By Harry Minium
The Old Dominion baseball players were showered, dressed and on the bus at 4 p.m. Sunday. After winning the final two games of a three-game FIU series by a combined score of 32-12, the Monarchs were in for a celebratory move.
They were looking forward to a short bus ride to the airport, followed by a direct flight to Norfolk International Airport.
What followed was a 24-hour nightmare as the ODU coach Chris Finwood called “absolutely the hardest road trip of my career”.
After leaving Infinity Insurance Park at around 4 a.m., it took 24 hours, including what turned out to be a chaotic 960-mile, 18.5-hour bus ride from Miami to Norfolk, before the team returned at ODU.
As the Monarchs crossed Interstate-95 from South Florida to Hampton Roads, baseball bloggers, alerted by ODU players, took notice, including Stephen Schock, the former Virginia pitcher who is arrived late in the NCAA Regional championship game last season and shut down the Monarchs.
Schock posted a roughly drawn map of their trip to Norfolk and back to ECU, where the Monarchs were scheduled to play Tuesday night, on his Twitter account, which has nearly 70,000 followers.
“Until the beep,” he wrote in what sounded like a kindergartener’s handwriting.
“Not a problem,” tweeted the ODU reliever Noah Deanshowing a nail stuck in one of the bus tires.
Eventually, the electrical outlets on the bus went out, as did the air conditioning.
“No outlets and no AC, stuck in traffic now,” the outfielder tweeted. Andy Garriola.
The Virginia Cardinals baseball team tweeted: “Insert DVD and watch ‘Alive’ movie….take notes.”
The film was about the survival of a rugby team after the plane carrying the team crashed in the mountains. Also the DVD player was not working.
It’s all funny now, but back then it wasn’t.
The bad news started halfway through Miami International Airport when they were told the flight to Norfolk had been cancelled. Not delayed, cancelled.
“In all the years I’ve been coaching, I’ve never seen a canceled flight,” Finwood said. “Delayed, yes, but never outright cancelled.”
But it got worse. Officials told Finwood the earliest they could get their team to Norfolk was Tuesday night, more than 48 hours later. ODU had a road game scheduled in East Carolina on Tuesday night.
Of course, as usual now, the airlines no longer offer you a hotel room if your fight has been cancelled.
“We spoke to a woman at the airport and the airline offered her a pillow and a blanket,” Finwood said. “And she had been there for two days.”
After speaking with Samantha MitchellODU’s travel agent with Anthony Travel, it was clear the team would be better off heading to Norfolk.
Meanwhile, Finwood had another problem. His girlfriend, Krysia Witkowski, was on the trip. Who could blame her? Fly to Miami, spend three days watching baseball and maybe admire South Beach?
Yes, it sounded delicious, until the last leg of the journey.
“She was returning her rental car when I called her and told her the flight had been cancelled,” he said.
“She said, ‘Don’t leave me.'”
Memo to you singles: don’t leave your girlfriend stranded at the airport.
“Don’t worry, we won’t,” he said.
The bus driver who took the CRF team to the airport did not leave immediately after learning that the flight had been cancelled. “He was good about it. He didn’t want to leave us in a bad place,” Finwood said.
A deal was quickly brokered for his company to take the team to Norfolk.
So the players got back on the bus and went out to get diesel to refuel. They traveled back roads, miles from the airport, before finding a place that would sell them enough diesel.
“The counter moved at the speed of a snail,” said Alexander Ted, the radio voice of ODU. “It took forever.”
By then Finwood had persuaded the driver to provide a bigger and better bus. “The bus we were on had no sockets,” he said. “None of us would have had a cell phone.”
So the monarchs returned to the airport and changed buses, then headed back out in search of fuel. When asked if he was going to pay for the fuel, Finwood replied “of course”.
“I thought they would charge us,” he said.
But they wanted Finwood to pay. He pulled out his American Express card and by the end of the trip he had racked up $1,500 in charges.
He immediately received a phone call from American Express asking if he had really charged $700 for gas in Miami, as the bill stated.
Don’t leave home without it.
“Wis,” he told the baseball operations manager Adam Wisniewski“Don’t lose those receipts.”
Then, after refueling, the two bus drivers (two were needed for such a long journey) wanted to fill their thermoses with Cuban coffee.
I don’t know Cuban coffee, but you drink it almost like cough syrup, from what coaches and players have described, almost out of a shot glass.
They stopped at three places to refill their thermoses, stopping once in the middle of the road. Everyone thought the driver had stopped to let a lady with a walker cross the street.
Instead, he went to a small restaurant for more coffee.
They finally hit the road at 10:30 a.m., 6:30 a.m. after leaving the stadium.
Naturally, when they got to I-95, there were all kinds of delays. Finwood woke up once and they were miles off the freeway on back roads, avoiding an accident that stalled traffic for miles.
“Are we ever going to go home,” he said to Krysia.
Krysia was the calmest person on the bus, Finwood said.
“She traveled all over the world,” he said. “She’s been through all kinds of things like that.
“She just rode with it.”
Even when the outlets eventually went out and the AC started to cut out sporadically.
One of the drivers spoke a little English while the other didn’t. Fortunately, the assistant coach Logan Robin speaks fairly good Spanish and was able to communicate with them, especially when they were about to bypass the Hwy 58 exit and head all the way to Richmond before turning off to Norfolk.
“That’s what their GPS was telling them to do,” Finwood said. Robbins dissuaded them from taking this route, which would have added an hour or more to the trip.
It was strange to end a wild weekend.
Garriola had three home runs and nine RBIs in two games. Carter Trice had three homers and eight RBIs, all in ODU’s last game, an 18-5 win over FIU.
In all, the Monarchs have homered 12 in Miami, an average of four per game. They’ve had a home run lately, but it was the first time they’ve played in semi-tropical conditions, and that’s a promising sign for the time of the tournament.
Alexander may have had the craziest streak of them all. The FIU has no room for the radio crew in the press box, so he was outside in a tent.
Need I say that the FIU ballpark is a bit lacking in comfort.
If he wasn’t dodging foul bullets, he was battling the fierce Miami winds, which were blowing away all his carefully crafted notes.
“I looked up there and saw paper flying everywhere,” Finwood said with a laugh.
The Monarchs leave Conference USA on July 1 for the Sun Belt Conference, a league that has Power 5 baseball facilities.
“This is the last time we will disconnect from the FIU,” Alexander said, ending his show.
“Hallelujah,” he added.
Alexander does the Wednesday night radio show from Greenville.
“He’s definitely going to have a lot to say during the game,” Finwood said.
Fortunately, as Finwood said, “The baseball community is fantastic. Word spread quickly.”
Class act that he is, ECU coach Cliff Godwin texted Finwood and asked if he was okay with moving the game from Tuesday to Wednesday. Rain was forecast for Tuesday, and he knew ODU could take advantage of the break.
“If we had played on Tuesday it would have given ECU a big advantage,” he said. “I thanked him for that.”
The players took it all in stride. When they stopped to fill up on diesel, which sometimes meant an hour wait, they would get out and throw a football or play hacky sack.
“I told our guys yesterday they were soldiers,” Finwood said. “They rolled with the beatings.
“I’m sure they were really sore and very tired when they came back. But I didn’t hear any complaints.”
As for the bus crew, Finwood had nothing but praise for them.
“They were awesome,” he said. “They really bailed us out. When the guys got off the bus, they kissed the drivers.”
The trip was only half done for the drivers.
“They got back on the bus,” Finwood said, “and went straight back to Miami.
“I’ve seen very strange things happen on road trips in 34 years of training. But never one so strange.”