Chicago, Illinois

Tuesday, August 3, 2010 - Tuesday, August 10, 2010

So the culmination of our Summer 2010 travel was a trip the first week in August to Chicago. Believe it or not, with all of the travel that we do, this was our first trip 'to' the Windy City. We had been 'through' Chicago a couple of times in the past, with one unexpected layover after getting bumped on our connecting flight through O'Hare, but we had never stayed there.

Our 'travel' was actually a bit split up. Our main reason for heading to Chicago was so Jill could attend a Kaplan University educational summit, so on the university's dime she flew from Syracuse to Chicago on Wednesday morning. Mike and I, in the interest of trying to save some cash and as something 'new', took the Amtrak train from Syracuse to Chicago - a trip which amounted to 13 hours overnight from Tuesday night until Wednesday morning.

Jill dropped us off at the train station on Tuesday night, where Mike and I boarded the train around 10:00PM. We took the 'Lake Shore Limited', with our travel path being through Rochester and Buffalo, then down through Erie, Cleveland, Sandusky, Toledo, then through Indiana and finally arriving in Chicago on Wednesday morning (around the same time Jill was taking off from the Syracuse airport). We grabbed a taxi and took it to the Hyatt McCormick Place, our 'home' for the next couple of nights.

While waiting for Jill to arrive, Mike and I walked to Grace O'Malley's to grab a bite to eat before heading back to the hotel. Jill arrived a short time later, and after getting everything set in the room we were off to find our first Chicago 'thing' to do - Giordano's, in the shadow of the Sears Tower downtown. We wanted to make sure we tried the quintessential Chicago eats, and figured this would be a good start. We shared a salad, and then shared two 'stuffed pizzas' - one with pepperoni and sausage, and one veggie. Both were very good (but would be outdone later in our trip).

Afterwards, we went down to the Navy Pier, apparently 'the' place to go for people in Chicago with shopping and restaurants and a Cirque de Soleil show there as well. It was very crowded, and because of that not really a good time for any of us. Calling it a night, we headed back to the hotel for some well deserved sleeps.

On Thursday, Mike and I were finally able to do something we had been looking forward to for a long time - tour Wrigley Field! We actually got to Wrigleyville quite a while before our tour started, but that just gave us the chance to wander through the neighborhood and shops that surround Wrigley. Then it was time for our 90 minute tour of the 'Friendly Confines'. We started in the bleachers, where our guide gave us some facts and history of this classic park, then we went to the area outside of the visitors clubhouse, from there up to the upper deck and press box, then down to one of the luxury boxes, from there we were able to go into the Cubs actual clubhouse (very cool!), and then up through the dugout and onto the field - very cool tour all the way around, and of all the ones we've done this year this was probably the best as far as information given by the tour guide and second only to Nats Park as far as areas accessed. Well worth the $50.00 I paid for both of us to do it. Afterwards, we went and grabbed lunch at Harry Carrey's right down the street from Wrigley, where we both had Waigu Hamburgers - very good, especially with the blue cheese on top. Then it was back to the hotel for a bit to see Jill before her evening Kaplan seminars began.

On Thursday night, in an attempt to find 'something' to do, Mike and I drove down to Claremont, Illinois for a Frontier League game between the Windy City Thunderbolts and the Lake Erie Crushers. Standard Bank Stadium, home of the Thunderbolts, was probably one of the most interesting stadiums we had ever been to. Down the third base line, there was actually an upper deck (certainly something you don't see in independent baseball), and on the first base side was just one level, with a 'party area' behind the box seats. There was a larger crowd than I expected for the game, but most were there to hang out on or near the party deck and weren’t really interested in what was going on with the game. We stayed till about the fifth inning before heading back to the hotel and calling it a night.

Friday came around, and I decided to let Mike sleep in a bit, and in the process pack up the room for our venue change. We were checking out of the Hyatt, and moving to a Radisson near O'Hare. Jill actually went to only half the day of her sessions, so we all checked out and headed out of the hotel around noon. Our original plan was to go to a Superdawg to grab lunch, so we booted up the Garmin, picked the Superdawg nearest where we were, and off we went…….only to find it was actually in Midway Airport - whoops! Our next choice - Lou Malnoti's Pizza. The location we ended up at was actually in a Chicago neighborhood that was ravaged by riots in the 1960’s. In an attempt to help rejuvenate the neighborhood, Malnoti's opened this location in the 1980's with all profits from this particular restaurant going back into the youth services for the surrounding area. On top of that, this was hands down a great experience - the service was great, the space was great, and the pizza was by far the best we had while in Chicago!

After having a very filling lunch, we drove to an Italian festival they were having on Taylor Street - Chicago's Little Italy. Walked around there for a while, then decided to give Navy Pier one more try – along with a sunset cruise on Lake Michigan! We walked around the pier for a while, and then headed out on our cruise. A perfect night for a cruise, with great scenery and Chicago skyline. We disembarked from the cruise, and went to Bubba Gump for dinner before driving to Rosemont where we would stay for the next two nights.

On Saturday morning, we slept in a bit - right up until lunchtime! Showered and dressed we headed out to find the real and original Superdawg! We found it no problem, and were able to back ourselves into a cool corner and take in all that is Superdawg. Mike and I both got superdawgs, and Jill got a grilled cheese sammie.

We finished lunch, and started the drive north to Milwaukee for the Brewers game on Saturday night. We arrived around 3:30, with the gates opening around 4:00, and were astounded as to the number of tailgaters there were in the parking lot! Pretty much everyone except for the three of us - it was incredible. In all of the baseball games we’d ever attended, we had never see such a thing!

We hit the stadium just before the gates opened, and when they did were able to do a good bit of exploring throughout the main concourse. The stadium, in a word, could be described as HUGE! The roof, which remained open for the entire game, had to be built so much higher than the natural stadium, Miller Park by far was the tallest baseball stadium we had ever been in. Seating capacity was similar to other stadiums we had been to, around the 40000 mark, but because of the roof it seemed just that much bigger!

We stayed to watch the sausage race, and the seventh inning stretch (complete with 'Roll Out The Barrel'), before leaving to beat the traffic in the eighth inning. We were able to listen to Bob Uecker though on our way back south to Chicago calling the end of the game, with Trevor Hoffman being brought in for the save - his 597th!

Sunday morning brought with it the second 'packing up of the room' in the last few days, and the anticipation of the piece de resistance! A Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field! In 40 years, this was the one venue I could safely say I had waited my entire life to see a game at. The ivy, the scoreboard, the 'pureness' of the stadium, unlike any other stadium in Major League Baseball. I had bought us three seats on StubHub a few months back, based solely on the fact they were on the aisle and a view from Seat Data. Not to pat myself on the back to much, but I couldn't have done a better job! Right behind homeplate, just off to the right of the box where the guest singer did the seventh inning stretch, in the shade, and blocked by the wind. To complete the perfect day? The rain that had doused the Chicagoland area throughout the morning cleared about 20 minutes prior to gametime, the sun came out, the blue skies shone through, and the tarp came off the field. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it better in my book.

We had stopped at Dunkin' Donuts on our way to the train station (we took the blue line from Cumberland, and transferred to the red line at Jackson), and while there we met a lady who asked if we were going to the Cubs game – which, it was obvious we were by the fact that all three of us were head to, well, waist in Cubs garb! She said to us then, "they don’t always win, but it's so much fun going there, I just love it!" And boy, was she right. The neighborhood around the stadium was just alive with people, and the stadium (and rooftops across the way as well) were literally packed to the rafters! The Cubs lost, but to us it didn't matter – it was just fun, and we loved it! So that brings us to the end of our trip almost…we grabbed the "L" back to Cumberland station. From there, we went with Jill to O'Hare where she dropped off the car and got her luggage set. Mike and I said our good-bye's to her there, and then hopped back on the "L" for the ride back into the city. We took the blue line all the way to a station two blocks from Union Station. We were a bit early, so we each had an Italian beef sandwich. We boarded the train on time, left on time, and thought we had just a 13 hour train ride ahead of us. Around Four AM, we pulled into Eloria, Ohio. Five hours later, we pulled out. A train derailment in Ashtabula cause the delay and our subsequent 'rerouting', causing an obvious significant delay in our arrival in Syracuse.

Finally, at 6:00 on Tuesday night - 6 ½ hours after our scheduled arrival - we disembarked in Syracuse. Jill picked us up, and we went to the Dinosaur BBQ for dinner, before making the drive back to Binghamton.

Windy City ThunderBolts 4, Lake Erie Crushers 3

The ThunderBolts wrapped up their second consecutive perfect home stand on Thursday with a 4-3 ten-inning victory over the Lake Erie Crushers. Gilberto Mejia came away with the walk-off hit in the tenth.

The Bolts led early when two errors and a passed ball set them up with runners on second and third with no outs. Tim Jobe hit a grounder to short that brought Zach Aakhus in to score for Jobe’s first career RBI.

The Crushers came back with two runs in the fourth. With one out, Wayne Bond doubled, Arden McWilliams tripled and Julio Rivera singled to put Lake Erie on top.

Windy City reclaimed the lead in the fifth on Nick Kuroczko’s two-run homer to right. The 3-2 lead looked like it might stand until there were two outs in the top of the seventh. With Andrew Davis at first and Lee Huggins at the plate, Davis broke for second, ThunderBolts pitcher Dustin Williams threw to Gilberto Mejia, who made the tag but dropped the ball leading to a safe call at second base. Huggins proceeded to drive Davis in on a single, tying the score at three.

The ThunderBolt bullpen did its job with Brandon Garner and Nick Hall throwing 3.1 scoreless innings through the tenth. Jeff Cinadr pitched three shutout innings for Lake Erie in relief of Alberto Rolon, but Phil Rummel was called on for the tenth.

Michael Torres led off that inning with an infield single. Kuroczko bunted him over and Brandon Anderson walked before Mejia came up with his late-game heroics. Wayne Bond came up throwing on Mejia’s hit to left, and fired a strike to Rivera, but the catcher dropped the ball and Torres crossed the plate for the 4-3 victory.

The win was Windy City’s eighth straight overall and their twelfth straight at home. They have won 16 of their last 17 games and with Oakland County’s win over Traverse City, now hold a four-game wild card lead. They remain 3.5 out of first place.

The ThunderBolts travel to Kalamazoo for the final time between Friday and Sunday. Friday’s pitching matchup is Andrew Werner (8-2) for Windy City against Kalamazoo’s Guido Fonseca (2-5). Game time is 6:05 and the contest can be heard on WXAV 88.3 fm and wxav.com.

Milwaukee Brewers 5, Houston Astros 3

MILWAUKEE -- For the first time since late April, the stadium scoreboard crew dusted off a copy of "Hells Bells" and cranked up the volume. It was Trevor Time again.

Rickie Weeks got the Brewers started Saturday with the team's first leadoff inside-the-park home run in 21 years, and Hoffman finished the night with career save No. 597, a surprise ending for a 5-2 win over the Astros in front of a sellout crowd at Miller Park.

Hoffman looked much more like Major League Baseball's all-time saves leader than the guy who blew half of his first 10 save chances in April and May and lost hold of the closer's role. He needed only eight pitches to retire the Astros in order, and threw seven of those pitches for strikes.

"There were a lot of emotions," said Hoffman, still emotional a half-hour after his final pitch. "It was nice hearing the song. Really, the support I've been given by my teammates over the last three months and the support of these fans and my family, it kind of catches you a little bit when you're trying to stay focused out there. I'm very thankful for everybody's support through a personal struggle."

Hoffman's long-awaited sixth save of the season preserved a win for left-hander Randy Wolf (8-9), who danced around disaster for 6 2/3 quality innings for his first victory at home since May 25. Weeks hit the Brewers' first leadoff inside-the-park home run since Mike Felder did it in 1989, and Prince Fielder followed Friday's walk-off hit with two more RBIs.

The Brewers moved within a Sunday win of a three-game series sweep. It's a chance to even the score from the Astros' three-game sweep of the Brewers in Houston last weekend.

Considering he has pitched in each of the first two games of the series, Hoffman will probably be off-limits for the finale. The 42-year-old had not saved a game since May 7, and he was removed as the Brewers' closer after a blown save at Cincinnati on May 18. In Hoffman's place came mustachioed rookie right-hander John Axford, who has gone 16-for-17 in save chances and was as surprised as anybody when the bullpen phone rang Saturday night calling for Hoffman.

Axford was among the Brewers' relievers standing in the bullpen as Hoffman trotted in.

"I had chills. It was sweet," Axford said. "I loved every moment of that, and I hope it happens more. I would love to see it. Trevor is an amazing guy, and he's helped me through every moment of this situation. All I can hope for is the best for him, and that was absolutely awesome."

"I had goosebumps," said fellow reliever Todd Coffey, who helped the Brewers out of a jam in the eighth inning. "If you looked at our bullpen and at our dugout, everybody was on the front step, hoping he would get it. You could see it on everybody's faces."

Even the Astros were quietly into it. "I'm happy for him," said losing pitcher Brett Myers (9-8). "He's one of the nicest guys I've ever met. I pull for the guy, except against us. I'm happy that he can go out there, and I want him to get 600 just because of what kind of class act he is."

Brewers manager Ken Macha notched his 500th career win as a skipper but said the "big story" was Hoffman moving closer to 600. Macha has been in a difficult situation with both Axford and Hoffman pitching so well of late. Saturday was Hoffman's ninth consecutive scoreless appearance.

On one hand, there was sentiment for Hoffman to resume his quest for 600 saves. The Brewers hung a banner over the bullpen at Miller Park to track his progress, and until Saturday night it had been stuck on 596 for more than two months. The countdown could give the club some good publicity in lieu of a pennant race.

On the other hand, Axford has been nearly perfect in Hoffman's place and almost certainly will begin 2011 as the Brewers' closer. His experience this season could be a key to the team trying to bounce back next season.

Now it appears the Brewers will try to strike a balance. Hoffman and Axford say they are both on board.

"'Ax' has been fantastic in the role since he's had it, and he's going to continue to have it. He's our future," Hoffman said. "It was nice to get out there and sneak one away from him."

If that wasn't clear enough, there was this:

"There's no controversy there -- Ax is the closer," Hoffman said. "I would imagine if another situation comes up and there's a little bit of a lead and they feel comfortable putting me back out there, then they will. But John Axford is our closer, and he's done great in that role."

Macha praised Hoffman's attitude since he was bumped.

"I take my hat off to Trevor, and hopefully we'll get him to where he wants to get," Macha said.

The Brewers still had to get to Hoffman on Saturday, and that proved difficult. Wolf allowed eight baserunners in his first five innings but managed to hold the Astros scoreless until the seventh, when Hunter Pence blooped an RBI double with two outs. Houston had a runner in scoring position with one out in the third, fourth and fifth innings, but Wolf held them each time.

Wolf, knocked out of his previous start against the Astros by a Pence line drive that struck his left wrist, was charged with two runs on nine hits in 6 2/3 innings. The wrist gave him no problems.

"Ever since that nightmare game," Wolf said, referring to his July 21 start at Pittsburgh in which he set career highs in allowing 12 earned runs and 13 hits, "I feel pretty good out there. When you have a game like I did against the Pirates, you can either dwell on it or move on. Well, I moved on."

Weeks helped with his unconventional leadoff homer. Fielder added an RBI groundout in the first inning and an RBI single in the sixth, one of four consecutive singles against Myers. Fielder was followed by Casey McGehee, whose hit gave the Brewers a 4-0 lead.

It was 5-2 when Hoffman took the mound with "Hells Bells" blaring. Three outs later, Miller Park employees finally updated Hoffman's countdown banner. He no longer has to look at No. 596.

"That number has been stuck for a while," Hoffman said. "More importantly, it was a win for the ballclub."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Cincinnati Reds 11, Chicago Cubs 4

CHICAGO -- The problem wasn't the four rookie pitchers the Cubs used to face the Reds on Sunday. It was the balls dropped, overthrown or missed entirely behind them.

Joey Votto belted his 28th home run, a two-run shot, to back Travis Wood and lead first-place Cincinnati to an 11-4 victory over the mistake-prone Cubs and complete a three-game sweep.

"They catch the ball very well, and it starts with that," manager Lou Piniella said of the Reds (64-48), who nearly have the opposite record of the Cubs (47-64) and looked it. "We fumbled and bumbled a few of them, and they caught the ball well and it helps their pitching.

"Their lineup, they put the ball in play and don't strike out much and keep from hitting a lot of fly balls. You notice they hit the ball on the line, on the ground and get on top of the ball. They're doing a good job. Give them credit."

That's what Piniella would like to see more from his team, but it's been a struggle this year. With the loss, the Cubs fell to a season-low 17 games under .500. Chicago finished the homestand 1-5, and was outscored, 40-11, in the five losses. And it doesn't get any easier as the club heads to San Francisco to deal with the National League West second-place Giants.

"We need to turn it around, no question," Piniella said. "It's no fun, no fun to go out and get beat. We're playing good teams. We've got San Francisco, we've got St. Louis, we've got San Diego and we've got Atlanta. We better be up to the challenge and play better."

Wood (3-1) did not give up a hit until Koyie Hill singled with one out in the sixth. The Cubs finally figured out the Reds lefty in the seventh. Jeff Baker led off with his fourth home run, Derrek Lee walked and Aramis Ramirez doubled. Two runs scored on a throwing error by third baseman Juan Francisco on Marlon Byrd's grounder to close within five runs, and one out later, Xavier Nady hit an RBI double.

"That seventh inning -- I really don't know [what happened]," Wood said. "Maybe my pitches were a bit more elevated, and they were able to get to them. They put some good swings and were able to hit the ball hard."

"It was a battle for us," Baker said.

Votto connected off rookie Mitch Atkins with one on and one out in the eighth to secure the win for Wood, who was making his eighth Major League appearance.

It's the first time the Cubs have been swept at home this season and the first by the Reds at Wrigley Field in a three-game series since Aug. 8-10, 2005.

"We've got to do something, because if not, it'll be a long two months," Alfonso Soriano said. "There are a lot of good guys here and good players. We have to turn it around and try to win some games."

Rookie Thomas Diamond (0-2) threw 63 pitches over three innings, giving up five runs on four hits. In his Major League debut last Tuesday against the Brewers, Diamond struck out 10, but he fanned only one on Sunday. Three more rookie pitchers followed Diamond. It's the most in a game since rookies Juan Mateo, Jae-Kuk Ryu, David Aardsma, Angel Guzman and Les Walrond pitched on Sept. 30, 2006, against the Rockies. The Reds' Dusty Baker was the Cubs' manager at that time.

"I threw terrible," Diamond said. "That's all there was to it."

He didn't get much help. Diamond hit Chris Heisey, and Miguel Cairo hit a grounder to Starlin Castro, who flipped to Baker at second. Baker dropped it, but second-base umpire Andy Fletcher ruled Cairo was out. Castro was charged with an error on the next play as Votto hit a grounder to the shortstop, who stepped on second for the force, then overthrew Lee. Jonny Gomes walked, and Jay Bruce followed with a two-run double.

"This team we played is swinging the bats, and they're getting a lot of two-out hitting," Piniella said. "The first inning, basically we should've been out of the inning. Diamond wasn't sharp today and wasn't nearly as good as he was the first day."

Heisey hit a sacrifice fly in the Reds' second, and they loaded the bases in the third, and Francisco blooped a ball in shallow center between Castro, Byrd and Nady, allowing another run in. Ryan Hanigan followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 5-0.

All three batters Diamond walked eventually scored. The Reds do have a good lineup.

"But if people make pitches, guys who hit .300 [make an] out seven out of 10 times," Diamond said. "If you make pitches, throw strikes and get them to put the ball in play, they'll get out."

And when he falls behind in the count?

"You try harder to throw a strike and it snowballs from there," Diamond said. "There's no need to try to be perfect out there. Just try to throw a strike and it just didn't happen today."

The kids are going through some growing pains.

"When you don't make plays behind them and you have a tough lineup, it's going to be hard already," Hill said. "I think [the rookie pitchers] are capable. I don't think they've showed their best stuff today.

"You've got to break into the game sometime, so you can't say it's a bad situation or whatever. You're going to have to go through that. They're good kids and work hard. I don't doubt they'll come back better for it next time."

Piniella was to head back to Florida on Sunday night to be with his mother, who was hospitalized. Bench coach Alan Trammell inherits a slumping Cubs team.

"It's getting pretty ugly at times," Baker said. "We have to keep battling and battling."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Trip Notes:

Our seats for the Cubs game were Section 422, Row 5, Seats 1-2-3.

Our seats for the Brewers game were Section 125, Row 14, Seats 1-2-3.

Tim's Amtrak ticket was $95.40; Mike's Amtrak ticket was $47.70; Reserved coach seats.