Ready to roll…and a flashback to Music City
It’s here. In less than two hours, my dad and I will be on the road. Today’s destination: Texarkana. And no, we won’t have any beer, despite what Jerry Reed sang in “East Bound and Down”, the theme from Smokey and the Bandit.
I last went to Louisiana in 2010. Like that trip, I am not returning to New Orleans. Baton Rouge is the end of the line for us. There’s baseball and hopefully good food, but I have work to do during the down time. There is a lot of sitting and waiting during weekend baseball series, as I rediscovered last year in Lexington and two years ago in Columbia (Missouri, not South Carolina).
The trip actually got off to a bad start yesterday.
When my parents went to New Orleans last October, my mother’s Toyota was involved in an accident in the French Quarter. They had to drive back to Russell in a rental car while her car was being repaired. My mother offered us use of her Toyota for the trip, but my dad said no.
Instead, he decided to rent a car in Hays. I offered to drive to Wichita, leaving my car at the airport. But he declined. So we went to Hays yesterday to get the car.
If anything seems too good to be true, it is. And so it was with the car.
It was a 2018 Impala, a much more sophisticated version of my car.
Problem was, the air conditioner did not work. No refrigerant.
I was very angry. STEAMING. And for what? I made a fool of myself. Again. Another story for Crista and I to discuss in 16 days when I see her again.
My fear was there would not be a car for us in Hays, and we’d have to drive the sweatbox to Wichita to trade it out. Fortunately, another car, a Hyundai Sonata, arrived back in Hays at 5:15, so all is on track again.
The weather today will be just fine, albeit a bit hot for mid-April. Tomorrow is going to go downhill as the day goes on, but we should be able to drive from Texarkana to Baton Rouge without any problems.
Then comes Saturday. Rain chances 100 percent, as in it is going to rain; the only question is how much. Some models are predicting up to four inches. The good news is no severe weather is predicted in Oklahoma or Kansas on the trip, which is always a huge concern in spring.
Still nothing on a change to the weekend schedule. My thinking is they’ll try to wait out the rain Saturday and still attempt to play at the scheduled starting time of 6:30, rolling the dice and accepting the reality of two seven-inning games Sunday if the rain doesn’t abate. Tennessee should be in Baton Rouge by 5:00, so the wheels will start spinning then.
Tuesday and Wednesday marked the 20th anniversary of one of my stranger experiences in college baseball.
LSU played Vanderbilt Easter weekend 1998 in Nashville. My dad and I drove up for the Friday and Saturday games, but missed the Sunday game to get back to Baton Rouge so I didn’t miss class Monday.
My dad and I left Thursday and stopped for the night in Tuscaloosa. Thank God we left Thursday, because the previous day, killer tornadoes struck Alabama, including an F5 which destroyed homes in suburbs of Birmingham. The motel where we stayed along Interstate 20/59 was destroyed by the April 2011 tornado which came perilously close to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Vanderbilt’s campus is not too far from downtown Nashville, in an area famously known as the West End. There are many upscale hotels, restaurants and shops along West End Boulevard, which runs from Interstate 440, the loop around Nashville, to downtown and the Cumberland River.
Vanderbilt’s campus is wedged in along the west end of West End, the quintessential urban university, which is totally opposite of the large state institutions which populate the rest of the Southeastern Conference.
Land at Vanderbilt is at a premium, and the athletic plant is no exception. The baseball field is wedged into a small space abutting the Commodores’ football stadium and Memorial Gymnasium, the basketball arena where the benches are along the end lines and the stands rise like balconies in a theater rather than encircle the court.
Vanderbilt has made it work despite the limitations. Hawkins Field is a wonderful facility, featuring a large press box and luxury boxes, chairback seats, and just about every amenity you would need for a school Vandy’s size.
The third base line at Hawkins Field shares a boundary with the east side of the football stadium. There is a 35-foot high “Black Monster” in left field to make sure most home run balls do not damage windows at Memorial Gymnasium.
It has certainly helped the Commodores go from SEC doormat to an established college baseball superpower, one which won the 2014 national championship. Of course, Tim Corbin, who has coached there since 2003, has been another big reason for Vandy’s success.
Prior to the construction of Hawkins Field, the Commodores’ diamond was, well, let’s just say, lacking.
What was known as McGugin Field, named because it was across the street from Vanderbilt’s McGugin Athletic Complex, was WAY below sub-standard for an SEC program. That’s being kind.
The listed capacity was 1,000. The Commodores hardly ever needed that many seats, save for SEC weekends which drew large crowds. Of course, LSU draws the largest crowds to SEC games, and as expected, purple and gold was all over the stands in Nashville that weekend.
Those stands were worse than what I have encountered in some high school football stadiums in rural Kansas. Think the visiting side of Russell High’s stadium. I can think of a few stadiums around here–Hill City, Norton, Phillipsburg–where the visiting stands are better than what Vandy had in those days. And there was no shade, which, sadly, is too common in the SEC.
(One place without a roof over its grandstand is Florida, which is ridiculous. The good news is the Gators will be moving into a new facility by 2021, one with a roof over the main seating area, which will mean the end of McKethan Stadium. I’m not shedding tears.)
There was no press box atop the “grandstand” at McGugin Field. Instead, the press sat in a trailer-like structure on top of the third base dugout. That actually was a step up from the past; Bill told me he and Jim Hawthorne broadcast from outdoors in both 1995 and ’96 and froze their butts off both times.
The problem was with the press “box” was there was no way to see down the third base line, since the trailer was very narrow and no way to see out the side towards the outfield. As bad as the open-air press box at the old Alex Box Stadium was, at least you could see the whole field.
Honestly, the SEC should have told Vandy it had to play conference games at Hesrchel Greer Stadium, which was then the home of the Triple-A Nashville Sounds. The Big 12 forced West Virginia to play its conference games elsewhere prior to 2015 since the Mountaineers’ stadium in Morgantown was horrible. That forced West Virginia to play games in other locales in the state, mostly in Huntington or Charleston, but sometimes in Beckley or Wheeling.
If Vandy had trouble finding dates at Greer, it should have been forced to another suitable facility, even if it were in Memphis or Chattanooga, or (God forbid) Knoxville and the Volunteers’ Lindsey Nelson Stadium. But college baseball in the late ’90s only mattered in Baton Rouge and Starkville. Other places can say they cared, but the reality was LSU and Mississippi State truly cared, and the others were going through the motions.
However, the SEC commissioner in those days, Roy Kramer, had been athletic director at Vandy for 12 years prior to making the move to Birmingham. No way he was going to rule against his former employer in that one.
LSU won the two games my dad and I attended, and Vandy won the Easter game. I returned to Nashville five years later, and of course, we were very happy to see Hawkins Field.
Those who play for Corbin today, or visit Vandy in the SEC, should be thankful for Hawkins Field. Their forefathers had it much worse.
Okay less than an hour to departure. Need to get in the shower. Signing off for now.