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I Almost Prayed in Albuquerque: This Side

In Summer 2007, I drove from San Diego to Cooperstown for Tony Gwynn’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is Part 2 of a nine-part series covering the first day of my journey.

My decision to drive from San Diego to Cooperstown for Tony Gwynn’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame was an easy one to make. Although I’m a relative newcomer to Padres fandom (having “found religion” in the mid-’90s), I’ve long appreciated Gwynn’s contributions to his team, his city, and baseball.

For an organization that is ignored or dismissed by much of the national sports media, Gwynn represents an irrefutable affirmation of his team’s place in baseball lore. His inclusion among the inner circle of greats who have played the sport since those gentlemen in Cincinnati first donned red stockings in 1869 brings legitimacy to the Padres’ existence as a big-league franchise.

When future generations of baseball fans make their pilgrimage to Cooperstown, they will see Gwynn in a Padres uniform. They will witness first-hand a team they may not have seen or heard play. It is possible that they might even be moved to learn where San Diego is.

This part of my journey is familiar. In addition to the ’03 Dallas trip and a tour of the nation’s perimeter back in ’88, I drive to Phoenix with some regularity — for spring training or the Arizona Fall League, both excellent opportunities to watch up-and-coming young ballplayers hone their craft in an effort to reach the big leagues. I saw guys like Tim Salmon, Hank Blalock, Khalil Greene, Ryan Howard, and Huston Street play in the desert long before most folks had ever heard of them.

With the radio signal weakening, I popped my first CD in the player — This Side, by Nickel Creek, a “progressive acoustic” trio with San Diego roots. Their music has its foundation in bluegrass, but the players are young and have been exposed to many different styles, a point driven home by the inclusion of Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger” on their 2002 crossover hit.

The album doesn’t represent Nickel Creek’s best work, but the songs are well constructed and executed. Their melodies are inventive yet easy to sing along to — always good on a road trip — and the vocal harmonies are precise. All three musicians are accomplished singers and instrumentalists.

(Chris Thile is an absolute monster on mandolin. I’ve seen him play live and he impressed me then; much later I saw a video of him performing a J.S. Bach piece, which further reassured me that the immediate future of stringed instruments is, literally and figuratively, in excellent hands.)

This Side makes for ideal departure music, a welcome companion on the open road. The tunes are upbeat but not cloying, and they offered a lush contrast to the cactus and sand outside as I passed through Ocotillo, El Centro, and Winterhaven, and crossed the Colorado River into Arizona.

The temperature already had climbed above 80 degrees Fahrenheit by the time I arrived in Yuma at 6:30. Nestled along the eastern bank of the Colorado, Yuma is home to about 85,000 residents according to the 2005 Census Bureau estimates, making it the 10th largest city in Arizona. It also is the least cloudy metropolitan area in the United States and boasts an average temperature of 107 during July.

Suddenly mid-80s at breakfast time doesn’t seem so bad.

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