasons, and the Diamondbacks have begun the process of exiting Chase Field in Phoenix, another ballpark just 20 seasons old.
Think about that. The Metrodome outlived these outstanding ballparks.
The sports venue boom, one could easily argue, is now completely out of control. For absurd reasons, at least the publicly stated ones, teams are tossing aside perfectly nice baseball settings. The Braves actually cited “traffic” as a problem with Turner Field, as if it’s somehow possible to smoothly shoehorn 20,000 cars into any parking lot on earth in the space of a couple of hours. (Spoiler alert: the traffic at SunTrust Park is far worse. At least Turner Field had a viable public transit option.)
It’s not all that difficult anymore to conceive that Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the venue that started all of this, could itself be threatened with extinction in the not too distant future. As perfect for baseball as Camden is, the Orioles can’t even give away tickets these days…and they’re literally doing just that.
The stunning ballpark creations that arose in response to the phenomenal success of the architectural wonder in Baltimore have been warmly received by spectators. This is especially true in places like Philadelphia, where fans sat in a concrete donut designed for football for 33 seasons. Citizens Bank Park is, by any fathomable measure, a superior venue to Veterans Stadium.
Many of the new ballparks were designed with the charm, or more correctly, the “old time features” of places like Fenway, like neighborhood-necessitated dimensions and distinctive visual landmarks…but without the small seats, grossly insufficient leg room (did people really top out at five-foot-four in 1912?), obstructed views, and fuming in 3 MPH traffic to find exorbitantly priced parking.
With all due respect to Camden Yards, which truly was executed flawlessly, the modern amenities babble is exactly where all of the new venues miss the point.
The home of the Red Sox was never meant to be a place where millennials gather for craft beer tasting, or where patrons sample gourmet sushi from an executive chef, or where fans loudly cheer a mascot race. It’s not that Fenway doesn’t have extras geared to folks that are less than fanatical about baseball. It does. But they’re not emphasized here. There is nowhere near the outreach to “casual fans” at Fenway like there is in nearly every other ballpark in America.
Fenway Park is difficult. It’s the most challenging ballpark in baseball, both to get into and to get to. Most games sell out and require fans to pay an overinflated secondary market rate, seek out skilled haggler scalpers or wait in a long line on game day. Parking is scarce and costly, with cars even placed on top of one another in smaller garages. Trains leading to Kenmore station are stuffed well beyond capacity with sweaty fans.
Choosing the wrong seat at Fenway can lead to the annoying experience of a support pole blocking a portion of the field from view. A fan’s only alternative, at least at that price, is a distant outfield seat in the glaring sun. Oh, and those Grandstand seats? Flimsy wooden chairs, just 15 inches wide, with an inch wide armrest to share with your neighbor. You must be kidding.
For all of the reverence for Fenway Park from baseball fans everywhere, no one would tolerate a newer facility with so many ridiculous flaws. Yet that grand old girl in Boston with the huge green wall in left field remains at the top of so many fans’ bucket list destinations. A ballpark that, on fan experience alone, is utterly inferior to nearly every other venue in professional baseball is filled to capacity every night.
Not even the strikingly beautiful structures in Pittsburgh and San Francisco could ever hope to achieve that. It’s a charm that a less dedicated baseball fan, accustomed to cushioned seats and easy parking, would consider a detriment.
In A League Of Their Own, Tom Hanks has the perfect response to Geena Davis finally succumbing to how difficult the game of baseball is: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
This place isn’t for amateurs. Fenway Park is literally designed to weed out the casual fan. If you don’t love Red Sox baseball enough to endure that cramped, stiff seat with no view of right field, you don’t have to go. Not to worry. Someone will take your place…and that someone is exactly the kind of fan baseball needs more of anyway.
Why else on earth would fans tolerate extortionately priced tickets and parking, uncomfortable seats with blocked views, and far too many outfield seats in 2018? Why do Red Sox fans not only put up with all of this, but even sing collectively and enthusiastically about how good times never seemed so good?
Because Red Sox fans get baseball.
They get the incomparable thrill of investing their heart in a baseball team, and seeing a game winning hit bounce off of that green wall.
Maybe that simplifies it too much. Try this.
See if you can find someone who was there to witness Ted Williams’ 502-foot smash that landed in a seat now painted red to commemorate the occasion. Actually, that might be difficult, given that it happened in 1946. Maybe you’d have better luck finding someone who was in the ballpark when Carlton Fisk’s home run ball clanged off of the foul pole. That was only in 1975.
Still having trouble? Then try finding someone who was present when Big Papi’s game winner cleared the fence in the 12th, after journeyman first baseman Kevin Millar had duly warned everyone against allowing a Red Sox victory that night. That shouldn’t be impossible.
Found someone? Great. Ask them how much they paid for their ticket, or where they parked, or what the entertainment was between innings.
Chances are good the answers won’t be high on the list of what they remember most about the experience.
Baseball’s history is a long, ongoing, and endlessly gripping page turner full of otherworldly moments. Nowhere is this more true than in Boston, from the devastating heartbreaks of an 86-year hex to the beyond spectacular glory of 2004. As Big Papi’s hit sailed over the fence and the Sox escaped the jaws of elimination, setting in motion the greatest comeback in sports history, no one in a partially obstructed seat that night would have traded the inconvenience to have missed it.
The Sox fans that overcame the considerable challenges to be inside Fenway Park on those fateful historic days considered it unquestionably worth the aggravation. Just as they continue to do by the millions every summer.
All the obstructions, expensive parking, crowded trains, and no great need for any ballgame sustenance other than a hot dog on mushy white bread. It all makes the point that no retractable roof, amenity-laden facility for baseball could ever make. For all of its flaws, because of its flaws, Fenway Park is absolutely everything a ballpark should be.
An eternal reminder that baseball, Red Sox baseball, is worth it.
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You CAN Avoid (Or At Least Minimize) The Obstructed View
Just because the support poles and their obstructed views keep out less dedicated fans doesn’t mean you have to endure them. There is actually a website called “Precise Seating” dedicated to providing the lowdown on every single seat in Fenway Park. It’s a fantastic resource for Sox fans.
With Precise Seating, you can put in all the information about a seat…section, row, and seat number…and the website will give the seat a 1-10 rating based on various factors: the view, distance from home plate and from the field, even shelter from rain. If there is an obstruction, the site will tell you what percentage of the field is blocked and whether you’ll be unable to see any of the bases or pitcher’s mound.
For example, say you’re looking at Grandstand Section 15, Row 5, Seat 1. Precise Seating will show you the obstruction, and how you won’t be able to see first or second base. They feature an actual photo from the seat, and being five rows from the pole it’s not too terribly bad, but if you have other choices you may want to look for another spot.
Precise Seating is a valuable tool, especially when searching around low numbered rows in the Grandstand. But if you don’t have access to it…say, when you’re patronizing a scalper…just remember a few things:
Low rows in the Grandstand are the biggest risk, since the support pole is usually along the first or second row. If you’re going to try it, go for a seat number between 5-12, where you could not only be safe but you may land a great seat for the price. If you’re in a higher row, in most cases the obstruction isn’t too bad if you’re between seats 5-10.
Also, keep in mind that there are support poles in the high rows too, usually in Row 18 or 19. If you go for a seat this high, again, avoid low or high numbered seats. You won’t be able to see scoreboard this high up, incidentally, but there are TVs showing replays of the action.
One last thing: there are no support poles blocking views in Sections 19 and 21, on either side of home plate. Check those first!
The Lansdowne Street Sausages
Part of the classic charm of Fenway Park is the sausage hawkers that surround the place…fans can get a decent sized tube of meat on a submarine roll for a few bucks less than what it would cost inside the park. You are indeed allowed to wrap them up and bring them into the game, if you can find some way to keep them warm while waiting in line.
Since most fans arrive at the ballpark from the Kenmore T station, the sausage vendors on Lansdowne Street are the most popular, being the first to emerge into view. They look similar, but there are differences between them. Here are a few fan favorites and what makes them special:
The Sausage Guy – Near the entrance to Cask ’N Flagon tavern is a small blue kiosk run by a gentleman named David Littlefield. The Sausage Guy’s website (yes, he has one) lists some of his stats: two frostbitten fingers from serving in the cold, a torn rotator cuff and three cortisone shots to his left elbow.
The Sausage Guy serves up good-sized sweet Italian sausage sandwiches with onions and peppers. It’s a pretty decent value and you can order the sausage on the website.
The Sausage Connection – The Sausage Connection is the yellow stand located near the Game Day ticket sales line. Not only do they serve up a mean sandwich of sausage, peppers and onions, they offer chicken teriyaki and steak tip sandwiches too.
What makes the Sausage Connection special in a sea of similar looking sausage vendors is their hot sauces, including the popular “Inner Beauty”, a tasty mustard-style sauce that will truly test your ability to handle the heat.
The Original Che-Chi’s – Che-Chi’s is the red stand further down on Lansdowne, and they have similar offerings like sausages, dogs and chicken. Che-Chi’s has their own secret hot sauce, which is a smoky BBQ-style sauce.
Che-Chi’s is also a tad more affordable than the rest; the sandwiches are a buck or two cheaper and they have soda specials.
Remember, you can bring them inside…
Alternate Transit Routes
Whether one drives to Fenway Park or uses the T, neither is a particularly pleasant method of transit. Driving to Fenway Park involves lengthy delays and hefty parking charges, but standing in a packed train car isn’t always the most fun ride either.
If you want to try something out of the ordinary, the excellent Fenway Park E-Guide offers some methods of transportation that you might not have considered and their merits:
Commuter Rail – On the Framingham/Worcester Line, Yawkey Station is just 500 feet from the ballpark, near Boston Beer Works. Parking lots this close often cost $50 and up. The ride is far less crowded, the seats are more plentiful and more comfortable, and the MBTA usually runs extra trains on game days.
The best part about this option is that you can book your parking at 100 Clarendon Street through the red Sox website very affordably, hop on the Commuter Rail from nearby Back Bay station, and go one inexpensive stop to the ballpark. Even with two or three people in the car, it’s still far cheaper than Fenway lot prices with just as much walking, and exiting from the garage is a snap afterwards.
Take The “E” Train – Most fans follow the advice on signs at stations that include transfers to the Green Line, the subway line that carries fans to Fenway: use any train except the “E”, which veers in another direction before stopping at Kenmore station.
This leaves the E trains far less crowded, and it’s not a total wash in getting to the ballpark: the Prudential and Symphony stations are maybe a 15-minute walk from Fenway. Many fans park at the Prudential garage to save a few dollars; using the E will spare you the Fenway crowds on the other trains.
And if you’re not up for that walk, you can hire someone to cycle you there in a rickshaw:
Boston Pedicab – The Boston Pedicab rickshaws can often be found around Fenway before and after games. You can find them all around downtown Boston too, especially at the Pru Center where people use them to ride to Sox games. They’re cyclists that pedal you to your destination for free; they subsist entirely on tips. Be generous. It’s a great way to avoid the traffic while enjoying a fine view of the city.
If you can’t find one, you can call Boston Pedicabs and they’ll send one out for you.
I was fortunate enough to interview him for the June 2016 issue of JerseyMan, and he couldn’t have been cooler, giving little ol’ me almost an hour and a half of his valuable time and even sharing a Firesign Theater reference. You can view the PDF of the article here.
The World’s 7th Most Interesting Man
John O’Hurley doesn’t sit still very often, but when he does, he has an extraordinary life to reflect on.
The first time John O’Hurley read a Seinfeld script, he instantly saw the genius of the Show About Nothing. Even if he didn’t consider it genius at the time.
O’Hurley had to be nudged to play off-the-reservation catalogue owner J. Peterman…a role that, given his own eccentric demeanor and storytelling ability, he seemed born to play. When he gave in and read the script, he couldn’t believe that Seinfeld was the number one show on TV. Because the show didn’t read funny.
Imagine reading a classic Seinfeld dialogue and it becomes obvious what O’Hurley means.
“It was the un-funniest show to read,” the portrayer of the now iconic character remembers. “There’s no setup. If I showed you, say, a Golden Girls script, you can see, setup setup setup, punchline, setup setup setup, punchline. Generations of script writers lived off of that form.
“Then Seinfeld came in, it grew out of standup comedy, observational humor. It was basically the notion of being in an elevator, that is New York, the sense of small spaces and rudeness and everything is always on edge, relationships or whatever. It was all about conversation, because everybody talks in New York. That’s why Peterman existed, because he was not only about language, he was about the long form. The writers got to write monologues every week, rather than writing one or two lines for each character.”
If you’ve ever looked at a J. Peterman catalogue (yes, J. Peterman is a real person), you can see why it appealed to sitcom writers whose strength was dialogue. A typical entry reads like this one, for the “Grace Under Pressure” cotton T-shirt: “MI6 operatives sat at noirish watering holes with Gestapo and Portuguese secret police, all waiting for the other to reveal the whereabouts of the Nazis’ cache of gold or an allied shipping lane. Wealthy refugees negotiated the sale of their art collections. Prostitutes doubled as informants. You’ve heard of Casino Royale? That’s this place.”
That’s the real J. Peterman. It was as if the character’s lines wrote themselves.
“They wanted him to sound the way the catalogue was written,” O’Hurley recalls. “They didn’t even have the full script written, because it was the most disorganized show on television. So all they had was the catalogue and a couple of lines. I’m going through this and thinking, OK, this is 40s radio drama and bad Charles Kuralt. So it had this sort of Centurion poet standing on a cliff type of feel about everything. Even a walk to the men’s room was an adventure. (imitating Peterman voice) ‘I have no idea what I’m going to find serving a basic desire!’”
The J. Peterman catalogue not only still exists, it’s part owned by O’Hurley now. The two men have walked on Madison Avenue together and heard New Yorkers shout “Peterman!” at O’Hurley, ignoring the in-the-flesh Peterman.
One of the catalogue’s newest offerings is the Urban Sombrero, in an ongoing and humorous Kickstarter campaign that has raised $96,000 as of this writing.
In case you haven’t seen that episode, the Urban Sombrero is an invention Elaine conjures up when the chronically unstable Peterman breaks down and runs off to Burma, leaving the company operations in Elaine’s hands.
The Urban Sombrero…a hat that combines “the spirit of Old Mexico with a little big-city panache”…turns out to be a colossal flop, to the point where Elaine overhears men on the subway talk about how the Urban Sombrero ruined their lives. In the show, Peterman himself reacts to the idea with similar distress, muttering “the horror…the horror”.
Indeed, if you were working for a clothing firm and heard someone suggest the idea of an Urban Sombrero, you might imagine you were in a Seinfeld episode. It took 20 years of cajoling from the fictional Peterman to persuade the actual Peterman to make this essential skypiece available.
What caused the eventual change of heart?
“I think he finally realized that at some point he was going to have to embrace the Seinfeld audience of 80+ million and try to draw them across the aisle into the Peterman world. There was a little bit of unconscious reluctance to accept them. When you think about it, I’ve basically stolen his identity; I’ve become his company. All of a sudden this poor man has nothing left, he’s lost his identity. He never understood, I don’t think, the Seinfeld phenomenon.”
Pop culture reverence aside, for us Philly area folks, O’Hurley points out the advantages of the Urban Sombrero as an ideal Jersey Shore accessory.
“It’s the absolute answer to the SPF problem. When you can’t decide between 15, 30, 60 or 70 and you go, oh my God, what do I choose? The Urban Sombrero. And not only that, it says, I think I’m gonna take a nap. Why not do it with a little bit of a panache?”
O’Hurley spends time in the Philadelphia area each year, hosting the National Dog Show in Oaks that has become almost as much of a Thanksgiving Day tradition as the Macy’s parade. The National Dog Show was created way back in 1879 by the Kennel Club of Philadelphia; O’Hurley has been hosting it since 2002.
Like the Peterman character, it seemed an obvious choice to make O’Hurley the emcee of the show. Coupled with his game show host experience, he has an exceptionally thoughtful appreciation for canines. He’s authored three books about dogs and their impact on our lives; “It’s Okay To Miss The Bed On The First Jump” is a New York Times bestseller, and “The Perfect Dog”, a children’s poem, has been adapted into a children’s musical that is now part of National Dog Show Week.
“If you have a dog in the room,” O’Hurley relates, “everyone comes and pets the dog. If there’s a dog in an elevator, everyone is looking at the dog. Whatever the natural behavior of the dog is, everyone is going, awww. They calm us down; they round the edges in our lives. They take the brittleness out of things. That’s what dogs do.
“If you’re around 2,000 of them, and they don’t care if they win, everybody else seems to be happy so they’re happy. And they’re appreciated, and they know it, and there’s a sense of energy that they know that something important is going on. All of those things lead to just a great environment for everybody.
“It is the happiest day of the year. It’s as simple as that.”
The well-traveled host not only says nothing but nice things about visiting Philadelphia, he can do so without even dropping the name of an iconic sandwich shop.
“My favorite thing about Philly is the authenticity of the history there. The actual documents, walking around and actually being in arm’s reach from some of the most important legislation that was ever done in this country, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
“I did the musical ‘1776’ many times, and I think that every time I pass that building, that they all stood in and sat in, and how sweaty that must have been and how miserable they must have been, and yet to put their names on any one of those documents was basically signing a lynching mob. I think of that every time I pass that building…my goodness, the courage they had to do what they did.
“On top of that, I love walking up and down the streets, and seeing the preservation of the areas. I love staying in some of the little boutique hotels. We love Oaks too, mostly because my wife refers to Nieman Marcus as the mothership out there in the King of Prussia Mall, which is the best place in the world to shop.”
You don’t have to be a Seinfeld fan or a National Dog Show viewer to have seen John O’Hurley’s visage frequently.
He is a theater star who has played King Arthur in Monty Python’s Spam-A-Lot and currently still plays Billy Flynn in the long running musical Chicago. On stage, he possesses a fine singing voice. Tom Williams of Chicago Critic opined it best: “John O’Hurley brings a big voice and a commanding presence.”
He is a self-taught classical pianist who has released several acclaimed CDs, and is now starring in his own creation called A Man With Standards. “It’s my one-man show of the music of the period when I grew up, a period of time when men had standards. It’s basically piano, and I expanded it all the way up to a full orchestra. It’s fun. I have all these melodies in my head, I’ve got to get rid of them somehow. It’s a dangerous place up there.”
He has ballroom dancing skills too; he made it to the finals of the first season of Dancing With The Stars, and winning a dance-off following a hotly disputed (to say the least) loss in the original final.
And he was probably the most elegant host of Family Feud in the history of the show.
“I’d worked with them on a show previous, called To Tell The Truth. You remember, will the real so-and-so please stand up. They were looking for a new host for Family Feud and I said yes. It’s a different style of hosting; with To Tell The Truth I sat down, I had a nice little thing to read with a story, panelists, that type of stuff. With Family Feud, there’s no script, you are literally out there hoping the net will appear.
“That was when I began what I call the prayer. I say God, let me be surprised. That’s all I say, and that’s what I say before I go on stage. It relaxes me to say that I’m not in control of this thing, so I can go out and relax. It was like hosting a cocktail party, we really cared about the fact that all these people came to your party.”
Last but not at all least, he’s the father of the first ever third-grader Vice President of his school. According to O’Hurley, at the age of nine, his son had already mastered the art of persuading people to eschew politics as usual…which at the school meant voting for a sixth-grader…and won in a landslide.
On his Twitter account, John O’Hurley proclaims himself to be the World’s 7th Most Interesting Man. When asked who #1-6 are, his answer is no one specific. Just that there’s probably only six people in the world having a better day than he is.
It’s a humorous worldview of a good-natured optimist whose attitude has taken him far. But truthfully, it’s a challenge to think of many people who have led more interesting lives. Not many of us have been a recurring character in the most popular sitcom in history, hosted national game shows, emceed a National Dog Show, made it to the finals of Dancing With The Stars, written three books, played leads in traveling hit musicals, and released several CDs of classical piano music.
Someone hosting a success seminar could paraphrase that old cliché: You have the same 24 hours as John O’Hurley. Or they could attend one of O’Hurley’s own motivational speeches; he does that too. He calls his presentation The Peterman Guide to Living an Extraordinary Life.
“I wake up every day with this goal: I have to find a way to stay relevant every single day of my life. And what I live by is this premise, and this is what I speak about: you have two choices in life. You can have an ordinary life, or you can have an extraordinary life, and it has nothing to do with power or money; it has everything to do with the power of your choices.
“God speaks through imagination. He puts pictures in your mind of what you’re supposed to be doing. Your rational mind knows everything you’re afraid of, and it has an agenda, but your imagination? No agenda. It only knows the best of what you are capable of, and it always pushes you forward to the next thing you’re supposed to be doing.
“I’ll talk to hedge fund guys on Wall Street, two thousand people in the room, and every one of them is taking notes, and I love that. And I say, if you do not believe that what you imagine has value, what I would ask you to do right now is put your pencils down, get up out of your chair, drop to the floor, curl yourself in a little fetal ball, and wait there for the sweet embrace of death. Because you will not improve your life one iota unless you value what you imagine, not what you know.
“And everyone picks up their pencils and starts writing again.”
“I’m very, very lucky, I’ve been in the right place at the right time, but all of those things I did, I did because my imagination said, I’m supposed to do this.”
With all respect to Jonathan Goldsmith, it’s a shame that O’Hurley didn’t star in the ‘Most Interesting Man In The World’ spots. The Dos Equis people would have had a lot to work with.
“He was once asked to star on Seinfeld…and proclaimed the script unfunny.”
The Peterman Monologues
For many years the Seinfeld audience didn’t get to see much of J. Peterman at his maniacal finest…delivering a lengthy monologue.
“Every show was ten minutes too long,” O’Hurley says. “The first thing to go, we’ll cut the Peterman monologue. These things that I’d spend two and half hours on. I used to orchestrate them musically, because having studied opera I could play with my voice, and I would take it and rise (raises pitch of voice) and then hold, and then fall (drops pitch of voice).
“I would do that because this man was always a piece of walking poetry. Mr. Magoo-style poetry, but poetry nonetheless. He was a walking literary time bomb all the time.”
O’Hurley’s all-time favorite was in an episode where he incorrectly suspects that Elaine might be having a fling with a co-worker, and he encourages them with tickets to a circus. He still remembers the monologue verbatim:
“Don’t worry, Elaine. I too am no stranger to love on the clock. As a young man, my father apprenticed me to a honey factory in Belize. The chief beekeeper was this horrible hag of a woman with nulled teeth and a giant wart that she called a nose. She was not attractive, even by backwoods standards. But love is truly blind, Elaine, and as the days went on, working closer and closer together, that sweet smell of honey in the air; I knew I had to have that horrible creature. And I did. So you and Bob have a good time tonight.”
It may be an exception to the show’s script not reading funny, but that classic, sadly, was also cut from the show. O’Hurley says you can watch some of the monologues on the Seinfeld DVDs.
“They put a good many of them back in, because they’re funny. I actually hosted the presentation of the DVDs. They decided when I talked about that, oh we gotta go back and add that.
“It was just lunatic stuff.”
The ‘Dancing With The Stars’ Debacle
Most Dancing With The Stars fans remember O’Hurley from the finals of the first season, where he lost to General Hospital star Kelly Monaco in a firestorm controversy that resulted in a dance-off. O’Hurley and his partner, Charlotte Jorgensen, won the rematch easily.
O’Hurley was, in fact, the first ever contestant secured for the hit show.
“I’m the guy that would go to a wedding reception with a glass of wine, and as soon as the music and the dancing started I’d go back and raise a glass and say, ‘Knock yourselves out, Shriners!’ But again, I go back to imagination. I said, I’m 50 years old and I don’t know how to ballroom dance. Shame on me. So I said, all right, I’m gonna do it. I said who else have you got? They said, now that we have you, we can get Evander Holyfield.
“All of a sudden it made so much sense to me. That they were just using this series to give America what they’ve been asking for, for more than two decades: the Evander Holyfield vs. John O’Hurley matchup. Finally! On the level playing field of ballroom dancing! It’s clear as day to me.
“I took him out in the third round with my foxtrot. All it took was my foxtrot and he was gone.”
The finals were a bit more of a mess.
“They boxed themselves into a corner with Kelly Monaco. Because she was on an ABC show, and in 2005 all of that stuff was brand new, active stuff, sign on to the network. Well she’s on a show and she’s got 3 million followers on the website. So she won the online vote every week. There were people that would call, but that was only the hour after the show, and then all week long you could vote online as many times as you wanted to, but you had to have an ABC password to vote.
“You see the dilemma. So when we did the finals and she fell three times during her final dance and I had gotten two 10s and a 9, they had to give her three 10s because she had won the online vote from the previous week. My partner was through the roof. She was so angry about that, that it was never about the dancing. We didn’t have to say anything about it, there were 43,000 complaints the day after. They ended up doing a two-hour dance-off, and I ended up winning.
“I got to rule the roost on that, because I said basically, you screwed up your own series, I don’t give a rat’s a**. I said, ‘I want you to give Kelly’s charity and my charity, the winner’s share, $150,000 or something like that.’”
As O’Hurley often says, you have no idea when you do things the good that’s capable of coming from it.
“We finished it, we won, yadda yadda. We all got the $150,000 for the charity. However, that $150,000 was matched up. CBS did a golf competition, because they were trying to cash in on it. They did a matchup between Annika Sorenstam, the #1 female player in the world, and me. It was a “wolf” competition, more of a gambling game…on certain holes you feel you might be able to beat the person, on other holes not.
“I’m playing the #1 woman in the world, for a pot of $350,000. I won. So that was half a million dollars. My charity was Golfers Against Cancer. I had Michael Milken, with the Prostate Cancer Foundation, match it. It came up close to just shy of a million dollars.
“We started nine projects out of that money. Four of them today are still accepted cancer regimens. And that’s unheard of.
“I always look back on the time with Dancing With The Stars, and I see that four cancer regimens started out of that silliness of everything.”
In the early 2000s, NASCAR was soaring. It may be difficult for younger people to imagine it, but the sport was once poised to overtake the NFL in popularity. Yes, that’s actually true; read it again if you need to. So what caused the decline of NASCAR to the point where the sport is desperately trying to remain relevant?
I covered NASCAR for six seasons for two excellent racing websites, That’s Racin’ (the Charlotte Observer’s racing site) and the Frontstretch. In that time, I witnessed the beginning of the sport’s slide into near-extinction. I’m also someone who became a disenchanted former fan myself.
Having followed the sport in the time frame when it began, I can offer what I believe are the real reasons for the decline of NASCAR. I can also dispute other reasons for it that I see being offered today. This is all just ultimately my opinion, but it’s a carefully considered one.
I’ll start with a few things that I don’t believe caused the decline of NASCAR, then I’ll share what I think really did.
The Decline of NASCAR, Non-Reason #1: The Cars Are Too Spec
I’ll submit that this is a reason a few fans I know stopped watching the sport. In NASCAR’s pre-1990s heyday, when it was still very much a regional sport, manufacturer identity was a big thing. People rooted for car brands as well as drivers, and car companies believed in the whole “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” mantra.
However, by the time NASCAR was peaking in the early 2000s, there already wasn’t much manufacturer identity left. The cars already were mostly spec at that point, and the sport was doing just fine…booming even. The decline of NASCAR from dominance started circa 2005, and there wasn’t any big change to car specs in that time period.
All that said, the unveiling of the “Car of Tomorrow” in 2007 certainly didn’t help. It was boxy, ugly, and top heavy…and its shape was part of the reason for the Indianapolis debacle of 2008. In that race, caution flags were flown almost every ten laps for tire wear, as Jimmie Johnson limped to a victory. The fan backlash was loud and intense. If any single event hastened the decline of NASCAR, it was Indy 2008.
But in a relatively short time, NASCAR corrected the car and the multiple issues with its design, and while the cars don’t differ by manufacturer like they once did, at least we’re not seeing disastrously awful races just because of the car’s construction. In fact, the current car lends itself to some pretty good racing.
Lack of manufacturer identity may have been a reason some hardcore fans left the sport in the early 1990s, but that doesn’t seem to me to be a valid reason for the sport’s popularity plunge since 2005.
The Decline of NASCAR, Non-Reason #2: It’s Gotten Too Safe
I’m not sure why people would think this, although I’d actually had some heated debates with Tom Bowles at the Frontstretch about it. Bowlesy thinks there needs to be an element of risk for racing to be exciting; I don’t tune in to races to see a car potentially fly into a catch fence and injure spectators.
NASCAR did (and still does) market the possibility of spectacular wrecks. I’ll never forget seeing Elliott Sadler’s terrifying end-over-end crash at Talladega in 2003 – and seeing it again in every single ad for Talladega races for the next 3-4 years. Maybe there is a segment of fans who tune in for death-defying calamities, but that has always been a part of the sport and still is.
I can’t imagine any fan of Dale Earnhardt Sr.…and there were a lot of them…not wanting to see the sport take every measure it could to keep drivers safe after Daytona 2001. This isn’t to say that the initial Car of Tomorrow wasn’t a disaster…it was…but at the time, fans were plenty vocal about safety after the loss of the sport’s biggest icon.
For any fan that needs racing to be dangerous, there are still four restrictor plate races on the schedule. But plate racing still sucks…not only do plates produce multi-car crashes every event, they pervert the standings because of it.
I’m not buying the “it’s too safe” bit as a cause for the decline of NASCAR. Racing is still pretty danged dangerous. Just because no one has been killed at the Cup level since Earnhardt’s death doesn’t make it less so.
The Decline of NASCAR, Possible Reason #1: Jimmie Johnson’s Winning
Jimmie Johnson was a hallmark of ruthless efficiency in his prime, winning seven titles and five in a row. With his brilliant head wrench Chad Knaus on the pit box, the #48 team for years remorselessly laid the field to waste when playoff time started.
Jimmie won a lot. Which meant that other drivers didn’t win a lot. If that contributed to NASCAR’s decline, however, that is on NASCAR.
NASCAR possessed one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports during Jimmie’s reign. Yet instead of focusing their marketing on Johnson’s unequaled supremacy, NASCAR chose to put all of their marketing eggs into the Danica Patrick basket, believing a swimsuit model who could drive a racecar would save the sport.
Danica turned out to be a huge bust…as many people who followed the sport closely, including yours truly, predicted she would be. (It wasn’t a tough call to make, if you actually looked at her results instead of her figure.)
Dynasties like Johnson’s aren’t bad for a sport…unless the sport doesn’t know how to market them. The Yankees were always good for baseball. Tiger Woods was great for golf. The Patriots’ domination was great for the NFL. People love a winner, they love to hate a winner, and they love to see a dynasty get taken down. The #48 team should have been a gold mine.
So no, Johnson’s domination wasn’t directly a factor in the decline of NASCAR – but their failure to market it most definitely was.
The Decline of NASCAR, Possible Reason #2: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Losing
By virtue of his father’s untimely passing, Dale Earnhardt Jr. instantly found himself with a larger fan base than any three drivers in NASCAR. As the son of one of the greatest racecar drivers in history, Junior also had an impossible standard to live up to.
But for whatever reason, Junior not only didn’t measure up to his father’s formidable reputation, he rarely even established himself as a contender. Much like Kyle Petty, he ultimately became more known for his good-guy personality and his lineage than for his achievements on the racetrack. As Junior’s fortunes continued to trend downward even while driving for the strongest team in the sport, his fan base became turned off. And he had a very large fan base.
It could be argued that Junior was the sport’s last link to its tobacco-chewing, Southern past; once Jeff Gordon tore up the sport, drivers started to appear from every corner of the country. But the sport’s most dedicated fans were (and are) still in the Southeast, and Southerners are loyal to the core to their heritage.
It’s possible that the most popular driver not performing well hurt the sport, given the sport’s fan demographic. However, like Johnson’s dominance, I doubt that this would have been as much of a problem were it not for other factors that were far more damaging.
So here are three actual reasons for the decline of NASCAR. Still with me? OK, here we go.
The Decline of NASCAR, Actual Reason #1: The Chase
One of Brian France’s very first acts as CEO of NASCAR sealed his doom as a respectable heir to a business, and nothing he did for the rest of his tenure would change that perception.
I don’t often see NASCAR’s ill-conceived playoff idea as a reason people cite for the decline of NASCAR in articles I read these days, but I promise you, that was not the case when I covered the sport. NASCAR’s initial playoff brainchild was hugely unpopular, and every griping fan in comment sections of blogs everywhere had the artificial points reset near the top of their list of complaints.
It’s not so much that the points reset NASCAR introduced in 2004 was a monumentally stupid idea. It was, but even that wasn’t the point. It was the insistent implementation of it over loud objections of fans. NASCAR polled fans about the idea on their website following the 2003 season, and fans overwhelmingly rejected it. They shut down the polls and went ahead with it anyway.
If you want to attribute the decline of NASCAR to arrogant leadership, look no further than that single act. It was blatant condescension towards what was arguably the most loyal fanbase in sports. Why poll the fans if you’re just going to ignore them?
That and it really was a stupid idea.
In case you weren’t there or don’t remember, in 2004 NASCAR welcomed their new series sponsor, Nextel (now Sprint), with a new “playoff” system called the “Chase”. After 26 of 36 races, the top ten drivers would have their points reset, putting them all on a level playing field again for the last ten races.
Yes, NASCAR actually believed an artificial points reset after two thirds of the season was the move that was going to catapult them past the NFL.
Making matters worse, within four years, the driver with the second largest fan base finished with the most points in a season twice, only to lose the title to a points reset.
It’s not often noticed, but it was definitely noticed by Jeff Gordon fans: had NASCAR not implemented the Chase, the driver of the iconic #24 could have been the one standing aside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty today with seven titles, instead of his protégé Jimmie Johnson. Gordon scored the most points overall of any driver in 2004, 2007, and 2014. Nothing against Jimmie Johnson for winning titles with the rules as written, but he only managed that feat twice.
Gordon wasn’t the only driver who turned in a spectacular season-long performance only to have it nullified. In 2008 Kyle Busch smoked the field for the first 26 races, winning eight of them and setting the NASCAR world on fire with his brash and unapologetic racing style. After two DNFs in the first two Chase events resulting from simple bad luck, just like that his title hopes were gone. I was critical of the Chase in plenty of columns, but I felt like I really got the point across with this one about it.
It’s largely forgotten now, because the sport’s current elimination format playoff system at least had some thought put into it. It rewards winning, which rewards fighting for wins, which creates rivalries.
But the initial “Chase”, an artificial and contrived points reset, was despised by fans. It was a radical change to a sport that didn’t need radical changes. You could say it was NASCAR’s New Coke, except Coca-Cola was smart enough to change the formula back in response to furious customer backlash.
If they hadn’t, you’d probably be reading articles today about the decline of Coca-Cola too.
The Decline of NASCAR, Actual Reason #2: The Broadcasts
I don’t need to tell anyone who was a fan in the 2000s this, but NASCAR’s broadcasts at the time may have been the worst in the history of sports. Fox Sports’s coverage was particularly abominable, with a seemingly endless parade of commercial interruptions mixed with the Ford Cutaway Car, the Home Depot Pit Crew Member, the Viagra Boner Of The Race, whatever, all during green flag racing.
Mike Joy is an outstanding announcer, and it was never a big deal for a fan to mute Darrell Waltrip’s exponentially annoying “boogity boogity boogity!” at the green flag. But it was a never ending source of irritation to see five laps of racing followed by a several minute commercial break, which was then followed by another minute of a wide angle shot of the venue and “This race is being brought to you by <several companies who also paid an obscene amount of money to NASCAR>.”
There were often times…and I’m not exaggerating this…when a viewer would see maybe five laps of racing, a two-minute break, and then just two more laps of racing before another break. Anyone who was watching then could tell you that wasn’t unusual at all.
This was a problem that actually needed to be addressed and wasn’t. NASCAR blew off fan demand for picture-in-picture commercial breaks…something they’ve since embraced…while Fox Sports’s indifference to fans went completely unchecked. It was another case of costly arrogance; as much as fans loved NASCAR, they didn’t love it enough to put up with an endlessly saturated marketing campaign featuring occasional snippets of racing each week.
One shining example was a 2010 Dover race…a “playoff” race, no less…where ESPN broke away with 11 laps to go in a very much undecided event for an ad break. Dover is a 1-mile track, and 11 laps does not take long. I remember watching it and literally wondering if I was going to see the finish of the race. I wasn’t the only one who noticed…as this blog post’s comments demonstrated.
NASCAR made an absurd amount of money with their television contracts in the 2000s, but that ultimately cost them a sizable chunk of the audience when networks were forced to make it worth their while. The broadcasts really were over-saturated with ads enough to drive fans away.
And I said all that without even bringing up that profoundly irritating cartoon gopher.
The Decline of NASCAR, Actual Reason #3: The Venues
Speaking of disrespecting your fan base, how about needlessly putting an end to a beloved 54-year tradition? That’s exactly what NASCAR did when they took the Labor Day race out of Darlington and sent it to Auto Club Speedway in California. It took quite a few years of longtime fans bitching about that, but NASCAR did finally move the Labor Day Southern 500 back to Darlington.
The move of the Labor Day race to California was part of an ongoing trend. In response to its rapidly growing popularity nationwide, NASCAR moved away from the Southeast fans who brought the sport to the dance, and began holding races in places like Vegas, Chicago and Los Angeles.
But that in itself wasn’t necessarily the crime. You couldn’t entirely blame NASCAR for no longer holding events in places like North Wilkesboro or Rockingham or even Darlington, which lost a race on the schedule for several years. The markets simply couldn’t support them anymore.
The problem was the tracks that replaced them…nearly all of them were characterless, cookie-cutter speedways where aero package ruled the day. In 1994, there were six events held at intermediate tracks of 1.5-2 miles in length. Just ten years later, there were 13 such events…nearly half the schedule.
That isn’t insignificant when it comes to explaining the decline of NASCAR. When you think of the venues that have showcased the most memorable events in the sport’s history, Daytona, Darlington, and Bristol often come to mind. Atlanta has had some classics, but that was partly by virtue of the venue hosting the championship race, such as Alan Kulwicki’s unforgettable title win in 1992.
NASCAR moved away from tracks where drivers push and shove and fight both other racecars and the track, and moved to aero-dependent speedways where engineers in the garage determined winners. As a result, teams with more resources…such as Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing…won big for years.
But more importantly, the racing isn’t anywhere near as exciting at the cookie cutters, as I so eloquently explained here. I also suggested a solution…that NASCAR emulate how baseball exploded in popularity after the opening of Camden Yards. Even more so than in baseball, the on-screen product is affected with the layout of a track. It makes a world of difference watching on TV.
You also don’t often see post-race fisticuffs after races at Kansas or Vegas like you might at Martinsville or Bristol. Those moments generate interest…and rivalries, which every sport needs.
Fortunately, NASCAR is finally addressing this…
How NASCAR Can Rise Again
I have reasons to believe that NASCAR can return to previous levels of popularity…maybe not on the verge of overtaking the NFL again, but at least back to a point where they have enough of a dedicated fanbase to be a solid performer in ratings and ticket sales.
Since this is a non-ideological blog, I won’t get into the things that the NFL, NBA and MLB have recently done to drive away a significant portion of their fanbases. We all know what I’m talking about. I expect that will be a boon to NASCAR’s future.
As I’ve said, the sport is finally addressing its venue problem. The 2021 campaign includes six road course races, a dirt race at Bristol (!), and a race at the concrete venue of Nashville for the first time. Labor Day is in Darlington where it belongs, and Darlington is hosting two events again. And the season will conclude at Phoenix again, a more exciting venue than Miami where the finale had been for years. There are still 11 races on “intermediate” tracks, but it’s finally moving in the right direction.
These are bold changes, but this variety of tracks will test drivers and teams at every level. No longer will teams win titles by dominating speedways; driver skill will be more of a factor, as it should be.
In addition, the current playoff format, while far from perfect, isn’t nearly as unpalatable as the Chase was. It rewards winning and risk taking, where the Chase rewarded points racing and avoiding risk. Yes, a team can still dominate all season and lose a championship to a flat tire, but at least it’s not just an artificial points reset. With the current playoff point structure, drivers are also somewhat rewarded for strong season-long performances as well…while the Chase completely disregarded excellence during the season.
The broadcasts have also improved. There are still plenty of obscene profit breaks, but it’s far less aggravating when you can still see the action and leader board on part of the screen. NASCAR was plenty defiant resisting this idea at their peak…but these days, they’re not in a position to ignore displeased fans.
The sport no longer has Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jimmie Johnson, so there’s an opportunity for new fan favorites to emerge, formed by on-track performance rather than sentiment. Veterans like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are future Hall of Fame drivers with fairly large followings, and a strong crop of young drivers are making names for themselves.
NASCAR’s 2020 champion is also its most popular driver…for the first time since 1988. Chase Elliott, like his 1988 champion father Bill, is from Dawsonville, Georgia…the Southeast…and he has the lineage factor as the son of a well-liked champion. Nepotism isn’t dead in NASCAR. Elliott is a great driver and a likable kid, and he doesn’t take any crap…he doesn’t shy away from wrecking a driver like Denny Hamlin if the situation called for it. (It did.) He is likely to build a fan base fast.
The decline of NASCAR was a combination of ill-considered decisions: the implementation of a contrived playoff, poorly thought out broadcasting contracts, and departing from unique and venerable venues for dull, unexciting ones. It didn’t help that a hugely popular driver underperformed, but that shouldn’t have caused this much of a free fall.
After years of seeing its once enormous audience dwindle to almost nothing, NASCAR is finally righting the ship. Ousting Brian France, who created the Chase and presided over the sport’s decline, was no small part of that. But they’ve also improved the schedule, the broadcasts, and the method of determining a champion. It took time, maybe too much time, but NASCAR is finally addressing the three biggest reasons for the decline of the sport.
And while 2020 has been anything but usual especially in the sports world, NASCAR was the one sport that didn’t suffer a significant ratings drop. For the first time in over a decade and a half, they seem to be headed in the right direction.
So if I’m right, in a few years NASCAR may become America’s summer sport again.
And maybe this time, they will have learned from their mistakes.
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So some years ago…2012 in fact…I wrote a post about going gluten free in Wildwood for my entertaining and informative “Beaches And Boards” blog. I had no idea that post would do so well – as I write this it’s #7 in Google for “gluten free wildwood NJ”.
Anyway, that post is fairly outdated…Westy’s and Juan Pablo’s, sadly, no longer exist…and the situation is much improved for celiacs in the Wildwoods, so I thought I’d share an updated report.
This is by no means a complete list of eateries in Wildwood that offer gluten free menus, but my celiac-afflicted wife and I have tried many of these places, so hopefully it’s helpful to you.
Finally! Gluten Free Pizza on the Wildwood Boardwalk!!
Yes, you read that right! There are now at least three pizza joints on the Wildwood boardwalk with gluten free pizza, and while I am very grateful for this development, it does present a small dilemma.
Here is my minor but significant issue: in my opinion, the gluten free pizza at 3 Brothers is superior to the GF pizza at Sorrento II, but the regular pizza at Sorrento II is superior to 3 Brothers. I haven’t tried any pizza at the Original Hot Spot yet.
Thankfully, the Sorrento II and 3 Brothers aren’t far from each other, so we can often do one or both. Or we take turns. But at least I can finally eat pizza on the Wildwood boards again without feeling bad for my wife. So this is a good problem to have. All of these places deserve a shoutout.
Sorrento II. I rank Sorrento II among the best pizza shops on the Wildwood boards for their regular pizza. It was the winner in a pizza-off my brother and I did one night, just edging out Sam’s Pizza Palace…which is also very good, but doesn’t offer gluten free yet. Sorrento II isn’t popular with Yelpers, so I added my two cents there.
Sorrento II is one of those places where you can try some unusual pizza toppings, like BBQ chicken, and it’s a nice thin crust with decent crunch when re-heated (as most boardwalk slices are). You get a decent sized slice for your coin here.
However, while I’m extremely grateful that they offer it, their GF pizza leaves a bit to be desired. It isn’t horrible, but it isn’t great. Given the choice of gluten free pizza in Wildwood only, I’d go with 3 Brothers. But it is nice to be able to go to Sorrento II and have no problem with the wife.
3 Brothers Pizza. 3 Brothers, as of this writing, probably makes the best gluten free pizza in Wildwood. Certainly so on the boardwalk, where Sorrento II and Original Hot Spot currently their only competition. I believe they use a crust made from rice, and it’s even edible by traditional pizza standards. My little ones actually prefer it to their regular pizza.
But 3 Brothers’ traditional pizza offering is just okay…and just okay is not okay in a spot where there are dozens of pizza shops that offer very good pies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s adequate and I can enjoy it, but given the choice for non-GF pizza, I’d probably go elsewhere.
Original Hot Spot – The Original Hot Spot offers gluten-free and cauliflower pizza on their menu. We haven’t yet tried it, but I’d avoid this place. My wife and I have eaten there before their GF pizza was available, and while they were able to accommodate her allergy with a roll-free cheesesteak, the food in general was not good.
They are also, according to Yelpers, adding 20% tip charges automatically to the bill. Not wise in times like these. However, again, I haven’t tried the GF pizza yet, so if it’s good, maybe it’s worth that 20% automatic tip for you. They deserve credit for that. Just be mindful.
There’s a reason there are no long lines in front of Original Hot Spots on the Wildwood boards, unlike, say, Sam’s Pizza Palace or Curley’s Fries.
Someone say Curley’s Fries?
Curley’s Fries – GLUTEN FREE!!
My favorite Wildwood food of all is Curley’s Fries – they’re so great that JerseyMan magazine let me do a piece on them and their survival during the Crappiest Year of 2020. Every trip we make to Wildwood includes a stop at Curley’s. But what really makes this iconic fry stand a blessing from God is that they do fries…just fries.
That means that their vats aren’t used for anything trivial like chicken fingers or jalapeno poppers, making them free of contamination and Curley’s fries safe for celiacs to eat. Hooray!
Plus they’re outstanding fries, the best on the Wildwood boards. If there’s one reason for celiacs to vacation in Wildwood, it’s that they’ll be making no sacrifices when it comes to French fried potatoes.
Gluten Free Breakfast in Wildwood
You can go to any of several Wildwood diners and eat breakfast safely…we’ve eaten at the Vegas Diner, Adam’s Restaurant, and Pompeo’s without incident…but none of them have specific gluten free menus. They’re all accommodating places, though, so you can generally feel safe.
But there are a few joints that do have a heart for gluten free Wildwood visitors:
Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. Learning of Uncle Bill’s offering gluten free French toast was an exciting revelation, because this is another favorite spot of mine. I love their pancakes, and the wife loves the GF French toast. Incidentally, Uncle Bill’s isn’t just in Wildwood…they have locations in a number of Jersey Shore towns.
Incidentally, I don’t see the GF French toast on their menu; I’ve e-mailed and asked about it. I’ll let you know as soon as I get a response.
Bonus tip: Just for your situational awareness. Uncle Bill’s gets very crowded (like I said, it’s a great place), and their parking lot and the one across Pacific Avenue are small and often full…because most people don’t know that there is a larger lot behind the restaurant! Turn onto East Andrews Avenue, go around the block and use that lot.
There you go, a pro tip at no extra charge. (This blog’s full of them!)
Key West Café. The Key West Café is located across East Andrews Avenue from Uncle Bill’s; it’s easy to find. Just look for the colorful bird on the side of the building. Again, you may have some trouble finding a parking spot; don’t use the Uncle Bill’s lot for the Cafe.
I confess that I haven’t tried the Key West Café yet, but they do offer gluten free pancakes, which, like the Café itself, gets positive reviews on TripAdvisor. I’m confident this is a good place to go for celiacs. Hopefully I’ll try it out next time I’m in town.
Stuey’s Juice Bar. We haven’t tried Stuey’s yet either, mostly because we usually stay in North Wildwood, which is a couple of miles away. But Stuey’s is a breakfast spot on the Wildwood boardwalk, at the southern end just north of Wildwood Crest. If you’re staying in one of the hotels on the beach in the Crest, this would make a nice morning spot.
There’s not much in the way of sit down dining, but Stuey’s does offer a wide variety of celiac-friendly stuff, including gluten free pancakes, breakfast sandwiches on gluten free bread, and a bunch of items that wouldn’t have gluten in them to begin with.
Stuey’s also offers smoothies and gourmet coffee, so it’s a win-win.
Gluten Free in Wildwood – Some Other Restaurants That Get It
Here’s a couple of other joints we’ve visited in Wildwood that get the gluten free job done:
Alumni Grill. I love the Alumni Grill, and I especially love that there’s now one in Glassboro, just ten minutes away from my house!
The Alumni Grill is perfect for celiacs – the food is great, it’s cheap, and they’re very careful about ensuring that food isn’t contaminated. They actually have a gluten free menu – which includes four types of fries (sweet potato!), and multiple burgers and sandwiches on Udi’s rolls. Their fries are excellent too…they’re not Curley’s, but they’re really good.
The Alumni is great for a cheap takeout (it’s not a great sit down atmosphere), and we use them a lot. It’s a real find in Wildwood for gluten free options.
Bandana’s Mexican Grille. It’s been a long time since we’ve visited Bandana’s, but as I remember it the food was pretty good. And they are definitely aware of allergy issues. They don’t have a specific gluten free menu, but their menu does state which options are gluten free or can be made so. There’s also a page on their website dedicated to allergens, including gluten. That alone makes Bandana’s worth a visit.
They’re reasonable too as Wildwood restaurants go, and Mexican joints are in fairly short supply here. So it’s a solid pick.
Gluten Free Desserts!
The Wildwood boardwalk can be a diabetic nightmare, with nearly every other store offering fried or fattening desserts by the truckload.
But going gluten free? No problem! With most any joint that offers ice cream in Wildwood, you can generally get something safe, and the water ice and fudge shops are usually safe too…at least the flavors that don’t include cookie crumbs or whatever. Just avoid fried Oreos, ice cream sandwiches, and stuff like that obviously.
There is one joint that goes the extra mile for those of us afflicted or married to the afflicted:
Cool Scoops Ice Cream. Cool Scoops is a classic 1950s style ice cream shop, with a wide variety of very cool variations of sundaes, and that in itself is cool enough. But they also take the simple step of offering gluten free cones. (Not hard to do!!)
It’s not the cheapest ice cream joint (most of them are pricey here), but it’s worth it…you can get an amazing sundae in a fold-up 50s car, and the classic diner atmosphere is fantastic too. A great place to visit with the kids, but especially if you’re a celiac who misses ice cream cones.
We’ve tried Banana’s Ice Cream Café, which supposedly offers GF cones, but we were underwhelmed by it as I recall. Far prefer Cool Scoops, but Bananas deserves a mention.
A Few Other Places We’ve Tried Without Issue
We’ve been to Wildwood many times, and for going out we usually just look for a general place that understands enough to leave out the roll. At times the wife will just bring her own roll, and make a sandwich with that.
I’ve already mentioned some breakfast joints. Here’s a partial list of places where we have been able to eat without incident, so I presume you could go there and be accommodated:
Urie’s Waterfront Restaurant. The food here is unspectacular, but the atmosphere is great, right next to the marina. Be sure to ask for a table there for a terrific view. The wife has never had a problem there.
Poppi’s Brick Oven Pizza. Poppi’s doesn’t yet have GF pizza unfortunately, but they have a lot of things they can go gluten free, and their pizza is fantastic for non-celiacs.
Mr. D’s Pizzeria And Subs. Mr. D’s moved since we tried them (don’t expect the storefront to look like this photo) – its former location is where Poppi’s is now. But as I recall I believe the wife got a sandwich without the roll and it was fine, and they make pretty good sandwiches for non-celiacs too.
Piro’s. An Italian joint on New York Avenue in North Wildwood. Excellent food, terrific atmosphere, and they have plenty of options for food without bread in it. We like this place a lot.
There you go my friends; hopefully you now have some doable choices for going gluten free in Wildwood. Feel free to drop me a line and let me know if anything has changed.
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The world’s best bread? Maybe. JerseyMan sent me to write a piece about Sarcone’s, the fifth-generation Philadelphia bakery. A lot of fun to write, and an iconic place to visit and pick up some truly amazing bread. You can view the PDF of the magazine article here.
It’s All About The Bread
Sarcone’s Bakery is in its fifth generation of baking bread for Philadelphians.
If you’re wondering just how good the bread is from Sarcone’s Bakery, consider that the winner of the Travel Channel’s “Best Sandwich in America” changed their rolls to Sarcone’s…after taking the prize.
In 2012 Adam Richman’s popular show spent ten episodes—with several elimination rounds—deciding which offering of meat on bread was the best in the nation. DiNic’s Roast Pork in the Reading Terminal Market won the hotly contested honor.
“The day after he got that trophy,” says Louis Sarcone Jr., the fourth generation owner of the venerable bakery, “the first thing he did was switch his bread to Sarcone’s.”
A bold move, to say the least.
“People were blown away by it,” Sarcone remembers. “You just won best sandwich in America. Not Philly, America! His answer was, we want to stay the best. How do you improve our sandwich? We improved our bread.”
To those familiar with Sarcone’s Bakery on South 9th Street, though, DiNic’s switch isn’t as earthshaking as it appears. The irony is that in changing a national award-winning formula, DiNic’s turned to an institution that hasn’t changed anything in 96 years.
At least they went with someone who has the technique down.
Sarcone’s has survived two World Wars, the Great Depression and every recession since. But perhaps more remarkably, it has survived what can be the toughest challenge several times…the next generation.
Sitting relaxed on the store’s window ledge, Lou Jr. shares the secrets of the family’s continued success. His son, Louis Sarcone III, stands patiently nearby, occasionally offering his own thoughts but seemingly more to learn the art of the interview from Dad…who is clearly versed in giving them.
“If you don’t listen to the generation before you, something gets lost,” Lou Jr. says. “You have to pay attention, and that’s the hardest thing for generational businesses, listening to the one before you. Even if you disagree with that person, you can really screw up a family business if you don’t listen.
“My grandfather, the first thing he told me was, if you put too much food in your mouth, you can’t chew. The younger generation sees a business, they see financial, they see money, they see an opportunity for the brand. If you try to expand too much, you lose something. You lose control of a business, you may lose a recipe, you may lose the quality of the product.
“But if you keep your product the same and keep trucking along, your customers will always come in because you make a great product.”
This isn’t to say that there’s never been attempts to expand the name, or even ill-advised ones. Sarcone’s Deli just up the street uses the bakery’s bread, and they are doing just fine. But opening delicatessens elsewhere proved a challenge. Possibly with his grandfather’s words in the back of his mind, Lou Jr. pulled back the reins.
“My first cousin, Anthony Bucci, was an executive chef for the Wyndham Plaza. He got tired of working for big companies. He opened his own deli in Limerick; he’s been there 28 years. We opened the deli about 12 years ago. I let him run it. The only thing I’m involved in is paperwork and making bread.
“We expanded; we had five delis not including our own. My father had gotten sick at the bakery, and my cousin had a heart attack and was out for a year and a half. I couldn’t do day-to-day operations for two businesses. We put too much food in our mouth, I did.”
The younger Sarcone adds: “You have to keep an eye on the franchises, because you want everything to be the same. They’ll start adding things that don’t belong.”
Lou Jr. agrees. “We use Di Bruno cheese. They might go to the supermarket and get it a dollar cheaper. Stuff like that happens. You don’t want it to happen, but it could happen. So before we had that black eye, we closed the deli.”
So while Cherry Hill residents may have been disappointed, Lou Jr. was content to go back to running the bakery. No reason to change what worked for four generations, be it the nature of the business or the recipe for the bread.
“I’ve never changed the recipe,” he notes. “Sometimes the quality of the flour may change, maybe protein levels aren’t there and you have to add a little bit of protein. We do have to adjust for that. But as far as changing the recipe, no. It’s water, flour, salt and yeast.”
But lest anyone think they can bake bread as good as Sarcone’s once they know the ingredients, Lou describes the craftsmanship of the baking process. The real secret? Time.
“It’s a six hour process. We have a guy that comes in at 12:00 every night. The dough sits for two hours. The bakers start coming in at 2:00 AM, processing the dough, the various shapes, sizes, and measures. It takes two hours to do that, so that’s four hours. Then they have to turn it into a loaf of bread, turn it into a roll, so by the time the bread is mixed and comes out of the oven, it’s six hours.
“No commercial bakery shop is going to wait six hours; they’re going to put in preservatives and meet the demand.”
Brick ovens make a difference too, as the younger Sarcone points out: “What also makes us unique is our ovens. They were built in 1920; you can’t find them anywhere anymore.”
Dad continues. “The alternative is metal, an oven that revolves. The only thing that revolves in a brick oven is our bakers. We go in with 15-foot sticks and move the bread around ourselves, to the hot spot in the oven.
“Ever see trucks that say ‘hearth-baked bread’? That’s baloney, because nobody uses brick, especially in a commercial bakery. Ours is hearth baked, there’s no metal in between the bread, the dough, and the hearth.
“It’s an art. There’s no timer, no thermostat on the oven. Well, there is, but they’re untrue. So it’s all knowing the dough, how loose it was or how cold it was or how warm it is out, how long it’s gonna take. And the sound; you pull a loaf of bread out and tap the bottom, you hear a certain sound, you know it’s done.”
It takes time to master the craft, so Sarcone keeps people around that do. “Bakers have been here at least ten years or more. They like what they’re doing, so they stay. I treat everybody like we’re family. Morale is good here, considering people are getting up at 2:00 in the morning.”
As Lou Jr. freely shares, the secret isn’t an ingredient or brand of yeast…it’s taking the time, sticking with what works, and not putting so much food in your mouth that you can’t chew. That’s the family formula that has kept the store in Philadelphia for nearly a century.
There have been plenty of awards and gushing press through the years, but Lou Jr.’s proudest moment was the locals’ response to a debilitating fire.
In October of 2000, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window, burning the front of the store down. The culprit was never captured nor the motive revealed—“there’s a million stories out there, pick one,” Lou says—but the city came together to literally lift the bakery from the ashes as quickly as possible.
“The fire department, the city council, the mayor, they came here to help us get open because they didn’t want to see us leave. Contractors, electricians, inspectors, zoning people, they were all here the next day. We didn’t have to wait. They were waiting for us.
“We were open a week next door. We moved our storefront into the packing area. It wasn’t pretty, but people actually liked that better. They saw men work, they saw the flour, they saw everything. We spent thousands to replace the store; they wanted the old way!
“That was something I’ll never forget, the way the neighbors and the city came together to help us.”
Fourteen years later, Sarcone’s remains a beloved institution in Philadelphia—and a must-visit for tourists. Customers gather daily outside like music fans once waited for concert tickets before the Internet. Lines begin forming at six in the morning and sometimes extend for blocks.
To Louis Sarcone Jr., it’s the definition of success.
“Remember Springdale Road and Route 70 in Cherry Hill, used to be called the Point View Inn?,” he asks. “A little house. That guy had lines for years back in the 70s. He turned it into what it looks like now. Because he got massively big, he closed within a year, then it was Pizzeria Uno, now it’s a PJ Whelihan’s. That place, I could always remember, it was the longest lines ever for a family restaurant.
“You want lines. You want people to have a hard time getting in. Why is that line two blocks long? We gotta try it!”
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Sarcone’s Bakery has been a Philly institution longer than…
…the Flyers, Eagles, and 76ers
…the Ben Franklin Bridge
…the 215 area code
…the Daily News
…WIP, WFIL, and WCAU radio
…the PSFS Building
…30th Street Station
…the Schuylkill Expressway
…Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteaks (and all of their successors)
Accolades for Sarcone’s from Yelp Nation:
In 64 Yelp reviews, Sarcone’s averages four and a half stars out of five. Some quotes from the bakery’s fans:
“In footie pajamas I offer night time prayers thankful that Sarcone’s exists and it’s so close to my house…’cause good bread they got…you seriously could put just about anything on that seeded Italian bread and it would be glorious.” – Kathleen D., Philadelphia
“It’s that alluring smell that makes you just want to rip off a piece and eat it. It doesn’t need butter, it’s perfect as is.” – Vinny P., Philadelphia
“My local farmer’s market has a small place in it that sells sandwiches. My Dad found out they were using rolls from Sarcone’s and asked to buy whatever they had leftover at the end of the night, and offered over triple what they originally paid for them. The Best Bread. Period.” Michelle M., Wilmington, DE
“You, along with many others, will line up to hopefully buy a long seeded roll, sandwich rolls, or anything else that comes fresh from their ovens. It’s a work of delicious, crispy crunchiness that cannot and will not be denied.” – Tyler R., Philadelphia
“Dear Sarcone’s – I miss you dreadfully. Whether I ate your bread fresh as I walked home, turned it into a hoagie or slathered it with garlic butter and baked it to soft yet crispy perfection, it always made the meal. There is no way to express the sadness I feel in my heart and in my mouth at now living so many states away…Love, Amelia” – Amelia L., Brighton, MA
“This place is why Philly can make a case for being the sandwich capital of the world.” – Chris W. Philadelphia
“I don’t even consider a Hoagie a Hoagie unless it’s made in a Sarcone Roll.” – Bruce B., Philadelphia
Staples of Sarcone’s:
Seeded Italian Bread – “We’re known for putting seeded Italian bread on the map,” Lou Sarcone Jr. says. “If I stop making seeded bread, if I only made plain bread, Liscio’s would have to change their bread to plain bread. They couldn’t fake it out being Sarcone’s.” Primo’s Hoagies started out with Sarcone’s seeded Italian bread, until the expansion made it impossible for Sarcone’s to keep up the supply. “Once they establish their name they leave me,” Sarcone says.
Tomato Pies – Sarcone’s tomato pies on their garlicky baked Sicilian crust are actually a popular breakfast item with locals; as the Zagat website mention of Sarcone’s describes it: “The end result is almost like what you get when sweeping up leftover spaghetti sauce on your plate with the end of your bread.”
Pepperoni Bread – The pepperoni rolls (or sausage rolls, if you prefer), contain a generous amount of meat for such a delicacy, and the soft crust of the bread contains just the right amount of olive oil. If they’re out of pizza slices in your next visit, try one of these.
Bread Crumbs – There isn’t often leftovers in a bakery that usually sells out its products in the early afternoon, but Lou Sarcone knows what to do with them. “We let it get stale for four or five days, then grind it up and sell it as bread crumbs. Restaurants buy them by the hundred pounds; walk-in customers buy it by the pound,” Lou says.
I first met Baseball Joe Vogel on June 12, 2016, while meeting up with friend and fellow baseball road tripper Dan Davies and his group of traveling friends, who invited me to join them in Pittsburgh. He’s become a good friend and I always meet with him when I’m in Pittsburgh.
It was a picture-perfect day at stunning PNC Park, as the Pirates prepared to battle the Cardinals in a late afternoon matchup.
On this day, though, baseball isn’t the only thing on the mind of the Bucs faithful.
Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are in San Jose this evening, set to seal the deal on a fourth Stanley Cup for the city. Which they would, a few hours after the ballgame ends. Penguins jerseys, tees and caps can be seen in large numbers for a baseball crowd.
At one point during the game, a young fan brings out a mock, almost-life-size aluminum foil Stanley Cup and parades it proudly around a section in the right field corner. It gets a round of sustained applause from the excited fans sitting in the area.
But despite being a Pittsburgh native from birth, Joe Vogel is having none of this.
Without warning, as if duty calls him, he springs from his chair in the right field cove and disappears into the concourse. Seconds later he can be seen roaming the section where the Cup-carrying fan was. To the great amusement of his buddies in the cove, Vogel spends several minutes determinedly searching for the fan, who by this point is long gone.
The laughter in Vogel’s section grows louder as his determined search continues well beyond the amount of time one would think the situation warranted. Because after several innings of sitting with this character, they know exactly why he is seeking out the proud hockey fan.
It was to shame him. To frown on him. To educate the young lad on priorities.
Because as Baseball Joe Vogel will always let you know, only baseball matters. Every other sport is a waste of time.
Baseball Joe is deaf and mute from three debilitating strokes. He communicates through gestures and hand signals, with a small keyboard, or on a folded piece of paper with the alphabet on it.
He lives in an apartment in downtown Pittsburgh, a short walk across the Clemente Bridge from PNC Park. Baseball, Pirates baseball, is his life. It has been since he was a young boy. He proclaims himself the “biggest baseball fan anywhere”, and thus far in my near half century of existence I haven’t met a bigger one…which, if you knew my father, is saying something.
The Pirates know him well. He occasionally plays catch with manager Clint Hurdle and even advises him at times via e-mail. Courtesy of a team that loves his dedication, he has season tickets and attends every game in the covered handicapped section in right field, underneath the right field bleachers. He can’t be in the sun for too long. He may be the only fan in PNC Park who doesn’t care about the picturesque city backdrop.
Sitting with him, it’s almost impossible to pay attention to the game, especially as opposing hitters tee off on Pirates pitching as the Cards would that night. Baseball Joe is every bit as entertaining as the action on the field…constantly having conversations with bystanders in his own way, patiently communicating with his keyboard or well-worn piece of paper when people have difficulty understanding his gestures.
He carries a baseball that he frequently tosses to passing ushers, who nonchalantly toss it back to him, knowing the routine. Throughout the game, other team employees stop to greet him. He constantly collects souvenirs and seems to have a never-ending supply of the large soda cups, one of which he shares with me.
Throughout the evening loud laughter is heard in the section at both his knowledge of baseball and his chastising of fellow fans for their comparatively insufficient reverence for the game.
At one point, he asks me if I like any other sports. Forgetting his disdain for the hockey fan, I tell him I like NASCAR too, and he shakes his head. He pretends to be driving a car, and then frowns at me and does the shame symbol with his fingers. He then holds up a baseball and makes a circular motion with his finger. By this point it’s understood. Baseball, year-round.
All night long, it never stops. With his keypad, he fires baseball trivia questions at his buddies…like “Name two players in the Hall of Fame that have the same first and middle names.” A wiseacre in the group replies, with great bombast as if he’s sure of the answer, “Ken Griffey Senior and Ken Griffey Junior!”
As the rest of the group laughs, Joe smiles, turns to me and informs me: Henry Louis Aaron and Henry Louis Gehrig, or Joseph Paul DiMaggio and Joseph Paul Torre.
Later Dan, who took Joe along with his group to several ballparks and the Hall of Fame, told me the story of his wiping up the floor with an interactive trivia game at the Hall. If there was a baseball edition of “Jeopardy”, Baseball Joe would be Ken Jennings.
Baseball Joe holds the distinction of being the first fan to ask for my autograph, at least as an author of baseball books.
At the Pirates game, he asked me to send him the PNC Park E-Guide…and to autograph it for him. He also gave me firm instructions…make sure I sign my full name, middle name included, and do it neatly, which I am not accustomed to doing with my usual chicken scratch of a signature. He’s a stickler, this one, especially when it comes to matters baseball.
Joe loved the E-Guide and raved about it to me in an e-mail…a badge of honor…but he also had a few suggestions: elaborate more on seating, include some photos in the whitespace, and maybe talk more about food and such. He is the first fan ever to complain to me that there isn’t enough information in a Ballpark E-Guide.
He has been repeatedly asking me to send him guides for Wrigley and for Busch in St. Louis, should I ever write that one. I will. I’m always happy to have an audience.
A few days after the Pittsburgh experience, I met up with Baseball Joe and the group again, this time in Citizens Bank Park in my hometown of Philly. I found them a free parking spot and sat with them in the upper level for the evening. Throughout the evening, Joe kept me entertained, once again more often than the action on the field.
I tell him I am an Orioles fan, and he holds up fingers…first seven and then one. I immediately get it. 1971 World Series. Pirates over the Birds in seven. I was three.
Then he makes a “7” and a “9” with his fingers. 1979. The Pirates, led by Pops Stargell and rallying around the passing of manager Chuck Tanner’s mother, come back from 3-1 to once again beat the O’s in seven games. My response is to hang my head and to pretend to rub tears from my eyes, illustrating the heartbreak of the 11-year-old Orioles fan that year. “I still NEVER dance to ‘We Are Family’”, I inform him.
He nods, understanding. He does the eye rub himself when he brings up the Pirates’ long stretch of down years.
He asks me who my favorite player is, and when I say Cal Ripken Jr., he quickly replies on his keyboard with a stat for me: “Lowest batting average of any player with 3,000 hits”. Sigh.
When I show Joe a picture of my daughter posing with baseball-themed stuffed animals that I’ve brought home for her from my travels, he briefly types on his keyboard and shows me. “You so blessed,” it reads. “Me haves no family.”
I instantly feel both sad for him and guilty about the occasional dissatisfaction I feel with my own life. He’s right. I am so blessed. I not only have two beautiful and healthy kids, I still have time for the only sport that matters.
Long after the crowd has filed out of Citizens Bank Park that night, Baseball Joe manages to make a few ushers uncomfortable with his refusal to leave the seating bowl before collecting as many souvenir cups as he can. You can see clear agitation growing in the ushers’ eyes as they anticipate a confrontation. Joe seems oblivious to the approaching ballpark police, but he exits the seating bowl at what seems the exact moment before the ushers turn snooty. He’s a pro at this.
Back at the hotel where the traveling fans are staying, Baseball Joe and I pose for a picture, and he surprises me with a huge bear hug. Apparently I’ve made a good impression. I’m grateful that he’s not upset with me for showing him family photos.
Joe and I e-mail each other frequently. In his e-mails to me the subject line is almost always “Baseball 24 7 366”—making sure he’s covered in leap years. His e-mails are usually brief but always thoughtful…wishing my family a great holiday season, asking me to send along more E-Guides when I can, and sharing his thoughts on the Pirates’ fortunes. Shortly after the Pirates failed to make the playoffs in 2016, he sent me an e-mail with the words “Pirates eliminated – me cry” in it. For 33 years and counting, this Orioles fan has known the feeling.
I’m always grateful to hear from him. Because whenever I reflect on it, he’s right. Other sports are a waste of time.
And Baseball Joe knows as well as anyone that our time is too valuable to waste.
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When a magazine suggests you write a piece about blind baseball players, you have to take on the assignment just to see how in the wide world of sports such a thing is possible. But indeed it is, and I covered the Boston Renegades for the Summer 2019 issue of BostonMan. You can read the article on their website here, or see the magazine article PDF here.
The Association of Blind Citizens Boston Renegades are a powerhouse in Beep Baseball, a form of baseball played by legally blind people.
On the website for the Association of Blind Citizens Boston Renegades, the local Beep Baseball team, you can find a short video trailer for their documentary.
In the video, mere seconds after one player tells his heart-wrenching story of being literally struck blind, coach Rob Weissman is seen reprimanding his team. “You guys are going to pay for this bad practice,” he informs them. In another scene he lectures to a player, “Life isn’t fair. I worked my ass off when I played ball. I got cut every friggin’ time.”
Imagine telling a blind person that their desire is questionable. Talk about tough love.
But that’s exactly the point. At the end of the video, that same coach is seen firing up his players before the game, reminding them what success on the field is about. It’s about respect.
Rob Weissman cares enough to take a team of blind baseball players at the bottom of their league and mold them into dominant yearly contenders. In the last three seasons, they’ve compiled a 40-8 record and played in a national title game.
As coach says of the endeavor, it’s about more than winning games. It’s creating a culture of working together to achieve goals.
When asked about the video, Weissman chuckles knowingly, as if he’s fielded the question a few thousand times. He gets that it’s dramatization and that a viewer’s reaction is exactly the goal of the trailer, but he’s nowhere near that hard-nosed coach that comes across in a small few captured moments. “It’s a teaser,” he asserts for the record. “If I was that tough, no one would be with this team.”
As he explains, there was a desire to change the team culture at the time, and someone needed to take the bull by the horns and lead the way.
“They made a decision that they wanted to be competitive, but a lot of them had never been part of a competitive team. So a lot of learning needed to happen. It wasn’t going to be ‘let’s go get pounded by the top teams in the league, and everyone’s going to love us, because they’re going to beat the crap out of us and we’re going to pay for the beers afterwards, which is what it was early in the history of the team.
“I said, look, I’ll be able to get this team up and running and I’ll be able to bring in great volunteers, but we have to change the culture.”
It’s worked. Weissman and his staff…he is quick to credit team owner John Oliveira, coach and pitcher Peter Connolly, pitcher Ron Cochran and coach Bryan Grillo among others…have created a winning atmosphere in Boston beepball. All with home grown talent.
“I think that we are the only team in the history of the league to go from being the doormat of the league to making a title game, only using players from our roster,” Weissman notes. “A lot of other teams will bring in people from other cities. We’ve never done that. Every one of our players has grown up in our system. We’re really proud of that.”
Sometimes working your ass off is worth it.
Baseball for the blind. The words invoke instant confusion. Of the senses most needed to play baseball, vision easily tops the list.
Before you ponder how it’s possible for a someone to play baseball without seeing, consider this: there is a nationwide league. The National Beep Baseball Association features teams not just in Boston, but also in Chicago, Vegas, even Anchorage. There are 35 NBBA teams in all, and yes, there is a World Series.
Beep Baseball works like this: all players except the pitcher and catcher are completely blindfolded, to play on the same vision level despite their degree of blindness. The ball is softball-sized and is built with a beeping device in it, so defensive players can field it by following the sound when the coach calls out the fielding formation.
Batters are given four strikes, and the pitcher plays for the offensive team. The pitcher calls out to the batter when the pitch is thrown, and attempts to put the ball in the batter’s swing zone. If the batter makes contact and manages to hit the ball at least 40 feet, the defensive team moves to field the beeping ball. A ball hit further than 180 feet is considered a home run.
There’s no baserunning in the traditional sense. After contact, the batter runs towards one of two pylons that serve as bases, whichever one is buzzing. If a batter reaches the pylon before the ball is fielded cleanly, a run is scored. If the ball is fielded cleanly before the batter makes the bag, the batter is out. Games last six innings, or more if needed.
It’s easy to argue that a professional ballplayer hitting .350 is one of the most impressive achievements in sports. But even with a pitcher grooving the ball in a batter’s swing zone, it’s pretty impressive to see a blindfolded batter put a ball in play. If someone claimed that the Force was strong in better hitters, it wouldn’t be difficult to believe.
Peter Connolly, a pitcher and coach for the Renegades, explains the mechanics, and how hitters learn and improve their skills.
“It’s a combination of knowing your swing, being consistent, just honing in on your consistency. Maybe getting a little more power, maybe being able to go the other way in certain situations.
“If you can pop the ball up in the air for four seconds, you have a really good chance of getting to the bag. That’s another thing that you can hone onto, base running and getting faster. If you watch the good teams in the World Series, they have such speed that if they hit the ball and you don’t field it perfectly, it’s too late.”
Weissman agrees that just as with any sport, the skills can be learned. “We’ve all learned a lot over time about how to coach the sport better. And we’re constantly working on hitting mechanics.
“Joe Yee hit like 400 points higher than his career batting average last year. Some of that was him learning how to improve his individual skills, and being coachable enough to learn about how to move his hands, to be more aware of his bat path, to learn how to transfer his weight.”
Yee, incidentally, is Connolly’s cousin, and it’s an impressive pitcher-hitter battery.
“I think he was batting like .600 or something off of me last year,” Connolly says.
Despite that Rob Weissman disavows his appearance as a tough coach, he does point out that players on his team want to be treated like athletes, not disabled people.
He amusingly remembers the story of Steve Houston, a former college ballplayer who lost his sight to diabetes, growing visibly annoyed and chewing out a pitcher for “babying” him when he learned the pitcher was throwing underhand to him. It’s impossible not to admire the mental fortitude of a player who believes he can handle a high hard one while blindfolded.
That said, Weissman knows there are limits in some cases. The Renegades don’t cut players, and anyone who is willing to make the financial and time commitment can play.
“One of our players, Melissa Hoyt, has Mitochondrial disease. It makes it very hard for her to breathe at times. We have another player named Rob, doctors told him he’d never play competitive sports. He’s a diabetic, so they’ve got other issues. We can’t put them out and play them 18 innings in a day. I know that they’re not gonna make it through warmups without having to take a break.
“But they’re great teammates. They’re very supportive and everyone’s very supportive of them. One of the most memorable moments that we had last year was when Melissa, who’s been with the team for a very long time, scored her first run. Every single coach and player on the team was just fired up about that.
“One of the things that’s so cool and unique about this team is just how everyone supports each other. And that we get wins in various ways.”
Back in 2003, Rob Weissman, John Oliveira and company had a vision. To give blind citizens in the Boston area a chance to come together and achieve something special, through baseball of all things.
“When we took the field in the championship game,” Rob reflects, “for me, I think that was one of the proudest moments. It was like the Red Sox winning in 2004. And we wouldn’t have gotten here without the help of every single coach and player, past and present.”
Does Rob Weissman see a World Series victory in the Renegades’ future?
“I’d love to sit with you and say, our goal is to win a championship. But I think our goal every year is to be the best that we can be.”
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The Book of Beep Baseball
David Wanczyk, an English professor at Ohio University, was enthralled enough by the idea of beep baseball that he wrote a book about it, Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind.
In it Wanczyk chronicles the history of the sport, and documents the adventures of beep baseball teams, including the Renegades and Weissman’s fanatical dedication to coaching and winning.
Here’s a passage from Wanczyk in the book about Weissman:
“Like any manager, he’s concerned about injuries, field conditions, the umpires, the draw. And like some, he’s battling precompetition butterflies, otherwise known as chronic indigestion. Weissman doesn’t really eat, and when he does, he eats Pop-Tarts, two or three a day, like a college-student gamer somehow gluing together his wild thoughts with hard frosting. But Lisa Klinkenborg, the Renegades’ resident trainer/nutritionist, has forgotten to buy his Pop-Tarts on her grocery run, unf***ingbelievable, and he’s not sure where his next meal is coming from. He’s really not sure anymore.”
Wanczyk tells BostonMan this about Weissman: “He certainly stresses about the game, let’s say that. He’ll probably tell you more. And if you have trouble getting him to tell you, you can mention that my book says something about this and that I make the connection between his efforts and his health. If he wants to dispute that connection, he’ll probably do it in a colorful way!”
But Weissman isn’t the only dedicated one, as Wanczyk and his book point out. Beep Baseball features all of the intense struggle of competition within limits.
“The action on the field is fast-paced, and you’re watching dare-devil sorts of diving and colliding. But once the inning is over and the players make their way back to the bench, they will often move pretty slowly, listening for the voices of their coaches, or even finger-snaps to help them get to the bench.
Wanczyk makes the interesting point that “beep ball is about pushing limits, but those limits are part of the game. If a player runs as hard as he wants to, he overruns the ball. Blind people can do a lot, but they still have to do it deliberately, and coincidentally, that patient speed is the best way to succeed in beep ball.
“In Boston, we’ve always liked baseball underdogs. The Renegades are an underdog, and they’re always rallying.”
Support The Renegades
The Association of Blind Citizens in Boston currently operates the Renegades, and being a non-profit, they are always looking for volunteers, players, and donations. Rob Weissman says they have some creative ways to fund and operate the team, but they can always use help.
“Some of our volunteers, they work for big name companies. Like myself, I work for IBM, one of our volunteers, Aaron Proctor works for JetBlue. JetBlue and IBM are also very big proponents of volunteerism, so they’ll support us and donate money to the team or in JetBlue’s case, they’ll donate plane tickets to the team.
“The Challenged Athletes Foundation is an amazing organization; they allow players to apply for grants and they have been extremely generous and supportive. About seven or eight of our players were able to get almost $750 each out of the challenge that so that gets them halfway there on their fundraising.
“Regionally we travel with between 20 and 30 people. That’s a lot of people to put into hotel rooms. If you’re willing to donate to a cause, our budget’s $20-25,000 a year and any little amount helps.”
In addition, Coach adds the most important thing the Renegades need…volunteers and players.
“We’re always looking for great volunteers, if people have baseball skills, or time or any skills that they could offer. We’re always looking for people. This team would not survive without volunteers.
“At the same time, if you know somebody who’s visually impaired, we’re the only team sport that exists in Massachusetts. Have them get in touch with us and come try it out. It’s amazing, so many of the guys get so much out of it other than just playing sports. This goes well beyond baseball.”
If you’d like to make a donation, volunteer, or get the Renegades in touch with a blind person interested in playing ball, you can visit the website at www.blindcitizens.org/renegades.
The Boston Renegades’ website includes their top ten moments of the 2018 season. At the top of the list is their visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame, to see the exhibit of Christian Thaxton’s bat. There is a video of Thaxton, the top hitter in the history of the league, being shown the exhibit.
A year later, Weissman’s voice still cracks a bit telling the story.
“Baseball was in his blood. He played high school ball, he ended up getting onto a junior college baseball team and then finding out that he couldn’t see the inside fastball anymore, and that was the pitch he crushed.”
Thaxton went to see an eye doctor and was informed he was going blind.
“He dusted himself off quickly. He made a decision that he was going to come to Boston to learn skills to be a blind person, to go into the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton.”
At the Carroll Center, he heard about the Boston Renegades, and it turned out he could still hit a baseball pretty well. Enough to make him want to stay in Boston.
“When he set the record for the highest batting average in the history of the league, Cooperstown came calling and said, we’d like to put his bat in the Hall of Fame. And last year, being with Christian and seeing him see his bat in a display case in the Hall of Fame, after everything that he’s been through, was amazing.”
And well deserved.
“Christian isn’t the type of athlete who’s all about himself,” Weissman adds. “He has taught so many of his teammates proper mechanics to swing. He takes such great joy out of seeing his teammates succeed. That’s who he is as a person.
“To give him the opportunity to see his bat in Cooperstown was unbelievably heartwarming.”
(all photos for this piece are courtesy of Rob Weissman, Lisa Andrews, David Wanczyk, and John Lykowski Jr.)
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Why don’t the Rays draw? Despite an AL championship in 2008, a division title in 2010, an exhilarating wild card win in 2011 and a playoff appearance in 2013, the Tampa Bay nine never seem to be playing to a full house, or often even a half-full house.
Even in the last game of the season in 2011, arguably the biggest regular season game in franchise history and with the Yankees in town bringing their own fans, only 27,000 people passed through the gates.
The Rays have been playing exciting baseball in recent years, and doing so with a fraction of the payroll (and ticket prices) of the Yankees and Red Sox. Yet they almost never sell out the Trop, and are consistently among the worst in team attendance. It’s a sad indictment of the market, unfortunately, because there’s nothing lacking in the dedication of existing Rays fans. Their TV numbers are as good as most teams.
I’ve read a few things about why the Rays don’t draw well and have my own opinions on it. I think it’s a combination of several factors.
First is the venue. Tropicana Field is not the most baseball-friendly place to see a ballgame. It’s indoors, concrete, has artificial turf and generally has a sterile feel to it. The Trop is the last non-retractable roof dome in baseball, and it’s one of only two with plastic turf (Rogers Centre in Toronto is the other, and even Rogers may have grass soon). Florida is the Sunshine State…who wants to go where there is no sunshine, for a ballgame of all things?
Second is the location of the ballpark. The Trop is in St. Petersburg, a fairly good distance through heavy traffic from Tampa, where a good portion of the population center of the market is.
Tampa residents do not particularly like the drive to the ballpark from what I’ve read, which can take a long time during rush hour…which, in theory, is when everyone would be going.
Third is the market in general. Many Florida residents are transplants, and as such are fans of the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies or another northeast team. The Rays are a relatively new team, and up until 2008 they were perennial cellar-dwellers in the American League East.
While the turnaround has been very impressive, a few competitive years don’t exactly make the Rays a storied franchise, and a local fan base still dedicated to other teams won’t grow so quickly.
Finally, not many people point this out, but no baseball venue in North America has so few options for getting to the ballpark.
The Trop is easily accessed by car, but there are few trains or buses to speak of that will take riders to the game on a nightly basis. There are some novelty options like the Brew Bus and Rally Bus, but nothing resembling the Red Line in Chicago or the Broad Street Line in Philly.
On top of that, many locals will tell you that the drive from Tampa and its suburbs to the Trop is brutal on weeknights.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority does currently have bus routes that stop at or near Tropicana Field; it is in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg so that isn’t difficult to do. The problem is that none of the bus routes can be used for night games; most buses have their last run from the area at around 10:30 or so, which might be doable but would certainly preclude seeing extra innings.
So the Rays have all of this going against them, and the last three reasons may have been why baseball was reluctant to encourage the Tampa Bay area government to build a stadium to lure a team back in 1990. They built the then-Suncoast Dome anyway, and were cruelly used as leverage for the Giants and White Sox before baseball awarded them the Devil Rays in 1998.
So what can the Rays do? Perhaps the Rays could provide such a shuttle of their own for a reasonable fee, which would be much easier to market. (They do from from the nearby pier to add some parking options, but that’s it.)
If the Pinellas County government is in a good mood, they might even create a separate lane for the Rays bus on game nights. It could stop at several locations within the city and suburbs, and be available in case people need to leave early.
Or they could work with the PSTA on providing such a shuttle; they already have routes in place with a long reach in the area.
Then there is the venue. The Rays are rumored to be pushing for a new ballpark; but you never actually hear anything concrete from Rays management. They signed a lease when arriving in Tampa Bay, so presumably they’re at Tropicana Field until 2027. But we all know contracts don’t mean squat when there’s millions to be made for team owners and municipalities.
Could the Rays afford to turn Tropicana Field into a retractable roof dome? I can’t say how hard that would be, but I imagine it could be done. A dome is great in Florida summer heat or the nasty thunderstorms, but no one wants to go inside to watch a ballgame on a beautiful 80-degree April day.
Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Angel Stadium in Anaheim and Fenway Park in Boston have all undergone significant changes, generally costing less than what a new ballpark would cost. I expect taking the roof off of the Trop would be much harder, but replacing it with a retractable roof and replacing the turf with grass would go a long way to making the Trop a much more appealing venue.
That, however, is a very long shot. The team may convince St. Petersburg to let them out of their lease, and get a new ballpark built in Tampa, but thus far that is a no go with St. Petersburg folks, and probably rightly so.
Regarding the market and the transplants, the Rays may not need more than a few more years of quality baseball to turn the tables in their favor. After all, if you can see a team capable of beating the Yankees and Red Sox for as little as $9 for a game and park for free, fans have incentive to take their children to the game.
It stands to reason that younger people especially may grow fond of this team over time, especially before they start to travel and see superior ballparks. The Rays’ ticket affordability should help with that…as more parents bring their kids to the game because they can, the Rays may be gradually building a future fan base.
Some cities just don’t do well as a baseball market. Atlanta does well enough, but you would think for all of the team’s success that they would draw better than they do. Miami hasn’t proven it wants a team yet, even with a shiny new retractable-roof ballpark.
There are a few answers to the question of “why don’t the Rays draw”. But I don’t yet accept that the Rays won’t ever fill their ballpark to capacity every night someday. If this team keeps playing competitive baseball and finds a way to bring the far-flung fans in, they may yet turn around their attendance problem.
I’d be cool with that. I like the team’s colors.
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Like most baseball fans, I didn’t know the full story of what happened to the Montreal Expos. When I read a bit about it, it turned out to be very different than what I thought.
In May of 2004 I took a long weekend and made a trip to Montreal, to see a game at Olympic Stadium before the Expos moved to Washington to become the Nationals.
I had a very enjoyable time in Montreal. First there was the very pleasant ride on I-87 through parts of New York state that people don’t know about, and the even more enjoyable ride home on 9N. And Montreal is a neat city—there is Mount Royal and its terrific view of the skyline, the smoked beef sandwich from Schwartz’s, the fine public transit system, and the incredible Notre Dame Basilica cathedral, a church so stunningly beautiful that I did not bother trying to do it justice with photos.
So being in a city that I held in fairly high regard, it was sad to see how interest in baseball was barely moving the needle. The game I attended was against the Cardinals, and it drew a crowd of about 5,000—probably 2,000 of which were Cards fans. The Expos won an exciting contest with the help of star shortstop Jose Vidro, and I remember hearing a radio show afterward with the host expressing hope against hope that the city could keep its baseball team.
The Expos’ departure from Montreal is often summarily dismissed as being the result of the city being obsessed with its hockey team and just not caring about baseball. I thought this myself before taking an interest in the subject recently, and not only was I completely wrong, I’m firmly of the opinion that the second largest city in Canada deserves a baseball team.
Baseball in Montreal drew some nice crowds once—the Expos even outdrew the Yankees for a couple of seasons in the 1980s. The team was competitive in those years, almost reaching the World Series in 1981 and falling a game or two short of winning the NL East in a couple of other campaigns. The Expos finished second in 1980 and in 1993 to Phillies teams that happened to be loaded.
In 1994, however, the Expos front office had assembled the best team that Montreal had seen yet. This team featured Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou and Ken Hill, and they had some pretty good arms on the mound, too: names like John Wetteland, Jeff Fassero, and a guy by the name of Pedro Martinez. By August, the Expos were leading the National League East with a 74-40 record. And we all know what happened then.
The strike of 1994, that killed the rest of the season and the World Series, instilled great anger in baseball fans everywhere, and it showed in the attendance in 1995. But it was particularly hard on Expos fans, who had possibly been rooting for the best team that had ever been fielded in their city. (Larry Walker believes unequivocally to this day that the Expos would have won the World Series.)
The Expos were drawing 34,000 a game at the time, not spectacular for a contending team, but certainly better than any attendance average figure the Rays have ever managed. And this in Stade Olympique, one of the most unappealing venues in baseball.
The strike was the first of several blows that would eventually drive the Expos out of town.
After a season that had given more hope to Expos fans than any season ever had only to deprive them of an ending, Expos’ owner Claude Brochu ordered GM Kevin Malone to slash the payroll, and the Expos started their next season without Walker, Hill, Wetteland and Grissom.
Depleted and discouraged, the Expos finished last in 1995. Soon afterwards, Alou, Fassero and Martinez would also be gone.
If you’ve ever been a fan of a team that has a fire sale after a winning season, you know what it does to attendance. Fans really, really hate that. For a team to lose two-thirds of its gate is not unusual. Imagine the effect on fans when the best team that the town had ever seen has been gutted. To add insult to injury, the fire sale happened in 1995…after the Blue Jays had won back-to-back titles, establishing them as Canada’s premier MLB team. It is something like the Red Sox having broken their long-standing curse a year after the Cubs fell just short of breaking theirs.
The Expos never recovered. Jeffrey Loria, arguably the most unpopular baseball team owner in history (and that’s saying something), purchased the team in 1999 and instantly became reviled with fans by not renewing the team’s television and English-speaking radio contracts. From what I’ve read, the terms of the deal Loria wanted were such that their broadcast stations walked away from the table without even bothering to negotiate.
As a result, if you were an English-speaking Expos fan, your options to find out what happened in last night’s game were to go to the ballpark or read about it on the Internet or the paper. This isn’t something fans today are willing to tolerate, and nor should they.
Following this, Loria had the nerve to try to secure funding from the city for a new ballpark. Labatt Park had some interesting innovations…it wasn’t designed by HOK, so there were some new ideas…and for a while the team looked like it could get its wish. But eventually the premier of the province of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard, decided that he couldn’t in good conscience spend taxpayer money to build a new stadium in a city where hospitals were closing.
In retrospect, if Montreal baseball had been revived, the tax revenues the team brought in could have saved some hospitals, but the Expos couldn’t justify that with the attendance at the time.
The death of the ballpark deal probably convinced Expos fans that baseball in Montreal was now on life support.
Animosity towards the ownership—which eventually became Major League Baseball, so that Loria could buy a team in a city that would gladly spend taxpayer money for a ballpark for him—reached the point that by 2004 they were showing up in record low numbers, and 3,000-5,000 per game was common.
After being insulted and taken for granted on so many levels, Montrealers may have been wishing the Expos and Major League Baseball good riddance by then, but one could hardly blame them.
They had endured greed destroying their most promising season, along with ownership that was willing to sell off the team’s biggest stars and not allow fans to watch games on television or listen on the radio, and refuse to even try to negotiate with a city on new ballpark financing, which might have been possible had Loria been willing.
The blame for the Expos’ departure belongs not on Montreal fans as a group or Montreal as a sports market. Not in the slightest. A combination of factors that would have destroyed fan support in any city conspired to victimize a market that, until August of 1994, had been building a strong baseball tradition.
The strike of 1994 angered a lot of baseball fans, but ultimately the biggest victims were the fans in Montreal. It set the wheels in motion for the sad, drawn out ending, the only upside of which has been the return of baseball to Washington, D.C.
Perhaps baseball will have an opportunity to return to the great city of Montreal; I hope so. As I hope I’ve illustrated here, to say the market won’t support baseball isn’t true.
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