Keeping Score: A long ride with a familiar companion

Friday, May 18, 2018

Good morning!

Winter was finished, and Liz Spaulding was headed home. She parked in the JetBlue dropoff lane at the Palm Beach airport, handed me the key and said, “See you Friday.”

She’d be in Boston before noon that Tuesday, and I’d still be south of Jacksonville. Her six free months of Sirius-XM Radio had expired and the Honda CR-V wasn’t equipped with a CD player, so I’d compiled a list of sports stations for the drive up I-95.

When one signal faded, I’d go to the next. It didn’t quite work out that way, but it was good enough. 

The AM radio has been part of the auto scene since 1930 when aptly-named Motorola convinced automakers to install them in their vehicles’ dashboards.

My father was a surveyor and he regularly tuned to 1030AM to hear Don Kent’s weather reports on WBZ in Boston, or to 1080 for Bob Steele’s pithy morning show on WTIC in Hartford.   

The southern stations are renown for the three C’s — country music, conservative talk, and Christian gospel, and all three formats attract ads for anti-aging products and assisted living facilities. A station near Stuart, Fla. melded religion with Fifty Shades of Gray: “Tomorrow Nancy will talk about submission and marriage, what it is and what it isn’t.”

The trip began under a hot, cloudless sky on a three-lane interstate where workers were plopping clumps of crabgrass from a flatbed truck onto the median strip. Near Indian River County, a neatly-worded sign on a pedestrian bridge promoted the Trans Florida Central RR Trail, a 110-mile hiking path over an old railroad bed.

Honeybells — those bright orange hybrids of tangerine and grapefruit — were out of season. Citrus stands were selling navels, harder to peel and less colorful in hues of green-and-yellow. I spied a tray of pecan logs, the southern candy made of crushed nuts, caramel and white nougat filling.

Nowadays, even Walmart sells them, but coconut patties, key lime pie and pecan logs all taste better in the south. A four-ounce roll cost $1.99, but a sign at a neighboring stand was advertising them for 99 cents. I walked across the bumpy gravel parking lot past unshucked coconuts and plastic alligators and saw the same $1.99 price tag on the cellophane wrappers.

“The sign said 99 cents,” I said to a cheerful chubby kid in his 20’s.

“That’s not us,” he said, smiling from behind the register.

“Okay,” I said, and turned to leave.

“No!” he yelled. “You can have them for a dollar!”

Too late.

It was an uneventful trip; time was money and the quicker I made it home the less it cost. I considered driving straight through, but imagined getting the nods during rush hour in Washington or Baltimore.

After a few hours of driving my hands began cramping from gripping the steering wheel. I rubbed them, and open and closed them and drank water, and at gas breaks I stretched and tried touching my toes. (I couldn’t).   

Smith’s Exxon on Old Number Six Highway in Santee, S.C. has an assortment of Clemson tiger paw t-shirts, crock pots filled with boiled peanuts, and bottles of South Carolina cider and wine. People like the state’s intriguing decal of a palmetto tree backdropped by a crescent moon, evoking thoughts of Arabian nights.

Display cases were filled with cakes covered with maple praline, pecan cheese cakes and peach pies. Next to the register was a box of pecan logs — for 89 cents. My holdout had paid off and I dropped a half-dozen on the counter with a bag of pistachio fudge for the grandkids, which I ate before I got home.

On the highway near Pedro S.C.’s “South of the Border” theme park, an FM sports station was dishing dirt on Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator Galen Scott. Scott had resigned after The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported he was using recruiting trips “to pursue a romantic relationship.”

Scott had been outed on Twitter by his lover’s jilted husband. “We ain’t gonna turn into Dr. Phil,” said the show host, “but there’s all kinds of wrong here.”

In less titillating news, the surprising first-place Braves had called up Mike Soroka, who was their top pick in the 2015 draft. The Canadian-born righthander was scheduled to make his debut against the Mets with first place on the line.

North Carolina’s traffic hotline warned of bridge construction and a six-mile backup ahead, so I exited onto Route 301. It’s a slower route but more enjoyable than the monotony of interstate travel. I passed acres of farmland and smelled the recently-tilled black soil, and motored through a town where locals sat under the awning of the Chat n’ Chew Restaurant.

On 95.3-FM, a beat writer for the University of Tennessee football team predicted the Vols would be 3-5 in the SEC. “Of course, the fans already have ‘em at seven wins, give ‘em a month it’ll be eight, and by August they’ll have 10,” he joked.

The show focused on local college sports news — South Carolina men’s and women’s tennis — and a softball controversy at the University of Missouri. The Tigers had paid Witchita State $5,000 to back out of a three-game series and schedule a doubleheader against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. “They won both games,” said the radio host. “That was all about the RPI.”

A NASCAR segment featured a live interview with Talladega Superspeedway president Rick Humphrey, who was on the hot seat after a boring Talladega 500. Blame it on the leaders, he said. “Fords reign supreme in the world of horsepower, and when you get a bunch of Fords up there, they’re gonna watch out for themselves.”

It was getting dark and the Yankees were playing in Houston, so on a whim I tuned to 660AM in New York. Eureka! The station’s 50,000 watts of power were transmitting the voices of broadcasters John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman calling the game.

I flipped open my reporter’s notebook, scribbled the lineups and kept score for the next 200 miles. Houston’s Justin Verlander struck out 14 Yankees in eight innings, but Domingo German and four other Yankees’ pitchers had kept the Astros off the scoreboard.

In the top of the ninth inning, Gary Sanchez stroked a three-run home run off Astros’ closer Ken Giles (who slapped himself in the face with his glove) and Aroldis Chapman worked a perfect inning to get the save.

Meanwhile, at Citi Field in New York, a three-run first inning held up for the Braves who beat the Mets 3-2 behind Soroka’s six innings of one-run pitching.

It was after 11 p.m. when I parked between a Hampton Inn and Sleep Inn about 40 miles south of Richmond. The clerk at the Sleep Inn said the same guy owned both places.

“Probably more expensive over there,” I said.

She smiled and nodded. “I have a room with two queen size beds for $89,” she said, and I gave her my license and credit card.

The hotel was new. It looked and smelled clean. The AC worked quietly and though the parking lot was full, everyone was already asleep. I washed my face, brushed my teeth, pulled down the covers and conked out.

The next morning I figured I had enough food — bananas, soda, bread and a few leftover pecan logs — to get home without stopping for meals. The important thing was to get through Washington, Baltimore and onto the Garden State Parkway between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., before the afternoon rush hour.

The midweek traffic was tolerable, and by mid-afternoon I was crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge and navigating past signs for the Sawgrass Expressway and Hutchinson River Parkway onto the Merritt Parkway. On the radio, Mookie Betts had hit his third home run and the Red Sox were beating the Royals, 5-4. Tim Neverett made the call on WTIC, meaning I was close to home after 1,400 miles of listening to the radio.

My son Mathew made a different sort of trip last week. He rode in the Police Unity Tour from New York City to the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington. The shrine was dedicated in 1991 to honor law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Over 21,000 names are etched on its marble walls, and sadly more are added each year. To participate, a rider must be in law enforcement or the survivor of a fallen officer. Mat’s grandfather, James Marshall, was a Trooper assigned to the Shelburne Falls barracks. At the end of his watch on Oct. 21, 1960, he died of a heart attack while helping to put an unruly prisoner in a holding cell.

Mat rode with the New York Port Authority police who lost 37 officers on 9/11. They met at Memorial Plaza and rode through the Holland Tunnel to the memorial for fallen officers in Jersey City. A segment on the Today Show showed the sidewalks crammed with cheering citizens, police officers, EMTs and bagpipe players.

During their 340-mile ride they stopped for more ceremonies, rode along Route 301 through Annapolis and enjoyed a seafood dinner on the Baltimore docks. Mat said the camaraderie was joyful, and by the time they reached Judiciary Square their ranks had swelled to over 2,500 riders.

He said the trip was a way to meet his grandfather and know the kind of man he was. “I found his name on the Memorial and traced it on sheets of paper for my mother and I,” he wrote. “I’ve heard it’s all about the journey and not the destination, but for me it was both.”


Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached by email at sports@recorder.com.