On the Road with Joe

InsidethePark's Joe Ruiz spent parts of three days on assignment earlier this week, driving 350 miles from San Antonio to Midland to report on the Texas League All-Star Game. He documented the whole trip in detail, and brings you this up-close-and-personal look at his journey to the Mid-Summer Classic.

My journey to Midland, Texas for the Texas League's annual All-Star Game started out fairly common. I filled up the gas tank after having breakfast with a friend and "Ginger" (my dark orange Ford Ranger) and I were off at 11:16 AM CST for what was figured to be a 4-5 hour drive to West Texas.

I hadn't been north on Interstate 10 very far, so once I passed Boerne, Texas there was no turning back. What could be going through my head at a time like this? Well, first I wondered why Dr. Pepper had to start bottling regular and diet Dr. Pepper in similarly colored bottles which means I mistakenly picked up the diet instead of the original. Next, I wondered why I hadn't thought to finally go ahead and sign up for satellite radio, since it became quite obvious that I was out in the middle of nowhere as my radio dial started a perpetual motion through the channels in a fruitless search for entertainment.

Seriously, though, a lot of my thoughts were focused on what angles I would look for at the All-Star Game and for the second half of the season. As the thoughts passed through my head – meaning you, the reader, should look for some great stories this second half, I passed Comfort, Kerrville, Junction and eventually came upon the small town of Ozona. Now, not only did I pass through towns small and smaller, I was able to truly experience the vast stretches of the state of Texas. Starting in the very southern part of the Hill Country, I traveled up and down many hills and even between those that had highways between them.

After I passed Junction, still angry for my lack of a dark, caffeinated beverage, it was very telling to see the gradual change from the Texas Hill Country to the flatlands of West Texas. Flowing green fields of trees and grass became stretches of dirt coupled with dried foliage along Interstate 10. I was making good time to my surprise, finally exiting into Ozona at about 1:45 in the afternoon. As slick as I thought I was, I still was unable to realize that I had made the correct turn onto Highway 163, and eventually made a wrong turn. My chance at beating Texas League President Tom Kayser's record time from San Antonio to Midland of four hours, forty-five minutes was in jeopardy.

I eventually came to a gas station on my wrong way route and decided to ask for directions as I chose the correct Dr. Pepper. The cashier didn't know, but lucky for me, Ralph had walked in the store as I paid.

Now Ralph is your classic Texan, he is the epitome of what those outside of the state believe we all dress like. Decked out in faded blue jeans, a white button-up shirt with razor-thin red pinstripes and the classic cowboy hat, Ralph happily provided me with the directions to where I was going, even prompting me to tell him exactly where I was going and how exactly to get there the fastest. Ralph was an older gentleman, probably in his mid-to-late 50's and he had that "good ol' boy" accent only heard in "Dallas" re-runs. Some might even believe this paragraph is a slight towards Ralph, but that's where you're wrong. This paragraph is a tribute to everything I expected from those I dealt with on my trip. For the most part, Texans are people who simply expect friendliness and would provide no less to those that are respectful of them. Ralph was no different. I shook his hand as I walked out the door, said "thank you, sir" and went on my path.

Five minutes later, I took the turn northwest on highway 137 and drove another 20 minutes on the two-lane stretch of road. The easiest way to identify that I was indeed in West Texas were the increasing number of oil pumps rocking in their circular motions. My drive down highway 137 continued for another 20-30 minutes until I approached the city of Big Lake. Now Big Lake has its name for a reason, on my left, a very large, yet dry lake existed, including a large wooden sign that read "Who pulled the plug on Big Lake". Remember that, the funniest part continues later.

I reached Big Lake and turned left on highway 67 towards Rankin. As many stories as Texas can tell, none of them were on this stretch of highway. If I drove by 10 vehicles on this road, it was too many. Once I arrived in Rankin, I realized that I might have a good shot at making the record time. This would be my ultimate test, though. A long stretch of road, Ginger running low on gas and nature preparing to call would be my final tests.

Again, little traffic, oil pumps pumping and no air conditioning on so that I could conserve gas, I drove and drove the 52 miles from Rankin to Midland, just making it to a gas station outside the city limits.

Once again, my crack planning skills failed me since I never actually figured out the way to the hotel, but luckily, I did decide to write down the number. While I dialed the number, I made a turn thinking I'd eventually get there. Had the people at the Holiday Inn not answered my call, I would have ended up far, far away from where I intended to go.

Midland is a town with about 100,000 people. As I drove through the business district of town, the streets were eerily empty. Many of the businesses were closed and there was very little traffic for a downtown area, especially coming from a busy place like San Antonio. A few miles later, I came to my hotel. I was prepared for some trouble registering since I never received my confirmation number from the event organizers, but I thought they would certainly have my name on their files.


After negotiating a room (at a lower rate than I expected), I checked in and decided to rest a little before exploring the town. I also had to find a Kinko's to check my e-mail since a modem connection was one of the amenities not in my room. Back and forth I went to Kinko's, e-mailing Joe Kaiser to tell him of my predicament. As I left Kinko's for the last time, I noticed some CD's for a dial-up internet provider who will not be mentioned, but it was free.

After logging on, writing up the Q & A with Stu Paul for InsidethePark.com and sending it in, I prepared to go to bed. But as always, a traveler forgot something important. Off to Wal-Mart I go for toothpaste. While I drove at 11:30 PM, I passed right by First American Bank Ballpark, completely lit in the night sky just along Loop 250. I then thought it'd be a great idea to get some night shots of the FABB for this story. While the shots didn't come out as expected, I did wonder why I was able to drive right up to the front gates with no problems and prepared to explain myself to law enforcement for taking photos late at night. Luckily, nobody in the 10 cars parked at the FABB cared to question me and I drove back to my hotel room to finally get some sleep. Tomorrow, I begin my work.

As you first drive towards First American Bank Ballpark, you can't help but notice the tan brown bricks that make up the Rockhounds offices, ticket booths and concession stands. It has the look of an older ballpark from the outside, but once you walk past the black metal gates, you realize that this park has a very clean design to it.

One of the things I enjoy the most from simply walking through the park is the view from the concourse. As you search for your seats or wait at a concession booth, you have an open view of the field so that you can still see the action of the game. The field itself is something to take in. The grass is exquisitely manicured with a circular design in the outfield that meets in dead center while the pitcher's mound is nestled in between circular arches that seem to send waves towards first and third bases.

Coming from San Antonio, I can't help but notice that the outfield wall is the opposite of Wolff Municipal. The left field wall at the FABB is roughly the same height as the wall in right at the Wolff, while the wall from left center to the right field foul pole is slightly shorter. Advertisements line the walls save for the hitter's eye in dead center, which is simply a green wall at its apex (410 feet from home plate). A grass berm behind it separating left and right field has six trees planted; two to the left of center, one in the middle behind the distance sign and three to its right, I don't yet know as I write this if there is any significance to that, but then again, I am the only one in the press box five hours to first pitch.

As I observe the field from my plastic chair, I notice a man sitting outside the window 10 feet to my right. His back is to the glass and he's simply perched on the bricks that extend no more than a foot from the glass. I now realize he's cleaning the windows and there is something right below that he is standing on, but it was a little strange to observe that, I'll tell you.

I can't help but notice that the field is not symmetrical, as the bullpens are not designed the same way. Their placement still has me questioning which bullpen belongs to whom. The one on the left is sits 330 feet down the line and seems hidden from the field with a see-through fence. The bully in right, however, actually protrudes into the field of play similar to the scoreboard and its subsequent cubby in left field at Minute Maid Park in Houston. The more I think about it, if this were my home park, I'd want a bullpen like that so the visiting squad could not easily tell who is warming up.

The left field wall is slightly curved inward as behind it is a large hill acting as the berm. A Texas State Lottery sign sits to the far left mocking me with its $4 million jackpot, knowing I wasn't the person who purchased the one winning ticket of $154 million this past Saturday. The open walkway behind the field is similar to the one in Round Rock, except for the slightly see-through black curtain sitting behind those trees at the hitter's eye.

The man cleaning the windows is standing directly in front of me at the moment using the ever present "blue liquid" in a clear bottle. You never know if it's actually Windex, but it seems to work just the same. I'll let you know how much cleaner it is when he finishes.

It's not much better, but it works.

The scoreboard sits very high over the park above the right field berm. It has a small videoboard perched above the electronic score line that, while framed by ads, it doesn't take subtract the view, but seems to give the landscape a small spot hiding the expansive flatlands of West Texas behind it.

I'm impressed at the painstaking effort the five groundskeepers are taking to insure a beautiful diamond. I'm currently watching three of them use grass clippings to fill in the small dirt spots that line the edges both in the field and on the edge of the grass in foul territory.

Well, I think I've described about all I can about the park itself. It's time to make final game preparations. It looks like it'll be a good night for baseball. It's hot and sunny with not many clouds in the sky.

The next thing I write will be my game summary, which can be found here: Texas League Game Ends in Strange Fashion

After the game and meeting up with some of the Missions staff that attended the game to watch the post-game fireworks, we all made our way to the "Shack in the Back". While I thought it was some funny nickname for a room behind the stadium, it was actually a hangout about 10 miles away. I had a good time, downed some water and a Coke and shot pool for about an hour. Let's just say that Missions Assistant GM Jeff Windle plays a mean game of pool. Don't give him any extra chances or you'll lose.

Nothing special afterwards, went to grab some dinner and back to the hotel room to prepare for my drive home.

Sunday morning found me awakening at about 8:30 AM, a little bit earlier than I had hoped, but I survived. After showering and packing the truck, I checked out of the hotel, grabbed some gas (even though I knew one full tank wouldn't be enough to make it home) and started my trip home. I decided the best way to make it home would be the same route I took on Sunday; well, that and I didn't plan to take any other route. A fairly cloudy, cooler day than what I had been through the past days was the plan all the way home. My search for entertainment was futile again, so I had to pop in another CD. Why didn't I just make a new CD from my laptop before I left Midland? It would have been easy, but no, I didn't. For my punishment, I had to suffer with repeats of the same songs I listened to on my trip Sunday. Even the most patient person can get tired of the same music over-and-over, and I am no different.

I was finally able to get the San Antonio sports station once I got about 180 miles out. Even scratchy sports talk was better than listening to the same music again.

My hunger started setting in and I exited in Junction, Texas for some Sonic. Ten minutes later, I was driving down the road eating a chicken burger, tater tots (not the worst I've had, but really close) and of course, a Dr. Pepper. By the time I finished, I just wanted to get home as soon as possible. I missed my family and my two girls (my dogs, Kiki and Daisy). Right before three o'clock, I rolled into Leon Springs, Texas, which meant I was 15 minutes from home and started calling my family and a friend to let them know I was back in town.

I had planned to get some shut-eye, but as soon as I booted my computer up (that was my mistake), the boss messaged. Had to finish the All-Star writeup and by the time I sent it in, I was too awake to sleep. That's where the story ends and unless I get a trip (and a credential) to the All-Star Game in Houston to cover Missions OF Shin-soo Choo and Sixty-Sixers RHP Felix Hernandez, the next installment of "On the Road" will come at the end of July when I return to Round Rock.

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