5th Annual Roomies Reunion

Mar 6, 2019   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

Greetings from Woodbury one day early, in terms of my blog day. I need to post this on Wednesday because tomorrow will be a long travel day. I’ll spend the morning on Delta flight 2096, with nonstop service from Minneapolis – St. Paul to Tampa, Florida. We’ll be cruising at an altitude of 33,000 feet heading south. More importantly, I am personally going to be traveling from piles of snow taller than I am to the Sunshine State, where the extended forecast for the next week is for sunny days and temps in the mid-80s. I might melt. Yesterday, it got “up” to 15 in Woodbury and I did indeed see kids walking home from school carrying their jackets. T-shirt weather!

The reason for this trip is spelled out in the headline. It is our 5th Annual SIUE Roomies Reunion, and this year we’re all excited about having Spring Training in Florida, otherwise known as the Grapefruit League, be the focus of our trip. To recap, our first such reunion between myself, Lance McCord, Bob “Radar” Ricker, and James “Oscar” Noffke was in 2015. That was Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame followed by Washington, DC and a Nationals game. At the end of that fun trip, we all shook hands on a pact. Not a promise. A pact. We would do this every year for as long as we could. In ’16 the boys all came up to the Twin Cities and we spent two nights in Minneapolis, where we shared a luxury hotel with the Cleveland Indians and then attended a Twins game against them, and then two nights in St. Paul. In ’17, we all converged on Seattle, and had a blast of a time in a truly wonderful city. The Mariners game was fun, too. Last year, we combined Pittsburgh and Cleveland into one trip. Had a riot and did Airbnb for the first time. This time around, in 2019, we are doing Spring Training, just to mix it up. This allows us to see four games in five days.

Oscar arranged the Airbnb thing for Pittsburgh and Cleveland and it was eye-opening. Cool old turn of the century (as in 1900, not 19 years ago) townhouses in each city. All for a rate that was cheaper than one night in a hotel. And, Oscar the cook handled breakfast for us each day. Way better than the buffet at the Hampton Inn.

This will probably be OK. (Click on any image to enlarge)

This year, I took on the Airbnb assignment. To start with, there aren’t a lot of turn of the century brick townhomes in Bradenton and Fort Myers, the two towns we’re going to spent three nights in each. So, I went for the gusto. I looked around one day a few months ago, on the Airbnb site, and saw some nice looking places. Then, after we all agreed on the dates and ballgames for the trip, I went back to select places. The photo at the right is the view off the pool deck for a place I found in Bradenton. It looks amazing, and all the reviews are raves. It’s $450 a night, which made me blink at first, but then I realized that’s just a bit over $110 per guy, per night. You couldn’t find a Holiday Inn out by the freeway for that.

We all get in tomorrow, in the afternoon, and again Radar and Oscar are doing something Lance and I can only laugh about. They are driving. From Illinois. They also drove to the Twin Cities and they drove to Pittsburgh and Cleveland. I guess I’m a little surprised they didn’t drive all the way to Seattle. Lance and I are coming into Tampa on different flights, about an hour apart. We, I believe, are the sane ones.

On Friday, we’ll hit our first ballgame. Pirates vs. Blue Jays at historic McKechnie Field in Bradenton. We can Uber to that game, which is a good thing because McKechnie Field (OK, it’s called LECOM Park now) is really old, really urban, and really not flush with parking. It’s also where my dad was the manager of the Minnesota Twins team in the Florida Instructional League for many years. I have personally run around on that field shagging fly balls during batting practice. As an 11 year old.

Yes, we will survive this rustic environment.

Here’s an interior view of the Bradenton house. That’s Anna Maria Island across the water. Holmes Beach is over there. The interior of this crib looks like it will be pretty nice, if by “pretty nice” you mean incredible. Plus, there are four bedrooms and bathrooms. I think we’ll survive.

All the games we’re going to are at 1:00 down there, so we’ll have our evenings free. We’re just going to ad lib it, I think. We’ll find some restaurants and maybe we’ll cook dinner one night. Definitely plan to hit a grocery store upon arrival. We’ll probably (don’t be shocked) set up a little bar in the home, as well. I mean, just to be efficient.

On Saturday, we have to make our longest round-trip drive to any ballpark, because we’re headed to Lakeland in the middle of the state to see the Detroit Tigers host the Atlanta Braves at Joker Marchant Stadium. That will make it two consecutive ballparks where I have been on the field and have personal history. If you read my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” you’ll likely recall my 1979 stint with the Lakeland Tigers in the Class-A Florida State League. I still remember exactly where our apartment was there, but won’t put the boys through that sightseeing excursion unless they want to.

Then, on Sunday, we have to get up early, straighten up the house (that’s important in an Airbnb) and get on the road early. We have a 1:00 game at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, as the Twins host the Blue Jays. So there’s two connections for me. I’ve never been on the field at beautiful Hammond Stadium but I’m a well-documented Twins fan of the highest order, and my dad was a scout for the Twins when I was a kid. As for the Blue Jays, well, I worked for them as a Scouting Supervisor for four years back in the 80s. It’s been a baseball life for me.

It’s about 90 miles from the Bradenton house to the ballpark, so you think “Oh, that’s about an hour and a half” but you have a large chance to be very wrong in that assessment. I’ve made the drive many times, and I-75 can be anything from crowded and congested all the way to gridlocked and stopped. It’s rarely an easy drive. So, we’ll get up early and try to hit the road by 10:00 at the latest. If we get there early, there’s always stuff to do at the ballpark until the game begins.

Looks nice, right?

After the game, we’ll head to this place. I had a whole different strategy for the Fort Myers part of this trip, and you can see that in the photo. Both Hammond Stadium and Jet Blue Park (where we’ll be going on Tuesday) are on the east side of Fort Myers, out by I-75 and the airport. I could’ve rented a place on Fort Myers Beach, but the traffic getting into and out of the beach is usually brutal, because there’s only one road in and out. So, I went for suburban style out near the freeway.

It’s a nice place, for sure, and although it has just three bedrooms they are all large and it has room for six, so we’ll have plenty of space. At about $260 per night, it’s downright cheap for four guys.

We have Monday off, with nothing scheduled, and nobody really seemed to want to pin anything down or make too many big plans. We’ll just wing it. We can drive over to Sanibel Island if we want, or just hang out and mess around at the house. We did that one day in Cleveland, and it was actually a lot of fun just to be binge watching stuff on Netflix and laying around the living room being lazy with lifelong friends. We tend to laugh at the same stuff, and we can crack each other up with single words. It’s easy to be lazy with these guys.

I’m relatively sure we’re going to spend some time with another former SIUE Cougar teammate, Kent Hendrickson. “The Stork” as we called him, was a helluva good pitcher for us, and a great teammate. He lives down there now, and he and Lance have been talking about all of us getting together. That would be awesome!

I believe we’ll be comfortable here. Win Twins!

Here’s an interior shot of the Fort Myers house. Again, it will be rough but I think we’ll be fine in this little cabin by the swamps. And here’s an interesting bit of roommate trivia. Did you know that Oscar and Radar actually never lived with Lance and me at the same time? It’s true. Radar lived with us during our senior year and again during our fifth year in school, when Lance and I were back to finish up our degrees. During that second year, around New Year’s Eve, Radar’s dad decided he should move home. I believe he thought Lance and I were bad influences on his boy. I am shocked. At the time, Lance said “Radar’s dad instituted the No More Fun of Any Kind Doctrine” and Radar had to move back home. That opening gave Oscar the chance to move in with us, and as is well documented in my book he brought his awesome girlfriend Theresa Natta with him. T Natta was a fantastic roomie, and we all got free haircuts out of the deal. But no, Radar and Oscar never overlapped. And that’s funny, because those two are the ones who live close enough to each other in Central Illinois to see each other often and hang out together, or go hunting, or fishing, or just doing stuff.

On Tuesday, as mentioned, we’ll be off to our fourth game in five days, which will set a new Roomies Reunion record for most baseball games seen in on a trip. We’ve never seen more than two before. Jet Blue Stadium is only a few miles from Hammond, which means it’s also only a few miles from our Airbnb. We can Uber to this one, as well.

It’s a fantastic new park, and what’s really cool about it is that the Red Sox (who play there) were able to design it so that the playing field is an exact replica of Fenway Park. That’s important, because there’s no park in baseball any quirkier than Fenway. People always think about the Green Monster in left field, but there are angles, and jutting out points, and odd features, all around the field. Jet Blue gives Red Sox outfielders a chance to learn all that before they get up to Boston.

Red Sox Nation is also enormous. I booked all the tickets for these games on the first day they went on sale. At McKechnie for the Pirates, we’re sitting behind home plate. In Lakeland, we’re in Field Box seats just beyond third base. For the Twins, who also have a huge and loyal fan base, the best I could get was past first base in short right field. For the Red Sox, I got online less than an hour after individual tickets went on sale, and we are in the bleachers. We’re not even in the main part of the stadium! Hey, I felt lucky to get those.

Stylish!

In addition to all the aforementioned fun, I’m also taking the gift thing to a new level. I ordered these shirts for all of us and will be presenting them to the boys when we all get down there. The are white, and Nike Dri-Fit, for good reason. We’re all escaping the cold of winter and 85 degrees is going to seem scalding to us. I’m sure we’ll get some looks and maybe even a few questions. That would fine. It’s not like we’re all shy and afraid to talk to strangers.

Lance is up to added mischief as well. He found a cool silver “cup” style trophy and bought it. Like a slightly smaller version of a trophy you’d win for a tennis or golf championship. He also found a guy in Raleigh who can hand engrave it, and that’s hard to do these days. Almost all engraving is done by computers now, and the guys who can sit down with tools and make it look professional are part of an ever shrinking group.

Lance is going to have the names of the cities and ballparks engraved on the cup, from all five of the annual reunions we’ve had, and then he came up with a great twist to the idea. Like the Stanley Cup, one of us will get to take it home each year. And then the next year a different guy will get to keep it. I hope we can keep doing this, and swapping “The Cup” for many more years to come.

Can you tell we’re all pretty excited to do this again in 2019? I thought so… We will have fun, enjoy four ballgames in four classic Spring Training ballparks, eat well (and a few hot dogs, no doubt), relax, bask in the sun, and maybe catch a foul ball. If we do, we’ll give it to a kid. We’ve all caught enough baseballs in our lives. Most importantly, we will share the greatest friendship any of us have ever known. We all met more than 40 years ago as SIUE Cougar Baseball teammates (I think the exact number is 43 but Radar might be one year less) and this tight friendship has, I believe, stood the test of time. It’s the best it’s ever been.

I’ll be back with photos and tales galore, in just a week.

As always, if you liked what you just read, please click on the “Like” button at the top. I’m trying to reach Platinum Medallion status in “Likes”…

Bob Wilber, at your service and ready to get down to Florida!

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