Monday, March 31, 2008

Tour 2008: Civil Rights Game

All photos of Memphis and the Civil Rights Game available on Flickr.

This past weekend, Erik and I met in Memphis to attend the much-anticipated Civil Rights Game. We spent three days and three nights drinking on Beale Street, touring museums, eating great food, and of course watching ball, and we had a great time. There were a surprisingly large number of people in town for the event, including fans from New York and Chicago, local reporters, and camera crews and news anchors.

There was so much to do that we decided to start the weekend a little early. I arrived via automobile from the North, about a 9.5 hr drive through scenic Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. By scenic, I mean not at all scenic. The interesting thing about the drive was that by the time I got to around Carbondale IL, all the farms on either side of the road were all covered in water. The same amount of snow we got in Wisconsin, the Mid-South got in rain, plus all the melted snow from the north came down the river to equal major flooding. The Mississippi River was unbelievably high and dangerously close to the power lines connecting Arkansas and Tennessee.

I arrived at what I expected to be a shady hotel around 5:30 - Econo Lodge, 10 miles east of down town, Waffle House across the street, misspelled words on the display board, broken sign. However, once inside, it actually proved to be pretty nice - it featured amenities such as a fridge, microwave, and front AND rear entry. I unpacked a little and went to pick up Erik at the airport. His flight got in around 7 and I killed time taking back some $8 beers at the not-so-Irish Pub inside the airport. After a happy greeting and making fun of E's new Pete Vuckovich moustache, we were off to Beale Street. Beale St is in the heart of downtown and is generally known as the "Home of the Blues," and we pretty much didnt leave the same 9-block area the entire weekend, nor did we want to, since most of the city looks pretty run-down. Most of the original Beale St was actually razed during the "Urban Renewal" program instituted in 1960s America in an effort to rid city centers of slums. Sadly, a lot of rich cultural neighborhoods and great buildings were lost during this time, but Beale St has since then rebuilt itself as the #1 tourist destination in all of Tennessee. Our first night on Beale we grabbed a quick bite and watched a band we had seen 8 months prior on the ball tour, Delta Highway, at the Juke Joint.

We got a relatively early start to our Friday in an effort to see the Civil Rights Game symposium at the National Civil Rights Museum at 10 AM, but when we arrived we found out it had been moved to 4. So, after taking some illegal photographs inside, we headed towards the Gibson guitar factory, but the tours there were full. Third time's a charm - we finally made it into a museum, the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum. It was a pretty outstanding little museum that reminded me a lot of the EMP in Seattle - a long history of music and blues in the Mississippi Delta, featuring the history of radio in Memphis and all the great artists that recorded at the Memphis studios of Sun, Hi, and Stax Records, some of the places where Rock & Roll was first recorded in the 1950s. After the tour we grabbed a bite at B.B. King's where we acquired souvenir glasses, and then we headed back to the CR Museum. We started out walking around the museum slowly, reading every word of the intense history of the Civil Rights Movement. But by the time we got to the "Brown v. the Board of Education" section, we had to speed up a bit in order to make the symposium at 4, so we kind of jetted through the rest and got to walk through the room where MLK was staying the morning he was assassinated.

The symposium was amazing. The actual auditorium was full, but we snuck into a room upstairs where they were showing the live feed onto a projection screen. The discussion was obviously on the status of civil rights in America, more specifically in baseball, and was moderated by Harvard Professor Dr. Charles Ogletree. The panel was comprised of Hank Aaron, the general managers of the Mets and White Sox (who are Dominican and African-American respectively), and children of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Jackie Robinson. Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ruby Dee, and one of the daughters from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were also in attendance. I particularly thought that Ambassador Shabazz (daughter of Malcolm X) and Kenny Williams (White Sox GM) were particularly sharp, and every panelist had very interesting things to say on the topic. It lasted about 90 minutes, and afterwards Williams, Omar Minaya (Mets GM) and Martin Luther King III came upstairs and we got to meet them. Mr. Minaya in person seemed like a very vibrant character - when Erik asked if he could get a picture with him, he responded with an enthusiastic "Yeah! Let's do that!" After the symposium, we capped off the evening with BBQ ribs and about 8 hours of drinking, finally stumbling into bed near 4 AM, as bars do not close until 4 on Beale Street on weekends. We saw our second awesome blues band of the weekend at the Juke Joint, the Dr. Feelgood Potts Band, and a pretty good funk/pop cover band at Albert's. Erik took quite a liking to Dr. Feelgood, with his flashy attire, multiple assorted harmonicas, and a crowd-pleasing song called "Tip the Band," which went a little something like this:

If you haven't tipped the band
Why don't you...tip the band
Thank you for the tip
Thanks for not givin' us no lip

Bands do not get paid to play on Beale Street, but rather volunteer to play for the exposure, so the only way they make any money is by passing a tip bucket and selling CDs, one of which we bought (I have now bought a CD at a bar all three times I have gone to Memphis).

We understandably got a late start on Saturday, and finally left the hotel around 1:30 for the 4PM game. After a stop at Hooters for lunch, we entered the park around 3:30, where we shockingly found people scalping tickets to the Civil Rights Game. Upon entering, everyone was given a free souvenir program and a plastic ticket case/holder that you could wear around your neck, kind of like how a backstage pass looks. We then visited the team shop, which had tons of cool Memphis Redbirds (AAA team that also plays at AutoZone Park) stuff but sadly a limited amount of Civil Rights gear, some of which was held over from last year. It had been raining hard all day, but we knew from our ball tour last year that we'd have luck on our side, and sure enough about 5 minutes into the 1st inning, the weather held up, although it was about 15 degrees colder than it was forecasted to be. Our seats were near the right field foulpole and were pretty good. The pregame festivities included three Beacon Awards given to prominent Civil Rights activists, MLK III throwing out the first pitch, and the U of Memphis marching band performing with the Memphis RedHot cheerleading squad. Every half-inning, a MLB profile of a celebrated minority player would be shown, including greats like Satchel Page, Larry Dobie, and Frank Robinson. Despite the stadium being half-empty because of the weather (7717 in attendance), it was a great experience and was neat to be around for such an amazing event celebrating 60+ years of progress in the integration and success of the minority athlete in Major League Baseball. And besides that, I am told I was on TV at least three times. The game itself was a pitchers duel with the Mets eeking it out 3-2. Jose Contreras and John Maine got the starts for their respective teams, and both faired pretty well, going 5.2 and 4 innings each. Contreras' only 2 runs allowed came on a Carlos Beltran homerun in the 4th. The Mets' Scott Schoenweis almost blew the game with a horrible 7th inning, but the Mets ended up re-taking the lead for good in the home half of the inning on an RBI groundout by backup catcher Raul Casanova.

After the game we went out for a couple drinks and saw the Dr. Feelgood Potts Band play the same exact set from the night before, and got to bed around 1:30. The following morning we stopped for a quick breakfast at the Waffle House across the street and parted our separate ways around 10:30 AM. Overall we had a great time and felt honored and lucky to be a part of the weekend's festivities, particularly since today I've been reading that the game might be moved to a regular season game in either KC, Atlanta, or Arlington next year, so we were definitely glad to be in Memphis while the event was still held in that city. Our next planned trip is to the new Nationals Stadium in June, with stops in the Bronx for the last year at Yankee Stadium, and a minor league game in Aberdeen MD. I caught a glimpse of the new park on Sunday Night Baseball last night when I returned home and can't wait to see it in person. Happy Opening Day to everyone!

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