One Pack. No Turning Back.
On the Trail of Vincent Van Go
Day 25: Naples, FL to Jacksonville, FL, 7.13.15
Number of miles driven today: 340
Total miles driven on road trip: 5,495
Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts? Dunkin' Donuts rules central Florida
Starbucks' record (# of days Starbucks was more common): 19-4-1
Dunkin' Donuts' record: 4-19-1
Cheapest gas I saw today: $ 2.59
Number of states visited overall: 11
Number of red states visited overall (as of 2012 presidential election): 8 (Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia)
Number of blue states visited overall: 3 (California, New Mexico, Florida)
Number of oil changes I've done on trip: 2
Number of oil changes I've done myself: 0
Number of times I was given the finger today: 1, for not letting an SUV cut in front of me
Vincent Van Go is off and running.
He's so fast, and so elusive, that he's the one guy in the pack I cannot find.
I knew that one of the biggest challenges of this trip would be getting all 14 ballplayers (13 plus Al Cowens' family) to talk to me, given their schedules, celebrity, and my relative obscurity as a writer. I've been pleasantly surprised by their cooperation, as all but two have responded favorably (while I didn't get to interview Gary Pettis, that probably has more to do with the Astros' team policy for coaches talking to the media than reticence on his part).
The two exceptions are Carlton Fisk, a notorious grump, and Vince Coleman, whose reputation among the media is similarly checkered.
I've gone through great lengths to reach Coleman in the months leading up to this trip, and actually succeeded twice. I started by purchasing Harvey Meiselman's Baseball Address List, the gold standard among through-the-mail autograph collectors, which lists the home address for every guy to ever play Major League Baseball (what database he uses to compile the list is still, I believe, a closely guarded secret). I sent a two-page letter to Coleman's explaining the project. The letter was returned with a yellow label on it. Initially I thought I must have had the wrong address, but Meiselman informed me that you can simply return letters to your mail carrier, indicating you do not want to receive fan mail.
On to Plan B.
I knew that Coleman had been hired in the off-season as a baserunning instructor by the Chicago White Sox. Coleman's basestealing pedigree is no joke--he ranks sixth in the history of the game with 752 thefts.
The Chisox train in the Phoenix area for Spring Training, and so during my Spring Break from Laney College last March, I decided I'd pay him a visit. Although it's not as easy as the old days, you can still access players and coaches much more closely in the relaxed, balmy air of Spring Training than anywhere else.
Staying with my cousin Josh who lives in the area, I printed out the letter I had sent him and decided I'd find a way to hand-deliver it. Unfortunately, the plan was immediately derailed by my decision to order crabcakes at dinner the night before, and I spent the rest of the night alternating sitting on and kneeling in front of Josh's toilet. The moral of the story: Don't order crabcakes if you're more than 30 miles from the ocean.
Dragging into the Camelback Ranch baseball complex in Glendale, AZ the next day for an exhibition game between the White Sox and Royals, I fought through the crowd, which resembled a casting for a sequel to Cocoon, and downed a fresh-squeezed lemonade to slake my thirst. Steeling myself (and my volatile intestines), I positioned myself along the right-field foul line where a young thoroughbred of a catcher, Rob Brantly, was solemnly signing autographs for kids and overly enthusiastic man-children wearing fanny-packs. When Brantly walked by, I offered neither pen nor paper, and simply asked "Have you seen Vince Coleman?"
He said no, kept walking, and Josh later informed me he shot me a withering "why the fuck should I know about Vince Coleman?" look.
A few minutes later, I recognized Coleman's perfectly round globe of a head, his eyes hidden by wraparound shades that reflect a prism of color. With only a moment to make my move, I burst into action.
"VINCE!!" I called. "I know about your Uncle's sweet potato fries. I know about Mixon Town!"
I was referencing an old Sports Illustrated article about his childhood in the Mixon Town neighborhood of Jacksonville, FL, in which he had reminisced about eating his Uncle Carter's fries. It was creepy, to be sure. It's not every day you're strolling to work and someone calls out your favorite food 40 years ago and one of your uncle's names.
But it worked. I had Vincent Van Go's attention.
He walked over to me cautiously, suspicious.
I launched into a rapid-fire explanation of the project, the words piling on top of each other in a scrum of excited syllables.
"I'm writing this book about you, and I know all about your Uncle's sweet potato fries, and I'm going to visit Mixon Town on this road trip, and please take this envelope and letter which explains it all..."
He paused, completely still, sizing up this wild-eyed, food-poisoned, sun-drenched fan who may just be a drunk college student or may be a stalker. He still had that cherubic face, those puffy round cheeks that belie his hostile reputation. Then he shook his head. I was losing him.
"Really Vince, I'm a writer and I'm working on this book about you!" I pleaded, getting desperate. He started walking away. I called after him, losing all composure. I was failing. One of the game's greatest basestealers was getting away.
But it was too late. My brash, stalkerish approach did not work. It was on to Plan C. But that story is for another day.
Now, back to the present, I am in Jacksonville at a Red Roof Inn a few miles away from Mixon Town. By now, I'm on about Plan Q of Operation Vincent Van Go.
And I've still got plenty of alphabet left.
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