Baseball From Chicago To Houston, Part 1: Chicago

Chicago, Illinois (Map)

Spring 2015



After tacking the northeast and cleaning up the unseen baseball stadiums over there, it was now time for Clarkman & I to go down the middle of the country. Everything except for Chicago would be new for Clarkman, while I hadn't even been to the Chicago White Sox's U.S. Cellular Field. Over the coming week, I would be seeing 5 new stadiums (in addition to some new country!)

After spending a few days at home in Southwestern Ontario, I had a bus ticket booked out of Detroit for 8am Saturday morning. Before long, I was relaxing with my feet up in the half-empty bus, watching the grey Michigan landscape of early spring pass on by.

From Detroit to Chicago I had two options for bus tickets - an express ticket that went straight to Chicago in 5 hours, 20 minutes...or one that went through Ann Arbor, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo & Benton Harbor in 6 hours, 25 minutes. Both of them would get me to Chicago ahead of Clarkman, so obviously I picked the local route since I had never seen Benton Harbor before.

It's with that, that we were driving along after brief stops in Ann Arbor and Battle Creek (and a little longer in Kalamazoo). Finally we get off the highway for Benton Harbor. The bus only drove about 2 minutes before pulling over at this sorry excuse for a bus terminal out in the sprawl wasteland by the interstate. After taking the slower, local bus for this reason, the only Benton Harbor I saw was the same Benton Harbor outskirts I've seen 15 times on other Chicago trips. Oh, and the inside of the Benton Harbor Citgo since this was the food stop.

Getting off at the Greyhound Station, I rode the metro northwest of downtown over to Wicker Park where our hostel was located. Dropping my stuff off at the Holiday Jones, it's here that we'd be spending the next 3 nights.

Clarkman was there in no time & by now, the hostel seemed totally up to par. We had our own room with a bunk bed and enough space to lounge about. After giddily grabbing some Old Styles at the grocery store since we were in Chicago, the two of us relaxed after the flight and travel over here.

This being the first night of the trip, we went all-in on going out and having a good time. First was a University of Wisconsin transplant bar, wall to wall with Badger fans even though I don't think the Badgers were playing anything. Next up was this typical Chicago jam-packed sports bar that was a good place to watch the Blackhawks playoff game (they even played Chelsea Dagger with the eventual victory). Also, some girl at the bar complimented my beard then picked out my Windsor accent, which was impressive even if she was from Metro Detroit (her boyfriend then started talking to me about hockey).

Afterwards we went to one of those bars you see in Chicago with very few windows and an Old Style sign hanging outside. The Phyllis Musical Inn wasn't as electric as the sports bar, but they had the hockey game on and the bartender gave us shots simply because we were out of towners. There was enough action that it wasn't just an old barfly dive bar hangout, but it still had the feeling of being an old dive bar.

Clarkman was the one who had went in the Phyllis Musical Inn before I got to the Holiday Jones this afternoon, so big ups to him because I thought it was a great place.

Waking up on Sunday & grabbing some breakfast, it was now time to head to the south side, to U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox.

As I mentioned in the introduction, this was a new stadium for me, a product of the White Sox never being home while I was in town. The thing is that Chicago was much like Pittsburgh in that it's close enough to home that I wasn't too worried about when I would finally visit. Places like San Diego or Miami will be a bit harder.

We settled on tickets around $30 throughout this trip, getting more bang for our buck in the midwest than we did in the northeast. The view from our seats can be seen above.

Another reason I wasn't all that worried about when I would visit U.S. Cellular is because it's a newer ballpark. After 80 years and almost lasting long enough to be historic and appreciated - by those that matter: politicians and owners - Comiskey Park was abandoned in 1991 with the opening of 'New Comiskey', now known as U.S. Cellular Field (and now Guaranteed Rate Field if we're updating for 2017).

As U.S. Cellular Field was built in 1991, this came just before the building of Baltimore's Camden Yards. While 24-year-old Camden Yards is still heralded as the best park in baseball - or at least very close to Pittsburgh - U.S. Cellular has always been criticized since it wasn't one of the "retro-modern" parks that everyone seems to love nowadays.

U.S. Cellular was instead based on the newest baseball-only park of the time: Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City (built in 1973). In addition, U.S. Cellular set out to eliminate overhang problems for those in the lower bowl by raising the upper deck to one of the greatest heights in the majors - leaving the upper deck folks far away from the action. In addition, U.S. Cellular is one of the rare stadiums that forces upper deck folks to stay in the upper deck. Not an overall great baseball experience.

Even with the privilege of sitting in the lower deck, I still didn't have the greatest U.S. Cellular experience. Many of the beer and food stands were cash only, the beer choices were piss-poor, half of the workers were dim and they ran out of condiments in multiple places.

At least the lack of overall service meant a gap in the ushers watching the lower bowl behind home plate. We slipped down without any commotion and found 7 or 8 beautiful, empty seats.

Overall, U.S. Cellular had a pretty sweet spot to put in a decent effort and receive a good ranking. This wasn't sitting in the rain at Comerica, this was the first game of the baseball trip on a warm Illinois afternoon after coming from snowy, rainy & dreary Corner Brook. Regardless of all that, I was left underwhelmed by U.S. Cellular. It was fine & I give it some points for being obscure compared to more beloved parks, but it also isn't a stadium I look back on and desire.

U.S. Cellular was MLB stadium #18 for me (total number, not rank).

We'd go back downtown & take some random L-stop, eventually ending up at a busy restaurant in a cool old building. Eating ourselves tired, it was back to the hostel to rest, before possibly going back out or resting some more. I can't really recall.

By the next morning Clarkman's health was deteriorating, so I was out and about on my own, to go for a long walk and get some exercise. Where I didn't fully understand the neighbourhoods around Wicker Park, I simply made a right on the first interesting looking street. It couldn't have been that bad of a decision, as it brought me to this awesome liquor store sign (I only perused the 40 selection, I didn't buy any at 10am).

I'd continue down Ashland until I ended up down by the United Center. Walking towards the home of the Blackhawks and the Bulls, I abandoned going any further on Ashland as there now seemed to be some nice homes up ahead. I'd go that way only a short while until I reached Western Ave, figuring this was a long enough walk on a day where I'd probably go walking with Clarkman as well. Western Ave brought me back north parallel to Ashland, through a dense neighbourhood with nice homes and a few Ukrainian-influenced churches and storefronts (I was in the Ukrainian Village neighbourhood).

For all of the times I've been to Chicago it seems like I always go to the same areas, so I was happy to expand my explorations. Upon returning, Clarkman told me that he thought the area around the United Center was supposed to be dangerous, but I didn't really see it (it was also a Monday morning).

Back at the Holiday Jones and eating complimentary breakfast in the basement, I had this impression of hostels that maybe I don't meet people or have crazy adventures because I'm not all that talkative or prone to smiling. I figured with newly-outgoing Clarkman in tow, that it would be a good test of that whole hostel stereotype.

So, this morning as we made food with 15 other people & throughout the rest of the Chicago stay, I didn't see many, if any, people mingling; and we didn't talk to anyone else either. This could be for any number of reasons or degrees of randomness, but it remains something I think about whenever I stay in a hostel.

Heading downtown this morning, we had all day to do whatever since the Cubs game was in the night instead of the afternoon. Exiting the subway, the elevated road gave a view over Grant Park and the empty, amazing skatepark they've built here. I longed to have my bike with me on such a beautiful should-be-spring-by-now day, with such an empty skatepark, so far from Corner Brook.

Instead, it was time to head over to Shedd Aquarium. For all of the times I've been to Chicago, I've done very few touristy things and Shedd Aquarium had been recommended as a must see (maybe by Whitfield?)

Waiting in line, I was already happy as I looked up at the plaster ceiling details and sea creature chandeliers above my head. I wasn't sure how much I wanted to check out fish in tanks - I'd never been to any aquarium - but if the building itself was a sight, well then to me that's worth the price of admission alone.

It didn't take me long to agree with Whitfield & appreciate his recommendation. Time flew in the giant aquarium, while the two of us wandered and checked out each of the individual sections.

Above, you can see the Electric Yellow Cichlid. This fish is found in Lake Malawi (East Africa) and I liked it because it was my beloved yellow, which greatly contrasted its grey surroundings. They were like little Boston Bruins logos swimming around, haha.

One of my favourite things was the handful of times I pointed out some crazy looking fish to Clarkman, only to realize that we have said fish in Newfoundland!

This one is a Spotted Wolffish - a fish with which I share Atlantic waters.

Afterwards we went through the lakefront park until we were stopped by road closures because of the outdoor "NFL Draft Experience" being set up. We then cut back into downtown buildings to grab some decent Thai lunch and seek out the main branch of the Chicago Public Library. While my picture is terrible, the exterior and especially the roofline was something to behold; like an old, demolished building that you see in photos and can hardly believe ever existed.

Much to my surprise this building was actually built in 1991! Clarkman & I would go inside and I found it to be underwhelming in comparison to Philadelphia, New York or Boston's library, surely because those were actually built back in the day when there were very few expenses spared.

After the library we continued walking since it was such a nice afternoon, but eventually found ourselves back at Holiday Jones, sipping a few more Old Styles and kicking our feet up. Clarkman still felt under the weather.

Our time in Chicago would wrap up with a trip to the North Side and the home of the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field.

This was during that time where botched renovation time estimates left exposed and empty grandstands in the outfield. Our seats were behind home plate & fantastic, but we did go for a walk over there & it was funny how narrow and under construction it became. In addition, there were port-a-johns inside the stadium making up for the lack of renovated bathrooms.

Other than that, I've covered Wrigley before so I'm going to keep it short. One thing though was that the previous trip would've been beer-fueled and now mentally foggy, whereas tonight was a firm reminder of the greatness of the old ballpark that is Wrigley. Settling into our fantastic seats, this experience was more like it (instead of U.S. Cellular).

Whenever I leave Newfoundland, especially winter Newfoundland, I think that Windsor has magically become Caracas, Chicago has magically become Marrakesh and Boston has magically become Honolulu. I.e., everywhere off the island is a hot, sultry paradise.

Thankfully I looked ahead at the Chicago forecast, noticing lows in the upper 30s! (~4°C.) I was also thankful that I happened to have a bunch of warm-weather gear since I brought my big luggage bag along. I know I've heard people complain about the old Cleveland stadium on the lake because of the chilly nights with onshore winds, but here I was experiencing it, wearing long johns, my toque-material facemask and gloves. In Chicago. In late April.

Clarkman was dressed similarly as well. Unfortunately it only occurred to me the next day that I should have taken a selfie/group shot of the two of us dressed ridiculously for baseball. I kicked myself for not thinking of it earlier.

This also made for a weird baseball atmosphere. A sort of hushed hockey arena feeling but outside under dark skies while hearing the ball players occasionally yell to each other. It felt special and different, and as long as you're dressed for the experience, I'd recommend it sometime.

What I won't recommend is one of these Chicago dogs.

Then again, the Chicago dog I finally got was from Wrigley Field instead of a neighbourhood place, so I'm holding out hope for a better one on my next trip to Chicago (the Wrigley one had a stale bun and too much of the crunchy tomato center was left on).

We decided against going out again & instead took it easy this night. Clarkman needed more rest & I was looking forward to driving bright-eyed and bushy-tailed across Illinois tomorrow.

Continue to Part 2...


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