Catch on the lakeshore, with the smokestacks of U.S. Steel in faint view.
On a baseball journey, what you do between games is just as vital as attending the contests themselves. Spend all your free time sucking up A.C. in Cracker Barrels and Marriotts, and you're missing golden opportunities for exploration. With all day to kill before rolling into Gary, we hit a hidden gem east of the Steel City, the Indiana Dunes State Park on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan. No one wants to read about someone else's day at the beach, so I've used this spot to offer up a couple of fresh, baseball literary recommendations, straight from our sandy backpack with five-star reviews:
1. Sayonara Home Run! by John Gall and Gary Engel Sayonara is a hand-held museum of the art of Japanese baseball cards. It's one of the most uniquely beautiful baseball books I've ever seen -- and definitely the coolest conversation piece in my apartment right now. The design work, dating from 1900 to the '60s, is stunning.
2. Spalding's World Tour, by Mark Lamster Whatever your baseball vacation may be, it won't stack up with Albert Spalding's winter of 1888-89, when he took two teams -- his own Chicago White Stockings and a squad of All-Americans -- on a trip around the globe to promote the sport. Through painstaking research, Lamster pieces it together in vivid detail. -- Luke Winn
Day 5: Gary, Ind. A Baseball Oasis
Hit the Gary Bennigan's in right field and win ... nothing, officially.
On Day 5 we swung to Gary, one of the most curious -- and to some, feared -- places in the U.S. The construction of the largest integrated steel works on Lake Michigan's south shore in 1906 eventually turned the town into a booming industrial hub, but modern-day Gary has fallen on hard times: The majority of its former downtown is boarded up, like a vacated hurricane zone that's been waiting decades for the storm. And yet, rising up against the odds was U.S. Steel Yard, built in 2002 to house the (independent) Northern League's Gary SouthShore RailCats, who were hosting the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks when we arrived.
From the top: Gary's interstate-side sign; the welcoming front gate at U.S. Steel Yard; a view of the scoreboard; fans readying for a tennis ball-tossing promotion.
Dan had it in his head that we needed a pre-game cocktail. It was Gary, after all -- the place where the Jackson Family was reared -- and the soul on the radio made Dan intent on locating a lounge with the appropriate vibe. I was, admittedly, a little skeptical; navigating the streets surrounding U.S. Steel Yard, all we saw were decaying buildings and unkept parks. No lounges. No open businesses, for that matter.
That left us with one option: the ballpark Bennigan's. The RailCats had, smartly, offered up a solution by opening an establishment attached to the field. We dropped $10 to park in the adjoining lot -- mostly for the peace of mind that someone was watching our car -- and were surprisingly handed a coupon for $10 off of our Bennies bill, a fine trade.
Seated at the center of the bar was a man whose getup included a Panama hat, a large hoop earring, suspenders and a trench coat; he spoke in the raspiest voice we'd ever heard -- presumably from years of smoking the Kite Mentholated rolling tobacco he was holding in a green pouch. We introduced ourselves. "Name's Garry ... two Rs," he said. The town was named after the former chairman of U.S. Steel, Elbert H. Gary, but at present, Garry was a more appropriate eponym: An African-American local, down on his luck, his beer empty and unlikely to be refilled. We didn't get a chance to buy him a round; he disappeared outside, and we had to get into the stadium and find our seats.
Not every stop on your ball-tour has to be a vacation destination. We took a chance on Gary mostly out of curiosity -- to see what, exactly, a town with next to nothing was doing with a nearly new ballpark just off of I-90/94. U.S. Steel Yard wasn't the most memorable field we saw (that would be Wrigley) nor was it the biggest party (Madison) but, in a monumental upset, it was my favorite stop.
For our willingness to venture to a place that's considered one of America's most dangerous cities (the No. 1 homicide rate per 100,000 residents in the U.S.) we stumbled on a veritable baseball oasis. After two days among major league crowds of nearly 40,000, Gary was a welcome changeup: a comfortable, half-full stadium where we had $8 front-row seats behind home plate, watched night fall over the highway skyline, and just, for once, completely relaxed.
We were in prime stadium real estate -- on our left were the second fans to sign on, in 2002, for RailCats season tickets, Lenn and Cheryl Gapinski of nearby Portage. Lenn, a 51-year-old engineer who grew up in Gary and has worked for steel companies most of his life, filled us in on a history of the park, which served as a microcosm for race relations in the town. He's Caucasian; Gary's 84 percent black, with its overall population decimated by white flight since the late '60s. "Five years ago, you wouldn't see a white face in Gary after the sun went down," he said. When the P.A. played the Chicken Dance between innings late in the game, a majority of the fans -- 80 percent white, 20 percent black -- stood and flapped their arms together. "Now, look at this crowd," Lenn said. "People are learning to not be afraid of Gary anymore."
On our way out, back toward the parking lot, double-R Garry was leaning against the brick wall, puffing on a hand-rolled smoke in the dark. He'd been waiting for us. His hat was tipped down, his sunglasses still on at 9:30 p.m. "Hey Dan, hey Luke," he said. "How 'bout you buy me a beer." We obliged. The city had treated us well, and its (near) namesake needed a refill. Back into the Bennigan's for a pitcher, three glasses, and a nightcap.
Road Trip All-Star No. 5: Vinny Paloma, Fanatic
Four frames of Gary's disco-dancing superfan.
Postgame with our All-Star.
We knew 46-year-old Vinny Paloma was the RailCats' superfan because, well, it was pretty obvious: "SUPERFAN" was stitched on the back of his Gary jersey. While plenty of such minor-league fanatics have a repertoire consisting of a loud mouth, season tickets and no shame, Paloma actually has serious skills. Paloma's uncle used to own a disco in nearby Hammond, Ind., where little Vinny learned to dance like a pro (or at least a pretty impressive white guy). He breaks off those killer moves during the musical interludes at U.S. Steel Yard, where he's an icon. His authentic team duds are covered with player autographs, and, if you look at the left breast in the photo, a paragraph-long message written by his wife. A lot of guys would probably get pissed off if their wife did that. Not Paloma. He's too busy dancin' like he just don't care. - Luke Winn