By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published May 29, 2014 at 8:58 AM Photography: Eron Laber

NASHVILLE — The driving distance from Milwaukee to New Orleans and back, with stops in Beloit, Montgomery and Nashville, is just over 2,400 miles. By comparison, that would be like driving to Mexico City, then continuing on for another two hours.

Somewhere around 35 hours in a car will make a four-day road trip feel like a month-long campaign. While all the aches and pains that come with those nine-hour stretches speeding through the Deep South are easily forgotten, the experiences turn into memories you can share.

For us, it was a whole bunch of minor league Brewers baseball and fun in the cities where they played over this Memorial Day weekend. A perfect and unique way to send our 30s out with a bang.

Photographer Eron Laber and I hatched this idea over one quick breakfast this spring. Best friends since 1985, we were both set to turn 40 within three days of each other. Me on May 27, and Eron on May 30. Over the years, we’ve taken many road trips and vacations with each other, but nothing anywhere near this grandiose. It seemed perfect – iconic, even – to build a trip around our beloved Brewers, even if these were players who, for the most part, hadn’t yet made it to Milwaukee, many of whom never will.

The schedule lined up perfectly for Memorial Day Weekend: three road games in three cities. On Thursday night, the single A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers played in Beloit. On Friday night, the double A Huntsville Stars were in Montgomery, Alabama. The AAA Nashville Sounds played in New Orleans on Saturday night. And to split up the long trip home, Nashville just happened to be equidistant from the Big Easy and Brew City.

We found the trip planning to be pretty easy, actually: we opted to drive my BMW coupe (because it was faster and had nav), Priceline a few hotels, and talk to one player at each game. The rest was about soaking in as much as we could in one night each in Montgomery, New Orleans and Nashville – nothing against Beloit, but we jumped back in the car as soon as that game ended.

Beloit: A Single-A Start

Driving from Milwaukee to Beloit is easy, just a straight shot down I-43 South, and we arrived to Pohlman Field with tons of time. I visited this stadium a decade ago, when the Beloit Snappers were the Brewers’ single A ball club. It’s a pretty modest place.

In fact, if someone didn’t tell you, you might not know there’s professional baseball being played at this tiny, somewhat rundown stadium. Constructed in 1982, it only holds 3,500 fans, and on this night, I’d be surprised if there were 200 people in attendance. Nestled in a neighborhood with ample free parking, everyone for blocks knows who is batting.

Still, Pohlman has some personality. I ordered the impossibly cheesy "Wisconsin burger," which is a cheeseburger topped with cheese curds and nacho cheese. It wasn’t bad, but it was way too rich, and I couldn’t finish it. The fans in attendance were into the game, and indeed, it was a beautiful spring night for baseball.

Before the game, we spoke to 2012 first-round draft pick Clint Coulter. I found the 20-year-old catcher to be poised, modest and intelligent in our interview, which wasn’t as cliched as it could’ve been.

I specifically asked Coulter about the transition from high school during his first full season with Timber Rattlers.

"You know you want to get comfortable in a place, and this is great place to get comfortable," he said, pointing out that he has already learned a lot in Spring Training from Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado.

But the pace of single A ball is tiring, too, he said. "We got 14 games in my senior year in high school and now we get 14 games in two weeks. You know, your body is always feeling it if you’re playing every day, and you kind of get used to feeling a little banged up, but going out and playing and having a good focus sometimes helps, too."

And Coulter knows that even though he was a high draft pick, nothing is certain at this point.

"If you go out and don't have your stuff, there’s no reason they're going to keep you. With that being said, they did invest a high pick on me, and I do have a responsibility to show them that I can progress, and get better with the reps that they're giving me – which I feel like I've been doing. I think pressure is kind of self-given. You put on yourself what you want, so I just go out there and have fun."

On the field, it was obvious that we were watching very green baseball players – and Coulter didn’t play in this game. Not only did the T-Rats and Snappers look very young, the quality of play was markedly different than what you see in the Big Leagues. Pitchers had a lot of trouble hitting their spots; I was surprised how many pitches were thrown for balls. Most of the contact made by the batters resulted in weak grounders or popups – but this wasn’t so much a pitchers’ duel, it just wasn’t crisp baseball.

The game ended with a walk-off single by the Snappers, against a five-person infield – a configuration that I haven’t seen in person since little league. Despite a whole bunch of Timber Rattlers standing around the drawn-in infield, the Snappers’ Melvin Mercedes still managed to drive in the winning run with a hot shot up the third base line and win 3-2.

But we had no time to stay and reflect. We left immediately after the game and drove five hours south to Effingham, Ill. where we stayed at a roadside motel. Like versions of us half our age, we were almost too excited to sleep.

Montgomery: Biscuits and Baseball

I really enjoyed the 10-hour drive to Montgomery. We noticed a quick scenery change, as the trees and vegetation become more verdant, the landscape hillier, and the temperature much hotter. We stopped for a bathroom break in Metropolis, Ill., which sucked us in to see their giant brass sculpture of Superman. We spent a few minutes taking pictures before jumping back on I-24 South.

The drive went quickly, that is, until we hit a major traffic jam in Birmingham. Apparently, a Dave Matthews Band concert was taking place that evening, and it stopped us in our tracks for an hour. We rolled into Montgomery with no time to spare, arriving unshowered and sweaty for the Biscuits game just before the first pitch.

Both Eron and I loved Riverwalk Stadium, located right on the Alabama River. This AA team really has it together, from its tiny pig mascot to the biscuit cannon between innings (and Monty the Biscuit may be the best mascot in any sport, period). The fan base is really into its team, and it shows throughout the experience. And it's such a family-friendly atmosphere; kids went nuts when a train rolled past the outfield, blasting its horn.

On the field, both teams played crisply, and the difference in talent between single and double A was really noticeable.

On this steamy night, The Biscuits jumped on Brent Suter (6-3) with two home runs while Dylan Floro (4-4) cruised through eight innings in a 6-1 win over the Huntsville Stars. The Stars avoided the shutout in the ninth inning, as Jason Rogers tripled with one out and was then brought in by a ground ball from Shawn Zarraga.

After the game, we strolled into the visitors dugout, where we chatted for almost a half an hour with Tim Dillard, the former Brewers reliever, who is now back for his third stint with the Stars, hoping to resurrect his career.

This was one of the most entertaining sports interviews I’ve ever conducted.

Dillard, who was optioned by the Brewers in 2012, played anywhere that would have him, using every connection available to him to get back into professional baseball.

"I pulled out every stop I could," he said, eventually finding work in Mexico. There, he met "Chilo," a coach who taught the sidewinding reliever a new kind of sinker.

"I met this guy, he was about 6 foot 6, probably 160 pounds," said Dillard. "He had the huge thick black mustache, and he wore shades even at night. Everyone knew who he was. This guy was a legend, a sidearm righty closer years ago."

With his new pitch that he called his "Chilo," Dillard found work in the Independent Atlantic League.

"I'm getting ground balls and outs, and I was there for the whole month of April," recalled Dillard. "Then the Brewers called and I still don't know the reason. They said that they had some guys get hurt. They said, ‘Hey we're gonna put you in Nashville,’ and I'm thinking I hadn't really seen my family except for a few days out of the last two months and you're going to put me where I live and pay me to play baseball."

Things went well, said Dillard, but at the end of the year he didn't get signed back by the team.

Entering this season, Dillard was again unsigned and went back to throwing overhand. He still couldn’t get left-handed pitchers out, but contacted three scouts to throw for them.

"They've got their guns out, and I'm throwing as hard as I can over the top, and I'm just like, ‘Man, I feel good.’ I threw 30 pitches and came down to talk to them and I'm like, ‘Hey what do you think?’ They're like, "Did you used to throw hard over the top?’ and I'm like, ‘Yeah. Had some really good time in the Big Leagues in 2008 throwing like 95.’"

"They're like, ‘Well, you throw 85 over the top.’ For me that was a punch to the gut. I tried for two months, I can't pitch over the top, I can't get a job sidearm, so maybe it's time to hang it up. I was like, ‘Listen, give me one more shot. Let me just see what I got and let me try to throw sidearm. Do you mind?’ They were like, ‘No, go ahead. Whatever.’"

Having not thrown a ball sidearm in months, Dillard let loose one more time. Apparently, something clicked, because as he was leaving, the Brewers called once again.

"I almost cried. I came right back to the field. (The Brewers said), "We'll put you in Double A and see how it goes."

Physically, Dillard said he has a young arm. Interestingly, he came up as a catcher, sparing a lot of the wear and tear that years of pitching could have had. He said he just wants to play again for the Crew, where he was during both playoff runs in 2008 and 2011.

Of course, the 30-year-old pitcher is realistic about his chances now, and said he would like to go into broadcasting or coaching if this doesn’t work out. But now, tonight, he was the oldest pitcher on the team, holding court in the young bullpen, his Brewer warmup jacket serving as a reminder of where he had been.

"What really puts it in perspective is seeing the guys go through the exact same stuff that I went through."

Said Dillard, "I think they needed somebody that's just going to pitch when we need someone to pitch, but at the same time they know I'm not going to be a jerk in the clubhouse. They know I'm not going to cause any trouble, but maybe help out some guys. That's a role that I've never been in."

We wished Dillard well, then checked into the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel, just blocks away from the stadium. The only four-star hotel in town, it still only cost us about $130. We spent the next few hours scoping out the slightly sleepy Montgomery nightlife scene.

I liked Montgomery more than I expected. It’s really old and Southern, with history – not all of it good – evident everywhere. There are only a handful of bars downtown, but we checked them all out, and people were especially friendly everywhere. We liked the Alley Bar, with its frozen shot room, where for some reason, you slam your ice shot glass to the ground when you’re done, and neighboring Aviator Bar. The Sand Bar was cool, too, with a fun, outside vibe.

But what I noticed the most was the racial integration. Unlike in Milwaukee, black and white people went to the same places here, and they actually talked to each other. It was more than a little refreshing, and for the South’s extremely racist history, at least here they’ve been forced to confront it and deal with it. Milwaukee could learn a lesson from this town.

New Orleans: The Big Easy and Beyond

After all this driving, the five-hour jaunt to New Orleans Saturday morning felt like a short trip. We arrived in the French Quarter by 3 p.m., with enough time to shower and take a quick stroll around Bourbon Street before heading to the Zephyr’s stadium for a 6 p.m. game.

Compared to the Biscuit’s home, we felt a little let down by Zephyr Field. Yes, it was bigger – it reminded me a little of Tempe Diablo Stadium – but it wasn’t quite as well-maintained as Montgomery. It had some fun parts, though, like a pool in right field and a big grassy berm in center. It was a little bigger, too. Built in 1997, it has a capacity of more than 11,000, but New Orleans, being a city with an NFL and NBA team, isn’t really a baseball town. The AAA Zephyrs hardly seem to be the center of attention in this amazing city.

On the field, both the Nashville Sounds and the Zephyrs played like Major Leaguers. This was high-level baseball, and I knew most of the Sounds’ players from either their cups of coffees with the Brewers or from Spring Training trips to Phoenix. Even though the Sounds lost a 3-2 game, Brad Mills pitched well. Eugenio Velez went 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles, and Sean Halton drove in the two Nashville runs.

We spoke to first baseman Hunter Morris after the game in the visitors’ clubhouse. I asked him if he was surprised that the Brewers never called him up last year or during the off season.

"They had an opportunity to go out and get a couple of veteran guys this off season that were much more proven than I am," said Morris. "They put together a team that's going to make a run at the playoffs and hopefully pretty deep into it. So they did what they felt like they had to do to be competitive, especially early on and get out to a good start. I'm just hoping I can be a part of it down the road."

Does he think about the opportunities ahead of him?

"I'm going about my work the same way every day, no matter what," he said matter-of-factly. "It doesn't matter if I'm playing behind Joey Votto or Albert Pujols or one of those guys. It's not going to change what I do, just because I'm my own player and that's going to take care of itself in the end, whether it's with Milwaukee or one of the other 29 clubs. If I'm good enough to play in the big leagues, I'm going to play in the big leagues."

Of course, it’s only Morris’ fourth professional season, and last year wasn’t considered a good one for him. Despite how it sounds, Morris didn’t speak like he had a chip on his shoulder.

"I learned a ton throughout the course of last year. You never want to struggle, but I had a lot of ups and downs. In the end, the season was not as bad on paper. But I certainly felt like I could have been a lot better and took that as a learning experience and turned it into a positive. I feel like I'm carrying that into this year and improving on the things that I need to improve on."

On a different team, does Morris think he could be in the majors right now?

"There's plenty of guys we face in this league that if they were in the right spot, they'd be putting up some serious numbers in the big leagues, too. It's just a learning experience, and I try to learn from some of the veteran guys in our clubhouse that have been there, and learn everyday out on the field."

But despite the travel in the Pacific Coast League – and there’s tons of it – Morris said he’s still having fun.

"It’s a great clubhouse, great team we've got here, an enjoyable group of guys to be around. If I can't be in the big leagues, then this isn't a terrible place to be, either."

By the time we got back downtown, it was already 10 p.m., but we still managed to spend the next six hours on Bourbon Street. I’d been here twice before, once in 1994 and once in 2000, and it smelled exactly the same: putrid.

Now, I know that there’s tons of great stuff to do in New Orleans, but we didn’t have the time to explore. With our hotel one block from Bourbon, we suspended disbelief and allowed ourselves to have the touristy, somewhat disgusting experience in this enticing hellhole.

Bourbon Street is a prime example of Americans on their absolute worst behavior, and we watched it all from atop the balconies, walking up and down the street a few times. The strip clubs are extremely pushy – we stay away – and we watched fights breaking out everywhere, as well as several drunken bachelorettes projectile vomiting while their bridesmaids tried to prop them up. On street level, I stepped in a puddle of the worst-smelling liquid on Earth, so we had to throw my clothes and shoes in the hotel room laundry at midnight and regroup. And don’t even get me started on the "bead economy."

Don’t get me wrong, Bourbon is fun, but it’s not a place I ever need to visit again. Fortunately, I’ve seen New Orleans’ actual culture on two other occasions, so I don’t feel like I totally missed out. Still, I had to grab a beignet at Cafe Beignet (no time, dragging luggage, to schlep over to Cafe du Monde) before we hit the road at noon.

And, of course, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and one big green Hand Grenade from Tropical Isle, we just happened to sit down next to three Milwaukeeans who were visiting for the weekend. This always seems to happen, and we owed it to ourselves to compare notes on our vacations.

"It's magical here," Christine Haise told me, on vacation with her two friends, Lara Sokolowski and Jessica Megna. "Everyone that we've met so far has just been nice and real and happy and just good people."

And Megna said she wasn’t all that surprised she was eating breakfast next to us, either.

"I don't know why that is, but you guys aren't the first guys we've met from Milwaukee on this trip. Our last trip I we met a group of guys from Milwaukee, too."

Nashville: Genuine City, Real Country

Sunday morning was rough. With baseball done, I didn’t really enjoy this loooong drive all that much. Eron and I switched places frequently. We were tired. We chugged coffee and Five Hour Energy drinks. We probably smelled bad. I spilled powdered sugar from the beignet all over the car. The back seat was full of empty water bottles, and I barely had the energy to be funny to make Brett Favre jokes when we passed Kiln, Miss.

We finally arrived in Nashville around 8 p.m., and while we planned to catch up with our old friend (and blogger) Lindsay Garric, time wasn’t on our side, and we agreed to a raincheck. I almost lost my temper at the grumpy clerk at the hotel’s front desk who didn’t have a room with two beds, per our reservation. After some grumbling, she switched rooms for us, and with what little energy left in our tanks, we grabbed dinner downtown. I’ll admit, I was hangry.

But my mood changed quickly, as I found myself so pleasantly surprised by Nashville. Broadway is like a cooler, honkey tonk version of Milwaukee’s Water Street. And while I do hate new country music, the people here felt so much more authentic than what I was used to. Free music was everywhere, and all of it was amazing. Labeling it just "country" would be an injustice.

We grabbed some awesome barbecue at Rippy’s, since some of the more famous places were closed by now, then we watched amazing live music at the three-level Toosties Orchard Lounge and Layla’s Bluegrass Inn. The band at Layla’s stopped us in our tracks. More blues than country, Tom Buller and the Just Plain Trouble Band was so good that we couldn’t let ourselves leave, even though we were falling asleep while standing there. I found myself hypnotized by each of these world-class musicians. I’m serious, this was quite possibly the best country blues band I’ve ever seen.

Thanks to their mesmerizing music, we actually made it until almost 1 a.m. before we packed it in and headed back to the hotel for six hours of sleep. Another nine, uneventful hours later, we were home. The odometer read 2,408 miles since we left Bay View.

Extra Innings

Wow. What a trip. At press time, I’m still catching up on my sleep. My back hurts a little, and my wallet is a lot lighter. I ate a lot of fast food. More stories happened, a few I can’t tell you.

But it was worth it. So worth it.

Eron and I have taken some amazing trips over the years, but this was epic. Baseball, just a little culture and lot of conversation, we sent our thirties out with a bang. And the Brewers of the future seem to be on their way, too.

We called it Operation: Drive The Cycle, and that we did. I may not be excited about be 40, but at least I feel like I welcomed this decade in a grandiose fashion. These are memories I’ll never forget.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.