Friday, April 06, 2018

A 2018 Ping Pilgrimage into the Deep South

In the wake of the death of Augie Garrido, also known as the “Godfather of College Baseball,” Gigante, Nonrunner, and EYL decided a trip to the Dirty South to watch SEC baseball for three days was somehow a normal, necessary endeavor for three men in their mid-30’s. Marriage, kids, and America’s youth all presented obstacles, but oh well.  Anytime you can catch a 5am flight to Memphis, Tennessee; drive down to Starkville, Mississippi; and then drive further down to Baton Rouge, Louisiana; you have to nod your head and say “sure,” don’t you?

If any sort of normal adult logic was applied to this trip, it would have been shut down long before it even started. Yes, Augie had just died, and we all know that is a really fucking big deal, but traveling to Mississippi for no other reason than to watch college baseball (Ping), slug Budweiser, and chew fresh Redman still makes little to no sense to most well-adjusted, sane people educated inside California’s elite university system. Then again, this is the Tide Dirtbags we are talking about. Logic left the building way back in the days when the Godfather rubbed two Louisville Sluggers together and started the league.

So the alarm went off in San Francisco during the 3 o’clock hour on a Friday morning. Gigante hailed a Lyft (Uber has a distasteful glass ceiling), and set out across the Bay to Oakland, a stone’s throw from the fabled San Leandro Ballpark where so many SFNABA championships have been battled out in the dog days of August. No, he wouldn’t be pitching today, but this was another kind of ship run altogether: Three states, three Ping games, and three titters… all in three days. Yeah, sure.

After meeting EYL in Oakland before the crack of dawn, wheels were soon up to Dallas, where Nonrunner was first allowed to get involved, arriving at an overpriced airport restaurant bright eyed and bushy tailed (Economist in hand, pressed collared shirt, etc). He might as well have been wearing a name tag with the phrase “responsible adult” on his left breast. Between bites, he proudly discussed a recent trip to the titter with his new big-shot boss in Big D. Nearby patrons tried to not hear about it, but they all did anyway. The Tide was officially on vacation. 

Before long, the three aging Tide members in search of a religious baseball experience touched down in Graceland, aka Memphis Tennessee. They didn’t know it yet, but they were about to adopt a simple formula over the next three days: “Ping.Travel.Titter.” There was little time for anything else.

Doctor Dre’s 1999 album “2001” blared over the speakers of a nondescript, economy sized Chevy sedan as the Tide Trio followed their Google machine due south toward Mississippi. The first Ping game of the trip was just mere hours away. The SEC opener at the “New Dude” between Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. The renovated Left Field Lounge in Stark Vegas awaited. Emotions ran high. Freedom rang loud.

Beside a quick stop at a gas station Arby’s, the journey into Stark Vegas was otherwise seamless. The first stop on campus grounds came at an area grocery store that focused on chew, cigarettes, and light domestic beer. Mississippi Bulldog red and southern hospitality trended throughout the tiny city. It had literally nothing in common with Las Vegas. Across the street was the motel. Once inside, Nonrunner loudly confirmed he had seen our very room on a 1998 episode of “Cops.” Nobody laughed because it was true. 

The Uber ride over to the newly renovated Dudy Noble Field was a short one, but just long enough to enjoy a few cold ones with the driver’s approval. The driver took his hospitality a step further when he offered up a review of the town’s local titter. “Oh boy, The Pony. Fellas, yeah, that place is pretty shitty. One of those Truck Stop Titters if you will. But suit yourself,” he explained/warned over the static of Mississippi local FM radio.

Nonrunner simply nodded his head in approval as he gazed out the window toward an unmarked water tower. “Sure,” he thought. “Fucking, SURE.”

When the Tide finally arrived at their first Ping field of the trip, they were met with misty rain and a dose of society. Mississippi State had somehow ruined the Left Field Lounge with their 2017 stadium renovation. Gone were the homemade wooden decks laid atop old trucks in the outfield. Where drunk fans drove right up to the outfield fence, climbed on top of their rig, got more drunk, and rooted on the Diamond Dawgs. Instead, concrete had been poured to support shiny new seats and electronic barbeques. Signs and plaques signifying which wealthy alum had paid for what “lounge box.” Somehow, society had struck once again, even in the heart of the South.

As it were, the sparse, half-filled crowd provided a backdrop to a typical SEC dogfight between two hungry top-25 teams. EYL eventually assumed his post directly behind the Vanderbilt dugout and began to dig into the group of successful and talented 19-year-olds a few feet below him. The lights were bright and the crowd was quiet; good chatter was essential. On a big stage, he delivered, eventually earning multiple stare-downs from Vandy’s top-prospect on the mound that evening. Mission accomplished.

By the 7th inning, due in large part to a booted ball from MSU’s trusted shortstop, Vandy had the game firmly in hand. As expected, adversity was already starting to rear its ugly head. The three Tide members were sitting in an empty stadium in Starkville, getting rained on, and heckling a team that was winning by five runs.

In order to increase morale, the fellas each enjoyed the freedom of smoking a heater while drinking a Bud in the “New Left Field Lounge.” All was not lost, you could say. Cigs are still aloud inside the New Dude. Thank christ.

Cigs were also most definitely aloud inside the aforementioned Pony, a 15-minute drive from the epicenter of Stark Vegas. 14 dollars got you in the door, not to mention two free complimentary American beers to help get your engine running hot. What ensued was straight out of a scene in Varsity Blues, except the girls were half as good looking, if that. The average “entertainer” was 180 pounds of pure Mississippi, with an un-ashed cig hanging from her mouth. Nonrunner was in Hog Heaven to say the least. If one wanted to avoid a future slump for the rest of their lives, the opportunity was certainly there for the taking.

The grand finale of the night featured a young man who looked ten years older than he was. Titter personnel dragged him up onstage with his shirt off, back hair and wrinkled tattoos everywhere. He was on his way to a life in the military the next morning. This was his grand sendoff. Fortunately, everyone seemed too drunk to notice how depressing it all was. EYL lit his sixth cig of the evening and looked up at the midnight edition of SportsCenter, searching for answers that weren’t there.

By Saturday morning, the Tide Trio woke up determined to hit their stride. As they piled into their rental for their second college in as many days, anything seemed possible. After all, #16 seed UMBC had just knocked off #1 seed Virginia the night before. History was in the air.

With Gigante nursing a slight hangover, Nonrunner popped his customary morning greenie and took the wheel for the drive to Louisiana. The closer was in and he was throwing GAS. Blue skies, rolling hills, a 30-rack of Budweiser in the back seat. What could go wrong they asked?

“Ohhhhhh fuck,” bellows Nonrunner. “They got me.”

EYL wheels his head around in the back seat, open Bud in his right hand, only to find a Mississippi state trooper hot in pursuit. We were fucked alright.

In the matter of seconds, Nonrunner went from a renegade Southern Man only concerned with freedom, into a shrewd father with an impeccable understanding of the law. Meanwhile, EYL acted like a f****t in the back seat who couldn’t find his seatbelt. Fortunately, we didn’t have a loaded pistol in our glovebox, just a bunch of Thrifty Car Rental receipts.

Who knows if the trooper had seen this before? Three white guys in a small rental car flying down a deserted highway in Bumfuck, Mississippi just so they could make the first pitch of a college baseball game that night. Maybe he hadn’t actually. Regardless, he left Nonrunner with a hefty ticket without ever bothering to look under EYL’s Budweiser shield in the back seat. Or maybe he just didn’t give a fuck. That was never clear.

Soon enough, the Tide was back on the highway with nothing more than an expensive story to tell. The mission remained the same, get to Alex Box Stadium before first pitch.

Of course, driving the length of Mississippi in one day will make any man hungry, so naturally the idea of a proper food stop was eventually raised. “We’ll just get some BBQ in Jackson,” suggested Gigante, as confident as ever. “Says here on Thrillist there’s a place just off the freeway. Great reviews. Who’s in?”

As the Tide’s rental car pulled into an un-kept parking lot in front of an old, nondescript building, EYL couldn’t help but wonder if they were lost. “So, uh, this is the place you found online? Are you, I mean, are you sure?”

“Yes I’m fucking sure, the sign says E&L BBQ right over there, does it not? What’s the issue?” asked Gigante.

Next, picture three white guys form the shores of the Bay Area walking into the most authentic BBQ joint in all of the south. As the door shut loudly behind them, there was no sound except for Gigante’s flip-flops and an oversized metal fan loudly cooling the entire place. You could literally see dust in the air through the window blinds. A line of 20 quiet patrons formed at the cash register, wrapped around the fan and ended with an armed security guard. Nobody was white, not even close.

EYL proceeded to take off down a back hallway titled “Toilet out of order” (the “out of order” part had been crossed out with a Sharpie). By the time he reached the end of the dark hallway, he finally was able to pinch off a nervous piss. “What the fuck is the Tide doing at E&L BBQ in Jackson, Mississippi?” was the only thought he could muster.

Back in line, EYL, Gigante and Nonrunner waited for upwards of 25 minutes, not sure of what to talk about. When the lights came on and it was time to order, Gigante towed the rubber and painted the corner gracefully, “Yeah I’ll take your rib sampler please. Extra sauce. Large Sweet Tea. Thanks.” Meanwhile, EYL could barely remember to speak his own order. “Ribs,” he thought to himself as he made the order. “With the most normal amount of sauce that is humanly possible to have here. And a small Doctor Pepper. Because I’ve had that before in California.” 

After receiving their food in the most un-environmentally friendly way possible (huge black to-go bags, styraphone boxes and cups everywhere, plastic forks in plastic packaging) the Tide followed Nonrunner’s idea to eat-in and occupy one of the eight open tables in the back. Not one other patron was staying to eat inside, but fuck it, Nonrunner thought, Roll Tide.

EYL couldn’t eat his (surprisingly) delicious dish of ribs fast enough. “I’m ready to roll when you guys are,” he halfway begged. “Just give me a minute, fuck,” exclaimed Nonrunner. Both hands drenched in BBQ sauce with no clean napkins in sight. Eventually, they were on the road yet again. EYL’s Kangaroo Court date would be set for May it was decided.

The Tide would arrive in Baton Rouge at about 5:45pm local time in advance of the scheduled Missouri V. LSU tilt that night. Hotel guests were greeted by a free magazine with Shaq’s mug on it. The Tide suddenly had new life it seemed.

After a shit, shower and shave, the trio was off to Alex Box Stadium on the campus of Louisiana State University. It did not disappoint. Clearly it was a mecca.

The place smelled like baseball. Orange sunset over the banks of the Mississippi river, packed crowd, knowledgeable fans, multiple national championship banners, an onsite hall-of-fame room, purple and yellow everywhere. The place was magical.

But even with the best home-field-advantage in college baseball at their backs, the Tigers still would fall short in front of the LSU faithful on this night. A late fury of homers wasn’t enough to overcame a rocky first few frames. The Tide would move to 0-2 on the trip. Adversity was setting in once again. Would they waiver?

That night, the Tide stayed true to the adopted moniker of “Ping.Travel.Titter.” and found their way to another one of the South’s not-so-heralded late-night establishments. The story gets a bit blurry from there on, but what we do know is that Nonrunner shot his shot, if you will, and Dikembe Mutumbo was there to meet him at the rim and spit all over it. He was subbed off the floor immediately in favor of a veteran guard off the bench. The Tide were now 0-3 on the trip. This was a team loss.

Back in California, it was Danger’s birthday. A man who knows a thing or two about battling through adversity and making it out to the other side. He provided the Tide Trio with a facetime that nobody really remembers. But sure. Danger did his job. We could hit Missouri’s Sunday starter, he assured us. He was right.

Sunday in Baton Rogue brought a rainstorm of biblical proportions. Outside of a 100,000 seat SEC religious cathedral known as Tiger Stadium, Gigante, EYL and Nonrunner were drenched by the Lord above. They were alleviated of all of their sins. But unlike Rudy, they weren’t allowed to actually step foot inside the stadium. The grounds were too hallowed we were told. So be it.

After taking pictures of the dangerous, full-sized Tiger/mascot that is caged outside the parking lot, the Tide crossed the road to Alex Box for their third game in as many days. As is so often the case, the sun started shinning all over the Tide by mid-afternoon; not a cloud in sight.
The baseball on the field was pure. Diving catches from both corners of the outfield, a leaping play up the middle from LSU’s second baseman and an ungodly hose from Missouri’s catcher that was still somehow run on.

LSU would eventually prevail and as the Tide piled back into their rental car, they each looked around and swelled with a sense of pride of what they had accomplished. They had proved the naysayers wrong. So many people said it couldn’t be done or at least shouldn’t be done. Three Ping games in two different states in one weekend was a task too tall they said. But instead the Tide stood up and got the job done. It had to be done and thus they did it. If for no other reason, then to make Augie Garrido smile down from baseball heaven.

Roll Tide.

Posted by section925 on 04/06 at 08:19 PM
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