The 2018 Reunion Tour Sets New Standards

Aug 9, 2018   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

We’d been planning it for nearly a year, but please accept that term loosely. Between the four of us, none are really prone to overanalyzing or stressing over details. We are, after all, four former roommates and teammates who gravitated toward each other in college because of our shared characteristics and our ability to make each other laugh. For Lance McCord, Bob “Radar” Ricker, James “Oscar” Noffke, and myself, it’s always a big deal to get together for our annual reunions, but we tend to go with the flow a lot.

Last fall we made the decision that Pittsburgh and Cleveland should be the targets for 2018. Once the MLB schedules came out, I found the two perfect home games to see in each city, since the Cardinals would play in Pittsburgh on a Saturday and the Twins would then be in Cleveland just two nights later. This time, instead of booking hotel rooms, Oscar took it upon himself to research Airbnb so that we could stay in one house together, with our own bedrooms. Over time, we made our travel plans. Then, about a week before we were to meet up in Pittsburgh, we got back in touch and compared notes. Considering that’s what we did over the course of 10 months or so, I’d call that a low-stress deal.

The visual definition of a gorgeous ballpark with a million dollar view. (Click on any image to enlarge)

We had a loose idea of what we wanted to do, but the only firmly scheduled things in each city were the ball games. I bought the tickets, and followed the advice Oscar had given me. He said it’s better to sit up a bit higher at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, because the view of the Roberto Clemente Bridge and the downtown skyline are better seen from that perspective. As you can see here, that was exactly the right call.

This view is from behind home plate, although our seats provided pretty much an equal view from just above third base. Target Field, here in the Twin Cities, is gorgeous and full of amenities. It has a great urban view of downtown Minneapolis, and is easy to navigate. PNC Park is right there with it, and is stunning. It’s a “Wow” ballpark, and if you are a baseball fan of any sort and have the chance to get there, do yourself that favor.

Getting back to how the trip unfolded, it was Lance and I who flew in, with him coming from Raleigh while I came in from MSP. We were both on Delta and we landed within 10 minutes of each other, at side-by-side gates. Oscar and Radar drove from Illinois. We all convened on Friday.

Lance and I hopped in a cab and gave the driver the address of the Airbnb townhouse we were going to, with the verbal instruction that it was on the south side, meaning it was across the Monongahela River from downtown Pittsburgh. We soon discovered that the always tricky system of bridges and highways in downtown was being made worse by construction on the very bridge that the driver had wanted to take. We ended up on a circuitous and scenic trip all over the place. Then we pulled up in front of the bright yellow “Bicycle House” Oscar had found. It was funky, it was cool, and it was legit historic.

Our home in Pittsburgh!

To be fair, the neighborhood it was in was a bit sketchy in an old warehouse area sort of way. No shortage of graffiti on half-standing walls. But that sort of scenery only stretched for a couple of blocks and beyond that it was all good. We felt safe and never had any reason to feel any other way.

We all had our own bedrooms, situated on floors two and three, and the house featured a cozy living room with a nice TV and a beautifully renovated chef’s kitchen. Yes, we used it. On Saturday morning Oscar took it upon himself to be our cook and his bacon and eggs were a fabulous way to start the day.

We knew we’d have a full day on Saturday, so after we all got there on Friday we took it upon ourselves to knock a few “must do” items off the list. We rode the incline up to Mount Washington and we strolled a bit to the east to find a hip pub in that cool area for a late lunch. On Friday night, we felt no guilt when we just ordered two pizzas and took it easy. Saturday was going to be the big day.

As it turns out, all four of us are big on walking. Both for sightseeing and for our health. Lance used to be a big runner, even training for marathons, but time wears you down and pinched nerves and herniated discs go a long way in changing your habits. I know this first hand. He tries to walk five miles a day, and he’s not strolling when he’s doing it. Radar has had hips replaced so he gets after it as well. Oscar loves to explore, and I try to walk at least 5,000 steps a day myself, so the four of us were (imagine this) totally compatible and that would be a key element on Saturday.

We had a tour of PNC Park on the docket, thanks to the kindness and largesse of a longtime reader named Dave Kassekert, who has connections with the Pirates. We knew we needed to be at the Willie Stargell statue at 3:15, and we wanted to do some sightseeing prior to that, so around noon we started walking. We crossed the river on a bridge that featured wide pedestrian lanes, entered downtown Pittsburgh and turned left, to get down to the point. That’s the scenic area with the huge fountain, and it is the spot where the Monongahela and Allegheny meet to form a little creek by the name of the Ohio River. Not only that, it’s the former site of Fort Pitt, which was built by the British. Its outline is marked on the grounds of the park.

Speedboats on the river and Heinz Field (home of the Steelers) in the background.

It was, coincidentally, also Regatta weekend in Pittsburgh, where all kinds of boating activities were taking place on the rivers. When we arrived at the point, speedboats were roaring up and down the Allegheny doing time trials for their event later in the afternoon. After pausing to watch that for a bit, we walked further north and crossed the Roberto Clemente Bridge, which took us directly across the Allegheny to PNC Park. We checked out where we were supposed to meet up with Dave, and then walked a few blocks to the Andy Warhol Museum.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that the four of us don’t necessarily fit the classic demographic description of Warhol fans, but we all wanted to see it. I’ll give us serious props for all being open-minded and intrigued by what made Warhol tick, what his unique skills and visions were, and how he developed as an avant-garde artist. We toured all seven floors and were sponges when it came to understanding and appreciating it all. We were all glad we did that.

We made our way back to the Stargell statue and met Dave, who let us know the tour actually didn’t start until 4:45 so we had some time to kill. Didn’t take us long to spot a bar across the street. The tour was fantastic (we were joined by a dozen or so other fans in our group) and very much appreciated. One of the first stops we made was the service tunnel inside the park, and we were just a few yards from the Pirates’ clubhouse, workout rooms, and other facilities.

If you follow the game, you may know that the Pirates had made a big move to improve their squad for the rest of the season by trading for Tampa Bay Rays pitching ace Chris Archer, just a few days earlier. He was one of the biggest targets at the trade deadline. As were were all standing in a nondescript area of the service tunnel, none other than Chris Archer himself walked toward us. He said “Hey everyone. How are y’all doing?” before he entered a door marked “Examination Room.” The “Oh my, that was Chris Archer!” comments shot around the group at light speed.

After the fantastic tour, we thanked Dave profusely. Radar and Oscar decided to stay at the ballpark (even though it was 90 minutes before game time) because an up-close view of batting practice was provided as the final piece of the tour, but Lance and I wanted to head back to the townhouse to clean up and rest for a bit. For the first time in my life, I opened my Uber app and ordered a car. It was there in three minutes, right outside the ballpark.

As for it being well before game time, I have this to say about Pittsburgh. Even at 3:00, there was a buzz on the streets and a fun vibe down by PNC Park. That’s four hours before the first pitch! It’s a perfect example of how a well designed and beautiful new ballpark can change an entire area. The streets around PNC are vibrant and full of life. And many (if not most) fans walk to the park from downtown, because the Clemente Bridge is closed for traffic and is for pedestrian use only before and after games. It’s a fun place, and the same thing has happened in Minneapolis surrounding Target Field. Both parks have completely revitalized declining neighborhoods. It was a neat thing to experience.

When Lance and I got back to PNC, taking another Uber because after I’d done it once I was a veteran of the experience, we originally had a bit of a hard time finding our way to our seats on the 200 level. We kept wondering why we couldn’t get to where we wanted to go. There was a reason for that. On our tour, we walked through a really nice “club level” area where the concourse was enclosed and air-conditioned behind the seats, with upscale concessions and lounge areas (even pool tables!) and it seemed like a heck of a nice way to experience a game. As it turned out, those were the seats I’d bought! I’m not sure I knew that when I ordered the tickets, but it was pretty amazing to have all those amenities available to us throughout the game, and terrific fun to be at PNC for the Buccos vs Redbirds game. See what I did there? I used both alternate nicknames for the Pirates and Cardinals.

The Uber after the game was a bit more challenging, because 30,000 people were leaving mostly at once, but we found our guy and got back home to Bicycle House. We slept well.

Typical visitor: “What’s with that brick wall over there?” Well, there’s history…

On Sunday, Barbara’s brother Tim picked us up to give us a more personal guided tour, and that was much appreciated. His first comment was, “We should go up the Incline and then go down to the Point” but we’d already done both of those things, so that allowed us to dive a little deeper into what makes Pittsburgh special. Our first stop was the piece of outfield wall left behind when old Forbes Field was torn down in 1972, after Three Rivers Stadium was built. It’s a neat thing, and the guys really enjoyed seeing it. Yes, the flagpole was actually in-play out in center, but with the wall being 457 feet from the plate it wasn’t often involved in the action. 457 is “quite a poke” as we say in the baseball biz.

The wall is right across the street from the campus of University of Pittsburgh, and it’s not quite all that’s left of historic Forbes. We headed over to a campus building on the other side and were thrilled to see that a line of matching bricks continues the outline of the wall over there along the sidewalk. We were happy to see the doors to the building were unlocked, and we headed in.

We walked down your typical campus hallway, and noted the many old black & white photos of Forbes on the wall. I couldn’t help but think all of this stuff is meaningless to the students.

Radar grabs a shot of home plate

Then, on the floor just ahead of us, was home plate. It’s the actual plate, in its exact location, from the last game at Forbes and it’s under plexiglass now. Very cool. And, again, how many students walk over it on a daily basis and just wonder “What the hell is that?”

Tim then drove us all around downtown, past Duquesne University (where he went to school) and around the arena where the Penguins play. He was proud to point out the large banners that hang on the side of the arena, illustrated with the five (count ’em, five) Stanley Cups the Pens have won. As four guys from in or near the St. Louis area, we were not ashamed to mention that the Blues have won zero in the same time period.

It was great to be with Tim, to hear his stories and gain his insight about various buildings and parts of town. Insider knowledge is always valuable, and to get it from your brother-in-law just makes it better. Tim and I have always gotten along great, and it was my pleasure to let Lance, Oscar, and Radar get to meet and know Barb’s brother a little bit. At one point, when we were driving around, Radar said something like, “I’m a little crazy” and Tim shot back, “I was already thinking that. And I just met you!” In other words, he fit right in, and the guys appreciated that.

We were hungry by then, and after lunch we were all heading up to Cleveland in Radar’s truck, so there was little discussion as to where we were going. Primanti Brothers sandwich shops are a “must do” deal in Pittsburgh, and even though they are quite spread out now into other areas, we needed to go to the original place. After a couple of wrong turns we found it, and felt lucky to get a table.

So this is how it goes…

After sitting down and staring at the gigantic menu on the wall, we kind of made up our minds what we wanted. Keep in mind, Primanti sandwiches are huge, and the french fries are on the inside of the sandwich, which is delivered on nothing more than wax paper. When the old-school Italian waiter approached the table, he said, “Okay, you been here before? You know how this deal works?”

We nodded that we did. And then Radar began his order and got one detail wrong. He was quickly and hilariously cut off by the waiter who said, “No, I can see you don’t know how this deal works, so I’m going to tell you..” and then he rattled off the various options and how to order them. It was awesome, and we were stuffed.

We were truly having a wonderful time, but we needed to get up to Cleveland so we had to say goodbye to Tim and then pile into Radar’s truck, which we’d left behind at the Bicycle House. After a frustrating few minutes of driving in circles trying to figure out how to get through and back out of downtown on its spaghetti bowl of twisting highways, we were finally on our way, to our second Airbnb experience.

We’d all looked at the listings back when Oscar had booked the places, and the Bicycle House made us realize two things: The listings focus on the house itself, if the neighborhood isn’t spectacular. And, you never know what you’re going to find, but reading the reviews is your way of establishing some confidence. In the end, despite the immediate neighborhood, the Bicycle House had been fantastic, and we left some great comments in the guest book.

Another great place!

Upon our arrival in Cleveland, we saw we were going to experience something very different. The residential neighborhood (just a couple of miles from downtown) had obviously seen its better days at least once. But…  It was going through a very large and very rapid gentrification. As we drove down the road, it seemed like every other house had scaffolding around it. A big transition was in the works, and our place had already been a part of that transition (despite the fact it didn’t have a nickname, like our Pittsburgh place). It was another townhouse, and Oscar felt like it had to date back to 1900 by looking at some of the features and designs, but it was fantastic inside.

We claimed rooms, got unpacked, and decided to head out on the sidewalks to explore the neighborhood. We came upon one woman walking her dog and another sitting on her porch, and they were both kind and friendly enough to chat with us and tell us about the area. That would be a good sign!

(And boy, after a couple of short blogs recently this one is back to being huge. But hey, there’s a LOT to write about!)

Within about six blocks there was a large area of restaurants and bars, with other retail stores, along a major street. And as we walked there we knew our initial thought of it being a neighborhood in transition was confirmed. Clearly, people were buying up these old homes and fixing them up. We felt lucky to stay in one!

We had a nice living room, a dining room, another great kitchen (and Oscar outdid himself again in terms of our Monday breakfast) and our rooms were just fine. The beds were terrific. It was the kind of renovation that gave us first-class amenities while retaining much of the old-world charm. They’d stripped and resurfaced the original hardwood floors, but the stairs still creaked and the walls had so many stories to tell I only wished we could hear them. Both homes were like that. If they could only talk, we’d hear about World Wars, depression, industry, highs and lows, and now their current situations. How many families? How many tales? I can’t imagine.

Binge watching “Cheers” in our comfy Cleveland townhouse.

We had a TV as well,  but this one didn’t have cable. It only had a few streaming services and fortunately Netflix was one of them. After we got back from our first walk, we binge-watched the entire first season of “Cheers” before dinner at a fantastic place we found back up on that major avenue. All four of us gave it a 5-star rating.

On Monday, Lance got up early and walked five miles, returning home to say he’d actually made it all the way to Progressive Field, where we’d be going that night for the Indians – Cardinals game. We opted to use Uber for that, though. It was hot and sticky enough in Cleveland, and we were going to have to deal with that at the game, so no need getting soaked with sweat on the way to the park.

Our next order of business was another one of those things we loosely decided we’d have to do in Cleveland, although we played it by ear as to exactly when that time would come.

If we were going to spend a couple of days in Cleveland, we had to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Period. No questions asked.

So, later that afternoon our Uber driver picked us up and off we went. As it turned out, we were a little dissimilar when it came to touring this museum. Oscar and I discovered we worked at the same pace, stopping to admire and stare at the stuff that really resonated with us, while only giving cursory looks at the stuff that didn’t. Lance and Radar seemed intent upon reading every description and watching every video.

That was okay, though. We all went through it at our pace. I had a number of spine-tingling moments as Oscar and I toured the displays. It’s a great Hall of Fame but it’s more a world-class museum and that’s what makes it incredible. Great displays about The Who, The Beach Boys, David Bowie, Prince, the Beatles, the Stones, and many others were worth a long look for me. I had to soak it all in.

Mike Rutherford’s double-neck. Goosebumps for this fan.

And then I came upon this remarkable instrument. I knew (or at least thought I knew) what it was when I turned the corner and faced it. It’s pretty unique, and it was used to make music that meant an enormous amount to me.

It was, indeed, Mike Rutherford’s double-neck Rickenbacker from the early days of the band Genesis. Early enough that Peter Gabriel was still the singer and that cat named Phil Collins was just the long-haired guy banging on the drums in the rear.

This monster is pretty unusual even in the small world of double-neck guitars. Most of them feature a 12-string and a 6-string joined together to allow the musician to switch sounds quickly. In the song “The Cinema Show” from the album “Selling England By The Pound” Rutherford played the 12-string parts and the bass parts. When it was time to play in concert, he discovered he didn’t have time to switch guitars, so Rickenbacker created this masterpiece, which was also very heavy. That he could switch so seamlessly from bass to 12-string, playing such incredibly technical and difficult parts, is a testament to Rutherford’s talent.

And why was this guitar my single biggest “stop in your tracks and stare” moment? It’s a long story I’ll try to shorten here.

I’ve always been a huge music fan, since even before I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was seven years old. It’s a bit odd, because I ended up having no talent at all for playing music, but from early childhood it meant everything to me. I went through all the phases of the 60s and early 70s, ranging from country rock to classic straight-ahead rock, but by high school I was showing signs of understanding and very much appreciating really complex and progressive stuff. I was dabbling with Emerson, Lake, & Palmer and other bands like Yes, Focus, the Moody Blues, and Jethro Tull, while not completely giving up on The Who and Black Sabbath.

Then, my sister Mary went to college in England, where she met Alan (her first husband) and they sent me a cassette of “Genesis Live” on which a band I’d never been introduced to was playing songs I’d never heard in a way I’d never experienced. It was nothing short of mind-blowing. Genesis stunned me, and showed me that music could have many layers and more depth than simply four chords and a drum fill. I couldn’t get enough. If a band can change your life, Genesis changed mine. My tastes and cravings for complex time signatures, world-class musicianship, and deep-thinking arrangements were set for life.

You all know me as a huge Rush fan. I am and always will be. But, without the Genesis experience (especially the very early stuff) I can’t say my interest in Rush would have been as big as it was and continues to be.

“The Cinema Show” is one of my favorite songs of all time. I still listen to it often today, even when walking at the gym, and I’ve never grown tired of a single note. To stand there and look at the double-neck guitar that made it possible to play on stage took my breath away. End of story.

Four former SIUE Cougars having a great time at a ballgame. Imagine that!

We took another Uber back to the house and got ready for the game, after first stopping at the Hall of Fame gift shop of course. Back to Progressive Field around 6:30, and into our seats with time to spare. I had hoped for a great showing by the Twins, but that didn’t happen. We had collectively hoped for a lot of fun, and that did happen although it was incredibly hot and humid that night, and the flags weren’t moving at all. I was, officially, sticky with sweat. But we had a great time with very good seats, and we checked off yet another fine ballpark from the list.

We’d had a great time, and after binge watching a bunch of episodes of the bizarre and outright hilarious Canadian show “Trailer Park Boys” we laughed until our sides hurt and went to bed. In the morning, Radar and Oscar would leave fairly early while Lance and I would stick around until the 11:00 check-out time.

We had a bit of a tricky travel day, but it all worked out. We took an Uber to the Cleveland airport, where I’d rented a car for us. Then we drove the 2.5 hours down to the Pittsburgh airport for flights that left about two hours later. My flight was an hour delayed, but I killed the time by strolling around the airport remembering what fun we’d had. It’s an amazing thing that we not only get to do this, but that we make it happen and we make the most of it.

We’re old guys now, but we’re obviously not afraid to try new things and get out of our comfort zones. We push each other and have some incredible and thoughtful conversations, but we can still sit around and crack each other up with the same sophomoric stuff we said in college. We don’t get together to party and go crazy like we did when we were younger, but we’ll share some beer and wine over a good meal. We’re totally comfortable touring the Warhol museum, but equally as comfortable laying around the living room laughing at a TV show. We can talk each others’ ears off, but never feel an absolute need to be having a conversation. We can mostly read each others’ minds. And within minutes of meeting up, we’re as “at home” as four guys can be.

I love these guys. We’ve shared so many great things and nearly as many hardships. We’ve won games together, gotten through college together, earned our degrees together, and have gone on to very different but very successful lives. And I think we’re all at the very best points in those lives.

As for next year, the consensus was to try something different. We plan to head to Florida in March for Spring Training, seeing four or five different ballparks in five or six days. But that’s way off. There’s no need to start planning that now. It will all work out. Just go with the flow. And, continue to make this happen. It’s important. It’s not a promise, it’s a commitment.

Thanks for reading all this. As always, if you liked it please click on the “Like” button at the top. That would mean a lot to me, as well as Lance, Oscar, and Radar.

See you next week before I head to Brainerd to dive back into the racing world. More stories are out there to be told.

Bob Wilber, at your service and loving life.

 

 

 

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