When my teenage son showed me a list of potential colleges that included Duke and Vanderbilt, my first thought should have been to log on to one of the many stress-fueling college research tools available online.
Instead, it was this: minor league baseball road trip.
It didn’t take me long to find three straight August evenings that the Nashville Sounds, the Asheville Tourists and the Durham Bulls were playing at home. Our 2016 College Tour/Baseball Road Trip was born.
Maybe adding baseball to the itinerary was my small blow against the college admission pressure cooker. More likely it was a slightly panicked, ex-Little-League-coach dad’s realization that someday soon it won’t be so easy to catch a game with my son.
Still shaking out the cobwebs from our early flight, I watched our Nashville rental car agent make that “something’s wrong” face as he looked at the screen. But he quickly smiled.
“Good news,” he said. “All we have is a full-size SUV, so we’ll give you that.”
I’m not a big fan of rolling behemoths, but we tossed our two small travel bags in the cavernous cargo space and climbed up to our perches, at least one of us secretly pretending we were in a good-old-boy pickup.
“Find some country music!” I commanded, guiding our hulk out of the parking garage.
“On it,” Patrick said.
Vanderbilt University in Nashville is lovely and quite impressive. Like all parents my age, I stifled the “we had it tough” urge as we perused the luxurious housing options. I listened dutifully and made a few mental notes about the curriculum, and then I Googled the fried chicken spot the admissions officer mentioned. That’s how we ended up at Hattie B’s for lunch.
The hot chicken didn’t disappoint, though I spent much of the meal in eye-watering pain, having boldly reached for the top rung of the spice ladder.
We’d chosen a hotel near Vanderbilt, which meant we were in the heart of “music row,” where every other house or building seems to be a recording studio. It’s also a handful of blocks from downtown.
Nashville’s Broadway is mostly one bar after another, all offering live music. We did a gift-shop tour of the Johnny Cash Museum, which seemed worth a return visit. Then it was on to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, where we flipped through some vinyl and enjoyed a brief history of the place from the helpful clerk.
The Nashville Sounds’ First Tennessee Park is in a sketchy but easy-to-get-to part of town. We parked easily (even in our truck!) and cheaply. Our seats — $15 — were behind third base in the front row. Minor league baseball, unlike college, is affordable.
It was Elvis night (of course), and we were treated to alternating impersonators, one serious, the other wearing a fat suit and going by the name Plump Presley.
Another highlight was a run around the field by three absurdly tall mascotlike figures, in the tradition of Milwaukee’s sausage race. The Nashville version features the likenesses of Reba McEntire, George Jones and Johnny Cash.
Back at the hotel, we searched for the best breakfast near Vanderbilt. The Pancake Pantry offered my first taste of cinnamon cream syrup, a pleasant alternative to the maple kind.
Our drive to Asheville, N.C., was marred slightly by intermittent rain. But we arrived in time to check into the Windsor, my son’s introduction to a vintage-cool boutique hotel. Raised on travel lodgings far less cool, he was impressed.
Asheville is a lovely little hipster heaven, loaded with tasty restaurants, funky boutiques and more opportunities to sample craft beer than you could shake an artisanally carved stick at. At Wicked Weed Brewing, I ordered a “Coolcumber,” a hoppy, cucumber-inspired brew that was so surprisingly good I had to double-check that I liked it. Yup. The second one was just as good.
Asheville’s McCormick Field is, from a classic American baseball standpoint, as good as it gets. The Tourists are an A-level team, so it’s a notch down in size from the home of the AAA Nashville Sounds. But the field is nestled into the side of a hill a short walk from downtown, heightening the intimacy.
Our $11 seats were fine. But I noticed a single row of seats on the field next to each dugout and a few feet from home plate. I paid an additional $19 to move us down to the front row. The band-shell shape of the stadium and the hill overlooking the outfield amplified the crowd noise. Only a few thousand of us were cheering, but it sounded like Wrigley in October.
Back at the hotel I Googled “best breakfast.” One suggestion was right downstairs.
You know how all food show hosts lean their heads back and moan when they take the first bite of something? That was me after tasting the breakfast tacos — one of the best breakfast things this 54-year-old lover of breakfast things has ever eaten — at Asheville’s Over Easy Cafe.
We were well-fed as we began the five-hour drive to Durham, N.C.
Duke University’s campus, arrayed around the spectacular Duke Chapel Tower, was perhaps more impressive than Vanderbilt’s. It was also, depending on how you looked at it, either more isolated or more self-contained.
A slightly discounted rate of $229 put the Washington Duke Inn — a stately golf resort across the street from campus — within our budget. Feeling more like a country club than a hotel, it was welcoming and worth the price. We had lunch in the tastefully understated Bull Durham Bar.
Thanks to the movie of almost the same name, the Durham Bulls are the most famous minor league baseball team in America. The 10,000-seat Durham Bulls Athletic Park is a clean, well-designed modern stadium. It lacks the natural hominess of Asheville’s little bandbox, but it’s not so big that you feel small. It features the usual baseball fare, along with local offerings like pulled pork with beans and coleslaw. Outstanding.
One homage to the 1988 movie is a large bull sign over the left field fence. We were excited when Audry Perez of the Norfolk Tides hit a rocket over the left field wall, striking the bull dead center with a loud thunk. We leaned forward in our seats, waiting for the tail to wag and smoke to come out of the nose, as in the film. Nothing.
“The tail only wags when one of our guys hits it,” said a friendly local across the aisle from us. (Note to Durham Bulls: Fix that.)
Our seats were great, behind home plate. But we made it a point to stroll around, taking in an inning from the railing high atop the left field wall, next to the aforementioned bull.
Back in our seats for the final innings of the game — and our road trip — I felt good about making this small journey happen. We learned about two great schools. And we talked about future plans in the relaxed way one does while driving, or eating a delicious breakfast, or propped up in hotel beds at the end of a long day watching Sports Center.
Or sitting at a baseball game.
Postscript: Patrick Carpenter will be attending Boston College this fall. His father has already determined that the Altoona Curve’s ballpark seems about halfway between here and there.
John Carpenter is a freelance writer.