In Summer 2007, I drove from San Diego to Cooperstown for Tony Gwynn’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is Part 3 of a nine-part series covering the first day of my journey.
For me, Yuma represents three things. First, the Cracker Barrel nearest to San Diego can be found here (the inescapable southern chain would figure prominently later on this journey). Second, when I reach Yuma, I know that I’m halfway to Phoenix. I keep a close eye on mileposts and periodically recalculate the ETA in my head based on the latest information (I do the same thing with batting averages at a ballgame — it’s my own special form of OCD). Third, and perhaps most important, gas prices are 30 cents lower on the Arizona side of the river. I’m certain that I’ve never driven along I-8 without stopping for gas here.
Like most towns, Yuma has a history. Among other things, the Yuma Territorial Prison was situated here from 1876 to 1909. The prison originally housed seven inmates, who — in a delicious twist — also built the first cells. Later the prison was shut down and replaced temporarily by a high school that relocated there due to fire (its teams are still called the Criminals despite the fact that the school vacated the building in 1914). The prison itself is now a state historic park.
The Padres have their own history in Yuma. Until 1993, they trained there each spring. Because it’s only three hours from San Diego, many fans would come out to see their team and make it back home the same day. The ballclub and the town, both perhaps feeling a bit neglected by the outside world, found comfort in each other.
The main drawback, of course, was that no other teams trained anywhere near Yuma, which meant that whenever the Padres wanted to play an actual game in March, someone had to sit on a bus for 5 hours. For minor leaguers with little experience or leverage, this wasn’t a problem, but guys pulling seven-figure salaries presumably had acclimated themselves to a higher standard of living.
(When the Chicago Cubs failed to send several of their best-known players to one of the Padres’ final exhibition games leading up to their inaugural season in 1969, the Cubs cited former president Dwight Eisenhower’s death as the reason. The Padres, however, weren’t impressed. San Diego manager Preston Gomez called the incident a “disgrace,” while general manager Eddie Leishman termed it “an insult to baseball.” Regardless of anyone’s opinion, the fact remained that established players weren’t likely to embrace a long bus trip through the desert.)
After filling up, stretching my legs, and calling home, I returned to the highway. I found a local radio station playing some form of Mexican music with an active bass line and rich, brassy horns. It captured the flavor of the region, so I left it on despite not being able to understand the lyrics — amor, corazon — it’s the same story in any language, I suppose.
Just east of town I stopped at the U.S. Border Patrol Inspection Station. Originally used for agricultural purposes, it now exists to track people, specifically any undocumented immigrants that might find their way onto American soil. My turn to speak with the attending officer came — “Yates” according to the nameplate on his uniform. He had a youthful face and was friendlier than I had a right to expect.
“Where you headed?”
“I’m on my way to Albuquerque.”
“Albuquerque?” He looked like he’d just woken from a nap. “What are you doing there?”
Uh-oh. I’d been given a hard time before for driving with California plates, but usually not this close to home.
“I’m headed out to Cooperstown, New York, to see Tony Gwynn inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.” I projected as much confidence as I could muster and hoped that the Padres cap on my head would help the cause. Assuming Officer Yates knew anything about baseball, the Padres, or Tony Gwynn, of course.
“Wow,” he said. His eyes lit up as if he were seeing a 3-1 fastball out over the plate. “You must be quite a fan; that’s awesome.”
“Yessir, I am.” Also, I’d wanted to add, there is nobody in my trunk or wherever else I might be tempted to hide a person.
Officer Yates nodded his head and instructed me to have a safe trip. As I drove off, he turned to chat with a colleague outside of their little hut in the middle of the desert. This might be the most exciting thing that happened to either of them today.