California

By the end of February the final game of the World Series is a distant four months behind us, and baseball aficionados are crying out for any kind of action. Ladies and gentlemen, I present … College Baseball! College sports, particularly football and basketball, are big business in America. Unlike Britain where all you have to do to play for your University is turn up at the beginning of term and buy the captain of the team a pint, colleges in America are scouting potential players as soon as they’re able to consume solid food. The ability to read and write is optional (who cares if they graduate from college if they’re going to be signing a multi-million dollar professional contract eventually), as long as they can run, jump, throw, or break somebody’s head open better than anybody else. In the recent end-of-season ‘March Madness’ college basketball tournament, 42 of the 64 teams failed to graduate at least half of their players. Two of the teams involved failed to graduate A SINGLE PLAYER. None. Not one! Every player was kicked off their degree course. The sooner that these pre-professional sports programs admit that they’re nothing to do with what is traditionally known as ‘going to college’, the better. College baseball isn’t quite as blatant as other sports, but certainly plays along with the fact that its players are athletes attending college on the side rather than people attending college who take part in collegiate athletics in their spare time.

PING!

So, Dream Trip stop number one – a pre-trip warm-up to watch Stanford University play local rivals California. It’s the beginning of March, and the sun is shining. Your intrepid traveler rolls up to ‘The Sunken Diamond’, starting the trip as he means to go on in t-shirt, shorts and sunglasses. And a hangover! For some reason yet to be discovered, the past 48 hours have involved a non-stop drinking binge, parties, sleep-deprivation, and assorted other career-threatening misbehaving. Good job I don’t have a career any more then! One minute I’m sitting in the pub having a quiet drink, the next thing I know its two days later and I’m feeling that the invisible gorilla that lives in the wardrobe has been out to play and had his way with me. But I digress (better get used to that!).

PING!

Arriving just in time for the first pitch, I take a quick look around and find a suitable patch of grass to lie on and watch the game. The stadium holds around 4,000 people, some in seats behind home plate and the rest sitting on grass banks in the outfield. You’re close to all the action, sitting in the sunshine, and the world is a happy place. Wish the hangover wasn’t quite so bad, but there you go. So here comes the first pitch. The tall left hander winds up, lets it loose, and the leadoff batter hits a fly ball into the outfield. Fuzzy as my head was, I was still pretty sure that I could recognize the sound of leather on wood: the solid THWACK! that comes from the bat, but what I heard was PING! What on earth is going on? A quick shake of the head, the second batter fouls off his first pitch, and another PING! resonates around the stadium. Unbelievable – they’re using metal bats. The last time I saw a metal baseball bat, Joe Pesci was getting his brains bashed in with several of them before being buried alive at the end of the film ‘Casino’. Well, we can’t have gangsters getting splinters, can we? Anyway, it looked like I was set for an afternoon full of PING! With not a THWACK! in sight.

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo California

After taking a good look at the game (I know it was only two pitches!), it was time to check out the REAL reason that people go to watch baseball games: beer. Managed to find the hot dog stand straight away, but the smell of burning wieners reminded me that my stomach probably wasn’t quite ready for solid food just yet. Nothing like a slurp of hair-of-the-dog to settle things down though, so I head for the first drink stand. Lots of Coke and Pepsi in cans, bottles and draught, with or without ice, but no sign of beer. On to the next stand and it’s the same story. Walking all the way around to the other side of the stadium (maybe all the beer is kept over there), I again discover Cola Paradise but not a sniff of anything even remotely paletteable to the connoisseur. So I ask Chummie behind the ‘bar’, who replied “I’m sorry sir, there is no alcohol served at college events”. You bloody what??? Unbelievable! Having spent five years at college in England where drinking heavily is compulsory, it comes as quite a culture shock to find out that a decent pint isn’t even available in college sports. You can get a beer in the Cambodian jungle. You can get a beer halfway up Mount Everest. You can get a beer while floating down a river on an innertube in an obscure part of Laos. But you can’t get a beer in the so-called ‘civilised world’ while watching a ballgame in California. Pah! I blame the minimum legal drinking age in America being 21: they wouldn’t want to encourage underage drinking, would they, even though it might deprive those in need (me!) who are maybe a couple of years over 21 of their breakfast equivalent. So what do students in America do with their allowance? College is no fun if you don’t have to call your parents after the first week begging for more cash because you’ve blown your entire term’s allowance on beer (I blew my entire term’s allowance on a guitar, but that’s another story!). Don’t tell me that students in America go to college to learn things? The concept is just too strange for me to contemplate.

Anyway, back to the game. There was lots of pinging, a couple of amusing moments where players in the outfield fell down when attempting to make a catch, and a dodgy giveaway at the end of each inning (free extra mushrooms on your large pizza from Tony’s Pizza Shop, 2 free fries when you order 10 burgers from Doubledog Burger, etc.) Note that there was no sign of an ‘insult a cola salesperson, get a free crate of beer’ promotional giveaway. During the seventh inning stretch, where traditionally a little-known local celebrity leads the crowd in a rendition of ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame’ that makes stray dogs and cats cover their ears to block out the din, there was nothing at all. I suppose that instigating drunken singing at a college game might not get many takers anyway.

WarwicWarwick's Roadtrip Photo California

So it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, one man out, runners on first and third. And guess what happens next: a successful suicide squeeze play ends the game, the players jump around, the crowd goes wild (well, the crowd was fairly placid, so they didn’t go THAT wild), and everybody is happy. By this time, after three hours in the sun, I am becoming nicely bronzed (‘Lobster Boy’ is back!) and so I head for home. Overall an excellent afternoon taking it easy in the sunshine.

Palo Alto, California, Scorecard

Beer: 0/10. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
Abuse: 2/10. A couple of entertaining comments but nothing very original.
Stadium: 8/10. Very cool.
Mascot: 5/10. The Stanford mascot is a tree. Hmmmmm.
Scratching genitalia and spitting: 3/10. The college players really need to work on this part of their game if they’re going to make it in the big leagues.
Ballpark food: 5/10. Didn’t feel brave enough to try any.
Value for money: 7/10. Only a few dollars to get in and you can sit where you like.
Weirdos: 4/10. Most people were sophisticated couples with small children or crumblies asleep in their lawnchairs. They guy manning the souvenir stall was wearing a pinstriped waistcoat and shorts though!
Tacky merchandise: 4/10. Resisted the temptation to shell out a few dollars for a t-shirt or a flag.
Sound of leather on wood: 0/10. PING!

Total: 38/100. 38 is the score to beat. Shouldn’t be too difficult, or this may be a very short trip!

 

 

Oakland, California

Despite being just a few miles across the bay from ritzy, glamorous, world-famous San Francisco, Oakland couldn’t be more different. The sprawling city is heavily industrial, has no obvious tourist attractions, a nightmare of a freeway system, and is always right up there in the top ten gang-related fatal shootings league published by the government every year. Basically, it’s a dump.

My impressions of Oakland aren’t helped this particular day by the fact that the weather is awful. It’s cold, wet and grey, despite it being the middle of May in California and supposedly summertime. It’s nice and sunny in other grotty parts of the world such as Beirut, Baghdad and Birmingham, so why not here? If I wanted to be cold, wet and miserable I can go back to England for the summer. After getting into the ground and grabbing a seat, I am greeted by the sight of a huge tarpaulin over the field and the floodlights being on in the middle of the day. Better put the sun tan lotion away then!

WarwiWarwick's Roadtrip Photo California

The Oakland Athletics play at the Coliseum, which they share with the Oakland Raiders American Football team and their rabid fans. The name ‘Coliseum’ immediately throws up visions of lions eating Christians and Russell Crowe waving his weapon around in the direction of anyone willing to take notice of it. Unfortunately, nothing quite so civilised goes on in this Coliseum. To save money, a few baseball and football teams share stadia, but this usually causes a problem due mainly to the different shapes of the fields. A football field is rectangular whereas a baseball field is, for want of a more technical description, fat ice-cream cone shaped and much bigger. The San Francisco Giants and 49ers baseball and football teams used to share the same stadium until the Giants built their own a few years ago, and watching baseball there wasn’t particularly enjoyable. Likewise in Oakland today: the Coliseum is an extremely impressive structure but a horrible place to watch a game of baseball.

For the average game, the Coliseum is only around a quarter full, despite the team itself being fairly successful. Today is a bit different because the Athletics are playing the ‘World Champion’ (pah!) Boston Red Sox, who have a large fan base, especially out west, and usually outnumber the home fans at games in Oakland. The Athletics also have a number of promotions on today, including letting in some 9,000 screaming schoolchildren for free as part of a ‘learn to read’ initiative. Of infinitely more interest to me was the promotion that was offering $2 tickets and $1 hot dogs. As long as I could sit on the other side of the stadium from all the kids, I would be fine!

Despite the promotions, a day out at the ballpark can still be an expensive event. Before you get inside you drive up to the stadium parking lot and have to part with $14 in order to park. Blimey! That’s seven times the entrance fee. Imagine if that went on in England, and on top of your £30 Premiership ticket you find you have to pay another £200 to park your car. People over here seem to accept it though. Well, everyone except me does, because I knew about this particular scam before and got the train there and back instead. Six trains there and back, in fact. And although it cost around the same amount and took twice as long, I didn’t have to drive anywhere, the service was door-to-door, and I didn’t risk getting arrested when telling the rob-dog parking money collector what I thought of paying $14 to rent a small concrete space for a few hours. And I had plenty of time to spare: it’s not like I’m working for a living, is it?

The furthest away from all the kids I could get was the bleachers. These are traditionally the cheapest seats available, and are traditionally occupied by sets of flag-waving, drum-beating, slobbering mutants affectionately known as ‘Bleacher Creatures’. The inhabitants other key characteristic is that their beer-per-person intake is far greater than the rest of the crowd. In one game last year, a visiting player became so outraged with the personal nature of some of the heckling coming from the crowd in Oakland that he picked up a metal chair and threw it into the crowd. The sports news interviewed the woman that was hit by the chair, and looking at her compared to this weedy-looking relief pitcher, even when he was armed with a metal chair, you wouldn’t have given him much of a chance. This woman was SCARY! At least a foot taller than he is, and probably two feet wider all around, she should seriously think about giving up being hit with chairs for a living and move into wrestling. Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks wouldn’t have stood a chance against her. I vaguely remember a female all-in wrestler from years ago (from seeing her on TV, not a personal acquaintance!) whose name was something like ‘Mitzi the Mauler’ Well 80’s wrestling fans, she is alive and well and living in Oakland! Earlier this year a fan was arrested for throwing a cup full of beer at an opposing pitcher who, not coincidentally, was a former Oakland star that went off to play for the hated Yankees. You can’t question the fan’s stupidity, mainly due to the fact that beer costs $7 a go inside the ballpark and what was he doing not drinking every last drop, but he turns out to be the son of the local mayor. Daddy isn’t too pleased with his precious little cherub at the moment, especially as the police are trying to get him charged with ‘battery’. Quite how they plan to prove that warm, fizzy beer-flavoured water is a weapon I’m not sure.

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo California

The level of heckling from the bleachers today was fairly poor. The most popular phrases were:
“ You suck”
“ Boooooooooo”
“ I phoned in sick today”. “Yeah, me too”
“ You suck”
and…
“ You suck”
You can just feel the charm, wit and sophistication oozing from every pore, can’t you???

After settling down in my cheap promotion seat with a handful of cheap promotion hot dogs (a game of baseball AND rancid dog breath for under $10 – excellent!), the game got underway. Boston’s portly superstar pitcher seemed to be throwing pies as fast as he can eat them, and after only two innings the score was 9-0 to Oakland and the game was effectively over. The lack of a close game did mean that there was plenty of time to concentrate on all the other non-baseball related events that go on at the games. It’s not sufficient any more for a company to pay money and advertise their product. In the past, a company would simply tell the public what they were selling and leave it at that, but these days there needs to be so much more to it. Take your bog-standard suit company for example: in the past their advertisement would say “Buy our suits, they’re cheap, and you will pull the women”, and people would go out and buy one. At the Oakland game, the suit company was offering a $100 donation to Oakland Zoo for each double play that the team turned during the game. They never even mentioned whether their suits are any good or not, but if you don’t go out and buy one then presumable Harry the Hippo goes hungry tomorrow. There is one of these promotions every inning, so by the end of the game they’re really scraping the barrel. So if a particular player scratches his bits and spits at the same time, on a Tuesday night, in May, with his team more than ten runs ahead in the 4th inning, while juggling swords and wearing his wife’s underwear, then the lucky person in section 123, row 14, seat 5 gets a dollar off the purchase price of a brand new car.

In the unlikely event of any of these bizarre combination of situations happening and the sponsoring company being forced to pay out, they do have a get-out clause by their imaginative use of the word ‘participating’. This happened last season when everyone in the crowd ‘won’ a free pizza. All you had to do was take your game ticket to any ‘participating’ restaurant and claim your free pizza. Simple, right? Well, it would be simple if the sponsors were willing to give away 40,000 free pizzas, but who in their right mind wants to do that? The pizza chain may have 10,000 branches spread out all over the country, and out of that a very small number will be ‘participating’ in their great pizza giveaway. Is the shop local to you ‘participating’? Of course not. How about the shop just around the corner from the stadium? Nope. Surely one of the concession stands inside the stadium selling that chain’s pizzas will accept your ticket. Not a chance. “We’re not a participating restaurant” invariably comes their reply. And the most beautiful part of this scam is that it’s impossible to find out which the ‘participating’ restaurants actually are. You can look at their web site, phone them up, ask their staff, ask the baseball people involved with the promotion, and none of them have any idea where these elusive ‘participating’ restaurants are. And the reason for this is … there ARE no ‘participating’ restaurants. Most people aren’t bothered about claiming their free pizza in any case, and the rest will only try one or two local pizza outlets before giving up and buying a pizza. It’s only people with way too much time on their hands, like me, that even notice unimportant and deeply uninteresting things like this!

As well as being presented with the illusion that they are being given free goodies, the crowd is also entertained in-between innings by a series of unimpressive games on the stadium scoreboard. There’s a computerised ‘race’ between three trains where you have to guess which of three different coloured trains is going to win and shout out it’s colour for thirty seconds or so. There is also the train race’s poor cousin, which is the ‘dot race’. It is exactly the same concept, but the graphics people couldn’t be bothered to create anything more interesting than a three-dimensional dot. One of the specimens next to me got to his feet at the start of the race and stood on tiptoe shouting ‘Blue, blue, blue, bluuuuuuue’ at the top of his voice. It wouldn’t have been so sad but this bloke was probably in his forties. At the end of the race, won by the red dot, he turned to me with a pained expression on his face and whined “Maaaaaan, that blue dot NEVER wins”. Peasant! He was much quieter during the ‘Bagel Dog Shuffle’ competition where you have to guess which hat a bagel dog is under; at least he knew when he was beaten.

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo California


Oakland, California, Scorecard

Beer: 5/10. The standard weak, overpriced American slop.
Abuse: 4/10. It sucked.
Stadium: 4/10. Great for football.
Mascot: 3/10. Apparently an elephant called ‘Stomper’. Luckily he didn’t come anywhere near me.
Scratching genitalia and spitting: 7/10. These guys are professionals, and by the end of the game the dugouts were swimming in expectorant and sunflower seed shells.
Ballpark food: 6/10. Hot dogs for a dollar are an excellent idea.
Value for money: 6/10. These teams play 162 games in a season, so just go along to the ones where you can get in cheaply.
Bleacher Creatures: 6/10. Made me glad of a decent education.
Drive-by shootings: 3/10. None happened while I was there, but I imagine they would be very easy to arrange.
Free pizza promotional rip-offs: 8/10. Nobody does it better!

Total: 52/100. Only average entertainment value, but being really cheap certainly helped the final score.

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San Francisco, California

Definitely one of the most interesting cities in America, San Francisco has got a bit of everything. There are hundreds of tourist attractions, excellent weather, and a very relaxed atmosphere for a big city. And you can walk down the street wearing nothing but a pair of tight leather shorts and a leather cap without being assaulted (not that I have ever tried this, I hasten to add!). You can spend a great day out walking around Alcatraz, join the throngs of peasants for a ride up and down the hills on the cable car, stroll along the Pacific (usually in the fog), or sit in a bar waiting for the next earthquake to hit.

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo California

But tonight it’s time to take in a ballgame. The Giants are playing the Athletics in the ‘Battle of the Bay’. All very dramatic. And of course the first thing to work out is how to avoid the crippling parking charges that the Major League teams attempt to sting you for. Living locally definitely has it’s advantages, so one three dollar train ticket saves $20 parking and provides more beer tokens for the post-game entertainment.

Talking of entertainment, here’s a recipe for some excellent pre-match fun. Take one friend (Michelle the Bag Lady) and a dozen shots of tequila. Simply put the tequila inside your Michelle, and within minutes she will be staggering around outside the ballpark grabbing everyone and everything in sight telling them how much she loves them. The last sighting we had before going into the game was Michelle telling a 12-foot tall bronze statue how he was her best friend in the whole world, ever.

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo California

Tonight there was some dodgy promotion going on whereby every fan got a free bright orange ‘clapper’, which when you waved it around made a lot of noise. Unfortunately this innocuous looking toy becomes a lethal weapon in the hands of anyone who has been drinking cactus juice like it is going out of style, but hopefully the bruises will disappear in a few days.

During the game there were a few promotions going on. One of the most popular (and cheapest) ideas over here at the moment is just to point the camera at the crowd and display the punter’s faces thirty-feet high on the ‘Jumbo-tron’ scoreboard. The winner of tonight’s ‘Smile Zone’ competition did have a bit of an advantage though. The grinning octogenarian had super-white teeth on account of the fact that they were plastic and had been soaking overnight. Cries of “Choose someone with their own teeth” were clearly heard from a disgruntled crowd. A few innings after the smiling competition was the kissing competition; potentially dangerous if you’re taking someone else’s boyfriend / girlfriend / husband / wife to the game and their other half is watching at home on television thinking their spouse is at their evening class. After the smiling and kissing, I dread to think what happens if the game goes into extra innings: ‘Grope-Cam’? ‘Quickie’Watch’?

Every time a Giant’s player got a hit, the scoreboard would either show Paris Hilton saying “That’s hot”, or The Fonz saying “That’s cool”. Make your minds up!

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo California

One of the more bizarre messages displayed on the scoreboard in-between innings was from some bloke asking his girlfriend (I assume it was his girlfriend – this is San Francisco after all!) to marry him. These messages cost quite a bit to put up there and they’re only displayed for about ten seconds, so hopefully she saw it. What if she went to the bog or to get another beer when it flashed up? It might be easier for him to just ask her. Alternatively he could combine the ballpark proposal with the personal touch and do what one poor chap did last season. He arranged for himself and his wench to go onto the field during a break in the play, and in front of 40,000 people got down on one knee and popped the question to her. The most romantic moment of his life. Well, it was romantic until she said ‘No’ and burst into tears. You just can’t write comedy like that!

On the subject of embarrassing, Friday nights are ‘Orange Night’ at Giant’s games. The people wearing the most orange get to torture the rest of the crowd by singing ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame’ during the seventh inning stretch. Tonight’s warblers were particularly orange and were particularly awful. There were stray cats outside the ground covering their ears with their paws because the din was so terrible. I met the ‘orangest woman’ outside after the game and she happily agreed to have her picture taken, completely unaware that she was going to be immortalised here!

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo California

Local rivalries in America aren’t really taken too seriously and there is little animosity between the fans, so it was refreshing to see that there was one fight in the crowd during the game. It was still pretty tame though, and knowing the San Francisco crowd it was probably started with the phrase “Oi, did you spill my strawberry daiquiri?”

Although you can still get the three basic food groups at a Giants game (beer, hot dogs, peanuts), you have to search around for them. That’s because the vast majority of food sold inside the ballpark is what can only be described as ‘poncey’. You’re more likely to find a margarita stall than a beer, and hot dogs are being replaced by churros, tacos, Thai fusion stir fry’s and plates full of sushi. They do have people wandering through the stands carrying large metal liquid-filled containers on their backs which is an excellent idea, until you find out that this isn’t a beer-dude, it’s a coffee-dude. What a waste of a good opportunity.

Electronic devices are popular at ball games these days. In Oakland, everyone in the crowd has their tagging device strapped to their ankle to let their parole officer know where they are. In San Francisco, everyone in the crowd has their cell phone strapped to their ear to let their friends know where they are. Of course these are usually friends who are also at the game, so you have pairs of people all over the ground standing up and waving at each other. What fun! And this cell phone abuse doesn’t end when people leave the ballpark. On the train home there is a line of people bursting to take a leak but someone is locked in the toilet. After a lot of banging on the door this git finally emerges; he hadn’t even been using the bog, he was just chatting to someone on the phone but was in the bog because it was easier to hear. Let’s see how well he can hear when his head is flushed down the pan, shall we?

San Francisco, California, Scorecard

Beer: 4/10. $8 for a cup of beer. Scandalous.
Abuse: 3/10. Everybody is too busy chatting on their cell phones to pay attention to the game.
Stadium: 7/10. Very pretty.
Drunken fans: 8/10. One sitting right next to me!
Girls in short skirts & leather boots: 5/10. At least half of them walking around San Francisco are men.
Ballpark food: 4/10. Far too poncey.
Value for money: 2/10. Way too expensive for somebody as tightfisted as me.
Orangeness: 8/10. Yup, plenty of orange around here.
Fashion sense: 2/10. See ‘Orangeness’.
Paris Hilton sightings: 7/10. Hot!

Total: 50/100. I’ll come back when I’m a millionaire!

 


Modesto, California

“ They have baseball in Modesto? I thought it was a swamp”
I had never heard of this central- Californian town before, but local opinion from Angie the Rocklin Redneck doesn’t seem to rate it too highly. Still, I have a tough job to do so I thought I would stroll along on a roasting Saturday afternoon to see what they had to offer.

Nuts. That’s what Modesto has to offer. And plenty of ‘em! Although it’s probably more famous as the birthplace of George Lucas, it is a major nut producer. The major sponsor in the baseball program is the local almond baron. According to their official web site, “The beautiful orchards in bloom will delight you”. I can’t remember the last time I was delighted by a bunch of trees, but I’ll try anything once. The town itself is pleasant enough: lots of parks (in amongst the delightful orchards, of course) and the standard ‘Main Street’ with old fashioned wooden hardware stores running through it and plenty of railings to tie up your horse before wandering into the local saloon for a shot of ol’ redeye.

The baseball stadium itself is very nice. It’s in the middle of one of the parks, holds about 4,000, and you can pretty much sit where you like in the sunshine and get a great view of the game. In fact you’re so close to the action on the field that you can hear the players talking to each other, which means that you KNOW they can hear you heckling.

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo California

In the land of nuts it’s only fitting that the team is named after them, and the locals seem very proud of their heritage. They seem very attached to their nuts. Boom boom! Another thing that the locals in Modesto also appear to be very attached to is the dinner table. Even by American standards, there are a LOT of very large people here. The seating around the ground is metal benches rather than individual seats so people can spread out a bit, but if a game should ever sell out then a collapsing grandstand is a distinct possibility.

This being the lowest level of professional baseball, the game itself is almost secondary to the other entertainment going on around it. The Nuts have two mascots; one called Peanut, who is actually an elephant, and another one called Wally who I think is supposed to be a walking walnut, but looks more like a cross between Freddy Krueger and Phil Collins. Peanut the elephant looks remarkably like the Oakland Athletics old mascot ‘Stomper’, apart from being a bit moth-eaten. So old mascots never die, they retire to entertain the crowds in Modesto!

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo California

Wally and Peanut are constantly giving stuff away throughout the game, including pizzas, t-shirts, baseballs, Frisbees and, strangely, bunches of flowers. Peanut the elephant would run up and down in front of the grandstand waving a bunch of gladioli like Morrissey in full flow, and select his ‘Sweetheart of the game’ for the day before wooing her with his floral offering. Somebody should tell him that he doesn’t need the flowers to charm the women, waving around a trunk that size! The best heckle of the day came from a bloke behind me when Phil Collins / Freddy Krueger was throwing free tat into the crowd. The t-shirt landed about twenty rows in front of us and the bloke informed everyone that “You throw like a girl, Wally”. It was difficult to tell from his expression, but I’m sure that Wally was deeply hurt by this remark!

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo California

Just when you’re in danger of suffocating underneath the pile of free tat, there are other promotional giveaways to keep you going. The local ‘double double burger’ was offering a free meal to one lucky section if a certain player did a certain thing during a certain inning. And no longer had the public address system announced this obscure combination of events than the player in question went and did exactly what he needed to in order for the crowd to win. The crowd went wild (or ‘went nuts’ as they say out here), and the double-double burger owner was left crying into his deep fat fryer. Of course the last thing that any of the winning lardies needs is a double double-burger, but I’m sure they will be rushing along to claim their prize as soon as the game is over. As well as the giveaways they also got various spectators onto the field to embarrass themselves. One chap had to roll half a dozen huge dice to win some prize or other, they had kids taking part in a tricycle race, and one little girl racing Peanut the elephant around the bases. The team even runs onto the field at the start of the game to their own (ridiculous) theme tune. Sad!

There is definitely a personal touch at the games here, because the best seats (reserved for season ticket holders) have got the ticket-holder’s names on them. This makes it difficult to sneak down to them and pretend that you should be sitting there to the ushers that check occasionally. No matter how much I argued, I just couldn’t persuade this usher that I was Mrs. Villa-Lopez! The players aren’t treated like superstars either. It takes two of them to load the drinks cooler into the shopping cart stolen from the local supermarket before pushing it across the field to the dugout, and the relief pitchers sit in the picnic area next to the barbecue. So you can go up and talk to these relief pitchers and give them as hard a time as you like. Well, as long as you speak Spanish you can. They didn’t seem to understand me too well when I was asking them why they weren’t joining in with the rest of the crowd and performing the ‘Chicken Dance’ in-between innings. Even though they’re minor leaguers, these guys do this for a living, and while sitting in the sun for five hours is my kind of a job, they were working hard all that time on their spitting, chewing tobacco, and looking sullen.

After my failed attempts to get any of the bullpen to respond to sarcasm, I headed off to check out the food and beverage available. After all the prima-donna fayre offered at the Giants game, it was nice to see hot dogs, pizza and beer on offer. And not just any beer, but DOLLAR BEER. Woooooooo hooooooooo!!! Okay, so the cups weren’t huge and they only let you buy two at a time, but the whole concept is so cool. And not surprisingly, it was VERY popular. The only black mark against the food was the existence of a stand selling ‘cinnamon glazed almonds in a souvenir helmet’, but a few dollar beers soon put paid to that.

Warwick's Roadtrip Photo California

After the game (a doubleheader, so even better value for the $5 entrance fee) there was a fireworks display and everyone went home happy. Oh, except for the bloke who had been to the Dollar Beer stall one too many times and fell down twenty rows of metal bench seating just before the end of the game. And no, it wasn’t me!

Modesto, California, Scorecard

Beer: 9/10. DOLLAR BEER!!!
Abuse: 6/10. The players got away lightly, but Wally the Walnut and the umpires had a torrid time.
Stadium: 8/10. Very nice.
Drunken fans: 6/10. Just one, with lots of bruises
Cool player names: 5/10. One chap is called ‘Randy Blood’. Honest!
Tottie: 2/10. Very limited.
Value for money: 10/10. Especially the dollar beer.
Mascots: 7/10. I wonder if Phil Collins knows about Wally the Walnut?
Scratching genitalia and spitting: 7/10. You’re right there in front of all the action.
Free tat: 6/10. Everywhere.

Total: 66/100. I’m starting to think that the smaller the game, the more fun it is.

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Shasta, California

When you leave San Francisco and head north through the rest of California, there are hundreds and hundreds of miles of not-very-much-at-all until you reach Oregon. Not that there’s much in Oregon either. You pass the state capital, Sacramento (population three farmers and ten million cows), before driving through more olive and almond farms than you can shake a stick at. Strangely, I didn’t feel compelled to stop and take several pictures of these places. It looks like people come up here to experience the great outdoors, because there are plenty of ‘kampgrounds’ dotted around the place. Not ‘campgrounds’ as per the universally recognized dictionary entry, but the ‘Krazy Kampground’, the ‘Kalifornia Kampground’ and no doubt the ‘Krappiest Kampground’. Hmmm.

The only other entertainment when you’re cruising along is provided by the Road Crews, collecting litter from the side of the road and making the highways look nice. The members of these road crews are all dressed up in matching bright orange jumpsuits; it’s always nice for companies to outfit their workers smartly, and the bright colours are presumably used so that they can be spotted easily by drivers. And look – the jumpsuits have all got the company name across the back of them: “Department of Corrections”. Seems like a strange name for a company, but there you go. It’s nice that these people are willing to work in hundred degree temperatures to correct the problem of littering. And to make sure that none of the workers stray onto the road, the workers appear to be chained together; another very thoughtful safety feature.

Eventually you come to the jewel in the crown of Northern California – Shasta. The Shasta area has a few different attractions; there is Mount Shasta, the Shasta Dam, and Shasta Lake. The lake is a by-product of the dam (the second largest in the USA) and is used for fishing, boating, swimming, windsurfing, and general time-wasting on a hot summer’s day. You can rent houseboats, go on a cruise around the lake, hike into the foothills, or if you’re feeling particularly energetic you can go waterskiing. Of course I didn’t feel particularly energetic, so just had my photo taken instead!

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Warwick's Roadtrip Photo California
Palo Alto, California

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The arrival of summer in England is traditionally heralded by lazy afternoons sitting in the sunshine eating cucumber sandwiches and listening to the sound of leather on willow. THWACK! as Allen smites another majestic cover-drive for four to bring up his double-century, a ripple of applause from the teammates on the boundary, and all is well with the world. It’s the same in America; once the football season is finished at the end of January, all eyes turn towards baseball.

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“But what about the other sport going on?”, I hear you cry. Aha! Glad you asked. Well of course there’s basketball: gangsta posses, rampant drug use, and points diahorrea masquerading as entertainment. And why do they give each team two hundred timeouts so that the final minute of a game takes over an hour to complete? Dull, dull, dull. And in February and March the hockey season is also in full swing. Well it would have been in full swing if the season hadn’t been cancelled without a single octopus being thrown onto the ice in anger. The multi-billionaire owners decided that they were paying the players too much, while the multi-millionaire players decided that they weren’t being paid enough. So the players refused to play and the owners refused to let them. Well guess what, you greedy swine: you’re both wrong. And guess what else: nobody really cares. Especially in California, hockey isn’t really at the forefront of people’s consciousness. Now if the sushi makers in San Francisco went on strike then there would REALLY be trouble, but watching a bunch of sweaty men fight each other for a couple of hours with an occasional game of hockey breaking out to interrupt the proceedings obviously needs the viewer to have some special understanding of the subtleties of the game, that I clearly don’t possess, in order to appreciate it.

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