Sunday, February 14, 2016

[D.C. Untied 2] Preseason: Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. D.C. United, St. Petersburg, FL, February 13, 2016,

Welcome to the second installment of D.C. Untied! You can read about the name and how I got started following D.C. United in the first part over here but the short version is this: there are many very talented people out there writing about tactics, roster changes, MLS inside baseball, etc. and I've really enjoyed reading and learning from them. I wanted to contribute something to the conversation and unfortunately the only something I have to share are my personal experiences as a fan.

There are many write-ups of the game talking about tactics and those kinds of things. I am not remotely qualified to do that so I didn't even try. This post is just capturing my experience watching the game as a fan.

Episode 2: Twenty-four hours in Florida.

How did I get to a place where I'd travel to Florida for twenty-four hours to see a meaningless preseason game? To quote my scrawled notes from the Dali museum, "Not time, space." In other words, there is no sensible reason to take a trip like this but I did it anyway and enjoyed myself thoroughly.

The preseason schedule was tempting but there are a lot of logistics to consider in planning a solo away-mission. I mulled over logistics for a few weeks, purely a thought exercise. Would the trip be fun as a solo traveler? What would I do? How expensive would it be? Would it really be worth going when I could just live-stream on youtube? And then my grandfather went into the hospital for a very serious operation. All thoughts of fun were set aside as my family waited for news. Days passed. I dreaded every new e-mail, every text message. My stomach was in knots. Would I need to make some difficult travel plans?

The good news came. Grumps was awake and singing to the nurses. He was still quite weak and would need to go into a rehabilitation center but his spirit was strong. He'd pull through. Maybe it was selfish of me but, in the lightness of the moment, that was when I booked my ticket. I needed to experience something, someplace new. I needed to feel the warm Florida sun on my winter-chilled skin, to use my lungs to shout and cheer instead of pushing stale office air around, to bond with the crowd, to see D.C. United back on the field after more than three long months.

My flight left the morning of the 13th from Reagan Airport. It was cold. Thick clouds swirled overhead dropping snow flurries. I was afraid we wouldn't make it out but the clouds passed and the flight would be leaving on time. While waiting in line to board, an older gentleman tapped me on the shoulder. "What's that on your neck?" He pointed to the tag of my Birnbaum jersey poking up over my cardigan. His face lit up as I started to explain about the new jerseys and he slyly folded back a flap of his jacket. On his button down shirt was a D.C. United logo. I had a new friend. He was just going home. He hadn't known about the preseason games. There are more next week, I told him.

And then I was in Florida! I ditched my heavy winter coat and my travel bag at the hotel and ran out into the warm sunshine to explore. The hotel I stayed at was by the water, directly across the street from Al Lang Stadium where the Tampa Bay Rowdies play, and there was lots to see within walking distance.

[The view from the front door of the hotel.]

St. Petersburg has a colorful history as a tourist destination and the waterfront is littered with bits it. My first stop would be the audacious glass dome of the Dali Museum but on the way I passed the Fountain of Youth, all that's left of an old health springs.

Behind the fountain is a vast wasteland of empty parking lots and service entrances. But a sign with an arrow pointed toward Dali so I put my sunglasses back on and walked bravely through.

The Dali Museum building looks like a crystalline entity hatched inside a concrete bunker and is now slowly consuming it from the inside out. It's ugly but visually compelling somehow, the reflective bulge of the glass providing a pleasing mirror for people to take pictures in front of. This is exactly the type of museum building we would have had fun going to look at when I was a kid and we were too poor to actually go inside to look at the collections. There is even a garden out back with a hedge maze and a wishing tree.

[The hedge maze.]

[The wishing tree! I asked a family if they would mind taking my picture and the grandma made her very shy teen granddaughter take it. It was cute.]

Unlike when I was a kid, I did get to go inside the museum to see the collection. I'd thought it was odd that there was a Dali Museum in the middle of St. Petersburg, Florida, but after wandering around the collection it makes perfect sense. The gallery was packed with tourists. Most of us wandering around with the free audio guide narrating our steps. The audio guide was a brilliant idea on the part of the museum, guiding potentially easily outraged rubes away from paintings like Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing A Grand Piano by simply not pointing them out in the first place.

As I was looking at the early Dali works, done in a gauzy, impressionist style, an older woman, jeans and haircut equally sensible, breezed by giving a loud "meh" to her companion. And I'm not ashamed to admit that I agreed. I'd much rather look at the skull-fucking painting than yet another goddamn impressionist landscape.

I enjoyed Dali's grand religious paintings and the odd Freudian dreamscapes but what grabbed me the most was, surprisingly, the scientific paintings. I had to sit down after looking at "The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory," which, as the audio guide helpfully informed me, was inspired by atomic theory. Looking at those orderly bricks drifting off into the distance, I had a sudden flashback to an old physics class daydream, the very floor I was standing on, my own skin, composed of empty space and tiny buzzing electrons holding it all together.

The second gallery was an exhibit on the ties between Dali and Disney. I'd been surprised that there were any but apparently they were very much each others fan, even if Dali looked forward while Disney looked back to nostalgia. It struck me as quite odd, wandering through the recreation of Dali's World Fair installation titled "Dream of Venus", that Dali has become nostalgia. The shocking images have been appropriated and absorbed into mainstream culture. They are kitsch. He really does have more in common with Disney now post-death, Micky Mouse and Melting Watches on bedroom walls all across America. Dali's images are no longer shocking, the ideas behind them carefully hidden away by omission inside an audio guide.

Emerging blinking back into the sunlight, I walked down the waterfront path, coming up along the opposite side of Al Lang Stadium and then up to the marina and the St. Petersburg History Museum. I'd been expecting something like a National Park Service historic house. Maybe some old photographs, informative blocks of text, some seashells... I was not prepared for what I found. This musty, hole-in-the-wall museum in which I was the only customer is a treasure drove of signed baseballs and loot!!

Cases and cases of signed baseballs. There were so many signed baseballs. And not just baseball players!

"Zac Zach Efron", Alan Alda, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford filed together as one would expect. I didn't think anything could be more delightful. I was wrong. As I left the ROOM OF BASEBALLS and down a staircase there was a little room off to the side saying something about King Tut. Oh, I thought to myself, I wonder why they have a recreation of Egyptian stuff here?

"Recreation"?! NO IT WAS A REAL MUMMY!!! A real mummy seized from an impounded circus ship in the 1920s. I cannot make this stuff up because nobody would believe me. Just a thousands of years old mummy casually hanging out in a musty attic of a museum next to a baseball signed by Alan Alda. I could not control my glee. Who would have expected to find this?!

I had a huge smile on my face as I wandered around the rest of the galleries looking at old barnacle covered rootbeer bottles and moldy coins pulled up from sunken shipwrecks.

Next door was a pub called Hops and Props and I passed away the tail end of the afternoon over a pile of delicious boiled peanuts and some Cigar City Brewing Strawberry Ale alternately chatting with whoever happened to sit next to me and watching the chaos created by the Chris Farley-esque bartender, Gino, who got increasingly flustered as the pub began to fill up with tweed wearing bikers. After his co-worker finally pulled him aside and told him to "take a knee", he pulled a pint for himself, cheers'ed all of us, saying, "even you, FG, you delightful weirdo". And then peaced off into the sunset.

By this point it was getting close to game time and I left the chaos of Hops and Props for a parking lot filled with bright green and yellow Rowdies fans. The sun was bright enough and I was warm enough that I quickly hurried back to ditch my cardigan back in hotel and pick up my brand new D.C. United scarf and my percussion bells.

Al Lang Stadium, as I learned in the history museum, was named after the former mayor of St. Petersburg who brought baseball spring training to the area. It's really only fitting that his name remains attached even after it was converted from a baseball stadium to a soccer stadium in 2011. Soccer spring training has replaced baseball spring training but spring training is spring training!

I had made plans to meet up with a couple of other D.C. United fans, two women staying at the same hotel I was. They were members of the Screaming Eagles supporters group and had been coming to games for almost 20 years. They kindly took me right under their wing and showed me how to do an away game right. We went in early and stood watching the team run through their warm ups as the sun set.

We all agreed that what we wanted to see tonight was our new player, Luciano Acosta, the tiny Argentinian who would be playing for the first time for D.C. United tonight, the ink barely dry on his contract. I was also hoping to see Freddy Adu, the former D.C. United child star who infamously flamed out and has been working hard to get back on the right path. He'd recently given an incredibly heartfelt interview talking about his career: "I’ve looked back on these past few years and I’ve wasted a lot of time, wasted years of my career, just not dedicating the time I should have to the sport,” Adu said.

I remember him as that fresh-faced kid so vividly. I really wanted to be able to show my support for making it through the rough years that followed, for accepting the burden of being made a joke.

We didn't see Freddy but Ben Olsen stopped over to say hello as we chitchatted, thanking us for making it down.

The ladies told me about going to Austin for preseason games last year and having to cheer for "trialist" because they didn't know who everybody was. I nodded but I wouldn't really understand until the second half.

The team filed off to get ready for the game and we made our way to our section, which looked to be somewhat where behind home plate would have been if there had still been a home plate. Throughout the game the fact that we were in converted baseball stadium would suddenly be thrust to the front, like when somebody sent a rocket directly past the goal into the dugout, bouncing aimlessly under a metal bench.

There were about ten of us in our section. A family with two boys (maybe about ages ten and thirteen), the three of us ladies, and a handful of bros. The family arrived first and had draped some flags over the railing. We didn't have the drum or anybody with a loud voice but we had our enthusiasm!

When the teams came on to the field and the starting lineups announced, the Rowdies fans turned their backs and yelled, "Who are ya?!" after every name. We did our best to make some noise in response.

The first half of the game was crazy fun to watch. Luciano Acosta was electric, fast and not afraid to get into the mix despite his petite stature. We were on the attacking side in the first half so we were also treated to another new team member, former Chicago Fire player Patrick Nyarko, tearing it up at right wing, cutting through defenders like they were cotton candy. And then it happened... GOAL!!!!!! Acosta got up past the defense and sent the ball back to Fabi who sent it directly into GOAL!!!!!! We jumped up and down and started in on a few Screaming Eagles chants. There were a couple of tense moments, Clowse with the bad turnaround, Dykstra attempting his best Steve Clark at the MLS Cup impression. And we started giving into the doldrums during last ten minutes or so of the half. I think it was at this point I noticed that if you watched the video screen long enough it would suddenly switch from the game to random shots of the crowd, enabling my people watching habit times a thousand when I realized that the guy banging the drum for the Ralph's Mob, the Rowdy supporter group, was wearing a giant top hat and loved being on camera.

After halftime another fan came to join us. He was a member of both the Barra Brava supporter group and the military. The military had sent him to Texas but his heart was still with D.C. United. He'd come all the way from Texas on his motorcycle to cheer for the team in preseason and was going to make every second count. With our new, loud friend leading the way we started singing like our lives depended on it. (Although "If I had the wings of an Eagle" was nixed as too incendiary.)

The singing and trialist goalkeeper Benjamin Kirsten kept us in the second half, which was a hot mess from where I was sitting. A million tiny children were just going crazy rolling down this hill off behind the goal like it was a David Lynch children's film. Almost everybody we knew had been taken out and I learned what it was to cheer for "trialist". I thought numbers 38 and 40 did a great job some other numbers not so much. But when Kirsten or "German trialist" as I was yelling made yet another save, we jumped up and down and waved our scarves at the Rowdies supporters just the same. My favorite moment came at the very end of the game, I think it might even have been during stoppage time, and our guys were trying to kill time and keep that 1-0 win. The ball ends up back with Kirsten and he just boots it across the field so hard like, "I'm done with this game!" I was laughing so hard.

I'd been a little worried I wouldn't have as much fun watching a bunch of trialists and rookies on the field as I would the polished starters but it turns out that cheering for "trialist" is its own kind of fun! Everything is up in the air. Up is down, left is right, Nick DeLeon is playing in the center!

After the game ended, we grabbed the flags and ran down to cheer for the players as they went back into the locker rooms. We got a couple waves but they were tired and it had gotten cold. I wrapped my scarf around my arms for warmth and was debating getting a Rowdies sweatshirt for the walk across the street back the hotel.

Young Jalen Robinson came over and earnestly shook all of our hands to thank us for coming out, which was incredibly sweet. Fabi found our Barra Brava friend and talked with him for a bit, as did Ben Olsen. I took a couple of pictures but forgot to get his contact info so if you're reading this, bro, I can send you the files!

I've heard it before but this was the first time I'd seen for myself: Fabian Espindola is a real class act.

The ladies were going to go out for another celebratory beer but I had an early flight to catch so I decided to call it a night. I got one final selfie in the hotel parking lot, the lights of Al Lang Stadium still twinkling behind me.

All in all, I do not regret going one tiny atomic particle's amount. It might have been for just twenty-four hours but I got to see so many cool things and meet so many great people. A huge shoutout to Gino the bartender for making it through his shift and to the all the Rowdies fans and staff for being so damn friendly. I cannot wait to come back and visit Hops and Props and again and then watch an NASL match and cheer for the Rowdies with you! As long as I can get that Adu jersey you promised... ♥

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