TRAVELBLOGUE: Greenville SC, Charlotte
Just got back from my first official road trip of the year (not counting spring training which is always awesome but not technically an "in-season road trip") and had forgotten how much I LOVE the Carolinas.
There are few places I can think of that offer it all in such a great setting … especially in spring. Even though the weather was pretty awful, at least the first day of the trip, it still somehow didn’t detract from the greenery and beauty of that area. And there are few other places I can think of which offer the following: wherever you are, you’re a reasonable drive from beaches, mountains and lakes, cities steeped in history and culture, fantastic food (I could live on Carolina barbecue every night though I’m especially partial to the eastern Carolina vinegar-based fare), amazingly nice people and … drum roll … 14 MINOR LEAGUE TEAMS! (10 in NC, covering five leagues and four clubs in South Carolina … though technically you could argue nine and five since the Charlotte Knights are actually located IN South Carolina).
Yeah, I would TOTALLY be happy to relocate (or retire) to the Carolinas.
This trip started in less than promising fashion when my flight landed in Charlotte to, as mentioned before, absolutely miserable weather. You could barely see beyond the fog and clouds and drizzle (though I call it "frizzle" because it was so cold). Got my rental car and hit I-85 South for the 90-minute trip to Greenville, S.C., where my travel companion/producer Joe awaited.
We headed over to West End Field (getting only slightly lost on the way), home of the Greenville Drive, the Boston Red Sox’ Class A affiliate. Looking at the skies, which were periodically emptying themselves, and the tarp on the field, there didn’t seem to be any prayer of getting in the team’s game against the visiting Columbus Catfish (Devil Rays), so we were just happy to get a chance to chat with Drive pitcher Jon Lester and Catfish ace Wade Townsend. (You can watch the interview with Lester on this Tuesday’s Bottom Line at BaseballChannel.TV at 3:45, and the Townsend clip should be up on MiLB.com this week as well.)
It was great to have the chance to talk to both of them … they have both overcome a lot this year though, needless to say, few if any players in the game have overcome what fate has thrown at Lester in the past few months. Diagnosed with lymphoma last summer, he’s gone through all the treatment and emerged, thank God, cancer free.
Townsend, meanwhile, has come back from Tommy John surgery and responded to this return to the game with renewed enthusiasm and looking great on Opening Night.
Assuming that the 7 p.m. game was going to be canceled (and we weren’t alone, I don’t think you could have found one person in that ballpark at 5 p.m. who thought there was a chance in **** that game would be played), Joe and I ventured out in search of an Italian restaurant …
MINOR LEAGUE TRAVELBLOGUE ALERT: Joe, producer/editor/cameraman extraordinaire, is going to be on the road with ATM every week of this season. His trips will alternate with me every other week and Jonathan every other week. On Jonathan weeks, I’m sure they’ll be on the lookout for Mexican restaurants of note …
But on my weeks, we’re trying to find the best local Italian restaurants. We especially lean towards mom-and-pop type places that are cozy with great homecooked food (with all due respect to Olive Garden, Cararrabbas and the like, which we are fine with, we’d rather go to the local-owned and home-cooked spots).
We may not always be able to work our dining schedules around our game schedules, but we’re hoping to have a "go-to list" of places we can hit should weather or timing allow …
So if any of you readers from the locales where we’re headed can recommend great Italian restaurants near you, we will be eternally grateful. (Our next trip takes us to the cities of Scranton and Reading, PA, with upcoming travels in Palm Beach, FL, Charleston, SC, Myrtle Beach, SC, and the Alabama cities of Birmingham and Huntsville).
… anyway, had a nice dinner at Travinia in Greenville and headed back to surf the Minor League boxes online where I was STUNNED to discovered they had actually played the Greenville-Columbus game. The game in Charlotte, just an hour away, had indeed been postponed, which meant we needed to hustle the next morning to arrive that much earlier in anticipation of a doubleheader between the host Knights (White Sox) and visiting Syracuse Chiefs (Blue Jays).
Didn’t get lost this time (don’t ask me about the last time I drove Joe and Ed Randall to the Charlotte Knights’ stadium from another Carolina city and accidentally took 85 instead of 77 to the South Carolina border) … and this time the weather was gorgeous, sunny and mild.
Last year when we went to Charlotte we interviewed pitcher Charlie Haeger, who got called up to the Majors that night. This time, Lind chatted with us and was summoned to Toronto within 24 hours as well where he is now starting in their outfield (making my pre-season pick of him as AL Rookie of the Year less unlikely). So hopefully if you’re a player reading this and see us coming to talk to you, you might want to welcome us with open arms! We could be your lucky charm!
Game one of the DH seemed to be cruising along as Haeger’s knuckler was knuckling and he had a seemingly effortless shutout heading into the seventh (Minor League doubleheaders are seven innings each). Then suddenly, all **** broke loose. Kevin Barker hit a two-run homer. John Hattig homered. Sal Fasano homered. Had I not been watching the game live, I would have thought (and admittedly strangely did for a split second) that I was watching instant replay.
The pressbox crew quickly looked through the Knights media guide and could not find an instance of back-to-back-to-back homers allowed by a Charlotte pitcher in the team’s existence dating back to 1990 when they went Triple-A.
So with the game suddenly and shockingly tied at 4-4, it went to extra innings before the hosts finally emerged victorious in nine on, of all things, a wild pitch.
And I got my barbecue that night as well thanks to a drive-thru Sonny’s (though they forgot to give me a fork).
I am already looking forward to my next South Carolina trip in three weeks when I will get to visit Charleston and Myrtle Beach, both for the first times in my life … if anyone can suggest must-see sites (and great Italian or BBQ restaurants), that would rock.
But meanwhile I look towards the more immediate road trip to Scranton/Reading, both parks I have been to in the past and really enjoy. Hoping to carve out a little extra time to check out the town hall in Wilkes-Barre where I hear they have geneological records you can check … my ancestors lived there for several generations and I’m hoping to find out a little bit more about my roots …