Sunday, June 18, 2017

30/30 - My MLB Stadium Tour

On Friday, April 28th, 2017, I joined an exclusive club that I have been pursuing for 16 baseball seasons – I have now visited all 30 active Major League Baseball stadiums and 3 more that either no longer exist or host a team – Yankee Stadium, Turner Field and Olympic Stadium. If you know me, you know that baseball defines who I am. I travel for work about 100 days every year and from March to October, I am acutely aware of what the closest team is and if they are playing a home game that night. I could care less who is playing or even who wins most of the time, I am happiest in a baseball stadium.

I love baseball because it is one way I can relate with people. If I happened to meet someone from Denver, I could go on and on that Coors Field is in my top-5 ballparks and how much I love the variety of craft beer at the ballpark and going out on Blake Street after the game. Let the conversation begin. This journey has allowed me to learn how incredible and diverse our country is and while football currently dominates the conversation, baseball is the foundational game that built American sports as we know them today. It’s hard for me to find someone that doesn’t have a good memory of being at a baseball game. I also think that baseball is unique in that it is the only major sport where you can actually have a conversation and enjoy the company of friends or loved ones during the game. It’s relaxing. It involves strategy. Almost all of the stories that I am going to share involve people special in my life.

I quit playing baseball when I was a kid. At age nine and attending baseball summer camp, I was put on the mound to pitch for the first time in my life and I threw 12 balls, the 12th hit one of my future teammates in the head. We both cried when I hit him with my 24MPH heater. I walked off the field that day and I did not return to the field for six years. I actually was fascinated with NASCAR for most of my youth and ignored baseball entirely.

I have to give my dad all of the credit for helping develop my passion in baseball. When I decided to quit playing baseball, it bothered him. In an era where they gave trophies only to the champions, he had a room full of them for baseball, soccer and basketball and his son wanted to watch NASCAR and eat Cheetos and Ice Cream. It wasn’t easy for him to let me quit baseball, but rather than watch me hate baseball, he let me quit and pursue soccer, basketball, NASCAR and ice cream. He also re-introduced me to the game when the time was right.

In August of 1998, my Uncle Paul and cousin Eric invited my dad and I to a Red Sox game which I agreed to attend with no expectations. I have to credit all three of them, the way that they were talking about the Red Sox had me intrigued. Driving the 90 minutes to the Riverside train station to then take the train to Kenmore Square and walk the few blocks to Yawkey Way, I remember the rest of the group talking about the game and if Mo Vaughn was going to stay at the end of the season and how good Nomar Garciaparra was going to be. I wasn’t bought in on baseball, but I was excited to visit Boston for the first time in my life.

I doubt that they strategically planned it this way, but we entered the seating area from the first base side – the side that faces the green monster. I will NEVER forget walking up the steps and seeing the giant wall some 400 feet in front of me for the first time. It was so impressive – you will never see anything so green – literally everywhere you look was the same shade of green. If it weren’t for the warning track, it would be near impossible to tell where the wall starts and the grass ends.

There was a buzz around the ballpark. Thousands of people were there just to watch batting practice for a team that was looking like the playoffs were a possibility. In the first inning, Otis Nixon hit a home run that the umpires overturned and called back – the crowd went nuts. Shortly thereafter, Twins manager Tom Kelly got kicked out of the game which turned up the volume in the ballpark just that much more. At that point in my life, it was the loudest noise I had ever heard and it gave me the chills. In the bottom half of the 1st, Mo Vaughn kept his home run in fair territory without dispute and that gave me my first ever home run. It didn’t mean much to anyone then, but now looking back at it, David Ortiz was a rookie for the Minnesota Twins that day, playing in his third ever game at the house that he renovated in the 2000s. 44 year-old Dennis Eckersley pitched the 9th inning in his final season in the major leagues, so I did get a look at two players that I deem hall of famers. By the end of the night, I owned a Red Sox hat and was hooked. I watched every game that I could and listened to Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano when I couldn’t. It went on like this for years, making the occasional return trip to Fenway Park once or twice a year.

In 2001, the summer before I started high school, my Dad took me on a road trip to Montreal to watch the Expos. This was my first baseball road trip, first sip of beer (Molson), first time out of the country, first time hearing French – in other words, lots of great memories. The first game we went to was a Wednesday night versus the Devil Rays. The two worst teams in baseball at that time drew maybe 2,000 fans total. It was like nothing I have ever seen – a stadium built for the Olympics that was empty. Dad stood at the right field foul pole and I could hear him yelling while standing at the left field foul pole – this was in the 2nd inning, that’s just how empty the park was. I had to buy an Expos hat and may have been one of the few fans actually wearing Expos gear in the stadium so during the 3rd inning, we were featured on the jumbotron. They zoomed right in on us and were speaking French – neither of us had any idea what was being said, but we were waving and having a good time with it, totally oblivious as to what was going on. Two employees came over and informed us that we were the fans of the game and that our seats were upgraded. We walked behind them all the way to the first row behind home plate. I didn’t know it that day, but that would be the first of many road trips that we would go on to see baseball games.

It was around this time, I started to ask my dad to play catch in the yard again. He hit me grounders. Threw me batting practice. I began playing again in High School and he attended literally every single game, sometimes driving a couple of hours to watch me weakly hit the ball to the opposite field and many failed attempts at scooping baseballs at first base for the JV team slowly growing to a useful knuckleball hitting specialist varsity player by the time I was a senior in High School. I often wonder what would have happened had I not quit baseball as a kid, but instead I decided that it would become my career.

By 2008 with Olympic Stadium closed, my ballpark count was five active – Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Tropicana Field, PNC Park and Citizens Bank Park. I moved to Atlanta to work the summer with the Braves. It was amazing. I lived in Atlanta for two plus months working 20-30 hours a week and whenever I could, I would walk down to Turner Field to watch the Braves play. That summer, I got to see John Smoltz get his 4,000th strikeout; Chipper Jones hit his 400th home run and bat over .400 well into the summer months. The team wasn’t playoff bound, but I did get to experience the tail end of the mystique of the franchise that won so many games during the 1990s and early 2000s. I made a strong enough impression with my work that I was invited to return for the 2009 season as a marketing trainee and spend the season with the team. 2009 became a cornerstone year for my development – I began friendships with co-workers that will last for the rest of my life. #Trainees09 remains one of the best things to happen to me as many of our group still gets together for social events and milestone moments in each other’s lives.

The ballpark count grew by one in 2009, adding Nationals Park into the collection – but I attended 60-70 games at Turner Field and it became a second home. One of my favorite memories from that year – Home Depot debuted their Tool Race that spring and I quickly became a frequent runner in the race. It was a Sunday night game in July that we were on ESPN. I was pretty fired up that night and knew that we had the opportunity to catch some national exposure should we do something interesting. I honestly forget what we did to the drill that night because I remember treating that race like it was for a gold medal. When they started us, I put my blinders on and moved my 10 foot hammer costume as fast as I could and did not stop until I crossed the finish line first. On an endorphin high, I turned towards the cameras above home plate and gave my best celebration move – the fighting pose the Predator makes before he takes on Arnold Schwarzenegger. Later that night, me inside the hammer costume was the last thing shown before SportsCenter began. So yes, I was on SportsCenter as a championship athlete.

2009 gave me great friendships, many memories like my tool race story, but it cemented my decision to pursue a career in sports. I had never felt such happiness in my life – it was a frequent occurrence that I got butterflies in my stomach over being so excited over something. Call it youthful exuberance with occasional immaturity and it was the start of a career. Unfortunately, I learned the harsh reality that working for professional sports teams is often based on opportunity and timing. Unfortunately, there were no full-time opportunities for me with the Braves and after 11 life-changing months, I was unemployed, enrolled in graduate school and searching for new opportunities.

I never would have thought about working for a sports marketing agency, but it just so happened that an opportunity became available with Headway Marketing to help build a growing platform – Chevy Youth Baseball. This program paired local Chevrolet dealerships with the youth baseball or softball organization in their town. The culminating event being a youth clinic where kids learned from professional coaches and occasionally current or past players. These clinics allowed for my baseball road trip portfolio to grow like crazy. During my tenure working with Headway and Chevy, I managed to visit many major and minor league stadiums mostly across the mid-west while learning and growing into who I wanted to become as an adult.

It was actually this job that allowed me to meet my wife. July 31st, 2011, better known to me at the time as the MLB Trade Deadline, I was in Houston, TX for one of the youth baseball clinics with the Astros. It was a typical day of hard work in the sun watching kids live out their dreams of playing on a MLB field, but our group decided that it would be a good idea to go out for dinner, drinks and dancing. I found myself at a dance bar on Washington Avenue doing my usual dance by myself, but have a great time. I saw her – tall, friendly eyes, great smile – and I slowly danced my way in her direction, clearing my way through the crowd a few people at a time, occasionally (no…frequently) checking over my shoulder to make sure she was still there. As I arrived over to where she and her friends were dancing, the music unexpectedly changed from top-40 to Journey’s, “Don’t Stop Believing.” It just so happens that I know every word to that song and I let the entire room know my excitement. She turned around at the same time that I did, and we started to dance. A few songs later, we visited the bar and I told her that I never buy girls drinks, but I’ll make an exception and she chose Vegas Bombs - $15 well spent as the moths flew out of my wallet. We danced some more and at the end of the night, we exchanged phone numbers and that could have been it. After a short night of sleep and another youth baseball clinic with the Astros, I reached out to her while walking around in the Minute Maid Park outfield and she was free Sunday afternoon. I had a late flight back to Atlanta and a few hours to kill so she came to visit me at the Houston Hobby Airport. We talked for a couple hours and got to know each other outside of TSA. It was maybe 3 weeks after that and I was back in Houston, meeting siblings and getting to know each other better. Now, almost 6 years later – I have baseball to thank for bringing us together and starting me on the most enjoyable journey of my life.

Over the course of these past 6 years, I took a new job with IMG LIVE in 2013 that put me on the road roughly 30% of my year. It has been a challenge to maintain my relationships, but it sure has been tremendous for placing my footprints across the United States. Without IMG LIVE, I most certainly would never have accomplished my stadium tour in as short of time as I have. Every city that I have been I am acutely aware of what is the closest MLB or MiLB team is and if I can make a game. One of my favorite things about these trips has been going to games with friends across the country. Since 2011, I have been to 28 of the MLB stadiums – that to me is the most impressive feat – only excluding the Blue Jays (2007) and Nationals (2009). My work has allowed for me to enjoy my passion, making me a very lucky person.

So as I look back on my MLB stadium passport, now full of stamps, I am not stopping – whenever I am in a city, I will make a point to visit the local baseball team because it is what makes me happy. It brings back all of these wonderful memories of great friends and adventures and it is going to bring in a whole wave in the future. While baseball will never love me back, it has helped define who I am and brought me close to nearly everyone that I love. If you’re wondering why my social media accounts all include “baseball” – there is your reason and if you have read this far, I hope to be sitting in the seat next to you at a game someday in the future.

Thank you, Dad, for encouraging my passion many years ago.