A Wonderful Whirlwind Week

Mar 24, 2016   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

Well that was a week to remember. It was a crazy whirlwind of airplanes, rental cars, hotel rooms, turnpikes, toll roads, insane traffic, and it was nonstop, but it was also invigorating and heartwarming to be around so many good friends and family members. I’m back in Spokane now, on Thursday Blog Day, and it feels like I’ve been gone a month. When I got home very late last night, I think Buster was telling me he thought I’d been gone a month, as well.

Adding in the overnight layovers in the Twin Cities makes the trip, effectively, two days longer but it’s a much better way to go. If I had tried to get from Spokane to Tampa in one day, we’d be talking about a 6:00 a.m. departure out of here and I’d be lucky to be in Tampa by 8:00 p.m. It’s no fun.

So, on Thursday I flew to MSP and spent the night in Woodbury. Sometimes it’s the little things that make you feel really “at home” and just flipping on the TV and seeing familiar faces on the news, or familiar uniforms on the ice or court, is a sort of soothing balm for a guy like me. We’ve made the most of our time out here in the Inland Northwest, and we’ve seen parts of the country we’d never ventured to before, but we love Minnesota and there’s a big piece of us missing when we’re not there. It’s always good to be back.

I had a midday flight the next day, from MSP down to Tampa, and I got the added bonus of having a fully refurbished 757 as the aircraft, with all the in-seat entertainment goodies. Unfortunately, it was cloudy almost all the way there so I didn’t get to enjoy spotting familiar towns and rivers as we cruised at 33,000 feet. Whenever I’m flying over the midwest, I always sit in a window seat because I really enjoy seeing towns I’ve been to or even places I’ve lived. Mentally, I’m a pretty “map oriented” guy and it’s easier for me to see the big overhead picture than it sometimes is when I’m down there on the ground, like a rat in a maze. With the entertainment system, at least I could mess around with that and pass the nearly three hours, until we made our descent into Tampa Bay.

There’s something wonderful about that first step off the plane when you’ve just dealt with a long cold winter and the plane you’re stepping off of is in Florida. The warmth, the humidity, even the smell of the Gulf of Mexico can find their way into that jet bridge and your entire perspective immediately changes. We spent so many family vacations going to spring training with my dad, and the weather is a direct link to those younger and simpler years. To simply take that first step and realize it’s spring and this is Florida, puts me in a time warp. I tried to soak it in a little more, to make the most out of this trip.

I still had to make my way up to Ocala, however, so as rapidly as I could I got my bag, picked out a car, and hit the road. Every time I make that drive (and I’ve done it a number of times when attending the Gatornationals) I quickly realize I’ve forgotten two things. 1) Ocala is farther away than I remembered. 2) Drivers on the major highways in Florida are, well, basically, kinda…  How do I say this politely? They’re insane. As I told a number of people while I was there, I think Florida could save a lot of money by simply removing the speed-limit signs from all the highways. They’re certainly not obeyed, and they’re really not even treated as anything approaching a suggestion or a guideline. And then you mix in the snowbirds who are doing 10 mph BELOW the posted limit, and you have a spread of about 40 mph between the fastest and slowest cars. Hence, there are wrecks all over the place, and those wrecks back up the traffic, which then begets more wrecks. It’s bumper cars. I felt very relieved when I turned my car back in on Monday night without so much as a ding in it.

And that raises another point. I’ve always been a good driver, and I’m normally pretty alert and aware of what other drivers are doing around me, but my awareness hit a new level after the broadside smash I received last fall in Indy, and it’s still at that hyper-alert level. Once someone you never saw coming plows into the side of your car and totals it, you tend to watch a little more closely, and keep a sharper eye out for numbskulls doing stupid thing. In a place like Florida, on those highways, that’s a lot of people to look out for.

I did get to Ocala, got checked into the Hilton, and relaxed with thoughts of the Gatornationals spinning in my head. It was a really weird and surreal thing. For the first time in 20 years, I’d be arriving in Gainesville with no work to do, no team to represent, and no real plan for my day, so I was excited, but a bit anxious as well. I’m a creature of habits and routines, especially when it comes to the races, so not having any habits or routines in place for this sort of thing was slightly off-putting. And then there’s the whole nonsensical worry that you won’t fit in or you’ll feel like an outsider. As I sat there in my room in Friday night, I was consciously aware that such a worry was just plain dumb, but I still couldn’t quite get it out of my mind. After all, to me it seemed like my last official race was eons ago (it was, indeed, if by eons you mean roughly four months) but in terms of the new season, Gainesville is only the third race. To all of my colleagues, it hadn’t really been “that long” since I last pestered them.

It got weirder in the morning, driving up to Gainesville on a Saturday, and not at the crack of dawn but at whatever time I chose. And, it was raining a little bit so that made the whole thing a little more casual. I was in a real hurry to get there, but I was in no hurry to get there. Does that make any sense?

As I approached Gainesville I was still considering which route I’d take to get to the track, and then I saw the traffic on I-75 backed up on the shoulder for a half-mile at the exit most people take to get to there. It is indeed the shortest and most direct route for anyone coming up from the south, but it’s full of frustrating backups and stoplights, so I put that precious local knowledge to work and picked my way through a longer but quicker course. When you’ve been going to a race for 20 years, and have stayed in hotels all over town, you establish quite a good database of alternate routes. I didn’t see any traffic until I made the final turn for the track.

Then I had to do something I haven’t had to do for two decades. I had to stop at the NHRA VIP Credentials trailer to get my ticket and parking pass. The Media Relations department had me all set up, and I hit it just right with no other interlopers in line. Badda boom, badda bing. All that was left to do was get parked and head in.

Since the Media Parking lot is right behind the tower, I headed up to the third floor Media Center immediately. Not all of my former colleagues were there at that precise moment, but we started out the day right with a lot of hugs and hearty handshakes. It felt like I’d never left, but it also felt very liberating to know that my visit was strictly informal. I was just there to have fun.

It was GREAT to be back!

It was GREAT to be back!

I put my stuff neatly away in a corner and made the plunge to head out into the pits. Walking up the staging lanes, the most amazing “how could that possibly really happen?” moment did, indeed, occur. With a bit of mist falling, there were no cars or people in the lanes except for me and a guy riding a wheelie on his powder-blue BMX bike, all the way down the lane right at me. Two decades ago, as I started this career in drag racing, my boss was doing the same thing. And in Gainesville, in 2016, he rode right up to me and said “Bob, what are you doin’ man?”  Really, could it be any more “full circle” than to run into Del Worsham on his bike, riding a wheelie, before I saw any other racers. I think that was meant to be.

I wasn’t sure where the Team Wilk pit area was, so I just headed into the middle area to find it. As I was walking down the center of the pits, I heard and sensed the approach of a scooter coming up behind me, and as it passed I felt the pop of an open hand smacking me on the butt. And then Ron Capps kept on riding without so much as a look back. Sometimes life can be pretty perfect. I was definitely home again.

When I got to the pit, I spotted Shelley Williams from LRS first, at the front door to the hospitality center, and we shared a huge hug. Then I walked around to get into the working pit side and as I made the turn to do so Krista Wilkerson and I almost plowed right into each other. I’m not sure how I can even describe how great it was to see her and to receive one of the strongest and longest hugs I’ve ever gotten. Over these years, Krista and I have become really close friends, and we still talk almost every week on the phone. I don’t have to guess and nor do I have to exaggerate to say that she’s one of my best and closest friends on the entire tour. It could not have felt better.

The next hour was spent reconnecting, shaking hands, hanging with Tim in the lounge for a bit, and just kind of getting my feet back on the ground. It was surreal for a while, then just odd, then it felt pretty normal, especially since we were in a rain delay and everyone had time to just relax and catch up. For once, a light rain actually worked in my favor.

Within an hour, it was as if I’d never left. To make it better, once I went back up to the tower everyone was there, and I had plenty of time to bring everyone up to speed on what I was doing and how it was going. I could tell they were all really happy to hear that the book is going so well. That meant a lot to me.

Kelly Topolinski was also there, and since the media member whose name tag was on the desk right next to her was not in attendance on Saturday, I got to sit there for most of the day. We motivate each other, and always share our latest ideas, concepts, and accomplishments. And our frustrations too, but both of us are pretty good at keeping those to a minimum. Life’s too short for negativity.

Dick Levi arrived midday, and it was really a highlight for me to spend a few minutes with him. Of all the people in this sport who care so much about it, and who invest so heavily in it, there is no better person than Dick Levi. There are some others with hearts equally made of gold and all the right intentions (Terry Chandler instantly comes to mind) but Dick is right there with the best. I made sure I took the time to seek him out later before I left, and I hope to see him and the rest of the LRS gang in Joliet and St. Louis.

I walked miles, I shook a thousand hands, I met up with longtime blog readers and fans, and I cruised the pits with a big old goofy grin on my face. It couldn’t have been more fun.

Once the final session was getting ready to happen, I said my goodbyes in the pits and headed back to the tower one more time. When I let everyone know that I was getting ready to go, Sadie Floyd jumped up from her chair in the second row while she said “I’m starting the hug train. Here we come…”  More hugs all around.

These people in the PR room are really some of the best and most dedicated individuals I’ve ever had the privilege to know. And even though I’m technically an outsider now, there’s not a single “work room” in the world where I could be surrounded by 25 or 30 folks who feel more like family to me.  Yes, even that Elon Werner dude. My brother from another mother.

It was a day that was good for the soul. Very good.

I headed back to Ocala for the night, and then in the morning it was off to Orlando to see Barb’s sister Kitty, her son Todd, and his wife Angie. Todd and Angie are expecting twins soon, so it was great timing on my part to be able to get there and see them. They live right in the city and frankly I have to tell you that I had no idea the city of Orlando was so cosmopolitan and hip. I thought it was just a big antiseptic urban jungle in the shadow of Disney World, but it’s actually a vibrant place with many blocks of bistros and coffee shops. We had lunch at one such place, and then it was time for me to make the next big drive, down to Punta Gorda near Fort Myers, amid many more knucklehead drivers attempting to demolish every car on the interstate. Great to see Kitty, Todd, and Angie, though, and I’m really happy I had the chance to do that.

One other comment about Orlando. In the city, it’s pretty easy to see that the citizenry is nuts about their new Major League Soccer franchise, Orlando City SC. Banners, bumperstickers, window decals, jerseys, and all sort of Orlando City merchandise wherever you look. For an old ex-soccer guy like me, that makes the hair on my arms stand up a little. Goosebumps.

On my way down to Punta Gorda I did make one detour on the way. I was on I-4 headed toward Tampa and I needed gas for the rental, so I chose to do that in Lakeland, and for good reason. 37 years ago, at just around this time of year, I arrived in Lakeland to participate in spring training with the Detroit Tigers organization, at the venerable Tiger Town complex. All my life I’d been going to spring training, watching it all happen, but on that day when I pulled my little red Ford Fiesta into Tiger Town, loaded down with all of my clothes, gear, and bats, I was there for real. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, so I wanted to do a quick fly-bay of Joker Marchant Stadium and the Tiger Town area just to see it all. It was a bit after 4:00 when I got there and I figured if the big league Tigers had a game that day, hopefully it would be over so I could look around. Instead, it was just about to end and the State Troopers were out in force with lights on, getting ready to manage the outgoing traffic flow. Such a thing pretty much precluded me from being able to see where I’d played, but I decided then to see if I could find my way directly to the apartment I’d shared that year with Roy Dixon and Dan O’Connor, two other members of the Lakeland Tigers in the Class-A Florida State League.

Upstairs on the left. The window on the far left was my bedroom.

Upstairs on the left. The window on the far left was my bedroom.

I went right to it like I’d done it yesterday. And the place looked nice! I’d been by there 10 or so years ago and it was really rundown, but this time it was all freshly painted and the cars parked there even looked nicer. Well played, landlord person.

I had decided to stop in Punta Gorda because there was a nice hotel there, not far off the interstate and right on the water. After another harrowing trip on Florida highways, it was good medicine to smell the salt water and feel the tropical breeze, but sadly some clouds rolled in just when I thought I was going to enjoy a brilliant Gulf Coast sunset. I left my sliding door open to allow the breeze into my room, and I smiled a lot thinking back on the fantastic couple of days I’d just enjoyed. Sublime would be a good word for it.

The next morning, I made the 30-minute drive down to Hammond Stadium and, as we would almost certainly do, John Fink and I arrived within mere seconds of each other, coming from different directions. John is one of those rare friends you can have where no matter how much time passes between your visits, it’s as if you were together the day before. I relish those kinds of friendships, and ours is a great one.

Two racing buddies enjoying a ballgame. Win Twins!

Two racing buddies enjoying a ballgame. Win Twins!

We at hot dogs, guzzled water, sat in our seats for a bit, and then walked all the way around the ballpark a couple of times, just soaking up spring training and the uniquely wonderful ambience it has. Before we even went into the park, I stopped outside of the stadium and just stared at if for a bit. I wanted to really take my time to appreciate it all and not just “go to a ball game” like I’ve been doing my whole life. There is nothing like spring training, and the Twins fans flock to Fort Myers in record numbers for every game. The family sitting next to us were from Oakdale, Minn. They lived roughly five minutes from our old house in Woodbury. Smallish world…

Over the last couple of years, the Twins and Lee County have embarked on a huge renovation of Hammond Stadium, and while it was always a good and serviceable spring home, it’s now a true gem. They’ve added a boardwalk that completely circles the outfield, widened all the concourses, put in new seats, and totally upgraded the concessions. During the game, any fan can do what John and I did and just casually walk all the way around in a big loop, catching the action from different perspectives.

Take me out to the ballgame...

Take me out to the ballgame…

I hated to see it end, but once the Twins and the Pirates started pulling out their starters around the fifth inning, John and I said our goodbyes and got back in our cars. I drove up to Tampa Airport, turned in my car (with nary a ding nor a dent to be seen) and checked into the Marriott inside the airport. In the morning, I flew back to MSP.

My original ticket had me arriving in the Twin Cities around 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, and then leaving again at 11:00 in the morning the next day, but that meant I’d really only be there long enough to sleep, so I changed the final segment to an 8:00 p.m. departure. Seemed like a really good idea, at the time.

And then the weather forecast changed. In the morning, when I would’ve been getting up and heading to MSP for my original flight, the weather was just fine. It wasn’t technically spiffy, but it was fine. By noon, it started snowing. And it kept snowing. A lot.

Once 3:00 rolled around, the roads were getting pretty treacherous, and even though my flight was still five hours away, I figured the best thing I could do was get back there to the airport before it got far too tricky to drive. I had full confidence in the snow crew at MSP (they can handle anything) but not as much confidence in my fellow drivers.

I got my first taste of how bad it was as I approached a stop sign on gentle downhill grade, and by just barely touching the brake pedal I activated the anti-lock system. With my foot down and the brakes chattering, I took a full accounting of my options as I continued to slide, and the best option seemed to be steering gently back and forth to find deeper snow and get off the compacted icy stuff I was on. That worked, and my car came to a gentle stop right at the sign. Just like I planned it! From then on, two hands on the wheel and no speed faster than what the car could handle. What’s normally a 20-minute drive to MSP became a 90-minute crawl, never going more than 30 mph, even on I-494 where fortunately the cars around me were being operated and controlled by Minnesotans, who have done this thing a time or two. Everyone went slow, and no one crashed into anything.

I got through TSA still having four hours to kill, or at least three and half before boarding, so I headed for the Sky Club. And got my first “ping” on my phone that the flight was delayed 50 minutes. And then another 20 minutes. The aircraft was at the gate, but the pilots for said aircraft were still in Grand Rapids, Mich. and they were snowed-in there. A long day was rapidly becoming a much longer one…

While in the club, I got online and saw the news that Joe Garagiola had died at the age of 90. Joe meant a lot to millions of people, and to many his voice is the one they associate with Saturday afternoon baseball, the only live game you could see all week. Joe was also a lifelong friend of the Wilber family. A dear and trusted friend.

My dad and Joe played on the Cardinals together in the mid-40s, and both were catchers. Joe had the good fortune to play for his home-town team, since he was born and raised on The Hill in south St. Louis, and he grew up there with another famous catcher, Yogi Berra. Later in life, Joe would laughingly say “I wasn’t the best catcher in the big leagues. Heck, I wasn’t the best catcher on my street!”

It really doesn’t matter what kind of catcher Joe Garagiola was. His stats mean nothing to me. It was his presence and his joyous outlook on life that will always define him. And the care he took with all around him, whether it be a teammate or the usher in the stands. He treated everyone like a VIP, and when my father needed assistance getting into a specific nursing home in Florida, before he passed away, it was Joe Garagiola who helped make it happen, with his Baseball Assistance Team (BAT) Foundation. A true friend.

Two good friends, now both gone.

Two good friends, now both gone.

While I was in the Sky Club, my nephew Ewan found this old photo and posted it on Facebook. Just two catchers, at spring training. Two good guys. Two real friends. Rest in peace, Joe. You lived one incredible life.

Finally, at around 8:00 I headed for the gate and the agents there were doing the best they could to make it bearable. They brought in snacks and drinks and kept everyone up to date on the details. Once we learned the pilots had taken off from Grand Rapids, there were cheers all-around. In all, with the delays and needing to get de-iced, we finally took off around 10:00 p.m.

I walked in the door here, in Liberty Lake, around midnight. It had been a long, fruitful, and wonderful week. It was simply capped off by some travel woes no one can avoid. When late-March storms hit the upper midwest, it truly is March Madness. And now it’s time to wrap this up.

From Liberty Lake, Wash. I bid you adieu once again. See you next week! And, as always, if you read this blog and you liked it, then please “Like” it before you leave!

Bob Wilber, at your service.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.