SAN FRANCISCO -- I've never been to Disneyland, or Myrtle Beach, or London, or Walley World, or whatever other places Clark Griswold took his family on vacation. I'd never left the United States until I was 30 years old, and I'd only been on an airplane once before college. My hometown of Mattoon, Ill., was the center, the borders, of my universe; the rest of the planet may as well have been Melmac.
We took one family vacation a summer, and about 75 percent of them involved the two-hour drive to St. Louis. We'd stay at the Clarion Hotel (now the Millennium) with the revolving restaurant on the top floor, go to a Cardinals game, take a ride up the Gateway Arch and go home. If you've ever been up the Arch, you know it's a deeply uncomfortable elevator ride, and the view is mostly of Busch Stadium, a bunch of anonymous downtown buildings and a lot of open, dull space. I still felt omnipotent up there, like I was looking down on earth from orbit.
Every other vacation was based around baseball too, specifically where the Cardinals were playing. While you were traipsing around Epcot, or Aspen, or Paris, or wherever, the Leitches were charting unexplored territory in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, trying to make sure to stay at the same hotel as the visiting Birds. These were our family trips, and they were glorious. My dad got his haircut next to Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon; he had a beer (and an argument) with Reds outfielder Dave Parker; I rode down an elevator with Ozzie Smith and his son. This was better than Greece: These were gods coming down to earth. All you had to do was get in a car and go find them.
Ever since then, I've always associated travel with sports. I suspect I'll be planning my own family's vacations around the Cardinals as well. When I was in Paris with my wife, I woke up at 5 a.m. to catch the end of a Cardinals game on the West Coast; when in Buenos Aires, the only thing I wanted to see was where the Boca Juniors played. Sports are a way to understand the local culture, a universal language with different dialects but the same basic nomenclature: You can learn so much about a city from its sports teams, and its fans.
Which is why we've started this Leitch Across America Tour, which kicks off this week in the San Francisco Bay Area. (I'm aware that title sounds like a series of geographic inseminatory accidents. Just go with it.) Every couple of months, I'll be visiting a new city for a whole week, exploring the local sports culture, talking to fans and luminaries, attending games, trying to figure out what makes the fanbases tick. We're going to do this as long as I'm here, so the plan is to hit cities huge and small, from major metropolises to smaller college towns. The only way I know the world is through its sports; Leitch Across America is an opportunity to understand it better, put it into context, a sort of Lonely Planet of sports.
We're still working out the kinks this week, and we'll have this honed down to a science after we do a couple of these. But for now: To quote the final "Calvin & Hobbes," it's a magical world out there. Let's go exploring.
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Obviously, starting a series with an area rather than a city, like we are doing with the Bay Area, isn't exactly ideal, and in a perfect world, we'd do separate weeks on San Francisco and Oakland. But what is going on in the Bay Area right now is impossible to ignore.
Has there ever been a time in this area's history in which every team has been so relevant? The Giants just won their second World Series in three years. The A's are coming off a division title. (And a Best Picture nomination.) The 49ers came mere seconds away from winning their sixth Super Bowl. The Warriors just finished their most successful season in nearly 20 years and might have the most individually exciting player in the sport. The Sharks are a win Tuesday night against Los Angeles away from their third conference finals in the last four years. Stanford, of all schools, is a football powerhouse. They're having the America's Cup here. Heck, even the Raiders look like they might be starting to turn it around.
For years, the 49ers have dominated the sports scene here, but two things are conspiring to potentially slow that. First, the Giants: They have a gorgeous, perfectly located ballpark that has already transformed how people interact with the city, and, oh yeah, there are those two championships. But perhaps more worrisome, the 49ers are moving 45 miles south to Santa Clara after this season, to a shiny but way-the-hell-down-there stadium that'll host Super Bowl L. Candlestick Park is hardly beloved -- and certainly not perfectly located itself -- but Santa Clara is a long way away from San Francisco proper. We'll be exploring this idea on Wednesday.
This is an area that is constantly changing, by its very nature; it is the center of tech, from Google and Apple and Facebook down in Silicon Valley to Twitter and Instagram and Reddit in the city, and is thus undergoing a constant evolution. (I did an interview at Twitter's offices a few years ago and then just walked over to AT&T Park like it was nothing afterward.) But San Francisco couldn't be more different than Oakland, which couldn't be more different than San Jose, which couldn't be more different than Santa Clara. We bound them all up more as a matter of convenience rather than logic. But there is still a binding ethos here.
And it is an area that adores its sports. Among the top 20 watched television programs in the area two weeks ago, five of them were sporting events (three Warriors games and two Giants game). Taking a run through the city on Monday, I saw the word MONTANA more often than if I'd been in Billings. The Giants are a particular source of civic pride; I'm a sucker for a good People Going Wild In The Streets After A Championship video. (This is a particularly inspiring one.)
It also warrants mentioning that the most breathtakingly beautiful city I'll see on any of these trips might be the first one. This place feels almost imaginary.
Anyway, I'm spending all week here, and I'll be talking to tons of locals and drinking lots of Anchor Steam and watching hours upon hours of baseball, trying to figure out what makes this place tick. At the end of the week, we'll introduce our proprietary ranking system that we'll use throughout all these trips, placing where San Francisco and the Bay Area ranks in several important categories of fandom and sports culture. If you're around the area, please let me know, @williamfleitch or at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you have suggestions on what to make sure to see or insights on subtleties an outsider might miss. I'm merely a sports tourist reporting back; the locals will always know the real story.
So, welcome to the kickoff of Leitch Across America: San Francisco and the Bay Area. This is quite the city they have here. Let's go exploring.
Oh: And do not call it "San Fran." Ever.
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