The idea was well-intentioned. “What would you think,” I asked my 14-year-old sports-mad son, “of visiting all the major league ballparks this summer?”
A smile of disbelief spread slowly across his face. “I would absolutely love that,” Jasper replied. I beamed with paternal pride. I was going to make his dreams come true.
That was before I looked into the details.
North America’s 30 Major League Baseball parks extend from Boston to Florida (two ballparks), over to Texas (two), up the coast of California (five), on to Seattle, then across to Toronto, Chicago (two), New York (two) and beyond. One book I read advised allowing at least three months to drive 11,000 miles, and plan on spending at least $10,000 for the adventure.
I was in over my head. And we hadn’t even left home.
Then I stumbled across the small cottage industry of tour operators that cater to “ballpark chasers.” It turns out that there are bus tours that handle all the logistics of bringing baseball fans to a different ballpark every day.
Earlier this month, Jasper and I boarded a coach bus run by Jay Buckley Baseball Tours (jaybuckley.com), the oldest and largest of these operators. Besides sparing me a driving marathon, the bus tours are often less expensive than making the trips yourself. Bloomberg News tallied the cost of a do-it-yourself trip to five Midwestern ballparks, including gas, game tickets, parking, hotels, and food: $2,358. My trip with Jay Buckley, which visited seven Midwestern ballparks in seven days, cost $1,695 per person (double occupancy). This road trip was all pleasure, no pain.
A baseball journey is about chasing memories. It’s a chance to connect our past to our present and constantly rekindle an old love. Peering out on the expanse of a green diamond — a quintessential bit of Americana — you thrill with today’s game. But you also return to the time you were here before, and the times before that. On this trip we are venturing to ballparks for the first time. But we are going to a place in our mind that feels as familiar as a conversation with a grandfather.
My baseball fanaticism had gone into dormancy after growing up cheering for the New York Mets in the late ’60s and ’70s. Then on a chilly September night in 2007, I drove with Jasper from our home in Vermont to his first game at Fenway Park. The Red Sox clinched a postseason berth that night, there was dancing on Lansdowne Street, and the Sox went on to win the World Series a month later. A new Red Sox fan was hooked, and my baseball passion was rekindled. We’ve been going to games from spring training to the World Series ever since.
Our ballpark pilgrimage began on Aug. 1 at Fenway Park, where the Yankees and Red Sox were squaring off. Normally this is a rivalry full of hype and drama. But this year, as one fan lamented, “It’s minor league baseball at major league prices.”
Coming to Fenway is coming home. I feel a rush every time I emerge from the tunnel to see the emerald green field. Our rituals — the food, ushers, songs — are the same ones we look forward to on each visit.
The next morning, Jasper and I flew to Chicago and met 50 fellow pilgrims in a large coach bus. They hailed from California, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Atlanta, New York, and places in between. The majority of them were retirees, but there were a number of younger folks, including a 9-year-old boy with his grandfather, several father-son combos, a number of women, many couples, and a smattering of older men traveling solo.
Duane Larson, 74, a retired minister from Sioux Falls, S.D., introduced himself by saying, “Baseball gives us heroes who lift us up when we’re down and inspire us when we need inspiring.”
Karen Nordstrom, who with her husband, Bruce, was our tour guide, followed the preacher by quipping, “You know what they say about Sunday morning: It’s better to be at a ballpark wishing you were in church than in church wishing you were at the ballpark.”
Our first stop was US Cellular Field, home to the Chicago White Sox. The Cell is a relatively drab concrete structure that was built in 1991, just before contemporary, retro-themed ballparks became the standard. But the people make the park, and the Cell buzzed with energy, spurred on by fireworks after White Sox home runs and at the game’s end.
“That’s the biggest celebration I’ve ever seen for a team that just lost,” quipped Jasper as the sky lighted up with pyrotechnics following the final out.
Each park has its signature. At Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, home runs were celebrated by spouts of water shooting into the air and green flashing eyes on giant tigers sitting atop the 10-story high jumbotron. At Great American Ballpark, home to the Cincinnati Reds, homers and strikeouts were marked by flames shot out of riverboat smokestacks. The unifying threads between all parks are the overzealous fan bellowing at the ump, the food vendors barking their wares, and the perpetual chorus of humanity that forms a community for three magical hours.
Our tour wasn’t all baseball. In Cleveland before an Indians game, we spent an afternoon at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and we spent another half-day at Niagara Falls en route to the Rogers Centre in Toronto, home to the Blue Jays. The lone Canadian ballpark has a retractable roof and features rooms with a view: 70 hotel rooms with windows overlooking center field.
A number of our fellow ballpark chasers admitted they were not big baseball fans. “I read during the games,” confessed Claudia Moorefield, 64, from Clovis, Calif. “But I like the history, so the old ballparks are really interesting to me.”
My favorite of the new ballparks was PNC Park, home to the Pittsburgh Pirates. I reached the ballpark by boat, while Jasper walked from downtown across a bridge that is closed to cars on game days. Pittsburgh’s gleaming skyscrapers appear to rise out of center field. Long-suffering Pirates fans were especially animated, strutting around in buccaneer outfits and waving flags throughout the game.
Baseball boasts fans, as well as fanatics. At Progressive Field, home to the Cleveland Indians, I met John Adams, who sits atop the left-field bleachers with a large bass drum that he has been beating at nearly every home game since 1973. He drums, he told me over the din of cheering fans, because “If you can put a smile on somebody’s face and give them a happy memory — is there anything better that you can do?”
In 1969, Charlie Keith became the first African-American usher for the Cincinnati Reds, whose home then was Crosley Field. “It was rough at first,” the soft-spoken Keith told me after seating us. I suggested he was the Jackie Robinson of ushers. He smiled gently. “Well, some people have called me that. I don’t make a big deal of it.”
On the street outside Wrigley Field, I bumped into a tall gentleman dressed in a striped Chicago Cubs uniform with the words “Woo Woo” on the back. “I’m Ronnie Woo Woo Wickers, number one Cubs fan, age 73. I been to every home game since 1957,” he declared proudly. I learned later that he had once been homeless and relied on donated tickets. He is famous for his throaty cheers in the bleachers. “I love baseball. It keeps me alive,” he said with a broad smile before heading in to the ballpark.
This was the final stop on our pilgrimage. Wrigley Field, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is the second-oldest stadium after Fenway Park. With its trademark ivy growing on its outfield wall, the iconic manual scoreboard in center field, the rooftop seats on the buildings across from the park, and its soulful renditions of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th-inning stretch, Wrigley is a throwback to another era. It was also the most popular ballpark on our tour, my fellow pilgrims told me. Wrigley’s grimy concourse and downscale dining lacks the polish of the new parks. But it has something that baseball fans value more.
“I spent the first two innings today just thinking about my dad and the times I was here with him,” said Larry Munksgaard, traveling from Nebraska with his young grandson. “I always feel like a kid again here.”
“The new ballparks will develop memories, too,” he reflected, “but it will take time.”
Our pilgrimage was capped off by an extra-innings finale in which the hapless Cubs lost once again.
Reflecting on our daily fare of home runs, stolen bases, high heaters, and hot dogs, Jasper said excitedly, “We saw it all this week.”
Well, not quite all. We two pilgrims still have 22 ballparks to go.