Spring Becomes The Knucklehead

Last Saturday was Truck Day, a high holy day in Red Sox Nation. It’s the day the equipment truck backs up to Fenway Park in Boston, loads up with equipment (and, I always like to imagine, the odd clubhouse employee locked in over the winter, subsisting on stale popcorn and Fenway franks), and heads south for Ft. Myers, Florida, 1,500 miles, and what seems like a season and a half away. Because here in the Northeast, lest our hopes fix too firmly on warmer weather, Mother Nature likes to remind us who’s really in charge by dumping fresh snow on our sidewalks, driveways, roads and cars. Snow falls elsewhere of course, but the beauty of that has more or less worn a little thin. Unlike the snow itself.

So I find myself this morning thinking of springs past with The Knucklehead. Because we had promised ourselves a visit to every ballpark in the majors before he turned 18, spring for us usually began with the release of the upcoming season’s schedule. That used to be January (it’s earlier now, even before the World Series ends), with tickets generally going on sale in February or March. If you’re going to take in a game at every ballpark, you have to plan. It’s not rocket science, but if you don’t plan ahead, you’re going to find yourself at the end of your kid’s knuckleheadhood having to try to hit eight teams scattered across North America (don’t forget Toronto!) in one summer. Our plan of attack went along these lines:

There are 30 Major League baseball teams. I could reasonably afford one week fully on the road with The Knucklehead a year, so the goal was to hit three teams a season, ideally all in the same week.* Living in central Pennsylvania, the Phillies, Pirates, Mets, Yankees, Orioles, and Nationals are essentially day trips, so those were mostly put aside for the years when we could only realistically hit one or two ballparks in one week. For example, the year we spent a week out in Seattle (I still long for you, Pacific Northwest!), we made separate Saturday games in New York and DC. See?

(And, yes, we caught a break when the Expos became the Nationals. No offense to Montréal, and I look forward to a visit to that magnificent city some day, but the Nats are three hours away by car.)

So, what you have to do, at the onset, is start grouping the teams together. If you find yourself in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, you’re going to want to hit both teams in each of those cities in the same visit. The Marlins in the same trip as the Rays. The Royals with the Cardinals. The Giants with the Athletics. You need to decide whether you’re driving to your destinations, or flying (which will usually involve a rental car, unless you’ve got the coin to fly everywhere, in which case you’re going to miss out on the whole road trip experience, so why bother?). And if you’re going to keep this promise (the very heart of fatherhood), you’ll need to plan for the possibility of losing a summer: a baseball strike, rainouts (we got lucky with those), a summer when you can’t travel for some reason, good or bad. We crammed five ballparks into one weeklong road trip (the Reds, Indians, Tigers, Cubs, and White Sox, AND the Cincinnati Zoo, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Chicago Art Institute, boat tour, and Millennial Park to boot) so we could sort of stock up early in case of scheduling problems later on. My point is, this is very much an attainable goal, adaptable to almost any budget, but will not be realized unless you plan well, and plan early. You need to have at least an idea of how you’re dividing North America up (don’t forget Toronto!) before you begin.

Spring for us was never warm weather, or flowers or groundhogs or tadpoles or Easter or March Madness. It was vacation planning, and it always began when there was still snow on the ground. When the MLB schedule came out, we’d sit on the floor with the map, and look at the trips we had left. If we flew to a destination the year before, we’d usually follow that up with a road trip, but not always. We’d look for weeks when the teams we had grouped together all had home games in the same week. If The Knucklehead’s spring vacation fell in the baseball season, we’d consider a warm destination for that week. (We did this with our Texas trip, Rangers and Astros. It snowed anyway. Also, did you know that nothing is open in Arlington on Easter Sunday while you wait for the Red Sox/Rangers game that night?) Once we figured out our destination, the fun began.

I find vacation planning to be almost as fun as the vacation itself. Before the vacation starts, the possibilities are limitless. I was always a tactile and visual person, so planning usually started with a trip to AAA to pick up maps and vacation guides. We’d make a grid of the week we were off, and fill in the afternoon/evenings we expected to be at ballgames. We’d try to schedule games so that we could make the next night as well, if possible, in case of rainout. We’d research distances between ballparks so we could plan on how much car time we’d be spending each day (long travel days are better earlier in the vacation than later). We’d look at the part of the country we were going to, and figure out what else we wanted to see. We wouldn’t plan out every stop (and we learned how valuable scheduling downtime can be), but it gave us a general idea of what was out there, and what was within reach on our trips. We’d flesh out our research with the computer, MapQuest, and later, our GPS, but the initial planning was always done on the living room floor with a calendar, maps, guide books, and highlighters. And shooing the cat away.

Vacation planning always did more to warm our spirits than the weather did, and it was always more reliable. Any time we had spare moments to chat – dinner time, car rides, bedtimes – we’d talk about what we might see, what food we wanted to try, what we needed to pack for exotic locales. It was dreaming out loud, but it was more than that, because we knew that we could make happen any of it – all of it! – if we chose. We believed in the possibilities of travel, and we believed in ourselves. What grief can snow, slush, and ice mount against that?

It was never just about baseball. It was about time on the road. Discovery. Conversation. Music on the radio (we always looked for college FM stations when we traveled, and NPR was always there when we needed a familiar voice). We got to see Golden Gate Park. The Kennedy Space Center. The Mayflower. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The Grand Canyon. The Mall of America. The Kodak Theater and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Pike’s Market. The Mesquite Rodeo. The National Aquarium. We ate barbecue at Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City, Butter Burgers at Solly’s Grille in Milwaukee, Skyline Chili in Cincinnati, and Popeye’s Dirty Rice anywhere we could find it. We went to crappy waterparks, and magnificent National Parks. We saw, ate, slept in, drove across, hiked, shopped, investigated, and claimed America (don’t forget Toronto!).

That was spring for me and my knucklehead. Knowing all that was coming, and we were hitting it together. Who wouldn’t be warmed by that?

Happy spring, wherever you are. From The Knucklehead and me.

___________________

*I’m always asked about whether we went to spring training games, and people are always shocked when I answer “no.” Yes, that’s a wonderful idea, and something I look forward to someday. But if you can only afford one full week off a year, you can’t “waste” it by going to spring training games if that means you can’t get to any ballparks that season. See?

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