Each February, I eagerly anticipate the publication of those sports bibles touting the statistical history of hundreds of major and minor league baseball players, teams and leagues, and predicting their certain upcoming successes and failures.
“Street & Smiths,” “Lindy’s” and “The Sporting News,” among others, publish these pieces each year, containing every bit of information the sports fan could ever imagine or attempt to analyze, and then some.
I read each of these cover to cover every year. The clerks at my local Barnes & Noble grow tired of my constant inquiries as to when this year’s “Baseball Prospectus” will arrive, as I begin my barrage of phone calls and store visits in early January, even though I know full well the phonebook-sized bible of baseball information will arrive no sooner than the third week of February. I drive my wife and children crazy before a single pitch has been thrown in the world of professional baseball, as I cover our dining room table with books and magazines, and begin my quest to memorize the starting lineups, pitching rotations, bullpens, coaching staffs and top minor league prospects for each of the 30 MLB franchises. I scrawl depth charts on a legal pad and do my best impression of a doctoral candidate gathering ever-so-important information for my upcoming dissertation.
I am a baseball FANATIC.
I am also an Oregonian, and as such I have limited access to actual live baseball games. Having lived in the Eugene-Springfield area for the past 23 years, I do have some minor league and college baseball, which is great. I brave the rain and attend several University of Oregon and Oregon State games, all the while longing for summer and pro ball. I am fortunate to have the Eugene Emeralds in my backyard all summer long. If I am willing to drive an hour north, I can take in a game featuring the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, who, like the Ems, are a Single-A Short-Season minor league team. But my best options for actual Major League Baseball are in Seattle, nearly 300 miles away, or San Francisco, a nine-hour drive to the south.
As a kid, I grew up in small college towns. My father was a professor, and we moved several times as his jobs changed and improved. I was born in a tiny town in Georgia and spent my elementary school years in the deep south, where I fell hopelessly in love with the Atlanta Braves. My family moved across the country as I entered junior high school, and took up residence in a small town in eastern Washington. I never had cable TV, so my connection to baseball was always through print. I followed box scores and kept track of the standings in the newspaper. As such, my connection to baseball was always somewhat surreal. Baseball seemed to be something spectacular that took place in another dimension outside my own reality.
This all changed when I moved on to college at the University of Oregon, and befriended like-minded baseball fans. I will never forget, when upon suggestion from another fan, I jumped in a car and made the four-and-a-half-hour drive to Seattle to see an actual live baseball game, in person. As I entered the Kingdome and heard the sounds of the ballpark, smelled the hot dogs and generally soaked up this atmosphere, something clicked for me and I realized I had been missing out in a BIG way all this time.
I was hooked, and began making trips to Seattle monthly during the big-league season.
This newfound freedom was absolute tonic to my baseball addiction. I attended so many games, and had the good fortune to take many friends for their first MLB experience. I saw playoff games, live, for the first time in my life, even witnessing the Mariners’ infamous American League Division Series victory over the hated New York Yankees in 1995. Since that time, I have attended Opening Day every year, 18 years in a row, a streak of which I am quite proud. I even attended an interleague game, featuring my beloved Braves, with my father and my two sons. Three generations of Braves fans. This was excellent!
However, as a die-hard Braves fan, this spell could only last so long, as I became a casual Mariners fan, but lived and died with Atlanta. Seeing live games was wonderful, but I soon became disappointed with rarely seeing my favorite team, but was resigned to what seemed to be an indisputable fact – my Braves were simply geographically inaccessible.
This all changed in September of 2007.
My life had gone through tremendous changes. I had graduated college, married, had kids, and gone into business for myself. I was no longer tied to a job for 40-plus hours a week and, although far from “rich,” I did have the means to travel from time to time (I am also very blessed to have an understanding, wonderful spouse).
My Braves were in a pennant race, chasing the New York Mets. Our postseason hopes would all come down to a three-game series near the end of the season in Atlanta, versus New York. I checked my schedule and my bank account, and realized there was a real possibility that I could actually make this happen; I could attend these games at Turner Field in Atlanta. The last hurdle was spousal approval, which, to my surprise came easily. My wife immediately realized how much this would mean to me, and not only approved, but encouraged me to go.
The financial impact of this trip was of utmost concern. As such, I spent quite a bit of time online searching for affordable tickets, lodging and a rental car. I saved hundreds by flying into Nashville, Tennessee, then renting a car and driving to Atlanta, a distance of about 250 miles. I have family in central Tennessee, so this seemed like a tremendous opportunity to visit them, as well. I also found single-game tickets on eBay for less than face value.
Travel went well, and after a night at my uncle’s house, I made the drive to Atlanta and soon was enjoying a balmy evening, a hot dog and a Coke at Turner Field. Alas, my Braves were swept by the evil Mets, and eliminated from postseason contention. And yet, I felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction, simply because I was THERE.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this travel thing was about to snowball in a big way. One of the Braves games I attended on this trip was an afternoon game, and sitting in my hotel room by myself, I realized that I had no real plan as to how I would spend my time away from the ballpark. The light bulb in my head went on, and I realized that there had to be some sort of minor league baseball somewhere in the vicinity. Minorleaguebaseball.com has a great interactive map feature that allows the user to see minor league teams by region, and access team websites, on a map. I quickly found an evening game in Greenville, South Carolina, only a two-hour drive from Atlanta. BINGO! Immediately upon completion of the Braves-Mets game that afternoon, I headed east on Interstate 85 towards Greenville.
This side trip actually turned out to be one of the best parts of my journey.
Despite my annual February quest for baseball information, I am not a “stat geek,” and my enjoyment of the game does not necessarily hinge upon batting averages, on-base percentages or even wins and losses. I pay close attention to every game I attend, but I do not overly second-guess the manager or make bold predictions about what will or will not happen during contests. For me, the charm of baseball comes from the atmosphere; the diversity and unique features of each individual stadium, the sounds, the smells, the sights. I am also enthralled by the unique characters of the game, from the players, managers and coaches, to the fans; even the peanut vendors. I will never cease to be amazed by the skill of the players at every level. A pitcher’s ability to throw a ball 90-plus miles per hour, to make it move, dart and dive, is mesmerizing. Equally as impressive to me is a batter’s ability to actually hit that moving ball with a stick of wood. The skill of the fielders, running down fly balls, scooping up grounders, jumping, diving and making acrobatic plays. And the fans: From the retired old man, with his radio earphones and scorecard, to the youngsters with faces covered with cotton candy and ice cream. This game is amazing. The overall experience of attending a live game is a freedom to me that I cannot experience elsewhere. And each individual ballpark is a window into the culture of the community in which it stands.
As I entered the stadium in Greenville, I was grinning ear to ear. I felt a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that I had added this dimension to my already exciting adventure. I was also just enjoying the process of soaking up this unique atmosphere. Greenville had recently built a new “throwback” style stadium, capturing the charm of the past and coupling that with the conveniences of the present. The new ballpark is outstanding. A beautiful brick structure with modern restrooms, souvenir store and concession facilities. The seating was excellent and comfortable and provided great sight lines from every part of the stadium. Greenville is a farm club for the Boston Red Sox, and had built the left-field wall as a replica of “The Green Monster” at Fenway Park. I realized that there were hundreds of opportunities to find places like this throughout the country, hundreds of minor and major league teams, each with their own home stadiums, and that I had never thought to seek them out.
That night I realized I had countless opportunities in front of me, and I became inspired by my experience.
During baseball’s offseason, the winter of 2007-08, I began to plan my next trip. I decided I would follow my Braves, and see them play in a stadium I had never attended, and explore other opportunities to enjoy baseball along the way. I would leave for a week, and pack as much baseball into that time period as humanly possible. I have never been averse to spending some time in a car, so distance and highway time were but small obstacles to be overcome and conquered.
My journey the following season put me on a plane from Portland to Raleigh, North Carolina, where I have family members I visited for a night upon my arrival. The next day I attended my first game in a town called Zebulon, N.C., home of the Carolina Mudcats. From there I immediately hit the road, traveling to New York City and back in six days and seeing a total of eight games in four states. I cannot tell you how wonderful and free I felt as I traveled up and down the east coast, attending major league games in Baltimore and Philadelphia and seeing my Braves in New York. In addition to Zebulon, I saw minor league games in Aberdeen, Maryland, Woodbridge, Virginia and Durham, N.C., each stadium featuring its own unique charm. One day I would watch household names like Manny Ramirez and Chipper Jones, and the next I would find myself watching “Muddy” the Mudcat jumping an ATV off the bullpen mounds at Five County Stadium. I ate hot dogs and drank soda pop, standard ballpark fare, but I also ate steamed crabs in Aberdeen, and Funnelcakes in Durham. I saw parts of this country and went places I would never have gone if it weren’t for this great game, and a little effort.
I was able to cut corners and save money by utilizing my computer. I sold junk out of my garage and attic on eBay during the winter and spring to generate extra funds, specifically earmarked for the upcoming journey.
Since these two trips I have taken at least one more trip each baseball season. I eagerly look forward to it each year and begin scheming and planning as soon as the Braves publish their season schedule. I have created opportunities to enjoy time with extended family that I would not have had otherwise. I have also found other ways to save a little cash along the way, such as camping out on car trips. I have visited parks and museums, gone on day hikes, gone swimming, and last summer even snuck in a college football game along the way. I have seen my Braves play in places such as Cincinnati and Los Angeles, and attended other major league games in Minnesota, Miami, Denver and Cleveland, all cities and stadiums that I had never been to before. And I have been to so many charming minor league parks, thoroughly enjoying their individual charm and appeal.
Most importantly, I have enjoyed myself to the fullest in a way I had not dreamt possible.
I have my next trip planned already for this coming May. I am counting the days.
This story was originally published on Wired Oregon