Wallks with Graff with Todd Graffagnini

Walks with Graff: the Uptown route

Pelicans radio play-by-play man catches up with former Tulane baseball coach Rick Jones
by Todd Graffagnini

I am a walker. At this point in my life it's pretty much an obsession. Six days a week, five miles (sometimes more) a day, with an occasional elliptical or treadmill on the road when the weather is inclement.

It hasn't always been this way. I was a baseball player into my third year of college (1989) until an accident ended my athletic career overnight. Jogging, much less running, from then on was out of the question and frankly, I wasn't much into working out anyway. I remained that way until the summer of 2007 when I looked at myself in the mirror and had enough. From then on I've been on the pavement. Doesn't matter what city I'm in or what season it is, I'm walking. I always know that every day at some point I'm going to have to block off at least 1:15 to get it done. 

That is my preview for you introducing this new column here on Pelicans.com. As we adjust to our "new normal" of staying at home with no live sports to watch or much less to broadcast, there is a challenge to everyone to remain as active as they can despite the circumstances. One of the things we can do in this time of social distancing is to get out of the house and get a run or a walk in, if nothing else to try and keep our sanity.

Now as an aside to each column, I will take you to a different part of this great city, get the miles in and talk a little sports, as I'll try and incorporate the walking route with sporting venues and add a story or two in the process.

We'll begin this first chapter with my personal favorite, the one that I've done more than any, the Uptown walk through Tulane University and Audubon Park.

Starting at the northern most point of the Tulane campus at South Claiborne and Ben Weiner Drive. This walk will take you through the campus, across St. Charles Avenue and the streetcar tracks and around the oval in the park and back to the beginning re-tracing your steps back to Claiborne.

You begin at the W. Kennon McWilliams Athletic Complex and to your immediate right is Greer Field at Turchin Stadium, which has been the home of Tulane baseball since 2008, and baseball has been played on that exact piece of land going back to the early 1980s. Walking past though, brings a hint of sadness, as the Green Wave should be in the middle of baseball season after a 15-2 start and a Top 25 ranking until the season was ended on March 11. You can't help but think back to the months after Hurricane Katrina, when this campus was empty, as it is today, a definite feeling of eeriness.

Rick Jones was the coach of Tulane baseball from 1994-2014 and retired as the all-time winningest coach there with more than 1,000 career wins at three schools. He recalled the time after Katrina and what the feeling was like not being on campus. Words that seem hauntingly familiar in today's landscape.

"Obviously it was surreal ... and I told my assistants (Mark Kingston and Chad Sutter) we don't have a manual to follow here. So we're gonna take it one day at a time, that's the way we looked at it. We took 38 guys to Lubbock, Texas and the people at Texas Tech treated us so well.

"The difference between then and now are two. One, we knew we were gonna come back, even though we were displaced at Zephyr Field, we knew we were gonna have a season. The difference though is all the country is going through this now. It was only us and UNO at the time and UNO had a ballpark to come back to. I couldn't have been more proud of the 2006 team (who made it to a regional final vs Ole Miss). That team really, really achieved and I'm really proud and always will be of that club."

Continuing along you will pass 6-year-old Yulman Stadium, the home of Tulane football, the Hertz Center, where basketball and volleyball offices and practice courts are housed. Veer to the right on Janet Yulman Way and you come up on a turf field where if this was 50 years ago you would be smack dab in the middle of old Tulane Stadium, the home of the Sugar Bowl and host of three Super Bowls until the construction of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Cross Willow Street and head straight on McAllister Drive and cross Freret Street at the light and head straight to the heart of campus. You will end up at St. Charles, but don't stop now (unless you want to), the beautiful oak trees and golf course of Audubon Park are next. Do one lap around the oval (I go counter-clock wise, but that's just me), enjoy the scenery, then head back through campus again to make the trek back to Ben Weiner Drive. The entire route is four miles, not a bad number if you're just starting out this walking thing.

As you hit the last hundred yards, when you see Turchin Stadium again for the second time on your left, a sprawling ballpark that was built after the old stadium was set for renovation in the summer of 2005, which obviously never happened, it still looks brand new despite it being 12 years old. Rick Jones remembers that special night game in February 2008 when the new ballpark opened.

"I can't imagine a more special night. I remember myself, and Rick Dickson (former Tulane athletic director) and Scott Cowen (former Tulane president) going out in front of the stadium before we did the ribbon cutting and a sea of people all the way up and down Ben Weiner, there was nothing but people in green and just being able to say, 'OK, here we go, we're back!' it was just such a great feeling."

Well that's it. I hope you enjoyed your first walk with me, and maybe you just might get out there and follow the route as I'll post them each time. Stay safe everyone.

Todd Graffagnini is the radio play-by-play announcer for the New Orleans Pelicans and a digital contributor to the New Orleans Saints.

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