|What a long, strange trip it'll be|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
SEATTLE -- My road atlas shows Interstate 90 as an imposing purple-and-red line crossing the country and swelling at the major cities of Chicago, Cleveland and Buffalo. John Daly's arteries must look like this.
The longest interstate highway in the country, I-90 passes through 13 states and four time zones, stretching 3,085 miles from just in front of Safeco Field in Seattle to a couple of Nomar home runs past Fenway Park in Boston. Part of the interstate highway system designed to connect distant parts of the country, I-90 does so in ways rarely mentioned by Rand McNally.
It connects baseball's most expensive stadium (Safeco Field) with its oldest (Fenway Park). It connects the Major League Baseball of millionaire players and billionaire owners with the townball of amateur players in small Minnesota cities. It connects the speed and noise of the annual Sturgis (S.D.) Motorcycle rally with the speed and gentility of the annual Saratoga racing season (the track is about 25 miles off I-90). It connects Sammy Sosa's chest-thump/peace sign at Wrigley Field with Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame. It connects the many athletes we cheer now with no less than four Halls of Fame honoring those we cheered before.
In short, I-90 is a line connecting American sports as surely as a co-axial cable carrying a broadcast of SportsCenter, a 3,000-mile line nearly as long as the one for garlic fries at Safeco.
I have a schedule of stops in my notebook, but I'll pull over for any sporting event that interests me. The only rule is that, with a notable exception or two, I will not veer more than 25 miles off I-90 in my search for sports.
When I mentioned the trip to people, they generally had two responses. Some shook their heads and asked what in the world possessed me to consider such a thing. But most smiled and said, "That sounds great," with more than a touch of envy in their voices. One friend even asked to go along with me but is still working on getting permission from his wife (you can still meet me in Chicago, Scooter).
I'm not surprised. Americans hate their daily commutes, but we love road trips. We live in a grand, spacious country, beckoning us with open freeways, cheap gas and drive-thrus ever-ready to Biggie-size our meals. There is nothing better than pulling an icy soda from the cooler, turning on Bruce Springsteen or Ernie Harwell, putting the pedal to the metal, steering toward the horizon and leaving your cares behind.
Nothing better, of course, unless the company also picks up the tab.
(Note to accounting: Should I put Springsteen's new CD under "ground transportation" or "miscellaneous"?)
All the redemption I can offer, girl
Is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window
And let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night's busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
-- Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road"
The Kingdome drew a similar fate three years ago when it was imploded and replaced by $1 billion worth of stadiums lining Royal Brougham Way. On the south side of the street is enormous Safeco Field, the Mariners' $517 million home. One block to the north is the even larger $430 million Seahawks Stadium, the newest stadium in the country.
Dead ahead is Interstate 90 and 3,085 miles of asphalt.
As I begin my trip, I tune in the Mariners' postgame show and listen to the host ask listeners for trade suggestions to get the team to the World Series. "We already won as many games as any team ever had last year," he says. "Anything less than going to the World Series will be a disappointment.''
Once upon a time, the Mariners were the least popular team in town and the Kingdome was so empty you could hear an infield fly drop. It's hard to remember that now when the first-place Mariners are regularly selling out even with the game's second-highest average ticket price (Sunday's crowd of 46,120 was the team's 27th sellout). Their local broadcasts are so popular that they have higher local ratings than "The West Wing," and their broadcasts in Japan are so popular that Safeco has billboards for companies that conduct business only in Asia.
In short, the Mariners are as much a part of Seattle as the Space Needle, Pike Place Market and rush-hour gridlock. They lead the AL West and appear headed to the playoffs for a third consecutive year, but this weekend's series between the Mariners and Indians (another I-90 team) served as a cautionary tale for teams building $350 million stadiums.
The revenues from Jacobs Field sellouts helped Cleveland rise from the league's official punchline to perennial powerhouse for nearly a decade, but no more. Since it met Seattle in last October's playoffs, Cleveland has dumped so many people -- Robbie Alomar, Kenny Lofton, Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley, Juan Gonzalez and manager Charlie Manuel among them -- that shortstop Omar Vizquel told me he hasn't learned the names of all his new teammates. "I just say, 'Hey, major-leaguer.' "
Meanwhile, Cleveland's sellouts are history, and the team is one of the league's worst. It won only one game in its four-game series in Seattle, and even then, it blew a six-run lead before winning 10-8 Sunday.
Baseball's ridiculous finances are a part of the game that increasingly alienates fans and threatens to disrupt the season with another strike. Every day I receive e-mails from angry fans who say they will never go back if the game shuts itself down again.
I don't think there will be a strike, but I wonder how fans such as David Schiller and Mia Blake would react to one. Long after the game ended and the stadium had cleared, the two walked to home plate, where a table had been specially prepared, complete with roses, candelabra and chilled champagne for a seven-course meal. On the stadium message board read a simple question:
"Mia, will you marry me?''
If that all sounds like a little over the top, at least it beats the fan who proposed to his girlfriend here two years ago by having the Mariners Moose hold up a sign in front of her during a game.
One of my best friends proposed to his wife in front of Wrigley Field, and they're happily married with three kids, but I often wonder how other marriages work out after beginning in a stadium. I have visions of the wife one day buying an ad on the video board that reads, "For the last time, will you take out the garbage?" and then following that up by hiring the team mascot to deliver divorce papers.
After talking to Schiller and Blake though, the proposal site didn't seem that strange.
"I wanted it to be a unique place," Schiller explained. "We both love coming here, we love each other, and we love the Mariners."
"He did this so we could keep coming back for our anniversary," said Blake, who wore a Mariners T-shirt.
The Mariners charged $2,500 for the engagement dinner, proving two things. First, everything is for sale in modern sports. Second -- and most importantly -- sports and their stadiums retain an important hold on us, their location in our hearts as certain and fixed as an interstate marked on a road map.
I exit the stadium, leaving Schiller and Blake to their dinner, allowing them to talk over their future together and whether they would like to have children, and, if so, whether they should name the first one Edgar or Ichiro.
My rental car has a tank full of gas, a cooler loaded with Diet Pepsi, an unabridged audio version of "The Grapes of Wrath" in one box, Springsteen discs in the other, Safeco Field in my rearview mirror and I-90 stretching out far beyond the horizon.
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9
And steppin' out over the line
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we're young
'Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run
-- Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run"
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.