×

The Baseball Diaries: Two friends, five ballparks, six days

  • James McCudden, left, and Russell Miller show off a few souvenirs from the trip. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Friends Russell Miller, left, and James McCudden, both of Amherst, took a road trip this summer to see five Major League baseball games in different stadiums. They’re shown here at McCudden’s home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Friends James McCudden, left, and Russ Miller, both of Amherst, took in five Major League baseball games in different stadiums during a trip this summer. They’re shown here at McCudden’s home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Friends Russell Miller, left, and James McCudden, both of Amherst, took in five Major League baseball games in different stadiums this past summer during an extended road trip. They’re shown here at McCudden’s home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Friends James McCudden, left, and Russ Miller, both of Amherst, are shown at McCudden’s home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Abe Lincoln is generally regarded as America’s greatest president; he’s also the Washington Nationals’ mascot.  Photo courtesy of Russell Miller

  • Taking in the action at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of James McCudden

  • Washington Nationals’ fireballer Stephen Strasburg is about to deliver a pitch at Nationals Field. Photo courtesy of James McCudden

  • Progressive Field, home of baseball’s hottest team down the stretch, the Cleveland Indians. Photo courtesy of James McCudden

  • Russell Miller, left, and James McCudden make a stop at one of the two most famous ballparks in America. Can you guess what the one other one is?

  • As charming as it is, says McCudden, Wrigley Field in Chicago does show its age. Photo courtesy of James McCudden

  • Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, has great sightlines “and a really annoying scoreboard,” says Miller. Photo courtesy of James McCudden

  • A day off from baseball: a scene from Badlands National Park in South Dakota, which Miller and McCudden visited on their trip. Photo courtesy of James McCudden

  • Coors Field in Denver, where the thin air makes hitters happy and pitchers miserable. Photo courtesy of James McCudden

  • Baseball’s most impressive view might be that of the Rocky Mountains, seen beyond the left field wall at Coors Field, in Denver. Photo courtesy of James McCudden

  • Miller, left, and McCudden at National park in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of James McCudden

  • Cubs slugger and third baseman Kris Bryant waits for a pitch at a game in Wrigley Field. Photo courtesy of James McCudden



Staff Writer
Thursday, October 05, 2017

Driving from Amherst to Washington, D.C. to Denver over six days — at the height of summer — might seem like a slog.

But what if you topped off each day with a visit to a different Major League baseball park, or a national park, for that matter? 

For the serious baseball fan, seeing games at different stadiums at some point in your life is pretty much a requirement. And if you can string a bunch of those games together over a week, so much the better.

For Amherst friends James McCudden and Russell Miller, that opportunity came this past July, when they took in games at five cities in six days: Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis and Denver. As the men worked their way westward, they also enjoyed an off-day visit to the majestic landscapes of the South Dakota badlands and Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills.

Movies about men of a certain age hitting the road together are nothing new. In 2004’s “Sideways,” Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church went wine-tasting through California. More recently, Brit comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon sampled food and competed for best Michael Caine impersonation in “The Trip”; and Martin Sheen played a man mourning his son’s death while walking with others on the Camino de Santiago, a Catholic pilgrimage route in Spain, in “The Way.”

But epic self-discovery, Hollywood-style, wasn’t on on the agenda for McCudden and Miller. Beer, bratwurst and baseball were.

And McCudden, who’s 52, and Miller, 71, lucked out with great weather, some tight, well-played games, and pretty decent food, though McCudden still recoils when he recalls trying a regional delicacy at Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians. (Read on for details.)

“When you talk about your bucket list, one of them is to see all the stadiums,” said McCudden at a recent interview at his home, near the Hickory Ridge Golf Club. He grew up just outside Chicago — he remains a die-hard Cubs fan — in a big family that loved baseball and often went as a group to Wrigley Field.

“One of my brothers has been to every park,” added McCudden, who over the years has seen the Cubs play in a number of other stadiums. “I don’t know if I’ll get there myself, but I am adding to my total.”

Miller, the taller of the two friends, was born and raised just outside of Boston (he’s a die-hard Red Sox fan), and he’s also seen games in several stadiums over the years. But neither had ever made a road trip like this one, ticking off several big-league games in a week, nor had the two friends ever traveled together.

They met some years back when Miller, a former science professor (he taught at Mount Holyoke College for a while), worked as an editor for National Evaluation Systems at Pearson, a Hadley test-publishing company; Miller was the supervisor of McCudden’s wife, Connie, a science writer.

They discovered they had a number of things in common. Both had played sports when they were younger — McCudden baseball and soccer, Miller tennis — and both had coached their children in a number of sports, at different levels.

McCudden, a software architect, said he and Miller mapped out their week-long trip this past winter, timed to coincide with Miller meeting up with his wife, Carol Johnson, at a second home the couple have in Colorado. The trip was not without its risks, Miller notes.

“If a game gets rained out, you’re stuck, because you’re not going to be able to go to the raincheck,” he said. As a result, he and McCudden bought their tickets online just a day or two before each game (and the weather turned out to be fine, in any case).

With hotel reservations set — the two friends were able to stay with members of McCudden’s family in Chicago and Minneapolis to cut costs — they left Amherst in Miller’s Subaru Outback early on the morning of July 3 for Washington.

Monday, July 3  
Nationals Park,
Washington, D.C.

It’s pretty humid in the nation’s capital — typical for D.C. in summer — but McCudden and Miller are treated to a good game between the Nationals and the New York Mets. Washington’s hard-throwing Stephen Strasburg and Mets’ starter Steven Matz trade zeroes for seven innings; then the Nationals’ center fielder, Michael Taylor, gives the Nationals a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth with a home run.

But the Nationals are having bullpen problems at this point in the season, and manager Dusty Baker brings in a couple different pitchers in the top of the ninth, who let the Mets tie the game. Then, in the bottom of the inning, outfielder Ryan Raburn bloops a single to left with a runner on third, and the home team has a 3-2 walk-off win. The crowd gets to celebrate a bit more with a post-game fireworks show. 

As Miller notes, it can be a little odd to watch a game where you don’t have a vested interest in one team or the other. “I think you look for a good baseball game, a well-played game, and you pretty much root for the home team,” he says.

“If nothing else,” he adds with a laugh, “choose which mascot you like best, or which colors you like, and go with that.”

But baseball fans also like debating strategy and second-guessing managers’ decisions, and the Nationals’ game — specifically, Baker’s ninth-inning bullpen moves — gives Miller and McCudden plenty to chew on.

“[Baker] had a guy in there in the eighth inning who was lights out,” says McCudden. “Why didn’t he leave him in for the ninth?”

“After the game,” adds Miller, “we were still saying ‘Dusty Baker just doesn’t know how to manage.’ ”

Tuesday, July 4
Progressive Field, Cleveland

Another stadium, another well-pitched game. The Indians’ ace starter, Cory Kluber, gives up just one run in eight innings to the San Diego Padres, but the Tribe can’t score, and San Diego wins 1-0. 

It’s also Bobble-Head night at the stadium for Francisco Lindor, the Indians’ star shortstop, but Lindor has a lousy game, going 0 for 3 and mishandling a ground ball in the fifth inning, which leads to the Padres’ run.

The star of the game might actually be Progressive Field, says Miller: “It’s an absolutely beautiful stadium,” and compared to Washington, “the fireworks were way better.”

McCudden likes the stadium, too, but the bratwurst burger he gets is a huge disappointment. “We wanted to experience the local food, and I said ‘Hey, how about a bratwurst burger?’ ” he says. “It was just this clump of bratwurst-like meat — and oh, it was awful!”

Another weird thing: McCudden’s got a Cubs jersey on, and no one in the crowd — the Cubs beat the Indians in last year’s World Series, after all — says a word to him. “I was like, ‘Doesn’t anyone want to comment that I’m wearing a Cubs jersey?’ ” he says with a laugh. “But everyone was ‘No, that’s fine, that’s OK.’ I was like, ‘Aren’t you mad?’ I mean, I’d be mad.”

Wednesday, July 5
Wrigley Field, Chicago

McCudden’s happy to be back on his home turf, and even happier that the Cubs, who are bumping along at .500 at the moment, stage a comeback win against the Tampa Bay Rays, 7-3. On a warm afternoon, the Cubs overcome a 3-0 Rays lead with some late-inning heroics; center fielder John Jay (two-run homer) and first baseman Anthony Rizzo (two-run double) deliver the big hits.

For Miller, Wrigley Field, the oldest stadium in the National League, is something of a surprise; it’s his first visit there. “It’s really a suburban stadium. In all the others [we visited], you can tell they’re downtown stadiums — the skyline is right there.”

And Wrigley, like Fenway Park, has lots of charm and atmosphere — but it shows its age, notes McCudden. “All the newer stadiums ... are fantastic. They’ve got comfortable seats, wide-open spaces, concessions are easy to get to. There are no pillars or anything else blocking the view like in Wrigley and Fenway.” 

Those older stadiums are still great places to see a game, he adds, but “If they were to tear them down and build a more modern version of them, I wouldn’t be throwing my body in front of the bulldozer.” 

 

Thursday, July 6  
Target Field,
Minneapolis

In front of the smallest crowd of any of the games McCudden and Miller attend, the Twins score six runs in the third inning and make the lead stand up in a 6-4 win against the Baltimore Orioles. Target Field is also a beautiful park, Miller says, though he finds the scoreboard confusing and hard to read.

But it strikes him that what’s fun about seeing baseball live is that, unlike on TV, you can take in the whole field in one view. There’s also a carnival-like atmosphere at a live game, a fun and easygoing vibe that serves as a tonic in our frantic, wired age.

“At any moment, a lot of people aren’t paying attention to the game,” he says. “They’re under the stands, they’re going to vendors, you’ve got kids on a playground. It’s like taking your kids to a county fair. There’s a baseball game here, but it’s not just that — it’s an event.”

 

Saturday, July 8
Coors Field, Denver

After a stop on Friday to see the outdoor attractions of western South Dakota, McCudden and Miller make the long drive to Denver and watch the Rockies lose a tough one. The home team ties the Chicago White Sox 4-4 in the bottom of the eighth inning, but White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson leads off the the ninth with a long home run off the Rockies’ closer, Greg Holland; Chicago wins 5-4.

It’s been a good week for the friends (McCudden now flies home to Massachusetts, while Miller drives further west to meet up with his wife). During the long drives between games, they chatted about baseball, their kids, and life in general; they were also absorbed by audio books of one of Miller’s favorite writers, Craig Johnson, author of a series of mystery novels based around the character of a Wyoming sheriff, Walt Longmire. The books have since been made into a Netflix series. 

“One of the best parts of the trip was Russ introducing me to Walter Longmire,” says McCudden, who’s also now a fan (along with his wife) of the Netflix series.

“I know that’s where Russ and I diverge,” he adds, since Miller is not that happy with the televised adaptation. “I remember saying to Connie, ‘You know, Russ doesn’t like this.’ ”

But they do like baseball. At McCudden’s home, when Miller mentioned once seeing several spring-training games in Florida with his sister, McCudden noted that one of his brothers, who lives in Los Angeles, has for years taken his family to watch the Cubs in their spring-training camp in Phoenix, Arizona.

“Hey, that’s our next trip — spring training in Arizona!” said Miller.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.