The Great American Hajj

By Mark Yost
Web2Carz Contributing Writer

If there is an American equivalent of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are required to make at least once in their lifetime, it is the journey that my son, George, and I are currently on. It began when he was about 8 years old with a trip to my boyhood baseball mecca, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

But our pilgrimage to visit every Major League Baseball park in America before he graduates from high school in June, 2016 really began in earnest about three years ago. And George, who’s 15 and doesn’t take anything very seriously (what 15-year-old kid does?), is so devout in this quest that he insists that we have to go back to Minneapolis because the Twins have opened a new stadium, Target Field, since we were last there.

PadresWe’ve been lucky in that we live in Chicago and I’m originally from New York. So when we’d go home to see family in the summer, it was easy to knock off ballparks along the way.

Detroit. Cincinnati. Cleveland.

So far, our favorite stadium is Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. Nestled downtown, across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh’s picturesque skyline, it’s a great example of the retro ballparks that have been all the rage ever since the Orioles started playing in Camden Yards. Adding to the urban ambiance, just beyond the centerfield wall is the historic Sixth Street Bridge (now the Roberto Clemente Bridge). It’s an ideal setting for what remains (A-Rod aside) America’s most gentile sport.

This summer took us to Southern California to visit stadium Nos. 18, 19 and 20 out of 30. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, this itinerary makes for the perfect three-day-weekend getaway.

Friday: 12:00 p.m.

It’s a shame that LAX is in El Segundo, one of the ugliest parts of Los Angeles. But it’s close to the Pacific Ocean, and that’s the first place you should go.

Wahoo’s Fish Taco (1129 Manhattan Avenue) in Manhattan Beach, about 10 minutes south of LAX, was actually started by Brazilian brothers Wing, Ed, and Mingo in 1988 in Orange County. But the heady combination of charbroiled fish, salsa, and tortillas demands to be served surfside, so today most of their 50 locations are within walking distance of the beach, where they belong.

If fish tacos aren’t your thing, you can go 10 minutes north of LAX to Venice Beach, the quintessential bohemian beach. The Venice Whaler Bar & Grill (10 W. Washington Blvd.) sits on the edge of Washington Square (where you can also park). It has a great second-story patio where you can watch the waves and the rollerbladers. The food’s not bad, either. The seared ahi tuna is seasoned with sesame seeds, grilled deliciously rare, and sits on a bed of sweet tropical relish. The Kobe sliders, topped with grilled onions and provolone, proves that while they like to watch their waistlines, Angelinos also love a good burger.

Barney

Friday: 1:30 p.m.

Walk off your lunch on the Venice boardwalk, where you can buy a t-shirt, get a tattoo, or have some delicious Italian ice. But then get in your car and set your GPS for Pierce Bros Westwood Village Memorial Park (1218 Glendon Avenue, Westwood), one of the best Hollywood celebrity cemeteries. Just south of Wilshire Blvd., it’s hidden behind the parking garage on the left (where you should park). Among the famous names buried here are Marilyn Monroe, Donna Reed, and Dean Martin. Don Knotts’ gravestone is just inside the entrance and is hard to miss. It’s a collage of his most famous roles, with Barney Fife of “The Andy Griffith Show” the most dominant. Merv Griffin’s headstone is the most clever: “I WILL NOT BE RIGHT BACK AFTER THIS MESSAGE.” Rodney Dangerfield’s simply reads, “There goes the neighborhood.”

You can easily spend an hour here, finding graves and reminiscing about the stars and their most famous roles.

Friday: 4:00 p.m.

Even if you’re not a fan of film noir, it’s worth the drive through the winding Hollywood Hills to get to 6301 Quebec Drive. That’s where you’ll find the 1927 Spanish Colonial Revival that was used in Double Indemnity, the great 1944 Fred MacMurray/Barbara Stanwyck/Edward G. Robinson murder caper that captured all the Chandleresque elements of 1940s L.A. Walking down the steps of the house, MacMurray’s Walter Neff utters one of the greatest lines of film dialogue ever written: “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

Friday: 5:00 p.m.

There’s a reason you visited the Double Indemnity house late in the afternoon. It puts you in a perfect position to drive to the Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium (1000 Elysian Park Avenue). From the Hollywood Hills, your GPS should take you mostly along side streets so you only have to go about three miles on the infamous 110 freeway. And this time of day, you’ll be going against the rush-hour traffic.

Although it’s one of the oldest stadiums in all of baseball, there’s still something special about Dodger Stadium. Maybe it’s the palm trees just beyond the outfield, or the garlic fries (which George and I found to be better than the signature Dodger Dog, or what was criminally advertised as “Brooklyn” Dodger Pizza). Whatever strikes your fancy about it, Dodger Stadium is one of the great ballparks in America.

We saw the Yankees play the Dodgers, and it was one of those rare occasions where George and I were on opposite sides. I was cheering for the Dodgers because they’re from my beloved Brooklyn (and, quite frankly, I’ve grown tired of the Yankees, their new stadium, and how they represent most everything that’s wrong with professional sports). That said, the highlight of the Yankee victory was seeing Yankee closer Mariano Rivera come in and pitch the 9th inning in what will allegedly be his last visit to Dodger Stadium.

Friday: 10:00 p.m.

After visiting Dean Martin’s grave earlier in the day, stop at Nic’s (453 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills) for a night cap. Now a piano bar, it used to be the Italian restaurant where Martin ate dinner about four nights a week for the last 10 years of his life. Although the restaurant has changed hands (and decor), they keep a permanent table reserved for the cool crooner and put out a fresh martini for him every night.

Friday: 11:00 p.m.

There are so many great hotels in L.A., from cheap beachfront dives to four-star, A-lister joints, but here are two you should consider: One of L.A.’s most unique boutique hotels is the Shutters (1 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica). I was initially excited to see one of my favorite 1970s sit-com actors in the lobby a few years ago—but then was disappointed to see Hal Linden of “Barney Miller” fame (b. 1931) drive off with a voluptuous 20-something in his Italian sports car. Plan to pay about $500 a night for an oceanfront room and a chance at your own glimpse at one of your favorite Hollywood stars.

Another option is to head back toward LAX and the Beach House Hotel (1300 The Strand, Hermosa Beach), a similarly luxurious beachfront hotel that’ll only set you back about half as much as the Shutters, but comes with the same gorgeous view of the Pacific.

Saturday: 9:00 a.m.

Take your morning coffee for a stroll along The Strand, then stop at Good Stuff on the Strand (1286 The Strand), a great little breakfast diner with a California twist. The Fitness Breakfast features six egg-whites scrambled with lean turkey, brown rice and fresh fruit. Or get the carne asada and eggs, which comes with Spanish rice, guacamole, and pico de gallo.

Saturday: 10:30 a.m.

Get on the Pacific Coast Highway and stay as close to the water as you can today. The drive from Hermosa Beach down to Newport Beach takes you through all the famous Southern California beach communities. Here are a few suggested stops:

Los Angeles County Fire Museum (9834 Flora Vista St., Bellflower).

Situated about a half-hour inland from Hermosa Beach, its worth the trip to see the full-restored fire trucks from the 1970s television show, “Emergency!” as well as historic fire apparatus from the 1860s. A non-profit, operated on the generosity of donors and the hard work of a few L.A. County firefighters, it’s only open on the first Saturday of the month, but worth the trip.

USS Iowa battleship (240 S. Harbor Blvd., San Pedro).

San Pedro usually conjures up images of longshoreman strikes and the grittier scenes from “To Live and Die in L.A.,” but the city has actually done a respectable job of developing its waterfront. It’s not only home to a number of nice seafood restaurants and the American Merchant Marine Veterans Memorial, but this famous World War II battleship, which is open daily for tours and often features special exhibits.

Point Fermin Park (208 W. Paseo Del Mar,)

Sitting in a nondescript residential neighborhood at the end of Pacific Avenue, Point Fermin Park offers some of the best views of the Pacific Ocean in Southern California. Sitting high up on a bluff, you can see all the way to Malibu on a clear day. If it’s fogged in, the sights and sounds of the rough surf crashing against the rocks below is enough to bring you here.

Seal Beach

Take the Vincent Thomas Bridge from San Pedro to Long Beach, stay on Ocean Blvd. through downtown Long Beach and Belmont Shore, and you’ll cross over into Seal Beach, one of the quaintest beach communities in Southern California. Its Main Street is a unique collection of local shops, bars, and restaurants. If it’s lunchtime, stop into Taco Surf, Beachwood BBQ or Ruby’s Diner for a quick bite. Or stop in Endless Summer for some surf wear.

Huntington Beach

Known as Surf City USA, this beach town lives up to its nickname. In addition to the great beachfront bars, restaurants, and shops, it’s home to the International Surfing Museum (411 Olive Ave.) It’s full of great historical artifacts, among them a 9-foot-long, 4-inch-thick, 100-plus-pound surfboard made of redwood planks. According to a small display that explains the evolution of the surfboard, that’s what they used to look like before we discovered polyurethane foam, fiberglass and epoxy resins. They were actually pieces of wood — the Hawaiians often used wood from native koa trees — hand-crafted and glued together with a decent amount of air space in them so they would float longer. They didn’t have fins, but a drain hole. Every hour or so you had to lug this board, which probably weighed close to 200 pounds by then, up on the beach, drain it and let it dry out. That’s why in the early days surfers were so buff. They had to be, to lug around these weighty monsters.

If you didn’t eat lunch in Seal Beach, stop into Duke’s (317 E. Pacific Coast Highway) , a beachfront eatery named after Duke Kahanamoku, the big Hawaiian who brought surfing to Southern California. Get whatever’s in season, prepared with either a parmesan herb crust of the famous seven spice recipe that includes papaya hot mustard sauce and bok choy Asian slaw.

Saturday: 7:00 p.m.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2000 E. Gene Autry Way, Anaheim).

There’s nothing special about Angel Stadium, or the Angels this year, who continue to struggle despite having an All-Star roster with Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton, Jared Weaver, and (an injured) Albert Pujols. But George and I had a good time in what was Stadium No. 19 on our quest. That’s because Angel Stadium isn’t like most big-market ball parks. You can still walk in with upper-deck tickets and walk around the main concourse for batting practice or get a sandwich from Clyde Wright’s Tennessee Bar-B-Que. Food and drinks are reasonably prices, there isn’t a bad seat in the house, and the Southern California weather — 70s at night in August — helped take the sting out of the Angels’ loss.

Saturday: 11:00 p.m.

Before turning in for the night, stop in at Zane’s (1150 Hermosa Ave.), a great little bistro at the end of Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach. They have a great wine list, and by 11 p.m. it’s the perfect place for a late-night drink.

Sunday

George and I logged in a third stadium on this trip. Maybe it was because we were both wearing the same jersey at this game between the Yankees and the Padres, but we both found Petco Park (100 Park Blvd., San Diego) to be our best baseball experience of the trip. Tucked into the warehouses and office buildings of downtown San Diego, and right next to San Diego’s historic Gaslamp District of restaurants and bars, it’s the perfect downtown ballpark. The seats are reasonable ($59 for our tickets in the Toyota Terrace, which includes waiter service), plus there’s a grassy knoll beyond center field where patrons bring lawn chairs and blankets. And I almost fell over when I went to one of the souvenir stands and asked for a score card (yes, we keep score) and the woman gave it to me for free.

But you’re probably not on a baseball pilgrimage like George and me (and if you are, you can find your own way to Petco Park). So here’s an alternative to too much baseball.

Sunday: 11:00 a.m.:

Have a late breakfast on the promenade in Hermosa Beach. I like Baja Sharkeez (52 Pier Ave.), but most everywhere has brunch and drink specials on the weekend. Then get in the car and get on the 405 South toward San Diego.

Sunday: 2:00 p.m.

The season at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (2600 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar) runs through Labor Day. Reserved seats are just $8. Like Dodger Stadium, the palm trees and ocean breezes make this like no other horse track in the world. Buy a racing form and study the entrees, or simply bet on the colors of the jockey silks. Either way, you’ll have an afternoon of fun in the Southern California sun.

Bullys

Sunday: 5:00 p.m.

Bully’s Del Mar (1404 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar) is one of the great restaurants in America. Situated a few blocks from the ocean, there’s always a wait, but it’s worth it because Bully’s has a great bar and a great atmosphere, and the prime rib (garnished with fresh peppercorns, if you like) is some of the best you’ll find anywhere.

Sunday: 7:00 p.m.

Set your GPS for Temecula and Europa Village (33475 La Serena Way, Temecula), one of the great old world wineries that has been making a name for itself in Southern California. The rooms here are named after varietals: from the ultra-lush Cabernet Sauvignon ($240/night) to the Sangiovese ($180/night), and the views will make you think you’re in Tuscany.

Monday: 9:30 a.m.

After breakfast at the Europa Village, drive up to Lake Ellsinore and across state highway 74 through the San Juan Host Springs at the southern edge of the Santa Ana Mountains to Dana Point. It’s a gorgeous, twisty mountain drive that makes you feel thousands of miles from the ocean, even though the Pacific is just across the pass. The Caspers Wilderness, on the western edge, is particularly beautiful.

The infamous Southern California rush hour traffic should have cleared (mostly) by the time you get across the mountains. Take the I-5 to the 405 to LAX. On the flight home, all you’ll be thinking is, “I wish I weren’t leaving.”

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

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