Baseball and the road

I love the road and I love baseball. The two go hand in Rawlings glove. For me, I think the lure of covering the sport as a profession was more enticing because of the travel than it was for the involvement and insight into the game. When I was a minor-league beat writer, two of my best assignments were the visits to North Carolina — the first for the first game in Lakewood BlueClaws history, the second for a feature about life on the road. For that one, I rode the bus and essentially lived the life of a minor leaguer for five days. Perhaps a little more the life of a minor-league coach or manager.

Baseball and travel go so well because the game is everywhere — even up in Alaska, where the annual Midnight Sun Classic is as unique as a ballgame can be. There are several travel guides to help you plan your baseball road trip, and there are numerous post-trip accounts from people who have checked off each major-league ballpark, whether over a single summer or a few seasons.

While I do admire those “ballpark collectors” who try to see everyone, be it major league, minor league, or simply all of them, my feeling is, frankly, it’s been done. I try to look for trips that are more unique. I’ve got a few ideas, a few routes planned out in my head, but I don’t have the time to embark upon them right now. I may not be the first to think of them — I may not even be the first to do them. But as long as I haven’t heard of them yet, that’s good enough for me.

So while my fiancee is out of town this weekend, my first thought was to consult the schedules to see what kind of small trip I could make myself. At first, I thought I’d tick off two new major-league parks by taking today off and cruising out to Cleveland for tonight’s game, then moving on to Cincinnati tomorrow. But when my friends in Cincy told me they’d be away, that trip lost some of its attraction. Yet I used that trip as the starting point. It became option No. 1 on a list of 15 excursions I came up with that would include three ballparks in three days, assuming I took this very Friday off and made it to my first destination in time for tonight’s first pitch. My 15 routes went as far west as that Great American Ballpark in southwest Ohio, as far north as historic Centennial Field in Burlington, Vermont, and as far south as Harbor Yard in Norfolk, Virginia. I looked at a combination of major- and minor-league stadia that would allow for games on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon — enabling me to be home by a reasonable time in the evening to not completely exhaust myself at the start of the week.

Unfortunately, over time, my conscience kicked in. I felt I shouldn’t spend too much money; two nights in hotels — even minor-league town roadside motels — might not be the best use of my money when I have a wedding coming up before the start of the Division Series. (Not to mention the gas prices, which are horrendous, even for New Jersey standards, and aren’t likely to get better so long as an oil barron — even one who’s never worked for anything in his life — is running the show.) I also then found out that one of my good friends will be coming out a day early for my bachelor festivities, and I realized that would be a better day to take off than this random Friday. I started to narrow down the list to the more manageable, more financially responsible choices. And then I found a trip that would work perfectly.

Sadly, I never got myself up to Montreal during the final two seasons to see what French-Canadian baseball is like. One friend and I talked about it before the 2003 season, but only he and his wife made it happen. I didn’t make it a priority. He lives in northern Virginia, and the Washington Nationals are his team now, so he had more of an interest in going. He and I and a third friend of ours in Maryland are all ecstatic that Washington has a team again, and that development is what will enable me to embark upon this weekend’s trip.

Tonight, I’ll leave work and hop on the 7 train to Shea Stadium. It’s Merengue Night, but sadly the Mets are babying Pedro Martinez again and have pushed him back to tomorrow afternoon’s game. At least I was aware of that, yet I still decided to go — even though it will be my third game in the last nine days at Shea. Instead, I get Victor Zambrano — who’s pitched quite well over his last 10 starts or so — and one of my fantasy stallwarts, Jeff Weaver.

Tonight, Shea; tomorrow, D.C. In the morning, I’ll hit the road and arrive at Matt’s house in Maryland around lunchtime. We’ll grab some burgers or pizza, then probably chow down on the other before tomorrow night’s Astros-Nationals showdown. Sadly, Roy Oswalt pitched yesterday and Roger Clemens goes tonight. I’m just missing all these aces. On the docket in D.C.? Brandon Backe and Tony Armas Jr. At least maybe there will be an onslaught of runs.

Sunday morning, I’ll head out from Maryland bound for Philadelphia. It’s about halfway home on the trip, leaving me a comfortable two, maybe two-and-a-half hours home in the late afternoon. San Diego, which I just saw in New York on Wednesday, sends Brian Lawrence to the hill against Brett Myers, easily the most intriguing starter of the six I’ll see between now and Sunday night.

Three games, three ballparks, three cities, three days. Three teams in the tight NL East race. Had I thought of tackling this trip on a different weekend, when the Braves and Marlins were visiting two of the stops, I could have seen the entire division. If there were, perhaps, a Sunday night game somewhere south of Trenton, and were the Orioles at home, it could potentially be four games in four ballparks in four cities in three days, but I’ll leave that for another summer — or another ambitious ballpark traveler. For now, I’m happy with the route, the teams, the games. For some reason, the Diamondbacks stuck in my head as the Phillies’ opponent this weekend, which would have meant the potential to see my fellow Notre Dame alums — Brad Lidge and Craig Counsell — on consecutive days. But a Lidge save on Saturday would be doubly sweet, considering that any loses for NL East teams are better for the Mets. I’ll also see two of the four oldest parks in the National League and one of the two newest. RFK Stadium opened in 1962, the same year as Dodger Stadium, with only Wrigley Field older. Shea debuted in 1964.

Tonight, I hope to post an account of the Mets game, though I doubt I’ll make an effort to use Matt’s internet to put up thoughts on tomorrow’s Nats game in such a prompt manner. So Sunday, as I cool off (and likely re-hydrate) after a day in the Philadelphia sunshine, I’ll wrap up the final two stops of the weekend.

Fill ‘er up and play ball!

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