Motorcyclist Online

Harley-Davidson Ballpark Tour

A six-city tour of baseball’s oldest and newest stadiums, all experienced from the saddles of Harley-Davidson’s new Milwaukee-Eight machines.

It started, as these things do, as a pipe dream. Delectable and impossible, a random thought passing through the drabness of office life. What would you, the hardcore baseball enthusiast, do with a couple of weeks off and access to a motorcycle? Would you act on that dream of touring for the singular purpose of watching baseball? Would you hit the road simply to visit some of the world’s most important and iconic ball fields? Yes. The answer is wholeheartedly yes.

And so the idea behind a project we dubbed America’s Pastime percolated. On a tour of the Northeast—arguably the center of gravity for Major League Baseball—it would be possible to see both the oldest and newest fields. Specifically, Fenway Park, as the oldest, home of the Boston Red Sox since 1912. And the new Yankee Stadium, which opened to much fanfare in 2009. (Since then, there are newer fields as well—the cross-town rival Mets’ Citi Field, also opened in 2009, as well as Target Field in Minneapolis, which opened in 2010, and the 2012 opening of Marlins Park in Miami.

In short order, we developed a tour to start in Boston and take us through the Bronx, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, South Bend, Chicago, and, finally, into Milwaukee, where we'd return the fleet of 2017 Harley-Davidson Touring models we'd borrowed for the occasion. Planning a trip with a game nearly every day wasn't easy, but we found a more-than-workable solution by adding a Single-A game in South Bend, Indiana, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the White Sox facility thanks to our special guest, Ron Kittle.

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Ron Kittle.Motorcyclist Online

Ron is our kind of guy. He’s a serious motorcyclist with his own Harley Fat Boy, a serious retired player, and a serious fan of the sport. Ron joined the White Sox for his first full year in 1983, playing a combination of left field and designated hitter. Although he had 150 strikeouts that year (leading the league), he popped 35 home runs (a club record for a rookie) and knocked in 100 runs over 145 games to give him Rookie of the Year honors and an invitation to that year’s All Star Game. He missed the American League home run title by just three dingers. The Sox won 99 games that year to the AL West division title; they would fall to Baltimore in four games in the AL Championship Series that year. It was the season known as “Winning Ugly,” a term offered by another team’s manager to describe the unlikely way the Sox were winning, capitalizing on other teams’ mistakes—but being good enough to take advantage of also being lucky.

A former steelworker, Ron is a big man (listed as 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds in his playing days) with an equally big personality. Wherever we went, he knew someone or had a story about a place, a player, or a game. And they were all brilliant. His wife, Barb, brought her own H-D Softail and a personality that could clearly go toe to toe with Ron any day of the week. Along with these two we had a total of 12 Motorcyclist readers in two groups of six, with overlap at our Baltimore game, in part to give our readers a shot at a cool vacation and in part to get their feedback on the new 2017 Harleys.

We converged at Boston Harley-Davidson to pick up our bikes, a combination of Ultra Limited, Ultra Limited Low, Road Glide Special, Street Glide, and Road King models in the new 2017 spec. Our group hotel was actually well south of Boston in Braintree, which brings up an interesting consideration for this tour. There's something about baseball, hot dogs, and beer. It's just the right combination on those warm summer nights, and we wanted to have the full experience. Which, in turn, means not actually riding the bikes to the game—we and Harley-Davidson both have a zero-tolerance approach to drinking and riding. So our tour had a combination of hotels very near the fields or a short taxi ride away.

Off days were built into the schedule to accommodate the games themselves, to include an overnight in West Haven, Connecticut, and an extra night in Somerset, Pennsylvania, on our way to Pittsburgh. Those off days, in concert with the relatively short distances between destinations, gave us the luxury of chasing back roads and flitting along serene country byways rather than slogging down the interstate. And while the Harleys were all adept at the dodge-the-semis game, they were at their best chugging down the main street of Some Small Town.

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The group heading into Harley-Davidson headquarters in Milwaukee.Motorcyclist Online

But before we hit the road, Game 1. The Kansas City Royals at Boston. Fenway is, without a doubt, the most interesting ballpark still in use. It’s old and traditional and quirky, yes, but its charm is almost overwhelming. It feels tiny, especially with the Green Monster in left field and just 310 feet between home plate and the wall along the left foul line, a mere 302 feet down the right-field line to The Pesky Pole. Fenway has been reconfigured many times over the years, moving bullpens and tweaking the seating, but the essence of the old park remains, from the occasionally cramped and sightline-impaired seating to the ground-level midway that feels even more crowded by its tight dimensions. If you grew up going to one of the newer mega-stadiums, Fenway will feel like watching at your high-school field, only sharing it with 37,000 other rabid fans.

“This place is special,” Ron says. “Defense in left field is a huge challenge, and the fans… Man, when you’re on the opposing team they really let you have it.” Naturally, Ron’s best memories of the place are the times he put one over the fence. “Great hitter’s park,” he says, which is something of an understatement. That wouldn’t help the Red Sox, who lost to the Royals 6 to 3.

The next morning we could have hopped on the Mass Pike and headed west, but we loaded our Harleys and stuck to the secondary roads, heading toward Framingham and Northbridge before stopping in the shadow of a Home Depot for a quick midmorning break. We eventually picked up Interstate 395 southbound to Putnam, Connecticut, for lunch at a recovered train terminal. From there, we followed CT 169 toward Canterbury before turning west through Hebron and Middletown, eventually picking up I-91 for a straight shot into East Haven.

As our group got its first sampling of the new Harleys, comments flowed in. Those with previous H-D experience, like retired Boston motor officer Dave Pelletier, had strong reactions. “The 2017 Harley is very good,” he said. “I love the motor. It’s so smooth and powerful compared to what I used to ride.” Even those in our group without much (or even any) big-bike experience eventually began to feel at ease on the baggers as the day wore on. Harley’s updates for this year, which include much better suspension, reduced clutch-lever effort, and more predictable brakes, help with that transition period.

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Our next leg into New York was complicated by the Yankees playing a day game and the opportunity to let Ron get us early access and a guided tour of the new Yankee Stadium. So we kept it simple, heading out of East Haven and eventually picking up the Merritt Parkway, a limited-access (meaning no commercial vehicles), tree-lined piece of heaven, paralleling I-95 but with an old-school charm that made sticking to the speed limits much easier. It helped that our late-August morning was cool and dry.

“Playing as a Yankee is really the big time,” Ron recalls.

Eventually, though, we made our way into the city, across battle-scarred highways and streets to our hotel in the Bronx. The city and the field are great counterbalances, as the new stadium is simply amazing and the Bronx is, well, the Bronx. Big to the point of inducing vertigo from some sections, clean, and thoroughly modern, the new Yankee Stadium picks up the iconic dimensions of the old and much of the architectural details.

In 1986, Ron was traded from the White Sox to the Yankees mid-season. “I guess since I was such trouble to them [the Yankees’ pitching], they figured it would be better to have me on their team,” he says. He joined the Yankees as a 28-year-old and hit well in limited action. The next year Ron would hit 12 home runs in just 59 games. “Playing as a Yankee is really the big time,” Ron recalls. “You’re on a huge stage with so many expectations. It was an honor to be part of this team.” Our fear that we might be bad luck to the home team was fueled by a Yankees loss on Sunday (just one day after a 13-run outburst against the Orioles).

The next morning we braved the George Washington Bridge, crossed over the Hudson, and immediately turned north along the Palisades Parkway. Yes, we knew that Philly was the other way, but we had all day to get there. Eventually turning off onto NY 106 westbound, we followed incredibly scenic secondary roads around lakes and through woodlands to Warwick, New York, for lunch. Late summer in this part of the world is amazing. For a Californian accustomed to the brown and gold of persistent drought, the green lushness of the northeast is something special.

Once again, the Harleys were totally at home cruising the secondary roads. All of our ’17 bikes were running the new Milwaukee-Eight engine, which is not just more powerful but more fuel-efficient as well. While we never had to, all but the Road King could have gone more than 220 miles on a tank comfortably.

Late that afternoon, we circled Philly to the east and landed at the Holiday Inn Express virtually in the Citizens Bank Park parking lot. We strolled over for the 7 p.m. game and a date with Bull’s BBQ at the field, owned by ex-Phillies slugger Greg Luzinski. Also, no surprise, an old friend of Ron. We sat consuming BBQ chicken and tri-tip, listening to Greg and Ron tell stories—usually one-upping each other on the distance of their home runs.

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Harley-DavidsonMotorcyclist Online

The Phillies’ stadium was opened in 2004 to replace Veterans Stadium; the new venue is dedicated to baseball. Through the 1960s and ’70s, baseball often shared facilities with football, with neither side being totally happy about it. The growth of baseball in the late 1990s helped fuel these standalone facilities, and CBP is a nice one, feeling much bigger and spacious at the fan level than even Yankee Stadium. Of course, by the time we visited, the Phillies looked to be headed out of postseason contention, and that does nothing for attendance.

One advantage of the CBP location is the nearby hotel—something we’d benefit from at our next stop in Baltimore, where we stayed literally across the street from Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Of course, we wouldn’t go direct, choosing instead to head west via Highway 30 and jutting off northwest to Brownstown. We capped our day with a tour through Pennsylvania’s Amish country and a fantastic brew-pub lunch in Lancaster before jamming southbound on the Interstate and into Baltimore. And some of the worst traffic we’d seen all week. Undaunted, we found our hotel, stored the bikes in underground parking, and looked forward to a cool shower before the 7 p.m. game.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards was opened in 1992, but it feels both newer and a lot older. Look out over center and right field and the B&O warehouse towers above the bleachers, a nod to Baltimore’s place in manufacturing history. The old brick sets the tone for the rest of the place, comfortable but notably historic venue. The fans? Oh, the fans. We had ground-level seats in the right-field pavilion and witnessed some of the loudest fans and most inventive heckles of the whole trip. And this enthusiasm carried past the ballpark gates, with the stadium area humming with people and music well after the game ended. Our mid-level hotel was reasonably priced, too, so if you can only swing one night really near the ballpark, Baltimore’s the place to do it.

The roads become more interesting once clear of the congested northeast, so we plotted a course west out of Baltimore toward Frederick, Maryland, where we eventually landed on Highway 9 near Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, for one of the most entertaining roads around. Hairpins opened to sweepers through the trees on a road that eventually ran along the ridgeline only to plunge back into the woods. We all left a little floorboard metal and laughter in our wakes.

Our overnight was in Somerset, Pennsylvania, in part because we had a day to kill before the next Pirates home game, so we stayed off the toll roads and followed first Highway 30 then 130 generally northwest, through towns like Harrison City and Pitcairn. Our crew was beginning to jell and the weather was nearly perfect.

Pittsburgh’s PNC Park stadium is a surprise. It is among the newer baseball-only facilities, but its location right on the Allegheny River across from downtown makes it uncommonly attractive. Even better, from our hotel in western Pittsburgh, a quick Uber drive got us to the ferry that crosses from the west bank of the Ohio river right to the base of the stadium. What a great way to approach a field. The Pirates lost that night, making us 1 for 4 in that count (only Baltimore had won).

It was time to make time heading west, so we made the leg from Pittsburgh to South Bend, Indiana, totally via the interstate. And as boring as that can be, the Harleys handled the straight-line stuff terrifically. Smooth at speed, with excellent cruise control and, on all but the Road King, adjustable aerodynamics, the modern baggers made this part of the trip, known ahead of time to be a flog, in fact surprisingly enjoyable.

Fenway Park

We all expected Fenway and maybe Camden Yards to highlight this trip’s ballpark experience, but we were all surprised to enjoy Four Winds Field and the South Bend Cubs as much as we did. This Single-A team, a feeder of the Chicago Cubs, has a magnificent site for this level of baseball. It’s a combination of professional and very community centric, like playing a really good gall of baseball while the county fair is in progress. A grassy knoll for kids to roll down, a fountain for them to run through, and some of the best food we’d had all trip made the South Bend Cubs among the high points of the entire trip.

Now in the home stretch, we left South Bend for a quick run into Chicago. No games for us either at Wrigley or US Cellular Field (home of the White Sox), but Ron walked us around the grounds. Big stadiums are exciting when full of fans, but they’re equally cool when it’s just a handful of groundskeepers. The scale seems immense, and standing in the batters’ box while looking out into the distant outfield is more than a little daunting.

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Miller Park.Motorcyclist Online

Our last day on the road, we left downtown Chicago and toured up Lakeshore Drive before jumping on the four-lane up to Milwaukee. An hour and a half later, we dropped the bikes off in the courtyard of Harley’s headquarters building (on Labor Day) and hopped in vans to the Brewers game. Make that a game held at Miller Park totally overrun by Cubs fans. Miller Park, aside from incredibly time-consuming parking, is another modern treat, though the massive scoreboard and swiveling roof give it a personality that seems almost to overshadow the playing field itself. But there’s beer—really good beer. Lots of it. As you’d expect.

With our detours and a “free day” based in Pittsburgh where we put 200-some miles of mostly back roads under the Harleys’ tires, America’s Pastime spanned nearly 2,000 miles from Boston to Milwaukee. Twelve riders who had very little H-D experience came to appreciate what these new models are capable of, not just on the highway but even on the “paved goat path” or two we sampled. They fit perfectly into the relaxed pace we’d set and the all-American idiom this tour embraced. It proved, above all, that while you could do this very tour in a car, from a bus, even on a bicycle if you had the time, baseball and American motorcycles were the perfect combination.

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Harley-Davidson group shot.Motorcyclist Online