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The Great Baseball (Football?) Road Trip, North Carolina Edition
A recap of this year's trip, which this year was mostly based on Gopher football's trip to North Carolina.
Last weekend was the latest edition of what’s usually known as the Great Baseball Road Trip, an annual long weekend that’s organized by my friend Mike. Most years, this means that the trip contains as much baseball as we can pack into the trip; there was one year that we managed to see six games, in five parks, in three states, in four days.
Like I said, it’s an annual event, but there hadn’t been a trip since 2019. In 2020 it wasn’t possible; in 2021 it still felt dicey; in 2022, it just didn’t happen. And honestly, it seemed like it might not happen this year either, and probably wouldn’t have, except road trip co-founder Rocket lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The Gopher football team doesn’t schedule a lot of interesting nonconference road games. Here’s a rundown of their road nonconference games over the last decade:
2021: Colorado, and the Buffaloes were so bad that the athletic director publicly apologized to fans after the game.
2020: YOU COULDN’T GO TO THE GAME ANYWAY
2019: Fresno State
2017: Oregon State
2015: Colorado State
2014: Texas Christian
2013: New Mexico State
So over ten years, the Gophers played have played three other major-conference schools on the road.
Minnesota playing against a big-conference, top-25 team on the road simply doesn’t happen. Add in the coincidence that one of the regular road trip participants happened to live in town too, and we decided that this year’s trip was going to be based on seeing the Gophers play at North Carolina.
Mike wrote his own rundown of the trip, which I also think you should read - but rather than slog through another weekend in Minnesota sports results, I wanted to get my own thoughts down too.
First, I think you can tell that the trip has changed a little bit, solely based on how our weekend started and ended. We flew in late on Friday night and endured a rental-car nightmare that meant we didn’t get to the hotel until almost 2am Saturday morning; we flew out early on Monday, such that we left the hotel a little after 4am on Monday morning.
This is a schedule that’s meant to minimize family disruptions, rather than maximizing sports time; given that we now have ten kids between the six of us that were there, I suppose this was inevitable.
We also began Saturday by attending a youth soccer game, and ended Sunday by going to a late-night old-man hockey game. The Great Baseball Road Trip could now be called “Dads Get Out Of The House A Little”.
The Gopher game was the Gopher game; Minnesota lost 31-13, and they desperately need more from redshirt sophomore quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, whose tough day probably wouldn’t have been so noticeable, except the Tar Heels quarterback was Heisman candidate Drake Maye.
This was my first college football game in any place that could conceivably be called the South, though without it being Texas or the Southeastern Conference, I’m not sure I got the full experience. Certainly it did not have the same vibe that I would have expected from somewhere a little more football-focused. The sense I got is that most of the North Carolina fans were at the game more out of obligation than any real desire to watch some Tar Heels football.
I doubt that the football season-ticket holders are required to buy their tickets in order to be eligible to purchase basketball tickets, but it wouldn’t be surprising to find that out.
I get the same sense from Gopher football, sometimes - just that the fans at the game are there less because they have a desperate, burning desire to watch the Gophers win, and more because they get emails from the alumni association and feel like they should show up to support the old alma mater.
I will say that UNC’s stadium had the worst two video boards I’ve ever seen, in the post-Metrodome era, so whatever booster money they’re getting is definitely going somewhere else.
UNC’s campus also does not have much in the way of tailgating infrastructure, unlike some of the more traditional southern football schools. I did see a lot of kid-related activities set up in the center of campus, bouncy houses and that sort of thing; I am open to correction here, but something tells me that Auburn or Ole Miss (or for that matter, Michigan or Ohio State) don’t feel the need to set up anything to entertain nine-year-olds on game day.
Rocket got us tickets in the UNC “Touchdown Club,” which turned out to be a sort of patio behind one of the end zones. The UNC football weight room is underneath that end of the stadium, and they set up a few couches and tables, and put up a bunch of signs that warned you that you were NOT to bust out a few sets on the bench press, or you would be asked to leave.
The tickets included free food, free pop and water, and the ability to sit directly behind one of the goalposts. I do have to say that I’m not sure we really represented the Gophers that well, on the broadcast (you apparently could see us whenever a field goal or extra point was kicked at that end); the crowd in the Touchdown Club was a lot of dads with UNC golf shirts tucked into khaki shorts, their perfectly coiffed wives… and then one mismatched group of sunburned, grumbling Minnesotans, almost all of whom had failed to bring a maroon or gold shirt to wear.
Between the eight of us - six adults, two kids - we had three Gopher shirts, a Gopher hockey shirt, a Vikings jersey, a Twins shirt, and a Timberwolves shirt. (I was the worst offender, with a plain T-shirt and a Gopher hat.)
We met a guy that lived in Woodbury who was incognito wearing a UNC shirt. After awhile, he was probably just happy that he wasn’t getting identified with our motley crew - or, for that matter, the Gopher offense.
I also learned from the Touchdown Club’s free food that there are two types of BBQ sauce, in North Carolina: East and West. The buffet had pulled pork, plus several salad dressing vases that contained sauces - honey mustard and ranch (these were presumably for chicken fingers), plus containers labeled “East” and “West.”
I had to have this explained to me; I just assumed that the “West” jar was Western dressing for some ungodly reason (there was no salad), and therefore the “East” must be something my brain invented called “Eastern dressing,” which I guess I assumed was a watery version of Russian dressing.
Anyway, field level in an end zone is not a particularly good vantage point for game analysis, but I will say that every one of the wayward downfield throws that Kaliakmanis (and Cole Kramer) made was at our end, so we had really good seats to see how really bad the throws were. I suspect that we were the first Gopher fans in the stadium to start groaning when Kramer decided to go deep, just because we could see that, if his receiver was at 12 on the clock face, his throw was aimed at about 10:30.
After the game, we managed to get back to Rocket’s place in time to watch the Twins fail to complete a comeback against the White Sox; from there, we managed to get back to the hotel just in time for me to watch the end of Minnesota United losing at home to Sporting KC. So all in all, it ended up being a good old Minnesota sports day; a nice trip to see one team lose, followed by watching two others lose on television.
Sunday, we went to Durham to see the Durham Bulls play Louisville. This being International League baseball, the game finished 10-7 and featured ten walks and five home runs. (Anyone who can get guys out or throw strikes, at Triple-A, is probably already in the major leagues at this point of the season.) All I can tell you is that Durham is a very nice day out at a baseball game; they have built a bit of a neighborhood in the area of the park, with spaces for smaller busineses and lofts and some nice little restaurants and that sort of thing.
After the cull of minor league baseball teams, I wonder if there are any truly bad parks left anywhere.
We ended the weekend with one of the dumbest and most necessary things we’ve done on a road trip: going to see Rocket play in an old-man hockey league at 10pm, even though we had to get leave for the airport at 4am the next day.
Honestly, it was a microcosm of the road trip as a whole. It’s a great chance to do dumb, poorly-planned things that you might not get to do again.