More than two decades ago, I moved cross country and traded Baltimore crabs for San Diego fish tacos. A few days ago, I had to make a pilgrimage–an NFL road trip–from sun-dappled downtown San Diego to the Southern California city of Carson for something of vital importance.
It’s a two-hour trip north. Navigating Southern California gridlock can be a drag—and no amount of enticement could attract anybody to ride shotgun with me on this road trip. C’mon peeps! It’s Los Angeles…County! Hooray for Hollywood! The In-N-Out double-double burgers are on me!
On the Saturday before Christmas, the universe dictated I had to do this NFL road trip, albeit solo. Worlds were scheduled to collide. My hometown Baltimore Ravens were coming to Los Angeles-ish to play the Chargers. That’s the former San Diego Chargers. Before last season, proving that Mensa membership is not a requirement for owning an NFL football team, Chargers owner Dean Spanos moved his football operation to L.A.
As you read this, the game result is old news: The Ravens beat the Chargers, 22-10. The win at Carson’s StubHub Center catapulted the Ravens into strong postseason contention with one regular season game left. And it sent me to the moon on a rocket shop called Euphoria.
This isn’t just a sports story, though. It’s an off-the-beaten-path travelogue. One of the characters is an innocent bedroom community not exactly buttressed by a tourism infrastructure. The narrator is a disenfranchised optimist desperate to recall the true meaning of faith and allegiance.
Juggling football teams
I understand NFL abandonment issues.
My boyhood heart belonged to the Baltimore Colts. Deceased, Hades-dwelling former owner Robert Irsay moved the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984. It wasn’t until 1996 that the NFL allowed the Ravens to become Bawlmer’s new team.
By then, I’d moved to San Diego, and began to cheer for the Chargers. Know that I rooted for the Ravens whenever San Diego and Baltimore went head to head. But versus the rest of the league, I was in the Chargers corner.
Who knew Spanos would pull an Irsay? The ramifications of moving the Chargers to L.A. have been complicated for some locals. San Diego media is still trying to figure out which way to lean. One newspaper columnist took to referring to the Chargers as the “Judases.” The local CBS-TV sports anchors do a weekly “Fan/Ex-Fan” segment, in which they take turns extolling and condemning the San Di…er, Los Angeles Chargers.
Perhaps due to relative geographic proximity, and bandwagon mentality for a playoff-bound-team, there are still Chargers backers in San Diego. I can’t criticize the long-term faithful fans who won’t let go—I can only hope they land gently when the reality of abandonment eventually sets in.
For me, now I’ve been burned twice. Last season, I bitterly watched the Chargers on TV with the intent to giggle like a kindergartner whenever they’d blow a fourth-quarter lead. Last weekend in Carson, it was nearly as glorious watching Baltimore win as it was to see Spanos’ team lose, and imagine him someday shvitzing in the underworld as Bob Irsay dangles a bottle of Dasani inches from his outstretched hands.
NFL Road Trip to Carson Experience
Before Saturday’s game, I knew nothing about Carson. Researching the city proved challenging. I found no major hotels or tour operators offering any fun-filled packages that included the Chargers. There’s no mention of the team on the Carson Chamber of Commerce website. The team plays at the StubHub Center and gets second billing on the stadium’s website—below a soccer team.
A week prior, Chargers Wire still had the game scheduled for Sunday—even though it’d been moved to Saturday.
Unlike beach-side Santa Monica or downtown L.A., Carson is devoid of marquee hotels. After poring over Motel 6 and Econo Lodge listings, I notice there are several casinos in the vicinity. I zeroe in on the Carson-proximal Crystal Casino Hotel. It’s in an industrial section of Compton, and I nearly book it—until I discovere the casino doesn’t have a poker room.
My casino experience has to include poker. Turns out Hollywood Park Casino has a huge room dedicated to Texas Hold-Em. Hollywood Park doesn’t have accommodations, though. There is, however, a hotel just down the street that offers a shuttle service to the casino, which is then a 15-minute Uber ride to the StubHub Center.
I go with the shuttle-friendly Crown Hotel. It’s minutes from Los Angeles International Airport and booking it online saves me 60 percent.
This is not, however, the Crowne Plaza Airport Hotel. To my surprise, the Crown Hotel has more aliases than Jason Bourne. It also goes by the Tradewinds and the Adventurer Hotel. It does have a heated pool, which seems to lure international travelers.
My Crown/Tradewinds/Adventurer “suite” smells more like a convalescent home. And I don’t ever want to know what the rubber band that I found in my bed had been used to wrap.
As promised, the shuttle does run to the Hollywood Park Casino. I decide to spend a couple hours there before getting a ride-share to the football game. Ironically, the owner of the Los Angeles Rams (sigh, who moved that team to L.A. from St. Louis) is building a colossal, $2-billion stadium right out behind the casino. Spanos’ Chargers will become a tenant here beginning in the 2021 season.
Sitting at a low-stakes poker table, I chat with casino regulars. Everybody is talking about the NFL playoff picture. I mention how I’m in town to see the Ravens play the Chargers. That stops conversation. “You sure you got the right night?” asks the guy sitting to my righ. “This is Saturday, you know.”
I look left and right and then into the dealer’s eyes. Blank stares. None of these avid sports fans at a poker table in Hollywood Park has a clue that an NFL football game happening in the general vicinity is hours away from kickoff.
“Did they move the Chargers game to tonight? I guess they did,” somebody finally offers. “Hey man, this is L.A.—we got too many other sports teams and things to think about.”
Inside the StubHub Center
Unexpectedly, plenty of other people are aware of the game.
To date, watching Chargers home games on TV made two things clear: The StubHub Center never sells out (even though it has just a 27,000-seat capacity—miniscule in comparison to other NFL stadiums). And more than half the seats are usually filled by fans of the opposing team.
For this game, the bandwagon effect has kicked in. The Chargers enter the game with an 11-3 record. The game sold out before I arrived. Walking the perimeter of the stadium are dozens of people, like me, who’d expected to show up and score an easy ticket. The lone scalper I find wants $280 for a seat. It sells to somebody else before I can swallow.
With five minutes left in the first half, I’m still on the outside looking in. In a stroke of luck, I’m standing near the ticket office when the last single seats are released. It appears that I get the second-to-last ducat available, which sets me back $155. But there’s no time to grouse.
The Chargers faithful are out in an abundance that hadn’t previously existed in Carson. Still, my East Coast brethren are representing in solid number. Purple and black Ravens apparel dots the stands and the mini-stadium corridors. By a slight margin, the most popular Baltimore jersey number appears to be the 52 worn by former linebacker Ray Lewis.
I chat with dozens of people wearing both teams’ colors. There are a lot of the old powder blue Chargers unis on hand, with LaDainian Tomlinson’s #21 the most prevalent. Not one person I mingle with, however, is a Chargers fan who’s driven up from San Diego. One Angelino, who could have bent my ear all night, lets me know he’s a Rams fan but had accepted a free ticket from three brothers he works with, all who hailed from Baltimore.
My own story garners due interest. I’m a guy from Baltimore who lives in San Diego and drove up to Los Angeles for this game. “All my teams leave me,” I mention to an L.A.-based writer who was also at the game alone.
I repeat that line to Baltimoreans who say they’d traveled from Catonsville, Parkville and Towson to catch this game. One dapper middle-aged dude is dressed in a Ravens-logoed sports coat. Another guy has donned a bird-beak hat. And several folks carry “Action Jackson” signs, in reference to rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, whose offensive mobility has saved the season for the team.
After the final seconds tick away, A purple cloud coalesces in the lower decks. A roar of approval swells from an estimated 35 percent of the crowd. It isn’t deafening. But it’s louder than you’d expect for most any NFL team that just notched a road victory.
After the game, I hang around in the oasis of smiling Ravens fans who watch and listen to the NFL Network announcers who’ve set up on-field. They interview Action Jackson and veteran safety Eric Weddle (who played a stellar portion of his career in San Diego before he was traded to Baltimore).
I don’t want the night to end—and not because I’m afraid to find more rubber bands in my bed. Well, partly.
The next day, I’m traveling southbound on the I-405 and smiling to myself during the drive back to San Diego. Then my Spotify mix kicks out Andrea Bocelli’s “The Prayer.”
“…Lead us to a place / Guide us with your grace / To a place where we’ll be safe.”
That Italian tenor has the ability to hurl thunderbolts into your tear ducts. My mind races back to childhood days. I watched every Colts game wearing a blue-sleeved t-shirt that had a photo of the team’s quarterback and read: “Sunday Stampede—A Bert Jones Production.”
It never entered that kid’s mind that football was a business. Or that someday a greedy owner would think to disrupt a community by moving the team away—least of all by piling the team’s equipment into Mayflower moving vans that pulled out of Baltimore under the cover of darkness as snow blanketed the city.
The rest of the drive breezes by. Back in San Diego, Sunday gets even better when the Pittsburgh Steelers lose to the New Orleans Saints. That bumps the Ravens into the division lead. Now, if the Ravens beat the Cleveland Browns this coming Sunday, Baltimore will host a playoff game.
The Chargers already have a lock on making the postseason. It remains to be seen if they’ll get home game. Some pundits argue that there is no home-field advantage for the Chargers at the StubHub Center.
Ah, the indignity. Whatever happens in the playoffs, here’s a statement you can take to the bank: The Chargers—who still have another season left to play in their current home field—will never win another game at StubHub Center.
Here’s why that’s a fact: By the time the postseason begins in 2019, due to a new naming-rights contract the owners of StubHub Center will have changed the name on the stadium sign to Dignity Health Sports Park.
You’d think that might be headline news. Someone should tell the regulars at Hollywood Park Casino. Then again, they got too many other sports teams and things to think about. J&J