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Today’s List: My 10 Favorite Road Trips

May 17th, 2019 · No Comments · Angels, Baseball, Beijing Olympics, Budapest, College football, Drugs, Football, Italy, Landon Donovan, Lists, London 2012, Los Angeles Rams, Olympics, Rams, Road trip, Rome, soccer, Travel, UAE, USC

Been donkey’s years, as the Brits would say, since I did a list.

It’s time.

This one is going to be a little apples-and-oranges.

My favorite road trips as a professional sports journalist.

Some considerations:

–What is more important? The travel? Or the event I was there to cover?

–Or will we almost certainly get some from each category? Heck, I don’t know. I’m just banging away at the MacBook Air and in the next hour or two I will figure it out.

The usual shtick. A top-10, counting down from 10th-best road trip to 1st. This is during my 40 years in the sports journalism business. I’m looking forward to sorting this out, because I loved being on the road, and I got a lot of chances to be out there, and I will be tinkering with the ratings after I am (in theory) finished.

Here we go!

10. To Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Summer Olympics. Long trip. L-o-n-g trip that included a stop in Auckland, New Zealand. This probably is mostly an instance of being somewhere far away and exotic (odd plants; odd birds, odd architecture) because I cannot tell you much of anything about the sports competition, and I was watching it for 17 days. The games were well-organized, absolutely, and the Aussies were wonderful hosts, but what I remember is an Australian Aboriginal guy playing the didgeridoo at Opening Ceremonies and Tommy Lasorda’s U.S. team shocking Cuba in the gold-medal baseball game.

9. The 1987 World Championships in Athletics — or “track and field”, as it generally would be known in the United States. This was in Italy, which I had never visited, and it was in Rome, at the Olympic Stadium there. I got the assignment (like several others on this list) from Jerry Langdon of Gannett News Service; he was my ultimate benefactor for more than two decades. I was up for it because I have always been fascinated by track and field. Dual meets are my favorite variety of the sport, but covering the best of the world … that ranks high, too. Unfortunately, for track and field, the best-remembered news story to come out of the 10-day meet was a bogus “world record” set by Ben Johnson of Canada in the 100-meter run. I was sitting next to a reporter from San Francisco, known to be a huge track fan, and when Johnson crossed the finish line in 9.83 seconds, my colleague nearly lost it. He had jumped to his feet as the race began and was shouting as Johnson pulled away from Carl Lewis of the U.S., and then he saw the time: 9.83 seconds and then looked for the wind velocity, which was in the acceptable zone. “A record! … and it’s legal!” Well, actually, it wasn’t, and Johnson a year later confessed to using steroids for most of his career, and his “world record” was expunged. But in the moment, it was a big deal. After the fact, it was determined Lewis’s 9.93 that day had been the real world record. Meantime, the women’s events were dominated by the Soviets and East Germans, who were shameless/criminal about giving their women performance-enhancing drugs. (It’s a bit depressing to recall this; medals were going to the teams with the best cheaters.) Meanwhile, covering the track and field took about half the day, and the other half we used to see some of the major sights of Rome, from the Colosseum to the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. A fine trip.

8. To San Francisco for Games 3-4-5 of the 2002 World Series, the California/Los Angeles/Anaheim Angels versus the San Francisco Giants. I had been to San Francisco many times, but not for something as big as this, the Angels’ first World Series. I was in the auxiliary press box, out in the left-field stands, and I was frozen. I knew it would be cold, but not like this. There was something of a holy war aspect to the series, because the earnest Angels of David Eckstein were playing the Giants and their rules-bending, juiced-up leader Barry Bonds, and the insufferable Jeff Kent. The Angels escaped with one victory up there (Game 3) to go back to Anaheim down 3-2. In Game 6, the Giants led 5-0 in the seventh … and you know the rest. The big rally, the Angels snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The romp in Game 7. Gene Autry’s team winning it all, four years after The Cowboy had left this mortal coil. But somehow he knew, right? The Rally Monkey. The Thundersticks. This one is all about the games, though, and a great series, good versus bad, with good winning. The only World Series I covered for all seven games.

7.¬†Beijing. For the 2008 Summer Games. (Olympics are hard to beat, especially when they happen somewhere you have never been. Like China.) The unveiling of Usain Bolt. The 2,008 drummers in Opening Ceremonies at the Bird’s Nest. (It was stuffy in there, and I had just crossed the Pacific; I fell asleep at my seat on press row. Just for a few minutes.) The Ice Cube. The Forbidden City. Hmm. We’re talking about the place again, not the competition. Michael Phelps won eight golds in swimming, most gold at one Olympics. Other than that, not a great Games for the Yanks (who, Phelps aside, won only 28 golds), but a great one for China: Won more gold than anyone and showed their stuff in the building and staging of the Games. Planned to do the Great Wall … but one of us got sick (that air is hard to breathe) and we didn’t go. Had Peking duck, instead.

6. Flying from Dubai to Tashkent, Uzbekistan for the UAE Under 23 soccer showdown with the Uzbeks, with the winner going to London to represent Asia at the 2012 Olympics, something neither team had managed. It was mind-bending. Starting with the Uzbekistan Airlines experience, with Uzbeks going home with all sorts of electronics jammed in overhead lockers and my seat shedding parts. I feared more for that plane than any I have been on. It got weirder on the ground, from taxi drivers immediately offering to change money and showing off bricks of $100 bills in the trunk, to buying a coat from a crook (I’d left my coat back in Abu Dhabi, and it was still cold there, in Uzbekistan, and the guy overcharged me; he didn’t accept credit cards and he watched me count out my cash, in various currencies, and my total was, believe it or not, exactly what he was charging). I got there on Monday, the match was Wednesday, I left Friday, and something weird and strange and exotic happened all the time. Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, back when, and it is cold and grimy and you get paranoid there almost immediately. Oh, and we had miraculous result: The UAE fell behind 2-0 in the cold and drizzle, rallied to 2-2, then scored in the final minutes to win and book a trip to London. Note to self: No more trips to a “stan”. Even if someone else is paying.

5. OK, here’s one where the atmosphere and the trip were memorable, but so was the result. U.S. national team at Trinidad & Tobago to determine which of the two would go to the Italy 1990 World Cup. Left from Miami, flew a bunch, landed in Barbados, got more fuel, continued to Port of Spain where seemingly half of all Trinidadians were waiting at the airport to shine bright lights on the Yanks and (try to) intimidate them with chants of “search and destroy!” — which was the unofficial supporters’ rhyme in Trinidad that year. This was November, 1989. Breakfast a couple of days later on the sprawling lawn of the U.S. Embassy, where we could see 35,000 people wearing red jammed into a battered old stadium, down by the port, already amped-up for the match. We got there a couple of hours later, behind a police escort, and had to push our way through hundreds of people to get to the press box. It was madness in there. The atmosphere was electric. T&T knew, just knew it was headed for Italy; all that was needed was a draw. But then Paul Caligiuri struck a goal from distance at about the 30-minute mark, and the crowd went silent, and T&T fell to pieces and the U.S. won 1-0 and secured a place in Italy, instead. The handful of U.S. reporters at the match (seven, I’m thinking) got soaked with champagne in the hut that was the Yanks’ lockerroom. If the U.S. doesn’t go to the 1990 World Cup, it probably doesn’t get to host in 1994, so this was a result that changed soccer history. And yeah, T&T was strange and Third World-y and I stayed in a hotel built into a hill and called the Upside-down Hilton.

4. To Havana, for the 1991 Pan-American Games. Unreal, in a lot of ways. Castro’s Cuba. Before it was possible for most Americans to get there. Two weeks of the U.S. team’s junior varsity and Cuba’s stars. Opening ceremonies, sitting in a slapped-together main stadium, with El Presidente rambling on while we could smell the wetness of concrete not having yet set in a tropical environment. The 1950s American cars on the streets. Friendly people, aside from the guys who followed around reporters. Cops. Hoods. But they were obvious. The 5 p.m. downpour every day. Eating dinner at the media hotel and noticing every Cuban in the room watching me; some of them were hungry all the time, about then. On the day I left, to take the charter back to Miami, a report came through that the Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev had “fallen ill” and was not in control of the government and the Cubans were giddy. The Russian who had left them on their own was out! Great news! Largesse from the Soviets coming back soon. But no. The Cubans pulled off the Pan-Ams, but it was clear they had no money and not much food. It was sad. Went home with a box of Cuban cigars I never smoked.

3. Another U.S. soccer trip — this one to eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before all the communists were chucked out of the newly free countries. Like, say, Hungary and East Germany. This in early spring, 1990. Went to Budapest first; no memory how I got there. Loved it. Bought a ticket for Les Miserables, performed in Hungarian down the street, fell asleep in my hotel room and missed it. Still ticked off. U.S. lost to Hungary 2-0. After the match, in the train station, staring at signs in Hungarian, and another journalist, from Yugoslovia, decided to tell me how Hungarian is too weird a language to exist, and why did they persist in using it? (Well, at least its alphabet isn’t Cyrillic!) Bought a cool poster that showed someone pushing a broom and picking up the pieces of the fallen puppet states (a Marx statue, Stalin photo, a Soviet flag) and then accidentally left the poster on the plane from Hungary to East Berlin. (Still annoyed. It was really cool.) East Berlin still had a menacing, claustrophobic feel to it and the sense of paranoia was almost palpable. I had several days there, so I was writing … something. Went to Checkpoint Charlie, which was always a tense place, but in this case I recall walking to the western side, then turning around and coming back. The match at least was competitive, the Yanks losing 3-2 to the East Germans before a handful of people. I found the press credential for that match, a mere scrap of paper, but it’s here with me in France. Then I somehow got to an airport where I could catch a plane to New York, then to LAX. Eric Wynalda was on the flight. So was Caligiuri. SoCal guys.

2. LAX to Birmingham, Alabama, to Tuscaloosa and a shared interview with the legendary Tide coach Bear Bryant in his enormous office. This was ahead of Alabama’s game with USC on a Saturday night, back in Birmingham, where a Trojans team of Marcus Allen, Charles White, Ron Lott, Anthony Munoz and Paul McDonald, et al, defeated the top-ranked Tide 24-14. Maybe the finest moment of USC’s finest team — all 22 starters played in the NFL.

Wait, there’s more. After that game, I went to the Birmingham airport and sat in an empty terminal till the early-morning Sunday workers showed up, and I took a plane to Atlanta, changed planes and flew back over Alabama, to Houston (I arranged all these itineraries myself, btw), where the Rams were playing the Oilers and somehow won, 10-6, despite rookie running back Earl Campbell freaking out the veteran Rams defense by running over the likes of Hacksaw Reynolds. Did the usual “column and game story.” Had to be running on adrenaline, at that point, but everything worked out. I interviewed Bear Bryant and saw two memorable games.

1. Driving 1,800 miles across Mexico, in five days, from Tijuana to the Distrito Federal, to see the U.S. national soccer team play El Tri in a 2006 World Cup qualifier. I had former co-worker Damian Secore riding shotgun and handling most of the Spanish. The trip was a little bit crazy, given that we were driving through territory that these days belongs pretty much to narco cartels. We even stayed in Culiacan, a hotspot among hotspots when it comes to gang violence. Yet, we got to Mexico City with very little trouble, nothing much worse than traffic jams in TJ and the D.F., and hours on one-lane roads stuck behind a truckload of pigs. Stumbled into a colorful fiesta in San Blas. Food was great. We also saw Fernando Valenzuela’s hometown, Navojoa, up in the Sonora desert. And when we got to the U.S. team hotel in Mexico City, the day before the game, Landon Donovan saw us and said: “You look destroyed!” (Thanks for noticing!) One damper: Mexico won the match, 2-1. But we had seen big chunks of Mexico from the ground level, which rarely happens anymore, and every serious soccer fan needs to see a USA-Mexico game in Azteca.

 

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